Inquiry slams security faults before Manchester Arena attack

By JILL LAWLESS for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — A public inquiry into a mass attack at a 2017 Ariana Grande concert in northwest England concluded Thursday that “serious shortcomings” by venue operators, security staff and police helped a suicide bomber who killed 22 people carry out his “evil intentions.”

Retired judge John Saunders, who is leading the ongoing inquiry, said Salman Abedi should have been identified as a threat by those in charge of security at Manchester Arena “and a disruptive intervention undertaken.”

FILE – In this Tuesday May 23, 2017 file photo, a sign with flowers and candles are placed after a vigil in Albert Square, Manchester, England, the day after the suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert that left 22 people dead. A public inquiry into a mass attack at a 2017 Ariana Grade concert in northwest England concluded Thursday June 17, 2021, that “serious shortcomings” by venue operators, security staff and police helped a suicide bomber who killed 22 people carry out his “evil intentions.” (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

“Had that occurred, I consider it likely that Salman Abedi would still have detonated his device, but the loss of life and injury is highly likely to have been less,” Saunders said.

Abedi, 22, set off a knapsack bomb in the arena’s foyer at the end of the May 22, 2017 concert, as fans — including thousands of children and young people — were leaving the pop star’s show. He died in the explosion. His younger brother Hashem Abedi was convicted last year of helping plan and carry out the attack.

Saunders recounted missed opportunities to stop Abedi, citing failures by arena operator SMG, security company Showsec and British Transport Police, the agency responsible for patrolling the area in the city of Manchester.

He said authorities showed a reluctance to believe an attack could happen, even though Britain and other European countries had experienced multiple deadly attacks in the previous months and years.

“I have concluded that there were serious shortcomings in the security provided by those organizations which had responsibility for it, and also failings and mistakes made by some individuals,” Saunders said.

He said one of the biggest missed opportunities came when Christopher Wild, who was waiting to pick up his partner’s daughter from the concert, became suspicious when he saw Abedi loitering in a CCTV blind spot on a mezzanine above the arena foyer with a large knapsack. Wild said he raised concerns with a security steward but was “fobbed off.”

The judge said it was “distressing” that “no effective steps were taken” to act on Wild’s concerns.

Lawyer Neil Hudgell, who represents the families of two victims, said there had been “an inexcusable catalogue of failings at every level.”

Britain’s interior minister, Home Secretary Priti Patel, said the government was considering introducing a measure giving public places a legal duty to take steps to protect against terrorist attacks. The idea has been called “Martyn’s Law” after a campaign by the mother of Martyn Hett, who died in the concert attack.

“After this report we are one step closer to ensuring that a difference can be made,” said Hett’s mother, Figen Murray. “Now the recommendations have to be acted upon by the government, so that all venues have security and that no other families have to go through what we have.”

Saunders’ findings came in the first of three planned reports into the bombing by the inquiry, which has been hearing evidence in Manchester since September. The others will look at the emergency response and whether the attack could have been prevented.

Vaccine effort turns into slog as infectious variant spreads

By MICHELLE R. SMITH for the Associated Press

As cases tumble and states reopen, the potential final stage in the U.S. campaign to vanquish COVID-19 is turning into a slog, with a worrisome variant gaining a bigger foothold and lotteries and other prizes failing to persuade some Americans to get vaccinated.

FILE – In this May 12, 2021, file photo, one man holds the door for another as they arrive at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Auburn Mall in Auburn, Maine. As cases fall and states reopen, the potential final stage in the U.S. campaign to vanquish COVID-19 is turning into a slog, with a worrisome variant gaining a bigger foothold and lotteries and other inducements failing to persuade some Americans to get vaccinated. Maine and other states are convening focus groups to better understand who is declining to get vaccinated, why, and how they could be persuaded that vaccinating is the right choice. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

“The last half, the last mile, the last quarter-mile always requires more effort,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.

While two of the states slammed hardest by the disaster, California and New York, celebrated their reopenings this week with fireworks and a multimillion-dollar drawing, hospitalizations in parts of Missouri are surging and cases are rising sharply in Texas, illustrating the challenges the country faces this summer.

One major concern is the highly contagious and potentially more severe delta variant of the coronavirus that originated in India. While health officials say the vaccines are effective against it, the fear is that it will lead to outbreaks in states with lower vaccination rates.

The delta variant has increased from 2.7% of all cases in May to 9.7% this month, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a call for governors on Monday, according to details provided by the Washington governor’s office.

At the same time, states are convening focus groups to better understand who is declining to get vaccinated, why, and how to convince them that getting the shot is the right thing to do.

“It’s a race between the vaccines going into people and the current or future variants,” said Kansas Health Secretary Dr. Lee Norman.

Average deaths and cases per day have plummeted 90% or more across the U.S. since the winter. But the picture is uneven.

In Texas, the rolling average of newly confirmed infections has climbed from about 1,000 per day on May 31 to nearly 2,000 this week.

A swath of Missouri is seeing a big rise in cases and hospitalizations as tourists eager to get out after being cooped up for a year make their way to popular destinations like Branson and Lake of the Ozarks. Health officials said more than 200 people were hospitalized with the virus in southwestern Missouri, nearly double the number at the start of May. The number of patients in intensive care units in the region has tripled.

Health experts cite two factors driving the surge there: the faster-spreading delta variant and a reluctance among residents to get vaccinated.

The U.S. is expected to fall short of President Joe Biden’s goal of dispensing at least one dose to 70% of American adults by July 4. The figure stands at about 65%.

Among the states that don’t expect to hit the goal are Kansas and Idaho. In Idaho, some counties have adult vaccination rates under 30%, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, public health administrator for the state Department of Health and Welfare.

To increase vaccinations, several states are working to break up large shipments of vaccine into smaller lots, which can then be distributed to doctors’ offices. Health officials see primary care physicians as key to easing people’s concerns.

“People want to hear it from their doctor, their medical providers, people that they know and trust,” Norman said.

Big, splashy giveaways such as lotteries have gotten a lot of headlines and dispensed millions of dollars. In Maine, home of the outdoor wear company L.L. Bean, Bean gift cards were a big hit. But elsewhere, there has been skepticism about such programs.

Shaw-Tulloch said some businesses in Idaho had offered financial incentives for employees to get vaccinated but didn’t get many takers. Instead, she said, the key is making it easy to get a vaccine by turning it into part of a person’s “daily flow.”

Some people’s attitude is that “if a vaccine were to fall out of the sky and hit me in the arm, I’ll get it. But I’m not going to interrupt my busy daily life to make that effort and go in and get a vaccination,” she said.

She added: “That’s why we’re really focusing on walk-in clinics, pop-up clinics where, wherever they turn, there’s a place that’s easily available for getting the vaccine.”

Elsewhere around the world, there have been glimmers of hope, as India reopened the Taj Mahal amid a decline in new infections. In France, where virus cases are below 4,000 per day — down from 35,000 in the spring — authorities eased the requirements on wearing masks outdoors and said the nightly curfew will end this weekend.

“We have not known such a low level of virus spreading since last August,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said.

Meanwhile, South Africa imposed tighter restrictions on public gatherings and liquor sales as hospital admissions due to COVID-19 increased by 59% over the past two weeks, authorities said. New cases there have nearly doubled.

The recorded U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 600,000 on Tuesday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, it stands at 3.8 million, though both numbers are thought to be a significant undercount.

___

Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.

Dead ‘murder hornet’ near Seattle is 1st found in US in 2021

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS for the Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Scientists have found a dead Asian giant hornet north of Seattle, the first so-called murder hornet discovered in the country this year, federal and state investigators said Wednesday.

FILE – In this Oct. 24, 2020 file photo a Washington State Department of Agriculture worker displays an Asian giant hornet taken from a nest, in Blaine, Wash. Scientists have found a dead Asian giant hornet north of Seattle, the first so-called murder hornet found in the state this year, federal and state investigators said Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson,File)

Entomologists from the state and U.S. Agriculture departments said it’s the first confirmed report from Snohomish County, north of Seattle, and appears to be unrelated to the 2019 and 2020 findings of the hornets in Canada and Whatcom County, along the Canadian border, that gained widespread attention.

The 2-inch-long (5-centimeter-long) invasive insects, first found near the U.S.-Canadian border in December 2019, are native to Asia and pose a threat to honeybees and native hornet species. While not particularly aggressive toward humans, their sting is extremely painful and repeated stings, though rare, can kill.

The world’s largest hornet is much more of a threat to honeybees that are relied on to pollinate crops. They attack hives, destroying them in mere hours and decapitating bees in what scientists call their “slaughter phase.” How they got here from Asia is unclear, although it is suspected they travel on cargo ships.

“Hitchhikers are a side effect of all the commerce we do globally,” said Sven Spichiger, an entomologist with the state Agriculture Department who is leading the fight to eradicate the hornets.

In the latest sighting, a resident found the dead hornet on his lawn near the city of Marysville and reported it June 4 to the state agency. Entomologists retrieved it June 8, reporting that it was very dried out and a male hornet.

Given the time of year, that it was a male and that the specimen was exceptionally dry, entomologists believe it was an old hornet from a previous season that wasn’t discovered until now, officials said. New males usually don’t emerge until at least July.

There is no obvious pathway for how the hornet got to Marysville, officials said.

“The find is perplexing because it is too early for a male to emerge,” said Dr. Osama El-Lissy, deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s quarantine program.

El-Lissy said the federal agency would work with state officials “to survey the area to verify whether a population exists in Snohomish County.”

Because it was found for the first time in that county and had different coloring than previously collected specimens in North America, the hornet was submitted to the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for final verification.

On June 11, entomologists confirmed it was an Asian giant hornet. DNA testing indicated the specimen appeared to be unrelated to the hornet introductions in Whatcom County or Canada.

Spichiger said the newly found hornet lacked orange bands on its abdomen and likely came from a country in southern Asia.

“This new report continues to underscore how important public reporting is for all suspected invasive species, but especially Asian giant hornet,” he said.

In 2020, half of the confirmed Asian giant hornet sightings in Washington and all of the confirmed sightings in Canada came from the public, officials said.

“We’ll now be setting traps in the area and encouraging citizen scientists to trap in Snohomish and King counties,” Spichiger said. “None of this would have happened without an alert resident taking the time to snap a photo and submit a report.”

The USDA has placed the giant hornets on the list of quarantine pests, giving Washington state more tools to help eradicate the invasive species.

EU members agree to lift travel restrictions on US tourists

From the Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is recommending that its 27 member countries start lifting restrictions on tourists from the United States.

FILE – In this Friday, June 4, 2021 file photo, tourists throw their coins into the Trevi fountain as a wish to come back to the eternal city, in downtown Rome. The European Union is recommending that member countries start lifting restrictions on tourists from the United States. EU members agreed Wednesday, June 16, 2021 to add the U.S. to the list of countries in whose cases restrictions on non-essential travel should be lifted. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

EU members agreed Wednesday to add the U.S. to the list of countries for which they should gradually remove restrictions on non-essential travel. The move was adopted during a meeting in Brussels of permanent representatives to the bloc.

The recommendation is non-binding, and national governments have authority to require test results or vaccination records and to set other entry conditions.

The EU has no unified COVID-19 tourism or border policy, but has been working for months on a joint digital travel certificate for those vaccinated, freshly tested, or recently recovered from the virus. EU lawmakers endorsed the plan last week.

The free certificates, which will contain a QR code with advanced security features, will allow people to move between European countries without having to quarantine or undergo extra coronavirus tests upon arrival.

Several EU countries have already begun using the system, including Belgium, Spain, Germany, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Poland. The rest are expected to start using it July 1.

It’s mainly meant for EU citizens, but Americans and others can obtain the certificate too — if they can convince authorities in an EU country they’re entering that they qualify for one. And the lack of an official U.S. vaccination certification system may complicate matters.

Some EU countries have already started allowing in American visitors, though. On the other hand, Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said this week a careful and phased-in approach should remain the rule.

“Let’s look at science and let’s look at the progress. Let’s look at the numbers and when it’s safe, we will do it,” De Croo said. “The moment that we see that a big part of the population is double-vaccinated and can prove that they are safe, travel will pick up again. And I would expect that over the course of this summer.”

In addition to the U.S., the representatives of EU nations added five other countries — North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Lebanon and Taiwan — to the tourist travel list. The European Council updates the list based on epidemiological data. It gets reviewed every two weeks.

The representatives also decided to remove a reciprocity clause for the special administrative regions of China, Macau and Hong Kong.

The recommendations are expected to be formalized on Friday.

___

Mark Carlson in Brussels contributed to this story.

Greenpeace apologizes, local police slam Euro 2020 protester

By CIARÁN FAHEY for the Associated Press

MUNICH (AP) — Greenpeace has apologized and Munich police are investigating after a protester parachuted into the stadium and injured two people before Germany’s game against France at the European Championship.

A Greenpeace paraglider lands on the pitch before the Euro 2020 soccer championship group F match between France and Germany at the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, Pool)

The protester used a powered paraglider with a motor attached to his back but lost control and hit overhead camera wires attached to the stadium roof, careening over spectators’ heads before he landed on the field ahead of Tuesday’s game. Debris fell on the field and main grandstand, narrowly missing France coach Didier Deschamps.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman on Wednesday slammed the Greenpeace stunt and said those behind it should reflect on what had happened.

“This was an irresponsible action that put people in great danger,” Steffen Seibert said, adding that it was a relief nothing more serious had happened.

Greenpeace spokesperson Benjamin Stephan apologized for the botched protest and the injuries caused.

“The paraglider didn’t want to go into the stadium yesterday. The pilot wanted to fly over the stadium while maintaining the necessary safety distance and only let a balloon float into the stadium with a message to Volkswagen, a main sponsor, with the demand that they get out of the production of climate-damaging diesel and gasoline engines quicker,” Stephan said.

“And there was a technical problem during the flight over — the hand throttle of the electric para motor failed, and because there was no more thrust, the glider suddenly lost height.”

Stephan said the pilot had no option but to make an emergency landing on the field after striking the steel cables attached to the stadium’s roof.

“We are in the process of clarifying this and are working with everyone and of course we take responsibility and would like to emphasize again that we’re very sorry, and that we apologize to the two people who were harmed,” Stephan said.

Bavaria interior minister Joachim Herrmann said snipers had the pilot in their sights.

“Because of the Greenpeace logo, it was decided not to have the snipers intervene,” Herrmann told the Bild tabloid. “If the police had come to another conclusion, that it was a terrorist attack, then the pilot might have had to pay for the action with his life.”

Seibert called on the organizers to “critically reflect on the purpose of such actions, which are about maximum spectacle for maximum PR-effect. This leads to such situations which potentially endanger the public.”

Local police had earlier blasted “such irresponsible actions in which a considerable risk to human life is accepted.”

Police spokesman Andreas Franken said the two men who were hurt both sustained light head injuries and have since been discharged from the hospital. They had been working at the game.

The 38-year-old pilot, who has an address in the southwestern state of Baden Württemberg, was unharmed. He was released late Tuesday but remains under investigation for a string of charges, including interfering with air traffic and bodily harm, as well as breaching the peace, Franken said.

Franken said security measures will be toughened for Saturday’s match between Germany and Portugal, but declined to give further details.

“Of course this will lead to us looking at our measures again and if necessary adapting them,” Franken said. “This must disturb and alarm us, and lead to us reviewing our concept.”

The protester’s parachute had the slogan “KICK OUT OIL!” and “Greenpeace” written on it.

The parachutist managed to land on the field and Germany players Antonio Rüdiger and Robin Gosens were the first to approach him. He was then led away by security stewards.

UEFA called the action “reckless and dangerous” and said “law authorities will take the necessary action.”

The German soccer federation also condemned the action.

“It could probably have turned out much worse,” Germany team spokesman Jens Grittner said.

UEFA and one of its top-tier tournament sponsors, Russian state energy firm Gazprom, have previously been targeted by Greenpeace protests.

In 2013, a Champions League game in Basel was disrupted when Greenpeace activists abseiled from the roof of the stadium to unfurl a banner protesting Russian oil and Gazprom, which sponsored the visiting team, German club Schalke.

Greenpeace later donated money to a charity supported by Basel, which was fined by UEFA for the security lapse.

UEFA defended its environmental credentials in a statement on Tuesday after the incident.

“UEFA and its partners are fully committed to a sustainable Euro 2020 tournament,” UEFA said, “and many initiatives have been implemented to offset carbon emissions.”

COVID hits Ecuador doctors who delayed wedding to treat sick

By GONZALO SOLANO for the Associated Press

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — They were a pair of young doctors in love who put off marriage to save lives.

As the pandemic raged in Ecuador last year, they posted a social media photo of themselves dressed in biohazard suits kissing and holding a sign saying: “Today was to be our wedding day, but instead…”

Doctor David Vallejo and his fiancee Doctor Mavelin Bonilla rest at home in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Doctor Vallejo and Doctor Bonilla suspended their wedding in order to tend to COVID-19 patients and in the process, Vallejo got sick himself with the disease, ending up in an ICU for several days. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

David Vallejo and Mavelin Bonilla’s decision to postpone their May 23, 2020, wedding to treat COVID-19 patients at a large public hospital in southern Quito moved many people in Ecuador and beyond.

A second photo posted later showed them holding a sign reading: “We are working for you. BE CAREFUL! Don’t let your guard down.”

But within months, both would come down with what appeared to be COVID-19.

Vallejo would be fighting for his life in intensive care. Bonilla, who experienced only mild symptoms, would be shattered after being told her fiancée had a less than 10% chance of survival.

Bonilla, 26, told The Associated Press that she had been sad when the couple posted the initial photo announcing the wedding delay. “It really was a dream — I don’t know if for all girls but at least for me it was — to leave my house in white and marry David. It was my longing, my dream.”

But the health crisis in Ecuador was spiraling out of control. Hundreds of patients were arriving every day at the Social Security hospital where they worked, and there were long waiting lists for hospital beds.

The South American country of 17.4 million people by now has recorded about 434,000 cases and 21,000 confirmed deaths.

Vallejo was the oldest resident at the time and was in charge of the most seriously ill patients. He immersed himself for months trying to save lives — and sometimes failing.

“They were months in which a lot of patients died and it was hard; I came home crying,” said Vallejo, who survived COVID-19 but is still undergoing physical and speech therapy to recover. “I had to call the relatives to inform them.”

In January, both of the couple exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and Vallejo’s condition deteriorated rapidly. He was told he would be intubated for seven days to save his life.

“I never felt more scared,” he recalled.

He said he asked for a pen and paper and wrote: “I am Doc David, I have a fervent desire to live life, fulfill my dreams.” Among his dreams, he wrote, was to get married, build a family and travel to Spain to study a specialty. He thanked his colleagues for their efforts to save him.

On Jan. 17, he was sedated and his memories went on hold, but the ordeal was just beginning for Bonilla.

She recalls that at the end of January a doctor informed her that “David was very ill and only has a 10% chance of surviving.” She cried uncontrollably but had to keep their families informed.

Vallejo was still unconscious and in intensive care on Feb. 2, his 28th birthday. Bonilla and his medical colleagues brought a birthday cake and a loudspeaker and sang “Happy Birthday” to him from outside the hospital holding hands in the shape of a heart.

After 17 days, Vallejo emerged from sedation, but was then overtaken by a hospital infection that almost claimed his life again. It took 30 days to recover from that.

The young doctor emerged from the ordeal with a facial paralysis and no strength in his muscles from his prolonged immobility. He “couldn’t even raise his hand,” he recalls. He communicated with his fiancée by moving his eyelashes.

“I had to learn to speak again with therapy, learn to walk, to do all things,” he said.

He said the hardest thing was thinking of how “Mavelin felt during that time that I was asleep. How my parents felt, and I think it is the worst thing that, unintentionally, I put them in that situation.”

The couple say they are waiting for the Civil Registry date for their long-delayed wedding and hope it will be at the end of this month. They plan a small wedding, due to pandemic restrictions, with only their closest family members. In early July, they plan to travel to Spain to study a medical specialty.

“Even before this, I always thought you had to value the little things, the little shared moments,” Vallejo said. “Now I believe this more than ever. To go for a walk holding her hand is a great moment for me.”

Police: Gunman dead after killing 2 at fire hydrant factory

From the Associated Press

ALBERTVILLE, Ala. (AP) — A worker killed two people and wounded two more at an Alabama fire hydrant plant early Tuesday before killing himself, police said.

“The person was deceased from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Police Chief Jamie Smith told Al.com.

A police car guards the entrance to a Mueller Co. fire hydrant plant where police said multiple people were shot to death and others were wounded in Albertville, Ala., on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

The gunfire — among the latest in a spate of shootings across the U.S. — broke out about 2:30 a.m. at a Mueller Co. plant in Albertville, Smith told reporters. The gunman then got in a vehicle and left the factory. His body was found hours later inside a car in Guntersville, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) away, Smith said.

Smith says it wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the shooting.

A company representative did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Mueller Co., based in Cleveland, Tennessee, is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Mueller Water Products Inc., which calls itself a leading maker of water distribution and measurement products in North America. More than 400 people work at the plant in Albertville, giving the city in northwest Alabama its nickname of “Fire Hydrant Capital of the World.”

The factory shooting comes amid a torrent of gun violence nationwide that has police and criminal justice experts concerned. Within hours of the Alabama gunfire Tuesday, four women were killed and four other people were wounded in a pre-dawn shooting at a home in Chicago, police said. And the toll from this past weekend included two people killed and at least 30 others wounded in mass shootings in Chicago, the Texas capital of Austin, and Savannah, Georgia.

Law officers had hoped that a spike in U.S. homicides last year would subside as the nation emerged from coronavirus restrictions, but they remain higher than they were in pre-pandemic times.

“There was a hope this might simply be a statistical blip that would start to come down,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “That hasn’t happened. And that’s what really makes chiefs worry that we may be entering a new period where we will see a reversal of 20 years of declines in these crimes.”

Albertville is a tight-knit community, and residents will come together to support relatives of those killed and injured, city spokeswoman Robin Lathan said.

“Everyone is absolutely heartbroken and devastated,” she said. “The Mueller Company is part of the lifeblood of who we are in the city of Albertville. It’s just a devastating blow.”

A news conference is planned for 11 a.m. at Albertville City Hall, Lathan said.

In Alabama, a maintenance worker from North Carolina arrived at the plant early Tuesday, unaware of the deadly shooting hours earlier. John McFalls said he spent five days in the plant last week and saw nothing out of the ordinary.

“Everyone here was friendly,” he told Al.com. “Radios playing, everybody getting along.”

He swallowed hard as he heard what had happened, the news site reported.

“I was thinking about coming in early this morning and getting the jump on everything,” McFalls said. “It’s kind of shocking, and then it isn’t, given the state of the world.”

State pays $250,000 to settle prison rape whistleblower case

For the Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The state Department of Corrections will pay $250,000 to settle claims from a guard who claimed he was retaliated against after reporting rape allegations at Montana Women’s Prison.

Daniel Root claimed he was passed over twice for a promotion after reporting in 2017 allegations of his supervisor’s sexual misconduct with inmates. The results of an investigation into the claims have not been released, but the lieutenant accused of having sex with an inmate resigned in 2019, the Montana State News Bureau reported.

Root said in court filings that he was told filing lawsuits and talking to the press about issues of public concern reflected negatively on his chances for promotion.

He resigned under the terms of the agreement. His attorney told the Montana State News Bureau that Root wanted to put the case behind him. Attorney Kevin Brown said he hopes the case will spur other corrections employees to step forward and report violations of rape reporting requirements.

The Department of Corrections settled a separate retaliation claim from an agency employee earlier this year, also for $250,000. In that case, a former corrections employee said he faced discrimination and retaliation in 2016 for his post-traumatic stress disorder while working at the men’s state prison near Deer Lodge.

Robotic ship sets off to retrace the Mayflower’s journey

By UROOBA JAMA for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Four centuries and one year after the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England, on a historic sea journey to America, another trailblazing vessel with the same name has set off to retrace the voyage.

This Mayflower, though, is a sleek, modern robotic ship that is carrying no human crew or passengers. It’s being piloted by sophisticated artificial intelligence technology for a trans-Atlantic crossing that could take up to three weeks, in a project aimed at revolutionizing marine research.

FILE – In this Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 file photo, technicians lower the Mayflower Autonomous Ship into the water at its launch site for it’s first outing on water since being built in Turnchapel, Plymouth south west England. Four centuries and one year after the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England on a historic sea journey to America, another trailblazing vessel with the same name has set off to retrace the voyage. It’s being piloted by sophisticated artificial intelligence technology for a trans-Atlantic crossing that could take up to three weeks, in a project aimed at revolutionizing marine research. IBM, which built the ship with nonprofit marine research organization ProMare, confirmed the Mayflower Autonomous Ship began its trip early Tuesday June 15, 2021.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant, file)

IBM, which built the ship with nonprofit marine research organization ProMare, confirmed the Mayflower Autonomous Ship began its trip early Tuesday.

Charting the path of its 1620 namesake, the Mayflower is set to land at Provincetown on Cape Cod before making its way to Plymouth, Massachusetts. If successful, it would be the largest autonomous vessel to cross the Atlantic.

The new Mayflower’s journey was originally scheduled for last year, part of 400th anniversary commemorations of the original ship’s voyage carrying Pilgrim settlers to New England. Those commemorations were set to involve the British, Americans, Dutch — and the Wampanoag people on whose territory the settlers landed, and who had been marginalized on past anniversaries.

The Mayflower project aims to usher in a new age for automated research ships. Its designers hope it will be the first in a new generation of high-tech vessels that can explore ocean regions that are too difficult or dangerous for people to go to.

The 50-foot (15-meter) trimaran, propelled by a solar-powered hybrid electric motor, bristles with artificial intelligence-powered cameras and dozens of onboard sensors that will collect data on ocean acidification, microplastics and marine mammal conservation.

Its launch has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and more recently, bad weather throughout May, IBM spokesman Jonathan Batty said.

But Batty said the delay allowed for the fitting of a unique feature on the ship: an electric “tongue” that can provide instant analysis of the ocean’s chemistry, called Hypertaste.

“It’s a brand new piece of equipment that’s never been created before,” Batty said.

The cutting-edge, 1 million pound ($1.3 million) ship could take up to three weeks to voyage across the North Atlantic, if forecasts for good weather hold up.

The ship is also carrying mementos from people at either end of the journey, such as rocks, personal photos, and books. People can follow its journey online.

Novavax: Large study finds COVID-19 shot about 90% effective

By LINDA A. JOHNSON for the Associated Press

Vaccine maker Novavax said Monday its COVID-19 shot was highly effective against the disease and also protected against variants in a large study in the U.S. and Mexico, potentially offering the world yet another weapon against the virus at a time when developing countries are desperate for doses.

FILE – In this Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, file photo, a vial of the Phase 3 Novavax coronavirus vaccine is seen ready for use in the trial at St. George’s University hospital in London. Novavax says its vaccine appears effective against COVID-19 in a large study, including against variants. Results from the study in the U.S. and Mexico were released on Monday, June 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

The two-shot vaccine was about 90% effective overall, and preliminary data showed it was safe, the American company said. That would put the vaccine about on par with Pfizer’s and Moderna’s.

While demand for COVID-19 shots in the U.S. has dropped off dramatically and the country has more than enough doses to go around, the need for more vaccines around the world remains critical. The Novavax vaccine, which is easy to store and transport, is expected to play an important role in boosting supplies in poor parts of the world.

That help is still months away, however. The company, which has been plagued by raw-material shortages that have hampered production, said it plans to seek authorization for the shots in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere by the end of September and will be able to produce up to 100 million doses a month by then.

“Many of our first doses will go to … low- and middle-income countries, and that was the goal to begin with,” Novavax CEO Stanley Erck said.

While more than half of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, less than 1% of people in the developing world have had one shot, according to a data collection effort run in part by the University of Oxford.

The Novavax shot stands to become the fifth Western-developed COVID-19 vaccine to win clearance. The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are already authorized for use in the U.S. and Europe. Europe also uses AstraZeneca’s formula.

Novavax’s study involved nearly 30,000 people ages 18 and up. Two-thirds received two doses of the vaccine, three weeks apart, and the rest got dummy shots. Nearly half the volunteers were Black, Hispanic, Asian American or Native American, and 6% of participants were in Mexico. Altogether, 37% had health problems that made them high risk, and 13% were 65 or older.

There were 77 cases of COVID-19 — 14 in the group that got the vaccine, the rest in volunteers who received the dummy shots. None in the vaccine group had moderate or severe disease, compared with 14 in the placebo group. One person in that group died.

The vaccine was similarly effective against several variants, including the one first detected in Britain that is now dominant in the U.S., and in high-risk populations, including the elderly, people with other health problems and front-line workers in hospitals and meatpacking plants.

“These consistent results provide much confidence in the use of this vaccine for the global population,” said Dr. Paul Heath, director of the Vaccine Institute at the University of London and St. George’s Hospital.

Side effects were mostly mild — tenderness and pain at the injection site. There were no reports of unusual blood clots or heart problems, Erck said.

A study underway in Britain is testing which of several vaccines, including Novavax’s, works best as a booster shot for people who received the Pfizer or AstraZeneca formula. Industry analyst Kelechi Chikere said the Novavax shot could become a “universal booster” because of its high effectiveness and mild side effects.

Novavax reported the results in a news release and plans to publish them in a medical journal, where they will be vetted by independent experts. The Gaithersburg, Maryland-based company previously released findings from smaller studies in Britain and South Africa.

COVID-19 vaccines train the body to recognize the coronavirus, especially the spike protein that coats it, and get ready to fight the virus off. The Novavax vaccine is made with lab-grown copies of that protein. That’s different from some of the other vaccines now widely used, which include genetic instructions for the body to make its own spike protein.

The Novavax vaccine can be stored in standard refrigerators, making it easier to distribute.

As for the shortages that delayed manufacturing, Erck said those were due to restrictions on shipments from other countries.

“That’s opening up,” he said, adding that Novavax now has weeks’ worth of needed materials in its factories, up from just one week.

The company has committed to supplying 110 million doses to the U.S. over the next year and a total of 1.1 billion doses to developing countries.

In May, vaccines alliance Gavi, a leader of the U.N.-backed COVAX project to supply shots to poorer countries, announced it signed an agreement to buy 350 million doses of Novavax’s formula. COVAX is facing a critical shortage of vaccines after its biggest supplier in India suspended exports until the end of the year.

Novavax has been working on developing vaccines for more than three decades but hasn’t brought one to market. Its coronavirus vaccine work is partly funded by the U.S. government.

Dr. Peter English, a vaccine expert previously with the British Medical Association, called the Novavax results “excellent news.” English said that because vaccine production is complicated, it’s crucial to have as many shots as possible.

“Any minor imperfection in the production plant can shut down the production for days or weeks,” he said in a statement. “The more different manufacturers we have producing vaccine, the more likely it is we will have availability of vaccines.”

He said it was also encouraging news that Novavax would be able to adapt its vaccine to any potentially worrying variants in the future if necessary.

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Follow Linda A. Johnson on Twitter: LindaJ_onPharma

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AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng contributed to this report.

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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.

UK’s Johnson delays lockdown easing for England by 4 weeks

By PAN PYLAS for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Monday that the next planned relaxation of coronavirus restrictions in England will be delayed by four weeks, until July 19, as a result of the spread of the delta variant.

FILE – In this Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 file photo, a waiter wears a face mask as people eat and drink outside restaurants in Soho, in London. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to confirm Monday June 14, 2021, that the next planned relaxation of coronavirus restrictions in England will be delayed as a result of the spread of the delta variant first identified in India. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, File)

In a press briefing, Johnson voiced his confidence that he won’t need to delay the plan to lift restrictions on social contact further, as millions more people get fully vaccinated against the virus. He said that by July 19, two-thirds of the British population will have been double-vaccinated.

“I think it is sensible to wait just a little longer,” he said. “Now is the time to ease off the accelerator, because by being cautious now we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people.”

Accompanying the decision to delay the easing, Johnson said the government has brought forward the date by which everyone over the age of 18 will be offered a first dose of vaccine, from the end of July to July 19.

“It’s unmistakably clear the vaccines are working and the sheer scale of the vaccine roll out has made our position incomparably better than in previous waves,” he said.

Under the government’s plan for coming out of lockdown, all restrictions on social contact were set to be lifted next Monday. Many businesses, particularly those in hospitality and entertainment, voiced their disappointment ahead of the official announcement.

The delta variant first found in India is estimated by scientists advising the government to be between 40% and 80% more transmissible than the previous dominant strain. It now accounts for more than 90% of infections in the U.K.

When Johnson first outlined the government’s four-stage plan for lifting the lockdown in England in February, he set June 21 as the earliest date by which restrictions on people gathering would be lifted. However, he stressed at the time that the timetable was not carved in stone and that all the steps would be driven by “data not dates” and would seek to be “irreversible.”

The speed at which new coronavirus infections have been rising had piled the pressure on Johnson to delay the reopening so more people can get vaccinated.

On Monday, the British government reported 7,742 new confirmed cases, one of the highest daily numbers since the end of February. Daily infections have increased threefold over the past few weeks but are still way down from the nearly 70,000 daily cases recorded in January.

Many blame the Conservative government for the spike in infections, saying it acted too slowly to impose the strictest quarantine requirements on everyone arriving from India, which has endured a catastrophic resurgence of the virus.

Across Europe, many countries, including France, have tightened restrictions for British travelers to prevent the delta variant from spreading. Others, like Spain, are allowing British tourists to arrive without being required to take a test if they have been fully vaccinated.

Despite concerns about the delta variant, the U.K.’s vaccine rollout has won plaudits as one of the world’s speediest and most coherent. As of Monday, around 62% of the British population had received one shot, while about 45% had got two jabs.

The rapid rollout of vaccines and a strict months-long lockdown helped drive down the number of virus-related deaths in the U.K. in recent months. Despite that, the country has recorded nearly 128,000 virus-related deaths, more than any other nation in Europe.

Germany starts rolling out a digital EU vaccination pass

By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER for the Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — Germany on Thursday started rolling out a digital vaccination pass that can be used across Europe as the continent gets ready for the key summer travel season.

The country’s health minister said starting this week vaccination centers, doctors practices and pharmacies will gradually start giving out digital passes to fully vaccinated people. The CovPass will let users download proof of their coronavirus vaccination status onto a smartphone app, allowing them easy access to restaurants, museums or other venues that require proof of immunization.

Jens Spahn (CDU), Federal Minister of Health, shows the app for the digital vaccination certificate at the regular press conference on the Corona situation in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

The vaccination passport should be available to everyone in Germany who is fully vaccinated by the end of this month, Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

“The goal is that this certificate can also be used in Helsinki, Amsterdam or Mallorca,” Spahn told reporters in Berlin.

People who have already been fully vaccinated in recent weeks will either get a letter with a QR-code they can scan with their phones, or they can contact their doctors or pharmacies to retroactively get the digital pass.

“By doing so, we in the European Union are setting a cross-border standard that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world yet,” he said, adding that digital vaccination pass is an important step for the revival of international tourist travel.

The country’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, reported Thursday that 47% of the population, or about 39.1 million people, have been vaccinated at least once. Almost 24%, or 19.9 million people, are fully vaccinated.

On Wednesday, almost 1.3 million people received a vaccine jab, the second highest daily number since the country started its vaccination campaign late last year.

City honors officer who died trying to save drowning boy

From the Associated Press

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — The body of a Massachusetts police officer who drowned while trying rescue a teenager who had fallen into a pond was brought to a church for his funeral Mass on Thursday in a horse-drawn carriage as hundreds of fellow officers looked on.

Worcester Officer Enmanuel “Manny” Familia, 38, died Friday trying to save 14-year-old Troy Love, who was visiting from Virginia. He also died.

The funeral was being held at St. John’s Catholic Church.

Familia had been with the department for five years after serving as an officer at two local colleges and a smaller suburban department.

He leaves behind his wife of 22 years, Jennifer, and two children, 17-year-old Jayla and 13-year-old Jovan.

Familia was born in La Vega, Dominican Republic, and moved to Worcester as a young boy.

Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent last week called the loss of Familia “overwhelming.”

Familia was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Anna Maria College. He was a member of the department’s tactical patrol force and crisis invention team, and had been training to join the SWAT Team, according to his obituary.

Off-duty, he was on the department’s basketball team and represented the department at charitable events.

Biden to lay out vax donations, urge world leaders to join

By ZEKE MILLER, AAMER MADHANI and JONATHAN LEMIRE for the Associated Press

MAWGAN PORTH, England (AP) — One year ago, the U.S. was the deadliest hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the cancellation of the Group of Seven summit it was due to host. Now, the U.S. is emerging as a model for how to successfully recover from more than 15 months of global crisis.

FILE – In this Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 file photo, frozen vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are taken out to thaw, at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium. The U.S. will buy 500 million more doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to share through the COVAX alliance for donation to 92 lower income countries and the African Union over the next year, a person familiar with the matter said Wednesday. President Joe Biden was set to make the announcement Thursday in a speech before the start of Group of Seven summit. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

In a speech Thursday on the eve of the summit of wealthy G-7 democracies, President Joe Biden will outline plans for the U.S. to donate 500 million vaccine doses around the globe over the next year, on top of 80 million doses he has already pledged by the end of the month. U.S. officials say Biden will also ask fellow G-7 leaders to do the same.

The U.S. has faced mounting pressure to outline its global vaccine sharing plan, especially as inequities in supply around the world have become more pronounced and the demand for shots in the U.S. has dropped precipitously in recent weeks.

“We have to end COVID-19, not just at home — which we’re doing — but everywhere,” Biden told American servicemembers Wednesday on the first stop of a three-country, eight-day trip, his first since taking office. He added that the effort “requires coordinated, multilateral action.”

The new U.S. commitment is to buy and donate 500 million Pfizer doses for distribution through the global COVAX alliance to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union, bringing the first steady supply of mRNA vaccine to the countries that need it most. A price tag for the 500 million doses was not released, but the U.S. is now set to be COVAX’s largest vaccine donor in addition to its single largest funder with a $4 billion commitment.

The global alliance has thus far distributed just 81 million doses and parts of the world, particularly in Africa, remain vaccine deserts. White House officials hope the ramped-up distribution program can be the latest example of a theme Biden plans to hit frequently during his week in Europe: that Western democracies, and not rising authoritarian states, can deliver the most good for the world.

White House officials said the 500 million vaccines will be shipped starting in August, with the goal of distributing 200 million by the end of the year. The remaining 300 million doses would be shipped in the first half of 2022.

“We’re in this position because we’ve had so much success at home vaccinating Americans,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told CBS News on Thursday.

After leading the world in new cases and deaths over much of the last year, the rapid vaccination program in the U.S. now positions it among the leaders of the global recovery. Nearly 64% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one vaccine dose and the average numbers of new positive cases and deaths in the U.S. are lower now than at any point since the earliest days of the pandemic.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last week projected that the U.S. economy would grow at a rate of 6.9% this year, making it one of the few nations for which forecasts are rosier now than before the pandemic.

U.S. officials hope the summit will conclude with a communique showing a commitment from the G-7 countries and nations invited to participate to do more to help vaccinate the world and support public health globally.

“I don’t anticipate contention on the issue of vaccines. I anticipate convergence,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday.

Sullivan said G-7 leaders are “converging” around the idea that vaccine supply can be increased in several ways, including by countries sharing more of their own doses, helping to increase global manufacturing capacity and doing more across the “chain of custody” from when the vaccine is produced to when it is injected into someone in the developing world.

Last week, the White House unveiled plans to donate an initial allotment of 25 million doses of surplus vaccine overseas, mostly through the United Nations-backed COVAX program, promising infusions for South and Central America, Asia, Africa and others.

Officials say a quarter of that excess will be kept in reserve for emergencies and for the U.S. to share directly with allies and partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Sullivan noted that Biden has previously committed to turning the U.S. into a modern day “arsenal of democracies” for vaccines, but that it also has health reasons for spreading vaccinations — preventing the rise of potentially dangerous variants — and geostrategic ones as well.

China and Russia have shared, with varying success, their domestically produced vaccines with some needy countries, often with hidden strings attached. Sullivan said Biden “does want to show — rallying the rest of the world’s democracies — that democracies are the countries that can best deliver solutions for people everywhere.”

The U.S.-produced mRNA vaccines have also proven to be more effective against both the original strain and more dangerous variants of COVID-19 than the more conventional vaccines produced by China and Russia. Some countries that have had success in deploying those conventional vaccines have nonetheless seen cases spike.

Biden’s decision to purchase the doses, officials said, was meant to keep them from getting locked up by richer nations that have the means to enter into purchasing agreements directly with manufacturers. Just last month, the European Commission signed an agreement to purchase as many as 1.8 billion Pfizer doses in the next two years, a significant share of the company’s upcoming production — though the bloc reserved the right to donate some of its doses to COVAX.

Global public health groups have been aiming to use the G-7 meetings to press wealthier democracies to do more to share vaccines with the world. Biden’s plans drew immediate praise.

Tom Hart, acting CEO at The ONE Campaign, a nonprofit that seeks to end poverty, said Biden’s announcement was “the kind of bold leadership that is needed to end this global pandemic.”

“We urge other G-7 countries to follow the U.S.’ example and donate more doses to COVAX,” he added. “If there was ever a time for global ambition and action to end the pandemic, it’s now.”

Others have called on the U.S. to do even more.

“Charity is not going to win the war against the coronavirus,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s vaccine lead. “At the current rate of vaccinations, it would take low-income countries 57 years to reach the same level of protection as those in G-7 countries. That’s not only morally wrong, it’s self-defeating given the risk posed by coronavirus mutations.”

Biden last month broke with European allies to endorse waiving intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organization to promote vaccine production and equity. But many in his own administration acknowledge that the restrictions were not the driving cause of the global vaccine shortage, which has more to do with limited manufacturing capacity and shortages of delicate raw materials.

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Miller reported from Washington. Lemire reported from Plymouth, England.

Rights group: Colombian police cause deaths of 20 protesters

By ASTRID SUÁREZ for the Associated Press

BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (AP) — An international monitoring group on Wednesday accused police officers in Colombia of responsibility for the deaths of 20 people and other violent actions against protesters during recent civil unrest, including sexual abuse, beatings and arbitrary detentions.

Human Rights Watch said in a report said it has “credible evidence” indicating police killed at least 16 protesters or bystanders with “live ammunition fired from firearms,” while three other people died when police used non-lethal weapons. The report said another person died after being beaten repeatedly.

Riot police put out a petrol bomb hurdled during clashes with anti-government demonstrators protesting against the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifying soccer match between Argentina and Colombia near the Metropolitano stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Jairo Cassiani)

“These brutal abuses are not isolated incidents by rogue officers, but rather the result of systemic shortcomings of the Colombian police,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the group’s director for the Americas. “Comprehensive reform that clearly separates the police from the military and ensures adequate oversight and accountability is needed to ensure that these violations don’t occur again.”

The report presents a panorama of more widespread violence than what Colombian authorities have acknowledged. It says Human Rights Watch has received “credible information” reporting a total of 68 deaths during the protests, 34 of which it was able to confirm, including two police officers.

Colombia’s government has reported 18 deaths related to the protests and says an additional nine are under investigation. The country’s human rights ombudsman, meanwhile, reported late Monday that it had confirmed 58 deaths related to the protests.

Thousands of Colombians have turned out across the country for mostly peaceful protests against the administration of President Iván Duque. The protests started over proposed tax increases on public services, fuel, wages and pensions, but it has morphed into a general demand for the government to do more for the most vulnerable in society, such as Indigenous and Afro Latino people.

The administration withdrew the tax proposal just days after the protests began, but the unrest has continued and grown as reports emerged of police violence, deaths and disappearances.

Human Rights Watch said its investigation into the police response to the nationwide protests that began April 28 found that the majority of fatal victims suffered injuries to vital organs, including head and chest, which experts said “are consistent with being caused with the intent to kill.”

The report says that among those killed by police was Kevin Agudelo, who died during a peaceful demonstration May 3 in Cali, a city in southwestern Colombia that has been the epicenter of the protests. Witnesses said anti-riot police fired flash bang cartridges and teargas when demonstrators blocked cars at a traffic circle, prompting several demonstrators to throw rocks.

“One witness said he heard shots that sounded like live ammunition,” the report says. “He said that Agudelo, who had been hiding behind a post, then ran toward him along with another protester. The witness said he saw a police officer shoot Agudelo from a short distance. The other protester was also injured, he said. Human Rights Watch reviewed three videos that appear consistent with the witnesses’ accounts, in which Agudelo is seen lying next to the injured protester”

The organization reviewed a photo of his body that showed wounds to the chest and arms, which the report said forensic experts concluded were consistent with being shot by live ammunition.

Authorities have been slow to investigate the reports of violence, and as of Saturday, only four people had been indicted in connection with two homicides that occurred during the protests. Of the 170 police officers under disciplinary investigation, only two have been suspended, according to Human Rights Watch. Official public data indicates most of these investigations are for abuse of authority and 13 are linked to homicides.

The police have also been accused gender-based and sexual violence. The Ombudsman’s Office, an agency in charge of protecting human rights, has reported 14 cases of sexual assault and 71 cases of gender-based violence, including physical and verbal assault.

Police have arrested more than 1,000 people for crimes allegedly committed during the protests, but hundreds of them were released because judges found no evidence linking them to the crime or concluded they were not guaranteed due process.

The president has said all cases of police abuse will be investigated and duly punished. However, Duque has insisted that they are isolated cases.

“Colombia is not a country that violates human rights, we have difficulties, but we face them with justice,” presidential counselor for human rights, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, told reporters Tuesday.

‘This IS INSANE’: Africa desperately short of COVID vaccine

By GERALD IMRAY for the Associated Press

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — In the global race to vaccinate people against COVID-19, Africa is tragically at the back of the pack.

In fact, it has barely gotten out of the starting blocks.

FILE – In this May 25, 2021, file photo, a health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at the Orange Farm Clinic near Johannesburg. In the global race to vaccinate people against COVID-19, Africa is tragically at the back of the pack. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

In South Africa, which has the continent’s most robust economy and its biggest coronavirus caseload, just 0.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to a worldwide tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University. And hundreds of thousands of the country’s health workers, many of whom come face-to-face with the virus every day, are still waiting for their shots.

In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country with more than 200 million people, only 0.1% are fully protected. Kenya, with 50 million people, is even lower. Uganda has recalled doses from rural areas because it doesn’t have nearly enough to fight outbreaks in big cities.

Chad didn’t administer its first vaccine shots until this past weekend. And there are at least five other countries in Africa where not one dose has been put into an arm, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World Health Organization says the continent of 1.3 billion people is facing a severe shortage of vaccine at the same time a new wave of infections is rising across Africa. Vaccine shipments into Africa have ground to a “near halt,” WHO said last week.

“It is extremely concerning and at times frustrating,” said Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong, a Cameroonian virologist who is trying to ensure some of the world’s poorest nations get a fair share of vaccines in a marketplace where they can’t possibly compete.

The United States and Britain, in contrast, have fully vaccinated more than 40% of their populations, with higher rates for adults and high-risk people. Countries in Europe are near or past 20% coverage, and their citizens are starting to think about where their vaccine certificates might take them on their summer vacations. The U.S., France and Germany are even offering shots to youngsters, who are at very low risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

Poorer countries had warned as far back as last year of this impending vaccine inequality, fearful that rich nations would hoard doses.

In an interview, Nkengasong called on the leaders of wealthy nations meeting this week at the G-7 summit to share spare vaccines — something the United States has already agreed to do — and avert a “moral catastrophe.”

“I’d like to believe that the G-7 countries, most of them having kept excess doses of vaccines, want to be on the right side of history,” Nkengasong said. “Distribute those vaccines. We need to actually see these vaccines, not just … promises and goodwill.”

Others are not so patient, nor so diplomatic.

“People are dying. Time is against us. This IS INSANE,” South African human rights lawyer Fatima Hasan, an activist for equal access to health care, wrote in a series of text messages.

The Biden administration made its first major move to ease the crisis last week, announcing it would share an initial batch of 25 million spare doses with desperate countries in South and Central America, Asia and Africa.

Nkengasong and his team were in contact with White House officials a day later, he said, with a list of countries where the 5 million doses earmarked for Africa could go to immediately.

Still, the U.S. offer is only a “trickle” of what’s needed, Hasan wrote.

Africa alone is facing a shortfall of around 700 million doses, even after taking into account those secured through WHO’s vaccine program for poorer countries, COVAX, and a deal with Johnson & Johnson, which comes through in August, two long months away.

Uganda just released a batch of 3,000 vaccine doses in the capital, Kampala — a minuscule amount for a city of 2 million — to keep its program barely alive.

There and elsewhere, the fear is that the luck that somehow enabled parts of Africa to escape the worst of previous waves of COVID-19 infections and deaths might not hold this time.

“The first COVID was a joke, but this one is for real. It kills,” said Danstan Nsamba, a taxi driver in Uganda who has lost numerous people he knew to the virus.

In Zimbabwe, Chipo Dzimba embarked on a quest for a vaccine after witnessing COVID-19 deaths in her community. She walked miles to a church mission hospital, where there were none, and miles again to a district hospital, where nurses also had nothing and told her to go to the region’s main government hospital. That was too far away.

“I am giving up,” Dzimba said. “I don’t have the bus fare.”

South African health workers faced similar disappointment when they crowded into a parking garage last month, hoping for vaccinations and ignoring in their desperation the social distancing protocols. Many came away without a shot.

Femada Shamam, who is in charge of a group of old-age homes in the South African city of Durban, has seen only around half of the 1,600 elderly and frail people she looks after vaccinated. It is six months, almost to the day, since Britain began the global vaccination drive.

“They do feel very despondent and they do feel let down,” Shamam said of her unvaccinated residents, who are experiencing “huge anxiety” as they hunker down in their sealed-off homes 18 months into the outbreak. Twenty-two of her residents have died of COVID-19.

“It really highlights the biggest problem … the haves and the have-nots,” Shamam said.

As for whether wealthy countries with a surplus of vaccine have gotten the message, Nkengasong said: “I am hopeful, but not necessarily confident.”

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AP writers around the world contributed to this report.

China’s wandering elephants becoming international stars

From the Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — Already famous at home, China’s wandering elephants are now becoming international stars.

Major global media are chronicling the herd’s more than yearlong, 500-kilometer (300-mile) trek from their home in a wildlife reserve in mountainous southwest Yunnan province to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunming.

In this photo taken June 4, 2021, and released by the Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade, a migrating herd of elephants graze near Shuanghe Township, Jinning District of Kunming city in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province. Already famous at home, China’s wandering elephants are now becoming international stars. Major global media, including satellite news stations, news papers and wire services are chronicling the herd’s more-than year-long, 500 kilometer (300 mile) trek from their home in a wildlife reserve in mountainous southwest Yunnan province to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunming. (Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade via AP)

Twitter and YouTube are full of clips of their various antics, particularly those of two calves who slipped into an irrigation ditch and had to be helped out by older members of the group.

“We should be more like the elephant and be more family oriented, take family vacations and help and care for and protect each other,” read one comment on YouTube signed MrDeterministicchaos.

The elephants have been trending for days on China’s Weibo microblogging service with photos of the group sleeping attracting 25,000 posts and 200 million views Monday night.

The 15-member herd has been caught at night trotting down urban streets by security cameras, filmed constantly from the air by more than a dozen drones and followed by those seeking to minimize damage and keep both pachyderms and people out of harm’s way.

They’ve raided farms for food and water, visited a car dealership and even showed up at a retirement home, where they poked their trunks into some of the rooms, prompting one elderly man to hide under his bed.

While no animals or people have been hurt, reports put damage to crops at more than $1 million.

Sixteen animals were originally in the group, but the government says two returned home and a baby was born during the walk. The herd is now composed of six female and three male adults, three juveniles and three calves, according to official reports.

What exactly motivated them to make the epic journey remains a mystery, although they appear to be especially attracted to corn, tropical fruit and other crops that are tasty, plentiful and easy to obtain in the lush tropical region that is home to about 300 of the animals. Others have speculated their leader may be simply lost.

Asian elephants are loyal to their home ranges unless there have been disturbances, loss of resources or development, in which case they may move out, according to Nilanga Jayasinghe, manager for Asian species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.

“In this case, we don’t really know why they left their home range, but do know that there has been significant habitat loss due to agriculture and conversion of forests into plantations within that range in the last few decades,” Jayasinghe wrote in an email. “What possibly happened here is that in their search for new habitat, they got lost along the way and kept going.”

Authorities have been working to avoid negative interactions and “must determine what the best next steps here are and keep human-elephant conflict at bay,” Jayasinghe wrote.

Kunming is to host the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity’s Convention of Parties to discuss topics such as human-wildlife conflict, and “this is a real-time example of the importance of addressing the issue and its root causes for the benefit of both wildlife and people,” she wrote.

Elephants are given the top level of protection in China, allowing their numbers to steadily increase even as their natural habitat shrinks, and requiring farmers and others to exercise maximum restraint when encountering them. Government orders have told people to stay inside and not to gawk at them or use firecrackers or otherwise attempt to scare them away.

So far, more passive means are being used to keep them out of urban areas, including the parking of trucks and construction equipment to block roads and the use of food drops to lure them away.

As of Tuesday, the herd remained on the outskirts of Kunming, a city of 7 million, with one of the males having moved away on his own, creating even more excitement — and worry — for those attempting to keep tabs on them.

A statement Monday from a provincial command center set up to monitor the group said the elephants appeared to be resting, while more than 410 emergency response personnel and police personnel, scores of vehicles and 14 drones were deployed to monitor them. Area residents were evacuated, temporary traffic control measures implemented, and 2 tons of elephant food put in place.

Another objective was to “maintain silence to create conditions for guiding the elephant group to migrate west and south,” the command center said.

Asian elephants, the continent’s largest land animal, are declining overall, with less than 50,000 left in the wild. Habitat loss and resulting human-wildlife conflict are their biggest threats, along with poaching and population isolation.

French leader Macron slapped in face on visit to small town

By SYLVIE CORBET for the Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron was slapped Tuesday in the face by a man during a visit to a small town in southeastern France, an incident that prompted a wide show of support for French politicians from all sides.

The French president was greeting the public waiting for him behind barriers in the town of Tain-l’Hermitage after he visited a high school that is training students to work in hotels and restaurants.

French President Emmanuel Macron talks to journalists Tuesday June 8, 2021 at the Hospitality school in Tain-l’Hermitage, southeastern France. French President Emmanuel Macron has been slapped in the face by a man during a visit in a small town of southeastern France, Macron’s office confirmed. (Philippe Desmazes, Pool via AP)

A video shows a man slapping Macron in the face and his bodyguards pushing the man away as the French leader is quickly rushed from the scene.

A bodyguard, who was standing right behind Macron, raised a hand in defense of the president, but was a fraction of a second too late to stop the slap. The bodyguard then put his arm around the president to protect him.

Macron just managed to turn his face away as the attacker’s right hand connected, making it seem that he struck more a glancing blow than a direct slap.

French news broadcaster BFM TV said two people have been detained by police. Macron hasn’t commented yet on the incident and continued his visit.

The man, who was wearing a mask, appears to have cried out “Montjoie! Saint Denis!” a centuries-old royalist war cry, before finishing with “A bas la Macronie,” or “Down with Macron.”

In 2018, the royalist call was cried out by someone who threw a cream pie at far-left lawmaker Eric Coquerel. At the time, the extreme-right, monarchist group Action Francaise, took responsibility for that action. Coquerel on Tuesday expressed his solidarity with Macron.

Speaking at the National Assembly, Prime Minister Jean Castex said “through the head of state, that’s democracy that has been targeted,” in comments prompting loud applauds from lawmakers from all ranks, standing up in a show of support.

“Democracy is about debate, dialogue, confrontation of ideas, expression of legitimate disagreements, of course, but in no case it can be violence, verbal assault and even less physical assault,” Castex said.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen firmly condemned on Twitter “the intolerable physical aggression targeting the president of the Republic.”

Visibly fuming, she said later that while Macron is her top political adversary, the assault was “deeply, deeply reprehensible.”

Former President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party tweeted that the assault is a “unbearable and intolerable blow against our institutions … The entire nation must show solidarity with the head of state.”

Less than one year before France’s next presidential election and as the country is gradually reopening its pandemic-hit economy, Macron, a centrist, last week started a political “tour de France,” seeking to visit French regions in the coming months to “feel the pulse of the country.”

Macron has said in an interview he wanted to engage with people in a mass consultation with the French public aimed at “turning the page” of the pandemic — and preparing his possible campaign for a second term.

The attack follows mounting concerns in France about violence targeting elected officials, particularly after the often-violent “yellow vest” economic protest movement that repeatedly clashed with riot officers in 2019.

Village mayors and lawmakers have been among those targeted by physical assaults, death threats and harassment.

But France’s well-protected head of state has been spared until now, which compounded the shockwaves that rippled through French politics in the wake of the attack.

Macron, like his predecessors, enjoys spending time in meet-and-greets with members of the public. Called “crowd baths” in French, they have long been a staple of French politics and only very rarely produce shows of disrespect for the head of state.

A bystander yanked then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s suit during a crowd bath in 2011 and his successor, Hollande, was showered with flour the next year, months before winning the presidential election.

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Elaine Ganley in Paris, and John Leicester in Le Pecq, France, contributed to the story.

Global sting: Secure FBI-run messaging network tricks crooks

By MIKE CORDER and NICK PERRY for the Associated Press

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Criminal gangs divulged plans for moving drug shipments and carrying out killings on a secure messaging system secretly run by the FBI, law enforcement agencies said Tuesday, as they unveiled a global sting operation they said dealt an “unprecedented blow” to organized crime in countries around the world.

In this undated photo supplied by the New Zealand police, a box containing a large amounts of cash is seen after being discovered during a police raid as part of Operation Trojan. Authorities in Australia and New Zealand Tuesday, June 8, 2021, say they’ve dealt a huge blow against organized crime after hundreds of criminals were tricked into using a messaging app that was being secretly run by the FBI. (New Zealand Police via AP)

The operation known as Trojan Shield led to police raids in 16 nations. More than 800 suspects were arrested and more than 32 tons of drugs — including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines — were seized along with 250 firearms, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies.

The seeds of the sting were sown in 2018 when law enforcement agencies took down a company called Phantom Secure that provided customized end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, according to court papers. Unlike typical cell phones, the devices don’t make phone calls or browse the internet — but allow for secure messaging. As an outgrowth of the operation, the FBI also recruited a collaborator who was developing a next-generation secure-messaging platform for the criminal underworld called ANOM. The collaborator engineered the system to give the agency access to any messages being sent.

ANOM didn’t take off immediately. But once other secure platforms used by criminal gangs to organize drug trafficking underworld hits and money laundering were taken down by police, chiefly EncroChat and Sky ECC, gangs were in the market for a new one and the FBI’s platform was ready. Over the past 18 months, the agency provided phones via unsuspecting middlemen to more than 300 gangs operating in more than 100 countries.

Intelligence gathered and analyzed “enabled us to prevent murders. It led to the seizure of drugs that led to the seizure of weapons. And it helped prevent a number of crimes,” Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, told a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands.

The operation — led by the FBI with the involvement of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in several countries — dealt “an unprecedented blow to criminal networks, and this is worldwide,” said Dutch National Police Chief Constable Jannine van den Berg.

Australian Federal Police Commander Jennifer Hearst called it “a watershed moment in global law enforcement history.”

The ANOM app became popular in criminal circles as users told one another it was a safe platform. All the time, police were looking over the shoulders of criminals as they discussed hits, drug shipments and other crimes.

“There was a void that was created by a lack of these encrypted platforms,” Shivers said, of the initial move to take down apps previously used by gangs. “So that created an opportunity for collaboration with our international partners, to not only develop the specific tool but also to develop the process of gathering the intelligence and disseminating the intelligence.”

The FBI collaborator effectively created a “blind copy” channel so that every single message sent by ANOM users ended up on a server run by the agency, court documents say.

Since October 2019, the FBI has has cataloged more than 20 million messages from a total of 11,800 devices — with about 9,000 currently active, according to the documents, which cited Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia as the most active countries.

They say the number of active ANOM users was only 3,000 until Sky, one of the platforms previously used by criminal gangs, was dismantled in March.

While primarily used in drug trafficking and money-laundering, an FBI agent quoted in the documents says “high-level public corruption cases (also were ) initiated as a result.” The agent said a goal of Trojan Shield was to “shake the confidence in this entire industry because the FBI is willing and able to enter this space and monitor messages.”

Law enforcement agencies from Sweden to New Zealand described the operation as having a significant impact.

Swedish police prevented a dozen planned killings and believe that they have arrested several “leading actors in criminal networks,” according to a statement from Linda Staaf, the head of Sweden’s national criminal intelligence unit.

Finnish police said Tuesday that nearly 100 people have been detained and more than 500 kilograms (half a ton) of drugs confiscated, along with dozens of guns and cash worth hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars). In Germany, the general prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt said that more than 70 people were arrested Monday and drugs, cash and weapons were also seized.

In Australia, authorities said they arrested 224 people and seized more than four tons of drugs and $35 million. New Zealand police said they had arrested 35 people and seized drugs and assets worth millions of dollars.

“Today, the Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organized crime,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters. “Not just in this country, but one that will echo around organized crime around the world.”

European police last year delivered a major blow to organized crime after cracking an encrypted communications network, known as EncroChat, used by criminal gangs across the continent.

In March, Belgian police arrested dozens of people after cracking another encrypted chat system and seizing more than 17 tons of cocaine.

The latest operation went even further.

“The success of Operation Trojan Shield is a result of tremendous innovation, dedication and unprecedented international collaboration,” Shivers said. “And the results are staggering.”

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Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writers Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Jari Tanner in Helsinki, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.

No mass protests after Honolulu police shoot, kill Black man

By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER and MOGOMOTSI MAGOM for the Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) — Lindsay Myeni and her South African husband moved to Hawaii, where she grew up, believing it would be safer to raise their two Black children here than in another U.S. state.

Three months after they arrived, Honolulu police shot and killed her husband, 29-year-old Lindani Myeni, who was Black.

In a 2021 photo provided by Bickerton Law Group representing the family of Lindani Myeni, he is standing on a beach in Waimanalo, Hawaii with his wife and two children. Some Black people in Hawaii say Myeni’s shooting death by Honolulu police is a reminder that Hawaii isn’t the racially harmonious paradise it’s held up to be. (Myeni Family Photo/Bickerton Law Group via AP)

“We never thought anything like this would ever happen there,” Lindsay Myeni, who is white, told The Associated Press in an interview from her husband’s hometown, Empangeni in Kwazulu-Natal province.

To some, Lindani Myeni’s death and the muted reaction from residents, is a reminder that Hawaii isn’t the racially harmonious paradise it’s held up to be.

The couple moved to Honolulu from predominately white Denver in January.

Hawaii, where white people are not the majority and many people identify as having multiple ethnicities, felt right: “We were refreshed to be back to somewhere that is so diverse.”

Of Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents, just 3.6% are Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Yet in Honolulu alone, Black people made up more than 7% of the people police used force against, according to Honolulu police data for 2019.

While there have been some local gatherings and small protests decrying Myeni’s death, it hasn’t inspired the passionate outrage seen elsewhere in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed last year by a white officer in Minnesota, and other killings by police.

Myeni’s death “would have generated mass protests in any other American city,” said Kenneth Lawson, a Black professor at University of Hawaii’s law school.

“When you’re told you live in a paradise and you point out that it’s not paradise for people of color, that makes people uncomfortable,” he said.

One reason for a lack of outrage, he said, is that police have released limited details of what happened. “What’s being revealed is what they want us to see,” he said.

According to police’s account of the fatal shooting, Myeni entered a home that wasn’t his, sat down and took off his shoes, prompting a frightened occupant to call 911. Outside the house, he ignored commands to get on the ground and physically attacked officers, leaving one with a concussion, police said.

Police released two brief clips from body camera footage, but it’s difficult to make out what is happening in the dark. Three shots ring out and then an officer exclaims, “Police.”

A wrongful death lawsuit Lindsay Myeni filed against Honolulu alleges police were “motivated by racial discrimination towards people of Mr. Myeni’s African descent.”

Simply by being Black, he was seen as an “immediate threat,” that the Asian woman who called 911 needed to be protected from, she said.

Now-retired police Chief Susan Ballard, who is white, said at the time that officers reacted to Myeni’s behavior, not his race. “This person seriously injured the officers and their lives were in jeopardy,” she said.

Myeni’s widow thinks he mistook the home for a Hare Krishna temple next door. Earlier in the day, the family had visited culturally significant places as they drove to Oahu’s north shore. At one point, the couple prayed together, she recalled, because something felt off. He seemed stressed.

Because of that, she thinks her husband, who was Christian and connected to his Zulu culture, was seeking out a spiritual place in his new neighborhood.

Shortly before the shooting, she spoke to him by phone. He was on his way home, some five blocks away.

He was wearing his umqhele when he was shot, his widow said. The traditional Zulu headband, along with taking his shoes off at the door, meant he went to the house with respectful intentions, she said.

She believes their races contributed to a waning of shocked sentiment over his death. “White people don’t come from Hawaii, stereotypically. Black people don’t come from Hawaii, stereotypically. So even though I’m three generations of being there, if you look at my skin, you’ll say, ‘Oh must be a haole,’” she said using the Hawaiian word for foreigner.

But Myeni was indeed a newcomer to Hawaii, which might have contributed to the general reaction to his death, said Daphne Barbee-Wooten, former president of the African American Lawyers Association of Hawaii.

“Whereas if it was someone who people knew for a long period of time who got shot or killed, I think there might be more outrage because they would have been neighbors, gone to the same church,” she said.

“And I think a lot of African Americans who live here are outraged,” she said. “But do they take to the street about it? Not really.”

The are various reasons for that, she said, including people with military jobs who might not be allowed to protest publicly or those who are waiting to see results of an investigation into the shooting.

Ethan Caldwell, who is of Black and Asian descent and an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii, said he can personally relate to the Myeni family feeling Hawaii would be relatively safer.

“I always ask the question to my students, safer for who?” he said. “Black folks have been present in the Hawaiian Kingdom since prior to the illegal annexation, but rarely do we see, hear, or disassociate them with the military in Hawaii in the present.”

Even though Hawaii is one of the few places where people of color are the majority, there are still anti-Black sentiment — at institutional and individual levels — he said, noting how businesses in Waikiki boarded up their windows ahead of a peaceful Black Lives Matter march last summer.

“We may not necessarily feel the same level of racism, anti-Blackness, discrimination, prejudice here as we do on the continent, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t face micro-aggressions on a daily basis, more so for some people,” Caldwell said. “I think some people might be more willing to deal with those because it doesn’t necessarily mean that their lives are at-risk.”

“But I think when it comes to seeing the more recent cases and the distance closing, the fact that it even happens here also puts some of that into question as well,” he said, referring to Honolulu police shooting and killing a 16-year-old Micronesian boy on April 5.

Another possible reason the death hasn’t prompted mass protests is because Hawaii strives to be seen as being different from the strife on the U.S. mainland, said Akiemi Glenn, founder and executive director of the Popolo Project, whose group name uses the Hawaiian word for a plant with dark purple or black berries that has also come to refer to Black people.

Acknowledging that Hawaii experiences racial bias in law enforcement like other parts of the country “explodes the myth that this is a paradise — whether it’s a racial paradise or vacation paradise — from all of your troubles on the mainland,” she said.

Before his death, Lindsay Myeni said her husband didn’t encounter racist incidents in Hawaii. She remembers that after a month here, he hugged her one day when he returned from the gym and thanked her for bringing him to Hawaii.

“And people are warm and friendly and they they’re outgoing,” she said. “And all the things he loved about South Africa, Hawaii has a lot of those.”

In Denver, police stopped him while walking because he matched the description of a crime suspect. In South Africa, she would get “ugly stares” from some white people who saw her with a Black man.

“But we live among Black people in South Africa and they’ve always been welcoming to me,” she said.

Lindsay Myeni is trying to extend her visa to stay in South Africa and will try to apply for permanent residency through her son.

“Hawaii is my home, so I really feel like I broke up with my country and my state and like maybe I’ll go back there one day,” she said. “It’s really hard to say, but right now I just can’t fathom even visiting.”

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Magome reported from Johannesburg.

Train barrels into another in Pakistan, killing at least 51

By MUHAMMAD FAROOQ and ASIM TANVEER for the Associated Press

GHOTKI, Pakistan (AP) — An express train barreled into another that had derailed in Pakistan before dawn Monday, killing at least 51 people and setting off a desperate effort to search the crumpled cars for survivors and the dead, authorities said.

Railway workers rebuild the track at the track at the site of a train collision in the Ghotki district, southern Pakistan, Monday, June 7, 2021. An express train barreled into another that had derailed in Pakistan before dawn Monday, killing dozens of passengers, authorities said. More than 100 were injured, and rescuers and villagers worked throughout the day to search crumpled cars for survivors and the dead. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

More than 100 other people were injured. Cries for help pierced the night as passengers climbed out of overturned or crushed rail cars. The pleas continued to echo throughout the day at the scene in the district of Ghotki, in the southern province of Sindh.

Heavy machinery arrived to cut open some cars, and more than 15 hours after the crash, rescuers carefully removed wreckage as they looked for anyone who might remain trapped — though hopes were fading for survivors. The military deployed troops, engineers and helicopters to assist.

The Millat Express train derailed around 3:30 a.m., and the Sir Syed Express train hit it minutes later, said Usman Abdullah, a deputy commissioner of Ghotki. It was not immediately clear what caused the derailment, and the driver of the second train said he braked when he saw the disabled train but did not have time to avoid the collision.

About 1,100 passengers were aboard the two trains, rail officials said.

“The challenge for us is to quickly rescue those passengers who are still trapped in the wreckage,” said Umar Tufail, a police chief in the district.

The death toll steadily rose through the day, and the chances of finding survivors were diminishing, said Rizwan Nazir, a district administration official.

Authorities brought in lights so rescuers could work through the night. Relatives of some of the missing passengers waited nearby.

Passengers with critical injuries were to be brought by helicopter to a nearby hospital.

Engineers and experts were trying to determine what caused the collision, said Azam Swati, the minister for railways who headed to the scene of the crash. He told The Associated Press that all aspects would be examined, including the possibility of sabotage.

The segment of the railway tracks where the crash took place was old and needed replacing, Habibur Rehman Gilani, chairman of Pakistan Railways, told Pakistan’s Geo News TV. He did not elaborate.

Aijaz Ahmed, the driver of the Sir Syed Express, told the station that on seeing the derailed train, he tried his best to avoid the crash by braking but failed. Railway officials said Ahmed was slightly injured, and villagers pulled him from the train’s engine after the crash.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his deep sorrow over the tragedy, saying on Twitter that he asked the railway minister to supervise the rescue work and ordered a probe into the crash.

According to local media, some of the passengers on the Millat Express were heading to a wedding party.

Mohammad Amin, one of the passengers on the Millat Express who had minor injuries, told the AP from a hospital that before the train departed from the southern port city of Karachi, he and his brother saw mechanics working on one of the cars.

That led them to believe there was something wrong with it, but they were reassured all was fine. Amin said he believed the car that was being worked on was the one that later derailed. Railway officials said they were recording statements of survivors, including the drivers.

Train accidents are common in Pakistan, where successive governments have paid little attention to improving the poorly maintained signal system and aging tracks.

In 1990, a packed passenger plowed into a standing freight train in southern Pakistan, killing 210 people in the worst rail disaster in the nation’s history.

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Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmed contributed to story from Islamabad.

US to swiftly boost global vaccine sharing, Biden announces

By ZEKE MILLER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden announced Thursday the U.S. will swiftly donate an initial allotment of 25 million doses of surplus vaccine overseas through the United Nations-backed COVAX program, promising infusions for South and Central America, Asia, Africa and others at a time of glaring shortages abroad and more than ample supplies at home.

Vice President Kamala Harris listens as President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 vaccination program, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The doses mark a substantial — and immediate — boost to the lagging COVAX effort, which to date has shared just 76 million doses with needy countries.

The announcement came just hours after World Health Organization officials in Africa made a new plea for vaccine sharing because of an alarming situation on the continent, where shipments have ground to “a near halt” while virus cases have spiked over the past two weeks.

Overall, the White House has announced plans to share 80 million doses globally by the end of June, most through COVAX. Officials say a quarter of the nation’s excess will be kept in reserve for emergencies and for the U.S. to share directly with allies and partners.

Of the first 19 million donated through COVAX, approximately 6 million doses will go to South and Central America, 7 million to Asia and 5 million to Africa.

“As long as this pandemic is raging anywhere in the world, the American people will still be vulnerable,” Biden said in a statement. “And the United States is committed to bringing the same urgency to international vaccination efforts that we have demonstrated at home.”

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. “will retain the say” on where doses distributed through COVAX ultimately go.

But he also said: “We’re not seeking to extract concessions, we’re not extorting, we’re not imposing conditions the way that other countries who are providing doses are doing. … These are doses that are being given, donated free and clear to these countries, for the sole purpose of improving the public health situation and helping end the pandemic.”

The remaining 6 million in the initial distribution of 25 million will be directed by the White House to U.S. allies and partners, including Mexico, Canada, South Korea, West Bank and Gaza, India, Ukraine, Kosovo, Haiti, Georgia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as for United Nations frontline workers.

The White House did not say when the doses would begin shipping overseas, but press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration hoped to send them “as quickly as we can logistically get those out the door.”

Vice President Kamala Harris informed some U.S. partners they will begin receiving doses, in separate calls with Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador, President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago. Harris is to visit Guatemala and Mexico in the coming week.

The long-awaited vaccine sharing plan comes as demand for shots in the U.S. has dropped significantly — more than 63% of adults have received at least one dose — and as global inequities in supply have become more pronounced.

Scores of countries have requested doses from the United States, but to date only Mexico and Canada have received a combined 4.5 million doses. The U.S. also has announced plans to share enough shots with South Korea to vaccinate its 550,000 troops who serve alongside American service members on the peninsula. White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said that 1 million Johnson & Johnson doses were being shipped to South Korea Thursday.

The U.S. has committed more than $4 billion to COVAX, but with vaccine supplies short — and wealthy nations locking up most of them — the greater need than funding has been immediate access to actual doses, to overcome what health officials have long decried as unequal access to the vaccines.

The U.S. action means “frontline workers and at-risk populations will receive potentially life-saving vaccinations” and bring the world “a step closer to ending the acute phase of the pandemic,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, which is leading the COVAX alliance.

However, Tom Hart the acting CEO of The ONE Campaign, said that while Thursday’s announcement was a “welcome step, the Biden administration needs to commit to sharing more doses.

“The world is looking to the U.S. for global leadership, and more ambition is needed,” he said.

Biden has committed to providing other nations with all 60 million U.S.-produced doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has yet to be authorized for use in America but is widely approved around the world. The AstraZeneca doses have been held up for export by a weeks-long safety review by the Food and Drug Administration, and without them Biden will be hard pressed to meet his sharing goal.

The White House says the initial 25 million doses announced Thursday will be shipped from existing federal stockpiles of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. More doses are expected to be made available to share in the months ahead.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said via Twitter that Harris had informed him before the White House announcement of the decision to send 1 million doses of the single jab Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “I expressed to her our appreciation in the name of the people of Mexico,” he wrote.

Guatemala’s Giammattei said Harris told him the U.S. government would send his country 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

As part of its purchase agreements with drug manufacturers, the U.S. controlled the initial production by its domestic manufacturers. Pfizer and Moderna are only now starting to export vaccines produced in the U.S. to overseas customers. The U.S. has hundreds of millions more doses on order, both of authorized and in-development vaccines.

The White House also announced that U.S. producers of vaccine materials and ingredients will no longer have to prioritize orders from three drugmakers working on COVID-19 shots that haven’t received U.S. approval — Sanofi, Novavax and AstraZeneca — clearing the way for more materials to be shipped overseas to help production there.

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AP writers Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.

Oregon fall firestorms cautionary tale in worsening drought

By GILLIAN FLACCUS for the Associated Press

OTIS, Ore. (AP) — Wildfire smoke was thick when Tye and Melynda Small went to bed on Labor Day, but they weren’t too concerned. After all, they live in a part of Oregon where ferns grow from tree trunks and rainfall averages more than six feet (1.8 meters) a year.

In this photo provided by Tye and Melynda Small, they are seen standing with their 5-year-old daughter, Madalyn, in front of the ruins of their home in Otis, Oregon after the Echo Mountain Fire swept through, burning nearly 300 homes, in September, 2020. The Smalls had to take Madalyn back to their property to help her understand why they couldn’t go home. Oregon’s unprecedented wildfire season last fall burned 4,000 homes and more than 1 million acres in areas that aren’t normally associated with wildfire. Experts say the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon was a taste of what lies ahead as climate change makes blazes more likely and more destructive even in wetter, cooler climates like the Pacific Northwest. (Tye and Melynda Small via AP)

But just after midnight, a neighbor awakened them as towering flames, pushed by gusting winds, bore down. The Smalls and their four children fled, leaving behind 26 pet chickens, two goldfish and a duck named Gerard as wind whipped the blaze into a fiery tornado and trees exploded around them.

When it was over, they were left homeless by a peril they had never imagined. Only two houses on their street in Otis survived a fire they expected to be tamped out long before it reached their door less than six miles (9.6 kilometers) from the Pacific.

“Nobody ever thought that on the Oregon coast we would have a fire like this. Here … it rains. It rains three-quarters of the year,” Melynda Small said. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever gone through.”

The fire that leveled the rural community of 3,500 people was part of an Oregon wildfire season last fall that destroyed more than 4,000 homes, killed nine people and raged through 1.1 million acres (445,154 hectares). Almost all the damage occurred over a hellish 72 hours that stretched firefighters to their breaking point.

Pushed by unusually strong winds, fires ripped through temperate rainforest just a few minutes’ drive from the ocean, crept to within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of downtown Portland, leveled thousands of homes and businesses along Interstate 5 and wiped out communities that cater to outdoors enthusiasts.

It was a wake-up call for the Pacific Northwest as climate change brings destructive blazes that feel more like California’s annual fire siege to wet places and urban landscapes once believed insulated from them. And as the U.S. West enters yet another year of drought, Oregon is now starting fire season amid some of the worst conditions in memory.

The state weathered its driest April in 80 years, and in the normally wet months of March and April, it had the lightest rainfall since 1924. Several fires started this week, triggering evacuations and road closures as temperatures soared.

Marc Brooks, who founded Cascade Relief Team to help last fall’s fire victims statewide, said by this April his group had been put on alert four times for wildfires at a time when “we should be getting snow, not drought.”

The warming climate means snow on Oregon’s famous peaks melts earlier, leaving soil and vegetation parched by late summer even if it does rain, said Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

Last fall’s blazes were driven by “extremely rare” powerful, sustained winds, and in combination with the arid conditions, a major wildfire was almost inevitable, she said. “If we had a spark — and any time we have people, we have a spark — there was a high likelihood that a fire would ignite.”

Fire on the Oregon coast isn’t without precedent. A series of blazes starting in the 1930s scorched 355,000 acres (143,663 hectares) in what’s known as the Tillamook Burn. In 1936, a wind-driven fire killed 10 people in the seaside town of Bandon.

But what happened last fall across western Oregon was extreme, said Larry O’Neill, Oregon’s state climatologist.

The Cascade Mountains run north-south and separate the notoriously rainy part of the state to the west and the drier climate to the east, where fires usually burn in less populated areas. Last year multiple blazes raged in the western Cascades where “you think of it being a rainforest with ferns” and closer to population centers, O’Neill said.

“I thought we still had a generation or so to get our ducks in a row to prepare for this, and these last couple fire seasons here have been a huge wake-up call that we are experiencing it now,” said O’Neill.

One fire in southwest Oregon obliterated thousands of homes in two towns along Interstate 5, and was unique for Oregon because it was fueled by houses, gas stations and fast-food restaurants — not forest, said Doug Grafe, head of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“To lose the number of communities that we did was eye-opening,” he said. “That’s new ground for Oregon, but California was the canary in the coal mine.”

Last fall, that new reality reshaped the Smalls’ life — and the lives of hundreds of other Oregon residents — in just a few hours. The Echo Mountain Fire burned nearly 300 homes and displaced about 1,000 people.

Like many of their neighbors, the Smalls were underinsured and did not have wildfire coverage for their white house with green trim. They bounced around for weeks — an emergency evacuation site, camping by a stream and staying with relatives in Washington state.

An insurance payout of $50,000 was not enough to buy a manufactured home big enough for their family. Eight months after the fire, the money goes to keep their kids in a single room at a local Comfort Inn, while the parents sleep in a borrowed trailer outside.

The family had two rooms paid for by the state, but when wildfire survivors were asked to move to a different motel, the Smalls decided to stay and pay their own way rather than uproot their family again. They said they didn’t qualify for federal disaster assistance and that the pandemic cost Tye Small his job as a gas station attendant.

“Our 5-year-old, she had a really hard time. She kept saying …‘We need to go home. We need to feed the fish. We need to feed the chickens,’” Melynda Small said, gazing at her home’s ruins. “And so we actually had to bring her here to show her that we didn’t need to come feed the fish or feed the chickens.”

Unsure of the future, the couple has filled days helping neighbors clear their properties and serving as cheerleaders for the devastated community while their children — ages 18, 15, 9 and 5 — do school work at the motel.

Every time a new manufactured home is delivered to a fire survivor, Melynda Small is there in her “Otis Strong” sweatshirt, beaming with excitement and taking photos for a community Facebook page. By her last tally, there are 38 new manufactured homes and six “stick builds” in progress.

This spring, pink tulips she had planted in front of her house, under the kitchen window, bloomed in the ashes.

“It’s actually a lot of progress. It seems like it’s been really fast, but it’s been almost a year,” she said. “I think the time is just going by faster for me because I’ve been so busy doing all of the other things, keeping my mind busy, my hands busy.”

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

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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.

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Sri Lanka braces for environmental disaster as ship sinks

By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI for the Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Authorities in Sri Lanka were trying to head off a potential environmental disaster Thursday as a fire-damaged container ship that had been carrying chemicals was sinking off of the country’s main port.

This photo provided by Sri Lankan Air Force shows the sinking MV X-Press Pearl at Kapungoda where it is anchored off Colombo port, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. Salvage experts were attempting to tow the fire-stricken container ship that had been loaded with chemicals into the deep sea as the vessel started to sink Wednesday. Water submerged the MV X-Press Pearl’s quarterdeck a day after firefighters extinguished a blaze that had been burning for 12 days. (Sri Lanka Air Force via AP)

The Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl started sinking Wednesday, a day after authorities extinguished fire that raged on the vessel for 12 days. Efforts to tow the ship into deeper waters away from the port in Colombo failed after the ship’s stern became submerged and rested on the seabed.

The ship’s operators X-Press Feeders have said the fire destroyed most of the ship’s cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals. But there are fears that remaining chemicals as well as hundreds of tons of oil from the vessel’s fuel tanks could leak into the sea if it sinks.

Such a disaster could devastate marine life and further pollute the island nation’s famed beaches. The disaster has already caused debris — including several tons of plastic pellets used to make plastic bags — to wash a ashore.

The government already has banned fishing along about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of coastline.

The ship operator said Thursday that the ship’s stern was resting on the seabed about 21 meters (70 feet) below the surface and the ship’s bow was “settling down slowly.” The company said salvage experts were remaining with the vessel “to monitor the ship’s condition and oil pollution.”

The company said its experts were coordinating with Sri Lanka’s navy to deal with an oil spill or other pollution.

Sri Lanka navy spokesman Indika de Silva said the navy and coast guard were preparing for an oil spill with assistance from neighboring India. India has sent three ships to help, including one specifically equipped to deal with marine pollution.

Environmentalist Ajantha Perera said there was the potential for “a terrible environmental disaster” as hazardous goods, chemicals and oil could be released into the water and destroy marine ecological systems.

Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia, said as many as 3 billion tiny plastic pellets had already been released into the sea and were washing up on beaches. He said the pellets, known as nurdles, “will persist in the marine environment forever as they are not biodegradable.”

The fire erupted on May 20 when the ship was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

The navy believes the blaze was caused by the vessel’s chemical cargo, which were loaded at the port of Hazira, India, on May 15.

Sri Lankan police are probing the fire, and a court in Colombo on Tuesday banned the captain, the engineer and the assistant engineer from leaving the country. The government has said it will take legal action against the owners of the ship to claim compensation.

Sri Lanka’s Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said “it wouldn’t be an easy task to calculate the damage caused to our environment.”

He told the media late Wednesday that an investigation was underway to determine what went wrong and whether the shipping company was responsible.

“If this disaster happened due to negligence, then those responsible should be punished,” he said.

Oil refinery fire near Iran’s capital burns into second day

For the Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A massive fire at an oil refinery near Iran’s capital burned into a second day Thursday as firefighters struggled to extinguish the flames.

Huge smoke rises up from Tehran’s main oil refinery as a plane approaches Mehrabad airport south of Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. A massive fire broke out Wednesday night at the oil refinery serving Iran’s capital, sending thick plumes of black smoke over Tehran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The fire began at the state-owned Tondgooyan Petrochemical Co. to the south of Tehran on Wednesday night, sending a huge plume of black smoke into the sky over the capital.

The Oil Ministry’s SHANA news agency said the fire broke out over a leak in two waste tanks at the facility. Authorities initially suggested the flames affected a liquified petroleum gas pipeline at the refinery.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh visited the scene overnight. While seeking to assure the public the fire wouldn’t affect production, Iranians queued up for gasoline on Thursday morning, the start of the weekend in the Islamic Republic.

SHANA also quoted refinery spokesman Shaker Khafaei as saying authorities hoped the fire would extinguish itself after running out of fuel in the coming hours.

It wasn’t immediately clear what started the blaze. Temperatures in Tehran reached nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday. Hot summer weather in Iran has caused fires in the past.

The blaze came the same day a fire struck the largest warship in the Iranian navy, which later sank in the Gulf of Oman.

Slow to start, China mobilizes to vaccinate at headlong pace

By HUIZHONG WU for the Associated Press

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — In the span of just five days last month, China gave out 100 million shots of its COVID-19 vaccines.

After a slow start, China is now doing what virtually no other country in the world can: harnessing the power and all-encompassing reach of its one-party system and a maturing domestic vaccine industry to administer shots at a staggering pace. The rollout is far from perfect, including uneven distribution, but Chinese public health leaders now say they’re hoping to inoculate 80% of the population of 1.4 billion by the end of the year.

Residents line up outside a vaccination center in Beijing on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. After a slow start, China is now doing what virtually no other country in the world can: harnessing the power and all-encompassing reach of its one-party system and a maturing domestic vaccine industry to administer shots at a staggering pace. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

As of Tuesday, China had given out more than 680 million doses — with nearly half of those in May alone. China’s total is roughly a third of the 1.9 billion shots distributed globally, according to Our World in Data, an online research site.

The call to get vaccinated comes from every corner of society. Companies offer shots to their employees, schools urge their students and staffers, and local government workers check on their residents.

That pressure underscores both the system’s strength, which makes it possible to even consider vaccinating more than a billion people this year, but also the risks to civil liberties — a concern the world over but one that is particularly acute in China, where there are few protections.

“The Communist Party has people all the way down to every village, every neighborhood,” said Ray Yip, former country director for the Gates Foundation in China and a public health expert. “That’s the draconian part of the system, but it also gives very powerful mobilization.”

China is now averaging about 19 million shots per day, according to Our World in Data’s rolling seven-day average. That would mean a dose for everyone in Italy about every three days. The United States, with about one-quarter of China’s population, reached around 3.4 million shots per day in April when its drive was at full tilt.

It’s still unclear how many people in China are fully vaccinated — which can mean anywhere from one to three doses of the vaccines in use — as the government does not publicly release that data.

Zhong Nanshan, the head of a group of experts attached to the National Health Commission and a prominent government doctor, said on Sunday that 40% of the population has received at least one dose, and the aim was to get that percentage fully vaccinated by the end of the month.

In Beijing, the capital, 87% of the population has received at least one dose. Getting a shot is as easy as walking into one of hundreds of vaccination points found all across the city. Vaccination buses are parked in high foot-traffic areas, including in the city center and at malls.

But Beijing’s abundance is not shared with the rest of the country, and local media reports and complaints on social media show the difficulty of getting an appointment elsewhere.

“I started lining up that day at 9 in the morning, until 6 p.m., only then did I get the shot. It was exhausting,” Zhou Hongxia, a resident of Lanzhou, in northwestern Gansu province, explained recently. “When I left, there were still people waiting.”

Zhou’s husband hasn’t been so lucky and has yet to get a shot. When they call the local hotlines, they are told simply to wait.

Central government officials on Monday said they’re working to ensure supply is more evenly distributed.

Before the campaign ramped up in recent weeks, many people were not in a rush to get vaccinated as China has kept the virus, which first flared in the country, at bay in the past year with strict border controls and mandatory quarantines. It has faced small clusters of infections from time to time, and is currently managing one in the southern city of Guangzhou.

Although there are distribution issues, it is unlikely that Chinese manufacturers will have problems with scale, according to analysts and those who have worked in the industry.

Sinovac and Sinopharm, which make the majority of the vaccines being distributed in China, have both aggressively ramped up production, building brand new factories and repurposing existing ones for COVID-19. Sinovac’s vaccine and one of the two Sinpharm makes have received an emergency authorization for use from the World Health Organization, but the companies, particularly Sinopharm, have faced criticism for their lack of transparency in sharing their data.

“What place in the world can compare with China on construction? How long did it take our temporary hospitals to be built?” asked Li Mengyuan, who leads pharmaceutical research at Western Securities, a financial firm. China built field hospitals at the beginning of the pandemic in just days.

Sinovac has said it has doubled its production capacity to 2 billion doses a year, while Sinopharm has said it can make up to 3 billion doses a year. But Sinopharm has not disclosed recent numbers of how many doses it actually has made, and a spokesman for the company did not respond to a request for comment. Sinovac has produced 540 million doses this year as of late May, the company said on Friday.

Government support has been crucial for vaccine developers every step of the way — as it has in other countries — but, as with everything, the scope and scale in China is different.

Yang Xiaoming, chairman of Sinopharm’s China National Biotec Group, recounted to state media recently how the company initially needed to borrow lab space from a government research center while it was working on a vaccine.

“We sent our samples over, there was no need to discuss money, we just did it,” he said.

Chinese vaccine companies also largely do not rely on imported products in the manufacturing process. That’s an enormous benefit at a time when many countries are scrambling for the same materials and means China can likely avoid what happened to the Serum Institute of India, whose production was hobbled because of dependence on imports from the U.S. for certain ingredients.

But as the availability of the vaccine increases so, too, can the pressure to take it.

In Beijing, one researcher at a university said the school’s Communist Party cell calls him once a month to ask him if he has gotten vaccinated yet, and offers to help him make an appointment.

He has so far declined to get a shot because he would prefer the Pfizer vaccine, saying he trusts its data. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns he could face repercussions at his job at a government university for publicly questioning the Chinese vaccines.

China has not yet approved Pfizer for use, and the researcher is not sure how long he can hold out — although the government has, for now, cautioned against making vaccines mandatory outright.

“They don’t have to say it is mandatory,” Yip, the public health expert, said. “They’re not going to announce that it’s required to have the vaccine, but they can put pressure on you.”

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Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.

Free beer, other new incentives for Biden’s ‘vaccine sprint’

By ZEKE MILLER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Dangling everything from sports tickets to a free beer, President Joe Biden is looking for that extra something — anything — that will get people to roll up their sleeves for COVID-19 shots when the promise of a life-saving vaccine by itself hasn’t been enough.

President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 vaccination program, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Biden on Wednesday announced a “month of action” to urge more Americans to get vaccinated before the July 4 holiday, including an early summer sprint of incentives and a slew of new steps to ease barriers and make getting shots more appealing to those who haven’t received them. He is closing in on his goal of getting 70% of adults at least partially vaccinated by Independence Day — essential to his aim of returning the nation to something approaching a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy this summer.

“The more people we get vaccinated, the more success we’re going to have in the fight against this virus,” Biden said from the White House. He predicted that with more vaccinations, America will soon experience “a summer of freedom, a summer of joy, a summer of get togethers and celebrations. An All-American summer.”

The Biden administration views June as “a critical month in our path to normal,” Courtney Rowe, the director of strategic communications and engagement for the White House COVID-19 response team, told the AP.

Biden’s plan will continue to use public and private-sector partnerships, mirroring the “whole of government” effort he deployed to make vaccines more widely available after he took office. The president said he was “pulling out all the stops” to drive up the vaccination rate.

Among those efforts is a promotional giveaway announced Wednesday by Anheuser-Busch, saying it will “buy Americans 21+ a round of beer” once Biden’s 70% goal is met.

“Get a shot and have a beer,” Biden said, advertising the promotion even though he himself refrains from drinking alcohol.

Additionally, the White House is partnering with early childhood centers such as KinderCare, Learning Care Group, Bright Horizons and more than 500 YMCAs to provide free childcare coverage for Americans looking for shots or needing assistance while recovering from side effects.

The administration is also launching a new partnership to bring vaccine education and even doses to more than a thousand Black-owned barbershops and beauty salons, building on a successful pilot program in Maryland.

They’re the latest vaccine sweeteners, building on other incentives like cash giveaways, sports tickets and paid leave, to keep up the pace of vaccinations.

“The fact remains that despite all the progress, those who are unvaccinated still remain at risk of getting seriously ill or dying or spreading the disease to others,” said Rowe.

Aiming to make injections even more convenient, Biden is announcing that many pharmacies are extending their hours this month — and thousands will remain open overnight on Fridays. The White House is also stepping up its efforts to help employers run on-site vaccination clinics.

Biden will also announce that he is assigning Vice President Kamala Harris to lead a “We Can Do This” vaccination tour to encourage shots. It will include first lady Jill Biden, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Cabinet officials. Harris’ travel will be focused on the South, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country, while other officials will travel to areas of the Midwest with below average rates.

To date 62.8% of the adult U.S. population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 133.6 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed to an average below 600,000 per day, down from more than 800,000 when incentives like lotteries were announced, and down from a peak of nearly 2 million per day in early April when demand for shots was much higher.

The lengths to which the U.S. is resorting to convince Americans to take a shot stands in contrast to much of the world, where vaccines are far less plentiful. Facing a mounting U.S. surplus, the Biden administration is planning to begin sharing 80 million doses with the world this month.

“All over the world people are desperate to get a shot that every American can get at their neighborhood drugstore,” Biden said.

Thanks to the vaccinations, the rate of cases and deaths in the U.S. are at their lowest since the beginning of the pandemic last March, averaging under 16,000 new cases and under 400 deaths per day.

As part of the effort to drive Americans to get shots, the White House is borrowing some tools from political campaigns, including phone banks, door-knocking and texting. The administration says more than 1,000 such events will be held this weekend alone. Additionally, it is organizing competitions between cities and colleges to drive up vaccination rates.

Other new incentives include a $2 million commitment from DoorDash to provide gift cards to community health centers to be used to drive people to get vaccinated. CVS launched a sweepstakes with prizes including free cruises and Super Bowl tickets. Major League Baseball will host on-site vaccine clinics and ticket giveaways at games. And Kroger will give $1 million to a vaccinated person each week this month and dozens of people free groceries for the year.

The fine print on the Anheuser-Busch promotion reveals the benefits to the sponsoring company, which will collect consumer data and photos through its website to register for the $5 giveaway. The company says it will hand out credits to however many people qualify.

Biden honors war dead at Arlington, implores nation to heal

By CALVIN WOODWARD for the Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — President Joe Biden honored America’s war dead at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day by laying a wreath at the hallowed burial ground and extolling the sacrifices of the fallen for the pursuit of democracy, “the soul of America.”

President Joe Biden adjusts a the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, 2021, in Arlington, Va.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Biden invoked the iconic battles of history and joined them to the present as he implored Americans to rise above the divisions straining the union, which he described in stark terms.

The president was joined Monday by first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff in a somber ceremony at the Virginia cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is dedicated to deceased service members whose remains have not been identified.

His face tight with emotion, Biden walked up to the wreath, cupping it in his hands in silent reflection, then making the sign of the cross. His eyes were wet. The gathered dignitaries and military families were hushed and solemn; the chattering of cicadas loud.

In remarks that followed, Biden called on Americans to commemorate their fallen heroes by remembering their fight for the nation’s ideals.

“This nation was built on an idea,” Biden said. “We were built on an idea, the idea of liberty and opportunity for all. We’ve never fully realized that aspiration of our founders, but every generation has opened the door a little wider.”

He focused much of his speech on the importance of democracy, saying it thrives when citizens can vote, when there is a free press and when there are equal rights for all.

“Generation after generation of American heroes are signed up to be part of the fight because they understand the truth that lives in every American heart: that liberation, opportunity, justice are far more likely to come to pass in a democracy than in an autocracy,” Biden said. “These Americans weren’t fighting for dictators, they were fighting for democracy. They weren’t fighting to exclude or to enslave, they were fighting to build and broaden and liberate.”

But he suggested these ideals are imperiled.

“The soul of America is animated by the perennial battle between our worst instincts, which we’ve seen of late, and our better angels,” he said. “Between Me First and We the People. Between greed and generosity, cruelty and kindness, captivity and freedom.”

After the ceremony, the Bidens stopped by a row of gravestones in a cemetery where some 400,000 are buried in the gentle hills and hollows.

The Bidens held hands and strolled along the rows of Section 12, one of the primary burial locations of service members killed overseas and repatriated to the United States after World War II and the Korean War. They stopped to chat with several families visiting the graves of their loved ones or searching for them — one family came to find a great-uncle missing in action from the world war.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Biden and Harris in the ceremony.

On Sunday, Biden addressed a crowd of Gold Star military families and other veterans in a ceremony at War Memorial Plaza in New Castle, Delaware. Earlier in the day, he and other family members attended a memorial Mass for his son Beau Biden, a veteran who died of brain cancer six years ago to the day.

Japan’s vaccine push ahead of Olympics looks to be too late

By MARI YAMAGUCHI for the Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — It may be too little, too late.

That’s the realization sinking in as Japan scrambles to catch up on a frustratingly slow vaccination drive less than two months before the Summer Olympics, delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, are scheduled to start.

FILE – In this May 9, 2021, file photo, a security guard wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks in front of the Olympic Rings, in Tokyo. Japan, seriously behind in coronavirus vaccination efforts, is scrambling to boost daily shots as the start of the Olympics in July closes in. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

The Olympics risk becoming an incubator for “a Tokyo variant,” as 15,000 foreign athletes and tens of thousands officials, sponsors and journalists from about 200 countries descend on — and potentially mix with — a largely unvaccinated Japanese population, said Dr. Naoto Ueyama, a physician, head of the Japan Doctors Union.

With infections in Tokyo and other heavily populated areas currently at high levels and hospitals already under strain treating serious cases despite a state of emergency, experts have warned there is little slack in the system.

Even if the country succeeds in meeting its goal of fully vaccinating all 36 million elderly by the end of July — already a week into the Games — about 70% of the population would not be inoculated. And many have dismissed the target as overly optimistic anyway.

To meet it, Japan is vowing to soon start administering 1 million doses daily. It currently is only giving 500,000 per day, already a big improvement after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called on military doctors and nurses and started making legal exceptions to recruit other vaccinators in order to boost the drive.

“Vaccinations under the current pace are not going to help prevent infections during the Olympics,” Tokyo Medical Association Chairman Haruo Ozaki said. “The Olympics can trigger a global spread of different variants of the virus.”

The International Olympic Committee says more than 80% of athletes and staff staying in the Olympic Village on Tokyo Bay will be vaccinated — and they are expected to remain largely in a bubble at the village and venues. On Tuesday, Japan started vaccinating athletes who will go to the Games, the Japanese Olympic Committee said.

But vaccination rates are not clear for others involved in the Games who are coming from abroad, including hard-hit regions, and experts warn that even strict rules won’t prevent all mingling, especially among non-athletes. Spectators from overseas have been barred.

Prominent medical journals have questioned the wisdom of pushing ahead with the Tokyo Games and the Asahi Shimbun — the country’s second-largest newspaper — has called for them to be canceled, reflecting widespread opposition to holding the Olympics now among the Japanese population.

But the government has said it’s determined to push ahead, with the viability of Suga’s leadership and geopolitical competition with rival Beijing, the next Olympics host, as well as the health of millions, on the line.

“By using a new weapon called vaccines and taking firm preventive measures, it is fully possible” to hold the Olympics safely, Suga told a parliamentary session Tuesday.

Officials are now desperately trying to think of ways to increase the shots at a time when medical workers are already under pressure treating COVID-19 patients. Many say they have no extra resources to help with the Olympics, if, for instance, the boiling Japanese summer causes widespread cases of heat stroke. Some local leaders in and around Tokyo have rejected the Olympics organizers’ requests to set aside beds for athletes.

Dr. Shigeru Omi, former World Health Organization regional director and a head of a government taskforce, said it is crucial to start inoculating younger people, who are seen as likely to spread the virus, as soon as possible.

More than three months into Japan’s vaccination campaign, only 2.7% of the population has been fully vaccinated. The country started its rollout with health care workers in mid-February, months behind many other countries because Japan required additional clinical testing here, a step many experts say was medically meaningless.

Inoculations for the elderly, who are more likely to suffer serious problems when infected, started in mid-April, but were slowed by initial supply shortages, cumbersome reservation procedures and a lack of medical workers to give shots.

But there are signs of improvement. The vaccine supply has increased and despite earlier expectations of a hesitant response to vaccines in general, senior citizens fearful of the virus are rushing to inoculation sites.

Since May 24, Japan has deployed 280 military doctors and nurses in Tokyo and the badly hit city of Osaka. More than 33,000 vaccination sites now operate across Japan, and more are coming, said Taro Kono, the minister in charge of vaccinations.

In Sumida, a district in downtown Tokyo where boxing events will be held, vaccinations for its 61,000 elderly residents began on May 10, and within two weeks, 31% of them had gotten their first shots, compared to the national average of 3.7%. Sumida is now looking to start inoculating younger people later this month, well ahead of schedule.

Close coordination among primary care doctors, hospitals and residents, as well as flexibility, have contributed to smooth progress, Sumida district spokesperson Yosuke Yatabe said.

“It’s like a factory line,” Yatabe said.

Ryuichiro Suzuki, a 21-year-old university student in Tokyo, said he is frustrated with Japan’s lagging vaccination campaign.

“I saw that some of my friends overseas have been vaccinated, but my turn won’t come until later this summer,” he said. “The risk-averse government took extra caution even when our primary goal was to get back to normal as soon as possible.”

Kono, the vaccine minister, said more large-scale inoculation centers are getting underway, including at hundreds of college campuses and offices to start vaccinating younger people from June 21.

Beyond the concerns about the Olympics and despite the fact that Japan has seen fewer cases and deaths compared to the United States and other advanced nations, the country’s slow pace of vaccinations and its prolonged, often toothless state of emergency could also delay its economic recovery for months, said Masaya Sasaki, senior economist at the Nomura Research Institute.

And despite repeated expressions of official government confidence in the Games being safe, there are fears here of what might happen if vaccinations don’t pick up.

“The Olympics, billed as a recovery Games, can trigger a new disaster,” said Ueyama, of the Japan Doctors Union.

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Associated Press writer Kantaro Komiya contributed to this report.

‘Still on the farm’: NY State Police struggles to diversify

By JIM MUSTIAN and CAMILLE FASSETT for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — An equal blend of black and white thread, the gray uniform worn by the New York State Police stands for the impartiality of justice.

FILE – This Oct. 21, 2008, file photo, shows a silhouette of some of the 92 graduating New York State Police officers as they line up before a ceremony at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany, N.Y. The New York State Police agency remains overwhelmingly white, an imbalance some troopers say is rooted in a legacy of racism. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

But this attire belies disparities within the agency, which for generations has failed to fill its ranks with troopers who reflect New York’s diverse population.

The agency remains overwhelmingly white — an imbalance some troopers say is rooted in a legacy of racism.

Of more than 4,700 troopers, only 4% are Black and 6% are Hispanic — paltry proportions compared to the 16% and 19% of the state population those groups constitute.

A half-dozen minority troopers told The Associated Press discrimination has flourished within the ranks, despite the agency having been ordered to diversify by a judge in the 1970s.

One Black former State Police investigator, Michael Marin, recalled a white colleague admonishing him in 2008 to “take the cotton you’ve been picking out your ears.”

“It was like I was still on the farm,” said Marin, who retired in 2019. “It didn’t seem extraordinary to me because that’s how that job was.”

Trooper Lethonia Miller filed a complaint against a white supervisor for using racial slurs more than a dozen times in his presence. He said “the culture in the State Police was systemically racist.”

“No matter where I was or what I was doing, I was always reminded that I was Black,” said Miller, who retired in 2016 and is suing the agency for retaliation. “It’s depressing to work as hard as you can and still be considered less than your white male counterparts. Every time I heard the word it was as if I was being told, ‘You’re second class.’”

Current leaders acknowledge the agency’s lack of diversity has become more urgent amid a national reckoning over racial injustice.

“You can’t just keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” acting Superintendent Kevin Bruen said in an interview. “We patrol the state, so our ethnic breakdown should roughly mirror that. To say it’s a priority for me would be an understatement.”

New York’s is not the only state police force far whiter than its state population. All 38 state police departments that provided demographic data to the AP had a disproportionately high number of white troopers, when compared to each state’s population.

The Maryland State Police, for instance, is over 80% non-Hispanic white; that demographic group makes up only half the state’s population. And although 30% of the Maryland population is non-Hispanic Black, only 12% of the state police force is Black.

The U.S. Justice Department sued New York in 1977 for discriminating against minorities in promoting and hiring troopers, who patrol New York’s highways, and, in some parts of the state, respond to 911 calls and investigate crimes.

At the time, just 13 of the agency’s 2,712 troopers were Black. A federal judge mandated that 40% of recruits entering the State Police training academy be Black or Hispanic, seeking to bring minority representation in line with the state’s workforce.

The same judge dissolved the remedial hiring goals in 1989 after the agency managed to increase its Black and Hispanic representation to 9% and 6%, respectively. The consent decree was quietly lifted in its entirety in 2015 after the state argued it had made “great strides.”

The percentage of Black troopers had fallen to 6% by mid-2014 and has continued to decline.

Pedro Perez, a former New York State Police deputy superintendent who retired in 2010, said the consent decree was dissolved without any inquiry into “whether the attitudes of the officers and leadership was sufficiently changed.”

Those percentages of minorities, who are also underrepresented in senior leadership positions, are “as good as almost nothing,” said Michael Jenkins, a policing expert who teaches criminal justice at the University of Scranton. “The agency is in a tough position to argue otherwise.”

Bruen, who assumed command of the State Police last year, agrees the agency’s minority recruitment program needs work.

In one step, the agency is abandoning a requirement that potential recruits take tests in person at state police buildings that can be difficult to reach and allowing candidates to do the exams electronically.

“You could take this test in Okinawa, Japan, and still get onto our list,” Bruen said.

“What we need to do is reach people who don’t necessarily picture themselves as troopers,” Bruen added. “I firmly believe that being a great trooper is working for social justice and working for positive change.”

State Police brass acknowledge change won’t come easily, particularly at a time when law enforcement agencies seek to rebuild trust in minority communities. The same challenges exist within the agency.

Kim Bryson, a senior State Police investigator on Long Island, provided AP a copy of an image a white colleague hung in her office. Superimposing her face on that of a Black woman at work in a kitchen, it was captioned “House of Chitlins” — a reference to food scraps given to slaves.

“It basically solidified for me who I was dealing with,” Bryson said, adding the incident happened eight or nine years ago. “I look forward to the day when I can honestly say the State Police takes racism seriously. Part and parcel of the problem is that it’s not punished. You might suspend someone, but there’s no educational arm to that.”

Another former deputy superintendent, Anthony Ellis, recalled a disciplinary case involving a white trooper who pulled over a Black motorist driving with a young white woman asleep in his passenger seat with a pillow and blanket. The trooper ordered the woman out of the vehicle to ensure she was alright.

Ellis, who led the State Police internal affairs bureau at the time, said a fellow ranking officer found no issue with the trooper’s directive, explaining it “could have been a carjacking.”

“I wasn’t as upset at the trooper — we can train him,” said Ellis, who is Black. “But I told my (colleague), ‘If you think someone doing a carjacking brings a pillow and a blanket, you’re in the wrong line of work.’”

Tensions built last year after the heads of both the troopers and investigators unions backed Donald Trump for reelection. “Troopers for Trump” T-shirts began circulating at New York State Police barracks.

“It created this real problem for members of color,” who weren’t consulted before the endorsements, Bryson said.

It was then Bryson decided to revive an organization known as the Guardians Association to represent the voice of minority troopers.

“We’re really at a crossroads,” Bryson said. “I still think that gray in the uniform can be impartial. We just have to strive to make it a perfect blend.”

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Fassett reported from San Francisco.

CVS offers luxury prizes as coronavirus vaccine incentives

From the Associated Press

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (AP) — CVS is offering luxury vacations, cruises, concert tickets, a Super Bowl trip and other prizes to eligible customers who get a coronavirus vaccination at one of its pharmacies, the company announced Thursday.

CVS is joining a growing number of businesses and governments offering incentives — ranging from a free beer or doughnut to a $1 million prize — for people to get a shot.

Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS is partnering with Norwegian Cruise Line, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and other companies in the #OneStepCloser sweepstakes promotion that starts Tuesday and lasts six weeks.

The company has already administered more than 17 million doses, but is looking to overcome hesitancy by offering prizes that are a reminder of activities that are possible once vaccinated, the company said.

“Getting as much of the population fully vaccinated will bring us one step closer to all the things we’ve missed during the past 14 months, and keep our country moving in the right direction,” Dr. Kyu Rhee, CVS’s senior vice president and chief medical officer said in a statement.

All customers ages 18 and over who have received a vaccination or are registered to receive a vaccination from CVS are eligible to enter.

Taiwan struggles with testing backlog amid largest outbreak

By HUIZHONG WU for the Associated Press

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Facing Taiwan’s largest outbreak of the pandemic and looking for rapid virus test kits, the mayor of the island’s capital did what anyone might do: He Googled it.

“If you don’t know, and you try to know something, please check Google,” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je quipped.

FILE – In this May 18, 2021, file photo, medical personnel wearing protective gear, guide people at a rapid coronavirus testing center after the infection alert rose to level 3 in Taipei, Taiwan. After a year of success, Taiwan is struggling with its largest outbreak since the pandemic began. When locally transmitted cases started being found in May 2021, it soon became clear that the central government was ill prepared not only to contain them, but to even detect them on a large scale due to a lack of investment in and a bias against rapid testing. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

Praised for its success at keeping the virus away for more than a year, Taiwan had until May recorded just 1,128 cases and 12 deaths. But the number of locally transmitted cases started growing this month and it soon became clear that the central government was ill prepared not only to contain the virus, but to even detect it on a large scale due to a lack of investment in rapid testing.

That left officials like Ko scrambling to catch up as the number of new infections climbed to some 300 a day. Ko’s search put him in contact with six local companies who make rapid tests and his government was soon able to set up four rapid testing sites in a district that had emerged as a virus hotspot.

Rapid tests, experts say, are a critical tool in catching the virus in its early days. The alternative that Taiwan has been relying on — tests that have to be sent out to a lab for processing — has led to backlogs that may be obscuring the true extent of the outbreak.

“You want to identify those infected cases as soon as possible,” to contain the spread, said Ruby Huang, a professor in the medical college at National Taiwan University. “And then you’re basically running against time.”

With so few cases, Taiwan had been a bubble of normalcy for most of the pandemic. Schools stayed open, people went to bars and restaurants, and the island’s economy was among the few globally that saw positive growth.

Its success was built largely on strict border controls that primarily allowed in only citizens and long-term residents, who then faced mandatory two-week quarantines.

From time to time it found small clusters of infections and stamped them out through contact tracing and quarantines. Last month authorities found a cluster involving pilots from the state-owned China Airlines.

Stopping the virus this time would prove difficult, in part because under government policy pilots were only required to quarantine for three-days and did not need a negative test to get out of quarantine. Soon employees at a quarantine hotel where China Airlines flight crew stayed started getting sick — and so did their family members.

The virus had escaped quarantine and was spreading locally, mostly in Taipei and surrounding areas.

The government in Taiwan — where only about 1% of the population have been vaccinated — responded by ordering a lockdown, closing schools and switching offices to remote work or rotating shifts. Contact tracers identified 600,000 people that needed to quarantine themselves.

The biggest roadblock has been testing.

Government policy throughout the pandemic has been to rely on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, which are seen as the gold standard for diagnosis but must be processed using special machines in a lab. The government has not encouraged rapid tests, which are quicker and cheaper but potentially less accurate.

In and around Taipei, labs have been working overtime in recent weeks but are still struggling to process all the samples.

Tim Tsai said on just a single day last week his lab in New Taipei city received 400 samples from hospitals to test. He said his lab was only able to process about 120 samples a day.

“Our medical technicians, they were leaving work at midnight,” he said.

The government’s Central Epidemic Command Center said in a statement that all 141 government designated labs have the capacity to process 30,000 PCR tests a day. However, it declined to provide the actual number of tests being processed.

It said it was “continuing to work with relevant labs to research ways to accelerate and expand our capacity, without impacting accuracy.”

Throughout the pandemic the government has maintained there are few benefits to mass testing, with the health minister saying last year that public funds and medical resources could better be used elsewhere.

The government instead has emphasized a strategy of contact tracing and isolation and only testing those with symptoms and direct contact with someone infected.

“This is more efficient, effective and accurate,” said Chen Chien-jen, the island’s former vice president, who led the pandemic response last year before retiring.

Experts say such a strategy may have been appropriate when case numbers were low, but needed to change as infections spread.

“You should have a two-pronged approach. You do the quarantine, but you should do massive widespread testing,” said K. Arnold Chan, an expert on drug and medical products regulation at National Taiwan University. “For whatever reason the government is completely unprepared.”

Taiwanese companies developed rapid tests for COVID-19 early last year, but the majority of their sales have been overseas.

“Back then the CDC didn’t support rapid tests, and there was no epidemic,” said Edward Ting, a spokesperson for Panion and BF Biotech, which has had its own test since March 2020. “We tried to sell, but it wasn’t possible.”

The central government finally appears to be coming around, with the health minister last week asking local governments to set up rapid testing sites. Ting said his company has since had calls from governments across the island asking about its tests.

The central government also is now offering subsidies for labs to buy new machines to process PCR tests.

Aaron Chen, whose company developed a machine that can process up to 2,000 PCR test samples every four hours, said he has diverted two machines bound for export to be used locally instead.

Ko, the mayor of Taipei, said his city has purchased 250,000 rapid test kits. Though the city is still relying on PCR tests to confirm actual cases, Ko said the rapid tests better allow him to monitor the situation on the ground.

Ko, a former surgeon, said it was important to be open to change.

“There’s a phrase in Chinese: One thrives in times of calamity and perishes in soft times. Because when you’re very successful you are not forced to improve. Only when you fail, then are you forced to improve,” said Ko. “We were too successful in the past year.”

‘A whirlwind’ 1st Ohio vaccine lottery winners speak out

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS for the Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The first winner of Ohio’s first $1 million Vax-a-Million vaccination incentive prize was driving to her family’s home in suburban Cleveland when she received a call about the good news — from Gov. Mike DeWine.

A few minutes later Abbigail Bugenske was in her parents’ house screaming so loudly they thought she was crying.

“A whirlwind,” Bugenske, 22, said Thursday morning during a news conference. “It absolutely has not processed yet. I’m still digesting it — it feels like it’s happening to a different person. I cannot believe it.”

Bugenske is a mechanical engineer working for GE Aviation in suburban Cincinnati. She’s a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University. She said she plans to donate to charities and buy a car, but then invest most of it.

People walk past sign displayed for Ohio’s COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic at Cleveland State University, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in Cleveland. Nearly 2.8 million residents have registered for Ohio’s Vax-a-Million vaccination incentive program, with participants hoping to win either the $1 million prize for adults or a full-ride college scholarship for children, Gov. Mike DeWine announced Monday, May 24. The winners will be announced Wednesday night at the end of the Ohio Lottery’s Cash Explosion TV show, and then each Wednesday for the next four weeks. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The winner of a full college scholarship was eighth grader Joseph Costello of Englewood near Dayton. “Very excited,” Costello said as he sat between his parents, Colleen and Rich, during the virtual news conference.

Colleen Costello said she got the call from the governor as she left work Wednesday. “I was really thankful at that moment that there was a bench nearby, so I could sit down,” she said.

DeWine visited with the Costello family in person along with his wife, Fran DeWine, Wednesday after the announcement. He said he didn’t know the names of the winners until shortly before he made the calls.

“Calling someone and telling them they’ve won a million dollars is a great thing and calling a family to tell them they’ve won a full scholarship is also fun,” the governor said.

More than 2.7 million adults signed up for the $1 million prize and more than 104,000 children ages 12 to 17 entered the drawing for the college scholarship, which includes tuition, room and board, and books. Four more $1 million and college scholarship winners will be announced each Wednesday for the next four weeks.

DeWine, a Republican, announced the program May 12 to boost lagging vaccination rates.

The Ohio Lottery conducted the first drawing Monday afternoon at its draw studio in Cleveland using a random number generator to pick the winners ahead of time, and then confirmed the eligibility of the ultimate winner.

Participants must register to enter by phone or via the Vax-a-Million website. Teens can register themselves, but parents or legal guardians must verify their eligibility. The names of entrants who don’t win will be carried over week to week. The deadline for new registrations is just before midnight on Sunday.

“I know that some may say, ‘DeWine, you’re crazy! This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money,’” the governor said when he announced the incentive. But with the vaccine now readily available, the real waste, “is a life lost to COVID-19,” the governor said.

The concept seemed to work, at least initially. The number of people in Ohio age 16 and older who received their initial COVID-19 vaccine jumped 33% in the week after the state announced its million-dollar incentive lottery, according to an Associated Press analysis.

But the same review also found that vaccination rates are still well below figures from earlier in April and March.

More than 5.2 million people in Ohio had at least started the vaccination process as of Monday, or about 45% of the state. About 4.6 million people are done getting vaccinated, or 39% of the state. Nationally, more than 165 million Americans have started the vaccination process, or about nearly 50% of the population. More than 131 million are fully vaccinated, or nearly 40%.

Vax-a-Million is open to permanent Ohio residents who have received either the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or their first part of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccination.

DeWine’s proposal inspired similar vaccine-incentive lotteries in ColoradoMarylandNew York state and Oregon.

In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis says the state will have a weekly lottery for five residents to win $1 million Tuesday to incentive COVID-19 vaccinations. Colorado is setting aside $5 million of federal coronavirus relief funds that would have gone toward vaccine advertising for five residents to win $1 million each.

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EU seeks big fine in court case over AstraZeneca deliveries

By SAMUEL PETREQUIN for the Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union took on vaccine producer AstraZeneca in a Brussels court on Wednesday and accused the drugmaker of acting in bad faith by providing shots to other nations when it had promised them for urgent delivery to the EU’s 27 member countries.

Stacks of documents are placed on a table at the start of a hearing, European Commission vs AstraZeneca, at the main courthouse in Brussels, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. The European Union took on vaccine producer AstraZeneca in a Brussels court on Wednesday with the urgent demand that the company needs to make an immediate delivery of COVID-19 shots the 27-nation bloc insists were already due. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

During an emergency hearing, the EU asked for the delivery of missing doses and accused AstraZeneca of postponing deliveries so the Anglo-Swedish company could service Britain, among others. AstraZeneca denies any wrongdoing and said it has always done its best to fulfill delivery commitments.

AstraZeneca’s contract with the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, foresaw an initial 300 million doses being distributed, with an option for another 100 million. The doses were expected to be delivered throughout 2021. But only 30 million were sent during the first quarter.

Deliveries have increased slightly since then but, according to the EU commission, the company is set to supply 70 million doses in the second quarter when it had promised 180 million. A lawyer for AstraZeneca said Wednesday that “more or less 60 million doses” from the total order have been delivered so far.

EU lawyer Rafael Jafferali told the court that AstraZeneca expects to deliver the total number of contracted doses by the end of December, but he said that “with a six-month delay, it’s obviously a failure.”

Jafferali asked the court to fine the drugmaker 10 million euros ($12.2 million) per infraction and to force AstraZeneca to pay 10 euros per dose for each day of delay as compensation for breaching the EU contract.

The EU has insisted its gripes with the company are about deliveries only and has repeatedly said that it has no problems with the safety or quality of the vaccine itself. The shots have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s drug regulator.

The EU’s main argument is that AstraZeneca should have used production sites located within the bloc and in the U.K. for EU supplies as part of a “best reasonable effort” clause in the contract. Jafferali said the European Commission agreed to pay 870 million euros for the shots and 50 million doses that should have been delivered to the EU went to third countries instead, “in violation” of the contract.

Charles-Edouard Lambert, another lawyer on the EU team, said AstraZeneca decided to reserve production at its Oxford site for Britain.

“This is utterly serious. AstraZeneca did not use all the means at its disposal. There is a double standard in the way it treats the U.K. and member states,” he said.

AstraZeneca said it informed the EU’s executive Commission in a detailed production plan that the UK manufacturing chain would firstly be dedicated to British supplies. The company noted that delays in deliveries not only affected the EU but the whole world.

A lawyer representing AstraZeneca, Hakim Boularbah, said the company’s May 2020 agreement with the U.K. government and Oxford University, the vaccine’s co-developer, to supply 100 million doses of vaccine at cost clearly gave priority to Britain. “It’s very shocking to be accused of fraud,” Boularbah said, calling it “a groundless accusation.”

The EU also accused AstraZeneca of misleading the European Commission by providing data on the delivery delays that lacked clarity.

While the bloc insists AstraZeneca has breached its contractual obligations, the company says it has fully complied with the agreement, arguing that vaccines are difficult to manufacture, with dozens of components produced in several different nations, and it made its best effort to deliver on time.

“Unfortunately, to this date, more or less 60 million doses from the order have been delivered,” Boularbah said, adding that AstraZeneca does everything it can to increase production and will deliver the 300 million of doses agreed to as soon as possible.

He played down the urgency claimed by the EU, saying 13 million AstraZeneca doses were stocked in EU member states. However, since the AstraZeneca vaccination takes two shots up to 12 weeks apart, member states can opt to reserve some of their supplies to make sure that recipients can get their second dose on time.

As part of an advanced purchase agreement with vaccine companies, the EU said it invested 2.7 billion euros ($3.8 billion), including 336 million ($408 million), to finance the production of AstraZeneca’s vaccine at four factories.

The long-standing dispute drew media attention for weeks earlier this year amid a deadly surge of coronavirus infections in Europe, when delays in vaccine production and deliveries hampered the EU’s vaccination campaign.

Cheaper and easier to use than rival shots from Pfizer-BioNTech, the AstraZeneca vaccine developed with Oxford University was a pillar of the EU’s vaccine rollout. But the EU’s partnership with the firm quickly deteriorated amid accusations it favored its relationship with British authorities.

While the U.K. made quick progress in its vaccination campaign thanks to its AstraZeneca supplies, the EU faced embarrassing complaints and criticism for its slow start.

Concerns over the pace of the rollout across the EU grew after AstraZeneca said it couldn’t supply EU members with as many doses as originally anticipated because of production capacity limits.

The health situation has dramatically improved in Europe in recent weeks, with the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths on a sharp downward trend as vaccination has picked up. About 300 million doses of vaccine have been delivered in Europe — a region with around 450 million inhabitants, with about 245 million already administered.

About 46% of the EU population have had at least one dose.

Fanny Laune, another lawyer from the European Commission’s legal team, insisted the case needs to be treated urgently despite vaccination campaigns picking up across the bloc. She said other producers in the EU vaccine portfolio have experienced delays in deliveries and could still be hampered by production problems.

She added that several EU countries have based their vaccine strategy on the AstraZeneca shots and that five member states won’t be able to reach the targets set by the EU by the end of June if the drugmaker doesn’t provide the promised doses in time.

“If this legal action allows to save just one life, it justifies an urgent ruling,” Laune said.

AstraZeneca’s lawyers asked the judge to properly assess whether citizens in the EU can’t actually get vaccinated with the company’s shots because of the delivery delays before determining whether the case should be settled urgently.

In total, the European Commission has secured more than 2.5 billion of vaccine doses with various manufacturers, but is now shying away from placing more orders with AstraZeneca. It recently sealed another major order with Pfizer and BioNTech through 2023 for an additional 1.8 billion doses to be shared among EU members.

A judgment is to be delivered at a later date. In addition to the emergency action, the European Commission has launched a claim on the merits of the case for damages for which a hearing hasn’t yet been set by the court.

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Cyclone lashes India, Bangladesh; 6 dead, 1.1M evacuated

By ASHOK SHARMA and JULHAS ALAM for the Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) — Heavy rain and a high tide lashed parts of eastern India and neighboring Bangladesh on Wednesday as a cyclone pushed ashore in an area where more than 1.1 million people were evacuated during a devastating coronavirus outbreak. At least six people were reported dead.

Heavy winds and sea waves hit the shore at the Digha beach on the Bay of Bengal coast as Cyclone Yaas intensifies in West Bengal state, India, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Heavy rain and a high tide lashed parts of India’s eastern coast as the cyclone pushed ashore Wednesday in an area where more than 1.1 million people have evacuated amid a devastating coronavirus surge. (AP Photo/Ashim Paul)

Cyclone Yaas had already caused two deaths and damaged homes as heavy rain pounded Odisha and West Bengal states before it made landfall in the late morning.

Another person died in a house collapse in West Bengal state on Wednesday, said the state’s top elected official, Mamata Banerjee. The Press Trust of India news agency said two people were killed when they were hit by uprooted trees and another person died in a house collapse in Odisha state. There was no official confirmation of the report.

The “very severe cyclonic storm” packed sustained winds of 130-140 kilometers (up to 87 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 155 kph (97 mph) when it made landfall, the India Meteorological Department said. With the storm now almost fully on land, winds were expected to weaken.

In Bangladesh, thousands of people in 200 villages were marooned as their homes, shops and farms were flooded by tidal surges.

In southern Patuakhali district, more than 20 villages in Rangabali went underwater after two river embankments were washed away, said Mashfaqur Rahman, the area’s top administrator. He said at least 15,000 people had taken refuge in cyclone shelters.

In India, television images showed knee-deep water flooding the beachfront and other areas of Digha, a resort town in West Bengal. Wind gusts whipped palm trees back and forth, and water overflowed several river banks.

West Bengal state’s top elected official, Mamata Banerjee, told reporters that 20,000 mud huts and temporary shelters for the poor have been damaged along the coast.

On Tuesday, a tornado snapped electricity lines that electrocuted two people and damaged 40 houses, Banerjee said.

More than 17 centimeters (6.5 inches) of rain have fallen in the Chandabali and Paradip regions of Odisha state since Tuesday, the meteorological department said. Tidal waves of up to 4 meters (13 feet) were forecast.

Kolkata and Bhubaneshwar airports were shut and train services canceled. Fishing trawlers and boats were told to take shelter.

The cyclone, coming amid a coronavirus surge, complicates India’s efforts to deal with both after another storm, Cyclone Tauktae, hit India’s west coast last week and killed more than 140 people.

Odisha’s chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, appealed to people in shelters to wear double masks and maintain social distancing. “We have to face both the challenges simultaneously,” Patnaik said.

Thousands of emergency personnel have been deployed to help with evacuations and rescue operations, said S.N. Pradhan, director of India’s National Disaster Response Force. The air force and navy were also on standby.

A year ago, the most powerful cyclone in more than a decade hit eastern India and killed nearly 100 people.

“We haven’t been able to fix the damage to our home from the last cyclone. Now another cyclone is coming, how will we stay here?” said Samitri, who uses only one name.

Some of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record have occurred in the Bay of Bengal. A 1999 super cyclone killed around 10,000 people and devastated large parts of Odisha. Due to improved forecasts and better relief coordination, the death toll from Cyclone Phailin, an equally intense storm in 2013, was less than 50, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

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Alam reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Official: Multiple deaths in shooting at San Jose railyard

From the Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Gunfire erupted Wednesday at a railyard in San Jose, and a sheriff’s spokesman said multiple people were killed and wounded and that the suspect was dead.

Santa Clara County sheriff’s spokesman Deputy Russell Davis said that he could not specify the number of dead and wounded.

This photo provided by KGO-TV/ABC7, emergency personnel respond to the scene of a shooting on Wednesday, May 26, 2021 in San Jose, Calif. Santa Clara County sheriff’s spokesman said there are multiple fatalities and injuries in a shooting at a rail yard and that the suspect is dead. (KGO-TV/ABC7 via AP)

The shooting took place at a light rail facility that is next door to the sheriff’s department and across a freeway from the airport. The facility is a transit control center that stores trains and has a maintenance yard.

The victims include Valley Transportation Authority employees, Davis said.

The VTA provides bus, light rail and other transit services throughout Santa Clara County, the largest in the Bay Area and home to Silicon Valley.

A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

Special agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were responding to the crime scene, officials said.

Mexico’s long delay of vaccines for Latin America nears end

For the Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s top diplomat said Tuesday that shipments of a long-delayed lot of AstraZeneca vaccines will finally be sent to Argentina this weekend.

Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said about 800,000 doses will be flown to Argentina. Mexico will get a similar amount, and he expressed hopes that later shipments can be sent to other Latin American countries.

FILE – In this Feb. 24, 2021 file photo, a nurse prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said about 800,000 doses will be flown to Argentina in the last weekend of May 2021. Mexico will get a similar amount, and he expressed hopes that later shipments can be sent to other Latin American countries. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)

The effort to fill and finish the vaccines at a Mexican plant took almost three months longer than originally expected.

Ebrard acknowledged Tuesday it had been “a long, complex, hazardous process,” adding “we now finally, at last have this vaccine available.”

The vaccines were produced in bulk in Argentina and sent to Mexico for bottling. But the Mexican plant ran into problems, in part because it had difficulties in obtaining specialized filters.

The delay forced Argentina to look for another plant in the United States to perform the fill and finish operation. The first 843,000 doses from the U.S. plant arrived in Argentina on Monday.

Mexico, Argentina and other countries in Latin America were expecting millions of doses to start flowing in March, but probably won’t be able to start using them until June.

Previously, the Liomont plant in Mexico had problems getting in special filters and other equipment.

“They have fought a lot to obtain filters, inspection stations. They brought in very advanced equipment. That took time to be able to get them working,” Ebrard said during a visit to the plant. The project is supported by a foundation run by business magnate Carlos Slim.

In February, Mexican officials had said they expected to get 10 million AstraZeneca doses in March, 15.7 million in April and the same number in May, for a total of 41.1 million shots. Instead, as of Tuesday, Mexico had received only about 6.8 million AstraZeneca doses from abroad.

Mexico already bottles the Chinese-developed CanSino vaccine at another plant, a process that went off with fewer hitches.

Mysterious air base being built on volcanic island off Yemen

By JON GAMBRELL for the Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A mysterious air base is being built on a volcanic island off Yemen that sits in one of the world’s crucial maritime chokepoints for both energy shipments and commercial cargo.

A mysterious air base is seen being built on Yemen’s volcanic Mayun Island in this April 11, 2021 satellite photograph from Planet Labs Inc. The air base is in one of the world’s crucial maritime chokepoints for both energy shipments and commercial cargo. Officials in Yemen’s internationally recognized government say the United Arab Emirates is behind the effort. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

While no country has claimed the Mayun Island air base in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, shipping traffic associated with a prior attempt to build a massive runway across the 5.6-kilometer (3.5 mile)-long island years ago links back to the United Arab Emirates.

Officials in Yemen’s internationally recognized government now say the Emiratis are behind this latest effort as well, even though the UAE announced in 2019 it was withdrawing its troops from a Saudi-led military campaign battling Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

“This does seem to be a longer-term strategic aim to establish a relatively permanent presence,” said Jeremy Binnie, the Mideast editor at the open-source intelligence company Janes who has followed construction on Mayun for years. It’s “possibly not just about the Yemen war and you’ve got to see the shipping situation as fairly key there.”ADVERTISEMENT

Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, called the base “a reminder that the UAE is not actually out of Yemen.”

The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever controls it to project power into the strait and easily launch airstrikes into mainland Yemen, convulsed by a yearslong bloody war. It also provides a base for any operations into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and nearby East Africa.

Satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. obtained by The Associated Press showed dump trucks and graders building a 1.85 kilometer (6,070-foot) runway on the island on April 11. By May 18, that work appeared complete, with three hangars constructed on a tarmac just south of the runway.

A runway of that length can accommodate attack, surveillance and transport aircraft. An earlier effort begun toward the end of 2016 and later abandoned had workers try to build an even-larger runway over 3 kilometers (9,800 feet) long, which would allow for the heaviest bombers.

Military officials with Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which the Saudi-led coalition has backed since 2015, say the UAE is building the runway. The officials, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity as they didn’t have authorization to brief journalists, say Emirati ships transported military weapons, equipment and troops to Mayun Island in recent weeks.

The military officials said recent tension between the UAE and Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi came in part from an Emirati demand for his government to sign a 20-year lease agreement for Mayun. Emirati officials have not acknowledged any disagreement.

The initial, failed construction project came after Emirati and allied forces retook the island from Iranian-backed Houthi militants in 2015. By late 2016, satellite images showed construction underway there.

Tugboats associated with Dubai-based Echo Cargo & Shipping LLC and landing craft and carriers from Abu Dhabi-based Bin Nawi Marine Services LLC helped bring equipment to the island in that first attempt, according to tracking signals recorded by data firm Refinitiv. Satellite photos at the time show they offloaded the gear and vehicles at a temporary beachside port.

Echo Cargo & Shipping declined to comment, while Bin Nawi Marine Services did not respond to a request for comment. Recent shipping data shows no recorded vessels around Mayun, suggesting whoever provided the sealift for the latest construction turned off their boats’ Automatic Identification System tracking devices to avoid being identified.

Construction initially stopped in 2017, likely when engineers realized they couldn’t dig through a portion of the volcanic island’s craggy features to incorporate the site of the island’s old runway. The building restarted in earnest on the new runway site around Feb. 22, satellite photos show, several weeks after President Joe Biden announced he would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive against the Houthis.

The apparent decision by the Emiratis to resume building the air base comes after the UAE dismantled parts of a military base it ran in the East African nation of Eritrea as a staging ground for its Yemen campaign.

While the Horn of Africa “has become a dangerous place” for the Emiratis due to competitors and local war risks, Mayun has a small population and offers a valuable site for monitoring the Red Sea, said Eleonora Ardemagni, an analyst at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. The region has seen a rise in attacks and incidents.

“The Emiratis have been shifting from a power-projection foreign policy to a power-protection foreign policy,” Ardemagni said. It increases “their capacity to monitor what happens and to prevent possible threats by non-state actors close to Iran.”

The expeditionary Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard was said to run a similar operation on a cargo ship long stationed nearby off Yemen before being apparently targeted by an Israeli attack.

Mayun, also known as Perim Island, sits some 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) off the southwestern edge of Yemen. World powers have recognized the island’s strategic location for hundreds of years, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

The British kept the island up until their departure from Yemen in 1967. The Soviet Union, allied with South Yemen’s Marxist government, upgraded Mayun’s naval facilities but used them “only infrequently,” according a 1981 CIA analysis. That’s likely due to needing to bring water and supplies onto the island. That will affect the new air base as well as Mayun has no modern port, said Binnie, the Janes analyst.

The base still may interest American forces, however. U.S. troops operated from Yemen’s al-Anad Air Base running a campaign of drone strikes targeting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula until the Houthi advance forced them to withdraw in 2015. The Defense Department later acknowledged on-the-ground American troops supported the Saudi-led coalition around Mukalla in 2016. Special forces raids and drones also have targeted the country.

The U.S. military’s Central Command did not respond to a request for comment. The CIA declined to comment.

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Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

Japan opens mass vaccine centers 2 months before Olympics

By MARI YAMAGUCHI for the Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — Japan mobilized military doctors and nurses to give shots to elderly people in Tokyo and Osaka on Monday as the government desperately tries to accelerate its vaccination rollout and curb coronavirus infections just two months before hosting the Olympics.

Elderly people go out of the newly-opened mass vaccination center after receiving the Moderna coronavirus vaccine in Tokyo, Monday, May 24, 2021. Japan mobilized military doctors and nurses to give shots to elderly people in Tokyo and Osaka on Monday as the government desperately tries to accelerate its vaccination rollout and curb coronavirus infections just two months before hosting the Olympics. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the Olympics in Tokyo after a one-year delay and has made an ambitious pledge to finish vaccinating the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of July, despite skepticism it’s possible. Worries about public safety while many Japanese remain unvaccinated have prompted growing protests and calls for canceling the games, set to start on July 23.

Suga’s government has repeatedly expanded the area and duration of a largely voluntary request-based virus state of emergency since late April and has made its virus-fighting measures stricter. Currently, Tokyo and nine other areas that are home to 40% of the country’s population are under the emergency and a further extension is deemed unavoidable.

With COVID-19 cases still high, Suga now says vaccines are key to getting infections under control. He has not made vaccinations conditional for holding the Olympics and has arranged for Pfizer to donate its vaccine for athletes through the International Olympic Committee, while trying to speed up Japan’s inoculation drive as anti-Olympic sentiment grows.

Suga, speaking to reporters after a brief visit to the Tokyo center, said accelerating the vaccine rollout is an “unprecedented challenge.”

“We will do whatever it takes to accomplish the project so that the people can get vaccinated and return to their ordinary daily lives as soon as possible,” he said.

At the two centers, staffed by about 280 military medical staff and 200 civilian nurses, the aim is to inoculate up to 10,000 people per day in Tokyo and 5,000 per day in Osaka for the next three months.

In hardest-hit Osaka, where hospitals are overflowing, with tens of thousands of people becoming sicker or even dying at home, dozens began lining up before the inoculation center opened early Monday. In Tokyo, some vaccine recipients said they took taxis or shuttle buses to get to the center to avoid packed commuter trains.

People inoculated at the two centers were the first in Japan to receive doses from Moderna Inc., one of two foreign-developed vaccines Japan approved on Friday.

Previously, Japan had used only Pfizer Inc., and only about 2% of the population of 126 million has received the required two doses.

Japan began vaccinating health care workers in mid-February after delays resulting from its decision to require additional vaccine clinical testing inside Japan — a decision many experts said was medically meaningless and only slowed the inoculation process.

Vaccinations for the next group — the elderly, who are more likely to suffer serious COVID-19 effects — started in mid-April but have been slowed by reservation procedures, unclear distribution plans and shortages of medical staff to give shots.

The completion of Japanese-developed vaccines is still uncertain, but government officials hope the approvals Friday of Moderna and AstraZeneca will accelerate inoculations.

“Speeding up the rollout makes us feel safer because it affects our social life and the economy,” said Munemitsu Watanabe, a 71-year-old office worker who got his first shot at the Tokyo center. “If 80-90% of the population gets vaccinated, I think we can hold the Olympics smoothly.”

That goal seems impossible to meet. Those currently eligible are 65 years or older, and some officials say it may take until next March before younger people are fully vaccinated.

Japan also has a dire shortage of medical staff who can give shots since only doctors and nurses can legally do so — and they are already busy treating COVID-19 patients.

Under pressure, Suga’s government has allowed dentists and retired nurses to perform inoculations, and on Monday asked for pharmacists’ help. Suga said he is also considering adding paramedics and clinical laboratory technicians to create a pool of “several tens of thousands” of medical personnel. There are worries, however, that loosening the criteria may increase vaccine hesitancy in the public.

Also Monday, Tokyo’s downtown Sumida district organized a one-time inoculation event at the Kokugikan sumo arena, a venue for Olympic boxing, to attract elderly people with a lottery to win sumo-themed souvenirs.

Several other local governments, including Aichi in central Japan and Gunma near Tokyo and Miyagi in the north, also were to open their own large vaccination centers on Monday.

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Associated Press journalists Chisato Tanaka and Kantaro Komiya contributed to this report.

Louisville pins hopes on Justice Dept. review of policing

By DYLAN LOVAN for the Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — For the people marching in the streets for more than a year after the killing of Breonna Taylor, a wide-ranging new federal investigation of policing in Louisville is seen as one more chance for justice.

FILE – In this March 13, 2021 file photo, a protester holds up a painting of Breonna Taylor during a rally on the one year anniversary of her death at Jefferson Square Park in Louisville, Ky. On Friday, April 9, 2021, Gov. Andy Beshear has signed a partial ban on no-knock warrants a year after the fatal shooting of Taylor. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

The demonstrations big and small have led to lawsuits and complaints that police are abusing the people out protesting abuse. Most are still upset that no officers have been directly charged in the killing of Taylor on March 13, 2020.

“It’s been insult to injury the whole time for many of us protesting,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, a Louisville mayoral candidate who has been arrested during protests. “They’ve started this civil unrest. We’re out here because of them and we’ve been treated like trash.”

The broadened “patterns and practices” probe announced last month by U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland could soon be led by a veteran Black civil rights lawyer who has criticized the handling of the Taylor case. Kristen Clarke is the Biden administration’s choice to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Her nomination narrowly advanced through a Senate committee this week.

Federal investigators are likely to review instances in which Louisville demonstrators were beaten and shot with pepper balls, as well as the killing of a popular barbecue stand owner as police and the National Guard, brought in to enforce a curfew, descended on his property.

Barbecue cook David McAtee thought he was under attack, his family said. Surveillance video showed authorities arriving at his restaurant and unleashing pepper balls without warning, striking around his grill and inside his kitchen. McAtee didn’t realize they were non-lethal weapons fired by law enforcers, his family’s lawyer said. He fired two rounds from a handgun through the door of his eatery, and was shot dead by a National Guard member.

The chief of police was later fired because Louisville officers on the scene failed to turn on their body cameras.

“There was nothing going on at his place, no protesting going on,” the family’s attorney, Steve Romines, said in an interview. “People were standing around eating barbecue.”

Romines said he trusts the civil rights division to conduct “a good faith review of the multiple bad actors in LMPD.”

The Justice Department had already begun an investigation last year into the officers involved in the Taylor shooting and their chain of command for civil rights violations.

The pattern or practice investigation reflects a shift in priorities under the new Democratic administration, which opened a similar probe of the Minneapolis Police after the death of George Floyd. In both cases, the announced scope includes any violations of First Amendment rights and questions about illegal searches and seizures and equal protection under the law.

Louisville’s city leaders and new police chief — the fourth since Taylor’s death — welcomed the Justice Department’s promise to examine the “root causes” of potential civil rights violations going back about five years.

“I think our officers at LMPD really want to have the very best police department in the country,” said David James, a city council member and former police officer. But “I think there has to be some cultural change to take place in order for that to happen.”

Police Chief Erika Shields, hired from Atlanta as a reformer, said Louisville’s officers “want to get it right.”

“They want the community to be proud of them,” Shields said after the probe was announced in April.

The city has banned controversial no-knock warrants, paid Taylor’s family $12 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit and fired two of the officers who shot at her. One of the fired officers has been charged for shooting recklessly into Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment. But after state officials declined to pursue criminal charges for Taylor’s death, demands for justice have persisted, as have clashes with police.

Parrish-Wright was arrested in September — on felony riot charges that were later dropped — after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that his grand jury process led to no officers being charged in Taylor’s killing. After enduring pepper balls, tear gas and rough arrests, she said she and other protesters are glad to see the federal response.

“I think the DOJ is giving people hope that we’ll see something positive happen,” said Parrish-Wright, who leads the local chapter of the Bail Project, which has helped protesters get released from jail.

Clarke, who has been president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and previously managed the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office, criticized Cameron’s handling of the case last year as “a full-scale denial of justice.”

The conflict continues: Just days before the new federal investigation was announced, a protester was recorded being beaten by a Louisville officer during an arrest downtown. Denorver Garret was demonstrating when officers ordered him to move out of the street. Then they put him on the ground and an officer punched him in the head and face.

“I don’t fear them, and I’m not going to stop protesting,” said Garrett, who is suing the officer. “I have the right to protest and I’m going to keep doing it. I could’ve been a George Floyd yesterday.”

Many Black Louisville residents say the police department has a long history of heavy-handed tactics in its dealings with their community. In Taylor’s case, detectives secured a narcotics warrant and knocked her door down, but a search for drugs and cash alleged by the warrant turned up nothing. Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, tweeted that with federal investigators now involved, she “can’t wait for the world to see Louisville Police Department for what it really is.”

An audit conducted by a consulting firm hired by the city in the wake of the Taylor shooting said police have had “generations of problematic relations” with the city’s Black community. It found issues with the department’s warrant process and morale so low that many officers have considered quitting.

Louisville’s police union, River City FOP, expressed confidence that federal investigators won’t find “systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the officers of the LMPD.”

Instead, the union blames police and city leaders for officer shortages that have led to a spike in violent crime.

“We look forward to meeting with DOJ investigators and assisting in this process in any way possible,” the FOP statement said.

UK Black activist critical in hospital after shooting

For the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — An activist who has played a leading role in anti-racism demonstrations in Britain was in critical condition in a London hospital on Monday after being shot.

FILE – In this Saturday, June 13, 2020 file photo Sasha Johnson, center, of the Black Lives Matter movement attends a protest at Hyde Park in London. Johnson, a British Black Lives Matter campaigner is in a critical condition after sustaining a gunshot wound to her head, a statement from her political party, Taking the Initiative Party, has said. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, File)

The Taking the Initiative Party said Sasha Johnson, who played a leading role in Black Lives Matter protests last year, was shot in the head on Sunday. Police and a friend said it did not appear to be a targeted attack, though the party said Johnson had received “numerous death threats” related to her activism.

The party said Johnson was “a strong, powerful voice for our people and our community.”

The Metropolitan Police force said officers were called to reports of gunshots in the Peckham area of the city just before 3 a.m. on Sunday. Police said the shooting took place near a house where a party was taking place.

The police statement said a 27-year-old woman was in a hospital in critical condition after being shot. It did not identify her, but said “there is nothing to suggest it was a targeted attack or that the woman had received any credible threats against her before this incident.”

Detectives have appealed for witnesses and have not made any arrests.

A friend, Imarn Ayton, said she did not believe Johnson was the intended target.

“As far as we are aware, she was at a party,” she told the BBC. “There was a rival gang that may have heard about someone being in that party that they didn’t feel quite comfortable with or trusted and so they resorted to driving past and shooting into the garden, and one of those shots obviously hit Sasha Johnson.

“But I don’t believe she was the intended victim.”

Like other countries, Britain has faced an uncomfortable reckoning with race since the death of George Floyd, a Black American, at the knee of a U.S. policeman in May 2020 sparked anti-racism protests around the world.

Large crowds at Black Lives Matter protests across the U.K. called on the government and institutions to face up to the legacy of the British Empire and the country’s extensive profits from the slave trade. Johnson was a speaker at rallies last summer and is a leader of the newly founded, Black-led Taking the Initiative Party.

India scours sea after barge sinks, 2nd adrift after cyclone

By SHEIKH SAALIQ for the Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) — The Indian navy is working to rescue crew members from a sunken barge and a second cargo vessel that was adrift Tuesday off the coast of Mumbai after a deadly cyclone struck the western coast.

This photograph provided by Indian navy shows, one of the men rescued by the navy from the Arabian sea being brought for medical attention at naval air station INS Shikra in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The Indian navy is working to rescue crew members from a sunken barge and a second cargo vessel that was adrift Tuesday off the coast of Mumbai after Cyclone Tauktae, struck the western coast. (Indian Navy via AP)

The navy said it has rescued 177 of the 400 people on the two barges in the Arabia Sea. Three warships, maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters joined the rescue operations and were scouring the sea, the navy said.

Both barges were working for Oil and Natural Gas Corp., the largest crude oil and natural gas company in India.

The company said the barges were carrying personnel deployed for offshore drilling and their anchors gave away during the storm.

Cyclone Tauktae, the most powerful storm to hit the region in more than two decades, packed sustained winds of up to 210 kilometers (130 miles) per hour when it came ashore in Gujarat state late Monday. Four people were killed in the state, raising the storm’s total to 16.

Residents emerged from relief shelters Tuesday to find debris strewn across roads, trees uprooted and electricity lines damaged. The coast guard rescued eight fishermen who were stranded at sea near Veraval, a fishing industry hub in Gujarat state.

In Maharashtra, six people were killed Monday but the state’s capital, Mumbai, was largely spared from major damage even as heavy rains pounded the city’s coastline and high winds whipped its skyscrapers. Over the weekend, the cyclone killed six people in Kerala, Karnataka and Goa states as it moved along the western coast.

The cyclone has weakened, but the India Meteorological Department forecast heavy rainfall for many parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra in the coming days.

Ahead of the cyclone, about 150,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas in Maharashtra and Gujarat states. S.N. Pradhan, director of India’s National Disaster Response Force, said social distancing norms were being followed in evacuation shelters and rescue teams were clearing debris from affected areas.

Both states, among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, had scrambled disaster response teams, fearing the storm could endanger India’s fight against the virus with supply lines cut, roads destroyed and lockdown measures slowing relief work.

Tropical cyclones are less common in the Arabian Sea than on India’s east coast and usually form later in the year. Experts say changing climate patterns have caused them to become more intense, rather than more frequent.

In May 2020, nearly 100 people died when Cyclone Amphan, the most powerful storm to hit eastern India in more than a decade, ravaged the region.

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This story has been corrected to show that the barges were working for Oil and Natural Gas Corp. and are not owned by it.

Amid threats to members, House to vote on new security

By MARY CLARE JALONICK for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, says it took time for him to stop constantly scanning his environment for threats when he returned from war 15 years ago. But after the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he says he’s picked the habit up again.

FILE – In this March 8, 2021, file photo, members of the National Guard open a gate in the razor wire topped perimeter fence around the Capitol at sunrise in Washington. Threats to members of Congress have more than doubled this year, according to the U.S. Capitol Police, and many members say they fear for their personal safety more than they did before the siege. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Crow was trapped with several other members of Congress in the upper gallery of the U.S. House that day while a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to beat down the doors to the chamber and stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.

Crow says he never would have thought “in a million years” he’d be in that situation in the Capitol, but some of his old training has since kicked in, like looking in his rear-view mirror and assessing if people around him might be carrying a gun. Like almost every other member of Congress, his office has received threats against his life.

“There’s no doubt that members are on edge right now,” Crow says, and the threats from outside “are unfortunately the reality of congressional life.”

Those threats have more than doubled this year, according to the U.S. Capitol Police, and many members of Congress say they fear for their personal safety more than they did before the siege. Several say they have boosted security measures to protect themselves and their families, money for which will be part of a broad $1.9 billion spending bill that the House will vote on this week, along with a separate measure that would create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. Democrats, in particular, say both bills are crucial to try to reconcile the trauma that many still feel.

“This was an armed assault on our democracy, and I’m a witness — I’m a victim and a witness to it,” says New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster. She received treatment for post-traumatic stress after she was also trapped in the House gallery that day and heard rioters trying to break through the doors close to where she was hiding.

Kuster says she thought she was going to die before officers cleared the hallways and hustled her and others out. “I think we need a full investigation with a Jan. 6th commission, and I believe that the Capitol Police who saved our lives that day deserve more support,” she says.

Democrats say a bipartisan commission investigating the attack, including what led to it, is more important than ever after some Republicans have recently started to downplay the severity of the insurrection, portraying the rioters who brutally beat officers with flagpoles and other weapons and broke into the Capitol through windows and doors as peaceful patriots.

Many Republicans who initially condemned Trump for telling his supporters to “fight like hell” that day have increasingly stayed quiet on his repeated false claims that the election was stolen, even though that was rebuked by numerous courts, bipartisan election officials across the country and Trump’s own attorney general. It’s unclear how many in the GOP will vote for either bill.

Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., said at a hearing last week that a video feed of the rioters looked like they were on a “normal tourist visit.” Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said a woman who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break through a window adjacent to the House chamber was “executed,” and he argued that the Justice Department is harassing those who have been arrested.

Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who also says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the attack, said those comments were “really hard to take” after witnessing the insurrection. He says he’s received an increased number of threats since January, especially when he has spoken on TV about treatment he received in the aftermath. Some of the calls and messages are specific and credible threats, he says, while many others are “abusive, threatening type language.”

The security spending bill would provide congressional offices with more money to combat those threats, including enhanced travel security, upgrades to home-district offices and better intelligence to track people down. The bill would also “harden” the complex by reinforcing doors and windows, adding security vestibules and cameras and providing dollars for removable fencing that could quickly be erected during a threatening situation while leaving the Capitol open to visitors.

Like many members, Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois says he feels as if the threats are more acute in his home district, where there is less security. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are currently protected by a tall fence and National Guard troops who have been there since Jan. 6. Members are “as safe as ever” there, he says, but “it’s those times when you’re not in the Capitol, I think that’s where the threats seem to emanate from the most.”

Davis knows that well, as one of several Republican members who was at a baseball practice four years ago in Alexandria, Virginia, when a gunman wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and four other people. And in 2019, an Illinois man was arrested for “threatening to blow my head off,” as Davis puts it. Randall Tarr pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to probation.

As the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Capitol Police, Davis has pushed for the force to be more aggressive in arresting those who threaten members and to reform the arcane command structure in Congress that forces the chief to ask for permission before making major decisions. The security spending bill would not do that, but it would boost Capitol Police training and pay for new equipment after the force was badly overrun on Jan. 6.

In the meantime, members are upgrading their personal security. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., says he’s started using his house alarm more often and has been more cautious in recent months. “I’ve definitely felt less secure since Jan. 6 than I did before,” says Himes, who sits on the House intelligence committee.

Some say it’s easier not to know what’s going on. Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat, said he’s generally adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his staff on security matters since the insurrection, and he doesn’t ask why when a police car sometimes shows up in front of his house to guard it.

“I don’t necessarily want to know the full story,” says Krishnamoorthi, who has young children. “I just trust that law enforcement is doing their job.”

Kuster says she is feeling better these days after taking advantage of employee assistance resources in the Capitol. Still, she says her experience was “really, really difficult,” especially because she received a death threat as soon as she arrived home to New Hampshire after the insurrection. Home was the one place “I can usually feel safe,” she says.

She said she regularly talks to and texts with her colleagues who have also had post-traumatic stress, and she says some of them are still hurting.

“We need a security plan so that everyone can feel safe here,” Kuster says. “I want the ‘people’s house’ to be able to reopen.”

Calls mount for Gaza-Israel cease-fire, greater US efforts

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER and EDITH M. LEDERER for the Associated Press

U.N. Security Council diplomats and Muslim foreign ministers convened emergency meetings Sunday to demand a stop to civilian bloodshed as Israeli warplanes carried out the deadliest single attacks in nearly a week of Hamas rocket barrages and Israeli airstrikes.

A man walks past the the rubble of the Yazegi residential building that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Sunday, May 16, 2021. The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation held an emergency virtual meeting Sunday over the situation in Gaza calling for an end to Israel’s military attacks on the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

President Joe Biden gave no signs of stepping up public pressure on Israel to agree to an immediate cease-fire despite calls from some Democrats for the Biden administration to get more involved.

His ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told an emergency high-level meeting of the Security Council that the United States was “working tirelessly through diplomatic channels” to stop the fighting.

But as battles between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers surged to their worst levels since 2014 and the international outcry grew, the Biden administration — determined to wrench U.S. foreign policy focus away from the Middle East and Afghanistan — has declined so far to criticize Israel’s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region. Appeals by other countries showed no sign of progress.

Thomas-Greenfield warned that the return to armed conflict would only put a negotiated two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict even further out of reach. However, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, has so far blocked days of efforts by China, Norway and Tunisia to get the Security Council to issue a statement, including a call for the cessation of hostilities.

In Israel, Hady Amr, a deputy assistant dispatched by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to try to de-escalate the crisis, met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who thanked the U.S. for its support.

Blinken himself headed out on an unrelated tour of Nordic countries, with no announced plans to stop in the Middle East in response to the crisis. He made calls from the plane to Egypt and other nations working to broker a cease-fire, telling Egypt that all parties “should de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, urged Biden on Sunday to step up pressure on both sides to end current fighting and revive talks to resolve Israel’s conflicts and flashpoints with the Palestinians.

“I think the administration needs to push harder on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence, bring about a cease-fire, end these hostilities, and get back to a process of trying to resolve this long-standing conflict,” Schiff, a California Democrat, told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

And Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, the senior Republican on the foreign relations subcommittee for the region, joined Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, the subcommittee chairman, in asking both sides to cease fire. “As a result of Hamas’ rocket attacks and Israel’s response, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further,” the two said.

Biden focused on civilian deaths from Hamas rockets in a call with Netanyahu on Saturday, and a White House readout of the call made no mention of the U.S. urging Israel to join in a cease-fire that regional countries were pushing. Thomas-Greenfield said U.S. diplomats were engaging with Israel, Egypt and Qatar, along with the U.N.

Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City flattened three buildings and killed at least 42 people Sunday, medics said, bringing the toll since Hamas and Israel opened their air and artillery battles to at least 188 killed in Gaza and eight in Israel. Some 55 children in Gaza and a 5-year-old boy in Israel were among the dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis in a televised address Sunday that Israel “wants to levy a heavy price” on Hamas. That will “take time,” Netanyahu said, signaling the war would rage on for now.

Representatives of Muslim nations met to demand Israel halt attacks that are killing Palestinian civilians in the crowded Gaza strip. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan called on “the international community to take urgent action to immediately stop military operations.”

The meeting of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation also saw Turkey and some others criticize a U.S.-backed push under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Islamic nations signed bilateral deals with Israel to normalize their relations, stepping over the wreckage of collapsed international efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians long-term.

“The massacre of Palestinian children today follows the purported normalization,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.

At the virtual meeting of the Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the U.N. was actively engaging all parties for an immediate cease-fire.

Returning to the scenes of Palestinian militant rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes in the fourth such war between Israel and Hamas, “only perpetuates the cycles of death, destruction and despair, and pushes farther to the horizon any hopes of coexistence and peace,” Guterres said.

Eight foreign ministers spoke at the Security Council session, reflecting the seriousness of the conflict, with almost all urging an end to the fighting.

Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had thrown U.S. support solidly behind Israel, embracing Netanyahu as an ally in Trump’s focus on confronting Iran. Trump gave little time to efforts by past U.S. administrations to push peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, instead encouraging and rewarding Arab nations that signed two-country normalization deals with Israel.

Biden, instead, calls Middle East and Central Asia conflicts a distraction from U.S. foreign policy priorities, including competition with China.

He’s sought to calm some conflicts and extricate the U.S. from others, including ending U.S. military support for a Saudi-led war in Yemen, planning to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and trying to return to a nuclear deal with Iran that Israel opposes.

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Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City and Lederer from New York. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai and Lisa Mascaro in Washington and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

Glimmer of hope seen in India, but virus crisis not over yet

By KRUTIKA PATHI and ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL for the Associated Press

BENGALURU, India (AP) — For the first time in months, Izhaar Hussain Shaikh is feeling somewhat optimistic.

FILE- In this May 11, 2021 file photo, a health worker takes a nasal swab sample of a Kashmiri man to test for COVID-19 in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir. A dip in the number of coronavirus cases in Mumbai is offering a glimmer of hope for India, which is suffering through a surge of infections. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin, File)

The 30-year-old ambulance driver in India’s metropolis of Mumbai has been working tirelessly ever since the city became the epicenter of another catastrophic COVID-19 surge slashing through the country. Last month, he drove about 70 patients to the hospital, his cellphone constantly vibrating with calls.

But two weeks into May, he’s only carried 10 patients. Cases are falling and so are the phone calls.

“We used to be so busy before, we didn’t even have time to eat,” he said.

In the last week, the number of new cases plunged by nearly 70% in India’s financial capital, home to 22 million people. After a peak of 11,000 daily cases, the city is now seeing fewer than 2,000 a day.

The turnaround represents a glimmer of hope for India, still in the clutches of a devastating coronavirus surge that has raised public anger at the government.

A well-enforced lockdown and vigilant authorities are being credited for Mumbai’s burgeoning success. Even the capital of New Delhi is seeing faint signs of improvement as infections slacken after weeks of tragedy and desperation playing out in overcrowded hospitals and crematoriums and on the streets.

With over 24 million confirmed cases and 270,000 deaths, India’s caseload is the second highest after the U.S. But experts believe that the country’s steeply rising curve may finally be flattening — even if the plateau is a high one, with an average of 340,000 confirmed daily cases last week. On Monday, reported infections continued to decline as cases dipped below 300,000 for the first time in weeks.

It is still too early to say things are improving, with Mumbai and New Delhi representing only a sliver of the overall situation.

For one, drops in the national caseload, however marginal, largely reflect falling infections in a handful of states with big populations and/or high rates of testing. So the nationwide trends represent an incomplete and misleading picture of how things are faring across India as a whole, experts say.

“There will always be smaller states or cities where things are getting worse, but this won’t be as clear in the national caseload numbers,” said Murad Banaji, a mathematician modeling India’s cases.

Given India’s size and population of nearly 1.4 billion, what’s more important to track is a cascade of peaks at different times instead of a single national one, experts said.

“It seems like we are getting desensitized by the numbers, having gotten used to such high ones,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, a University of Michigan biostatistician tracking the virus in India. “But a relative change or drop in overall cases does not diminish the magnitude of the crisis by any means.”

With active cases over 3.6 million, hospitals are still swamped by patients.

Experts also warn that another reason for an apparent peak or plateau in cases could be that the virus has outrun India’s testing capabilities. As the virus jumps from cities to towns to villages, testing has struggled to keep pace, stirring fears that a rural surge is unfurling even as data lags far behind.

Combating the spread in the countryside, where health infrastructure is scarce and where most Indians live, will be the biggest challenge. “The transmission will be slower and lower, but it can still exact a big toll,” said K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

Even in big cities, testing has become increasingly harder to access. Labs are inundated and results are taking days, leading many to start treating symptoms before confirming a coronavirus infection. In the last month, cases have more than tripled and reported deaths have gone up six times — but testing has only increased by 1.6 times, said Mukherjee. Meanwhile, vaccinations have plummeted by 40%.

One of the biggest concerns for experts is that India may never know the full death toll from the virus, with fatalities undercounted on such a scale that reporters are finding more answers at crematoriums than official state tallies.

But while authorities previously appeared to struggle to even acknowledge the scale, they’re now taking action. “Before, there just wasn’t a focused attention. But now everyone is focused on containing it as much as possible,” Reddy said.

Hit by a staggering shortage of beds, oxygen and other medical supplies, many states are now adding thousands of beds a week, converting stadiums into COVID-19 hospitals, and procuring as much equipment as possible. States across India are preparing to be hit by another torrent of infections and even courts have intervened to help untangle oxygen supplies.

Aid from overseas, while still facing bureaucratic hurdles, is starting to trickle in. More than 11,000 oxygen concentrators, nearly 13,000 oxygen cylinders and 34 million vials of antivirals have been sent to different states.

Still, help is arriving too slowly in many districts as new infections surface in every single region, even the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean.

Even though Mumbai looks as if it might have turned a corner, surrounding Maharashtra state is still seeing around 40,000 daily cases. “You have a really, really complicated and mixed picture,” said Banaji, the mathematician.

But in at least one Mumbai hospital, “the burden is 30% to 40% less than before,” said Dr. Om Shrivastav, a doctor and member of Maharashtra’s COVID-19 task force.

Already, the city and state are bracing for more infections. A court told Maharashtra this week to continue updating and ramping up measures as authorities look into getting vaccines from abroad to fill a domestic shortage.

“We are making sure we’re not caught napping. In the event this happens again, we’re going to do better,” Shrivastav said.

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Ghosal reported from New Delhi. Associated Press journalist Rafiq Maqbool in Mumbai, India, contributed.

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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.

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant

By DANICA KIRKA for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Drinks were raised in toasts and reunited friends hugged each other as thousands of U.K. pubs and restaurants opened Monday for indoor service for the first time since early January. Yet the prime minister sounded a cautious tone, warning about a more contagious COVID-19 variant that threatens reopening plans.

A member of staff serves a drink, as pubs, cafes and restaurants in England reopen indoors under the latest easing of the coronavirus lockdown, in Manchester, England, Monday, May 17, 2021. Pubs and restaurants across much of the U.K. are opening for indoor service for the first time since early January even as the prime minister urged people to be cautious amid the spread of a more contagious COVID-19 variant. (AP Photo Jon Super)

The latest step in the U.K.’s gradual easing of nationwide restrictions also includes reopening theaters, sports venues and museums, raising hopes that Britain’s economy may soon start to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

Andy Frantzeskos, a chef at the Nopi restaurant in London’s Soho district, said he felt “a bit of anxiousness … but more excitement than anything.”

“It’s been a long time coming since lockdown, so we’re all happy to be back and want to cook some good food,” he said.

The government is also relaxing guidance on close personal contact, such as hugging, and permitting international travel, although only 12 countries and territories are on the list of “safe” destinations that don’t require 10 days of quarantine upon return. Thousands of Britons got up early to check in for the first flights to Portugal, which is on the safe list.

But the rapid spread of a variant first discovered in India is tempering the optimism amid memories of how another variant swept across the country in December, triggering England’s third national lockdown. Public health officials and the government are urging people to continue to observe social distancing, even though the situation is different now because almost 70% of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine.

“Please, be cautious about the risks to your loved ones,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter. “Remember that close contact such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease, so you should think about the risks.”

Monday’s reopening allows people in England to go out for a drink or a meal without shivering in rainy outdoor beer gardens. Rules were also being eased in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland due to follow next week.

The next phase in Britain’s reopening is scheduled for June 21, when remaining restrictions are set to be removed. Johnson has warned that a big surge in COVID-19 cases could scuttle those plans.

Confirmed new virus cases have risen over the past week, though they remain well below the peak reported in late December and early January. New infections averaged about 2,300 per day over the past seven days compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak. Deaths averaged just over 10 a day during the same period, down from a peak of 1,820 on Jan. 20.

Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest figure in Europe.

Government scientific advisers say the new variant, formally known as B.1.617.2, is more transmissible than the U.K.’s main strain, though it is unclear by how much. Health officials, backed by the army, are carrying out surge testing and surge vaccinations in Bolton and Blackburn in northwest England, where cases of the variant are clustered.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade group UKHospitality, said almost 1 million people were returning to work on Monday, but that businesses were counting on the final step out of lockdown taking place as planned on June 21.

“We’ve already lost 12,000 businesses,” she said. “There’s been an almost 1-in-5 contraction in restaurants in city centers, 1-in-10 restaurants lost over the whole of the country. So these are businesses clinging on by their fingertips, and they have no fuel left in the tank. If those social distancing restrictions remain, they are simply not viable.”

Ian Snowball, owner of the Showtime Bar in Huddersfield, northern England, said it was nice to be inside again, rather than facing the island nation’s unpredictable weather.

“I don’t have to have a hoodie or a coat on any more – it’s great,” he said. “And hopefully we don’t have to go back outside again, hopefully this is the end of it now.”

Other Britons couldn’t wait to leave altogether.

Keith and Janice Tomsett, a retired couple in their 70s, were on their way to the Portuguese island of Madeira. They booked their holiday in October “on the off-chance” it could go ahead. They had followed all the testing guidelines and were fully vaccinated.

“After 15 months of being locked up, this is unbelievably good,″ Keith Tomsett said. “It was even worth getting up at 3 o’clock this morning.”

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Jill Lawless, Jo Kearney and Pan Pylas contributed to this story.

Deaths rise as Palestinians flee heavy Israeli fire in Gaza

By FARES AKRAM and JOSEPH KRAUSS for the Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinians grabbed children and belongings and fled their homes Friday as Israel barraged the northern Gaza Strip with tank fire and airstrikes, killing a family of six in their house and heavily damaging other neighborhoods in what it said was an operation to clear militant tunnels.

Palestinians flee their homes after overnight Israeli heavy missile strikes on their neighborhoods in the outskirts of Gaza City, Friday, May 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

As international efforts at a cease-fire stepped up, Israel appeared to be looking to inflict intensified damage on the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel.

The Gaza violence increasingly spilled over into turmoil elsewhere.

Across the West Bank, Palestinians held their most widespread protests since 2017, with hundreds in at least nine towns burning tires and throwing stones at Israeli troops. Soldiers opening fire killed six, according to Palestinian health officials, while a seventh Palestinian was killed as he tried to stab an Israeli soldier.ADVERTISEMENT

Within Israel, communal violence erupted for a fourth night. Jewish and Arab mobs clashed in the flashpoint town of Lod, even after additional security forces were deployed.

In Gaza, the toll from the fighting rose to 122 killed, including 31 children and 20 women, with 900 wounded, according to the Health Ministry. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.

Israel called up 9,000 reservists Thursday to join its troops massed at the Gaza border, and an army spokesman spoke of a possible ground assault into the densely populated territory, though he gave no timetable. A day later, there was no sign of an incursion.

But before dawn Friday, tanks deployed on the border and warplanes carried out an intense barrage on the northern end of the Gaza Strip.

Houda Ouda said she and her extended family ran frantically into their home in the town of Beit Hanoun, seeking safety as the earth shook for two and half hours in the darkness.

“We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit,” she said. When daylight came, she saw the swath of destruction: streets cratered, buildings crushed or with facades blown off, an olive tree burned bare, dust covering everything.

Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, aged 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-story apartment building to rubble in the neighboring town of Beit Lahia, residents said. Four strikes hit the building at 11 p.m., just before the family went to sleep, Rafat’s brother Fadi said. The building’s owner and his wife also were killed.

“It was a massacre,” said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. “My feelings are indescribable.”

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the operation involved tank fire and airstrikes, aimed at destroying a tunnel network beneath Gaza City that the military refers to as “the Metro,” used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes.

“As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,” he said. “Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time.”

When the sun rose, residents streamed out of the area in pickup trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. “We were terrified for our children, who were screaming and shaking,” said Hedaia Maarouf, who fled with her extended family of 19 people, including 13 children.

Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for UNRWA, said thousands broke into 16 schools run by the relief agency, which he said was scrambling to find a way to shelter them, given movement restrictions on its staff amid the fighting and COVID-19 worries.

Mohammed Ghabayen, who took refuge in a school with his family, said his children had eaten nothing since the day before, and they had no mattresses to sleep on. “And this is in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis,” he said. “We don’t know whether to take precautions for the coronavirus or the rockets or what to do exactly.

Hamas showed no signs of backing down. So far, it has fired some 1,800 rockets toward Israel, some targeting the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, although more than a quarter of them have fallen short inside Gaza and most of the rest have been intercepted by missile defense systems.

Still, the rockets have brought life in parts of southern Israel to a standstill and caused disruptions at airports.

A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, which would be a chance “to increase our catch” of Israeli soldiers.

The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for cease-fire talks that showed no signs of progress. Egypt, Qatar and the U.N. were leading truce efforts.

An Egyptian intelligence official with knowledge of the talks said Israel rejected an Egyptian proposal for a yearlong truce with Hamas and other Gaza militants, which would have started at midnight Thursday had Israel agreed. He said Hamas had accepted the proposal.

The official said Israel wants to delay a cease-fire to give time to destroy more of Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s military capabilities. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Hamas would “pay a very heavy price” for its rocket attacks.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he spoke with Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction.”

He said the goal now is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks.” He called the effort “a work in progress.”

The fighting has, for the moment, disrupted efforts by Netanyahu’s political opponents to form a new government coalition, prolonging his effort to stay in office after inconclusive elections. His rivals have three weeks to agree on a coalition but need the support of an Arab party, whose leader has said he cannot negotiate while Israel is fighting in Gaza.

Israel has come under heavy international criticism for civilian casualties during three previous wars in Gaza, home to more than 2 million Palestinians. It says Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by placing military infrastructure in civilian areas and launching rockets from them.

The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests there against the policing of a flashpoint holy site and efforts by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes.

The violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and other mixed cities across Israel has added a layer of volatility to the conflict not seen in more than two decades.

The violence continued overnight. A Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded in Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, and Israeli media said a second Jewish man was shot. In the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa, an Israeli soldier was attacked by a group of Arabs and hospitalized in serious condition.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 750 suspects have been arrested since the communal violence began this week.

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Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.

UK jubilant as lockdown restrictions to be lifted next week

By SYLVIA HUI for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — When London’s Science Museum reopens next week, it will have some new artifacts: empty vaccine vials, testing kits and other items collected during the pandemic, to be featured in a new COVID-19 display.

Britain isn’t quite ready to consign the coronavirus to a museum — the outbreak is far from over here. But there is a definite feeling that the U.K. has turned a corner, and the mood in the country is jubilant. “The end is in sight,” one newspaper front page claimed recently. “Free at last!” read another.

Thanks to an efficient vaccine rollout program, Britain is finally saying goodbye to months of tough lockdown restrictions.

FILE – In this Monday, April 12, 2021 file photo, a woman takes a photo on her phone of her drink in Soho, London, as some of England’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions were eased by the government. Thanks to an efficient vaccine roll out program and high uptake rates, Britain is finally saying goodbye to months of tough lockdown restrictions. From Monday May 17, 2021, all restaurants and bars can fully reopen, as can hotels, cinemas, theatres and museums, and for the first time since March 2020, Britons can hug friends and family and meet up inside other people’s houses. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, File)

Starting Monday, all restaurants and bars in England can reopen with some precautions in place, as can hotels, theaters and museums. And Britons will be able to hug friends and family again, with the easing of social distancing rules that have been in place since the pandemic began.

It’s the biggest step yet to reopen the country following an easing of the crisis blamed for nearly 128,000 deaths, the highest reported COVID-19 toll in Europe.

Deaths in Britain have come down to single digits in recent days. It’s a far cry from January, when deaths topped 1,800 in a single day amid a brutal second wave driven by a more infectious variant first found in Kent, in southeastern England.

New cases have plummeted to an average of around 2,000 a day, compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter.

There are still worries. British authorities have expressed anxiety about a rise in cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in India. Government officials are poised to order further action, including door-to-door testing in the worst-affected areas. One response being considered is moving up the date for a second dose of vaccine for eligible groups to increase protection.

British health officials have raced to get ahead of the virus by vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people a day at hospitals, soccer pitches, churches and a racecourse. As of this week, almost 38 million people — approximately 68% of the adult population — have received their first dose. Almost 19 million have had both doses.

It’s an impressive feat, and many credit Britain’s universal public health system for much of the success.

Experts say the National Health Service, one of the country’s most revered institutions, is able to target the whole population and easily identify those most at risk because almost everyone is registered with a local general practitioner.

That infrastructure, combined with the government’s early start in securing vaccine doses, was key. British authorities began ordering millions of doses from multiple manufacturers late last spring, striking deals months ahead of the European Union and securing more than enough vaccine to inoculate the entire population.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that the two countries in the world with probably the strongest primary care systems, which are us and Israel, are doing the best with vaccine rollout,” said Beccy Baird, a policy researcher at the King’s Fund, a charity for improving health care.

“We have the medical records. We can understand where our patients are. We’re not trying to negotiate with loads of different insurance companies. … It’s the same standard right through the country,” she added. “Whereas in the States, it’s going to be harder to really think about how do you reach underserved communities, how do you get out there and provide the same access to everybody to this vaccine?”

David Salisbury, a former director of the government’s immunization program and a fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, added that Britain also has the edge because of its track record in successfully rolling out other vaccines, such as the seasonal flu shot.

Many around the world were skeptical about Britain’s decision to delay the second dose by up to 12 weeks to free up vaccine for more people, but that strategy also paid huge dividends. The two shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were intended to be given three and four weeks apart.

Anthony Harnden, an Oxford academic and a top government vaccination adviser, said “there were lots of questions asked” and “we were up against many countries” who disagreed with spacing out the two doses, but officials stuck to the plan.

“You have to remember, looking back at that time, there were a thousand or more people dying every day in the U.K. So there was a huge imperative to get our vulnerable people vaccinated,” he said. “It was an innovative strategy, a bold strategy, but it was based on our experience of previous vaccines.”

The vaccine program’s success has been a much-needed boost for Britain.

Many of those who accuse the government of poorly managing the outbreak last year say the U.K. is finally doing something right.

“We didn’t hand (the vaccine rollout) over to an outsourcing company. That would have been a major failure. And we also didn’t delay the way we did in the first wave. We moved quickly,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “So it was almost like the mirror image of the mistakes we made in the first wave.”

Still, McKee said he is worried that too many people may throw caution to the wind too soon.

Young people, who run a much lower risk of serious illness but can still spread the virus, are not included in the vaccination program. Official figures also show significant gaps in vaccine uptake among minorities and poor people.

McKee and many others are also concerned about the variants that are turning up. That risk is especially worrying as the U.K. slowly reopens to foreign tourists this summer.

“We’ve seen very discouraging evidence from Chile and from the Seychelles, both of which have high proportions of people who have been vaccinated and where many restrictions were lifted, and they’ve had upsurges,” McKee said.

Harnden is more optimistic. If the U.K. can roll out a booster vaccine program later this year and if people remain cautious, he said, “we can get ourselves out of this” and get close to normal by the summer of 2022.

“We’re not completely out of this yet,” he said, “but we’re in a much, much better place than in the last few months.”

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Associated Press writer Mike Fuller contributed to this report.

Slovakia plans to keeping using AstraZeneca despite pause

From the Associated Press

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Slovakia’s health minister says he plans to keep AstraZeneca in the country’s vaccine arsenal, speaking a day after the country suspended use of the shots after a recipient died.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger receives his first AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccination at the National Soccer Stadium in Bratislava, Slovakia, Saturday, May 1, 2021. The AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine should remain part of Slovakia’s vaccination program the country’s Health Minister said on Wednesday, May 12. Slovakia on Tuesday halted use of the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine after Slovakia’s State Institute for Drug Control concluded last week that the death of a 47-year-old woman who received the AstraZeneca was “likely” linked to the vaccine. (Jakub Kotian/TASR via AP)

Slovakia on Tuesday halted use of the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine after its State Institute for Drug Control concluded last week that the death of a 47-year-old woman who received the AstraZeneca was “likely” linked to the vaccine.

AstraZeneca is still being administered, however, to those who have already gotten the first dose and are awaiting a second shot. It’s currently being given to people between the ages of 18 and 44.

Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky said the cause of woman’s death was still under investigation. He said another, and the main reason, for the suspension was that Slovakia does not have enough AstraZeneca shots to continue their administration.

Slovakia, like other members of the European Union, have seen a drop in deliveries from the company.

“We still count on AstraZeneca in our vaccination plan,” Lengvarsky said.

Millions of doses of AstraZeneca have been safely administered in Europe, but concerns linger over a rare type of blood clot seen in an extremely small number of recipients.

Denmark and Norway, countries which are very cautious with all vaccines, suspended their use of AstraZeneca shots in March amid news of the rare blood clots.

Lengvarsky said his ministry was working to allow people to have a free choice beginning in June among the available vaccines, “including the unregistered ones.”

Slovakia has 200,000 doses of Russia-made Sputnik V vaccine available but has not allowed its use yet. Lengvarsky said use of the Russian shots might possibly also start in June. He still has to approve Sputnik V’s use.

Slovakia has been administering Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, and is expected to have Johnson & Johnson soon.

It would be only the second European Union nation after Hungary to use Sputnik V, which has not been authorized by the European Medicines Agency.

A secret deal for Slovakia to purchase 2 million Sputnik V shots orchestrated by then-Prime Minister Igor Matovic triggered a political crisis in March that resulted in the Slovak government’s collapse.

Taming the virus: US deaths hit lowest level in 10 months

By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH and STEPHEN GROVES for the Associated Press

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have tumbled to an average of around 600 per day — the lowest level in 10 months — with the number of lives lost dropping to single digits in well over half the states and hitting zero on some days.

FILE – In this May 5, 2021, file photo, a group of friends, who said they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, mingle on the beach in the Venice section of Los Angeles. COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have tumbled to an average of just over 600 per day — the lowest level in 10 months — with the number of lives lost dropping to single digits in well over half the states and hitting zero on some days. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Confirmed infections, meanwhile, have fallen to about 38,000 day on average, their lowest mark since mid-September. While that is still cause for concern, they have plummeted 85% from a peak of more than a quarter-million cases per day in early January.

The last time deaths were this low was early July, nearly a year ago. COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. topped out in mid-January at an average of more than 3,400 a day, just a month into the biggest vaccination drive in the nation’s history.

Kansas reported no new deaths from Friday through Monday. In Massachusetts, the Boston Herald put a huge zero on Wednesday’s front page under the headline “First time in nearly a year state has no new coronavirus deaths.”

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, said that vaccinations have been crucial even as the nation struggles to reach herd immunity.

“The primary objective is to deny this virus the ability to kill at the rate that it could, and that has been achieved,” he said. “We have in in effect tamed the virus.”

Nearly 45% of the nation’s adults are fully vaccinated, and over 58% have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This week, Pfizer’s vaccine won authorization for use in 12- to 15-year-olds, in a move that could make it easier to reopen the nation’s schools.

Physicians like Dr. Tom Dean in South Dakota’s rural Jerauld County are cautiously optimistic, concerned about the many people who have decided against getting vaccinated or have grown lax in guarding against infections. The county has seen just three confirmed cases in the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins data.

“What I’m afraid of is people believing this whole thing is over and you don’t have to worry about it any more,” Dean said. “I think complacency is our biggest threat right now.”

The encouraging outlook stands in sharp contrast to the catastrophe unfolding in places like India and Brazil.

The overall U.S. death toll stands at about 583,000, and teams of experts consulted by the CDC projected in a report last week that new deaths and cases will fall sharply by the end of July and continue dropping after that.

“I think we are in a great place, but I think India is an important cautionary tale,” warned Justin Lessler, a professor of epidemiology at John Hopkins.

“If there is a right combination of vaccine hesitancy, potentially new variants and quickly rolling back control measures that comes together, we could potentially screw this up and have yet another wave that is completely unnecessary at this point.”

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas, and Groves from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Man arrested after tiger shown in a yard of his Houston home

By JUAN A. LOZANO for the Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — A Texas man free on bond from a murder charge was returned to custody Monday after neighbors found a pet tiger wandering around a Houston neighborhood.

Houston police tweeted Monday night that Victor Hugo Cuevas, 26, was back in custody charged with felony evading arrest.

Police had said they believed the tiger had belonged to Cuevas, but his attorney questioned the accuracy of that belief.

Waller County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Wes Manion approximates the size of the tiger, Monday, May 10, 2021, in Houston, that was loose the night before on the 1100 block of Ivy Wall Drive. Manion, who was off-duty at the time, arrived shortly after seeing posts by neighbors. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Video of the Sunday night encounter shows the tiger coming face-to-face with an armed off-duty Waller County sheriff’s deputy, police said. During the encounter, the deputy can be heard yelling at Cuevas to get the animal back inside.

No shots were fired.

When officers arrived, Cuevas put the animal in a white Jeep Cherokee and drove off, Houston police Cmdr. Ron Borza said during a news conference Monday. Cuevas got away after a brief pursuit, he said.

Police said Monday that the tiger’s whereabouts are not known. Borza had said earlier Monday that the main concern was finding Cuevas and finding the tiger “because what I don’t want him to do is harm that tiger. We have plenty of places we can take that tiger and keep it safe and give it a home for the rest of its life.”

Cuevas’ attorney, Michael W. Elliott, said he didn’t think Cuevas was the owner of the tiger or that he was taking care of the animal. The attorney also said it was unclear to him if it was Cuevas seen on videos of the incident.

“People are making a lot of assumptions in this particular case. Maybe he might be the hero out there who caught the tiger that was in the neighborhood,” Elliott said.

Cuevas was charged with murder in a 2017 fatal shooting of a man outside a restaurant in neighboring Fort Bend County and was out on bond. Elliott said Cuevas has maintained the shooting was self-defense and is innocent of the murder charge.

Cuevas also apparently had two monkeys in the home, Borza said.

Having a monkey is not illegal in Houston if the animal is under 30 pounds (13.5 kilograms). Tigers are not allowed within Houston city limits unless the handler, such as a zoo, is licensed to have exotic animals. Texas has no statewide law forbidding private ownership of tigers and other exotic animals.

In 2019, some people who went into an abandoned Houston home to smoke marijuana found a caged tiger. The tiger’s owner was later ordered to pay for the animal’s care at an East Texas wildlife refuge.

“Private citizens and emergency responders should not have to come face to face with a lion or a tiger in a crisis,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, a Washington, D.C.-based animal rights group. “These animals belong in the wild or in reputable sanctuaries or zoos and nowhere else.”

Borza said residents should not have such animals because they can be unpredictable.

“If that tiger was to get out and start doing some damage yesterday, I’m sure one of these citizens would have shot the tiger. We have plenty of neighbors out here with guns, and we don’t want to see that. It’s not the animal’s fault. It’s the breeder’s fault. It’s unacceptable,” he said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

School shooting in Russia kills 9 people; suspect arrested

By DARIA LITVINOVA for the Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — A gunman launched an attack on a school in the Russian city of Kazan that left at least nine people dead Tuesday — including seven youngsters — and sent students running out of the building as smoke poured from one of the windows.

At least 21 others were hospitalized, six in extremely grave condition, authorities said.

Medics and friends help a woman board an ambulance at a school after a shooting in Kazan, Russia, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Russian media report that several people have been killed and four wounded in a school shooting in the city of Kazan. Russia’s state RIA Novosti news agency reported the shooting took place Tuesday morning, citing emergency services. (AP Photo/Roman Kruchinin)

The attacker, identified only as a 19-year-old, was arrested, officials said. They gave no immediate details on a motive.

But Russian media said the gunman was a former student at the school who called himself “a god” on his account on the messaging app Telegram and promised to “kill a large amount of biomass” on the morning of the shooting.

Attacks on schools are rare in Russia, and President Vladimir Putin reacted by ordering the head of the country’s National Guard to revise regulations on the types of weapons allowed for civilian use.

Four boys and three girls, all eighth-graders, died, as well as a teacher and another school employee, said Rustam Minnikhanov, governor of the Tatarstan republic, where Kazan is the capital.

Footage released by Russian media showed students dressed in black and white running out of the building. Another video depicted shattered windows, a stream of smoke coming out of one, and the sound of gunfire. Dozens of ambulances lined up at the entrance.

Russian media said while some students were able to escape, others were trapped inside during the ordeal.

“The terrorist has been arrested, 19 years old. A firearm is registered in his name. Other accomplices haven’t been established. An investigation is underway,” Minnikhanov said.

Authorities said the 21 hospitalized included 18 children.

Authorities announced a day of mourning on Wednesday and canceled all classes in Kazan schools. Authorities tightened security at all schools in the city of about 1.2 million people, 430 miles (700 kilometers) east of Moscow.

The deadliest school attack in Russia took place in 2004 in the city of Beslan, when Islamic militants took more 1,000 people hostage for several days. The siege ended in gunfire and explosions, leaving 334 dead, more than half of them children.

In 2018, a teenager killed 20 people at his vocational school before killing himself in Kerch, a city in the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea. In the wake of that attack, Putin ordered authorities to tighten control over gun ownership. But most of the proposed legislative changes were turned down by the parliament or the government, the Kommersant newspaper reported.

Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein said on Telegram that the suspect in the Kazan attack received a permit for a shotgun less than two weeks ago and that the school had no security aside from a panic button.

Authorities in Tatarstan ordered checks on all gun owners in the region.

Putin extended condolences to the families of the victims and ordered the government to give them all necessary assistance. Russian officials promised to pay families 1 million rubles (roughly $13,500) each and give 200,000 to 400,000 rubles ($2,700-$5,400) to the wounded.

The Kremlin sent a plane with doctors and medical equipment to Kazan, and the country’s health and education ministers headed to the region.

Hopes fade for minke whale stuck in River Thames near London

By MIKE FULLER for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Hopes faded Monday for a young minke whale who became trapped in the River Thames near London, authorities said.

Lifeboat workers attempt to assist a stranded young Minke whale on the River Thames near Teddington Lock, in London, Monday, May 10, 2021. A Port of London Authority spokesperson said a whale had never been seen this far up the Thames before, 95 miles from its mouth. The whale had been freed on Sunday after it became stuck at Richmond lock but has remained in the Thames.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Rescuers trying to recapture the whale said that by 5 p.m. (1600 GMT; 12 p.m. EDT) its condition had deteriorated rapidly and it would soon be stranded by the dropping tide near Teddington in southwest London.

“Once the whale is beached a veterinary team will be on stand by to euthanize the animal to end its suffering,” the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) said in a statement.

The BDMLR said the injured and drained calf would struggle to swim even if it managed to get back into deeper water.

Crews had already worked for hours before being able to free the whale early Monday from a perilous stranding on a lock near Richmond, a few miles downstream of Teddington.

But as the mammal was being taken for further health checks on an inflatable pontoon, it slipped back into the water.

“This animal is very, very lost,” Port of London Authority spokesman Martin Garside said. “It’s like seeing a camel at the North Pole.”

Garside said a whale had never been seen this far up the Thames before, 95 miles (150 kilometers) along the river from its mouth, with the sheer distance making the whale’s route back to safety extremely difficult.

The whale, which measured about four meters (13 feet) long, was first seen lying on the lock’s boat rollers Sunday night. Hundreds of people gathered along the banks of the Thames to watch the rescue operation as night fell. The area is known for wide tidal swings that easily reach over 5.5 meters (18 feet) high.

Port staff were joined by firefighters, coast guard members and marine animal rescue divers.

Minke whales, which are more typically found in the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, can grow to a size of nine meters (30 feet).

Meanwhile, in Spain, a marine wildlife group was working to make sure that a gray whale found near Spain’s northeastern Mediterranean coast, far from its usual northern Pacific migration routes, doesn’t get stranded.

Maritime rescuers, firefighters and other authorities worked with conservationists over the weekend to keep a whale nicknamed Wally from venturing into shallow water and ports near Barcelona.

The maritime group said the whale entered the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar and has been spotted since March in the vicinity of Morocco, Algeria, Italy and France.

In an aerial video released by the group, the whale could be seen very close to a seawall near one of Barcelona’s main beaches.

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Aritz Parra contributed to this report from Madrid.

Capitol rioters make questionable claims about police

By JACQUES BILLEAUD for the Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — Joshua Matthew Black said in a YouTube video that he was protecting the officer at the U.S. Capitol who had been pepper sprayed and fallen to the ground as the crowd rushed the building entrance on Jan. 6.

“Let him out, he’s done,” Black claimed to have told rioters.

FILE – In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump try to open a door of the U.S. Capitol as they riot in Washington. At least a dozen of the 400 people charged so far in the Jan. 6 insurrection have made dubious claims about their encounters with officers at the Capitol. The most frequent argument is that they can’t be guilty of anything, because police stood by and welcomed them inside, even though the mob pushed past police barriers, sprayed chemical irritants and smashed windows as chaos enveloped the government complex. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

But federal prosecutors say surveillance footage doesn’t back up Black’s account. They said he acknowledged that he wanted to get the officer out of the way — because the cop was blocking his path inside.

At least a dozen of the 400 people charged so far in the Jan. 6 insurrection have made dubious claims about their encounters with officers at the Capitol. The most frequent argument is that they can’t be guilty of anything, because police stood by and welcomed them inside, even though the mob pushed past police barriers, sprayed chemical irritants and smashed windows as chaos enveloped the government complex.

The January melee to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory was instigated by a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump who have professed their love of law enforcement and derided the mass police overhaul protests that shook the nation last year following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

But they quickly turned on police in one violent encounter after another.

“We backed you guys in the summer,” one protester screamed at three officers cornered against a door by dozens of men screaming for them to get out of their way. “When the whole country hated you, we had your back!”

The Capitol Police didn’t plan for a riot. They were badly outnumbered and it took hours for reinforcements to arrive — a massive failure that is now under investigation. Throughout the insurrection, police officers were injured, mocked, ridiculed and threatened. One Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, died after the riot.

Officers who spoke to The Associated Press said police had to decide on their own how to fight them off. There was no direction or plan and they were told not to fire on the crowd, they said. One cop ran from one side of the building to another, fighting hand-to-hand against rioters. Another decided to respond to any calls of officers in distress and spent three hours helping cops who had been immobilized by bear spray or other chemicals.

Three officers were able to handcuff one rioter. But a crowd swarmed the group and took the arrested man away with the handcuffs still on.

Still, some rioters claim police just gave up and told them that the building was now theirs. And a few — including one accused of trying to pull off an officer’s gas mask in a bid to expose the officer to bear spray — have claimed to be protecting police.

Matthew Martin, an employee for a defense contractor from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who has acknowledged being inside the building, claimed police were opening doors for people as they walked into the Capitol.

Dan Cron, Martin’s attorney, said a photo filed in court by authorities shows an officer using his back to hold a door open for people. No police barriers were in place when Martin walked into the Capitol area, nor was there anyone telling people they weren’t allowed in the building, Cron said.

“He thought that was OK,” Cron said, adding that his client was inside the Capitol for less than 10 minutes and didn’t commit any violence. “He doesn’t know what the policies and procedures at the Capitol are,” Cron said. “He had never been there.”

On the surface, images taken of officers who appear to step aside as the mob stormed the building could be beneficial to the rioters’ claims. In the days after Jan. 6, those images fueled rumors that police had stood by on purpose, but they have not been substantiated.

Experts caution against drawing conclusions.

“The context will be very important in claiming officers welcomed in a crowd,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “They were trying to control a fast-developing, difficult, potentially explosive situation. So I don’t think it’s enough to say, ‘The officer didn’t tackle me.’”

Authorities say Michael Quick of Springfield, Missouri, claimed that he didn’t know at the time that he wasn’t allowed in the Capitol when he and his brother climbed in through an open window. He believed police were letting people in, despite seeing officers in riot gear.

Attorney Dee Wampler, who represents Michael and Stephen Quick, said he doesn’t currently have proof for the claim the officers were letting people into the building, but he pointed out that he has thousands of documents from prosecutors still left to review.

“If this case was tried, the evidence would be that there was a fairly large number of officers that were standing around when my clients entered, and they didn’t try to stop the Quicks,” Wampler said, adding that his clients didn’t commit any violence inside the Capitol.

But the argument did not work for Jacob Chansley, the Arizona man who sported face paint, a furry hat with horns and carried a spear during the riot.

Chansley’s lawyer said an officer told his client that “the building is yours” and that he was among the third wave of rioters entering the Capitol.

In rejecting a request two months ago to free Chansley from jail, Judge Royce Lamberth said it wasn’t clear who made the comment and concluded Chansley was unable to prove that officers waved him into the building, citing a video that the judge said proves that the Phoenix man was among the first wave of rioters in the building. The judge noted that rioters were crawling in through broken windows when Chansley entered the Capitol through a door.

Chansley’s attorney, Albert Watkins, still insists that his client was in the third wave of rioters in the building and said it shouldn’t shock the public that rioters who were hanging on to Trump’s every word and believed the election was stolen legitimately believed they were allowed in the building. “It’s what’s in their hearts and minds,” Watkins said.

In all, Joshua Black made two claims that he helped officers at the Capitol.

Before encountering the officer he claimed to have protected at a Capitol doorway, Black said, police shot him in the cheek with a plastic projectile as he tried to keep another officer from being “bootstomped” by other rioters while outside the Capitol. But prosecutors say surveillance video doesn’t depict an officer on the ground, nor is Black shown trying to help an officer.

Black’s attorney, Clark Fleckinger II, didn’t return a phone call and email seeking comment.

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Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.

Hamas fires rockets at Jerusalem after clashes at mosque

By ILAN BEN ZION and JOSEPH KRAUSS for the Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hamas militants fired a large barrage of rockets into Israel on Monday, including one that set off air raid sirens as far away as Jerusalem, after hundreds of Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli police at a flashpoint religious site in the contested holy city.

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, Monday, May. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The early evening attack drastically escalated what already are heightened tensions throughout the region following weeks of confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem that have threatened to become a wider conflict.

Shortly after the sirens sounded, explosions could be heard in Jerusalem. One rocket fell on the western outskirts of the city, lightly damaging a home and causing a brushfire. The Israeli army said there was an initial burst of seven rockets, one was intercepted, and rocket fire was continuing in southern Israel.

Gaza health officials said nine people, including three children, were killed in an explosion in the northern Gaza Strip. The cause of the blast was not immediately known. Meanwhile, Hamas media reported that an Israeli drone strike killed a Palestinian, also in the northern Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army said an Israeli civilian in the country’s south suffered mild injuries when a vehicle was struck by an anti-tank missile from Gaza.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, said the attack was a response to what he called Israeli “crimes and aggression” in Jerusalem. “This is a message the enemy has to understand well,” he said.

He threatened more attacks if Israel again invades the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or carries out planned evictions of Palestinian families from a neighborhood of east Jerusalem that have raised tensions.

Earlier, Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians at the iconic compound, which is Islam’s third-holiest site and considered Judaism’s holiest. Tensions at the site have been the trigger for prolonged bouts of violence in the past, including the last Palestinian intifada, or uprising. It was not clear if the current unrest would escalate or dissipate in the coming days.

More than a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades landed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as police and protesters faced off inside the walled compound that surrounds it, said an Associated Press photographer at the scene. Smoke rose in front of the mosque and the iconic golden-domed shrine on the site, and rocks littered the nearby plaza. Inside one area of the compound, shoes and debris lay scattered over ornate carpets.

More than 305 Palestinians were hurt, including 228 who went to hospitals and clinics for treatment, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. Seven of the injured were in serious condition. Police said 21 officers were hurt, including three who were hospitalized. Israeli paramedics said seven Israeli civilians were also hurt.

In an apparent attempt to avoid further confrontation, Israeli authorities changed the planned route of a march by ultranationalist Jews through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City to mark Jerusalem Day, which celebrates Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem.

Monday’s confrontation was the latest after weeks of almost nightly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the Old City of Jerusalem, the emotional center of their conflict, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The month tends to be a time of heightened religious sensitivities.

Most recently, the tensions have been fueled by the planned eviction of dozens of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem where Israeli settlers have waged a lengthy legal battle to take over properties.

Israel’s Supreme Court postponed a key ruling Monday in the case, citing the “circumstances.”

Over the past few days, hundreds of Palestinians and several dozen police officers have been hurt in clashes in and around the Old City, including the sacred compound, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

An AP photographer at the scene said that early Monday morning, protesters had barricaded gates to the walled compound with wooden boards and scrap metal. Sometime after 7. a.m., clashes erupted, with those inside throwing stones at police deployed outside.

Police entered the compound, firing tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets and stun grenades, some of which enterd the mosque.

Police said protesters hurled stones at officers and onto an adjoining roadway near the Western Wall, where thousands of Israeli Jews had gathered to pray.

The tensions in Jerusalem have threatened to reverberate throughout the region and come at a crucial point in Israel’s political crisis after longtime leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition last week. His opponents are now working to build an alternate government.

Before Monday’s rocket attack on Jerusalem, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Gaza, Palestinian militants had fired several barrages of rockets into southern Israel. Protesters allied with the ruling Hamas militant group have launched dozens of incendiary balloons into Israel, setting off fires across the southern part of the country.

The rare strike on Jerusalem came moments after Hamas had set a deadline for Israel to remove its forces from the mosque compound and Sheikh Jarrah and release Palestinians detained in the latest clashes.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, has fought three wars with Israel since it seized power in Gaza in 2007. The group possesses a vast arsenal of missiles and rockets capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel.

The rocket strike on Jerusalem was a significant escalation and raised the likelihood of a tough Israeli response. Israel’s response thus far has come under growing international criticism.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled closed consultations on the situation Monday.

Late Sunday, the U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. A White House statement said that Sullivan called on Israel to “pursue appropriate measures to ensure calm” and expressed the U.S.’s “serious concerns” about the ongoing violence and planned evictions.

Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed back against the criticism Monday, saying Israel is determined to ensure the rights of worship for all and that this “requires from time to time stand up and stand strong as Israeli police and our security forces are doing now.”

The day began with police announcing that Jews would be barred from visiting the holy site on Jerusalem Day, which is marked with a flag-waving parade through the Old City that is widely perceived by Palestinians as a provocative display in the contested city.

Just as the parade was about to begin, police said they were altering the route at the instruction of political leaders. Several thousand people, many of them from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, were participating.

In the 1967 Mideast war in which Israel captured east Jerusalem, it also took the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It later annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital.

Rio’s deadly police shootout prompts claims of abuse

By DAVID BILLER and MARCELO SILVA DE SOUSA for the Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A bloody, hourslong gunbattle in a Rio de Janeiro slum echoed into Friday, with authorities saying the police mission successfully eliminated two dozen criminals, while residents and activists claimed human rights abuses.

It was just after sunrise Thursday when dozens of officers from Rio de Janeiro state’s civil police stormed Jacarezinho, a working-class favela in the city’s northern zone. They were targeting drug traffickers from one of Brazil’s most notorious criminal organizations, Comando Vermelho, and the bodies piled up quickly.

Blood covers the floor of a home during a police operation targeting drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, May 6, 2021. At least 25 people died including one police officer and 24 suspects, according to the press office of Rio’s civil police. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

When the fighting stopped, there were 25 dead — one police officer and 24 people described by the police as “criminals.”

Rio’s moniker of “Marvelous City” can often seem a cruel irony in the favelas, given their stark poverty, violent crime and subjugation to drug traffickers or militias. But even here, Thursday’s clash was a jarring anomaly that analysts declared one of the city’s deadliest police operations ever.

The bloodshed also laid bare Brazil’s perennial divide over whether, as a common local saying goes, “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” Fervent law-and-order sentiment fueled the successful presidential run in 2018 by Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain whose home is in Rio. He drew support from much of society with his calls to diminish legal constraints on officers’ use of lethal force against criminals.

The administration of Rio state’s Gov. Cláudio Castro, a Bolsonaro ally, said in an emailed statement that it lamented the deaths, but that the operation was “oriented by long and detailed investigative and intelligence work that took months.”

The raid sought to rout gang recruitment of teenagers, police said in an earlier statement, which also cited Comando Vermelho’s “warlike structure of soldiers equipped with rifles, grenades, bulletproof vests.”Police conduct an operation against alleged drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Television images showed a police helicopter flying low over the Jacarezinho favela as men with high-powered rifles hopped from roof to roof to evade officers.

Others didn’t escape.

One resident told The Associated Press how a man barged into her humble home around 8 a.m. bleeding from a gunshot wound. He hid in her daughter’s room, but police came rushing in right behind him.

She said that she and her family saw officers shoot the unarmed man.

Hours later, his blood was still pooled on her tile floor and soaked into a blanket decorated with hearts.

About 50 residents of Jacarezinho poured into a narrow street to follow members of the state legislature’s human rights commission who conducted an inspection following the shootouts. They shouted “Justice!” while clapping their hands. Some raised their right fists into the air.Blood covers the floor and a bed inside a home during a police operation targeting drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Felipe Curi, a detective in Rio’s civil police, denied there were any executions.

“There were no suspects killed. They were all traffickers or criminals who tried to take the lives of our police officers and there was no other alternative,” he said at a news conference.

Curi said some suspects had sought refuge in residents’ homes, and six of them were arrested. Police also seized 16 pistols, six rifles, a submachine gun, 12 grenades and a shotgun, he said.

Bolsonaro’s son Carlos, a Rio city councilman who is influential on social media, supported police. He expressed condolences to the family of the fallen officer on Twitter, while skipping any mention of the other 24 dead or their families. The president didn’t refer to the incident at all Thursday night in his weekly live broadcast on Facebook.Weapons and drugs seized during a police raid are displayed for the press at city police headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Bolsonaro’s political rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said any operation that produces two dozen deaths doesn’t qualify as public security.

“That is the absence of the government that offers education and jobs, the cause of a great deal of violence,” said da Silva, who is widely expected to mount a challenge to Bolsonaro’s reelection bid next year.

The Brazilian divisions of international advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged public prosecutors to thoroughly investigate the operation.

“Even if the victims were suspected of criminal association, which has not been proven, summary executions of this kind are entirely unjustifiable,” said Jurema Werneck, Amnesty’s executive director in Brazil.

The Rio state prosecutors’ office said in a statement to the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that it would investigate accusations of violence, adding that the case required a probe that is independent from police.Residents protest a police operation targeting drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a ruling last year prohibiting police operations in Rio’s favelas during the pandemic unless “absolutely exceptional.”

The order came after police fatally shot a 14-year-old in a home where there was no indication of any illegal activity. The teen’s death sparked a Brazilian iteration of Black Lives Matter protests held across the city’s metropolitan area for weeks.

The ruling, which remains in force, caused a decline in police operations throughout the middle of last year, as reflected by a plunge in the number of shootouts reported by Crossfire, a non-governmental group that monitors violence, and in official state data on deaths resulting from police intervention. But both indicators have crept back up to around pre-pandemic levels.

The Candido Mendes University’s Public Safety Observatory said Rio police killed an average of more than five people a day during the first quarter of 2021, the most lethal start of a year since the state government began regularly releasing such data more than two decades ago.

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Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo and AP producer Diarlei Rodrigues in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

Sheriff: Girl shoots 3 at Idaho school; teacher disarms her

By REBECCA BOONE for the Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A sixth-grade girl brought a gun to her Idaho middle school, shot and wounded two students and a custodian and then was disarmed by a teacher Thursday, authorities said.

The three victims were shot in their limbs and expected to survive, officials said at a news conference. Jefferson County Sheriff Steve Anderson says the girl pulled a handgun from her backpack and fired multiple rounds inside and outside Rigby Middle School in the small city of Rigby, about 95 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Yellowstone National Park.

RETRANSMISSION TO CORRECT FIRST NAME TO ADELA – Adela Rodriguez, left, walks with her son, Yandel Rodriguez, 12, at the high school where people were evacuated after a shooting at the nearby Rigby Middle School earlier Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Rigby, Idaho. Authorities said that two students and a custodian were injured, and a male student has been taken into custody. (AP Photo/Natalie Behring)

A female teacher disarmed the girl and held her until law enforcement arrived and took her into custody, authorities said, without giving other details. Authorities say they’re investigating the motive for the attack and where the girl got the gun.

“We don’t have a lot of details at this time of ‘why’ — that is being investigated,” Anderson said. “We’re following all leads.”

The girl is from the nearby city of Idaho Falls, Anderson said. He didn’t release her name.

Police were called to the school around 9:15 a.m. after students and staffers heard gunfire. Multiple law enforcement agencies responded, and students were evacuated to a nearby high school to be reunited with their parents.

“Me and my classmate were just in class with our teacher — we were doing work — and then all of a sudden, here was a loud noise and then there were two more loud noises. Then there was screaming,” 12-year-old Yandel Rodriguez said. “Our teacher went to check it out, and he found blood.”

Yandel’s mom, Adela Rodriguez, said they were OK but “still a little shaky” from the shooting as they left the campus.

Both of the students who were shot were being held at the hospital, and one of them might need surgery, said Dr. Michael Lemon, trauma medical director at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.

Still, both students were in fair condition and could be released as early as Friday. One of the students had wounds in two limbs and might have been shot twice, he said.

“It’s an absolute blessing” that they weren’t hurt worse, Lemon said. The adult was treated and released for a bullet wound that went through an extremity, the doctor said.

Schools would be closed districtwide to give students time to be with their families, and counselors would be available starting Friday, said Jefferson School District Superintendent Chad Martin.

“This is the worst nightmare a school district could ever face. We prepare for it,” Martin said, “but you’re never truly prepared.”

Police tape surrounded the school, which has about 1,500 students in sixth through eighth grades, and small evidence markers were placed next to spots of blood on the ground.

“I am praying for the lives and safety of those involved in today’s tragic events,” Gov. Brad Little said in a statement. “Thank you to our law enforcement agencies and school leaders for their efforts in responding to the incident.”

Lucy Long, a sixth-grader at Rigby Middle School, told the Post Register newspaper in Idaho Falls that her classroom went into lockdown after they heard gunshots, with lights and computers turned off and students lined up against the wall.

Lucy comforted her friends and began recording on her phone, so police would know what happened if the shooter came in. The audio contained mostly whispers, with one sentence audible: “It’s real,” one student said.

Lucy said she saw blood on the hallway floor when police escorted them out of the classroom.

Jefferson County Prosecutor Mark Taylor said decisions about criminal charges wouldn’t be made until the investigation is complete but that they might include three counts of attempted murder.

The attack appears to be Idaho’s second school shooting. In 1999, a student at a high school in Notus fired a shotgun several times. No one was struck by the gunfire, but one student was injured by ricocheting debris from the first shell.

In 1989, a student at Rigby Junior High pulled a gun, threatened a teacher and students, and took a 14-year-old girl hostage, according to a Deseret News report. Police safely rescued the hostage from a nearby church about an hour later and took the teen into custody. No one was shot in that incident.

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Associated Press writers Keith Ridler in Boise and Emily Wilder in Phoenix contributed. Photographer Natalie Behring contributed from Rigby.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Yandel Rodriguez’s first name and his pronouns.

Pressure rises for India lockdown; surge breaks record again

By NEHA MEHROTRA and ASHOK SHARMA for the Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced growing pressure Friday to impose a strict nationwide lockdown, despite the economic pain it will exact, as a startling surge in coronavirus cases that has pummeled the country’s health system shows no signs of abating.

Workers load oxygen cylinders onto a hand cart to be carried inside the COVID-19 wards at a government run hospital in Jammu, India, Friday, May 7, 2021. With coronavirus cases surging to record levels, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing growing pressure to impose a harsh nationwide lockdown amid a debate whether restrictions imposed by individual states are enough. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Many medical experts, opposition leaders and even Supreme Court judges are calling for national restrictions, arguing that a patchwork of state rules is insufficient to quell the rise in infections.

Indian television stations broadcast images of patients lying on stretchers outside hospitals waiting to be admitted, with hospital beds and critical oxygen in short supply. People infected with COVID-19 in villages are being treated in makeshift outdoor clinics, with IV drips hanging from trees.

As deaths soar, crematoriums and burial grounds have been swamped with bodies, and relatives often wait hours to perform the last rites for their loved ones.

The situation is so dramatic that among those calling for a strict lockdown are merchants who know their businesses will be affected but see no other way out.

“Only if our health is good, will we be able to earn,” said Aruna Ramjee, a florist in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru. “The lockdown will help everyone, and coronavirus spread will also come down.”

The alarming picture has gripped the world’s attention, just as many developed countries are seeing vaccinations drive down infections and are beginning to open up. India’s surge has served as a warning to other countries with fragile health systems — and also has weighed heavily on global efforts to end the pandemic since the country is a major vaccine producer but has been forced to delay exports of shots.

Infections have swelled in India since February in a disastrous turn blamed on more contagious variants as well as government decisions to allow massive crowds to gather for religious festivals and political rallies. On Friday India reported a new daily record of 414,188 confirmed cases and 3,915 additional deaths. The official daily death count has stayed over 3,000 for the past 10 days.

That brings the total to more than 21.4 million COVID-19 infections and over 234,000 deaths. Experts say even those dramatic tolls are undercounts.

Over the past month, nearly a dozen of India’s 28 federal states have announced some restrictions, but they fall short of a nationwide lockdown imposed last year that experts credit with helping to contain the virus for a time. Those measures, which lasted two months, included stay-at-home orders, a ban on international and domestic flights and a suspension of passenger service on the nation’s extensive rail system.

The government provided free wheat, rice and lentils to the poorest for nearly a year and also small cash payments, while Modi also vowed an economic relief package of more than $260 billion. But the lockdown, imposed on four hours’ notice, also stranded tens of millions of migrant workers who were left jobless and fled to villages, with many dying along the way.

The national restrictions caused the economy to contract by a staggering 23% in the second quarter last year, though a strong recovery was under way before infections skyrocketed recently.

Some who remember last year’s ordeal remain against a full lockdown.

“If I had to choose between dying of the virus and dying of hunger, I would choose the virus,” said Shyam Mishra, a construction worker who was already forced to change jobs and start selling vegetables when a lockdown was imposed on the capital, New Delhi.

Modi has so far left the responsibility for fighting the virus in this current surge to poorly equipped state governments and faced accusations of doing too little. His government has countered that it is doing everything it can, amid a “once-in-a-century crisis.”

Amid a shortage of oxygen, the Supreme Court has stepped in. It ordered the federal government to increase the supply of medical oxygen to New Delhi after 12 COVID-19 patients died last week after a hospital ran out of supplies for 80 minutes.

Three justices called on the government this week to impose a lockdown, including a ban on mass gatherings, in the “interest of public welfare.”

Dr. Randeep Guleria, a government health expert, said he believes that a total lockdown is needed like last year, especially in areas where more than 10% of those tested have contracted COVID-19.

Rahul Gandhi, an opposition Congress party leader, in a letter to Modi on Friday, also demanded a total lockdown and government support to feed the poor, warning “the human cost will result in many more tragic consequences for our people.”

As the world watches India with alarm, some outside of its borders have joined the calls. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, suggested that a complete shutdown in India may be needed for two to four weeks.

“As soon as the cases start coming down, you can vaccinate more people and get ahead of the trajectory of the outbreak of the pandemic,” Fauci said in an interview with the Indian news channel CNN News18 on Thursday.

Still, Modi’s policy of selected lockdowns is supported by some experts, including Vineeta Bal, a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology. She said different states have different needs, and local particularities need to be taken into account for any policy to work.

In most instances, in places where health infrastructure and expertise are good, localized restrictions at the level of a state, or even a district, are a better way to curb the spread of infections, said Bal. “A centrally mandated lockdown will just be inappropriate,” she said.

Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private consultancy, acknowledged that the intensity of the pandemic was different in each state, but said a “coordinated countrywide strategy” was still needed.

According to Reddy, decisions need to be based on local conditions but should be closely coordinated, “like an orchestra which plays the same sheet music but with different instruments.”

Iraq pushes vaccine rollout amid widespread apathy, distrust

By ABDULRAHMAN ZEYAD for the Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s vaccine roll-out had been faltering for weeks. Apathy, fear and rumors kept many from getting vaccinated despite a serious surge in coronavirus infections and calls by the government for people to register for shots.

A follower of populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holds a picture of him while receiving a dose of the Chinese Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 4, 2021. Iraq’s vaccine rollout had been faltering for weeks. Apathy, fear and rumors kept many from getting vaccinated despite a serious surge in coronavirus infections and calls by the government for people to register for shots. It took al-Sadr’s public endorsement of vaccinations — and images of him getting the shot — to turn things around. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

It took a populist Shiite cleric’s public endorsement of vaccinations — and images of him getting the shot last week — to turn things around.

Hundreds of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr are now heading to clinics to follow his example, underscoring the power of sectarian loyalties in Iraq and deep mistrust of the state.

“I was against the idea of being vaccinated. I was afraid, I didn’t believe in it,” said Manhil Alshabli, a 30-year-old Iraqi from the holy city of Najaf. “But all this has changed now.”

“Seeing him getting the vaccine has motivated me,” said Alshabli, speaking by phone from Najaf where he and many other al-Sadr loyalists got their shots, Alshabli compared it to soldiers being energized when they see their leader on the front line.

Iraq has grappled with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. New case numbers spiked to over 8,000 per day last month, the highest they have ever been. The surge was driven largely by public apathy toward the virus. Many routinely flout virus-related restrictions, refusing to wear face masks and continuing to hold large public gatherings.

Daily rates have decreased in the last week, with 5,068 new cases reported on Monday.

Iraq’s Health Ministry has repeatedly tried to reassure Iraqis that the vaccines are not harmful, but this has not convinced many who harbor long-standing distrust of the health care system.

Iraq’s centralized system, largely unchanged since the 1970s, has been ground down by decades of war, sanctions and prolonged unrest since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Successive governments have invested little in the sector.

Many avoid going to public hospitals altogether. Last month, a massive blaze tore through the coronavirus ward in a Baghdad hospital, killing more than 80 people and injuring dozens. Iraq’s Health Minister Hasan al-Tamimi was suspended for alleged negligence, and resigned Tuesday over the incident.

So far, fewer than than 380,000 people have been fully vaccinated in the country of 40 million.

Last week, as sluggish vaccination efforts continued, pictures of the black-turbaned al-Sadr, wearing a black mask and getting jabbed in the arm, began circulating on social media.

Shortly after, his followers launched a vaccination campaign, calling on supporters to join them and posting photos of themselves carrying his posters while seated at medical centers receiving the vaccine.

The Health Ministry has cashed in on the campaign, publishing on its Facebook page the photo of al-Sadr getting the shot, saying his vaccination was meant to encourage all citizens to do the same.

Faris Al-Lami, assistant professor of community medicine at the University of Baghdad, said the government is widely viewed as corrupt and that its actions since the start of the pandemic only deepened the public’s mistrust.

He cited certain early practices, such as using security forces to take patients from their homes as if they were criminals, and holding up the burials of those who died of the virus for several weeks.

Al-Lami also pointed to what he said are current problematic policies. For example, he said high-risk patients, such as those with chronic or immunodeficiency diseases, have to wait inside hospitals to get their shots, putting them at high risk of infection. Meanwhile, people with personal connections can get them easily.

He said it’s a positive development when the vaccination of a political or religious figure encourages people to get their shots. “But the ideology that is based upon blindly following anyone’s decision is a disaster in itself,” he said.

Iraq received 336,000 new doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in late March and Iraqis above the age of 18 are qualified to get the jab. Last month, the first shipment of Pfizer doses arrived in the country, with 49,000 shots.

“All the vaccines that arrived in Iraq are safe and effective … but until this moment, there are some citizens who are afraid of taking the vaccine as a result of malicious rumors,” said Ruba Hassan, a Health Ministry official.

The Health Ministry has introduced measures to push Iraqis to get the shots. They include travel restrictions for those unable to produce a vaccination card and dismissals of employees at shops, malls and restaurants. While the measures have led more people to seek out vaccinations, they have also confused and angered a still largely reticent public.

Restaurant owners said they were blindsided by the measures, uncertain if it meant they would face closure if they refused them.

“There is no clear law to follow,” said Rami Amir, 30, who owns a fast food restaurant in Baghdad. “I don’t want all my staff to be vaccinated because they might have severe side effects or complications,” he said, echoing widespread skepticism.

Omer Mohammed, another restaurant owner, said applicants for a new job at his eatery dropped out when he said vaccination cards were a necessary prerequisite.

Medical professionals were prioritized to receive the vaccine and were able to pre-register in January when Iraq received its first shipment of 50,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.

When recent medical school graduate Mohammed al-Sudani, 24, went to get vaccinated this month he said the process was “bittersweet.” He showed up with no previous registration for the AstraZeneca vaccine. He didn’t need it. There was barely anyone there.

The next week he brought two of his aunts to the same center. There were only two other people in the waiting room.

“The nurse came in and asked them to call their relatives and friends to come to raise the number to at least 10 people because the jabs inside the vaccine kits were only valid for 6 hours,” he said.

It was a different scene in hospitals that carry Pfizer shots. Tabark Rashad, 27, headed to Baghdad’s al-Kindi hospital last week. The waiting room was crowded with dozens of people, sparking infection concerns.

“I went to protect myself against COVID-19, not get it in this room,” she said. “It was chaos.”

Nature at its craziest: Trillions of cicadas about to emerge

By SETH BORENSTEIN for the Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Md. (AP) — Sifting through a shovel load of dirt in a suburban backyard, Michael Raupp and Paula Shrewsbury find their quarry: a cicada nymph.

A cicada nymph moves in the grass, Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Frederick, Md. Within days, a couple weeks at most, the cicadas of Brood X (the X is the Roman numeral for 10) will emerge after 17 years underground. There are many broods of periodic cicadas that appear on rigid schedules in different years, but this is one of the largest and most noticeable. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

And then another. And another. And four more.

In maybe a third of a square foot of dirt, the University of Maryland entomologists find at least seven cicadas — a rate just shy of a million per acre. A nearby yard yielded a rate closer to 1.5 million.

And there’s much more afoot. Trillions of the red-eyed black bugs are coming, scientists say.

Within days, a couple weeks at most, the cicadas of Brood X (the X is the Roman numeral for 10) will emerge after 17 years underground. There are many broods of periodic cicadas that appear on rigid schedules in different years, but this is one of the largest and most noticeable. They’ll be in 15 states from Indiana to Georgia to New York; they’re coming out now in mass numbers in Tennessee and North Carolina.

When the entire brood emerges, backyards can look like undulating waves, and the bug chorus is lawnmower loud.

The cicadas will mostly come out at dusk to try to avoid everything that wants to eat them, squiggling out of holes in the ground. They’ll try to climb up trees or anything vertical, including Raupp and Shrewsbury. Once off the ground, they shed their skins and try to survive that vulnerable stage before they become dinner to a host of critters including ants, birds, dogs, cats and Raupp.

It’s one of nature’s weirdest events, featuring sex, a race against death, evolution and what can sound like a bad science fiction movie soundtrack.

Some people may be repulsed. Psychiatrists are calling entomologists worrying about their patients, Shrewsbury said. But scientists say the arrival of Brood X is a sign that despite pollution, climate change and dramatic biodiversity loss, something is still right with nature. And it’s quite a show.

Raupp presents the narrative of cicada’s lifespan with all the verve of a Hollywood blockbuster:

“You’ve got a creature that spends 17 years in a COVID-like existence, isolated underground sucking on plant sap, right? In the 17th year these teenagers are going to come out of the earth by the billions if not trillions. They’re going to try to best everything on the planet that wants to eat them during this critical period of the nighttime when they’re just trying to grow up, they’re just trying to be adults, shed that skin, get their wings, go up into the treetops, escape their predators,” he says.

“Once in the treetops, hey, it’s all going to be about romance. It’s only the males that sing. It’s going to be a big boy band up there as the males try to woo those females, try to convince that special someone that she should be the mother of his nymphs. He’s going to perform, sing songs. If she likes it, she’s going to click her wings. They’re going to have some wild sex in the treetop.

“Then she’s going to move out to the small branches, lay their eggs. Then it’s all going to be over in a matter of weeks. They’re going to tumble down. They’re going to basically fertilize the very plants from which they were spawned. Six weeks later the tiny nymphs are going to tumble 80 feet from the treetops, bounce twice, burrow down into the soil, go back underground for another 17 years.”

“This,” Raupp says, “is one of the craziest life cycles of any creature on the planet.”

America is the only place in the world that has periodic cicadas that stay underground for either 13 or 17 years, says entomologist John Cooley of the University of Connecticut.

The bugs only emerge in large numbers when the ground temperature reaches 64 degrees. That’s happening earlier in the calendar in recent years because of climate change, says entomologist Gene Kritsky. Before 1950 they used to emerge at the end of May; now they’re coming out weeks earlier.

Though there have been some early bugs In Maryland and Ohio, soil temperatures have been in the low 60s. So Raupp and other scientists believe the big emergence is days away — a week or two, max.

Cicadas who come out early don’t survive. They’re quickly eaten by predators. Cicadas evolved a key survival technique: overwhelming numbers. There’s just too many of them to all get eaten when they all emerge at once, so some will survive and reproduce, Raupp says.

This is not an invasion. The cicadas have been here the entire time, quietly feeding off tree roots underground, not asleep, just moving slowly waiting for their body clocks tell them it is time to come out and breed. They’ve been in America for millions of years, far longer than people.

When they emerge, it gets noisy — 105 decibels noisy, like “a singles bar gone horribly, horribly wrong,” Cooley says. There are three distinct cicada species and each has its own mating song.

They aren’t locusts and the only plants they damage are young trees, which can be netted. The year after a big batch of cicadas, trees actually do better because dead bugs serve as fertilizer, Kritsky says.

People tend to be scared of the wrong insects, says University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum. The mosquito kills more people than any other animals because of malaria and other diseases. Yet some people really dread the cicada emergence, she said.

“I think it’s the fact that they’re an inconvenience. Also, when they die in mass numbers they smell bad,” Berenbaum says. “They really disrupt our sense of order.”

But others are fond of cicadas — and even munch on them, using recipes like those in a University of Maryland cookbook. And for scientists like Cooley, there is a real beauty in their life cycle.

“This is a feel-good story, folks. It really is and it’s in a year we need more,” he says. “When they come out, it’s a great sign that forests are in good shape. All is as it is supposed to be.”

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears

Report: Sheriff’s employee stole $40K in sales tax payments

From the Associated Press

CHALMETTE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana sheriff’s office employee was fired over allegations they stole $40,000 in sales tax collections following an investigation by an independent auditor, according to a report by state officials.

A St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office staff member, who worked in the sales tax collection office, was fired in February after an internal investigation revealed the funds were missing, according to the report released Monday by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

The auditor’s report alleged that the employee, who was not immediately identified, altered receipts and misappropriated sales taxes paid in cash.

The sheriff’s office no longer accepts cash payments for such taxes, the report said.

The report did not say whether the employee faces criminal charges. The investigation remains ongoing, officials said.

Virus cases plunge and LA, San Francisco come back to life

By BRIAN MELLEY and JANIE HAR for the Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) —

When Angeleno Wine Co. reopened its tasting room, co-owner Amy Luftig Viste teared up seeing old friends reunited for the first time since the pandemic had shuttered so many businesses it left major cities looking like ghost towns.

FILE – In this Jan. 27, 2021, file photo, motorists line up for COVID-19 vaccinations and testing in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Los Angeles County, which is home to a quarter of the state’s 40 million people and has endured a disproportionate number of deaths, didn’t record a single COVID-19 death on Sunday, May 2. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Even with limited capacity, animated conversations flowed from the tables set among barrels of aging wine and echoed off the brick walls of the winery hidden in an industrial section on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles.

“It felt like the winery had come alive again,” Luftig Viste said Sunday, the day after it reopened after being closed all but two weeks over the past 13 months.

The din in the small space is destined to get louder when capacity is allowed to double to 50% as Los Angeles and San Francisco lead the way toward a broader reopening of California businesses.

The state’s signature cities are likely Tuesday to be the only major urban areas in the state to meet virus case thresholds for the least-restrictive tier, allowing indoor bars to reopen, larger crowds to cheer on Major League Baseball’s Dodgers and Giants, and expanded capacity at restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, gyms and other establishments.

It’s a remarkable turnaround considering California was the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the U.S. just a few months ago.

The two cities have weathered the pandemic differently but are emerging in the same place after a statewide shutdown in March 2020 emptied streets, shuttered shops and restaurants, and darkened office buildings.

While San Francisco largely beat the coronavirus by avoiding it, Los Angeles was nearly beaten by it during the winter surge. At its worst point, more than 500 people a day were dying in California and hospitals in the LA area could barely treat the overwhelming influx of patients.

San Francisco reached the least-restrictive yellow tier for a brief period in October, the only urban area to do so, before an alarming surge in cases forced a retreat. LA never emerged from the most restrictive tier until March.

Now, California has the lowest case rate in the country. Los Angeles County, which is home to a quarter of the state’s nearly 40 million people and has endured a disproportionate number of the state’s 60,000 deaths, didn’t record a single COVID-19 death Sunday or Monday.

As spring warms up, freeways are becoming congested, workers are returning to offices, and people are heading to restaurants and breweries.

On Sunday in the Arts District in downtown LA, drivers circled the block looking for parking spaces. Diners filled the sidewalk tables of Wurstküche, eating sausages and drinking Belgian and German beer. A line of people waiting for a table at Angel City Brewery extended down the street.

Chris Sammons said he felt a civic obligation to get out and support businesses.ADVERTISEMENT

“It feels like almost a duty to be engaged with the city,” Sammons said. “We have to bring LA back to life.”

It was the first time out for his friend, Stephen Tyler, who said he was excited after hunkering down for so long and getting vaccinated.

“It’s just good to be out in the city again, be around people,” Tyler said. “Even this, I don’t care about standing in line. It’s all kind of new again.”

In San Francisco, business has picked up at Mixt, a popular lunch spot for salad lovers in the Financial District. But it’s not at pre-pandemic levels when lines spilled outdoors, said Leslie Silverglide, co-founder and CEO of the the chain. She plans to open two more stores downtown in coming weeks.

“It seems as if people are coming back,” she said. “They’re excited to be having lunch with colleagues again.”

Fear of catching the virus prompted a huge drop in mass transit ridership. Jason Alderman said he felt like a kid on his first day of school when he took a commuter train into San Francisco. He works for online payment start-up Fast, which reopened its headquarters as soon as San Francisco allowed in late March.

“Instead of feeling like a hollowed-out ghost town that people had quickly abandoned, it felt like there were green shoots of life,” he said. “I felt a twinge of the energy that used to be there.”

When the lockdown order came in March 2020, an estimated 137,500 workers for San Francisco companies that include Google, Facebook and Uber, seemingly vanished overnight.

Moving vans carted off households for roomier suburban homes and younger people simply packed up their cars and left since they could work from anywhere. Residential rents plummeted, but now are climbing.

The office vacancy rate in San Francisco is 18% compared to 10% a year earlier, said John Chang, senior vice president at Marcus & Millichap, a commercial real estate financing and advisory company. In Los Angeles, vacancies are at 17.5% from 13.5% a year earlier.

More telling, perhaps, is that only 14% of key cards are being used to enter offices in San Francisco, compared to 24% in LA. At the other end of the spectrum is Dallas, where data showed 41% of cards being used, reflecting the different approaches to the virus in the two states.

Chang said workers suddenly abandoned San Francisco when the original shutdown order took effect. He expects the return will be more gradual.

Lisa Elder, a paralegal who has worked in her office since July, said that even with some restaurants and cafes recently re-opening the area is a shadow of its former self.

“Before COVID this place was packed, there would be tons of people here in the alleyway eating and now it’s like, quiet. It’s crazy,” she said.

At Angeleno Wine, Luftig Viste said most of her customers were vaccinated and all were excited to be out again.

“It’s just such an honor to be the place that people come to break the seal as we start to come out again,” she said.

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Har reported from San Francisco. Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this report from San Francisco.

Storms spawn twisters in Mississippi, kill 2 in Georgia

By ROGELIO V. SOLIS for the Associated Press

YAZOO CITY, Miss. (AP) — Much of the South is again at risk of severe weather Tuesday, forecasters say, after tornadoes struck parts of the region Sunday night and Monday, causing heavy damage in some parts of Mississippi.

Vickie Savell looks at the remains of her new mobile home early Monday, May 3, 2021, in Yazoo County, Miss. Multiple tornadoes were reported across Mississippi on Sunday, causing some damage but no immediate word of injuries. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Large parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, as well as corners of Arkansas and Georgia are at enhanced risk for the worst weather, according to the national Storm Prediction Center. That zone is home to more than 11 million people and includes the cities of Nashville, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Jackson, Mississippi, forecasters said.

“We’ll see all three threats as far as hail, wind and tornadoes on Tuesday,” said Mike Edmonston, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Mississippi.

They could include wind gusts of up to 70 mph (113 kph) and hail to the size of golf balls, forecasters said, noting that “tornadoes are likely Tuesday into Tuesday evening” in parts of Mississippi.

The risk follows heavy weather that moved across the South on Sunday and Monday, damaging homes and uprooting trees from Mississippi to West Virginia.

A tornado spotted in Atlanta forced thousands to seek shelter, and one man was killed when a falling tree brought power lines onto his vehicle. The motorist was pronounced dead after fire crews cut him from the vehicle in Douglasville, Georgia, west of Atlanta, Douglas County spokesman Rick Martin told reporters. And in middle Georgia, 55-year-old Carla Harris was killed after a tree fell onto her Bonaire home, Houston County emergency officials said.

The weather first turned rough in Mississippi on Sunday, where just south of Yazoo City, Vickie Savell was left with only scraps of the brand-new mobile home where she and her husband had moved in just eight days ago. It had been lifted off its foundation and moved about 25 feet (8 meters). It was completely destroyed.

“Oh my God, my first new house in 40 years and it’s gone,” she said Monday, amid tree tops strewn about the neighborhood and the roar of chainsaws as people worked to clear roads.

Savell had been away from home, attending church, but her husband Nathan had been driving home and hunkered down in the front of his truck as the home nearby was destroyed. From there, he watched his new home blow past him, he said.

Nearby, Garry McGinty recalled being at home listening to birds chirping — then dead silence. He looked outside and saw a dark, ominous cloud and took shelter in a hallway, he said. He survived, but trees slammed into his carport, two vehicles and the side of his house.

The storms hit the northeast Mississippi city of Tupelo late Sunday, damaging homes and businesses.

There were multiple reports of damage to homes on Elvis Presley Drive, just down the street from the home where the famed singer was born. Presley was born in a two-room house in the Tupelo neighborhood but there was no indication that the historic home sustained damage. It’s now a museum.

Just down the street, a tornado tore the roof off the home of Terrille and Chaquilla Pulliam, they told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. About 10 family members took shelter inside the house, and “we got everybody inside in time,” Terrille Pulliam said.

Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan said Calhoun City also “was hit hard.”

“Light poles have been snapped off. Trees in a few homes. Trees on vehicles. Damage to several businesses. Fortunately we have had no reports at this time of injuries,” Pollan posted on Facebook.

“I don’t even recognize my neighborhood anymore,” Calhoun City resident Martha Edmond told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal after a tree poked a hole in her roof, causing heavy water damage. Two locations of a metal fabrication company were heavily damaged.

In Mississippi, forecasters confirmed 12 tornadoes Sunday evening and night, including the Yazoo City twister, which stretched for 30 miles (48 kilometers), and another tornado that moved through suburbs of Byram and Terry south of Jackson that produced a damage track 1,000 yards (910 meters) wide.

In South Carolina, at least one tornado was reported Monday afternoon in Abbeville County. The tornado appeared to be on the ground for several miles, according to warnings from the National Weather Service. No injuries were immediately reported. In Greenwood, downed trees and power lines were reported, while a vehicle was blown over and a storage unit building was heavily damaged. Multiple locations reported golf ball-sized hail.

In the southern Kentucky town of Tompkinsville, a Monday morning storm later confirmed as a tornado damaged several homes and knocked down trees and power lines, Fire Chief Kevin Jones said. No injuries were reported, he said.

In West Virginia, Jefferson County communications supervisor James Hayden said one person was injured when a possible tornado touched down at a lumber company Monday evening. The injury was minor, and the person was treated at the scene, he said. An exterior lumber shed collapsed, Hayden said.

National Weather Service surveyors confirmed one tornado west of Atlanta near where the motorist died. The twister was determined to have peak winds of 90 mph (145 kph) with a path that ran 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers). At least 10 homes had trees on them.

The same thunderstorm sent thousands of people to shelter in more central parts of Atlanta and may have produced at least one more tornado southwest of downtown. Possible tornado damage was also reported in the region around Athens.

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Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia; Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Becky Yonker in Simpsonville, Kentucky; and Julie Walker in New York City contributed to this report.

Mexico City metro overpass collapses onto road; 20 dead

By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO for the Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) — An elevated section of the Mexico City metro collapsed and sent a subway car plunging toward a busy boulevard late Monday, killing at least 20 people and injuring about 70, city officials said.

Mexico City’s subway cars lay at an angle after a section of Line 12 of the subway collapsed in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. The section passing over a road in southern Mexico City collapsed Monday night, dropping a subway train, trapping cars and causing at least 50 injuries, authorities said. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

A crane was working to hold up one subway car left dangling on the collapsed section so that emergency workers could enter to check the car to see if anyone was still trapped. Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said 49 of the injured were hospitalized, and that seven were in serious condition and undergoing surgery.

Sheinbaum said a motorist had been pulled alive from a car that was trapped on the roadway below. Dozens of rescuers continued searching through wreckage from the collapsed, preformed concrete structure.

“There are unfortunately children among the dead,” Sheinbaum said, without specifying how many. ,

The overpass was about 5 meters (16 feet) above the road in the southside borough of Tlahuac, but the train ran above a concrete median strip, which apparently lessened the casualties among motorists on the roadway below.

“A support beam gave way,” Sheinbaum said, adding that the beam collapsed just as the train passed over it.

Rescue efforts were briefly interrupted at midnight because the partially dangling train was “very weak.”

“We don’t know if they are alive,” Sheinbaum said of the people possibly trapped inside the subway car.

Hundreds of police officers and firefighters cordoned off the scene as desperate friends and relatives of people believed to be on the trains gathered outside the security perimeter.

Oscar López, 26, was searching for his friend, Adriana Salas, 26. Six months pregnant, she was riding the subway home from her work as a dentist when her phone stopped answering around the time the accident occurred.

“We lost contact with her, at 10:50 p.m., there was literally no more contact,” López said. With little information and a still serious coronavirus situation in Mexico City, López said “they are not telling us anything, and people are just crowding together.”

The collapse occurred on the newest of the Mexico City subway’s lines, Line 12, which stretches far into the city’s southside. Like many of the city’s dozen subway lines, it runs underground through more central areas of the city of 9 million, but then runs on elevated, pre-formed concrete structures on the city’s outskirts.

The collapse could represent a major blow for Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who was Mexico City’s mayor from 2006 to 2012, when Line 12 was built. Allegations about poor design and construction on the subway line emerged soon after Ebrard left office as mayor. The line had to be partly closed in 2013 so tracks could be repaired.

Ebrard wrote on Twitter: “What happened today on the Metro is a terrible tragedy.”

“Of course, the causes should be investigated and those responsible should be identified,” he wrote. “I repeat that I am entirely at the disposition of authorities to contribute in whatever way is necessary.”

It was not clear whether a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in 2017 could have affected the subway line.

The Mexico City Metro, one of the largest and busiest in the world, has had at least two serious accidents since its inauguration half a century ago.

In March of last year, a collision between two trains at the Tacubaya station left one passenger dead and injured 41 people. In 2015, a train that did not stop on time crashed into another at the Oceania station, injuring 12 people.

BioNTech boss: Europe will reach herd immunity this summer

By FRANK JORDANS for the Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — Europe can achieve herd immunity against the coronavirus within three to four months, the head of German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, which developed the first widely approved COVID-19 vaccine with U.S. partner Pfizer, said Wednesday.

File – In this Thursday, March 18, 2021 file photo, Ugur Sahin, co-founder of the Mainz-based coronavirus vaccine developer BioNTech, listens during an Axel Springer Award ceremony. Europe can achieve ‘herd immunity’ against the coronavirus within the next four months, the head of German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, which developed the first widely approved COVID-19 vaccine with U.S. partner Pfizer, said Wednesday. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP, Pool, file)

While the exact threshold required to reach that critical level of immunization remains a matter of debate, experts say a level above 70% would significantly disrupt transmission of the coronavirus within a population.

“Europe will reach herd immunity in July, latest by August,” Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s chief executive, told reporters.

He cautioned that this herd immunity initially wouldn’t include children, as the vaccine has so far only been approved for people over 16. A small number of children who fall ill with COVID-19 suffer serious illness or long-term effects.

BioNTech’s vaccine makes up a large share of the doses administered in North America, where it is more commonly known as the Pfizer shot, and Europe, which has been seen vaccination rates rise after a slugging start.

Sahin said data from people who have received the vaccine show that the immune response gets weaker over time, and a third shot will likely be required.

Studies show the efficacy of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine declines from 95% to about 91% after six months, he said.

“Accordingly, we need a third shot to get the vaccine protection back up to almost 100% again” Sahin said.

Vaccine recipients currently receive a second dose three weeks after their first shot, although some countries have longer intervals. Sahin suggested the third should be administered nine to 12 months after the first shot.

“And then I expect it will probably be necessary to get another booster every year or perhaps every 18 months,” he said.

Concerns have been raised that existing vaccines might be less effective against new variants of the virus now emerging in different parts of the world.

Sahin said BioNTech has tested its vaccine against more than 30 variants, including the now-dominant one first detected in Britain, and found the shot triggers a good immune response against almost all of them in the lab. In cases where the immune response was weaker, it remained sufficient, he said, without providing exact figures.

Asked about the new variant first detected in India, Sahin said the vaccine’s effectiveness against it was still being investigated.

“But the Indian variant has mutations that we have previously investigated and against which our vaccine also works, so I am confident there, too,” he said.

The Mainz-based company’s work developing a vaccine based on messenger RNA, or mRNA, benefited from its earlier research into pharmaceuticals to treat cancer, as tumors often try to adapt to evade the immune system, Sahin said.

“The way our vaccine works is that it has two points of attack,” he explained. Along with stimulating the production of antibodies, it prompts the body’s so-called T-cells to attack the virus, he said.

“The vaccine is quite cleverly constructed, and the bulwark will hold. I’m convinced of that,” Sahin said. “If the bulwark needs to be strengthened again, we’ll do so. I’m not worried.”

The company is investigating reports of heart inflammation cases in people who received the vaccine in Israel, but so far hasn’t seen any data that would indicate a heightened risk, Sahin said. Some 5 million people in Israel have been vaccinated, primarily with the BioNTech/Pfizer shot, giving it one of the highest coverages in the world.

“We take everything we hear very seriously,” Sahin said. “The most important principle in drug development is to do no harm.”

BioNTech expects to receive approval in July for its vaccine to be used in China, where it cooperates with local firm Fosun Pharma, he said.

Meanwhile, BioNTech and Pfizer are working with other manufacturers to ramp up production of the mRNA shot as worldwide demand still far outstrips supply.

“When we started 2021, our goal was to produce 1.3 billion doses, and now we’ve increased that to 3 billion doses,” said Sahin, praising pharmaceutical giants such as Novartis, Sanofi and Baxter for joining in the effort.

His company is in talks to create production facilities in Asia, South America and Africa, and may also issue special licenses to other “really competent” manufacturers to boost global supply of the vaccine, Sahin said.

“We don’t want to have a low-quality vaccine in Africa,” he added, dismissing suggestions that the recipe for it could simply be made freely available.

Countering fierce criticism that the European Union had bungled its vaccine procurement process, Sahin said the 27-nation bloc deserved praise for managing to coordinate the simultaneous delivery of the first batches to all member states at the end of December.

“Europeans can be proud that they found a fair solution,” he said, adding that the bloc also exported large numbers of doses elsewhere.

“It doesn’t help if Europeans are safe and other countries, where the virus is still raging, keep churning out new variants,” he said.

Sahin founded BioNTech in 2008 with his wife, the scientist Ozlem Tureci. Together they decided to pivot from cancer research to developing a coronavirus vaccine in early 2020 and reached out to Pfizer, which had the necessary expertise to conduct large-scale clinical trials.

The 55-year-old, whose family emigrated from Turkey to Germany when he was 4, told members of Germany’s foreign press association VAP that it was “a very nice feeling” to be hearing of more and more people who are able to finally see loved ones again after getting vaccinated with his company’s shot.

Sahin said he expects a “new normal” soon, where “one can move about freely and most people have a very good immune protection” against the virus.

Even so, some people would either not want to get vaccinated or have a weak immune system “and we have to consider these people too,” he said.

US Navy fires warning shots in new tense encounter with Iran

By JON GAMBRELL for the Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An American warship fired warning shots when vessels of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard came too close to a patrol in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said Wednesday. It was the first such shooting in nearly four years.

FILE – This April 14, 2020, file photo provided by the U.S. Army shows the USS Firebolt in Manama, Bahrain. The Firebolt fired warning shots when vessels of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard came too close to a recent patrol in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (Spc. Cody Rich/U.S. Army via AP)

The Navy released black-and-white footage of the encounter Monday night in international waters of the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf near Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In it, lights can be seen in the distance and what appears to be a single gunshot can be heard, with a tracer round racing across the top of the water.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

The Navy said the Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Firebolt fired the warning shots after three fast-attack Guard vessels came within 68 yards (62 meters) of it and the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranoff.

“The U.S. crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the (Guard) vessels continued their close range maneuvers,” said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the Mideast-based 5th Fleet. “The crew of Firebolt then fired warning shots, and the (Guard) vessels moved away to a safe distance from the U.S. vessels.”

She called on the Guard to “operate with due regard for the safety of all vessels as required by international law.”

“U.S. naval forces continue to remain vigilant and are trained to act in a professional manner, while our commanding officers retain the inherent right to act in self-defense,” she said.

The last time a Navy vessel fired warning shots in the Persian Gulf in an incident involving Iran was in July 2017, when the USS Thunderbolt, a sister ship to the Firebolt, fired to warn off a Guard vessel. Regulations issued last year give Navy commanders the authority to take “lawful defensive measures” against vessels in the Mideast that come within 100 meters (yards) of their warships.

While 100 meters may seem far to someone standing at a distance, it’s incredibly close for large warships that have difficulty in turning quickly, like aircraft carriers. Even smaller vessels can collide with each other at sea, risking the ships.

The incident Monday marked the second time the Navy accused the Guard of operating in an “unsafe and unprofessional” manner this month alone after tense encounters between the forces had dropped in recent years.

Footage released Tuesday by the Navy showed a ship commanded by the Guard cut in front of the USCGC Monomoy, causing the Coast Guard vessel to come to an abrupt stop with its engine smoking on April 2.

The Guard also did the same with another Coast Guard vessel, the USCGC Wrangell, Rebarich said.

The interaction marked the first “unsafe and unprofessional” incident involving the Iranians since April 15, 2020, Rebarich said. However, Iran had largely stopped such incidents in 2018 and nearly in the entirety of 2019, she said.

In 2017, the Navy recorded 14 instances of what it describes as “unsafe and or unprofessional” interactions with Iranians forces. It recorded 35 in 2016, and 23 in 2015.

The incidents at sea almost always involve the Revolutionary Guard, which reports only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Typically, they involve Iranian speedboats armed with deck-mounted machine guns and rocket launchers test-firing weapons or shadowing American aircraft carriers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes.

Some analysts believe the incidents are meant in part to squeeze President Hassan Rouhani’s administration after the 2015 nuclear deal. They include a 2016 incident in which Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 U.S. sailors who strayed into the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters.

The incident comes as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over Tehran and Washington returning to the 2015 nuclear deal. It also follows a series of incidents across the Mideast attributed to a shadow war between Iran and Israel, which includes attacks on regional shipping and sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

India grieves 200,000 dead with many more probably uncounted

By SHEIKH SAALIQ, KRUTIKA PATHI and ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL for the Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) — Three days after his coronavirus symptoms appeared, Rajendra Karan struggled to breathe. Instead of waiting for an ambulance, his son drove him to a government hospital in Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state.

FILE – In this April 20, 2021, file photo, a man waits for the cremation of a relative who died of COVID-19, placed near bodies of other victims, in New Delhi, India. India’s death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 200,000 as a virus surge sweeps the country, rooted in so-called super-spreader events that were allowed to happen in the months following the autumn when the country had seemingly brought the pandemic under control. (AP Photo, File)

But the hospital wouldn’t let him in without a registration slip from the district’s chief medical officer. By the time the son got it, his father had died in the car, just outside the hospital doors.

“My father would have been alive today if the hospital had just admitted him instead of waiting for a piece of paper,” Rohitas Karan said.

Stories of deaths tangled in bureaucracy and breakdowns have become dismally common in India, where deaths on Wednesday officially surged past 200,000. But the true death toll is believed to be far higher.

In India, mortality data was poor even before the pandemic, with most people dying at home and their deaths often going unregistered. The practice is particularly prevalent in rural areas, where the virus is now spreading fast.

This is partly why this nation of nearly 1.4 billion has recorded fewer deaths than Brazil and Mexico, which have smaller populations and fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases.

While determining exact numbers in a pandemic is difficult, experts say an overreliance on official data that didn’t reflect the true extent of infections contributed to authorities being blindsided by a huge surge in recent weeks.

“People who could have been saved are dying now,” said Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University. Menon said there has been “serious undercounting” of deaths in many states.

India had thought the worst was over when cases ebbed in September. But infections began increasing in February, and on Wednesday, 362,757 new confirmed cases, a global record, pushed the country’s total past 17.9 million, second only to the U.S.

Local media have reported discrepancies between official state tallies of the dead and actual numbers of bodies in crematoriums and burial grounds. Many crematoriums have spilled over into parking lots and other empty spaces as blazing funeral pyres light up the night sky.

India’s daily deaths, which have nearly tripled in the past three weeks, also reflect a shattered and underfunded health care system. Hospitals are scrambling for more oxygen, beds, ventilators and ambulances, while families marshal their own resources in the absence of a functioning system.

Jitender Singh Shunty runs an ambulance service in New Delhi transporting COVID-19 victims’ bodies to a temporary crematorium in a parking lot. He said those who die at home are generally unaccounted for in state tallies, while the number of bodies has increased from 10 to nearly 50 daily.

“When I go home, my clothes smell of burnt flesh. I have never seen so many dead bodies in my life,” Shunty said.

Burial grounds are also filling up fast. The capital’s largest Muslim graveyard is running out of space, said Mohammad Shameem, the head gravedigger, noting he was now burying nearly 40 bodies a day.

In southern Telangana state too, doctors and activists are contesting the official death counts.

On April 23, the state said 33 people had died of COVID-19. But between 80 to 100 people died in just two hospitals in the state’s capital, Hyderabad, the day before. It is unclear whether all were due to the virus, but experts say COVID-19 deaths across India aren’t being listed as such.

Instead, many are attributed to underlying conditions despite national guidelines asking states to record all suspected COVID-19 deaths, even if the patient wasn’t tested for the virus.

For instance, New Delhi officially recorded 4,000 COVID-19 deaths by Aug. 31, but this didn’t include suspected deaths, according to data accessed by The Associated Press under a right-to-information request. Fatalities have since more than tripled to over 14,500. Officials didn’t respond to queries on whether suspected deaths are now being included.

In Lucknow, officials said 39 people died of the virus in the city on Tuesday. But Suresh Chandra, who operates its Bhaisakhund electric crematorium, said his team had cremated 58 COVID-19 bodies by Tuesday evening, and 28 more were cremated at a nearby crematorium the same day.

Ajay Dwivedi, a government official in Lucknow, acknowledged more bodies were being cremated but said they included corpses from other districts.

Last year, the Indian government used low death and case counts to declare victory against the coronavirus. In October, a month after cases started to ebb, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India was saving more lives than richer countries. In January he boasted at the World Economic Forum that India’s success was incomparable.

At the heart of these statements was dubious data that shaped policy decisions.

Information about where people were getting infected and dying could have helped India better prepare for the current surge, said Dr. Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto who has studied deaths in India.

Accurate data would have allowed experts to map the virus more clearly, identifying hotspots, driving vaccinations and strengthening public health resources, he said.

“You can’t walk out of a pandemic without data,” he said.

But even when reliable data is available, it hasn’t always been heeded. With infections already rising in March, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared India was nearing the “endgame.” When daily cases were in the hundreds of thousands, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and other political parties were holding massive election rallies, drawing thousands of maskless supporters.

The government also allowed a Hindu festival drawing hundreds of thousands to the banks of the Ganges River to go ahead despite warnings from experts that a devastating surge was starting.

Many were already convinced COVID-19 wasn’t very lethal since the death toll seemed low.

India’s health ministry did not respond to queries from AP, and ministers from Modi’s party deflected questions about death counts.

Manohar Lal Khattar, chief minister of Haryana state, told reporters Monday that the dead will never come back and that “there was no point in a debate over the number of deaths.”

The Indian Medical Association in February said 734 doctors had died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Days later, India’s health ministry put the number at 313.

“This is criminal,” said Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti, president of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum. “The government lied about the deaths of health workers first, and now they are lying about deaths of ordinary citizens.”

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Associated Press writers Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, Omer Farooq in Hyderabad and Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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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.

Thousands demonstrate in Chad against military transition

By EDOUARD TAKADJI for the Associated Press

N’DJAMENA, Chad (AP) — Thousands protested and two people were killed in Chad Tuesday in demonstrations against the rule of a transitional military council headed by the son of the late President Idriss Deby Itno, who died last week.

People travel during rush hour in N’Djamena, Chad, Monday, April 26, 2021. Chad’s military transitional government said Sunday it will not negotiate with the rebels blamed for killing the country’s president of three decades, raising the specter that the armed fighters might press ahead with their threats to attack the capital. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Those killed in violence surrounding the protests include a man shot dead in Moundou, in southern Chad, and another person who died in the capital, according to local reports.

The opposition coalition called for the demonstrations despite a ban on protests. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, and there were also demonstrations in other parts of the nation.

Demonstrators carried signs demanding that power be handed to civilians. The protesters also ransacked a gas station and burned tires throughout N’Djamena, where smoke covered some neighborhoods.

Authorities also detained several protesters and journalists. Many of the journalists were later released.

France and Congo strongly condemned “the crackdown on protests” in Chad and called for the end to all violence, in a joint statement issued Tuesday.

The presidencies of both countries expressed their support for an “inclusive transition process, open to all Chadian political forces, led by a civilian government” with the aim to organize elections within 18 months.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi issued the statement following a meeting the two leaders had in Paris on Tuesday.

France and Congo also reaffirmed their “attachment to Chad’s stability and integrity.”

Chad’s military announced April 20 that Deby had been mortally wounded during a visit to the troops north of the capital, who were battling an anti-Deby rebel group. The announcement of Deby’s death came just hours after he had been confirmed the winner of presidential elections held earlier in April.

The military then appointed a council to lead an 18-month transition to new elections, putting Deby’s 37-year-old son Mahamat Idriss Deby in charge of Chad in the first change of power in more than three decades.

The appointment of the younger Deby provoked an immediate outcry from both Chad’s political opposition and the rebel forces blamed for his father’s assassination. Those rebels have threatened to attack the capital, as the military transitional government says it will not negotiate with them.

As the new military transitional leader, Deby gave his first official address Tuesday.

Deby paid tribute to his father, saying his death left the country in “disarray, distress, and indescribable pain,” and that his late father gave his life “to preserve Chad from the threat of terrorist groups” and supporters of war.

Mahamat Deby said that faced with the threat of instability, the defense and security forces had no choice but to form a Transitional Military Council.

He said the council was set up to “face the absolute urgency of having to defend our country against the aggression it is facing, to preserve the gains of peace and stability and to guarantee unity and national cohesion.” He assured that the council had no other objective than to “ensure the continuity of the state, the survival of the nation and to prevent it from sinking into” violence and anarchy.

He called on Chad’s citizens to “silence resentments and misunderstandings, transcend selfish interests and overcome divisions to focus on the essential, the best interests of Chad. No state can prosper in an environment marked by disorder, anarchy, and chaos. No country can advance on the path of progress if hatred is the daily bread of its daughters and sons.”

He also reassured Chad’s allies that the country will maintain its responsibilities in the fight against extremism and respect all of its international commitments.

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AP writers Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

Brussels bracing for illegal festival amid fears of violence

By SAMUEL PETREQUIN for the Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — Brussels prosecutor’s office warned potential partygoers they should stay away from an unauthorized gathering planned this weekend in one of the city’s biggest parks as police briefly detained one of the organizers on Tuesday.

After an April Fools’ party drew thousands of people to Brussels’ Bois de la Cambre and ended in clashes with police last month, a sequel to the the event has been advertised by a group called the Abyss for Saturday in the same park.

FILE – In this Friday, April 2, 2021 file photo police detain a man in the Bois de la Cambre park in Brussels. Brussels prosecutors warned potential party-goers they should stay away from an illegal gathering planned this weekend in one of the city’s biggest park as police briefly detained one of the organizers on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

In a statement Tuesday, prosecutors said the manager in charge of the group’s Facebook page was arrested and questioned as part of an investigation into the party before he got released.

Organizers, who have asked in vain for Belgium’s Interior Ministry to grant them permission to host the event, expressed their “surprise” at the arrest, which came as Belgium continues to struggle with the coronavirus.

The country with 11.5 million inhabitants has been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting over 976,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 24,000 virus-related deaths. Earlier this month, the city’s authorities said there was only just one bed left in Brussels’ intensive care units when a fire broke in the working-class neighborhood of Anderlecht, a consequence of the crippling strain on the hospital system.

“I am willing to listen to requests from people who want to organize events, but this is not the time,” Brussels mayor Philippe Close said. “We have to hear what is going on in our hospitals. The situation remains difficult.”

In April, clashes between Belgian police and a large crowd of some 2,000 people left several people injured at the Bois de La Cambre. Violence started after police ordered the crowd to disperse toward the end of the afternoon and revelers threw bottles and other projectiles at police, who used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

In a bid to avoid a repeat of the incidents, Belgian police have contacted Facebook to find out how to take down from the social network the promotion of Saturday’s party, local media reported. Meanwhile, Brussels prosecutor’s office said that anyone breaching COVID-19 restrictions could be prosecuted.

Amid a growing sense of discontent against coronavirus measures taken by the government, some cafes and restaurant owners in the French-speaking region of Wallonia have also planned to defy restrictions and to reopen their terraces on Saturday, a week before the date set for the reopening.

Pathologist: Black man killed by deputies was shot 5 times

By BEN FINLEY and JONATHAN DREW for the Associated Press

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man killed by deputies in North Carolina, was shot five times, including in the back of the head, according to an independent autopsy report released Tuesday by his family’s attorneys.

Attorneys for the family of Andrew Brown Jr., Wayne Kendall, left, and Ben Crump hold a news conference Tuesday, April 27, 2021 outside the Pasquotank County Public safety building in Elizabeth City, N.C., to announce results of the autopsy they commissioned. The attorneys say an independent autopsy shows that Brown, a Black man, was shot five times, including in the back of the head. Brown was shot Wednesday by deputies serving drug-related search and arrest warrant. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

The details about Brown’s wounds emerged amid increasing calls for the public release of body camera footage of last week’s shooting. A court hearing on access to the video was scheduled for Wednesday.

The autopsy was performed Sunday by a pathologist hired by Brown’s family. The exam noted four wounds to the right arm and one to the head. The state’s autopsy has not been released yet.

The family’s lawyers also released a copy of the death certificate, which lists the cause of death as a “penetrating gunshot wound of the head.” It describes the death as a homicide.

Brown was shot Wednesday by deputies serving drug-related search and arrest warrants in the North Carolina town of Elizabeth City, about 160 miles northeast of Raleigh.

The autopsy results come a day after Brown’s relatives were shown some body camera footage. Another family lawyer, Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, who viewed a 20-second portion of the video, said Monday that officers opened fire on Brown while he had his hands on the steering wheel of a car. She said she lost count of the numerous gunshots while viewing the footage.

Brown’s son Khalil Ferebee questioned why deputies had to shoot so many times at a man who, he said, posed no threat.

“Yesterday I said he was executed. This autopsy report shows me that was correct,” he said Tuesday at a news conference. “It’s obvious he was trying to get away. It’s obvious. And they’re going to shoot him in the back of the head?”

The pathologist, North Carolina-based Dr. Brent Hall, noted a wound to the back of Brown’s head from an undetermined distance that penetrated his skull and brain. He said there was no exit wound.

“It was a kill shot to the back of the head,” family attorney Ben Crump said.

Two shots to Brown’s right arm penetrated the skin. Two others shots to the arm grazed him. The pathologist could not determine the distance from which they were fired.

The shooting prompted days of protests and calls for justice and transparency.

Wednesday’s court hearing on the video will consider petitions to release the footage, including filings by a media coalition and by a county attorney on behalf of the sheriff. A North Carolina law that took effect in 2016 allows law enforcement agencies to show body camera video privately to a victim’s family but generally requires a court to approve any public release.

It’s not clear how soon a judge could rule, or how quickly the video would be released if the release is approved. In similar cases, it has sometimes taken weeks for the full legal process to play out.

The slow movement has prompted an outcry from protesters, the family’s lawyers and racial justice advocates, who noted that law enforcement agencies in other states have moved faster. In Columbus, Ohio, the day before Brown was shot, body camera footage was released within hours of an officer fatally shooting a 16-year-old Black girl who was swinging a knife at another girl.

Germany to open up virus vaccinations to all adults in June

By FRANK JORDANS for the Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that Germany will open up COVID-19 vaccinations to all adults in June, based on projections that the country will receive 80 million doses from manufacturers in the second quarter of the year.

People wait at the vaccination center in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Monday, April 26, 2021. Germany’s COVID-19 vaccination program will be discussed at a meeting with Germany’s state Governors and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin today. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Speaking after a meeting with the governors of Germany’s 16 states, Merkel said that depending on the actual number of vaccines delivered, the existing system of prioritizing the most vulnerable would be dropped in June (asterisk)at the latest.”

“This doesn’t mean that everyone will immediately be able to get vaccinated,” she said. “But everyone will be able to try for a vaccine appointment.”

Like in other European Union countries, Germany’s vaccine campaign got off to a slow start in December, with only 10% of the population getting their first shot by the end of March. Due to limited supply, the elderly, people with with pre-existing conditions and people in the medical and care professions were prioritized.

The rollout has picked up speed significantly in recent weeks. Official figures show 23.4 % of the population had received at least one dose of vaccine by Sunday and about 7.2% of Germany’s 83 million inhabitants had received both shots.

After supply problems and concerns over efficacy and rare blood clots involving the AstraZeneca vaccine, Germany has relied heavily on the shots made by local company BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer. About 50 million doses of that vaccine are expected to be delivered in the second quarter, Merkel said.

She and the governors also discussed whether people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should be exempt from restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus, though no decision was made.

The issue of special privileges for vaccinated people has been hotly debated in Germany, as in other countries. Some in Germany have argued it’s unfair on those who haven’t been able to get the shot yet. Others say restrictions on civil liberties are justified while people pose a risk to others.

Merkel cited a recent report from Germany’s disease control agency, which concluded that people pose “no relevant risk” to others 14 days after they’ve received a second dose of vaccine. This would mean that they could be treated like people who test negative for the coronavirus or who have recovered from infection.

She cautioned, however, that at some point Germany would find itself in a “transition phase that also won’t be easy,” when about half the population has been vaccinated and the other half hasn’t. Figures on the weekly infection rate per 100,000 inhabitants, to which many of Germany’s pandemic restrictions are linked, would then effectively be much higher than they appear because they apply to a smaller share of the population, Merkel said.

Germany is considering buying the Russian-made vaccine Sputnik V, she said, but that would depend on when the European Medicines Agency approves the shot for use in the European Union.

“The documentation isn’t yet sufficient for authorization,” Merkel said. “If this authorization is received very soon, then it will of course still make sense to buy doses of Sputnik. If this only happens in several months then we’ll already have enough vaccine.”

SOS messages, panic as virus breaks India’s health system

By SHEIKH SAALIQ for the Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) — Dr. Gautam Singh dreads the daily advent of the ventilator beeps, signaling that oxygen levels are critically low, and hearing his desperately ill patients start gasping for air in the New Delhi emergency ward where he works.

Family members of a person who died due to COVID-19 perform the last rites at a crematorium in Jammu, India, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Like other doctors across India, which on Monday set another record for new coronavirus infections for a fifth day in a row at more than 350,000, the cardiologist has taken to begging and borrowing cylinders of oxygen just to keep patients alive for one more day.

On Sunday evening, when the oxygen supplies of other nearby hospitals were also near empty, the desperate 43-year-old took to social media, posting an impassioned video plea on Twitter.

“Please send oxygen to us,” he said in a choked voice. “My patients are dying.”

SOS messages like the one Singh sent reveal the extent of the panic.

In addition to oxygen running out, intensive care units are operating at full capacity and nearly all ventilators are in use. As the death toll mounts, the night skies in some Indian cities glow from the funeral pyres, as crematories are overwhelmed and bodies are burned in the open air.

On Monday, the country reported 2,812 more deaths, with roughly 117 Indians succumbing to the disease every hour — and experts say even those figures are probably an undercount. The new infections brought India’s total to more than 17.3 million, behind only the United States.

The deepening crisis stands in contrast to the improving picture in wealthier nations like the U.S., Britain and Israel, which have vaccinated relatively large shares of their population and have seen deaths and infections plummet since winter. India has four times the population of the U.S. but on Monday had 11 times as many new infections.

Doctors like Singh are on the front lines, trying to get the supplies they need to keep their patients alive.

Singh received 20 oxygen cylinders on Monday, only enough to enable the hospital to limp through the day until the ventilators start sending out their warning beeps again.https://interactives.ap.org/embeds/peJXS/6/

“I feel helpless because my patients are surviving hour to hour,” Singh said in a telephone interview. “I will beg again and hope someone sends oxygen that will keep my patients alive for just another day.”

As bad as the situation is, experts warn it is likely to get worse.

Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, said it would be impossible for the country to keep up over the coming days as things stand.

“The situation in India is tragic and likely to get worse for some weeks to months,” he said, adding that a “concerted, global effort to help India at this time of crisis” is desperately needed.

The U.S. said Monday that is working to relieve the suffering in India by supplying oxygen, diagnostic tests, treatments, ventilators and protective gear.

The White House has also said it would make available sources of raw materials urgently needed for India to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” President Joe Biden tweeted on Sunday.

Help and support were also offered from archrival Pakistan, which said it could provide relief including ventilators, oxygen supply kits, digital X-ray machines, protective equipment and related items.

Germany’s Health Ministry said it is urgently working to put together an aid package for India consisting of ventilators, monoclonal antibodies, the drug remdesivir, as well as surgical and N95 protective masks.

But many say the aid is too late — the breakdown a stark failure for a country that boasted of being a model for other developing nations.

Only three months ago, India’s leaders were boisterous, delivering messages that the worst was over.

In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory over the coronavirus, telling a virtual gathering of the World Economic Forum that India’s success couldn’t be compared with that of anywhere else.

A little less than a month later, his Bharatiya Janata Party passed a resolution hailing Modi as a “visionary leader” who had already “defeated” the virus.

By the second week of March, India’s health minister declared that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.

At the same time, the patients arriving at India’s hospitals were far sicker and younger than previously seen, prompting warnings by health experts that India was sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Millions of Hindu devotees celebrated the festival of Holi across the country at the end of March, disregarding social distancing guidelines and masks. Modi and other politicians spearheaded mammoth election rallies where tens of thousands participated without masks. And millions more gathered by the Ganges River for special Hindu prayers as recently as last week.

Now it’s suspected all these events might have accelerated the unprecedented surge India is seeing now.

“Many people across India are paying with their lives for that shameful behavior by political leaders,” Udayakumar said.

In a radio address on Sunday, Modi sought to deflect the criticism over what he called a “storm” of infections that had left the country “shaken.”

“It is true that many people are getting infected with corona,” he said. “But the number of people recovering from corona is equally high.”

India’s government said last week it would expand its vaccination program to make all adults eligible, something long urged by health experts.

But vaccinations take time to show their effect on the numbers of new infections, and there are questions of whether manufacturers will be able to keep up with the demand. The pace of vaccination across the country also appears to be struggling.

Ordinary citizens are taking matters into their own hands, doing what they say the government should have done a long time ago.

Volunteers, from students to technology professionals, nonprofit organizations and journalists, are circulating information on the availability of hospital beds, critical drugs and oxygen cylinders.

Like Dr. Singh, many have taken to social media, particularly Twitter, to crowdsource lists of plasma donors and oxygen supplies.

The system is imperfect, but some are getting badly needed help.

Rashmi Kumar, a New Delhi homemaker, spent her Sunday scouring Twitter, posting desperate pleas for an oxygen cylinder for her critically ill father. At the same time, she made countless calls to hospitals and government help line numbers, to no avail.

By evening her 63-year-old father was gasping for breath.

“I was prepared for the worst,” Kumar said.

But out of nowhere, a fellow Twitter user reported an available oxygen cylinder some 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. Kumar drove to the person’s house, where a man handed over the cylinder.

“I was helped by a stranger when my own government continues to fail thousands like me,” she said. “Unfortunately, everyone is on their own now.”

Supreme Court to take up right to carry gun for self-defense

By MARK SHERMAN for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear an appeal to expand gun rights in the United States in a New York case over the right to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.

The case marks the court’s first foray into gun rights since Justice Amy Coney Barrett came on board in October, making a 6-3 conservative majority.

FILE – In this June 20, 2019, file photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington as a storm rolls in. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal to expand gun rights in the United States in a New York case over the right to carry a firearm in public for self-defense. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The justices said Monday they will review a lower-court ruling that upheld New York’s restrictive gun permit law. The court’s decision to take on the case follows mass shootings in recent weeks in IndianaGeorgiaColorado and California and comes amid congressional efforts to tighten gun laws. President Joe Biden also has announced several executive actions to combat what he called an “epidemic and an international embarrassment” of gun violence in America.

The case is especially significant during the coronavirus pandemic, said Eric Tirschwell, the legal director of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Gun violence has only worsened during the pandemic, and a ruling that opened the door to weakening our gun laws could make it even harder for cities and states to grapple with this public health crisis,” Tirschwell said.

The court had turned down review of the issue in June, before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.

New York is among eight states that limit who has the right to carry a weapon in public. The others are: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

In the rest of the country, gun owners have little trouble legally carrying their weapons when they go out.

Paul Clement, representing challengers to New York’s permit law, said the court should use the case to settle the issue once and for all. “Thus, the nation is split, with the Second Amendment alive and well in the vast middle of the nation, and those same rights disregarded near the coasts,” Clement wrote on behalf of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and two New York residents.

Calling on the court to reject the appeal, the state said its law promotes public safety and crime reduction and neither bans people from carrying guns nor allows everyone to do so.

Federal courts have largely upheld the permit limits. Last month an 11-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco rejected a challenge to Hawaii’s permit regulations in an opinion written by a conservative judge, Jay Bybee.

“Our review of more than 700 years of English and American legal history reveals a strong theme: government has the power to regulate arms in the public square,” Bybee wrote in a 7-4 decision for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The issue of carrying a gun for self-defense has been seen for several years as the next major step for gun rights at the Supreme Court, following decisions in 2008 and 2010 that established a nationwide right to keep a gun at home for self-defense.

In June, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, complained that rather than take on the constitutional issue, “the Court simply looks the other way.”

But Barrett has a more expansive view of gun rights than Ginsburg. She wrote a dissent in 2019, when she was a judge on the federal appeals court in Chicago, that argued that a conviction for a nonviolent felony — in this case, mail fraud — shouldn’t automatically disqualify someone from owning a gun.

She said that her colleagues in the majority were treating the Second Amendment as a “second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.”

Feds fund mental health crisis teams to stand in for police

By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — When police respond to a person gripped by a mental health or drug crisis, the encounter can have tragic results. Now a government insurance program will help communities set up an alternative: mobile teams with mental health practitioners trained in de-escalating such potentially volatile situations.

In this Oct. 2020 photo, Crisis Workers, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), Henry Cakebread and Ashley Barnhill-Hubbard with CAHOOTS, a mental health crisis intervention program, discuss their last encounter during their night shift in Eugene, Ore. When police respond to a person gripped by a mental health or drug crisis, the encounter can have tragic results. Now a government health program will help communities set up an alternative: mobile teams of practitioners trained in de-escalating such potentially volatile situations. (William Holderfield via AP)

The effort to reinvent policing after the death of George Floyd in police custody is getting an assist through Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people and the largest payer for mental health treatment. President Joe Biden’s recent coronavirus relief bill calls for an estimated $1 billion over 10 years for states that set up mobile crisis teams, currently locally operated in a handful of places.

Many 911 calls are due to a person experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. Sometimes, like with Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, the consequences are shocking. The 41-year-old Black man died after police placed a spit hood over his head and held him to the pavement for about two minutes on a cold night in 2020 until he stopped breathing. He had run naked from his brother’s house after being released from a hospital following a mental health arrest. A grand jury voted down charges against the officers.

Dispatching teams of emergency medical technicians and behavioral health practitioners would take mental health crisis calls out of the hands of uniformed and armed officers, whose mere arrival may ratchet up tensions. In Eugene, Oregon, such a strategy has been in place more than 30 years, with solid backing from police.

The concept “fits nicely with what we are trying to do around police reform,” Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner said. The logic works “like a simple math problem,” he adds.

“If I can rely on a mechanism that matches the right response to the need, it means I don’t have to put my officers in these circumstances,” Skinner explained. “By sending the right resources I can make the assumption that there are going to be fewer times when officers are in situations that can turn violent. It actually de-conflicts, reducing the need for use of force.”

Eugene is a medium-size city about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Portland, known for its educational institutions. The program there is called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, and is run by the White Bird Clinic. CAHOOTS is part of the local 911 emergency response system but operates independently of the police, although there’s coordination. Crisis teams are not sent on calls involving violent situations.

“We don’t look like law enforcement,” White Bird veteran Tim Black said. “We drive a big white cargo van. Our responders wear a T-shirt or a hoodie with a logo. We don’t have handcuffs or pepper spray, and the way we start to interact sends a message that we are not the police and this is going to be a far safer and voluntary interaction.”

CAHOOTS teams handled 24,000 calls in the local area in 2019, and Black said the vast majority would have otherwise fallen to police. Many involve homeless people. The teams work to resolve the situation that prompted the call and to connect the person involved to ongoing help and support.

At least 14 cities around the country are interested in versions of that model, said Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities, a New York-based nonprofit that tries to promote change through effective use of data.

“It’s really exciting to see the federal government support this model,” Brody said. “I am hopeful that three years from now we will have multiple models and ideally some data that shows this has actually saved people’s lives.”

About 1,000 people a year are shot dead by police, according to an analysis by the Treatment Advocacy Center, which examined several publicly available estimates. Severe mental illness is a factor in at least 25% of such shootings, it estimated. The center advocates for improved mental health care.

Mobile crisis teams found their way into the COVID-19 relief bill through the efforts of Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who chairs the Finance Committee, which oversees Medicaid.

“Too often law enforcement is asked to respond to situations that they are not trained to handle,” Wyden said. “On the streets in challenging times, too often the result is violence, even fatal violence, particularly for Black Americans.”

Wyden’s legislation includes $15 million in planning grants to help states get going. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the program could take a couple of years to fully implement. Wyden said the $1 billion is a “down payment” on what he hopes will become a permanent part of Medicaid.

The idea may be well-timed, said Medicaid expert MaryBeth Musumeci, of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened society’s pervasive mental health and substance abuse problems. At the same time, protests over police shootings of Black people have created an appetite for anything that could break the cycle.

“All of those things coming together are putting increased focus on the need for further developing effective behavioral health treatment models,” Musumeci said.

In Rhode Island, nurse turned malpractice lawyer Laura Harrington is helping coordinate a grassroots campaign to incorporate crisis teams into the state’s 911 system. She said she’s been surprised at the level of interest.

“I don’t want to get into blaming,” Harrington said. “We could blame social services. We could blame people who don’t take their medications. We could blame the police. I want to move forward and solve problems.”

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AP writer Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed.

Japan issues 3rd virus emergency in Tokyo, Osaka area

By MARI YAMAGUCHI for the Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — Japan declared a third state of emergency for Tokyo and three western prefectures on Friday amid skepticism it will be enough to curb a rapid coronavirus resurgence just three months ahead of the Olympics.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced the emergency for Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo from April 25 through May 11.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declares a state of emergency for Tokyo and three other prefectures during the government task force meeting for the COVID-19 measures at the prime minister’s office Friday, April 23, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool)

The step is largely intended to be “short and intensive” to stop people from traveling and spreading the virus during Japan’s “Golden Week” holidays from late April through the first week of May, Suga said.

“I sincerely apologize for causing trouble for many people again,” said Suga, who earlier had pledged to do his utmost to prevent a third emergency. But he said he is alarmed by the fast=spreading new variant of the virus in the four prefectures and tougher steps are needed.

Suga said he will ensure enough vaccines are delivered to local municipalities so all of the country’s 36 million senior citizens can receive their second shots by the end of July — a month behind an earlier schedule.

Japan’s third state of emergency since the pandemic began comes only a month after an earlier emergency ended in the Tokyo area. For days, experts and local leaders said ongoing semi-emergency measures have failed and tougher steps are urgently needed.

Past emergency measures, issued a year ago and then in January, were toothless and authorized only non-mandatory requests. The government in February toughened a law on anti-virus measures to allow authorities to issue binding orders for nonessential businesses to shorten their hours or close, in exchange for compensation for those who comply and penalties for violators.

The measures this time are to include shutdown requirements for bars, department stores, malls, theme parks, theaters and museums. Restaurants that do not serve alcohol and public transportation services are asked to close early. Schools will stay open, but universities are asked to return to online classes.

Mask-wearing, staying home and other measures for the general public remain non-mandatory requests, and experts worry if they will be followed.

Japan, which has had about half a million cases and 10,000 deaths, has not enforced lockdowns. But people are becoming impatient and less cooperative and have largely ignored the ongoing measures as the infections accelerated.

Osaka, the epicenter of the latest resurgence, has since April 5 been under semi-emergency status, which was expanded to 10 areas including Tokyo, a step promoted by Suga’s government as an alternative to a state of emergency with less economic damage.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, who on Tuesday requested the emergency, said the semi-emergency measures were not working and hospitals were overflowing with patients.

COVID-19 treatment is largely limited to a handful of public-run hospitals, while many small private institutions are not helping out or are unprepared for infectious diseases.

Osaka recorded 1,162 new cases Friday, while Tokyo had 759.

The government has also been slow in rolling out vaccinations, leaving the population largely unprotected before the Olympics begin on July 23.

The May 11 end of the emergency, just ahead of an expected visit by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, triggered speculation that the government is prioritizing the Olympic schedule over people’s health.

Suga said Japan has no choice but to follow the IOC decision to hold the games. “The IOC has the authority to decide and the IOC has already decided to hold the Tokyo Olympics,” Suga said. “We aim to hold the games while taking strong measures to protect people’s lives from the further spread of infections.”

Suga has been reluctant to hurt the already pandemic-damaged economy and faced criticism for being slow to take virus measures.

Japan’s inoculation campaign lags behind many countries, with imported vaccines in short supply while its attempts to develop its own vaccines are still in the early stages. Inoculations started in mid-February but progress has been slow amid shortages of vaccines and healthcare workers.

The rapid increase in patients flooding hospitals has raised concerns of a further staff shortage and delay in vaccinations.

French prosecutors open terror probe in official’s killing

By ANGELA CHARLTON and MICHEL EULER for the Associated Press

RAMBOUILLET, France (AP) — French prosecutors opened a terrorism investigation into the fatal stabbing Friday of a French police official inside a police station near the historic Rambouillet chateau outside Paris. Police shot and killed the attacker at the scene, authorities said.

In this image made from video, police near the scene of a stabbing at a police station in Rambouillet, southwest of Paris, Friday, April 23, 2021. Authorities say a French policewoman has been stabbed to death inside her police station and that fellow officers nearby shot and killed the suspected attacker. The identity and the motive of the assailant were not immediately clear. (Clement Lanot via AP)

Anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard told reporters that his office took over the probe because the attacker had staked out the station, because of statements he made during the attack, and because he targeted a police official.

Ricard did not provide details on the attacker’s identity or motive. French media reports identified him as a 37-year-old French resident with no criminal record or record of radicalization.

A French judicial official said the suspect was born in Tunisia and that witnesses heard him say “Allahu akbar, Arabic for “God is great,” during the attack. The judicial official was not authorized to be publicly named speaking about an ongoing investigation.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex rushed to the scene with other officials and pledged the government’s “determination to fight terrorism in all its forms.” Islamic extremists and others have carried out multiple terror attacks in France recent years, including several targeting police.

The official killed Friday was a 49-year-old administrative employee who worked in the station for the national police service, a national police spokesperson told The Associated Press.

The national anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into murder of a person of public authority in relation with a terrorist group.

“Police are symbols of the republic. They are France,” Valerie Pecresse, president of the Paris region, told reporters at the scene, adding: “The face of France” was targeted.

The attack took place southwest of Paris just inside the police station in a quiet residential area of the town of Rambouillet, about 750 meters (yards) from a former royal estate that is sometimes used for international peace negotiations. Police cordons ringed the area after the stabbing.

The attack comes as President Emmanuel Macron’s government is toughening its security policies amid voter concerns about crime and complaints from police that they face increasing danger. The shift comes as France prepares for regional elections in June in which security is a big issue, and for a presidential election next year in which Macron’s main challenger could be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, if he seeks a second term.

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Charlton reported from Paris.

Dutch coronavirus infections rise ahead of lockdown easing

By MIKE CORDER for the Associated Press

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday defended his decision to ease his country’s lockdown next week even after the Netherlands recorded 9,648 new coronavirus infections— the highest daily increase since January.

The national care authority also said the country’s high numbers of COVID-19 patients mean that more than one-third of Dutch hospitals no longer have the capacity to carry out planned critical care and nearly all hospitals are delaying less urgent medical procedures.

FILE – In this file photo dated Thursday, April 1, 2021, Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte listens to a debate in parliament in The Hague, Netherlands. Rutte announced a significant easing in his country’s months-long coronavirus lockdown Tuesday April 20, 2021, calling it a delicate balancing act as infections remain stubbornly high, and as lockdown fatigue grows.(AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

“The COVID number in ICUs is high and on a rising trend,” the National Coordination Center for Patient Distribution said. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units rose by 17 to 839 over the last day.

Still, the nation is preparing to ease its lockdown next week.

Rutte announced Tuesday that the nationwide 10:30 p.m.-4:30 a.m. curfew in force since January will end on April 28, when bars and restaurants will be allowed to reopen outdoor terraces — under strict conditions — from noon until 6 p.m.

Shoppers will no longer have to make appointments to visit nonessential stores, although the number of customers per shop will still be tightly limited.

Rutte told a parliamentary debate Thursday that his government is prepared to take an “acceptable risk” by easing restrictions because modelling shows a decline in infections and hospital admissions is likely around the start of May.

“This also has to do with the broader social evaluation and we believe that is a responsible risk,” he said.

Bars and other hospitality venues have been closed since mid-October and have for weeks been pressing to reopen.

In the Parliament debate, opposition Labor Party leader Lilianne Ploumen urged the government to call off the relaxation of rules.

The 7-day rolling average of daily new cases in Netherlands rose over the past two weeks from 40.8 new cases per 100,000 people on April 7 to 47.9 new cases per 100,000 people on April 21. The Netherlands has seen over 17,000 confirmed virus deaths in the pandemic.

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California cop charged in shooting, but after second death

By JULIET WILLIAMS for the Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A sheriff’s deputy in the San Francisco Bay Area has been charged with manslaughter and assault in the fatal shooting of an unarmed Filipino man during a slow-moving car chase more than two years ago.

Last month, the same deputy shot and killed a Black man.

The charges Wednesday came a day after former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of killing George Floyd, a Black man whose death last May helped spark a national reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality.

The Contra Costa County district attorney’s office said it charged Deputy Andrew Hall with felony voluntary manslaughter and felony assault with a semi-automatic firearm in the 2018 killing of 33-year-old Laudemar Arboleda, who was shot nine times.

“Officer Hall used unreasonable and unnecessary force when he responded to the in-progress traffic pursuit involving Laudemer Arboleda, endangering not only Mr. Arboleda’s life but the lives of his fellow officers and citizens in the immediate area,” District Attorney Diana Becton said in a news release.

Deputies slowly pursued Arboleda through the city of Danville after someone reported a suspicious person. Sheriff’s department video shows Hall stopping his patrol car, getting out and running toward the sedan driven by Arboleda. Hall opened fire and kept shooting as Arboleda’s car passed by, striking him nine times.

Hall testified at an inquest that he was afraid Arboleda would run him over.

Hall’s attorney, Harry Stern, said prosecutors previously deemed the deputy’s use of force in the 2018 case justified, “given the fact that he was defending himself from a lethal threat. The timing of their sudden reversal in deciding to file charges seems suspect and overtly political.”

The district attorney has faced criticism for taking so long to make a decision in the 2 1/2-year-old case, which intensified after Hall shot and killed Tyrell Wilson on March 11.

Wilson was carrying a knife in the middle of an intersection. Graphic body camera footage released Wednesday shows the deputy call out to Tyrell Wilson, 33, accusing him of jaywalking, and then shoot him in the middle of a busy intersection within seconds of asking him to drop his knife.

The family’s attorney released another video Thursday taken by someone stopped at the intersection.

“It doesn’t seem like he was doing anything,” someone says in the video. After Hall shoots Wilson, which can be clearly seen in the video, another person says, “Oh, my God. … This dude just got shot and killed, bro.”

The footage released Wednesday shows Wilson walking away as the deputy walks toward him, then eventually turns to face him, holding a knife, and says, “Touch me and see what’s up.”

As they stand in an intersection, Hall asks him three times to drop the knife as Wilson motions toward his face, saying, “Kill me.” Hall shoots once, and Wilson drops to the ground as drivers stopped in the intersection look on.

The entire confrontation lasted about a minute.

Attorney John Burris, who is representing the families of Wilson and Arboleda, said both men were mentally ill. Burris said if prosecutors had acted more quickly in the Arboleda case, Wilson might still be alive. He said Hall was unnecessarily aggressive toward Wilson, who was not causing any problems and was backing away from the deputy before he was shot without warning.

“This is a homeless man, he’s walking away, minding his own business. He’s basically saying go away, leave me alone,” Burris said. “You felt compelled to kill him.”

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston said the videos show Wilson was threatening Hall and was possibly throwing rocks at drivers.

“He did threaten Officer Hall,” Livingston said. “And he did start advancing toward Officer Hall in the middle of a major intersection. Officers are forced to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and the public, and that’s what happened here.”

US troops in Afghanistan begin packing gear in pullout prep

By KATHY GANNON for the Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. military has begun shipping equipment and winding down contracts with local service providers ahead of the May 1 start of the final phase of its military pullout from Afghanistan, a U.S. Defense Department official said Thursday.

FILE – In this April 14, 2021 file photo, President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. A U.S. defense department official said Thursday April 22, 2021, that the U.S. military has begun shipping equipment and winding down contracts with local service providers ahead of the May 1 start of the final phase of its military pullout from Afghanistan. The pullout marks the end of America’s longest war, after a 20-year military engagement. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool, File)

The pullout under U.S. President Joe Biden marks the end of America’s longest war after a 20-year military engagement. Currently, some 2,500 U.S. soldiers and about 7,000 allied forces are still in Afghanistan.

In February last year, the U.S. military began closing its smaller bases. In mid-April, the Biden administration announced that the final phase of the withdrawal would begin May 1 and be completed before Sept. 11.

Since then, the military has been shipping equipment and winding down local contracts for services such as trash pickup and maintenance work, the U.S. official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations.

While preparations are under way, troops likely won’t begin to depart for a few weeks, he said, adding that “we won’t see a coming down of the (troop) numbers” until remaining bases close.

There have been indications that the pullout could be completed well before Sept. 11, which marks the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida terror attack on the U.S. and the trigger for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Germany’s Defense Ministry said discussions are underway among military planners with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Kabul for a possible withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as early as July 4.

In the short term, America will likely increase its troop presence in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said last Friday. The additional troops would be in Afghanistan over the coming weeks and months to help with what the herculean task of wrapping up 20 years of war.

While much of the equipment headed back to the U.S. will be shipped by air, the military will also use land routes through Pakistan and north through Central Asia, the Defense Department official said.

The U.S. equipment that is neither shipped back to America nor given to the Afghan National Security forces will be sold to contractors, who will, in turn, sell it in the local markets.

“You’ll most likely start seeing it eventually showing up in bazaars as scrap,” said the official.

The Taliban, meanwhile, were non-committal when asked by the AP whether the insurgents would attack departing U.S. and NATO troops. “It’s too early for these issues, nothing can be said about the future,” said Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem.

In a deal the Taliban signed last year with former President Donald Trump, the final U.S. withdrawal deadline was set as May 1. Under the agreement, the Taliban promised not to attack U.S. and NATO troops but they also later promised “consequences” if Washington defied the May 1 deadline.

Garland announces sweeping police probe after Floyd verdict

By MICHAEL BALSAMO and AMY FORLITI for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is opening a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis after a former officer was convicted in the killing of George Floyd there, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday.

The decision comes a day after former officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death last May, setting off a wave of relief across the country. The death prompted months of mass protests against policing and the treatment of Black people in the U.S.

The Justice Department was already investigating whether Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd’s death violated his civil rights.

“Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Garland said.

The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice” — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and will be a more sweeping probe of the entire police department and may result in major changes to policing there.

It will examine the use of force by police officers, including force used during protests, and whether the department engages in discriminatory practices. It will also look into the department’s handling of misconduct allegations and its treatment of people with behavioral health issues and will assess the department’s current systems of accountability, Garland said.

A senior Justice Department official said prosecutors chose to announce the probe a day after the verdict because they did not want to do anything to interfere with Chauvin’s trial. The official would not discuss details of the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Three other ex-Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd’s death will be tried together beginning Aug. 23. The official said their trial is far enough off that officials believed it was still appropriate to make the announcement Wednesday, even though they are still awaiting trial on state charges.

It’s unclear whether the years under investigation will begin when Floyd died or before. Garland said a public report would be issued, if the department finds a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing. The department could also bring a lawsuit against the police department, which in the past have typically ended in settlement agreements or consent decrees to force changes.

The Minneapolis Police Department is also being investigated by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which is looking into the department’s policies and practices over the last decade to see if it engaged in systemic discriminatory practices.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said city officials “welcome the investigation as an opportunity to continue working toward deep change and accountability in the Minneapolis Police Department.” The city council also issued a statement supporting the investigation, saying its work had been constrained by local laws and that it welcomes “new tools to pursue transformational, structural changes to how the City provides for public safety.”

The Justice Department official said attorneys from the department’s civil rights division are on the ground in Minneapolis, working with the U.S. attorney’s office and have been speaking with community groups and others.

Floyd, 46, was arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes at a corner market. He panicked, pleaded that he was claustrophobic and struggled with police when they tried to put him in a squad car. They put him on the ground instead.

The centerpiece of the case was bystander video of Floyd, handcuffed behind his back, gasping repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” and onlookers yelling at Chauvin to stop as the officer pressed his knee on or close to Floyd’s neck for what authorities say was about 9 1/2 minutes, including several minutes after Floyd’s breathing had stopped and he had no pulse.

Floyd’s death May 25 became a flashpoint in the national conversation about the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement and sparked worldwide protests.

At trial, Chauvin’s defense attorney persistently suggested Chauvin’s knee wasn’t on Floyd’s neck for as long as prosecutors argued, suggesting instead it was across Floyd’s back, shoulder blades and arm.

The decision to announce a sweeping Justice Department investigation comes as President Joe Biden has promised his administration would not rest following the jury’s verdict in the case. In a Tuesday evening speech, he said much more needed to be done.

“‘I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words,” Biden said. “We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.”

The Justice Department had previously considered opening a pattern or practice investigation into the police department soon after Floyd’s death, but then-Attorney General Bill Barr was hesitant to do so at the time, fearing that it could cause further divisions in law enforcement amid widespread protests and civil unrest, three people familiar with the matter told the AP.

Garland said the challenges being faced “are deeply woven into our history.”

“They did not arise today or last year,” Garland said. “Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency knowing that change cannot wait.”

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Forliti contributed to this report from Minneapolis.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd.

More than 180 reported arrested in Navalny demonstrations

By JIM HEINTZ and DARIA LITVINOVA for the Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Police across Russia have arrested more than 180 people in connection with demonstrations Wednesday in support of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a human rights group said. Many were seized before protests even began, including two top Navalny associates in Moscow.

Navalny’s team called the unsanctioned demonstrations after reports that his health is deteriorating while on hunger strike, which he began March 31.

“The situation with Alexei is indeed critical, and so we moved up the day of the mass protests,” Vladimir Ashurkov, a close Navalny ally and executive director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told The Associated Press. “Alexei’s health has sharply deteriorated, and he is in a rather critical condition. Doctors are saying that judging by his test (results), he should be admitted into intensive care.”

His organization had said protests would take place in more than 180 cities, but it was not immediately clear if they would match the massive turnout for protests in January that were the largest in Russia in a decade.

Protests in support of Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s biggest foe, began in each city around 7 p.m. and moved west across the sprawling country. The largest turnouts were expected in Moscow, where demonstrators were called to gather in a square adjacent to the Kremlin, and in St. Petersburg.

His team called the nationwide protests for the same day that Putin gave his annual state-of-the-nation address. In his speech, he denounced foreign governments’ alleged attempts to impose their will on Russia. Putin, who never publicly uses Navalny’s name, did not specify to whom the denunciation referred, but Western governments have been harshly critical of Navalny’s treatment and have called for his release.

In Moscow, Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh and Lyubov Sobol, one of his most prominent associates, were detained by police in the morning.

Yarmysh, who was put under house arrest after the January protests, was detained outside her apartment building when she went out during the one hour she is allowed to leave, said her lawyer, Veronika Polyakova. She was taken to a police station and charged with organizing an illegal gathering.

Sobol was removed from a taxi by uniformed policei, said her lawyer, Vladimir Voronin.

OVD-Info, a group that monitors political arrests and offers aid to detainees, said at least 182 people had been arrested. It also reported that police searched the offices of Navalny’s organization in Yekaterinbrug and detained a Navalny-affiliated journalist in Khabarovsk.

In St. Petersburg, the State University of Aerospace Instrumentation posted a notice warning that students participating in unauthorized demonstrations could be expelled.

The 44-year-old Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin. Russian officials have rejected the accusation.

Soon after, a court found that Navalny’s long stay in Germany violated the terms of a suspended sentence he was handed for a 2014 embezzlement conviction and ordered him to serve 2 1/2 years in prison .

Navalny began the hunger strike to protest prison officials’ refusal to let his doctors visit when he began experiencing severe back pain and a loss of feeling in his legs. The penitentiary service has said Navalny was getting all the medical help he needs.

Navalny’s physician, Dr. Yaroslav Ashikhmin, said recently that test results he received from Navalny’s family showed sharply elevated levels of potassium, which can bring on cardiac arrest, and heightened creatinine levels that indicate impaired kidneys and he “could die at any moment.”

On Sunday, he was transferred to a hospital in another prison and given a glucose drip. Prison officials rebuffed attempts by his doctors to visit him there.

Russian authorities have escalated their crackdown on Navalny’s allies and supporters. The Moscow prosecutor’s office asking a court to brand Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his network of regional offices as extremist organizations. Human rights activists say such a move would paralyze the activities of the groups and expose their members and donors to prison sentences of up to 10 years.

Navalny’s allies vowed to continue their work despite the pressure.

“It is, of course, an element of escalation,” Ashurkov told the AP. “But I have to say we were able to regroup and organize our work despite the pressure before. I’m confident that now, too, we will find ways to work. … We have neither the intention nor the possibility to abandon what we’re doing.”

Police kill Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, who attacked 2 with knife

By FARNOUSH AMIRI for the Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The fatal police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager seen on video charging at two people with a knife, came within minutes of the verdict in George Floyd’s killing — causing outrage by some over the continued use of lethal force by Columbus police.

Officials with the Columbus Division of Police released footage of the shooting Tuesday night just hours after it happened, a departure from protocol as the force faces immense scrutiny from the public following a series of recent high-profile police killings that have led to clashes.

The girl was identified by Franklin County Children Services, which said in a release that the 16-year-old Bryant was under the care of the agency at the time of her death.

The 10-second clip begins with the officer getting out of his car at a house where police had been dispatched after someone called 911 saying they were being physically threatened, Interim Police Chief Michael Woods said at the news conference. The officer takes a few steps toward a group of people in the driveway when Bryant starts swinging a knife wildly at another girl or woman, who falls backward. The officer shouts several times to get down.

Bryant then charges at another girl or woman, who is pinned against a car.

From a few feet away, with people on either side of him, the officer fires four shots, and Bryant slumps to the ground. A black-handled blade similar to a kitchen knife or steak knife lies on the sidewalk next to her.

A man immediately yells at the officer, “You didn’t have to shoot her! She’s just a kid, man!”

The officer responds, “She had a knife. She just went at her.”

The race of the officer wasn’t clear and he was taken off patrolling the streets for the time being.

Bryant was taken to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead, police said. It remains unclear if anyone else was injured.

Woods said state law allows police to use deadly force to protect themselves or others, and investigators will determine whether this shooting was such an instance. Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation is now reviewing the killing following an agreement with the city last summer for all police shootings to be handled by the independent investigators under Attorney General Dave Yost’s office.

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther mourned the loss of the young victim but defended the officer’s use of deadly force.

“We know based on this footage the officer took action to protect another young girl in our community,” he told reporters.

The shooting happened about 25 minutes before a judge read the verdict convicting former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin of murder and manslaughter in the killing of Floyd. It also took place less than 5 miles from where the funeral for Andre Hill, who was killed by another Columbus police officer in December, was held earlier this year. The officer in Hill’s case, Adam Coy, a 19-year veteran of the force, is now facing trial for murder, with the next hearing scheduled for April 28.

Less than three weeks before Hill was killed, a Franklin County Sheriff’s deputy fatally shot 23-year-old Casey Goodson Jr. in Columbus. The case remains under federal investigation.

Last week, Columbus police shot and killed a man who was in a hospital emergency room with a gun on him. Officials are continuing an investigation into that shooting.

Kimberly Shepherd, 50, who has lived in the neighborhood where Tuesday’s shooting took place for 17 years, said she knew the teenage victim.

“The neighborhood has definitely went through its changes, but nothing like this,” Shepherd said of the shooting. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened out here and unfortunately it is at the hands of police.”

Shepherd and her neighbor Jayme Jones, 51, had celebrated the guilty verdict of Chauvin. But things changed quickly, she said.

“We were happy about the verdict. But you couldn’t even enjoy that,” Shepherd said. “Because as you’re getting one phone call that he was guilty, I’m getting the next phone call that this is happening in my neighborhood.”

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Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

COVID-19 hospitalizations up 20% in Alabama in 10 days

By JAY REEVES for the Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 have jumped about 20% in less than two weeks in Alabama, a trend that health officials said Tuesday they were monitoring but don’t consider a sign of another coming crisis in the pandemic.

Alabama National Guard Sgt. Antwan Marshall gives a COVID-19 vaccination to Shirley Thompson on Friday, April 2, 2021 during a clinic at Wilcox High School in Camden, Ala. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

Statistics from the Alabama Department of Public Health showed 362 people were hospitalized Monday for the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Though up from the 301 patients just 10 days earlier, the total was still just a fraction of the 3,070 patients who pushed the state’s intensive care wards to near capacity in mid-January.

The increase in cases is concerning but doesn’t immediately threaten the state’s health care system because the number of people being treated remains far below levels from earlier this year, said Dr. Don Williamson, chief executive of the Alabama Hospital Association.

Also, he said, a major spike in the number of severely ill patients isn’t expected because more and more people are being vaccinated and increasing numbers of patients are young people, who tend to fare better than older patients with health complications.

“It’s nothing dramatic, but it’s something we need to be aware is happening,” said Williamson, who previously served as state health officer. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 163, an increase of about 50%, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Scott Harris, who followed Williamson at Public Health, said officials were monitoring the increase in hospitalizations but aren’t yet sure of the cause. The bump follows spring break, Easter gatherings and the end of the state’s mandatory face mask rule on April 9, any of which could be a factor.

“The uptick in hospitalizations is just a reminder that our most vulnerable people still need to be cautious,” he told The Associated Press.

More than 522,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Alabama since the beginning of the pandemic, and nearly 10,800 have died. While about 1.4 million in the state have received at least one dose of vaccine, Alabama is last nationally in its rate of immunizing people.

Vaccine is more plentiful than ever, Williamson said, but multiple hospitals statewide had immunization appointments available last week “and no one was showing up to get the vaccines.”

“In a significant number of our hospitals the demand is down,” he said. It’s unclear whether the demand at hospitals was low because shots were available elsewhere or because large numbers of people are refusing to be vaccinated, Williamson said.

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AP writer Kim Chandler in Montgomery contributed to this report.

Police: 1 killed, 2 wounded in shooting at NY grocery store

From the Associated Press

WEST HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) — An employee was killed and two people were wounded Tuesday in a shooting at a Long Island grocery store, police said.

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said a person of interest in the shooting had worked at the store and remains at large.

This aerial photo provided by WABC shows police responding to the scene of a shooting at a Stop & Shop supermarket in West Hempstead, N.Y., on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

The shooting happened around 11 a.m. inside a manager’s office upstairs from the shopping floor at the Stop & Shop in West Hempstead, Ryder said. There were about a “couple hundred” shoppers inside the store at the time.

The name of the victims have not been made public. The man who was killed was a 49-year-old store employee, Ryder said. The two wounded were hospitalized and were conscious and alert.

Police identified the person of interest as Gabriel DeWitt Wilson and gave a date of birth for him indicating that he is 31 years old. It was unclear whether he was still employed by the store, Ryder said.

Wilson was wearing all black and carrying a small handgun as he fled westbound on Hempstead Turnpike, Ryder told reporters at a news conference in a nearby parking lot.

Video of the aftermath of the shooting showed police cars and ambulances parked in front of the store, officers with long guns and yellow crime scene tape draped across the entrance.

Curran said nearby schools have been told not to admit visitors and residents were asked to remain indoors.

West Hempstead is near the New York City-Nassau County border and about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of midtown Manhattan.

Stop & Shop President Gordon Reid said in a statement that the company is “shocked and heartbroken by this act of violence” and that the West Hempstead store will remain closed until further notice.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims, our associates, customers and the first responders who have responded heroically to this tragic situation,” Reid said.

Stop & Shop is a grocery chain in the northeastern U.S. owned by the Dutch company Ahold Delhaize.

‘No place for you’: Indian hospitals buckle amid virus surge

By ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL and NEHA MEHROTRA for the Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) — Seema Gandotra, sick with the coronavirus, gasped for breath in an ambulance for 10 hours as it tried unsuccessfully to find an open bed at six hospitals in India’s sprawling capital. By the time she was admitted, it was too late, and the 51-year-old died hours later.

FILE In this April 19, 2021 file photo, a relative of a person who died of COVID-19 reacts during cremation, in New Delhi, India. India’s health system is collapsing under the worst surge in corona.

Rajiv Tiwari, whose oxygen levels began falling after he tested positive for the virus, has the opposite problem: He identified an open bed, but the resident of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh can’t get to it. “There is no ambulance to take me to the hospital,” he said.

Such tragedies are familiar from surges in other parts of the world — but were largely unknown in India, which was able to prevent a collapse in its health system last year through a harsh lockdown. But now they are everyday occurrences in the vast country, which is seeing its largest surge of the pandemic so far and watching its chronically underfunded health system crumble.

Tests are delayed. Medical oxygen is scarce. Hospitals are understaffed and overflowing. Intensive care units are full. Nearly all ventilators are in use, and the dead are piling up at crematoriums and graveyards. India recorded over 250,000 new infections and over 1,700 deaths in the past 24 hours alone, and the U.K. announced a travel ban on most visitors from the country this week. Overall, India has reported more than 15 million cases and some 180,000 deaths — and experts say these numbers are likely undercounted.

“The surge in infections has come like a storm and a big battle lies ahead,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address to the nation Tuesday night.

India’s wave of cases is contributing to a worldwide rise in infections as many places experience deepening crises, such as Brazil and France, spurred in part by new, more contagious variants,