South Africans anxious over pause in use of J&J vaccines

By MOGOMOTSI MAGOME and ANDREW MELDRUM for the Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa’s decision to suspend the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to preliminary reports of rare blood clots has left the country without any shots as it struggles to combat an aggressive coronavirus variant.

FILE — In this Friday, March 26, 2021 file photo, healthcare workers queue to receive the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. South Africa has suspended giving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as a “precautionary measure” following the FDA decision in the United States to pause the use of the vaccine while very rare blood clot cases are examined. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, file)

South Africa has more than 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including at least 53,000 deaths, representing more than 30% of all the confirmed cases in Africa’s 54 countries. So far, it has only inoculated 290,00 health care workers, all with the J&J vaccine.

South Africa’s plans to begin large-scale vaccinations next month are dependent upon deliveries of millions of doses of the Johnson & Johnson and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. The government said it expects to vaccinate 40 million of the nation’s 60 million people by February 2022.

The health minister said South Africa has not had any reports of blood clots in vaccine recipients, the issue that led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday to recommend a pause in the use of the J&J vaccine. Some health experts criticized South Africa’s move to follow the U.S. at such a critical juncture.

“I had expected the government in South Africa not to be perturbed by the findings from the U.S. I expected that there would not be any disruption,” Mosa Moshabela, professor of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told The Associated Press. “Johnson & Johnson is our only (vaccine) option currently. I really did not expect that we would need to pause.”

He said it’s likely that South African health officials will be able to resume use of the J&J vaccines soon, although the disruption could contribute to vaccine hesitancy.

The National Health and Allied Workers, however, welcomed the pause to ensure the J&J’s product is safe, union spokesman Khaya Xaba said.

This is not the first abrupt change South Africa has made in its vaccination strategy. In February, the country scrapped its plans to give the AstraZeneca vaccine to its health care workers because a small, preliminary test showed that it gave minimal protection against mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 caused by the variant dominant in South Africa.

It was then that South Africa quickly pivoted to the use of the J&J vaccine. The country had already participated in an international clinical trial of the vaccine without any problems. The vaccine also has been found to have good efficacy against the variant dominant in South Africa.

The country has ordered 30 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. South Africa has also ordered a total of 30 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The J&J vaccine is being given to South Africa’s 1.2 million health care workers as a large-scale research study, because the vaccine has not yet been approved for general use in South Africa.

Rashika Alberlito, an intensive care unit administrator at a private hospital in Kwazulu-Natal province, was injected last month with the J&J vaccine. She is now extremely worried: she was hospitalized for nearly two weeks in 2015 because of a blood clot in one of her lungs. Alberlito remains on blood-thinning medication, and the news about the possible link between the J&J vaccine and blood clots concerned her.

“I asked about the safety of the vaccine given my condition, and I was assured it was safe,” Alberlito told The Associated Press. “That is why I was very shocked and worried to hear the announcement by the minister, but I hope the test results would confirm no causal link between the blood clots and the vaccine.”

Like Alberlito, many South Africans are hoping the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be deemed safe.

While acknowledging the importance of vaccine safety, professor Moshabela said it is urgent that South Africa vaccinate millions of people as soon as possible. He hopes the suspension of the J&J vaccine will not last long.

“In the meantime, you’re going to have a lot of people who catch COVID, and some of them will die while you delay the (vaccine) rollout,” Moshabela said.

Potential problems with the J&J vaccine could affect all of Africa, as the African Union recently secured orders for 220 million doses of the vaccine to be used across the continent.

“The last thing that we want to have is any cloud of doubt around any vaccines in Africa and the world. It just strengthens that belief that vaccines are not safe on the continent of Africa, or in the world for that matter,” Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a webinar Wednesday.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemichttps://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

1 dead, 6 rescued, 12 still missing from capsized ship

By STACEY PLAISANCE, KEVIN McGILL and JEFF MARTIN for the Associated Press

PORT FOURCHON, La. (AP) — The Coast Guard searched for 12 people missing off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday after finding one crew member dead and pulling six survivors from rough seas when their commercial platform vessel capsized in hurricane-force winds.

A Coast Guard Station Grand Isle 45-foot Respone Boat-Medium boatcrew heads toward a capsized 175-foot commercial lift boat Tuesday, April 13, 2021, searching for people in the water 8 miles south of Grand Isle, Louisiana. The Coast Guard and multiple other boats rescued six people onboard a commercial lift boat that capsized off the coast of Louisiana on Tuesday night and were searching for more, the agency said.(U.S. Coast Guard Coast Guard Cutter Glenn Harris via AP)

Coast Guard Capt. Will Watson said winds were 80 to 90 mph (130 to 145 km/h) and seas were 7 to 9 feet (2.1 to (2.7 meters) when the Seacor Power overturned. “It’s challenging under any circumstance,” he said.

The bulky vessel with three long legs that can be lowered to the sea floor to make it an offshore platform flipped over Tuesday afternoon miles south of Port Fourchon. At one point, video showed the massive ship — 129-feet (39-meters) long at its beam — with one leg pointed awkwardly skyward as rescuers searched the heaving water.

One crew member was found dead on the surface of the water, Watson said at a news conference Wednesday. Asked about the prospects of the missing crew, he said: “We are hopeful. We can’t do this work if you’re not optimistic, if you’re not hopeful.”

Lafourche Parish President Archie Chaisson III said time is critical in the rescue effort because “we have the potential for some rough weather around lunchtime.”

“The hope is that we can bring the other 12 home alive,” Chaisson said.

The search involved at least four Coast Guard vessels, four private ones and Coast Guard airplanes based in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama. A Coast Guard helicopter also was being used.

Relatives of the missing crew members rushed to the port from their homes nearby, seeking any information they could get, Chaisson said.

“We continue to pray for the … men who were on that vessel as well as their families,” Chaisson said.

The company that owns the ship, Houston-based Seacor Marine, set up a private hotline to share information with families of those onboard, Chaisson said. An employee who answered the phone Wednesday morning said he had no immediate information he could share.

The National Weather Service in New Orleans had advised of bad weather offshore, including a special marine warning issued before 4 p.m. Tuesday that predicted steep waves and winds greater than 50 knots (58 mph).

The Coast Guard received an emergency distress signal at 4:30 p.m. and issued an urgent marine broadcast that prompted multiple private vessels in the area to respond, saving four crew members, the agency said. Coast Guard crews rescued another two people.

Although the Coast Guard said the lift boat capsized during a microburst, a National Weather Service meteorologist said the system was more like an offshore derecho.

“This was not a microburst — just a broad straight-line wind event that swept over a huge area,” Phil Grigsby said.

He said the weather service’s nearest official gauge, at Grand Isle, showed about 30 minutes of 75 mph (120 km/h) winds, followed by hours of winds over 50 mph (80 km/h).

The initial storm system was followed by a low-pressure system called a wake low, which amplified the winds and made them last longer, Grigsby said. “It was the strongest wake low I’ve seen in almost 18 years here,” he said.

Capt. Ronald Dufrene said his offshore trawler, Mister Jug, was among the shrimp boats that struggled to survive.

“People who have been fishing 30, 40 years — the first time they put their life jackets on was yesterday. … I know three boats for sure said that,” Dufrene said.

He said the captain who was on board his boat told him seas rose 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters) and the wind gauge was lost at 80 mph (129 km/h), but a crewman told him later that he saw the gauge at 95 mph, “then the wind laid the pole over.”

The 95-mph (153 km/h) report can’t be taken as official, Grigsby said. “We don’t know how well-calibrated their instrument is. But it’s not outside the realm of probability,” he said.

Port Fourchon, Louisiana’s southernmost seaport, is a major base for the U.S. oil and gas industry, supporting most of Louisiana’s offshore platforms and drilling rigs.

The storm also overturned other vessels and damaged property from Louisiana’s shore up to New Orleans.

“Please join @FirstLadyOfLA and me in praying for those who remain missing after yesterday’s capsizing off the coast of Grand Isle and for those who are working to rescue them,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday on Twitter.

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The length of the capsized vessel has been corrected; it has a beam of 129 feet, not 265 feet.

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Associated Press writer Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report from New Orleans. McGill reported from New Orleans and Martin reported from Marietta, Georgia.

Minnesota cop will be charged in shooting of Black motorist

By SCOTT BAUER and MIKE HOUSEHOLDER for the Associated Press

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. (AP) — A prosecutor said Wednesday that he will charge a white former suburban Minneapolis police officer with second-degree manslaughter for killing 20-year-old Black motorist Daunte Wright in a shooting that ignited days of unrest and clashes between protesters and police.

The charge against former Brooklyn Center police Officer Kim Potter will be filed Wednesday, three days after Wright was killed during a traffic stop and as the nearby murder trial progresses for the ex-officer charged with killing George Floyd last May, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said.

Flowers have been placed on a banner as demonstrators gather outside the Brooklyn Center (Minn.) Police Department on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, to protest Sunday’s fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The former Brooklyn Center police chief has said that Potter, a 26-year veteran and training officer, intended to use her Taser on Wright but fired her handgun instead. However, protesters and Wright’s family members say there’s no excuse for the shooting and it shows how the justice system is tilted against Blacks, noting Wright was stopped for expired car registration and ended up dead.

Intent isn’t a necessary component of second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota. The charge — which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison — can be applied in circumstances where a person is suspected of causing a death by “culpable negligence” that creates an unreasonable risk or consciously takes chances to cause the death of a person.

Asked how he arrived at the charging decision, Orput said: “I think it’ll be evident when you read the complaint,” which was not yet available.

Potter, 48, was arrested Wednesday morning at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul. Her attorney did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press.

Potter and Police Chief Tim Gannon both resigned Tuesday.

The Star Tribune reported that concrete barricades and tall metal fencing had been set up around Potter’s home in Champlin, north of Brooklyn Center, with police cars guarding the driveway. After Floyd’s death last year, protesters demonstrated several times at the home of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer now on trial in Floyd’s death.

Police say Wright was pulled over for expired tags on Sunday, but they sought to arrest him after discovering he had an outstanding warrant. The warrant was for his failure to appear in court on charges that he fled from officers and possessed a gun without a permit during an encounter with Minneapolis police in June.

Body camera video that Gannon released Monday shows Potter approaching Wright as he stands outside of his car as another officer is arresting him.

As Wright struggles with police, Potter shouts, “I’ll Tase you! I’ll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” before firing a single shot from her handgun.

Wright family attorney Ben Crump said the family appreciates the criminal case, but he again disputed that the shooting was accidental, arguing that an experienced officer knows the difference between a Taser and a handgun.

“Kim Potter executed Daunte for what amounts to no more than a minor traffic infraction and a misdemeanor warrant,” he said.

Experts say cases of officers are rare, usually less than once a year nationwide.

Transit officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after responding to a fight at a train station in Oakland, California, killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant in 2009. Mehserle testified at trial that he mistakenly pulled his .40-caliber handgun instead of his stun gun.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy, Robert Bates, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter after accidentally firing his handgun when he meant to deploy his stun gun on Eric Harris, a Black man who was being held down by other officers in 2015.

Potter was an instructor with the Brooklyn Center police, according to the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. She was training two other officers when they stopped Wright, the association’s leader, BIll Peters, told the Star Tribune.

In her one-paragraph letter of resignation, Potter said, “I have loved every minute of being a police officer and serving this community to the best of my ability, but I believe it is in the best interest of the community, the department, and my fellow officers if I resign immediately.”

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott said Tuesday that he hoped Potter’s resignation would “bring some calm to the community,” but that he would keep working toward “full accountability under the law.”

Police and protesters faced off again after nightfall Tuesday, with hundreds of demonstrators once more gathering at Brooklyn Center’s heavily guarded police headquarters, now ringed by concrete barriers and a tall metal fence, and where police in riot gear and National Guard soldiers stood watch.

About 90 minutes before a 10 p.m. curfew, state police announced over a loudspeaker that the gathering had been declared unlawful and ordered the crowds to disperse. That set off confrontations, with protesters launching fireworks toward the station and throwing objects at officers, who launched flashbangs and gas grenades, then marched in a line to force back the crowd.

State police said the dispersal order came before the curfew because protesters were trying to take down the fencing and throwing rocks at police. The number of protesters plummeted over the next hour, until only a few remained. Police also ordered all media to leave.

Brooklyn Center, a suburb just north of Minneapolis, has seen its racial demographics shift dramatically in recent years. In 2000, more than 70% of the city was white. Today, a majority of residents are Black, Asian or Hispanic.

Elliott said Tuesday that he didn’t have at hand information on the police force’s racial diversity but that “we have very few people of color in our department.”

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Bauer contributed from Madison, Wisconsin. Associated Press writers Doug Glass and Mohamed Ibrahim in Minneapolis; Tim Sullivan in Brooklyn Center; and Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, contributed to this report.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the death of Daunte Wright at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-daunte-wright

Canary Islands hotel offers shelter to migrants in need

By RENATA BRITO for the Associated Press

PUERTO RICO DE GRAN CANARIA, Spain (AP) — When hotel director Calvin Lucock and restaurant owner Unn Tove Saetran said goodbye to one of the last groups of migrants staying in one of the seaside resorts they manage in Spain’s Canary Islands, the British-Norwegian couple didn’t know when they would have guests again.

They had initially lost their tourism clientele to the coronavirus pandemic, but then things had taken an unexpected turn.

A migrant leans on the balcony of the Holiday Club Puerto Calma hotel in Puerto Rico de Gran Canaria, Spain, April 2, 2021. With hundreds of empty rooms, British hotel director Calvin Lucock and his Norwegian wife Unn Tove Saetran decided to reopen their doors at their own expense to provide food, shelter and care to young migrant men who fell out of the official reception and integration system. (AP Photo/Renata Brito)

A humanitarian crisis was unfolding on the archipelago where tens of thousands of African men, women and children were arriving on rudimentary boats. The Spanish government — struggling to accommodate 23,000 people who disembarked on the islands in 2020 — contracted hundreds of hotel rooms left empty due to the coronavirus travel restrictions.

The deal not only helped migrants and asylum-seekers have a place to sleep, it also allowed Lucock to keep most of his hotel staff employed.

But the contract ended in February and thousands of people were transferred out of the hotels and into newly built large-scale migrant camps. Or so they thought.

“We realized that we had a queue of people standing outside when we closed the doors,” said Saetran, a former teacher, in a recent interview with The Associated Press at the Holiday Club Puerto Calma in southern Gran Canaria.

Some of the “boys,” as she calls them, had ended up on the streets after being expelled from government-funded reception centers. Others had chosen to leave the official system fearing overcrowded camps and forced returns to the countries they fled from. With the rooms still empty, Saetran said she couldn’t sleep knowing the migrants would be left on the street.

So they reopened the hotel doors again, this time at their own expense.

“They were very scared, they didn’t have anywhere to go, and there wasn’t any other solution,” said Saetran who has lived in the Canary Islands with Lucock since the ’90s and has a Spanish-born daughter.

Today, the family, with the help of some of the hotel staff and other volunteers, provide food through Saetran’s restaurant, shelter through the hotel and care to 58 young men, including eight unaccompanied minors, mainly from Morocco and Senegal as well as other West African countries, who fell out of the official migrant reception and integration system for one reason or another.

One of them is Fode Top, a 28-year-old Senegalese fisherman who left his country in search of better work in Europe last November. The fish in Senegal, he says, have disappeared from the ocean following years of industrial fishing by Chinese and European vessels. Nowadays one can hardly make a living being a fisherman.

To make matters worse, Top’s 3-year-old son needed life-saving and expensive heart surgery. To pay medical bills, Top borrowed money he wasn’t able to pay back, resulting in threats.

“If I return to Senegal I will have problems. Many problems,” Top said.

The official camps have also been plagued with problems, with reports of overcrowding, insufficient food, unsanitary conditions and lack of legal and medical assistance. Most recently, police intervened with rubber bullets in the largest camp on the island of Tenerife after a fight broke out between two groups of residents.

The Canary Islands and their year-round sunny beaches normally attract millions of northern European tourists each year. But for the migrants at Puerto Calma, staying in the hotel is no vacation. The islands were just meant to be a stepping stone toward stability, security and employment in continental Europe, not their final destination. Today, it is a place of limbo for thousands who were denied access to the Spanish peninsula and live in waiting, unable to work and send money back to their families.

“They’ve come here looking for a better life, one of the reasons I came to Spain,” said 47-year-old Lucock. There’s only one difference: “They are not born with a European passport so they can’t travel in the same way I can.”

On a recent evening, as they ate dinner, Saetran got a text message: Six young men, including alleged minors, had been sleeping in the streets of Las Palmas for days. She looked at her husband, who runs the hotel, for approval. He rolled his eyes and took a deep breath.

The next day, the six boys arrived at the hotel carrying their belongings in plastic bags. Saetran and Lucock welcomed them and gave them two rooms. Both of them know the hotel won’t be able to shelter migrants forever, but for now they have a place to sleep.

“If we can play a small part in making them feel safe and secure while they are here, then I feel like we’ve achieved something,” Lucock said.

As the men wait month after month to either move north or be returned south, Lucock and Saetran try to keep them busy. Volunteers come three times a week to give English and Spanish classes. The athletic ones play soccer on the beach or run up the mountain with locals. There’s also a lot of checkers and card games.

The couple says they hope to continue helping young migrants even after tourism kicks off again, and are setting up a charity.

“In our culture we have so much that we forget to appreciate the small things,” Saetran said.

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“One Good Thing” is a series that highlights individuals whose actions provide glimmers of joy in hard times — stories of people who find a way to make a difference, no matter how small. Read the collection of stories at https://apnews.com/hub/one-good-thing.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

Pressure builds to fire Minnesota officer who killed Wright

By MOHAMED IBRAHIM and MIKE HOUSEHOLDER for the Associated Press

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. (AP) — The pressure built Tuesday to fire the suburban Minneapolis police officer who killed a 20-year-old Black man during an altercation after a traffic stop, a shooting authorities said was a tragic mistake but that family members of Daunte Wright and others pointed to as yet the latest example of a broken criminal justice system.

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott called the shooting in his city “deeply tragic” and said the officer should be fired. Elliott, the city’s first Black mayor, announced Monday night that the City Council had fired the city manager and voted to give the mayor’s office “command authority” over the police force.

A demonstrator heckles authorities who advanced into a gas station after issuing orders for crowds to disperse during a protest against the police shooting of Daunte Wright, late Monday, April 12, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

“We’re going to do everything we can to ensure that justice is done and our communities are made whole,” Elliott said.

The city’s police chief has said he believes the officer, identified as 26-year-veteran Kim Potter, mistakenly grabbed her gun when she was going for her Taser. The officer, who is white, can be heard on her body camera video shouting “Taser! Taser!”

Wright’s father, Aubrey Wright, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday that he rejects that explanation.

“I lost my son. He’s never coming back. I can’t accept that. A mistake? That doesn’t even sound right. This officer has been on the force for 26 years. I can’t accept that,” he said.

Wright’s family planned to speak again Tuesday alongside the family of George Floyd at the courthouse where the trial is being held for a former Minneapolis police officer charged in his death. Protests erupted for a second night following Sunday’s shooting, heightening anxiety in an area already on edge as the Derek Chauvin trial progresses. Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck.

Chauvin and three other officers were fired the day after Floyd’s death. Potter was placed on administrative leave while the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigates Wright’s death.

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the police union, issued a statement Tuesday saying “no conclusions should be made until the investigation is complete.”

Police Chief Tim Gannon on Monday would not say whether Potter would be fired, saying she was entitled to due process.

“I think we can watch the video and ascertain whether she will be returning,” the chief said.

The advent of social media and body cameras has forced police departments to move much quickly than in the past, said Alex Piquero, chairman of the University of Miami’s sociology department. However, he said that before the Brooklyn Center Police Department fires the officer, it will likely review all evidence, including any other body camera footage and testimony from other officers, so that the dismissal is less vulnerable to any court challenge.

“We don’t know why she reached for her firearm instead of her Taser,” Piquero said.

Body camera footage Gannon released less than 24 hours after the shooting shows three officers around a stopped car, which authorities said was pulled over because it had expired registration tags. When one officer attempts to handcuff Wright, a second officer tells him he’s being arrested on a warrant. That’s when the struggle begins.

Potter can be heard saying: “I’ll Tase you! I’ll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” She draws her weapon after the man breaks free from police outside his car and gets back behind the wheel. After firing a single shot from her handgun, the car speeds away and the officer is heard saying, “Holy (expletive)! I shot him.”

The car traveled several blocks before hitting another vehicle.

Wright died of a gunshot wound to the chest, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office.

Potter has experience with investigations into police shootings. Potter was one of the first officers to respond after Brooklyn Center police fatally shot a man who allegedly allegedly tried to stab an officer with a knife in August 2019, according to a report from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

After medics arrived, she told the two officers who shot the man to get into separate squad cars, turn off their body cameras, and not to speak to each other. She was also the police union president for the department and accompanied two other officers involved in the shooting while investigators interviewed them.

Court records show Wright was being sought after failing to appear in court on charges that he fled from officers and possessed a gun without a permit during an encounter with Minneapolis police in June.

Demonstrators began to gather shortly after the shooting, with some jumping atop police cars.

On Monday, hundreds of protesters gathered hours after a dusk-to-dawn curfew was announced by the governor. When protesters wouldn’t disperse, police began firing gas canisters and flash-bang grenades, sending clouds wafting over the crowd and chasing some protesters away. Forty people were arrested, Minnesota State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said at a news conference early Tuesday. In Minneapolis, 13 arrests were made, including for burglaries and curfew violations, police said.

Brooklyn Center is a modest suburb just north of Minneapolis that has seen its demographics shift dramatically in recent years. In 2000, more than 70% of the city was white. Today, a majority of residents are Black, Asian or Latino.

Wright’s death prompted protests in other U.S. cities, including in Portland, Oregon, where police said a demonstration turned into a riot Monday night, with some in the crowd throwing rocks and other projectiles at officers.

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Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Tim Sullivan in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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Mohamed Ibrahim 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.

US recommends ‘pause’ for J&J vaccine over clot reports

By ZEKE MILLER, LAURAN NEERGAARD and MATTHEW PERRONE for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. on Tuesday recommended a “pause” in using the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots, a development that could jeopardize the rollout of vaccines around the world.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration announced that they were investigating unusual clots that occurred 6 to 13 days after vaccination. The FDA commissioner said she expected the pause to last a matter of days.

FILE – In this Thursday, April 8, 2021 file photo, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine sits on a table at a pop up vaccinations site the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The U.S. is recommending a “pause” in administration of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

The clots occurred in veins that drain blood from the brain and occurred together with low platelets, the fragments in blood that normally form clots. All six cases were in women between the ages of 18 and 48. One person died, and all of the cases remain under investigation.

More than 6.8 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been given in the U.S., the vast majority with no or mild side effects.

Any slowdown in the dissemination of the shots could have broad implications for the global vaccination effort. The J&J vaccine held particular promise for less affluent countries because its single-dose regimen and relatively simple storage requirements would make it easier to use in the developing world.

The FDA said the cases under investigation appear similar to unusual clots that European authorities say are possibly linked to another COVID-19 vaccine not yet cleared in the U.S., from AstraZeneca. European regulators have stressed that the AstraZeneca risk appears to be lower than the possibility of developing clots from birth control pills.

Federally run mass vaccination sites will pause the use of the J&J shot, and states and other providers are expected to follow. The other two authorized vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer, make up the vast share of COVID-19 shots administered in the U.S. and are not affected by the pause.

“I’d like to stress these events appear to be extremely rare. However COVID-19 vaccine safety is a top priority,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said at a news conference.

A CDC committee will meet Wednesday to discuss the cases, and the FDA has also launched an investigation into the cause of the clots and low platelet counts.

Authorities have not seen similar clots after use of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat said.

FDA officials emphasized that Tuesday’s action was not a mandate. Doctors and patients could still use J&J’s vaccine if they decide its benefits outweigh its risks for individual cases, said Dr. Peter Marks.

The agencies recommend that people who were given the J&J vaccine should contact their doctor is they experience severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks.

J&J said in a statement that it was aware of the reports of blood clots, but that no link to its vaccine had been established. The company also said it would delay the rollout of its vaccine in Europe as a precaution.

U.S. health authorities cautioned doctors against using a typical clot treatment, the blood-thinner heparin. “In this setting, administration of heparin may be dangerous and alternative treatments need to be given,” the FDA and CDC said.

European authorities investigating the AstraZeneca cases have concluded clots appear to be similar to a very rare abnormal immune response that sometimes strikes people treated with heparin, leading to a temporary clotting disorder.

While it’s not clear yet if the reports among J&J recipients are related, doctors would treat these kinds of unusual clots like they treat people who have the heparin reaction — with different kinds of blood thinners and sometimes an antibody infusion, said Dr. Geoffrey Barnes, a clot expert at the University of Michigan.

As authorities investigate whether the clots really are related to the J&J vaccine, Barnes stressed that Americans should get vaccinated as soon as possible using the other two available vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna.

“If you have a chance to get vaccinated with those, we strongly encourage it. The risks of COVID are real and they’re high,” Barnes said.

Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said 28 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be available for states this week, more than enough to keep up the nation’s pace of 3 million shots a day despite the J&J pause.

Asked if the government was overreacting to six cases out of more than 6 million vaccinations, Schuchat said recommendations will come quickly.

Because these unusual clots require special treatment, “it was of the utmost importance to us to get the word out,” she said. “That said, the pandemic is quite severe and cases are increasing in lots of places and vaccination’s critical.”

States and cities swiftly moved to implement the pause. New York state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said people with Tuesday appointments for J&J vaccines at state-run mass vaccination clinics will instead get the Pfizer vaccine.

The city of Dallas had planned to begin an in-home vaccination program using the J&J vaccine for homebound or elderly people. The city said it will pause the program until more guidance is released.

The J&J vaccine received emergency use authorization from the FDA in late February with great fanfare. Yet the shot only makes up a small fraction of the doses administered in the U.S. J&J has been plagued by production delays and manufacturing errors at the Baltimore plant of a contractor.

Last week, the drugmaker took over the facility to scale up production in hopes of meeting its commitment to the U.S. government of providing about 100 million doses by the end of May.

Only about 9 million of the company’s doses have been delivered to states and are awaiting administration, according to CDC data.

Until now concern about the unusual blood clots has centered on the vaccine from AstraZeneca, which has not yet received authorization in the U.S. Last week, European regulators said they found a possible link between the shots and a very rare type of blood clot that occurs together with low blood platelets, one that seems to occur more in younger people.ADVERTISEMENT

The European Medicines Agency stressed that the benefits of receiving the vaccine outweigh the risks for most people. But several countries have imposed limits on who can receive the vaccine; Britain recommended that people under 30 be offered alternatives.

But the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines are made with the same technology. Leading COVID-19 vaccines train the body to recognize the spike protein that coats the outer surface of the coronavirus. But the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines use a cold virus, called an adenovirus, to carry the spike gene into the body. J&J uses a human adenovirus to create its vaccine while AstraZeneca uses a chimpanzee version.

U.S. stock markets initially dropped on the J&J news, but some indices were up slightly by late morning. Johnson & Johnson shares were down nearly 3 percent, an unusually big drop for the drug giant, with more shares changing hands in the first two hours than on an average day.

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Associated Press writers Emily Wagster Pettus, Karen Matthews, Jill Bleed and Linda A. Johnson contributed to this report.

Iraq blames public for new virus record, urges vaccinations

For the Associated Press

Iraq’s Health Ministry has warned of “dire consequences” ahead because citizens are not heeding coronavirus prevention measures, after the country reached a new high in daily infection rates.

An Iraqi nurse prepares a shot of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Iraq recorded 8,331 new virus cases within a 24-hour period on Wednesday, the highest figure since the ministry began keeping records at the onset of the pandemic last year. That was double the number of new infections from last month, and well ahead of a previous peak of some 6,000 in March.

Death rates are still fairly low relative to new infections. At least 14,606 people have died, from a total of 903,439 cases.

The severe spike in case numbers prompted the Health Ministry to issue a grave warning in a statement on Thursday, saying the rise was due to laxity among Iraqis who flout preventative measures.

The statement said public commitment toward heeding virus prevention measures was “almost non-existent in most regions of Iraq,” where citizens rarely wear face masks and continue to hold large gatherings.

Those who continue to flout prevention measures and instructions “are responsible for the increase in the number of infections,” the statement said. It called on tribal sheikhs, activists and influential figures to speak out and inform the public on the severity of the pandemic.

Iraq began administering vaccines in late March, but rollout has been slow owing to low demand. Many Iraqis are suspicious of the vaccine and few have booked appointments to receive a dose. Rumors of debilitating side-effects have also put many off.

The ministry urged citizens to inoculate, and said vaccination was the only way to control the outbreak.

Monkey business: 2 dozen monkeys escape German zoo for a day

For the Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — About two dozen monkeys broke out of a southwestern German zoo and spent the day lolling in the sun near a forest before being recaptured, authorities said Thursday.

The Barbary macaques, commonly known as Barbary apes, escaped from the zoo in Loeffingen, southwest of Stuttgart and not far from the Swiss border. It was not entirely clear how they got away, but construction work at the zoo might have been a factor, police said.

A welcome sign at Tatzmania Wildlife Park, leading to the entrance of the zoo, in Loffingen, Germany, Thursday, April 8, 2021. About two dozen monkeys have broken out of a southwestern German zoo and are roaming the area despite efforts to recapture them. The Barbary macaques, commonly known as Barbary apes, escaped from the zoo in Loeffingen, southwest of Stuttgart and not far from the Swiss border. (Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa via AP)

The primates were spotted roaming the area in a pack, but zoo employees were unable to recapture them and eventually lost track of them. A few hours later they were spotted, recaptured and returned to their cages without incident, police said.

“The animals apparently took advantage of the nice weather and spent the afternoon on the edge of a forest near the zoo,” police said.

The Barbary macaque is native to the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and has a small but famous presence across the water in Europe in the British territory of Gibraltar.

Private sales emerge as obstacle to Senate action on guns

By MARY CLARE JALONICK for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats in Congress are trying to pass the first major gun control legislation in more than two decades with the support of President Joe Biden, who said Thursday that it is “long past time” to do so. But they are confronting a potentially insurmountable question over what rules should govern private sales and transfers, including those between friends and extended family, as they seek Republican votes.

President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, right, and Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, departs after speaking about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A bipartisan Senate compromise that was narrowly defeated eight years ago was focused on expanding checks to sales at gun shows and on the internet. But many Democrats and gun control advocates now want almost all sales and transfers to face a mandatory review, alienating Republicans who say extending the requirements would trample Second Amendment rights.

The dispute has been one of several hurdles in the renewed push for gun-control legislation, despite wide support for extending the checks. A small group of senators have engaged in tentative talks in the wake of recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Colorado, hoping to build on bipartisan proposals from the past. But support from at least 10 Republicans will be needed to get a bill through the Senate, and most are intractably opposed.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator on guns, said he’s been on the phone with Republican colleagues every day “making the case, cajoling, asking my friends to keep an open mind.” In an interview with The Associated Press, he said he’d discussed the negotiations personally with Biden on Thursday and that “he’s ready and willing to get more involved” in the talks.

“I think it’s important to keep the pressure on Congress,” Murphy said.

While pushing lawmakers to do more, Biden announced several executive actions to address gun violence, including new regulations for buyers of “ghost guns” — homemade firearms that usually are assembled from parts and often lack traceable serial numbers. Biden said Congress should act further to expand background checks because “the vast majority of the American people, including gun owners, believe there should be background checks before you purchase a gun.”

Still, the gulf between the two parties on private gun transactions, and a host of other related issues, has only grown since 2013, when Senate Democrats fell five votes short of passing legislation to expand background checks after a gunman killed 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. That defeat was a crushing blow to advocates who had hoped for some change, however modest, after the horrific attack.

The compromise legislation, written by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, flamed out again in 2016, after a mass shooting in Orlando.

Starting anew with Biden in the White House, Democrats are focused on legislation passed by the House that would expand background checks to most sales and increase the number of days a buyer has to wait if a background check is not finished. Murphy said there may not be an appetite to pass those House bills without changes, but after talking to most Republicans over the last several weeks he says he has “reason to believe there is a path forward.”

Under current law, background checks are required only when guns are purchased from federally licensed dealers. While there is agreement among some Republican lawmakers, and certainly among many GOP voters, for expanding the background checks, the issue becomes murkier when the sales are informal. Examples include if a hunter wants to sell one of his guns to a friend, for example, or to his neighbor or cousin — or if a criminal wants to sell a gun to another criminal.

Democrats say private sales can lead to gun trafficking.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that people engage in private sales but they do it constantly,” said California Rep. Mike Thompson, the lead sponsor of the House bill. “They could sell hundreds of guns a year, quote-unquote, privately.”

Republicans say that requiring a background check for a sale or transfer between people who know each other would be a bridge too far. Toomey says Democrats won’t get 60 votes if they insist upon it.

“Between the sales that already occur at licensed firearms dealers, all of which require a background check, and what we consider commercial sales — advertised sales, gun shows and on the internet — that covers a vast, vast majority of all transactions,” Toomey said. “And it would be progress if we have background checks for those categories.”

Manchin also opposes the House bill requiring the universal background checks. “I come from a gun culture,” Manchin said in March. “And a law-abiding gun owner would do the right thing, you have to assume they will do the right thing.”

Murphy hinted that Democrats might be willing to compromise somewhat on the scope, saying he is committed to universal background checks, but he won’t “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

The House bill would apply background checks to almost all sales, with certain exceptions — including an inheritance or a “loan or bona fide gift” between close family members. Other exemptions include temporary transfers to people who need a firearm to prevent “imminent death” or are hunting.

The Manchin-Toomey compromise in 2013 included additional measures to lure support from Republicans and the National Rifle Association, which eventually opposed the bill. Those included an expansion of some interstate gun sales and a shorter period for background checks that weren’t completed — a deal-breaker for Democrats and gun control groups today.

Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady Campaign, said the advocacy groups “will not allow allow for gun industry carveouts to be part of the next piece of legislation that the Senate votes on.” The bill should be “fundamentally different” than eight years ago, he said, since their movement has “only grown in momentum and strength.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he will bring gun legislation to the floor with or without 60 votes, but he has tasked Murphy with trying to reach a deal first. Murphy says that if they could win enough votes on the background checks bill, it could pave the way for even tougher measures like the assault weapons ban Biden has backed.

But most Republicans are unlikely to budge. And the NRA, while weakened by some infighting and financial disputes, is still a powerful force in GOP campaigns.

In a statement, the NRA said the House bills would restrict gun owners’ rights and “our membership has already sent hundreds of thousands of messages to their senators urging them to vote against these bills.”

Germany mulls possible order of Russian COVID-19 vaccine

By GEIR MOULSON for the Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s health minister said Thursday that the European Union doesn’t plan to order Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine but his country will hold talks with Russia on whether an individual order makes sense.

News photographers take pictures as a medical worker administers a shot of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn said Thursday April 8, 2021, the European Union doesn’t plan to order Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine but will hold separate talks with Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

The EU’s executive Commission said Wednesday it won’t place orders for Sputnik V on member countries’ behalf, as it did with other manufacturers, Health Minister Jens Spahn told WDR public radio.

Spahn said he told his fellow EU health ministers that Germany, which has strongly backed joint EU orders, “will talk bilaterally to Russia, first of all about when it could come and in what quantities.” He said “to really make a difference in our current situation, the deliveries would have to come in the next two to four or five months already.”

Otherwise, he said, Germany would have “more than enough vaccine” already.

Amid a slow start to the vaccine rollout in Germany and across the EU, there have been calls from some German politicians — particularly at state level — to order Sputnik V.

Spahn underscored the German government’s position that, to be deployed in the country, Sputnik V must be cleared for use by the EMA and “for that, Russia must deliver data.” The EU regulator started a rolling review of the vaccine in early March.

Elsewhere in the EU, Hungary in February became the first country in the bloc to start using Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccine, neither of which has been approved by the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s medicines regulator.

The government of Slovakia collapsed after its former prime minister orchestrated a secret deal to buy 2 million Sputnik V doses, despite disagreements with his coalition partners.

And Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria has said his country is in the closing stages of talks to possibly secure doses of Sputnik V. He has left open whether Austria could authorize its use before the EU approves it.

In Germany itself, two state governments are pushing ahead with tentative plans to secure doses of the Russian vaccine.

On Wednesday, Bavaria’s governor said his administration was signing a preliminary contract with a company that would allow it to get 2.5 million doses of Sputnik V, probably in July, if the shot is cleared by the EMA.

On Thursday, the health minister of the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Harry Glawe, said his state had secured an option for 1 million doses of Sputnik V. He argued that right now Germany has a “great dependency on too few manufacturers,” news agency dpa reported.

Germany is hoping to ramp up inoculations with the vaccines it already has, and many regular doctors’ practices joined the campaign this week. Official data showed that over 656,000 doses were administered on Wednesday, compared with at most around 367,000 per day previously.

That means 13.8% of Germany’s population of 83 million has now received at least one dose of vaccine, with 5.7% having received both doses.

Meanwhile, a top EU official indicated that he’s skeptical about rushing into orders for the Russian or Chinese vaccines.

Thierry Breton, who heads the EU Commission’s vaccine task force, said in a blog entry that he has “no reason to doubt the potential effectiveness, safety and quality of vaccines developed outside of the EU” but that is for the EMA to assess.

“Whenever I have been asked to comment on these vaccines, I have done so from an industrial perspective: Can they add to Europe’s portfolio of vaccines and add to our summer 2021 immunity target?” Breton wrote. “I’m afraid the answer is no.”

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UK infections drop about 60% amid vaccinations, lockdown

By DANICA KIRKA for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — The U.K.’s COVID-19 vaccination program is beginning to break the link between infection and serious illness or death, according to the latest results from an ongoing study of the pandemic in England.

A man walks past the National Covid Memorial Wall commemorating all those who have died of coronavirus, on the Thames Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Thursday, April 8, 2021. Bereaved families want the wall of painted hearts to remain a site of national commemoration and are asking the Prime Minister to help make the memorial permanent. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Researchers at Imperial College London found that COVID-19 infections dropped about 60% in March as national lockdown measures slowed the spread of the virus. People 65 and older were the least likely to be infected as they benefited most from the vaccination program, which initially focused on older people.

The study also found that the relationship between infections and deaths is diverging, “suggesting that infections may have resulted in fewer hospitalizations and deaths since the start of widespread vaccination.”

The positive news came amid renewed scrutiny of vaccinations that followed revised UK government guidance Wednesday that it will offer people under 30 an alternative inoculation to the AstraZeneca shot where possible. The change followed studies that the shot may be linked to very rare blood clots.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the public should reassured by the abundance of caution demonstrated by authorities to make sure the vaccine rollout is as safe as possible.

“What we’ve learned in the last 24 hours is that the rollout of the vaccine is working, we’ve seen that the safety system is working, because the regulators can spot even this extremely rare event — four in a million — and take necessary action to ensure the rollout is as safe as it possible can be,″ he said. “And we are seeing that the vaccine is working. It’s breaking the link between cases and deaths.”

Some 31.7 million people had been given a first dose by Tuesday, or just over 60% of the country’s adult population.

But Imperial researchers also urged caution, saying that infection rates leveled off at the end of the study period as the government began to ease the national lockdown and children returned to school. Future rounds of the study will assess the impact that further easing of restrictions has on infection rates.

The next step in lifting England’s third national lockdown is scheduled for April 12, when nonessential shops will be allowed to reopen, along with hair salons, gyms and outdoor service at pubs and restaurants.

The findings are based on data gathered by the 10th round of Imperial College’s Real-Time Assessment of Community Transmission study, which conducts swab tests on a random sample of people across England each month. The latest round tested more than 140,000 people from March 11 to March 30.

Even though Britain has had one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts, its death toll from the pandemic is the highest in Europe at over 127,000.

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N Ireland leaders call for calm after violence escalates

By PETER MORRISON and JILL LAWLESS for the Associated Press

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Crowds from Protestant and Catholic communities hurled bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs at police and each other overnight in Belfast, as a week of street violence escalated. Police and politicians tried Thursday to calm the volatile situation in Northern Ireland, where Britain’s exit from the European Union has unsettled an uneasy political balance.

Nationalists and Loyalists clash with one another at the peace wall on Lanark Way in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. The police had to close roads into the nearby Protestant area as crowds from each divide attacked each other. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

The focus of the violence, some of it committed by youths in their early teens, was a concrete “peace wall” in west Belfast that separates a British loyalist Protestant neighborhood from an Irish nationalist Catholic area. The two sides clashed across the wall, while nearby a city bus was hijacked and set on fire.

Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said several hundred people gathered on both sides of a gate in the wall, where “crowds … were committing serious criminal offenses, both attacking police and attacking each other.”

Northern Ireland has seen sporadic outbreaks of street violence since the 1998 Good Friday peace accord ended the Troubles — decades of Catholic-Protestant bloodshed over the status of Northern Ireland in which more than 3,000 people died. But Roberts said Wednesday’s mayhem “was at a scale we have not seen in recent years.”

He said a total of 55 police officers had been injured over several nights of disorder and it was lucky no one had been seriously hurt or killed.

The recent violence, largely in loyalist, Protestant areas, has flared amid rising tensions over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and worsening relations between the parties in the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing Belfast government. Britain’s split from the EU has renewed tensions over Northern Ireland’s status and disturbed the political balance in region, where some people identify as British and want to stay part of the U.K., while others see themselves as Irish and seek unity with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the unrest, saying “the way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”

Northern Ireland’s Belfast-based assembly and government held emergency meetings Thursday and called for an end to the violence.

First Minister Arlene Foster, of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, warned that “Northern Ireland faces deep political challenges ahead.”

“We should all know that when politics are perceived to fail, those who fill the vacuum cause despair,” said Foster, who heads the Northern Ireland government.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, called the violence “utterly deplorable.”

The latest disturbances followed unrest over the Easter long weekend in pro-British unionist areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, that saw cars set on fire and projectiles and gasoline bombs hurled at police officers.

Authorities have accused outlawed paramilitary groups of inciting young people to cause mayhem.

Roberts, the senior police officer, said some adults stood clapping and cheering while children as young as 12 or 13 rampaged.

The situation in Northern Ireland has been destabilized by Britain’s departure from the EU — after almost 50 years of membership — that became final on Dec. 31.

A post-Brexit U.K.-EU trade deal has imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process built on the Good Friday accord.

Unionists says the new checks amount to a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. — something they fear undermines the region’s place in the United Kingdom.

Both Britain and the EU have expressed concerns about how the agreement is working, and the Democratic Unionist Party, which heads the Belfast government, wants it to be scrapped.

Katy Hayward, a politics professor at Queen’s University Belfast and senior fellow of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, said unionists felt that “the union is very much under threat, that Northern Ireland’s place is under threat in the union and they feel betrayed by London.”

Unionists are also angry at a police decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army commander in June. The funeral of Bobby Storey drew a large crowd, despite coronavirus rules barring mass gatherings.

The main unionist parties have demanded the resignation of Northern Ireland’s police chief over the controversy, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.

“You have a very fizzy political atmosphere in which those who are trying to urge for calm and restraint are sort of undermined,” Hayward said.

“It’s really easy to see how it could get worse,” she added. “There’s many factors, including, obviously, criminal gangs at work who benefit from chaos like this. … So that you could see how things can definitely escalate.”

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Lawless reported from London.

Merkel backs ‘short, uniform lockdown’ across Germany

By GEIR MOULSON for the Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday threw her weight behind a “short, uniform lockdown” as the country grapples with a high level of coronavirus cases fueled by the spread of a more contagious variant first detected in Britain.

FILE – In this Wednesday, May 6, 2020 file photo Bavarian Governor Markus Soeder and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address the media during a joint press conference in Berlin, Germany. Armin Laschet, a governor who also leads Merkel’s party, called this week for a vaguely defined 2-3 week “bridge lockdown” to control infections while Germany steps up a so-far slow vaccination campaign. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown her weight behind calls for a ‘short, uniform lockdown’. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, file, pool)

German state governors, who are responsible for imposing and lifting virus restrictions, have taken differing approaches lately. Some have continued to back limited reopening steps while others advocate a stricter shutdown.

Armin Laschet, a governor who also leads Merkel’s conservative party, called this week for a vaguely defined 2-3 week “bridge lockdown” to control infections while Germany steps up a so-far slow vaccination campaign.

Laschet also called for a meeting between Merkel and governors to coordinate restrictions to be moved up from next Monday, but hit resistance from his colleagues. Merkel spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Wednesday there is “no majority” for that.

But Demmer said “every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right.” She said figures on new cases aren’t particularly good at the moment, because of lower testing and reporting over Easter, but a rapid rise in the number of occupied intensive care beds “speaks a very clear language.”

“Joint action would be desirable,” she stressed. “The diversity of the rules that have been agreed on isn’t contributing at the moment to safety and acceptance.”

Merkel and the 16 state governors confer every few weeks on coronavirus measures. Those sometimes sprawling and ill-tempered get-togethers have drawn increasing criticism, particularly as governors have frequently taken different approaches to implementing what they agree upon.

Last month, Merkel and the governors sparred for hours before announcing unexpected plans for a five-day Easter shutdown. Merkel then dumped the plans less than 36 hours later after concluding they were unworkable and apologized to Germans.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Sept. 26 general election is casting a shadow. Many have viewed the lockdown proposal from Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, as a result of speculation over whether he or Bavarian governor Markus Soeder will become the center-right candidate to succeed Merkel.

Laschet has often advocated allowing more businesses to open, and Merkel recently criticized his state for failing to keep to the rules that had been agreed upon. Soeder has consistently advocated tougher restrictions. At present, polls suggest that voters are considerably more impressed by Soeder. A decision on the candidate is expected by late May.

Soeder told ZDF television Tuesday that he and Merkel had always backed Laschet’s latest position, “and everyone who joins in, I think that’s great.”

Germany’s infection rate is currently lower than that of several neighboring countries, but it is still more than twice the maximum 50 new cases per 100,000 residents the government would like to see.

The country has recorded 2.9 million cases and 77,401 deaths from or with COVID-19 since the pandemic began. It has given a first vaccine dose to 13% of its total population of 83 million, while 5.6% have received two doses. Officials hope vaccinations will accelerate this month.

In addition to vaccines already ordered, Soeder said the Bavarian government plans to sign a preliminary contract Wednesday with a company in the town of Illertissen that would allow it to get 2.5 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, probably in July — if the shot is approved by the European Medicines Agency.

A Russian company, R-Pharm, plans to start producing the Sputnik V vaccine in Illertissen.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemichttps://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

As states expand vaccines, prisoners still lack access

By KATIE PARK and ARIEL GOODMAN of The Marshall Project and KIMBERLEE KRUESI of The Associated Press

This week, Florida expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines to all residents 16 and older. But across the state, more than 70,000 people still don’t have access to the vaccine. Those men and women are Florida state prisoners.

Carrie Shipp shows a photo of her incarcerated 21-year-old son Matthew Shipp that she keep on her cell phone Friday, April 2, 2021, in Irving, Texas. Fewer than 20 percent of state and federal prisoners have received a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. Carrie Shipp said her son decided not to get vaccinated out of fear and distrust of prison medical staff. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

More than half the country has opened up vaccine eligibility, vastly expanding the ability for most Americans to get the shots, whatever their age or medical conditions. But inside prisons, it’s a different story: Prisoners, not free to seek out vaccines, still lack access on the whole.

Nationwide, less than 20% of state and federal prisoners have been vaccinated, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. In some states, prisoners and advocates have resorted to lawsuits to get access. And even when they are eligible, they aren’t receiving important education about the vaccine.

And it’s not just the prisoners. Public health experts widely agree that people who live and work in correctional facilities face an increased risk of contracting and dying from the coronavirus. Since the pandemic first reached prisons in March 2020, about 3 in 10 prisoners have tested positive and 2,500 have died. Prisons are often overcrowded, with limited access to health care and protective gear, and populations inside are more likely to have preexisting medical conditions.

“This is about a public health strategy,” said Jaimie Meyer, an associate professor of medicine and public health at Yale University. “If you want to see an end to the pandemic, you’ve got to vaccinate the people in the places where there are the largest clusters and the most cases.”

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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic. Keri Blakinger contributed reporting from the Marshall Project.

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In some facilities, basic supplies like soap and toilet paper have been scarce, and mask-wearing is inconsistently enforced among both prisoners and guards. Prisoners spend time in communal spaces, and open-bar cells do little to contain the virus. Prisoners describe entire dormitories being sick with COVID-19 symptoms.

Some prisoners hesitate to report symptoms out of fear they will be placed in solitary confinement and not receive proper care. Others report waiting days for medical care, sometimes being turned away or provided only with aspirin.ADVERTISEMENT

And the vaccine rollout has been uneven, despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that states should prioritize corrections staff and people in prisons and jails. By the end of March, Arkansas and Florida had not yet begun vaccinating prisoners, while a few states say they have offered vaccination to every adult in their prisons. Eight states have not reported how many prisoners have been vaccinated.

In some states, vaccine supplies for prisons have been limited by infrastructure and by political demands. Even as more vaccines start to become available to corrections systems, prison officials, public health experts and prisoner advocates say there is widespread hesitancy among prisoners over receiving the vaccine.

According to the CDC, 40% of adults in the United States have gotten at least one vaccine shot, and President Joe Biden has promised that all Americans will be eligible for vaccination by May 1. But vaccination rates behind bars still trail the general population in two-thirds of states.

In Georgia, roughly 700 prisoners had been vaccinated by March 30, according to Department of Corrections spokesperson Joan Heath. That number, about 1.5% of the state’s prison population, is expected to jump by mid-April when the agency anticipates receiving 2,000 doses per week.

“Our goal is to ensure every offender in our custody is offered and receives a COVID vaccine,” she said, adding that the state is asking anyone with “incarcerated friends or loved ones, to encourage them to accept the vaccine when offered.”

Correction officials in Maine said they had just begun vaccinating “age-eligible residents,” with 125 prisoners, about 7% of the prison population, immunized by the end of March.

In Tennessee, prisoners had to wait months before they could begin receiving the lifesaving dose after an influential state advisory group determined that inoculating them too early could result in a “public relations nightmare” and “lots of media inquiries.” That decision came although some of the United States’ largest coronavirus clusters were inside Tennessee’s prisons, with hundreds of active cases in multiple facilities.

Tennessee’s top health officials eventually announced in March that some in the prison population could get the vaccine if they qualified by age or had certain health conditions.

To date, about one-third of Tennessee prisoners have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began to spread. More than 40 have died.

By April 5, more than 6,900 prisoners — out of roughly 19,400 in the state — had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Starting Monday, Tennessee began to allow all residents 16 and older to receive the vaccine, meaning the remaining state prisoners would be eligible.

In some states, prisoners and advocates have resorted to lawsuits to speed up the pace of vaccinations. In February, a federal judge ordered Oregon officials to offer the vaccine to all state prisoners, which the state says it has now done. Washington state prisoners filed a similar lawsuit in late March, demanding additional protection from correctional staff who refused the vaccine. Last week, a New York Supreme Court justice ruled that that state must vaccinate all people incarcerated in prisons and jails.

Texas vaccinated its first 600 prisoners only because of an accident. After a freezer problem at the Darrington Unit left unrefrigerated hundreds of doses meant for correctional officers, officials offered the vaccine first to staff and then to high-risk prisoners to avoid the doses going to waste.

Vaccine availability is not the only factor corrections officials must grapple with to get shots in arms. Carrie Shipp, whose 21-year-old son Matthew is incarcerated at Ruben M. Torres Unit in Texas, said her son decided not to get vaccinated out of fear and distrust of prison medical staff. Shipp’s son encouraged her and her daughter to be vaccinated, but he does not want to receive the vaccine himself.

“It’s not like he doesn’t believe in science, he’s just fearful of what they might do to him, what they might give him,” Shipp said. “To have your child, someone you took care of, be afraid of something that would protect them. … I will lose sleep over it.”

In a Marshall Project survey of 136 prisoners earlier this year, many respondents expressed a deep distrust of prison medical systems, citing misinformation spread by staff and previous experiences of not receiving care.

Among the public, information about the COVID-19 vaccine has been publicized by news media, government officials and health care providers. But prisoners seeking such information must rely on limited news sources, personal correspondence and corrections staff, who prisoners say are not always willing to answer questions.

State prisons in Tennessee have displayed posters, distributed informational sheets and held town hall meetings among the prisoners to discuss the vaccine rollout. The Department of Corrections plans to “circle back” to the more than 3,100 prisoners who have refused the vaccine so far, said agency spokesperson Dorinda Carter.

Some prisoners in Georgia said they didn’t receive information about the vaccine until they were asked to sign a form indicating whether they wanted to receive it. Fifty-one-year-old Michael McCoy, who is serving a 50-year sentence in Autry State Prison, said a staff member came to his dorm and put the consent forms on a table in the middle of the room.

“She said, ‘I’ve got 96 vaccine forms. I need 96 signatures. Right now!’”

But when prisoners began to ask questions, McCoy said, “she refused to answer anything. She might not have known.”

Heath, the spokesperson for Georgia’s Department of Corrections, said prisoners received information printed from the CDC website, but she did not respond to questions about whether it was available before they received vaccination consent forms.

Shannon Ross is working with medical experts to fill information gaps through his newsletter, The Community, which he distributes to prisoners in Wisconsin and some federal facilities. Ross, who was released from prison in September, said it is crucial to involve prisoners in the development of informational materials because they have unique concerns and are more likely to trust information from people who have experienced incarceration.

He said the state correction departments have some information, “but they don’t really hit home at a lot of the doubts and concerns and the breadth of issues that are popping up with this vaccine,” Ross said. “There’s no commentary from people who are out here that are respected in fighting the system, to say, ‘I’ve gotten it, I trust it.’”

Because many states have yet to vaccinate the majority of their prison populations, the actual magnitude of vaccine hesitancy among prisoners is not yet clear.

Marc Stern, a correctional health consultant and professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, did a survey of prisoners and those in jail late last year and found only 45% willing to get vaccinated. He said the potential for low vaccine acceptance could amplify existing inequities in prisoner health. Black people make up a disproportionately large segment of the prison population and people with severe COVID-19 outcomes, and his survey found that 37% of Black respondents were willing to receive the vaccine compared to 45% of all respondents.

On a brighter side, the four states that say they have offered the vaccine to every adult in their state prisons — Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia — have seen more prisoners take it, averaging about 70%. Meyer said that was a positive sign, but likely to be lower in many other states.

“In many prisons … the annual uptake of a flu vaccine is around 30%,” Meyer said. “Now you throw in that this is a newly developed technology that people may or may not have lots of information about, you have to anticipate that uptake might be as low as 30%.”

Complicating the equation are concerns about prison staff refusing vaccines in high numbers. Unlike prisoners, staff can receive vaccines from providers other than the corrections department, which can make staff levels difficult to track. Staff vaccination is particularly important, said Monik Jiménez, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, because employees can travel between prisons and the outside community. She stressed that both staff and prisoners need high vaccine coverage in order to effectively reduce COVID-19 transmission.

“When you have a place with high rates of transmission, then the vaccine has to work even harder,” Jiménez said. “You need more people vaccinated.”

To encourage prisoners to receive the vaccine, some states have turned to incentives, ranging from $25 in commissary credit in Pennsylvania, to “a little bag of Famous Amos cookies” in Mississippi.

In Georgia, McCoy says that he and his dorm mates felt belittled when the warden announced that anyone who opted to take the vaccine would be rewarded with a “warden’s pack,” which usually includes an assortment of chips, cakes and candy.

“Instead of with confidence and trust, you’re going to bribe them with cookies and chips?” McCoy said. “What does he think we are?”

Jill Biden announces next steps for military family program

By DARLENE SUPERVILLE for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden is bringing a new focus to the cause of supporting America’s military families.

The first lady on Wednesday announced the next chapter for a decade-old military family support program she and then-first lady Michelle Obama led during the Obama administration.

Biden said that military families are as important to the nation as a rudder is to a ship and that national security will be served by supporting their physical, social and emotional health.

First lady Jill Biden speaks at a virtual event with military families from around the world as part of the White House initiative to support military and veteran families in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“How can we hope to keep our military strong if we don’t give our families, survivors and caregivers what they need to thrive? If we don’t act on our sacred obligation?” she asked at the White House.

Biden said her relaunch of the Joining Forces initiative will focus on employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for military families, education for the more than 2 million children of enlisted parents and veterans, and the overall health and well-being of these families.

She noted that just 1% of the country serves in the all-volunteer military. She also cited a Defense Department estimate of a 22% unemployment rate for military spouses.

“Service members cannot be focused on their mission if their families don’t have what they need to thrive at home,” said the first lady, who is the daughter and mother of service members. “And we can’t expect to keep the best and brightest if our service members are forced to choose between their love of country and the hopes and dreams they have for their families.”

“We have to help you carry this weight,” the first lady added. She cited commitments from the defense, education and labor departments.

The first lady was joined virtually at Wednesday’s event by U.S. military families, advocates and others from around the world, a total of more than 100 people appearing in individual boxes on screens behind her on the stage. Afterward, she planned to tour the Military OneSource call center, a Defense Department operation that provides 24/7 support to service members and their families.

Biden spent her opening weeks as first lady conducting listening sessions with the spouses of senior Defense Department officials and military leaders, military family advocates and military children. Last month, she toured U.S. military bases in Washington state and California, where she met with military families and children.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, she promised to revive Joining Forces. Shortly before President Joe Biden took office, the first lady named Rory Brosius as the initiative’s executive director. Brosius previously served as the program’s deputy director.

Jill Biden’s father was a Navy signalman in World War II who went to college on the GI Bill. Her late son, Beau, a father of two children, served in the Delaware Army National Guard, including a year in Iraq. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.

Biden’s other causes are education — she is a longtime English professor at a community college — and cancer research.

Joining Forces began in 2011 under President Barack Obama’s administration and was led by Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, when Joe Biden was vice president. The mission was to encourage the public and private sectors to support service members, veterans, their families and their caregivers. The program focused on education, employment and wellness.

After leaving the White House in 2017, Jill Biden continued working with military families through the Biden Foundation.

The Trump administration kept the focus on military issues and care for veterans, including increasing the military spending. Former first lady Melania Trump and Karen Pence, the wife of former Vice President Mike Pence, worked on military family issues but without the Joining Forces banner.

Capitol officer remembered for humor, paying ultimate price

By KEVIN FREKING for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The 18-year U.S. Capitol Police veteran killed in the line of duty is being remembered as a man with a sense of humor who loved baseball and golf and was most proud of one particular title: Dad.

This image provided by the U.S. Capitol Police shows U.S. Capitol Police officer William “Billy” Evans, an 18-year veteran who was a member of the department’s first responders unit. Evans was killed Friday, April 2, 2021, after a man rammed a car into two officers at a barricade outside the U.S. Capitol and then emerged wielding a knife. (U.S. Capitol Police via AP)

William “Billy” Evans, 41, was killed Friday when a vehicle rammed into Evans and another officer at a barricade just 100 yards from the Capitol. The driver, Noah Green, 25, came out of the car with a knife and was shot to death by police, officials said. Investigators believe Green had been delusional and increasingly having suicidal thoughts. Capitol Police released few personal details about Evans, saying his family had requested privacy.

Evans, a father of two, grew up in North Adams, Massachusetts, a close-knit town of about 13,000 in the northwest part of the state.

Jason LaForest knew Evans for more than 30 years. He was a close friend of Evans’ older sister, Julie, and recalled Evans as a prankster who made sure the subjects of his jokes laughed as well.

“As a young kid, Billy, of course, was the annoying little brother of one of my best friends, a title which he held on to for most of his life,” said LaForest, a North Adams city councilman. “But it was a joy to watch him grow up and become a talented athlete and a dedicated police officer, and, of course, the role in life that he loved the most, which was a dad.”

Sports, particularly baseball, was another important part of Evans’ life.

“He came from a long line of family members that loved baseball and especially the Boston Red Sox,” LaForest said. “He excelled in baseball and enjoyed playing baseball most of his life. It’s a passion that he instilled in his children.”

Evans’ father, Howard, died about seven years ago. His mother, Janice, still lives in Massachusetts.

He attended Western New England University, graduating in 2002 as a criminal justice major. He joined the Capitol Police the next year.

Robert E. Johnson, the university’s president, said in a statement that Evans was a member of the school’s baseball and bowling teams and the campus activities board. He said that Evans’ friends at the university described him as “extremely welcoming and friendly, humble, and always willing to help others.”

John Claffey, a professor of criminal justice, said that when news of Evans’ death first aired, he had the sense that he knew that smile. “I immediately said that’s a face I recognize,” Claffey said.

He recalled Evans as a student who knew what he wanted to do — a “very focused kid.”

Over the weekend, Claffey received four calls from former students who just wanted to talk to him about Evans.

“This has shaken a lot of people’s worlds,” he said. “A lot of people from Western New England, who haven’t been here in 18 years, it’s still having an impact on them.”

The death of Evans came nearly three months after the Jan. 6 rioting at the Capitol that left five people dead, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. He died a day after the insurrection.

Lawmakers issued a wave of statements offering their condolences and gratitude to Evans after the attack. Capitol Hill aides and members of the press corps that cover Capitol Hill also weighed in, recalling him as friendly and professional.

LaForest said Evans never wanted to be known as a hero.

“He wanted to serve his country as a Capitol police officer and looked forward to seeing lawmakers and visitors who came to the Capitol every day, many of whom became friends of Billy’s in large part because of his good-natured sense of humor,” LaForest said. “And, unfortunately, Billy paid the ultimate price defending his country.”

Florida dismisses 2nd breach risk at phosphate reservoir

By CURT ANDERSON for the Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Engineers and dam safety specialists evaluating the danger of a catastrophic flood from a leaking Florida wastewater reservoir determined that the threat of a possible second breach was “unsubstantiated,” the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, addresses the media Monday, April 5, 2021 about the crisis at the former Piney Point phosphate plant, along with Manatee County officials. (Zachary T. Sampson/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Officials had said Monday that a drone discovered a possible second breach in the reservoir, whose east wall continues to show “concentrated seepage.” But by Monday evening, experts from four government agencies and outside engineers concluded that this second site was safe to continue working on, the agency announced.

Meanwhile, the agency said dozens of pumps and 10 vacuum trucks have been deployed to remove 35 million gallons (132 million liters) of wastewater per day into the Tampa Bay estuary, where 11 different sampling operations are monitoring water quality and considering ways of minimizing algae blooms that kill marine life and make beachgoing hazardous to humans in the tourism-dependent state.

“All water quality information concludes that this water is NOT radioactive,” the agency tweeted.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican, toured the area by helicopter Monday and said federal resources were committed to assisting the effort to control the 77-acre (33-hectare) Piney Point reservoir in Manatee County, just south of the Tampa Bay area.

Among those are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, Buchanan said at a news conference.

“I think we are making some progress,” Buchanan said. “This is something that has been going on too long. Now, I think everybody is focused on this.”

Fears of a complete breach at an old phosphate plant led authorities to evacuate more than 300 homes, close portions of a major highway and move several hundred jail inmates nearby to a second floor of the facility.

The primary concern is that a total breach of the reservoir would cause major flooding to nearby homes and businesses, officials said. The pumps are meant to slowly drain the water and divert it to Tampa Bay, which could lead to negative environmental consequences such as fish kills and algae blooms.

Melissa Fitzsimmons lives with her husband and 19-month-old daughter in Palmetto, Florida, on the edge of the evacuation zone. Fitzsimmons said that for the past four days she has been terrified since she found out about the leak. While her house is on a hill and may not be directly affected by the water if the leak continues to grow, Fitzsimmons said her family is preparing for the worst.

“Within 24 hours it escalated to like a catastrophic evacuation, and we really didn’t know anything until we saw that there was an evacuation and then suddenly an evacuation within the block of our house,” Fitzsimmons said. “We’re not in the full on evacuation zone so we didn’t make the decision to leave, but we are certainly ready to go, I would say within like a 10-second notice, we can be out the door.”

Scott Hopes, the Manatee County administrator, said the additional pumps should increase the capacity for controlled wastewater releases to as much as 100 million gallons (379 million liters) a day.

“This has become a very focused local, state and national issue,” Hopes said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water in the pond is primarily salt water mixed with wastewater and storm water. It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but not expected to be toxic, the agency says.

The ponds sit in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct from manufacturing fertilizer. State authorities say the water in the breached pond is not radioactive.

Still, the EPA says too much nitrogen in the wastewater causes algae to grow faster, leading to fish kills. Some such blooms can also harm humans who come into contact with polluted waters, or eat tainted fish.

The Piney Point reservoir, and others like it storing the phosphogypsum byproduct, have been left unaddressed for far too long, environmental groups say.

“This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than 1 billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now.”

Dale Rucker, a hydrologist and former editor of the Journal of Environmental and Engineering Geophysics, says the leak is a reminder that governments need to pay attention to aging infrastructure that could endanger the environment and put communities at serious risk.

“Continued neglect can have serious environmental consequences like we are seeing,” Rucker said. “These environmental catastrophes are going to happen with higher probability.”

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Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Lincon in Miami and Anila Yoganathan in Atlanta contributed to this story.

Police chief: Fired cop broke policy in pinning Floyd

By AMY FORLITI, STEVE KARNOWSKI and TAMMY WEBBER for the Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minneapolis police chief who called George Floyd’s death “murder” soon after it happened testified that Officer Derek Chauvin had clearly violated department policy when he pinned Floyd’s neck beneath his knee for more than 9 minutes.

In this image from video, witness Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testifies as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides Monday, April 5, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

Continuing to kneel on Floyd’s neck once he was handcuffed behind his back and lying on his stomach was “in no way, shape or form” part of department policy or training, “and it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values,” Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Monday on Day Six of Chauvin’s murder trial.

Arradondo, the city’s first Black chief, fired Chauvin and three other officers the day after Floyd’s death last May, and in June called it “murder.”

While police have long been accused of closing ranks to protect fellow members of the force charged with wrongdoing — the “blue wall of silence,” as it’s known — some of the most experienced officers in the Minneapolis department have taken the stand to openly condemn Chauvin’s treatment of Floyd.

As jurors watched in rapt attention and scribbled notes, Arradondo testified not only that Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the force, should have let Floyd up sooner, but that the pressure on Floyd’s neck did not appear to be light to moderate, as called for under the department’s neck-restraint policy; that Chauvin failed in his duty to render first aid before the ambulance arrived; and that he violated policy requiring officers to de-escalate tense situations with no or minimal force if they can.

“That action is not de-escalation,” the police chief said. “And when we talk about the framework of our sanctity of life and when we talk about our principles and the values that we have, that action goes contrary to what we are talking about.”

Arradondo’s testimony came after the emergency room doctor who pronounced Floyd dead said he theorized at the time that Floyd’s heart most likely stopped because of a lack of oxygen.

Dr. Bradford Langenfeld, who was a senior resident on duty that night at Hennepin County Medical Center and tried to resuscitate Floyd, took the stand as prosecutors sought to establish that it was Chauvin’s knee on the Black man’s neck that killed him.

Langenfeld said Floyd’s heart had stopped by the time he arrived at the hospital. The doctor said that he was not told of any efforts at the scene by bystanders or police to resuscitate Floyd but that paramedics told him they had tried for about 30 minutes and that he tried for another 30 minutes.

Under questioning by prosecutors, Langenfeld said that based on the information he had, it was “more likely than the other possibilities” that Floyd’s cardiac arrest — the stopping of his heart — was caused by asphyxia, or insufficient oxygen.

Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death May 25. The white officer is accused of pressing his knee into the 46-year-old man’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, outside a corner market where Floyd had been arrested on suspicion of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes.

Floyd’s treatment by police was captured on widely seen bystander video that sparked protests around the U.S. that descended into violence in some cases.

The defense has argued that Chauvin did what he was trained to do and that Floyd’s use of illegal drugs and his underlying health conditions caused his death.

Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, asked Langenfeld whether some drugs can cause hypoxia, or insufficient oxygen. The doctor acknowledged that fentanyl and methamphetamine, both of which were found in Floyd’s body, can do so.

The county medical examiner’s office ultimately classified Floyd’s death a homicide — a death caused by someone else.

The report said Floyd died of “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” A summary report listed fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use under “other significant conditions” but not under “cause of death.”

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher noted that while some people may become more dangerous under the influence of drugs or alcohol, some may actually be “more vulnerable.” Arradondo agreed and acknowledged that this must also be taken into consideration when officers decide to use force.

Before he was pinned to the ground, a frantic Floyd struggled with police who were trying to put him in a squad car, saying he was claustrophobic.

Arradondo said officers are trained in basic first aid, including chest compressions, and department policy requires them to request medical assistance and provide necessary aid as soon as possible before paramedics arrive.

“We absolutely have a duty to render that,” he said.

Officers kept restraining Floyd — with Chauvin kneeling on his neck, another kneeling on Floyd’s back and a third holding his feet — until the ambulance got there, even after he became unresponsive, according to testimony and video footage.

The officers also rebuffed offers of help from an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter who wanted to administer aid or tell officers how to do it.

Langenfeld testified that for people who go into cardiac arrest, there is an approximately 10% to 15% decrease in survival for every minute that CPR is not administered.

Nelson noted on cross-examination that department policies direct officers to do what is reasonable in a given situation. He asked whether officers need to take the actions of a crowd into account, and Arradondo agreed. Nelson has suggested that onlookers — many of whom were shouting at Chauvin — might have affected officers’ response.

Nelson also questioned whether Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck, playing a few seconds of bystander video side-by-side with footage from an officer’s body camera that Arradondo agreed appeared to show Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s shoulder blade.

But prosecutors quickly got Arradondo to note that the clip played by Nelson depicted only the few seconds before Floyd was moved onto a stretcher.

Minneapolis police Inspector Katie Blackwell, commander of the training division at the time of Floyd’s death, also took the stand Monday.

She said Chauvin, whom she’s known for about 20 years, received annual training in defensive tactics and use of force, and would have been trained to use one or two arms — not his knee — in a neck restraint.

“I don’t know what kind of improvised position that is,” she said, after being shown a photo of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck.

She said Chauvin also was a field-training officer, receiving additional training so he would know what prospective officers were learning in the academy.

The city moved soon after Floyd’s death to ban police chokeholds and neck restraints. Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey also made several policy changes, including expanded reporting of use-of-force incidents and attempts to de-escalate situations.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd

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Webber reported from Fenton, Mich.

Medics despair as France’s ‘third way’ virus strategy flails

By ANGELA CHARLTON for the Associated Press

AMIENS, France (AP) — As France battles a new virus surge that many believe was avoidable, intensive care nurse Stephanie Sannier manages her stress and sorrow by climbing into her car after a 12-hour shift, blasting music and singing as loud as she can.

Medical workers tend to a patient affected with the COVID-19 in the Amiens Picardie hospital Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in Amiens, 160 km (100 miles) north of Paris. France is now facing a deadly new surge of the virus that is overwhelming many hospitals, as critics accuse the government of ignoring warning signs and favoring political concerns over public health. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

“It allows me to breathe,” she says, “and to cry.”

People with COVID-19 occupy all the beds in her ICU ward in President Emmanuel Macron’s hometown hospital in the medieval northern city of Amiens. Three have died in the past three days. The vast medical complex is turning away critically ill patients from smaller towns nearby for lack of space.

With France now Europe’s latest virus danger zone, Macron on Wednesday ordered temporary school closures nationwide and new travel restrictions. But he resisted calls for a strict lockdown, instead sticking broadly to his strategy, a “third way” between freedom and confinement meant to keep both infections and a restless populace under control until mass vaccinations take over.

The government refuses to acknowledge failure and blames delayed vaccine deliveries and a disobedient public for soaring infections and saturated hospitals. Macron’s critics blame arrogance at the highest levels. They say France’s leaders ignored warning signs and favored political and economic calculations over public health — and lives.

“We feel this wave coming very strongly,” said Romain Beal, a blood oxygen specialist at the Amiens-Picardie Hospital. “We had families where we had the mother and her son die at the same time in two different ICU rooms here. It’s unbearable.”

The hospital’s doctors watched as the variant ravaging Britain jumped the Channel and forged south across France. Just as in Britain, the variant is now driving ever-younger, ever-healthier patients into French emergency rooms and ICUs. Amiens medics did their best to prepare, bringing in reinforcements and setting up a temporary ICU in a pediatric wing.

After Britain’s death toll shot higher in January, after new variants slammed European countries from the Czech Republic to Portugal, France continued vaunting its “third way.”

French scientists’ projections — including from the government’s own virus advisory body — predicted trouble ahead. Charts from national research institute Inserm in January and again in February forecast climbing virus hospitalization rates in March or April. Worried doctors urged preventative measures beyond those that were already in place — a 6 p.m. nationwide curfew and the closure of all restaurants and many businesses.

Week after week, the government refused to impose a new lockdown, citing France’s stable infection and hospitalization rates, and hoping that they would stay that way. Ministers stressed the importance of keeping the economy afloat and protecting the mental health of a populace worn down by a year of uncertainty. A relieved public granted Macron a boost in the polls.

But the virus wasn’t finished. The nationwide infection rate has now doubled over the past three weeks, and Paris hospitals are bracing for what could be their worst battle yet, with ICU overcrowding forecast to surpass what happened when the pandemic first crashed over Europe.

Acknowledging the challenges, Macron on Wednesday announced a three-week nationwide school closure, a month-long domestic travel ban and the creation of thousands of temporary ICU beds. He also promised personnel reinforcements.

While other European countries imposed their third lockdowns in recent months, Macron said that by refusing to do so in France, “we gained precious days of liberty and weeks of schooling for our children, and we allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to keep their heads above water.”

At the same time, France has lost another 30,000 lives to the virus this year. It has also reported more virus infections overall than any country in Europe, and it has one of the world’s highest death tolls — 95,640 lives lost.

Macron’s refusal to order a lockdown frustrates people like Sarah Amhah, visiting her 67-year-old mother in the Amiens ICU.

“They’ve managed this badly all along,” she said, recalling government missteps a year ago around masks and tests and decrying logistical challenges around getting a vaccine for elderly relatives. While she’s still proud of France’s world-renowned health care system, she’s ashamed of her government. “How can we trust them?”

Pollsters note growing public frustration in recent days with the government’s hesitancy to crack down, and the potential impact of Macron’s current decisions on next year’s presidential campaign landscape.

Macron last week defended his decision not to confine the country Jan. 29, a moment epidemiologists say could have been a turning point in France’s battle to prevent surge No. 3. “There won’t be a mea culpa from me. I don’t have remorse and won’t acknowledge failure,” he said.

Instead of emulating European neighbors whose strategies are bringing infections down — like Britain, which is now starting to open up after a firm three-month lockdown — French government officials dodge questions about the growing death toll by comparing their country to places where the situation is even worse.

At the Amiens ICU, things are already bad enough.

“We have the impression that the population is doing the opposite of what they should be doing,” nurse Sannier said, before heading off on her rounds. “And we have the feeling we are working for nothing.”

Intern Oussama Nanai acknowledged that the drumbeat of grim virus numbers has left many people feeling numb, and he urged everyone to visit an ICU to put a human face to the figures.

“There are ups and downs every day … Yesterday afternoon I couldn’t do it anymore. The patient in (room) 52 died, and the patient in (room) 54,” he said.

But sometimes their work pays off. “Two people who were in the most serious condition for 60 days left on their own two feet, and they sent us photos,” he said. “That boosts our morale and makes us realize that what we are doing is useful.”

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Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

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Looie Lookout: Police seek to recover minor league mascot

From the Associated Press

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Police are asking “Where’s Looie?” after a minor league baseball team in Tennessee reported its team mascot was stolen from its ballpark.

The Chattanooga Lookouts told authorities that the costume of its mascot Looie was stolen from an office at AT&T Field on Tuesday, according to a Facebook post from Chattanooga police. The Lookouts said hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise and equipment were also stolen.”

Looie’s head looks like a big red baseball cap, with a black brim for a nose. Police are asking the public for any tips on the costume’s whereabouts, saying callers can remain anonymous. Anyone with tips can call (423) 698-2525.

The Lookouts kick off their season at home on May 4.

Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine protects younger teens

By LAURAN NEERGAARD and MATTHEW PERRONE for the Associated Press

Pfizer announced Wednesday that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and strongly protective in kids as young as 12, a step toward possibly beginning shots in this age group before they head back to school in the fall.

Most COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out worldwide are for adults, who are at higher risk from the coronavirus. Pfizer’s vaccine is authorized for ages 16 and older. But vaccinating children of all ages will be critical to stopping the pandemic — and helping schools, at least the upper grades, start to look a little more normal after months of disruption.

In this Dec. 22, 2020, photo, provided by Richard Chung, his son Caleb Chung receives the first dose of Pfizer coronavirus vaccine or placebo as a trial participant for kids ages 12-15, at Duke University Health System in Durham, N.C. Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and strongly protective in kids as young as 12. The announcement Wednesday, March 31, 2021 marks a step toward possibly beginning shots in this age group before the next school year. (Richard Chung via AP)

In a study of 2,260 U.S. volunteers ages 12 to 15, preliminary data showed there were no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adolescents compared to 18 among those given dummy shots, Pfizer reported.

It’s a small study, that hasn’t yet been published, so another important piece of evidence is how well the shots revved up the kids’ immune systems. Researchers reported high levels of virus-fighting antibodies, somewhat higher than were seen in studies of young adults.

Kids had side effects similar to young adults, the company said. The main side effects are pain, fever, chills and fatigue, particularly after the second dose. The study will continue to track participants for two years for more information about long-term protection and safety.

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan of Boston College said the results are encouraging.

“It’s hard to get kids to comply with masking and distancing, so something that gives them hard protection and takes them out of the mix of spreading the virus is all for the good,” said Landrigan , who was not involved in the study.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech in the coming weeks plan to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European regulators to allow emergency use of the shots starting at age 12.

“We share the urgency to expand the use of our vaccine,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. He expressed “the hope of starting to vaccinate this age group before the start of the next school year” in the United States.

Pfizer isn’t the only company seeking to lower the age limit for its vaccine. Results also are expected by the middle of this year from a U.S. study of Moderna’s vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds.

But in a sign that the findings were promising, the FDA already allowed both companies to begin U.S. studies in children 11 and younger, working their way to as young as 6-month-old.

“We are longing for a normal life. This is especially true for our children,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in a statement.

AstraZeneca last month began a study of its vaccine among 6- to 17-year-olds in Britain. Johnson & Johnson is planning its own pediatric studies. And in China, Sinovac recently announced it has submitted preliminary data to Chinese regulators showing its vaccine is safe in children as young as 3.

While most COVID-19 vaccines being used globally were first tested in tens of thousands of adults, pediatric studies won’t need to be nearly as large. Scientists have safety information from those studies and from subsequent vaccinations in millions more adults.

One key question is the dosage: Pfizer gave the 12-and-older participants the same dose adults receive, while testing different doses in younger children.

It’s not clear how quickly the FDA would act on Pfizer’s request to allow vaccination starting at age 12. The agency has taken about three weeks to review and authorize each of the vaccines currently available for adults. That process included holding a public meeting of outside experts to review and vote on the safety and effectiveness of each shot.

The process for reviewing data in children could be shorter, given FDA’s familiarity with each vaccine. An agency spokeswoman said the FDA had no information to share on how the review would work, including whether additional public meetings would be required.

Another question is when the country would have enough supply of shots — and people to get them into adolescents’ arms — to let kids start getting in line.

Supplies are set to steadily increase over the spring and summer, at the same time states are opening vaccinations to younger, healthier adults who until now haven’t had a turn.

Children represent about 13% of COVID-19 cases documented in the U.S. And while children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill, at least 268 have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and more than 13,500 have been hospitalized, according to a tally by the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s more than die from the flu in an average year. Additionally, a small number have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus.

Caleb Chung, who turns 13 later this week, agreed to volunteer after his father, a Duke University pediatrician, presented the option. He doesn’t know if he received the vaccine or a placebo.

“Usually I’m just at home doing online school and there’s not much I can really do to fight back against the virus,” Caleb said in a recent interview. The study “was really somewhere that I could actually help out.”

His father, Dr. Richard Chung, said he’s proud of his son and all the other children volunteering for the needle pricks, blood tests and other tasks a study entails.

“We need kids to do these trials so that kids can get protected. Adults can’t do that for them,” Chung said.

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AP video journalist Federica Narancio 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.

Suspect in attack on Asian American woman in NYC is arrested

By MICHAEL R. SISAK for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — A parolee convicted of killing his mother nearly two decades ago was arrested on charges including felony assault as a hate crime for attacking an Asian American woman near New York City’s Times Square, police said early Wednesday.

This image taken from surveillance video provided by the New York City Police Department shows a person of interest in connection with an assault of an Asian American woman, Monday, March 29, 2021, in New York. The NYPD is asking for the public’s assistance in identifying the man. (Courtesy of New York Police Department via AP)

Police said Brandon Elliot, 38, is the man seen on video kicking and stomping the woman on Monday. They said Elliot was living at a hotel that serves as a homeless shelter a few blocks from the scene of the attack.

Elliot, who is Black, was convicted of stabbing his mother to death in the Bronx in 2002, when he was 19. He was released from prison in 2019 and is on lifetime parole.

He faces charges of assault as a hate crime, attempted assault as a hate crime, assault and attempted assault in Monday’s attack, police said. It wasn’t immediately known whether he had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf.

The victim was identified as Vilma Kari, a 65-year-old woman who immigrated from the Philippines, her daughter told The New York Times; the newspaper did not identify Kari’s daughter.

Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez said the victim is Filipino American.

The country’s foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr., condemned the attack in a Twitter post, saying “This is gravely noted and will influence Philippine foreign policy.”

Locsin did not elaborate how the attack could influence Philippine policy toward the United States. The countries are longtime treaty allies and the Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, is a vocal critic of U.S. security policies who has moved to terminate a key agreement that allows largescale military exercises with American forces in the Philippines.

“I might as well say it, so no one on the other side can say, `We didn’t know you took racial brutality against Filipinos at all seriously.’ We do,” Locsin said.

Kari was walking to church in midtown Manhattan when police said a man kicked her in the stomach, knocked her to the ground, stomped on her face, shouted anti-Asian slurs and told her, “you don’t belong here” before casually walking away.

She was discharged from the hospital Tuesday after being treated for serious injuries, a hospital spokesperson said.

The attack Monday was among the latest in a national spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, and happened just weeks after a mass shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent. The surge in violence has been linked in part to misplaced blame for the coronavirus pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s use of racially charged terms like “Chinese virus.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Monday’s attack “absolutely disgusting and outrageous.” He said it was “absolutely unacceptable” that witnesses did not intervene.

“I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what you do, you’ve got to help your fellow New Yorker,” de Blasio said Tuesday.

The attack happened late Monday morning outside a luxury apartment building two blocks from Times Square.

Two workers inside the building who appeared to be security guards were seen on surveillance video witnessing the attack but failing to come to the woman’s aid. One of them was seen closing the building door as the woman was on the ground. The attacker was able to casually walk away while onlookers watched, the video showed.

The building’s management company said they were suspended pending an investigation. The workers’ union said they called for help immediately.

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, said the victim “could easily have been my mother.” He too criticized the bystanders, saying their inaction was “exactly the opposite of what we need here in New York City.”

This year in New York City, there have been 33 hate crimes with an Asian victim as of Sunday, police said. There were 11 such attacks by the same time last year.

On Friday, in the same neighborhood as Monday’s attack, a 65-year-old Asian American woman was accosted by a man waving an unknown object and shouting anti-Asian insults. A 48-year-old man was arrested the next day and charged with menacing. He is not suspected in Monday’s attack.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced last week that the department would increase outreach and patrols in predominantly Asian communities, including the use of undercover officers to prevent and disrupt attacks.

The neighborhood where Monday’s attack occurred, Hell’s Kitchen, is predominantly white, with an Asian population of less than 20%, according to city demographic data.

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Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.

UK watchdog: Police acted correctly at vigil for slain woman

From the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — A U.K. police watchdog said Tuesday that officers didn’t behave “in a heavy-handed manner” when they broke up a vigil for a London woman whose killing sparked an outcry about women’s safety.

Matt Parr, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, said officers at the vigil in memory of Sarah Everard acted in “a measured and proportionate way in challenging circumstances.”

FILE – In this file photo dated Saturday, March 20, 2021, floral tributes and messages surround the bandstand on Clapham Common in London after the nearby disappearance of Sarah Everard. A U.K. police watchdog said Tuesday March 30, 2021, that officers did not behave “in a heavy-handed manner” when they broke up a vigil for Sarah Everard, who disappeared while walking home in London and was later found murdered. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, FILE)

Everard, a 33-year-old London resident, was last seen walking home from a friend’s apartment on the evening of March 3. Her body was later found hidden in woodland more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. A serving police officer has been charged with murder.

Hundreds of people gathered March 13 on London’s Clapham Common to remember Everard and protest violence against women, despite a ban on mass gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic. Images of police officers tussling with women at the peaceful rally, and leading some away in handcuffs, drew strong criticism.

Parr said the gathering presented “a complex and sensitive policing challenge” and police had acted appropriately to disperse people when the vigil turned into “a rally with dense crowds and little or no social distancing.”

He said criticism of the force, including from some senior politicians, had been “unwarranted” and had undermined public confidence in the police.

He acknowledged, however, that there was “insufficient” communication between police commanders on the ground, and said the Metropolitan Police force could have taken a “more conciliatory” approach after the event.

Reclaim These Streets, the group that called the vigil after Everard’s death, said the report was “disappointing” and demonstrated “institutional sexism running through the force.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who had earlier criticized the police response, said he accepted the report, “but it is clear that trust and confidence of women and girls in the police and criminal justice system is far from adequate.”

World leaders call for pandemic treaty, but short on details

By MARIA CHENG for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — More than 20 heads of government and global agencies called in a commentary published Tuesday for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness that they say will protect future generations in the wake of COVID-19.

But there were few details to explain how such an agreement might actually compel countries to act more cooperatively.

FILE – In this file photo dated Tuesday, July 14, 2020, Director General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, adjusts his face mask during the Bastille Day military parade, in Paris. France. More than 20 heads of government and global agencies have called for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response, that they say will protect future generations from future pandemics, with WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other leaders calling for countries to act cooperatively. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, FILE)

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and leaders including Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, Premier Mario Draghi of Italy and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda proposed “a renewed collective commitment” to reinforce preparedness and response systems by leveraging the U.N. health agency’s constitution.

“The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one,” Tedros said during a news conference. He said the treaty would provide “a framework for international cooperation and solidarity” and address issues like surveillance systems and responding to outbreaks.

International regulations governing health and implemented by WHO already exist — and can be disregarded by countries with few consequences. Despite an obligation for nations to share critical epidemic data and materials quickly with WHO, for example, China declined to do so when the coronavirus first broke out.

And with no enforcement powers, WHO officials had little means of compelling them to share details, an AP investigation last year found.

Steven Solomon, WHO’s principal legal officer, said the proposed pandemic treaty would need to be ratified by lawmakers in the participating countries.

“Specifics about enforcement will be up to member states to decide on,” Solomon said.

European Council President Charles Michel first laid out the idea of a pandemic treaty at the U.N. General Assembly in December. Joining Tedros at Tuesday’s briefing, Michel said the global community needs to “build a pandemic defense for future generations that extends far beyond today’s crisis. For this, we must translate the political will into concrete actions.”

Gian Luca Burci, a former WHO legal counsel who is now a professor at the Graduate Institute of international affairs in Geneva, described the proposal as an attempted “big fix” involving information sharing, preparedness and response, saying the concept is “like a Christmas tree, frankly.”

“But to me, the risk is that it diverts attention from the tool that we have” — WHO’s existing International Health Regulations, Burci said recently. He said his fear was those regulations would get short shrift and receive “cosmetic improvements, but fundamentally remain a weak instrument.”

Although the 25 signatories of the commentary called for “solidarity,” and greater “societal commitment,” there was no indication any country would soon change its own approach to responding to the pandemic. China, Russia and the United States didn’t join in signing the statement.

WHO legal officer Solomon said the pandemic treaty might also address issues such as the sharing of vaccine technology and vaccine supplies, but gave no indication how that might happen. Despite WHO’s calls for patents to be waived during the pandemic, rich countries have continued to oppose efforts by poor countries to compel them to share vaccine manufacturing technology.

Tedros pleaded with rich countries last week to immediately donate 10 million COVID-19 vaccines so that immunization campaigns could start in all countries within the first 100 days of the year. Not a single country has yet publicly offered to share its vaccines immediately. Of the more than 459 million vaccines administered globally, the majority have been in just 10 countries — and 28% in just one. WHO didn’t identify the countries.

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Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Geneva.

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Former officer’s trial in George Floyd’s death gets underway

By STEVE KARNOWSKI and AMY FORLITI for the Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd went on trial Monday, with prosecutors promptly showing the jury the video of Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on the Black man’s neck for several minutes as onlookers yelled at Chauvin to get off and Floyd gasped that he couldn’t breathe.

In this image from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin listen as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over pre-trial motions prior to opening statements, Monday March 29, 2021, in the trial of Chauvin, in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

In opening statements, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury that the number to remember was 9 minutes, 29 seconds — the amount of time Chauvin had Floyd pinned to the pavement with his knee last May in the case that triggered scattered violence and a national reckoning over racial injustice.

The white officer “didn’t let up, he didn’t get up,” even after a handcuffed Floyd said 27 times that he couldn’t breathe and went motionless, Blackwell said.

“He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him, until the very breath — no, ladies and gentlemen — until the very life was squeezed out of him,” the prosecutor said.

Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson countered by arguing: “Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career.”

Floyd was resisting arrest, and Chauvin arrived to assist other officers who were struggling to get Floyd into a squad car as the crowd around them grew larger and more hostile, Nelson said.

The defense attorney also disputed that Chauvin was to blame for Floyd’s death.

Floyd had none of the telltale signs of asphyxiation and had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, Nelson said. He said Floyd’s drug use combined with his heart disease and high blood pressure, as well as the adrenaline flowing through his body, to cause his death from a heart rhythm disturbance.

“There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” Nelson said. “But the evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds.”

The medical examiner’s autopsy noted fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system but listed his cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”

Chauvin, 45, is charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.

The widely seen video sparked outrage across the U.S. and led to widespread protests and unrest, along with demands that the country confront racism and police brutality. Confederate statues and other symbols were pulled down around the U.S., and activists demanded that police department budgets be cut or overhauled.

Playing the footage during opening statements underscored the central role video will play in the case. It was posted to Facebook by a bystander who witnessed Floyd’s arrest after he was accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.

“My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts,” Floyd says, and “I can’t breathe officer.” Onlookers repeatedly shout at the officers to get off the 46-year-old Floyd. One woman, identifying herself as a city Fire Department employee, shouts at Chauvin to check Floyd’s pulse.

Jurors watched intently as the video played on multiple screens, with one drawing a sharp breath as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin sat calmly during the opening statements and took notes, looking up at the video periodically.

The timeline differs from the initial complaint filed last May by prosecutors, who said Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. In the following weeks, demonstrators staged “die-ins” lasting 8 minutes, 46 seconds, and 8:46 became a rallying cry in the case. The time was revised during the course of the investigation.

Fourteen people in the jury box will hear the case — eight of them white, six of them Black or multiracial, according to the court. Two of the 14 will be alternates. The judge has not said which ones will be alternates and which ones will deliberate the case.

Legal experts fully expected prosecutors to play the video to the jury early on.

“If you’re a prosecutor you want to start off strong. You want to frame the argument — and nothing frames the argument in this case as much as that video,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor and managing director of Berkeley Research Group in Chicago.

Blackwell said bystander witnesses would include a Minneapolis Fire Department first responder who wanted to administer aid. He said Chauvin pointed Mace at her.

“She wanted to check on his pulse, check on Mr. Floyd’s well-being,” Blackwell said. “She did her best to intervene. When she approached Mr. Chauvin …. Mr. Chauvin reached for his Mace and pointed it in her direction. She couldn’t help.”

About a dozen people chanted and carried signs outside the courthouse as Floyd family attorney Ben Crump, the Rev. Al Sharpton and members of the Floyd family went inside. The group also carried a makeshift coffin with flowers on top.

Crump said the trial would be a test of “whether America is going to live up to the Declaration of Independence.” And he blasted the idea that it would be a tough test for jurors.

“For all those people that continue to say that this is such a difficult trial, that this is a hard trial, we refute that,” he said. “We know that if George Floyd was a white American citizen, and he suffered this painful, tortuous death with a police officer’s knee on his neck, nobody, nobody, would be saying this is a hard case.”

The trial is expected to last about four weeks at the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, which has been fortified with concrete barriers, fences and barbed and razor wire. City and state leaders are determined to prevent a repeat of the riots that followed Floyd’s death, and National Guard troops have already been mobilized.

The key questions will be whether Chauvin caused Floyd’s death and whether his actions were reasonable.

For the unintentional second-degree murder charge, prosecutors have to prove Chauvin’s conduct was a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death, and that Chauvin was committing felony assault at the time. For third-degree murder, they must prove that Chauvin’s actions caused Floyd’s death and were reckless and without regard for human life.

The manslaughter charge requires proof that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through negligence that created an unreasonable risk.

Unintentional second-degree murder is punishable by up to 40 years in prison, and third-degree carries up to 25 years, but sentencing guidelines suggest that Chauvin would face 12 1/2 years in prison if convicted on either charge. Manslaughter is punishable by up to 10 years.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd

CDC director has feeling of ‘impending doom’ amid new spike

By ZEKE MILLER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made an impassioned plea to Americans Monday not to let their guard down in the fight against COVID-19, saying she has a recurring feeling “of impending doom.” President Joe Biden prepared to announce further efforts to expand access to coronavirus vaccines.

In this March 19, 2021, photo, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leads President Joe Biden into the room for a COVID-19 briefing at the headquarters for the CDC Atlanta. Walensky is making an impassioned plea to Americans not to let their guard down in the fight against COVID-19. She warned on March 29 of a potential “fourth wave” of the virus. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Speaking during a virtual White House briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky grew emotional as she reflected on her experience treating COVID-19 patients who are alone at the end of their lives.

“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope,” she said. “But right now, I’m scared.”

“I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” she said.

Cases of the virus are up about 10% over the past week from the previous week, to about 60,000 cases per day, with both hospitalizations and deaths ticking up as well, Walensky said. She warned that without immediate action the U.S. could follow European countries into another spike in cases and suffer needless deaths.

“I have to share the truth, and I have to hope and trust you will listen,” she added.

Walensky’s comments came hours before President Joe Biden was to address the nation Monday afternoon with an update on the vaccination effort.

A senior administration official said the president would announce that by April 19 at least 90% of the adult U.S. population would be eligible for vaccination — and would have access to a vaccination site within 5 miles of home. Quick vaccination would still depend on supply as well as overcoming some people’s hesitancy about the shots.

Biden has directed that all states make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1, but many have moved to lift eligibility requirements sooner in anticipation of supply increases.

Meanwhile, the White House was moving to double the number of pharmacies participating in the federal retail pharmacy program — which has emerged as among the most efficient avenues for administering vaccines — and increase the number of doses for them to deliver. The retail pharmacies are located in close proximity to most Americans and have experience delivering vaccines like the flu shots.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview Biden’s remarks.

“The president has not held back in calling for governors, leaders, the American people to continue to abide by the public health guidelines,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “He will continue to do that through all of his engagements.”

Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. appealed to elected officials, community leaders and everyday Americans to maintain social distancing measures and mask wearing.

“We are doing things prematurely,” Fauci said, referring to moves to ease up on restrictions. Walensky appealed to Americans, “Just please hold on a little while longer.”

She added: “We are not powerless, we can change this trajectory of the pandemic.”

Walensky pointed to an uptick in travel and loosening virus restrictions for the increase in cases. “People want to be done with this. I, too, want to be done with this,” Walensky said.

“We’ve seen surges after every single holiday,” she reiterated: “Please limit travel to essential travel for the time being.”

The White House, meanwhile is ruling out the creation of a national “vaccine passport” for Americans to verify their immunization status, saying it is leaving it to the private sector to develop a system for people show they’ve been vaccinated. Some other countries are establishing national databases to allow vaccinated people to resume normal activities.

“We do know that there is a segment of the population that is concerned that the government will play too heavy-handed of a role in monitoring their vaccinations,” said White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt. He said officials are worried that “it would discourage people” from getting vaccinated if the federal government was involved.

The administration, instead, is developing guidelines for such passports, touching on privacy, accuracy and equity, but the White House has not said when those guidelines will be ready.

Giant container ship that blocked Suez Canal is finally free

By ISABEL DEBRE and SAMY MAGDY for the Associated Press

SUEZ, Egypt (AP) — Salvage teams on Monday freed a colossal container ship stuck for nearly a week in the Suez Canal, ending a crisis that had clogged one of the world’s most vital waterways and halted billions of dollars a day in maritime commerce.

Helped by the tides, a flotilla of tugboats wrenched the bulbous bow of the skyscraper-sized Ever Given from the canal’s sandy bank, where it had been firmly lodged since March 23.

In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, is pulled by one of the Suez Canal tugboats, in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday “partially refloated ” the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, authorities said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be set free. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

The tugs blared their horns in jubilation as they guided the Ever Given through the water after days of futility that had captivated the world, drawing scrutiny and social media ridicule.

The giant vessel headed toward the Great Bitter Lake, a wide stretch of water halfway between the north and south ends of the canal, where it will be inspected, said Evergreen Marine Corp., a Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship.

The Suez Canal Authority also will inspect the area where the vessel ran aground, to see if it is safe for shipping to resume through the waterway and clear a traffic jam of ships waiting to enter.

“We pulled it off!” said Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to extract the Ever Given, in a statement. “I am excited to announce that our team of experts, working in close collaboration with the Suez Canal Authority, successfully refloated the Ever Given … thereby making free passage through the Suez Canal possible again.”

Buffeted by a sandstorm, the Ever Given had crashed into a bank of a single-lane stretch of the canal, about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) north of the southern entrance, near the city of Suez. That created a massive traffic jam that held up $9 billion a day in global trade and strained supply chains already burdened by the coronavirus pandemic.

At least 367 vessels, carrying everything from crude oil to cattle, are backed up as they wait to traverse the canal. Dozens of others have taken the long, alternate route around the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip — a 5,000-kilometer (3,100-mile) detour that costs ships hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel and other costs.

Egypt, which considers the canal a source of national pride and crucial revenue, has lost over $95 million in tolls, according to the data firm Refinitiv. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who for days was silent about the crisis, praised Monday’s events.

“Egyptians have succeeded in ending the crisis,” he wrote on Facebook, “despite the massive technical complexity.”

In the village of Amer, which overlooks the canal, residents cheered as the vessel moved along. Many scrambled to get a closer look while others mockingly waved goodbye to the departing ship from their fields of clover

“Mission accomplished,” villager Abdalla Ramadan said. “The whole world is relieved.”

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted its congratulations to Egypt.

While the canal is now unblocked, it is unclear when traffic would return to normal. Analysts expect it could take at least another 10 days to clear the backlog on either end.

The breakthrough came after days of immense effort with an elite salvage team from the Netherlands. Tugboats pushed and pulled to budge the behemoth from the shore, their work buoyed by high tide at dawn Monday that led to the vessel’s partial refloating. Specialized dredgers dug out the stern and vacuumed sand and mud from beneath the bow.

The operation was extremely delicate. While the Ever Given was stuck, the rising and falling tides put stress on the vessel, which is 400 meters (a quarter mile) long, raising concerns it could crack or break.

Berdowski told Dutch radio station NPO 1 the company had always believed it would be the two powerful tugboats it sent that would free the ship. Monday’s strong tide “helped push the ship at the top while we pulled at the bottom and luckily it shot free,” he said.

“We were helped enormously by the strong falling tide we had this afternoon. In effect, you have the forces of nature pushing hard with you and they pushed harder than the two sea tugs could pull,” Berdowski added.

The crew on the tugs was “euphoric,“ but there also was a tense moment when the huge ship was floating free ”so then you have to get it under control very quickly with the tugs around it so that it doesn’t push itself back into the other side” of the canal, he said.

Jubilant workers on a tugboat sailing with the Ever Given chanted, “Mashhour, No. 1,” referring to the dredger that worked around the vessel. The dredger is named for Mashhour Ahmed Mashhour, assigned to run the canal with others when it was nationalized in 1956 by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Once the Ever Given is inspected in Great Bitter Lake, officials will decide whether the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship hauling goods from Asia to Europe would continue to its original destination of Rotterdam, or if it would need to enter another port for repairs.

Canal officials also will do a detailed inspection of the area where the Ever Given was grounded, especially the bank “to see how much of that rock has been displaced and might have impacted the deep water of the canal,” said Capt. Nicolas Sloane, vice president of the International Salvage Union who was involved in salvaging the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that tipped over off Italy in 2012.

If all goes well, the canal authority could open up the waterway to a northbound convoy by Tuesday morning, he told The Associated Press.

The crisis cast a spotlight on the vital trade route that carries over 10% of global trade, including 7% of the world’s oil. Over 19,000 ships ferrying Chinese-made consumer goods and millions of barrels of oil and liquified natural gas flow through the artery from the Middle East and Asia to Europe and North America.

The unprecedented shutdown, which raised fears of extended delays, goods shortages and rising costs for consumers, has prompted new questions about the shipping industry, an on-demand supplier for a world now under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve gone to this fragile, just-in-time shipping that we saw absolutely break down in the beginning of COVID,” said Capt. John Konrad, the founder and CEO of the shipping news website gcaptain.com. “We used to have big, fat warehouses in all the countries where the factories pulled supplies. … Now these floating ships are the warehouse.”

International trade expert Jeffrey Bergstrand predicted “only a minor and transitory effect” on prices of U.S. imports.

“Since most of the imports blocked over the last week are heading to Europe, U.S. consumers will likely see little effect on prices of U.S. imports, except to the extent that intermediate products of U.S. final goods are made in Europe,” said Bergstrand, professor of finance at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

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DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed.

Serbia vaccinates migrants amid surge in COVID-19 cases

By IVANA BZGANOVIC for the Associated Press

KRNJACA, Serbia (AP) — Bashir Ahmad Shirzay lived through wars in Afghanistan, survived a harrowing journey to reach Europe and has no intention of taking a gamble with the coronavirus.

Migrants wait in line to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine during the vaccination in the “Krnjaca” refugee centre near Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, March 26, 2021. Serbia has started vaccinating migrants as the Balkan country struggles with a new coronavirus outbreak despite a widespread inoculation campaign. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

He was among the first to roll up his sleeve for a COVID-19 shot on Friday as Serbia became the first European country to vaccinate people living in its refugee camps and asylum centers, according to United Nations officials.

”We should take the vaccine for our health,” Shirzay said. “The virus takes a lot of lives.”

Some 530 migrants and asylum-seekers across Serbia have signed up to get vaccinated. The first recipients had their initial jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine Friday at a drab camp on the outskirts of the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

“Today is a very, very special day because we have vaccination of refugees and asylum-seekers in the centers,” Francesca Bonelli, a U.N. refugee agency representative in Serbia, said. “It is really an important sign of support that Serbia provides to refugees, and it is a very good example of inclusion of refugees in Serbian society.”

Thousands of refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia are stuck in Serbia and neighboring Bosnia while awaiting opportunities to cross a border into European Union member Croatia and continue on to wealthier Western nations.

Serbia has administered the most coronavirus shots per capita of any country in Europe, a distinction it holds in part because the government worked to secure vaccine supplies from Russia and China. But the Balkan country, like the rest of central and eastern Europe, is facing another onslaught of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Migrants, many of whom live out in the open or under conditions at camps where the virus is easily spread, are considered one of the most vulnerable risk groups in the pandemic. A camp in neighboring Bosnia experienced a major outbreak this month.

“Vaccination is really important because they are living in the collective centers and keeping the physical distancing is very hard and very difficult to truly control the outbreak, so this is really a great opportunity for the migrant population to receive this vaccination,” Abebayehu Assefa Mengistu, a World Health Organization representative in Serbia, said.

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AP writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed.

Hands touch: Italy’s nursing homes emerge from COVID tunnel

By COLLEEN BARRY for the Associated Press

ALZANO LOMBARDO, Italy (AP) — Their last hug was through plastic.

Palmiro “Mario” Tami knew this was the day he was getting his second coronavirus vaccine shot. But with the northern Italian region of Lombardy again under lockdown, he did not know it would be accompanied by a visit from his wife of 58 years. Nor that he would be able, at last, to touch her hand.

In this photo taken on Feb. 24, 2021, Palmiro Tami, 82, celebrates his birthday hugging with his wife Franca Persico, inside a protective inflatable plastic tunnel at the Martino Zanchi nursing home, in Alzano Lombardo, northern Italy. Italy’s nursing homes have been declared an initial success in an otherwise lagging vaccine campaign. At a nursing home near Bergamo, one 82-year-old resident received his second jab, and a surprise visit from his 77-year-old wife. Their last hug had been through plastic on his birthday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

“Franca? Is that you?” Tami, 82, exclaimed as he peered through the window of the nursing home rec room at a figure wrapped in a hospital gown, coiffed hair covered by green surgical netting and face obscured by a surgical mask. Still, through the glass, her bright blue eyes shone through.

His wife, Franca Persico, held a red rose she had brought for him. Tami reached inside his canvas pouch for a tiny statuette of a girl for her. “I won it at Bingo,” Tami said with delight.

The Martino Zanchi Foundation Nursing Home has been closed to visitors for most of the month, as Italy’s pandemic epicenter of Lombardy plunged again into a near-total lockdown. Tami and his wife last saw each other in person on Feb. 24, Tami’s birthday. They were able to embrace through a hug tunnel, an inflatable plastic structure that permitted residents to safely hug loved ones. Even that muffled touch had been denied since August.

The final jab for the first one-third of the nursing home’s 94 residents this week marked the beginning of the end of a year-long struggle to protect its fragile wards.

Nursing homes like the Martino Zanchi Foundation suffered the brunt of Italy’s first wave, claiming at least one-third of Italy’s official virus victims. Many more were not tested or counted as they died.

Nursing home director Maria Giulia Madaschi estimates that three-quarters of the 21 people who died in her care in March and April 2020 had COVID-19, which ravaged the valley next to Bergamo, spreading from Alzano Lombardo’s hospital nearby. But the system was too taxed to test nursing home residents and those deaths never figured into Italy’s death toll.

Italy has prioritized vaccines to the devastated nursing homes, and officials have declared a decline in cases among residents “an initial success” in a vaccination campaign otherwise marred by supply delays and disorganization. Half of Italy’s over-80s at large still have not been vaccinated, despite initial promises to have them fully vaccinated by the end of March.

On Monday, 27 of the nursing home’s residents received their second shot. Another round of vaccinations were made in the week, and the final group will be protected in early April. Madaschi hopes this is a sign that they are emerging from the dark COVID-19 tunnel.

“A little light, I can see,” she said.

Tami, a retired nurse in orthopedic surgery, received his jab happily. The doctor who administered it, knowing Tami’s pride in his former profession, teased that she had once been his apprentice.

Tami had arrived at the nursing home in August during a lull in the pandemic. Tami had suffered mobility and cognitive declines due to heart issues, and then his wife underwent surgery for cancer shortly before Italy’s 2020 spring lockdown. Doctors advised she could no longer give him the care he needed at home.

The irregularity of visits and the changing restrictions due to COVID-19 were a cause of stress — and a strong enough reason for Madaschi to make an exception to the no-visitor rule.

Madaschi picked Persico, 77, up at the apartment the couple had shared, which was filled with family photographs, including that of a first great-grandchild, and cut crystal glasses and vases. Persico, dressed elegantly in a knit top with a shimmer of gold lurex, confessed she had been ready since 7 a.m.

“I wasn’t even this nervous on my wedding day,” she said. “Maybe because I was younger.”

The couple’s reunion started hesitantly, separated at first by glass. But the nursing home staff had prepared a private table in the rec room for lunch. The couple sat at either end, as Persico explained that she still hadn’t been vaccinated, reminding her husband that she was a cancer patient who needed to take extra care.

“I am crazy in love with you,” Tami said across the long table. “Can I touch your hand?”

Madaschi pushed Tami outdoors into the sunlight, where the couple, at last, clasped hands. “We can kiss each other again?” he asked from behind his mask.

Of course, his bride of 58 years answered. When she, too, has had the vaccine.

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Tornado outbreak rips across Deep South; at least 5 dead

By KEVIN McGILL for the Associated Press

Tornadoes and severe storms have torn through the Deep South, killing at least five people as strong winds splintered trees, wrecked homes and downed power lines.

The tornado outbreak rolled into western Georgia early Friday. Meteorologists said one large, dangerous tornado moved through Newnan and surrounding communities in the Atlanta metro area.

Residents survey damage to homes after a tornado touched down south of Birmingham, Ala. in the Eagle Point community damaging multiple homes, Thursday, March 25, 2021. Authorities reported major tornado damage Thursday south of Birmingham as strong storms moved through the state. The governor issued an emergency declaration as meteorologists warned that more twisters were likely on their way. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

A day earlier, a sheriff in eastern Alabama said a tornado cut a diagonal line through his county, striking mostly rural areas.

“Five people lost their lives and for those families, it will never be the same,” Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade said at briefing Thursday evening.

One of the victims in the hard-hit Ohatchee, Alabama area, was Dwight Jennings’s neighbor. Jennings spent several hours searching for his friend’s dog before the animal was found alive, he said. The two men had planned to go catfishing this weekend, Jennings lamented.

As many as eight tornadoes might have hit Alabama on Thursday, said John De Block, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Birmingham. Multiple twisters sprang from a “super cell” of storms that later moved into Georgia, he said.

Reports of tornado damage in the Newnan area began coming in shortly after midnight. Trees were toppled and power lines downed, knocking out service by the local utility.

“It’s still dark so it’s hard to assess all of the damage but we believe we have 30 broken poles,” Newnan Utilities general manager Dennis McEntire said. “We serve about 10,000 customers and about half are without electricity right now.”

Newnan police urged the public in a Facebook post to “get off the roads” while emergency officials surveyed the damage.

Newnan Mayor Keith Brady said no fatalities were immediately reported.

The bad weather stretched across the southern U.S., raising concerns of thunderstorms and flooding in parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas. In Tennessee, emergency responders hospitalized one person in Sumner County, and the Nashville Fire Department posted photos on Twitter showing large trees down, damaged homes and streets blocked by debris.

In Ohio, more than 100,000 people were without power early Friday after thunderstorms delivered 50 mph (80 kph) wind gusts to parts of the state. Forecasters reported peak gusts of 63 mph (100 kph) in Marysville.

Some school districts from Alabama to Ohio canceled or delayed class on Friday due to damage and power outages.

Authorities said one tornado carved up the ground for more than an hour Thursday, traveling roughly 100 miles (160 kilometers) across Alabama. Vast areas of Shelby County near Birmingham — the state’s biggest city — were badly damaged.

In the city of Pelham, James Dunaway said he initially ignored the tornado warning when it came over his phone. But then he heard the twister approaching, left the upstairs bedroom where he had been watching television and entered a hallway — just before the storm blew off the roof and sides of his house. His bedroom was left fully exposed.

“I’m very lucky to be alive,” Dunaway, 75, told Al.com.

Firefighters outside a flattened home in the Eagle Point subdivision, also in Shelby County, said the family that lived there made it out alive. Nearby homes were roofless or missing their second stories.

Farther west in the city of Centreville, south of Tuscaloosa, Cindy Smitherman and her family and neighbors huddled in their underground storm pit as a twister passed over their home.

A tree fell on the shelter door, trapping the eight inside for about 20 minutes until someone came with a chain saw to help free them, said Smitherman, 62. The twister downed trees, overturned cars and destroyed a workshop on the property.

“I’m just glad we’re alive,” she said.

Centreville Mayor Mike Oakley told ABC 33/40 news that a local airport was hit. “We have airplanes torn apart like toys. We’ve got homes along here that are totally destroyed, trees down, power lines down. It’s pretty devastating.”

First lady Jill Biden postponed a trip to Birmingham and Jasper, Alabama, that she had planned for Friday because of the severe weather, her office said.

“Thinking of everyone in Alabama and all of those impacted by the severe weather across the South tonight. My prayers are with the grieving families. Please stay safe,” Biden tweeted late Thursday.

Earlier, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued an emergency declaration for 46 counties, and officials opened shelters in and around Birmingham.

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McGill reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writer Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; photographer Butch Dill in Ohatchee, Alabama; Desiree Mathurin in Atlanta; and Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia, contributed to this report.

UN-backed vaccine delivery program warns of supply delays

By JAMEY KEATEN and ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL for the Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N.-backed program to ship COVID-19 vaccines worldwide has announced supply delays involving a key Indian manufacturer, a major setback for the ambitious rollout aimed at helping low- and middle-income countries vaccinate their populations and fight the pandemic.

A vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, is removed from a portable cold storage box in preparation for a vaccination, in Machakos, Kenya, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. AstraZeneca’s repeated missteps in reporting vaccine data coupled with a blood clot scare could do lasting damage to the credibility of a shot that is the linchpin in the global strategy to stop the coronavirus pandemic, potentially even undermining vaccine confidence more broadly, experts say. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and its partners said Thursday that the Serum Institute of India, a pivotal vaccine maker behind the COVAX program, will face increasing domestic demands as coronavirus infections surge.

“Delays in securing supplies of SII-produced COVID-19 vaccine doses are due to the increased demand for COVID-19 vaccines in India,” Gavi said.

The move will affect up to 40 million doses of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccines being manufactured by the Serum Institute that were to be delivered for COVAX this month, as well as 50 million expected next month.

COVAX, an initiative devised to give countries access to coronavirus vaccines regardless of their wealth, has so far shipped vaccines to some 50 countries and territories.

The Serum Institute of Indian has been contracted to supply vaccines to 64 countries, and Gavi said the U.N.-backed program has “notified all affected economies of potential delays.”

Gavi said the Serum Institute has pledged that “alongside supplying India, it will prioritize the COVAX multilateral solution for equitable distribution.”

Gavi, which runs COVAX jointly with the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, has distributed 31 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine — 28 million from the Serum Institute and another 3 million from a South Korean contractor also producing it.

The program had been aiming to deliver some 237 million AstraZeneca vaccines through the end of May. A Gavi spokesman said the delays were not expected to affect the overall goal of shipping some 2 billion doses worldwide through COVAX by the end of the year.

U.N. officials, governments, advocacy groups and others in recent months have pleaded with manufacturers to do more to speed up and broaden production of COVID-19 vaccines and ensure fair distribution — insisting that the pandemic can only be defeated if everyone is safe from it.

The Serum Institute of India, also known as SII, is the world’s largest maker of vaccines. Unlike many other manufacturers, it pledged to prioritize making shots for COVAX.

India’s foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, tweeted a photograph Thursday afternoon of vaccines received by South Sudan, although there have been growing concerns that vaccine exports from India have dwindled in the past week.

India has consistently maintained that it would try to export vaccines to as many countries as possible, but with the caveat that supplies would based on availability and the requirements of India’s own immunization program.

India’s need for vaccines is set to increase significantly beginning April 1, when it plans to start vaccinating everyone over 45, age groups that account for 88% of all virus-related deaths in India.

The expanded vaccinations coincide with a sharp spike in COVID-19 infections and concerns about more contagious variants circulating in the country. India reported over 50,000 new confirmed cases on Thursday, the highest daily number so far this year,

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AP Science writer Aniruddha Ghosal reported from New Delhi.

EXPLAINER: What N Korean missile tests mean for US relations

By HYUNG-JIN KIM for the Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — New U.S. president, same old North Korean playbook. Almost.

Two months after President Joe Biden took office, North Korea is again turning to weapons tests to wrest outside concessions. But the tests so far have been relatively small compared to past launches. That indicates Washington has a window of engagement before North Korea pursues bigger provocations.

FILE – This Aug. 29, 2017, file photo provided by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the test launch of a Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

This week, North Korea’s neighbors reported the country fired four short-range missiles into the sea in its first missile launches in about a year. The launches — two on Sunday, two on Thursday — came after the North said it had rebuffed dialogue offers by the Biden administration, citing what it called U.S. hostility.

Here’s look at North Korea’s recent missile launches and their motives.

WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S STRATEGY THIS TIME?

North Korea has a long history of performing major weapons tests around the time new governments take power in the United States and South Korea.

In February 2017, less than a month after Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, North Korea tested a mid-range missile that observers said showed an advance in weapon mobility. Later in 2017, four days after current South Korean President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated, North Korea fired what it called a newly developed, nuclear-capable intermediate-range missile.

In 2009, North Korea conducted a long-range rocket launch and a nuclear test within the first four months of the first term of the Obama administration.

This week’s weapons tests largely appear to follow that playbook, but experts believe the country held back from a more serious a provocation because the Biden administration is still evaluating its North Korea policy.

The four missiles fired this week were all short-range and don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland. According to South Korea’s assessment, the first two weapons launched Sunday were believed to be cruise missiles. But Japan said the two fired Thursday were ballistic missiles, more provocative weapons that North Korea is banned from testing by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“The basic pattern isn’t much different. But while North Korea in the past focused on showing off its maximum capability when a new government came in the United States, I feel the North is trying to control the level of (its provocation),” said Du Hyeogn Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

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WHAT DOES NORTH KOREA WANT?

What it has always wanted: for “the United States to lift sanctions while letting it maintain its nuclear capability,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst for the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

Because the Biden administration is unlikely do that anytime soon, some experts say North Korea may stage bigger provocations, like a long-range missile test or a nuclear detonation.

For now, it is ramping up its rhetoric along with the short-range missile launches.

In January, about 10 days before Biden took office, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced he would enlarge his nuclear arsenal and beef up the country’s fighting capability to cope with a hostile U.S. policy and military threats. He also pressed South Korea to suspend regular military drills with the United States if it wants better ties.

When U.S. and South Korean militaries pressed ahead with their springtime drills this month, Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned the U.S. to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington reached out to Pyongyang starting in mid-February, but Pyongyang hasn’t responded. Coupled with the overture, however, Blinken continued to slam North Korea’s human rights record and nuclear ambitions when he visited Seoul last week. North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said her country will keep ignoring such U.S. offers because of what she called American hostility.

The recent launches seem to be an example of North Korea “putting Kim Yo Jong’s threats into action as she said the United States can’t sleep in peace if it doesn’t accept its demands,” said Moon Seong Mook.

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WHAT’S NEXT?

Experts say it’s highly unlikely for the Biden administration to back down and make concessions in the face of North Korea’s short-range missile launches. Biden, who has called Kim “a thug,” also isn’t likely to sit down for one-on-one talks with Kim unless he gets a pledge that North Korea will denuclearize — and officials confirm the country is sincere.

Amid the standoff, North Korea could end up launching bigger weapons tests, especially if it isn’t satisfied with the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review that is expected to be publicized soon, experts say.

“Biden won’t likely do a Trump-style ‘reality show summit’ with Kim. Kim’s agony in the next four years will be subsequently deepened and his nuclear gambling cannot help continuing,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at South Korea’s Korea University.

North Korea could turn to long-range missile and even nuclear tests, which Kim Jong Un suspended when he began engaging diplomatically with Washington. While Kim Jong Un has claimed to have achieved the ability to attack the U.S. homeland with nuclear missiles, outside experts said the North hasn’t mastered everything it would need to do that.

Such a major provocation would certainly prompt the United States and its allies to seek additional U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

But tougher sanctions may be difficult because of China, the North’s major diplomatic ally and economic lifeline, wields veto power on the U.N. Security Council. Given its current tensions with Washington, China may not easily agree to more sanctions even if North Korea engages in long-range missile or nuclear tests, analyst Cha said.

Biden doubles goal of COVID vaccines to 200 million doses

By JONATHAN LEMIRE and ZEKE MILLER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden opened his first formal news conference Thursday with a nod toward the improving picture on battling the coronavirus, doubling his original goal by pledging that the nation will administer 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of his first 100 days in office.

The administration had met Biden’s initial goal of 100 million doses earlier this month — before even his 60th day in office — as the president pushes to defeat a pandemic that has killed more than 545,000 Americans and devastated the nation’s economy.

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

But while Biden had held off on holding his first news conference so he could use it to celebrate progress against the pandemic and passage of a giant COVID-19 relief package, he was certain to be pressed at the question-and-answer session about all sorts of other challenges that have cropped up along the way.

A pair of mass shootings, rising international tensions, early signs of intraparty divisions and increasing numbers of migrants crossing the southern border are all confronting a West Wing known for its message discipline. Biden had been the first chief executive in four decades to reach this point in his term without holding a formal news conference,

While seemingly ambitious, Biden’s vaccine goal amounts to a continuation of the existing pace of vaccinations through the end of next month. The U.S. is now averaging about 2.5 million doses per day. An even greater rate is possible. Over the next month, two of the bottlenecks to getting Americans vaccinated are set to be lifted as the U.S. supply of vaccines is on track to increase and states lift eligibility requirements to get shots.

The scene looked very different from what Americans are used to seeing for formal presidential news conferences.

The president still stood behind a podium against a backdrop of flags. But due to the pandemic, only 30 socially distanced chairs for journalists were spread out in the expansive room. The White House limited attendance due to the virus, and aides will sanitize microphones before they are shuttled to the reporters called upon by Biden.

“It’s an opportunity for him to speak to the American people, obviously directly through the coverage, directly through all of you,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday. “And so I think he’s thinking about what he wants to say, what he wants to convey, where he can provide updates, and, you know, looking forward to the opportunity to engage with a free press.”

While Biden has been on pace with his predecessors in taking questions from the press in other formats, he tends to field just one or two informal inquiries at a time, usually in a hurried setting at the end of an event or in front of a whirring helicopter.

Pressure had mounted on Biden to hold a formal session, which allows reporters to have an extended back-and-forth with the president on the issues of the day. Biden’s conservative critics have pointed to the delay to suggest that Biden was being shielded by his staff.

West Wing aides have dismissed the questions about a news conference as a Washington obsession, pointing to Biden’s high approval ratings while suggesting that the general public is not concerned about the event. The president himself, when asked Wednesday if he were ready for the press conference, joked, “What press conference?”

Behind the scenes, though, aides have taken the event seriously enough to hold a mock session with the president earlier this week. And there is some concern that Biden, a self-proclaimed “gaffe machine,” could go off message and generate a series of unflattering news cycles.

“The press conference serves an important purpose: It presents the press an extended opportunity to hold a leader accountable for decisions,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, presidential scholar and professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “A question I ask: What is the public going to learn in this venue that it couldn’t learn elsewhere? And why does it matter? The answer: The president speaks for the nation.”

Biden was expected to point to a surge in vaccine distribution, encouraging signs in the economy and the benefits Americans will receive from the sweeping stimulus package.

But plenty of challenges abound.

His appearance comes just a day after he appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the government’s response to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the administration faces a growing humanitarian and political challenge that threatens to overshadow Biden’s legislative agenda.

In less than a week, two mass shootings have rattled the nation and pressure has mounted on the White House to back tougher gun measures. The White House has struggled to blunt a nationwide effort by Republican legislatures to tighten election laws. A pair of Democratic senators briefly threatened to hold up the confirmation of Biden appointees due to a lack of Asian American representation in the Cabinet. And both North Korea and Russia have unleashed provocative actions to test a new commander in chief.

In a sharp contrast with the previous administration, the Biden White House has exerted extreme message discipline, empowering staff to speak but doing so with caution. The new White House team has carefully managed the president’s appearances, which serves Biden’s purposes but denies the media opportunities to directly press him on major policy issues and to engage in the kind of back-and-forth that can draw out information and thoughts that go beyond curated talking points.

Having overcome a childhood stutter and famously long-winded, Biden has long enjoyed interplay with reporters and has defied aides’ requests to ignore questions from the press. He has been prone to gaffes throughout his long political career and, as president, has occasionally struggled with off-the-cuff remarks.

Those are the types of distractions his aides have tried to avoid, and, in a pandemic silver lining, were largely able to dodge during the campaign because the virus kept Biden home for months and limited the potential for public mistakes.

Firmly pledging his belief in freedom of the press, Biden has rebuked his predecessor’s incendiary rhetoric toward the media, including Donald Trump’s references to reporters as “the enemy of the people.” Biden restored the daily press briefing, which had gone extinct under Trump, opening a window into the workings of the White House. And he sat for a national interview with ABC News last week.

Biden has also delivered a series of well-received speeches, including his inaugural address, and has shown that he can effectively communicate beyond news conferences, according to Frank Sesno, former head of George Washington University’s school of media.

“His strongest communication is not extemporaneous. He can ramble or stumble into a famous Biden gaffe,” said Sesno in a recent interview. “But to this point, he and his team have been very disciplined with the message of the day and in hitting the words of the day.”

Haunted by mass violence, Colorado confronts painful history

By NICHOLAS RICCARDI for the Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — Dawn Reinfeld moved to Colorado 30 years ago to attend college in the bucolic town of Boulder. Enchanted by the state’s wide-open spaces, she stayed.

But, in the ensuing decades, dark events have clouded her view of her adopted home. The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. The 2012 massacre at the Aurora movie theater. On Wednesday, Reinfeld was reeling from the latest mass shooting even closer to home, after authorities say a 21-year-old gunned down shoppers at a local grocery store.

A solemn group of King Soopers employees, left, some from the Boulder store and some from the same district, brought large displays of flowers for each of the victims of a mass shooting at a Boulder Kings Soopers store on Monday. Each display had a card with condolences for the victims’ families and signed by their King Sooper family. The group brought their flowers to a fence around the King Soopers where a makeshift memorial has been made for the victims of a mass shooting, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP)

“I could see at some point leaving because of all this,” said Reinfeld, a gun control activist. “It’s an exhausting way to live.”

Colorado has long been defined by its jagged mountains and an outdoor lifestyle that lure transplants from around the country. But it’s also been haunted by shootings that have helped define the nation’s decades-long struggle with mass violence. The day after the latest massacre, many in the state were wrestling with that history — wondering why the place they live seems to have become a magnet for such attacks. Why here — again?

“People now say, ‘gee, what is it about Colorado?’” said Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine High School in 1999.

Mauser, now a gun control advocate, was fielding phone calls in the wake of the new attack — among them was a panicked call from a friend whose daughter was shopping in the supermarket and just escaped the shooting. Again, the violence felt so close.

“It just effects so many people. It’s become pervasive,” he said.

Colorado isn’t the state with the most mass shootings — it ranks eighth in the nation, in the same tier as far larger states like California and Florida, according to Jillian Peterson, a criminology professor at Hamline University in Minnesota.

But it is indelibly associated with some of the most high-profile shootings. The massacre at Columbine High School is now viewed as the bloody beginning of a modern era of mass violence. The Aurora shooting brought that terror from schools to a movie theater.

And there are others with less national prominence. In 2006, a gunman killed a 16-year-old girl after storming a high school in the mountain town of Bailey. The next year, a gunman killed four people in two separate attacks on evangelical Christian churches in suburban Denver and Colorado Springs. Three people died during a 2015 attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. In 2017, three people were killed at a Walmart by a shooter whose motives were never known. In 2019, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo was killed fending off an armed attack by two classmates at a suburban Denver high school.

The search for answers leaves no easy explanations. Despite its Western image, Colorado has a fairly typical rate of gun ownership for the country, and its populated landscape has more shopping centers than shooting ranges. It’s close to the middle of the pack in terms of its rate of all types of gun violence — 21st in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Peterson, who has written about mass shootings as a viral phenomenon where one gunman is inspired by coverage of other attacks, says the Columbine attack may be one reason Colorado has suffered so much. Two student gunmen killed 13 and “created the script” that many other mass shooters seek to emulate. The attackers died in the massacre but landed on the cover of Time Magazine and were memorialized in movies and books.

“Columbine was the real turning point in this country, so it makes sense that, in Columbine’s backyard, you’d see more of them,” Peterson said.

The attack was nearly a generation ago — the man police named Tuesday as the gunman in the Boulder massacre, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, was born three days before the Columbine shooting.

Like many young Coloradans, Esteban Luevano, 19, only learned about Columbine in school, as a tragedy that occurred before he was born. But its long shadow terrified him as a child who wondered whether gunmen could storm his school, too.

Then, when Luevano was 11, another gunman opened fire at a movie theater near his house in Aurora, east of Denver and on the opposite side of the metro area from Columbine’s leafy suburbs. Twelve people were killed and 70 wounded.

The theater was remodeled after the attack. It sat empty on Tuesday, shuttered during the pandemic, as snow began to swirl and Luevano bundled up to head into a mall across the street. He was still reeling from the idea that the latest Colorado community to join the grim brotherhood was the tony, college town of Boulder.

“It’s pretty fancy, so it kind of shocked me that someone would shoot out there,” Luevano said.

Colorado has taken some action to restrict access to guns.

After each of Colorado’s biggest massacres, the local gun control movement has gained heartbroken new recruits. Survivors of Columbine and family of the victims there helped push a ballot measure that required background checks for guns purchased at gun shows. After the Aurora attack, the state’s newly Democratic Legislature passed mandatory background checks for all purchases and a 15-round limit for magazines.

Those measures led to the recall of two state senators, but the laws endured. After the 2018 Parkland shooting in Florida, the Colorado Legislature passed laws allowing for the confiscation of guns from people engaged in threatening behavior. There has been rebellion from some rural sheriffs, but no recalls now.

Three years ago, the city of Boulder went further and banned assault weapons. A court blocked the measure just 10 days before Monday’s rampage.

Gun control activists say one place to observe the impact of mass shootings is in the state’s politics. The Republican congressman who represented Aurora was replaced in 2018 by Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, a gun control proponent. In November, the Democratic governor who signed the post-Aurora gun control measures, John Hickenlooper, won a U.S. Senate seat from Colorado’s last major statewide elected Republican.

Still, the appetite for gun rights supporters has not dissipated completely. Coloradans last year also elected Lauren Boebert, a Republican from a rural district who said she wanted to carry a firearm on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Democrat Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed during the Aurora shooting, was elected to a previously-Republican state house district in 2018. On Monday afternoon, he was out with a friend and didn’t hear about the latest attack until he came home.

When he did, he turned on the television to watch, something he described as a “pause” to take in all the pain and life stories of the victims.

“It’s not that we’re numb to this, it’s that we have a lot of practice,” Sullivan said in an interview.

Sullivan argued that Colorado doesn’t have an unusually high number of mass shootings. It’s just that the relatively wealthy state’s backdrop makes the attacks more sensational. “The ones that are happening here in Colorado are happening in a little more affluent areas,” Sullivan said. “It’s happening in other places, too, we just can’t get people to report on that.”

Not all touched by the state’s history of massacres have become gun control backers. Brian Rohrbough, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine, said he gets frustrated every time political activists pick up the issue after massacres. Instead, the solution is moral education, he argues.

“We’re reaping what we’ve sown because we’re afraid, as a state, as a country, to call evil evil,” Rohrbough said.

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This story has been corrected to state that the Aurora theater was remodeled after the attack, not torn down and rebuilt.

Massive cargo ship becomes wedged, blocks Egypt’s Suez Canal

By JON GAMBRELL and SAMY MAGDY for the Associated Press

ISMAILIA, Egypt (AP) — A skyscraper-sized container ship has become wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal and blocked all traffic in the vital waterway, officials said Wednesday, threatening to disrupt a global shipping system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

CORRECTS NAME OF SHIP TO EVER GIVEN, NOT EVER GREEN – In this photo released by the Suez Canal Authority, a boat navigates in front of a cargo ship, Ever Given, Wednesday, March 24, 2021, after it become wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal and blocked all traffic in the vital waterway. An Egyptian official warned Wednesday it could take at least two days to clear the ship. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground Tuesday in the narrow, man-made canal dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula. Images showed the ship’s bow was touching the eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against the western wall — an extraordinary event that experts said they had never heard of happening before in the canal’s 150-year history.

Tugboats strained Wednesday to try to nudge the obstruction out of the way as ships hoping to enter the waterway began lining up in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. But it remained unclear when the route, through which around 10% of world trade flows and which is particularly crucial for the transport of oil, would reopen. One official warned it could take at least two days. In the meantime, there were concerns that idling ships could become targets for attacks.

“The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade,” vowed Lt. Gen. Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the Ever Given, said all 20 members of the crew were safe and that there had been “no reports of injuries or pollution.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the ship to become wedged on Tuesday morning. GAC, a global shipping and logistics company, said the ship had experienced a blackout without elaborating.

Bernhard Schulte, however, denied the ship ever lost power.

Evergreen Marine Corp., a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship, said in a statement that the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the canal from the Red Sea but none of its containers had sunk.

An Egyptian official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, similarly blamed a strong wind. Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting as much as 50 kph (30 mph).

However, it remained unclear how winds of that speed alone would have been able to push a fully laden vessel weighing some 220,000 tons.

Tuesday marked the second major crash involving the Ever Given in recent years. In 2019, the cargo ship ran into a small ferry moored on the Elbe river in the German port city of Hamburg. Authorities at the time blamed strong wind for the collision, which severely damaged the ferry.

A pilot from Egypt’s canal authority typically boards a ship to guide it through the waterway, though the ship’s captain retains ultimate authority over the vessel, said Ranjith Raja, a lead analyst at the data firm Refinitiv. The vessel entered the canal some 45 minutes before it became stuck, moving at 12.8 knots (about 24 kph, 15 mph) just before the crash, he said.

An image posted to Instagram by a user on another waiting cargo ship appeared to show the Ever Given wedged across the canal as shown in satellite images and data. A backhoe appeared to be digging into the sand bank under its bow in an effort to free it.

The Egyptian official said tugboats hoped to refloat the ship and that the operation would take at least two days. The ship ran aground some 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) north of the southernly mouth of the canal near the city of Suez, an area of the canal that’s a single lane.

That could have a major knock-on effect for global shipping moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, warned Salvatore R. Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University.

“Every day, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south,” Mercogliano told the AP. “Every day the canal is closed … container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel and manufactured goods to Europe and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East.”

Already, some 30 vessels waited at Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake midway on the canal, while some 40 idled in the Mediterranean near Port Said and another 30 at Suez in the Red Sea, according to canal service provider Leth Agencies. That included seven vessels carrying some 5 million barrels of crude oil, Refinitiv said.

In addition to the economic implications, security experts warned that idling ships in the Red Sea could be targets after a series of attacks against shipping in the Mideast amid tensions between Iran and the U.S.

“All vessels should consider adopting a heightened posture of alertness if forced to remain static within the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden,” warned private marine intelligence firm Dryad Global.

The closure also could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Mideast. The price of international benchmark Brent crude jumped nearly 2.9% to $62.52 a barrel Wednesday.

The Ever Given, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 meters (a quarter mile) and a width of 59 meters (193 feet), is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had been at ports in China before heading toward Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo. It also remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners. In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. However, the Ever Given ran aground south of that new portion of the canal.

The stranding Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, demands on shipping have increased, adding to the pressure on tired sailors, Mercogliano said.

“It’s because of the breakneck pace of global shipping right now and shipping is on a very tight schedule,” he said. “Add to it that mariners have not been able to get on and off vessels because of COVID restrictions.”

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Isabel DeBre in Dubai and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

US outlook improving as vaccinations rise and deaths fall

By JULIE WATSON and CARLA K. JOHNSON for the Associated Press

More than three months into the U.S. vaccination drive, many of the numbers paint an increasingly encouraging picture, with 70% of Americans 65 and older receiving at least one dose of the vaccine and COVID-19 deaths dipping below 1,000 a day on average for the first time since November.

FILE – In this March 23, 2021, file photo, Anita Shetty, left, vaccinates Doris Lucas with a Pfizer vaccine in Atlanta. More than three months into the U.S. vaccination drive, many of the numbers paint an increasingly encouraging picture as dozens of states have thrown open vaccinations to all adults or are planning to do so in a matter of weeks. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

Also, dozens of states have thrown open vaccinations to all adults or are planning to do so in a matter of weeks. And the White House said 27 million doses of both the one-shot and two-shot vaccines will be distributed next week, more than three times the number when President Joe Biden took office two months ago.

Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said Wednesday he isn’t ready to declare the nation has turned the corner on the outbreak.

“We are at the corner. Whether we or not we are going to be turning the corner remains to be seen,” he said at a White House briefing.

The outlook in the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the deteriorating situation in places like Brazil, which reported more than 3,000 COVID-19 deaths in a single day for the first time Tuesday, and across Europe, where another wave of infections is leading to new lockdowns and where the vaccine rollout on the continent has been slowed by production delays and questions about the safety and effectiveness of AstraZeneca’s shot.

At the same time, public health experts in the U.S. are warning at every opportunity that relaxing social distancing and other measures could easily lead to another surge.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, sees red flags in states lifting mask mandates, air travel roaring back and spring break crowds partying out of control in Florida.

“We’re getting closer to the exit ramp,” Topol said. “All we’re doing by having reopenings is jeopardizing our shot to get, finally, for the first time in the American pandemic, containment of the virus.”

Across the country are unmistakable signs of progress.

More than 43% of Americans 65 and older — the most vulnerable age group, accounting for an outsize share of the nation’s more than 540,000 coronavirus deaths — have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Vaccinations overall have ramped up to about 2.5 million shots per day.

Deaths per day in the U.S. from COVID-19 have dropped to an average of 940, down from an all-time high of over 3,400 in mid-January.

Minnesota health officials on Monday reported no new deaths from COVID-19 for the first time in nearly a year. And in New Orleans, the Touro Infirmary hospital was not treating a single case for the first time since March 2020.

“These vaccines work. We’re seeing it in the data,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week.

Nationwide, new cases and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have plummeted over the past two months, though U.S. health officials expressed concern that the two trends seemed to stall in the past couple of weeks. New cases are running at more than 53,000 a day on average, down from a peak of a quarter-million in early January.

Fauci said new cases remain stubbornly high and uncomfortably close to levels seen during the COVID-19 wave of last summer.

On the plus side, Fauci underscored recent studies that show negligible rates of coronavirus infection among fully vaccinated people. Also, the number of people 65 and older going to the emergency room with COVID-19 has dropped significantly.

Biden has pushed for states to make all adults eligible to be vaccinated by May 1. A least a half-dozen states, including Texas, Arizona and Georgia, are opening up vaccinations to everyone over 16. At least 20 other states have pledged to do so in the next few weeks.

Microsoft, which employs more than 50,000 people at its global headquarters in suburban Seattle, has said it will start bringing back workers on March 29 and reopen installations that have been closed for nearly a year.

New York City’s 80,000 municipal employees, who have been working remotely during the pandemic, will return to their offices starting May 3.

Experts see many reasons for worry.

The number of daily travelers at U.S. airports has consistently topped 1 million over the past week and a half amid spring break at many colleges.

Also, states such as Michigan and Florida are seeing rising cases. And the favorable downward trends in some of the most populous states are concealing an increase in case numbers in some smaller ones, said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

He said the more contagious variant that originated in Britain has now been identified in nearly every state.

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AP journalists Terry Tang and Suman Naishadham contributed from Phoenix.

The Latest: Macron pushing for mass vaccinations in Paris

By The Associated Press

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron is changing strategies and pushing for mass vaccinations with coronavirus infections on the rise in northern France and the Paris region.

French President Emmanuel Macron talks to a man after he received a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination center of Valenciennes, northern France, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. The French government has backed off from ordering a tough lockdown for Paris and several other regions despite an increasingly alarming situation at hospitals with a rise in the number of COVID-19 patients. (Yoan Valat/Pool Photo via AP)

“The heart of the battle, in the coming weeks and months, will be the vaccination,” Macron said Tuesday in announcing lowering the age group of those eligible for shots from 75 to 70 years starting this weekend.

In the Paris region, the rate of infection in people ages 20 to 50 is above 800 for 100,000 residents.

The Health Ministry says about 200 “mega-centers” will administer as many as one million shots per week. Some could be in place by the end of the month.

“There are no holidays, no weekends. We must vaccinate every day, vaccinate in the evenings, too,” Macron said while visiting a gymnasium converted to a vaccine center and pharmacy in the northern town of Valenciennes.

France added 344 confirmed deaths in the past day, increasing the total to 92,650 deaths by Monday night.

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

BRUSSELS — The head of the European Union’s medicines agency says the agency still needs additional data from the makers of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine as it evaluates the shot.

The European Medicines Agency is currently assessing whether to authorize Sputnik V for use in the 27-nation bloc.

Speaking Tuesday to European Parliament lawmakers, EMA Executive Director Emer Cooke said, “we still have some additional questions that the company needs to supply us with. We have to wait for that data to be submitted” before the vaccine can be evaluated.

Cooke says the agency is planning inspections of “manufacturing and clinical sites in Russia” and cannot give a timeframe for approval of the Russian vaccine.

Cooke also told lawmakers that supplies of the fourth vaccine approved by the agency, made by Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen facility in the Netherlands, “are not expected to be available until sometime in April.”

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NEW DELHI, India — India will start vaccinating everyone over age 45 starting April 1, with new infections on the rise the past few weeks.

Federal information minister Prakash Javadekar made the announcement on Tuesday, when more than 40,000 new cases were detected in the past 24 hours. Most infections are in Maharashtra state in India’s western coast. But cases have spiked in other states like Punjab, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

So far, India’s vaccination had focused on the elderly or those over 45 with ailments such as heart disease or diabetes. The vaccine is being offered for free at government hospitals and sold at a fixed price of 250 rupees or $3.45 per shot at private hospitals.

India has given the green signal for the use of two vaccines — the AstraZeneca vaccine made locally by Serum Institute, and another by Indian vaccine maker Bharat Biotech. The minister says India had sufficient supplies of vaccines.

Javadekar added the interval between the two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, being made in India by Serum Institute, would be increased to up to eight weeks, compared to 4-6 weeks advised earlier.

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TARRYTOWN, New York — A large new study adds evidence that quick use of a drug with antibodies to fight COVID-19 can help prevent serious illness.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals says tests in more than 4,000 recently diagnosed patients found its two-antibody combo drug cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 70%. All in the study were outpatients and at risk of developing serious illness because of age or other health conditions such as obesity or high blood pressure. The drug also cut the median recovery time from 14 days to 10.

The drug’s benefits were similar at half of the dose currently allowed in the United States under emergency use provisions. The company says it would ask regulators to allow the lower dose, too.

The results haven’t been published or reviewed by independent scientists yet. The drug is given once, through an IV, and the company also is testing it in shot form, which would make it easier to use.

Previously, Eli Lilly announced that its two-antibody treatment also reduced the risk of hospitalization or death in similar patients.

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci is warning that a surge of coronavirus cases in Europe could foreshadow a similar surge in the United States.

Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, is urging Americans to remain cautious while the nation races to vaccinate its citizens.

In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Fauci says he is “optimistic” of the vaccines’ effectiveness and expressed hope that AstraZeneca’s vaccine could join the arsenal of inoculations.

He deemed it an “unforced error” that the company may have used outdated data, perhaps providing an incomplete view of its effectiveness. But he says Americans should take comfort knowing the FDA would conduct an independent review before it was approved for use in the United States.

AstraZeneca reported Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine provided strong protection among adults of all ages in a long-anticipated U.S. study, a finding that some experts hoped would help rebuild public confidence in the shot around the world and move it a step closer to clearance in the U.S.

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BRUSSELS — A leading European Union official has lashed out at the AstraZeneca vaccine company for its massive shortfall in producing doses for the 27-nation bloc, and threatened that any shots produced by them in the EU could be forced to stay there.

Sandra Galina, the chief of the European Commission’s health division, told legislators on Tuesday that while vaccine producers like Pfizer and Moderna have largely met their commitments “the problem has been AstraZeneca. So it’s one contract which we have a serious problem.”

The European Union has been criticized at home and abroad for its slow rollout of its vaccine drive to the citizens, standing at about a third of jabs given to their citizens compared to nations like the United States and United Kingdom.

Galina says the overwhelming responsibility lies with the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was supposed to be the workforce of the drive, because it is cheaper and easier to transport and was supposed to delivered in huge amounts in the first half of the year.

“We are not even receiving a quarter of such deliveries as regards this issue,” Galina said, adding AstraZeneca could expect measures from the EU. “We intend, of course, to take action because, you know, this is the issue that cannot be left unattended.”

The EU already closed an advance purchasing agreement with the Anglo-Swedish company in August last year for up to 400 million doses.

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MANILA, Philippines — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman is warning that the government will forcibly close Roman Catholic churches in the capital if priests proceed with a plan to hold masses. That plan is in defiance of new restrictions against public meetings, including religious gatherings, to ease an alarming surge in coronavirus infections.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Tuesday that such exercise of the state’s police powers would not violate the constitutional principle on the separation of church and state and religious freedom, amid the pandemic in Asia’s largest Catholic nation.

“In the exercise of police powers, we can order the churches closed and I hope it will not come to that,” Roque said in response to a question during a televised news conference. “We won’t achieve anything … if you will defy and you will force the state to close the doors of the church.”

The administrator of the dominant Roman Catholic church in Manila and nearby suburbs said in a pastoral instruction that no processions and motorcades and other street activities would be held during the Lenten period and Easter but added religious worship would be organized inside churches starting Wednesday for a limited number of churchgoers.

’It is sad that we will again be physically limited during the holiest days of the year for us,” Bishop Broderick Pabillo said.

The Philippines has reported more than 677,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections, with nearly 13,000 deaths, the highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

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WASHINGTON — Results from a U.S. trial of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine may have used “outdated information,” U.S. federal health officials say.

The Data and Safety Monitoring Board said in a statement early Tuesday that it was concerned that AstraZeneca may have provided an incomplete view of the efficacy data.

AstraZeneca reported Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine provided strong protection among adults of all ages in a long-anticipated U.S. study, a finding that could help rebuild public confidence in the shot around the world and move it a step closer to clearance in the U.S.

In the study of 30,000 people, the vaccine was 79% effective at preventing symptomatic cases of COVID-19 — including in older adults. There were no severe illnesses or hospitalizations among vaccinated volunteers, compared with five such cases in participants who received dummy shots — a small number, but consistent with findings from Britain and other countries that the vaccine protects against the worst of the disease.

AstraZeneca also said the study’s independent safety monitors found no serious side effects, including no increased risk of rare blood clots like those identified in Europe, a scare that led numerous countries to briefly suspend vaccinations last week.

The company aims to file an application with the Food and Drug Administration in the coming weeks, and the government’s outside advisers will publicly debate the evidence before the agency makes a decision.

Authorization and guidelines for use of the vaccine in the United States will be determined by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after thorough review of the data by independent advisory committees.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Moon Jae-in has received his first shot of AstraZeneca’s vaccine as he plans to attend June’s Group of Seven meetings in Britain.

Moon on Tuesday received his shot at a public health office in downtown Seoul along with his wife and other presidential officials who plan to accompany him during the June 11-13 meetings.

Moon’s office said he was feeling “comfortable” after receiving the shot and complimented the skills of a nurse who he said injected him without causing pain.

The office said Moon will likely receive his second dose sometime around mid-May.

South Korea launched its mass immunization program in February and plans to deliver the first doses to 12 million people through the first half of the year, including elders, frontline health workers and people in long-term care settings.

Officials aim to vaccinate more than 70% of the country’s 51 million population by November, which they hope would meaningfully slow the virus and reduce risks of economic and social activity.

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s foreign minister on Tuesday sought more Chinese vaccines to fight the pandemic as the nation reported 72 deaths from COVID-19 and 3,270 new cases in the past 24 hours.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi made the request during a telephone call to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

According to a foreign ministry statement, Qureshi thanked Chinese leadership for wishing Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan a speedy recovery from COVID-19. Khan tested positive over the weekend.

Qureshi also thanked Beijing for promising 1.5 million doses of Chinese vaccines for Pakistan, saying it had been pivotal to protecting lives. So far, Pakistan has received 1 million of those doses.

The statement quoted Yi as reassuring Pakistan that “China will continue to firmly support Pakistan in its fight against the pandemic.”

Pakistan has reported 633,741 cases among 13,935 deaths from coronavirus since last year.

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The number of Floridians eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine expanded on Monday as the state allowed anybody age 50 and up to get the shot.

The county that is home to the state’s biggest theme parks set the bar even lower by allowing anyone age 40 and up to get an injection.

With the loosening of the qualifications, more than a third of Floridians were now eligible solely based on age.

Starting Monday, Orange County expanded the age eligibility a decade lower than the statewide requirement. Reservations were required for the drive-thru site at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, and 7,000 appointments were filled within 13 minutes.

In expanding the eligibility, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said last week there has been decreasing demand at the site. He said he had notified the state and felt he had the authority to expand eligibility in the county.

DeSantis said he had concerns about Orange County “choosing to prioritize a healthy 40-year-old” over older residents. “It’s not authorized,” said DeSantis.

But Demings said his goal was to get as many people in Orange County vaccinated. “This is about the safety of the people in this community.”

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Resident, firefighter missing after fatal nursing home fire

For the Associated Press

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. (AP) — A fire swept through a suburban New York assisted living home and caused a partial collapse early Tuesday, killing one resident and leaving another resident and a firefighter missing, officials said. Two other firefighters and multiple other residents were sent to hospitals.

Firefighters work on extinguishing hotspots from a fire that burned down the Evergreen Court Home for Adults, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Spring Valley, N.Y. The fire swept through the suburban New York assisted living home and caused a partial collapse early Tuesday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Flames gutted the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in the Rockland County community of Spring Valley, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of New York City. It had an estimated 100 to 125 residents, but authorities were working to determine the exact number, Rockland County Fire coordinator Chris Kear said.

One resident died after being taken to a hospital, Kear said. The person’s name was not immediately released.

“This was a devastating loss,” Kear said at a news briefing.

Rescuers searched through rubble for a firefighter who issued a mayday call while trying to rescue a resident, also still missing, from the third floor, Kear said. Other firefighters rushed to try to help their colleague, but the flames were too intense.

“The extent of the fire, the volume of fire, the conditions, were just too unbearable where firefighters went in it, and they just could not locate the firefighter, and they had to back out,” he said at a later news conference.

Two other firefighters were taken to hospitals. One was released, while the other was expected to stay overnight for treatment for smoke inhalation, Kear said.

Officials believe about 20 residents were taken to hospitals, some with serious injuries, Kear said.

Other residents were taken by bus to another facility, state Trooper Steven Nevel said.

U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones said he was horrified to learn of the fire in his hometown of Spring Valley.

“I am deeply saddened by the death of a resident of the Evergreen facility, and I am praying that the firefighter who bravely risked his life to save dozens of individuals trapped inside will be found safe and alive,” the first-term Democrat said in a statement.

About 125 firefighters from many agencies worked to get the fire under control. Investigators worked to determine the cause of the fire.

Because of the extensive damage, “It’s going to take quite a while to get to the root cause,” Kear said.

At one point, video showed the second floor collapsing as the fire burned. Kear said a whole portion of the building ultimately fell down.

Eruption of Iceland volcano easing, not affecting flights

By EGILL BJARNASON for the Associated Press

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — The eruption of a long-dormant volcano that sent streams of lava flowing across a small valley in southwestern Iceland is easing and shouldn’t interfere with air travel, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said Saturday.

This photo provided by the Icelandic Met Office shows an eruption, center right, on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland on Friday, March 19, 2021. The long dormant volcano flared to life Friday night, spilling lava down two sides in that area’s first volcanic eruption in nearly 800 years. (Icelandic Met Office via AP)

The fissure eruption began at around 8:45 p.m. Friday in the Geldinga Valley, about 32 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of the capital, Reykjavik, the Met Office said. The eruption is “minor” and there were no signs of ash or dust that could disrupt aviation, the agency said.

“The more we see, the smaller this eruption gets,” geophysicist Pall Einarsson told The Associated Press on Saturday after monitoring the volcano throughout the night.

This southwestern corner of Iceland is the most heavily populated part of the country. The Department of Emergency Management said it doesn’t anticipate evacuations, unless levels of volcanic gases rise significantly.

Keflavik Airport, Iceland’s international air traffic hub, said flights have remained on schedule since the eruption began.

“There is no indication of production of ash and tephra, and there is no imminent hazard for aviation,” the Met Office said on its website.

In 2010, an eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland sent clouds of ash and dust into the atmosphere, interrupting air travel between Europe and North America because of concerns the material could damage jet engines. More than 100,000 flights were grounded, stranding millions of passengers.

The Geldinga Valley eruption is the first on the Reykjanes Peninsula in almost 800 years.

The area began rumbling with increased seismic activity 15 months ago, and the tremors increased dramatically last month.

Over the past three weeks, the area has been rattled by about 50,000 small earthquakes, dozens of them magnitude 4 or stronger, the Met Office said.

Iceland, located above a volcanic hotspot in the North Atlantic, averages one eruption every four to five years. The last one was at Holuhraun in 2014, when a fissure eruption spread lava the size of Manhattan over the interior highland region.

Scientists flew over the Geldinga Valley eruption on Saturday morning and estimated the eruptive fissure was about 500 meters long (1,640 feet.) The two streams of lava were about 2.5 kilometers from the nearest road.

Solny Palsdottir’s house is the closest to the site of the eruption, just four kilometers (2.5 miles) away in the coastal town of Grindavik. She and her husband were watching TV on Friday night when her teenage son pointed out a red glow in the distance.

“Today, I see a white-blue cloud of steam coming from the mountains,” Palsdottir, 50, told The Associated Press. “Not something I expected to have in my backyard.”

“I am just relieved the earthquakes are over,” she added.

Greece orders private doctors to join COVID-19 battle

From the Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s health minister is requisitioning the services of private sector doctors from certain specialties in the wider Athens region to help fight a renewed surge in coronavirus infections that is straining hospitals to their limits.

The first visitors wearing face masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus, walk atop of Acropolis hill, as the Parthenon temple is seen in the background in Athens, Monday, March 22, 2021. Greece’s government reopened the Acropolis and other ancient sites nationwide after four months as it prepares to restart the tourism season in mid-May. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In an announcement released Monday, Vassilis Kikilias said that despite repeated appeals for private doctors to volunteer to help in the public sector, very few came forward. Therefore, the minister said, he was ordering specialists in pathology, pneumonology and general medicine to help.

Kikilias had said Friday he would requisition private sector doctors unless at least 200 volunteered within 48 hours. Government spokeswoman Aristotelia Peloni said Monday that only 61 doctors had stepped forward voluntarily.

“It was the last measure, if you will, in the context of the emergency plan prepared by the Health Ministry, and it was decided that it was now necessary to mobilize private doctors as part of this great struggle, this national effort, after all the opportunities for voluntary participation were exhausted,” Peloni said.

The requisition order is for one month for 206 doctors, health authorities said.

Greece has been experiencing a renewed surge of COVID-19 despite lockdown-related measures being in force since early November, with dozens of daily deaths recorded, as well as increasing numbers of patients hospitalized in intensive care units. About 500 people are hospitalized each day across the country with COVID-19, health authorities say, with 200 of them being in the wider Athens region.

On Monday, Greece reported 1,707 new coronavirus infections and 69 more deaths, bringing the total confirmed infections in the country of around 10.5 million people to just under 240,000 and the death toll to 7,531.

Despite the rising numbers, authorities have announced a slight relaxation of lockdown measures, with hairdressers, nail salons and open-air archaeological sites reopening as of Monday. Amateur fishing, which had also been banned, is also being allowed for those living in coastal areas, as access to the sea is allowed only on foot or bicycle.

Authorities said Monday that close to 1.5 million doses of the vaccine have been administered so far in the country, with nearly 1 million people receiving at least one jab.

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Cops’ posts to private Facebook group show hostility, hate

By CLAUDIA LAUER and THALIA BEATY for the Associated Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) — In a private Facebook group called the Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom, many current and retired officers spent the year criticizing chiefs who took a knee or officers who marched with Black Lives Matter protesters, whom they called “terrorists” or “thugs.” They made transphobic posts and bullied members who supported anti-police brutality protesters or Joe Biden in a forum billed as a place officers can “decompress, rant, share ideas.”

Mount Pleasant Township Police Chief Lou McQuillan answers the door at the municipal building in Hickory, Pa., on Monday, March 15, 2021. McQuillan, who recently announced he is running for a vacant magisterial district judge post, was listed as one of four administrators of a private Facebook group called the Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom. Many current and retired officers who are in the group spent the year criticizing chiefs that took a knee or officers who marched with Black Lives Matter protesters, who they called “terrorists,” or “thugs.” (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Many of the deluge of daily posts were jokes about the hardships of being officers, memorials to deceased colleagues or conversations about training and equipment. But over the group’s almost four-year existence, a few dozen members became more vocal with posts that shifted toward pro-Donald Trump memes and harsh criticism of anyone perceived to support so-called “demoncrats,” Black Lives Matter or coronavirus safety measures.ADVERTISEMENT

In June, Tim Huschak, a corporal at the Borough of Lincoln Police Department, posted a screenshot of an Allegheny County 911 dispatcher’s Facebook page indicating that the phrase “Blue Lives Matter” used by law enforcement supporters is not equivalent to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” because policing is a choice, not a fact of birth. He wrote: “Many negative posts on police. And we should trust her with our lives???”

Some angry members rallied quickly and organized phone calls to her supervisor demanding she be fired.

“Multiple officers should call and report it. Remember NO JUSTICE NO PEACE LOL,” West Mifflin Borough Police Department officer Tommy Trieu responded under his Facebook name, Tommy Bear.

Trieu was one of two West Mifflin officers seen in a video last year restraining a 15-year-old Black girl after responding to a call about a fight on a school bus. Activists called for firing the officers, but borough officials said the recording started after a student hit an officer and that they “did nothing wrong.”

A few members of the group also were bullied or left the page, including an officer who said the Fraternal Order of Police’s Trump endorsement did not represent her and a Black officer who was accused of creating a fake Facebook account to complain about the lack of diversity in local departments.

The Associated Press was able to view posts and comments from the group, which has 2,200 members, including about a dozen current and former police chiefs — from mainly Allegheny County and some surrounding areas stretching into Ohio — and at least one judge and one councilman. After the AP began asking about posts last week, the group appeared to have been deleted or suspended from view.

Contacted by the AP, Lincoln Borough Police Chief Richard Bosco said departmental policy prohibited Huschak from talking to the media. He said the officer is known for his service to the community and wasn’t aware that others had posted insults under his post or that things had “gotten out of hand.”

“He understood the concerns and he deleted the post,” Bosco said. “There is and there needs to be a higher professional standard for police, especially when it comes to social media.”

Trieu defended his comment, telling the AP that he was merely advising other officers in the group that, just like community members can complain about officers, they could file a grievance with a dispatcher’s supervisor if they feared for their safety.

Concerns about explicit bias on officers’ social media accounts were renewed in the last year after a summer of protests demanding an end to police brutality and racial injustice in policing and pro-Trump protests in January that led to a violent siege on the Capitol.

The private Facebook page showed embattled officers hostile to criticism and doubling down on policing as it currently exists, with many posts and comments possibly violating some department social media policies that prohibit disparaging comments about race or that express bias or harass others.

Joe Hoffman, a West Mifflin Borough Police officer, posted a criticism of Webster, Mass., Police Chief Michael Shaw, who lay on his stomach on the steps of his station for about eight minutes — a reference to George Floyd being held on the ground when he was killed by Minneapolis police.

“If you are a law enforcement officer and you kneel or lie on the ground so easily over the false narrative of police brutality, you will one day be executed on your knees or your stomach without a fight by the same criminals that you are currently pandering to,” he wrote, calling the organization “Black Lies Matter.”

Hoffman did not return requests for comment left with the police department or a phone number listed in his name.

In another post, a now-retired Pittsburgh police officer talked about being stuck in traffic for hours in June 2018 after protesters commandeered a highway days after a former East Pittsburgh police officer shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose as he ran from a traffic stop. After the officer mentioned having his service weapon in the trunk, other officers said he shouldn’t hesitate to use lethal force because he’d be protecting himself, while others said police should use dogs and water cannons to clear the demonstrators, a reference to police tactics during civil rights protests in the ’60s.

During that 2018 protest, two people were injured when Bell Acres Councilman Gregory Wagner attempted to drive through a crowd near PNC Park. After his arrest, members of the Facebook group posted support for his actions, with one retired Pittsburgh police officer writing that Wagner was merely “trying to get away from a hostile, TERRORISTIC crowd.”

Mount Pleasant Township Police Chief Lou McQuillan, who recently announced he is running for a vacant magisterial district judge post, was listed as one of the Facebook group’s four administrators.

McQuillan posted an article in June 2017 about a civil settlement being reached in the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, remarking on how the amount of the award was determined: “future earnings? lol What about Ofc Wilson? What about his lost earnings? Joke.” Several officers replied that Brown’s earnings would have derived from crimes or welfare checks, with one posting the theme song from “The Jeffersons.”

McQuillan declined an interview request from the AP, instead sending a statement saying, “Of course, I regret the loss of any life. My comments and posts from four years ago were meant to support law enforcement and police officers everywhere. And I believe in law and order.”

Dozens of group members, many retired or no longer in law enforcement, fueled days of transphobic posts about former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine for her role in statewide social-distancing mandates to stop the spread of COVID-19. Levine, who is transgender, has since been tapped by Biden to be assistant health secretary.

The posts referred to Levine as “he” or “it” and called her a “freak” and other names. “Someone needs to shoot this thing!!” one retired officer wrote.

The group’s rules do not explicitly prohibit racist, sexist or otherwise disparaging content, but do threaten expulsion if members don’t agree to privacy.

According to the group’s introduction, “What goes on in here, STAYS IN HERE. We can have discussions, opinions, thoughts, and even rants, but there is to be NO SHARING outside of this page of anything posted here!”

The Pittsburgh-area officers weren’t alone in posting sometimes hostile and disparaging content to social media. In 2019, the Plain View Project released a database of similar posts from officers in eight departments around the country.

The project, founded by a group of Philadelphia attorneys, examined the Facebook accounts of 2,900 active and 600 retired officers, finding thousands of posts that were racist, sexist, advocated for police brutality or were similarly problematic. The group made the database public, saying the posts eroded the public’s trust.

“In our view, people who are subject to decisions made by law enforcement may fairly question whether these online statements about race, religion, ethnicity and the acceptability of violent policing — among other topics — inform officers’ on-the-job behaviors and choices,” the project’s founders wrote.

Pittsburgh was not part of the project, but city officials have received a handful of complaints about social media posts by officers, at least two of which were perceived as racist.(Andrew Russell/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP, File)

Amid the 2018 protests over the shooting of Antwon Rose, Officer Brian M. Martin appeared to express glee at the death of Black Pittsburgh rapper Jimmy Wopo, writing: “I’m still celebrating.” Martin was reassigned from his job as an undercover detective after footage showed him beating members of a motorcycle club in a bar brawl just months after the Facebook post. He later pleaded no contest to a DUI after hitting a bicyclist and leaving the scene of the accident while off-duty, and was placed on leave.

Last August, a resident lodged a complaint against Sgt. George Kristoff, whose public Facebook page contained disparaging memes about Black people and police brutality protesters.

Pittsburgh’s Office of Municipal Investigations, which investigates complaints against the police and other city employees, reviewed both cases after complaints from the public, but city public safety spokesman Chris Togneri said he could not discuss the outcome or comment on whether the men were still employed.

Following the complaint against Kristoff, the department revised its social media policy to emphasize that officers may face discipline for online comments, especially those undermining public trust in the force. Some of the smaller police departments around Allegheny County contacted by the AP either did not have social media policies or had policies that were less specific about offenses. Others, like Lincoln Borough, were working on implementing new policies.

Pittsburgh’s new policy explicitly states officers may face disciplinary action for sharing “any content involving discourteous or disrespectful remarks … pertaining to issues of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, and/or disability.” It also says officers are forbidden from “advocating harassment or violence.”

“I think that’s really important that the police department has revised its policies to reflect the type of policing they want in their community,” said Elizabeth Pittenger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board.

Kyna James, a community organizer at the Alliance for Police Accountability in Pittsburgh, said activists calling for police reforms just want officers to be held to the same accountability that citizens are, adding that the existence of the Facebook group and the posts were not surprising.

“You know, that doesn’t make it less upsetting,” James said. “It’s 2021, and it’s a shame that we are still here and we are still dealing with this.”

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Beaty reported from New York .

Shooting victim’s husband says police detained him for hours

By KATE BRUMBACK for the Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — A man who survived the shooting that killed his wife at an Atlanta-area massage business last week said police detained him in handcuffs for four hours after the attack.

Mario Gonzalez said he was held in a patrol car outside the spa. The revelation, in an interview with Mundo Hispanico, a Spanish-language news website, follows other criticism of Cherokee County officials investigating the March 16 attack, which killed four people. Four others were killed about an hour later at two spas in Atlanta.

FILE – In this March 17, 2021, file photo, after dropping off flowers Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Ga. The murder case against Robert Aaron Long, a white man accused of shooting and killing six women of Asian descent and two other people at Atlanta-area massage businesses, could become the first big test for Georgia’s new hate crimes law. (Curtis Compton /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

Gonzalez’s accusation would also mean that he remained detained after police released security video images of the suspected gunman and after authorities captured him 150 miles south of Atlanta. He questioned whether his treatment by authorities was because he’s Mexican.

The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday.

Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, is accused of shooting five people, including Gonzalez’s wife Delaina Ashley Yaun, at the first crime scene near Woodstock, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Atlanta. One man was wounded. In all, seven of the slain victims were women, six of them of Asian descent.

Cherokee sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker was removed as spokesman for the case after telling reporters the day after the shootings that Long had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.” A Facebook page appearing to belong to Baker promoted a T-shirt with racist language about China and the coronavirus last year.

Sheriff Frank Reynolds released a statement acknowledging that some of Baker’s comments stirred “much debate and anger” and said the agency regretted any “heartache” caused by his words.

Gonzalez and Yaun, 33, had gotten a babysitter for their infant daughter and went to Youngs Asian Massage to relax. They were in separate rooms inside when the gunman opened fire.

Gonzalez heard the gunshots and worried about his wife but was too afraid to open the door, he told Mundo Hispanico in a video interview. Deputies arrived within minutes. Gonzalez said they put him in hand cuffs and detained him for about four hours, according to the website.

“They had me in the patrol car the whole time they were investigating who was responsible, who exactly did this,” Gonzalez said in the video.

During the interview with Mundo Hispanico, Gonzalez showed marks on his wrists from handcuffs. “I don’t know whether it’s because of the law or because I’m Mexican. The simple truth is that they treated me badly,” he said.

“Only when they finally confirmed I was her husband, did they tell me that she was dead,” he said. “I wanted to know earlier.”

Left alone to raise their daughter and his wife’s teenage son, Gonzalez said the shooter took “the most important thing I have in my life.”

“He deserves to die, just like the others did,” Gonzalez said.

Authorities have said the shooting in Cherokee County happened around 5 p.m., and just after 6:30 p.m. the sheriff’s office posted on Facebook still images from a surveillance camera showing a suspect in the parking lot outside. Reynolds said Long’s family recognized him from those images and gave investigators his cellphone information, which they used to track him.

Crisp County Sheriff Billy Hancock said in a video posted on Facebook that night that his deputies and state troopers were notified around 8 p.m. that the suspect was headed their way. Deputies and troopers set up along the interstate and saw the black 2007 Hyundai Tucson around 8:30 p.m. A trooper performed a maneuver that caused the vehicle to spin out of control, and Long was taken into custody.

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Associated Press writer Michael Warren contributed to this report.

The Latest: Australia seeks vaccine aid for Papua New Guinea

By The Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is working with U.S., Indian and Japanese partners to provide emergency coronavirus vaccine to Papua New Guinea.

Australia has provided 8,000 AstraZeneca doses from its own stockpile to its nearest neighbor after an explosion of infections in the South Pacific island nation in recent weeks.

A health worker takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at a market place in Mumbai, India, Thursday, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

Morrison said Friday that the European Union has yet to respond to his recent request for 1 million AstraZeneca doses contracted by Australia to be sent to Papua New Guinea as soon as possible.

He says that “it’s not right for advanced countries in Europe to deny the supply of vaccines to developing countries who need it desperately like Papua New Guinea.”

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

The U.S. reported 58,480 new coronavirus cases and 1,173 deaths in the last 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University. That’s second to Brazil, which reported 90,303 cases and 2,648 deaths.

VACCINES: More than 73.6 million people, or 22.2% of the U.S. population, have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 39 million people, or 12% of the population, have completed their vaccination.

CASES: The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. decreased over the past two weeks from 63,846 on March 3 to 54,821 on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

DEATHS: The seven-day rolling average for daily new deaths in the U.S. decreased over the past two weeks from 1,846 on March 3 to 1,230 on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

— President Biden plans to send COVID shots to Mexico, Canada

— EU agency: AstraZeneca vaccine safe, will add clot warning

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Restaurant workers and people with two or more underlying medical conditions are among the groups in Washington state who will be able to get the coronavirus vaccine starting March 31.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced the broad expansion of eligibility Thursday, a day after grocery store workers, law enforcement and agricultural workers became eligible for vaccination, along with pregnant women and people with a disability that puts them at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness.

About 3 million of the state’s more than 7.6 million residents are already eligible for the vaccine. The next phase that takes effect at the end of the month will add 2 million more people.

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri says the homeless, minorities, restaurant workers and other vulnerable communities eligible for coronavirus vaccinations beginning March 29.

Gov. Mike Parson added Thursday that vaccines will then be made available to everyone in Missouri beginning April 9.

Parson says he expects a large influx of vaccine doses to Missouri beginning in April, and his administration wants to open up eligibility to ensure there are enough interested people ready to be vaccinated.

The governor says that “with the progress we are currently seeing and vaccine supply expected to increase significantly in the coming weeks, we are well ahead of schedule with our vaccine plan.”

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WASHINGTON — A new analysis suggests the coronavirus pandemic likely began in China’s Hubei province a month or two earlier than late December 2019, when a cluster of cases tied to a seafood market was first detected.

Scientists traced mutations back in time to estimate when a common ancestral virus first emerged, did modeling exercises on how the new coronavirus spread, and reported their findings Thursday in the journal Science. LINK: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2021/03/17/science.abf8003

Evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey says the study is “pointing pretty strongly to that market not being the original source of the virus but the first place where it encountered sort of one of these superspreading events.”

Public health expert William Hanage, who had no role in the study, says the conclusions are “very, very plausible” and the work “pushes back in time” estimates of the origins of the outbreak.

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators are working to give prosecutors and courts time to clear a backlog of criminal cases that have built up during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate voted 32-7 Wednesday night to approve a bill that would suspend until May 1, 2023, a law aimed at protecting defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. The law requires cases to come to trial within five months of a defendant who has been jailed entering a plea or within six months if the defendant is free on bond.

Lawmakers say Kansas has a backlog of about 5,000 criminal cases and prosecutors worry many of them will have to be dismissed if the deadlines are not suspended.

Some legislators are nervous about suspending the deadlines, worried that defendants will languish unnecessarily in jail.

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MADRID — Spain’s health minister says the country will resume vaccinating with AstraZeneca doses next Wednesday but officials will revise over the weekend which groups to exclude to minimize risks.

Carolina Darias said authorities at the national and regional level will assess the jab’s updated technical sheet and give new guidelines to doctors.

The minister spoke after an urgent meeting with health officials from the country’s regions following the European Union’s drug regulatory announcement that the vaccine is safe.

The head of Spain’s drug agency says resuming now after assessing a series of rare blood clots in a dozen patients who had received the AstraZeneca jab “should strengthen trust in the vaccines.”

After weeks of falling contagion rates, Spain’s coronavirus pandemic incidence is on the rise again, prompting fears that the country could soon join the uptick that the rest of Europe is experiencing.

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HELENA, Mont. —Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte announced the state is dropping legal action filed last year against five businesses in northwestern Montana accused of violating public health orders.

As part of a settlement filed in the Flathead County district court Thursday, the businesses are also dropping counterclaims against the state.

The lawsuit was filed by the state health department under former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, last October.

It accused the businesses of failing to adequately enforce the statewide mask mandate meant to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Gianforte, a Republican, promised to end the legal action soon after taking office in January.

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PRAGUE — With infection and death rates remaining at high levels, the Czech government has extended the country’s tight lockdown till after Easter.

Health Minister Jan Blatny says his country is still not in a position to relax the measures.

Among the restrictions in one of the hardest-hit countries in the European Union, people have been banned from traveling to other counties unless they go to work or have to take care of relatives.

It’s part of a series of step as the Central European nation has been seeking to slow down the spread of a highly contagious virus variant first found in Britain and prevent the country’s hospitals from collapsing.

Of the 8,910 COVID-19 patients in Czech hospitals on Wednesday, 1,989 needed intensive care. Both the numbers are close to the records set earlier this week.

Blatny said the situation in should start to improve after by the end of this week and the number of hospitalized to drop to some 5,000 in April.

The nation of 10.7 million has over 1.4 million confirmed cases with more than almost 24,100 deaths.

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PROVIDENCE, R.I — Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee pledged to bring back Newport’s jazz and folk festivals, as well as other large outdoor events, this summer after they were canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

“We are working closely with the Newport Folk and Jazz Festival on a plan that could allow them to host a safe event this summer that involves testing and other safety protocols,” he said. “The good news is there will be music in Newport this summer.”

He made the announcement now because he knows it takes several months to plan such large-scale events.

Folk festival organizers in a Facebook post welcomed the news.

“Governor McKee of Rhode Island has indicated that we will be able to have events this summer with modified capacities. Though Newport Folk won’t look exactly the same, we are thrilled to be bringing music and artists back to the Fort.”

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BATON ROUGE, La. — Gov. John Bel Edwards is further expanding eligibility to the coronavirus vaccine to a long list of healthy essential workers in Louisiana who don’t have one of the two dozen medical conditions that already provided access.

The new rules take effect Monday and include workers at grocery stores, bars, restaurants and colleges, among others.

Edwards widened access earlier this month to anyone 16 and older who has among two dozen health conditions, people who are overweight and smokers. Most adults are expected to meet one of the eligibility criteria.

Louisiana also kicked off an outreach campaign Thursday aimed at getting vaccines to people in underserved areas and persuading the skeptical.

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LISBON, Portugal — Portugal says it will resume administering the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 from Monday, a week after it temporarily halted its use while continuing with other jabs.

The announcement Thursday came a few hours after European authorities said the AstraZeneca shot is safe and effective.

The head of Portugal’s COVID-19 vaccination task force, Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, said around 120,000 people who were slated to have the jab during the stoppage will be at the front of the line when AstraZeneca inoculations resume.

Portugal followed Germany, France and Spain in temporarily halting use of the AstraZeneca jab. The governments said they would await a European Medicines Agency report on links between the vaccine and rare types of blood clots.

As in other European Union countries, Portugal’s vaccination program is running behind schedule due to a shortage of jabs.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. is finalizing plans to send a combined 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Mexico and Canada in its first export of shots.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki says the Biden administration is planning to send 2.5 million doses to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada as a “loan.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been authorized for use in the U.S. but has been authorized by the World Health Organization. The premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, thanked Biden for his willingness to share the vaccines.

Canadian regulators have approved the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but acquiring them has proven difficult. Canada ranks about 20th in the number of doses administered, with about 8% of the adult population getting at least one shot. That compares with about 38% in the U.K. and 22% in the U.S.

Mexico has fully vaccinated more than 600,000 people and more than 4 million have received a single dose in a country of 126 million.

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JOHANNESBURG — Africa’s ability to produce COVID-19 vaccines got a boost Thursday with the announcement that Biovac has signed a full manufacturing partnership with US-based ImmunityBio.

Biovac is a laboratory partly owned by the South African state. It has an agreement with ImmunityBio, which has a COVID-19 vaccine in clinical trials, to produce the vaccine sometime next year.

Biovac, based in Cape Town, has the capacity to produce between 20 million and 30 million vaccines in a year.

Africa’s 54 countries have limited capacity to make vaccines, with only two laboratories on the continent able to fully manufacture vaccines. Those are Biovac and the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, which produces yellow fever vaccines. Three other African countries can partially manufacture vaccines.

South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare is awaiting approval to assemble the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a process of blending the ingredients sent in large batches and putting the vaccine into vials – the filling and finishing. Aspen said it has the capacity to produce 300 million doses annually of the J&J vaccine.

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NEW YORK — It’s showtime! AMC Theatres says it will have 98% of its U.S. movie theaters open on Friday. Even more theaters are expected to open by March 26.

AMC says more than 40 of its locations in California are reopening on Friday and will open 52 of its 54 locations by Monday. The company is preparing to resume operations at the rest of its California locations once the proper local approvals are in place. AMC previously opened more than 500 of its theaters elsewhere around the country.

Some movie theaters have opened over the past few months with limited capacity and enhanced safety protocols.

Lebanese are gripped by worry as economic meltdown speeds up

By BASSEM MROUE for the Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Shops closing, companies going bankrupt and pharmacies with shelves emptying — in Lebanon these days, fistfights erupt in supermarkets as shoppers scramble to get to subsidized powdered milk, rice and cooking oil.

Like almost every other Lebanese, Nisrine Taha’s life has been turned upside down in the past year under the weight of the country’s crushing economic crisis. Anxiety for the future is eating at her.

People pass next of a woman, center, who is sits on the ground with her daughter begging on Beirut’s commercial Hamra Street, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. More than half the population now lives in poverty, while an intractable political crisis heralds further collapse and Lebanese are gripped by fear for the future. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Five months ago, she was laid off from her job at the real estate company where she had worked for years. Her daughter, who is 21, cannot find work, forcing the family to rely on her husband’s monthly salary which has lost 90% of its value because of the collapse of the national currency.

The family hasn’t been able to pay rent for seven months, and Taha worries their landlord’s patience won’t last forever. As the price of meat and chicken soared beyond their means, they changed their diet.

“Everything is very expensive,” she said.

Taha’s family is among hundreds of thousands of lower income and middle class Lebanese who have been plunged into sudden poverty by the crisis that started in late 2019 — a culmination of decades of corruption by a greedy political class that pillaged nearly every sector of the economy.

The Lebanese pound has lost more than 25% in value over the past weeks alone. Inflation and prices of basic goods have skyrocketed in a country that imports more than 80% of its basic goods. Purchasing power of salaries has dramatically declined and savings have evaporated — all on top of the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion last August at Beirut’s port that damaged parts of the capital.

More than half the population now lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, while an intractable political crisis heralds further collapse.

Alia Moubayed, managing director at Jefferies, a diversified financial services company, said the “sharp contraction in growth, coupled with hyperinflation and devaluation” has pushed more people into precarious employment, raised unemployment levels and brought more than 50% of the population below the poverty line, compared to an estimated third in 2018.

Lebanon has been without a government since the last one resigned in August, with top politicians unwilling to compromise over the formation of a new Cabinet that could forge a path toward reforms and recovery. Street violence and sectarian tensions are on the rise.

“People are dying, and no one cares!” said Taha as she visited a cousin who owns a perfume shop in Beirut’s commercial Hamra Street. Both wore masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Once a famous shopping district, known for its boutiques, bustling cafes and theaters, Hamra Street has changed amid the pandemic. On a recent day, many shops were closed, some because of lockdown measures, others permanently because of the economic crisis. Merchants in those still open complain they are selling almost nothing.

Beggars solicited passers-by for money. A woman and her child sat on the pavement next to a drawing on a wall with the words: ” We are all beggars.”

“It cannot get worse,” said Ibrahim Simmo, 59, who manages a clothes shop. Sales have dropped 90%, compared to previous years. He couldn’t sell his winter stock during the nearly two-month-long virus lockdown earlier their year, and now the currency crash is making things worse.

Ibrahim Farshoukh, 28, said he barely pays the rent for his shop where he sells hand-made leather bracelets and bags. Sometimes his wife stays behind while he takes to the streets, trying to sell bracelets to passers-by. “The situation is unbearable,” he added.

The vast majority of the population gets paid in Lebanese pounds, meaning their incomes decline further while prices shoot up and pensions evaporate. The crisis has also depleted foreign reserves, prompting stark warnings the Central Bank can no longer finance subsidies of some basic commodities, including fuel.

Videos on social media show fistfights in supermarkets as shoppers try to get to subsidized products such as cooking oil or powdered milk. In one video, armed members of one of Lebanon’s intelligence agencies check ID cards inside a supermarket before handing over a bag of subsidized rice.

People who once lived comfortably are now unable to pay school fees and insurance premiums, or even eat well.

“I don’t remember the last time we ate meat. I cannot afford it,” said Taha, whose husband is an airport maintenance employee. The family’s diet now mainly consists of lentils, rice, and bulgur, she said.

The currency collapse has forced some grocery shops, pharmacies and other businesses to temporarily shut down, as officials warn of growing food insecurity.

Nabil Fahd, head of the supermarket owners’ association, told the local MTV station that people are hoarding goods, which stores can no longer restock — once something is sold out, storeowners have to pay more in Lebanese pounds for new supplies. We are “in a very, very serious crisis,” he said.

The price of bread, the country’s main staple, was raised twice over the past year — and then, earlier this month, bakers reduced the weight of a pack of bread, without changing the price.

Taha blames Lebanon’s corrupt political class for bringing the small nation to near-bankruptcy.

Assem Shoueib quit his job at a leading newspaper in Beirut in 2000 and moved with his family to France, where he opened a Lebanese restaurant near Paris. Walking through Hamra Street on a recent visit back, the 59-year-old said he made the right decision.

“It was clear the country was heading toward collapse,” he said.

Biden says US to hit 100 million virus goal on Friday

By ZEKE MILLER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the U.S. closing in on President Joe Biden’s goal of injecting 100 million coronavirus vaccinations weeks ahead of his target date, the White House said the nation is now in position to help supply neighbors Canada and Mexico with millions of lifesaving shots.

President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Biden administration on Thursday revealed the outlines of a plan to “loan” a limited number of vaccines to Canada and Mexico as the president announced the U.S. is on the cusp of meeting his 100-day injection goal “way ahead of schedule.”

“ I’m proud to announce that tomorrow, 58 days into our administration, we will have met our goal,” Biden said. He promised to unveil a new vaccination target next week, as the U.S. is on pace to have enough of the three currently authorized vaccines to cover the entire adult population just 10 weeks from now.

Ahead of Biden’s remarks, the White House said it was finalizing plans to send a combined 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Mexico and Canada in its first export of shots. Press secretary Jen Psaki said the details of the “loan” were still being worked out, but 2.5 million doses would go to Mexico and 1.5 million would be sent to Canada.

“Our first priority remains vaccinating the U.S. population,” Psaki said. But she added that “ensuring our neighbors can contain the virus is a mission critical step, is mission critical to ending the pandemic.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine has not yet been authorized for use in the U.S. but has been by the World Health Organization. Tens of millions of doses have been stockpiled in the U.S., waiting for emergency use authorization, and that has sparked an international outcry that lifesaving vaccine is being withheld when it could be used elsewhere. The White House said just 7 million of the AstraZeneca doses are ready for shipment.

The initial run of doses manufactured in the U.S. are owned by the federal government under the terms of agreements reached with drugmakers, and the Biden administration has faced calls from allies across the globe to release the AstraZeneca shots for immediate use. Biden has also fielded direct requests from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to buy vaccines produced in the United States.

Global public health advocates say wealthy nations like the U.S. need to do far more to help stem the spread of the pandemic. The World Health Organization on Thursday issued a report that fewer than 7 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Africa thus far. That’s the equivalent of what the U.S. administers in a matter of days.

Biden did move to have the U.S. contribute financially to the United Nations- and World Health Organization-backed COVAX alliance, which will share vaccine with more than 90 lower- and middle-income nations, but the U.S. has yet to commit to sharing any doses.

From his first days in office, Biden has set clear — and achievable — metrics for U.S. success, whether they be vaccinations or school reopenings, as part of an apparent strategy of underpromising, then overdelivering. Aides believe that exceeding his goals breeds trust in government after the Trump administration’s sometimes-fanciful rhetoric on the virus.

The 100 million-dose goal was first announced on Dec. 8, days before the U.S. had even one authorized vaccine for COVID-19, let alone the three that have now received emergency authorization. Still, it was generally seen within reach, if optimistic.

By the time Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20, the U.S. had already administered 20 million shots at a rate of about 1 million per day, bringing complaints at the time that Biden’s goal was not ambitious enough. He quickly revised it upward to 150 million doses in his first 100 days.

Now the U.S. is injecting an average of about 2.2 million doses each day — and the pace is likely to dramatically rise later this month in conjunction with an expected surge in supply of the vaccines.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, injections of 96 million doses have been reported to the agency since Biden’s inauguration, but those reports lag the actual date of administration. Vaccination trend lines pointed to Biden breaking the 100 million mark on Thursday, with the numbers likely to be confirmed by the CDC as soon as Friday.

The president has moved to speed up deliveries of vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, as well as to expand the number of places to get shots and people who can administer them, with a focus on increasing the nation’s capacity to inject doses as supply constraints lift.

The risk in setting too rosy expectations is that an administration might become defined by its failure to meet them, such as in May 2020, when President Donald Trump said the nation had “prevailed” over the virus.

At the time, the country had seen about 80,000 deaths from the virus. This week, the U.S. death toll topped 538,000. Trump’s lax approach and lack of credibility also contributed to poor adherence to public safety rules among the American public.

Australian police boss suggests app to prove sexual consent

By ROD McGUIRK for the Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A senior Australian policeman suggested on Thursday a phone app be developed to document sexual consent in a bid to improve conviction rates in sex crime cases.

A protesters holds a placard during the Women’s March 4 Justice in Canberra, Australia, Monday, March 15, 2021. The rally was one of several across Australia including in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart calling out sexism, misogyny and dangerous workplace cultures. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

New South Wales state Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said dating apps have brought couples together and the same technology could also provide clarity on the question of consent.

“Technology doesn’t fix everything, but … it plays such a big role in people meeting at the moment. I’m just suggesting: is it part of the solution?” Fuller said.

Fuller said the number of sexual assaults reported in Australia’s most populous state was increasing while a prosecution success rate of only 2% stemming from those reports showed the system was failing.

“Consent can’t be implied,” Fuller wrote in News Corp. newspapers. “Consent must be active and ongoing throughout a sexual encounter.”

Responses to the consent app suggestion have been largely negative or skeptical.

State Premier Gladys Berejiklian congratulated Fuller on “taking a leadership position on having the conversation” about the sexual assault problem, but declined to share her opinion on the app.

Lesley-Anne Ey, a University of South Australia expert on harmful sexual behavior involving children, said she didn’t think the app would work.

“I don’t think they’re going to interrupt the romance to put details into an app,” Ey told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Catharine Lumby, a Sydney University specialist in ethics and accountability, described the app as a quick-fix that misunderstood the circumstances of sexual assaults.

“Fundamentally what we are now having a reckoning with is the fact that there is a very small minority of men in this society who are opportunists, who make the decision to sexually assault women,” Lumby said.

“They don’t care where, how or why they do it. They will take the opportunity and I’m sure they are more than capable of manipulating technology,” Lumby said.

More than 100,000 women protested in rallies across Australia on Monday demanding justice while calling out misogyny and dangerous workplace cultures.

The public anger erupted after the Australian attorney general denied an allegation that he raped a 16-year-old girl 33 years ago, and a former government staffer alleged that she was raped two years ago by a colleague in a minister’s Parliament House office.

Fuller said his suggestion could gain popularity in time.

“To be honest with you, the app idea could be the worst idea I have in 2021, but the reality is in five years, perhaps it won’t be,” he said. “If you think about dating 10 years ago, this concept of single people swiping left and right was a term that we didn’t even know.”

A consent app similar to Fuller’s proposal was launched in Denmark last month. But the app hasn’t been widely adopted, with fewer than 5,000 downloads, according to mobile intelligence site Sensor Tower.

UK: Shortfall in vaccine deliveries will delay jabs

By DANICA KIRKA for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — British health authorities say COVID-19 vaccinations for people under age 50 may be delayed for up to a month amid a shortfall in supply, partly due to reduced deliveries from the Serum Institute of India.

Pharmacy Technician Katrina Bonwick administers a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Wheatfield surgery in Luton, England, Thursday, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Britain’s National Health Service told public health officials Thursday that vaccine supplies available for first doses would be “significantly constrained” beginning March 29. As a result, people under 50 shouldn’t get shots unless they have underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk, according to a letter from Emily Lawson, the NHS’s chief commercial officer, and Dr. Nikita Kanani, medical director for primary care.

Doctors had expected to begin vaccinating younger people next month, but that will have to be pushed back until May, said Dr. Martin Marshall, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a GP in east London.

“It was disappointing news when we heard yesterday that the supplies weren’t going to be available during April,” he told the BBC. “It’s a massively successful program overall, and this is a bit of a setback.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said the delay won’t prevent the government from meeting its target of delivering a first dose of vaccine to everyone over 50 by mid-April and to all adults by July 31.

The shortfall is due in part to smaller than expected deliveries from the Serum Institute of India, which was expected to supply Britain with 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine this month. However the Serum Institute maintains that there were no “stipulated timelines” for delivery of the vaccines.

The institute said Thursday that 5 million doses have been delivered “and we will try to supply more later, based on the current situation and the requirement for the government immunization program in India.”

Britain is using vaccines developed by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Anglo-Swedish rival AstraZeneca. More than 25 million people across the U.K., or almost 38% of the population, have received at least one dose of vaccine so far.

Robert Jenrick, the minister for housing, communities and local government, said the government has always expected fluctuations in vaccine supplies because of the difficulties in ramping up production. No single company is responsible for the current shortfall, he said.

“There are multiple manufacturers around the world who are experiencing supply issues at the moment,” Jenrick told the BBC. “It would not be right for me to pin blame on any one manufacturer, factory or country. That is not the case.”

Dr. Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the short-term disruption in supplies could have knock-on effects that last for months, including potential delays in lifting COVID-19 restrictions.

“By pushing back the under-50s first doses, their second doses are also being pushed back,” he said. “If full vaccination becomes required for holidays abroad or even more mundane things like going to the cinema, millions of younger people may end up being excluded from participating for the whole summer.”

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Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi contributed.

Storms moving eastward, leave trail of damage in Deep South

By JAY REEVES for the Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Storms that left splintered homes and broken trees across Alabama and Mississippi moved into Georgia and Florida on Thursday, rousing residents with early morning warnings as forecasters said the threat of dangerous weather would move up the south Atlantic seaboard.

Debris litters weather-damaged properties at the intersection of County Road 24 and 37 in Clanton, Ala., the morning following a large outbreak of severe storms across the southeast, Thursday, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

About 20,000 homes and business were without power and the weather service said at least two people were hurt when an apparent tornado struck southwest Alabama, destroying a house. Pieces of homes and twisted metal laid amid broken trees in the hardest-hit areas, but no one died and the region appeared to escape the kind of horrific toll many feared after ominous predictions of monster twisters and huge hail.

“Overall, we have a lot to be grateful for, as it could have been much worse,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.

The National Weather Service office in central Alabama said teams were fanning out Thursday to assess damage in at least 12 counties where tornadoes may have touched down.

Forecasters issued a string of tornado warnings around the region where Alabama, Georgia and Florida intersect, but there were no immediate reports of major damage. A line of storms stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to West Virginia, and the Storm Prediction Center said other, isolated severe storms were possible from southern Ohio into the central Appalachians.

“Significant tornadoes, wind damage and large hail will be possible from morning into afternoon,” the center said. “Severe thunderstorms will also be possible from parts of the eastern Gulf Coast into the southern and central Appalachians.”

The metro Atlanta area was pelted by heavy rain with intense lightning and strong wind gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph). Morehouse College tweeted that it was delaying the opening of its campus until 11 a.m. and that faculty and staff should not arrive until after that time. All classes before then were to be held virtually, it said.

In South Carolina, the severe weather threat led the state Senate president to caution senators to stay home Thursday while urging staff to work remotely for their safety. House Speaker Jay Lucas said that chamber would meet less than an hour Thursday to take up routine motions in advance of a budget debate next week — then adjourn.

“If you are in a situation where it is perilous that you come, I’m asking you not to come,” Lucas said. “If you can come, give us a quorum and do these few things we need to do, we will be out of here in a hurry.”

Nearly all of South Carolina is under moderate risk of severe storms. The forecast led a number of the state’s school systems to call off in-person classes Thursday and have students and teachers meet online.

On Wednesday, possible tornadoes in Alabama knocked down trees, toppled power lines and damaged homes. Some of the worst problems were in rural Clarke County, where authorities said two people were hurt when a home was destroyed and several others were damaged.

Between Montgomery and Birmingham in Chilton County, a storm destroyed at least three homes including that of resident Jimmy Baker.

“Then about a minute before it got here, we jumped … in the hall closet, a little, small closet,” Baker told WSFA-TV. “And just we heard it. You know, the sound from the house coming down. We were saved. We thank the Lord for that,” he said.

In north Alabama, where forecasters said as much as 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain fell, a woman who rescuers found clinging to a tree after her car was swamped by floodwaters in Morgan County was treated at a hospital, but details about her condition were not immediately available. Schools closed in neighboring Madison County because of flooding.

Roofs were yanked off homes in Moundville, south of Tuscaloosa. “There’s a lot of trees down. I guess it had to be a tornado; it got out of here pretty fast,” aid Michael Brown, whose family owns Moundville Ace Hardware and Building.

Additional damage was reported in Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi, where video showed an apparent tornado at Brookhaven. High winds blew down signs and trees in northeast Texas, and hailstones the size of baseballs were reported near the Alabama-Mississippi line, the weather service said.

More than 70,000 homes and businesses were without power at one point from Texas to Alabama, which was under a state of emergency, and communities across the South used social media to share the location of tornado shelters.

Rescuers save 2 from pickup dangling over deep Idaho gorge

By REBECCA BOONE for the Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Authorities say a set of camp trailer safety chains and quick, careful work by emergency crews saved two people after their pickup truck plunged off a bridge, leaving them dangling above a deep gorge in southern Idaho.

This image provided by the Idaho State Police shows the scene where authorities say a set of camp trailer safety chains and quick, careful work by emergency crews saved two people after their pickup truck plunged off a bridge, leaving them dangling above a deep gorge in southern Idaho on Monday, March 15, 2021. (Idaho State Police via AP)

Idaho State Police responded to the accident at about 2:45 p.m. Monday, said ISP spokeswoman Lynn Hightower. A trooper found a man and a woman inside the pickup truck that was dangling, nose-down, off the side of the bridge spanning the Malad Gorge. The gorge is narrow but is roughly 100 feet (30.48 meters) deep below the bridge, roughly the height of a 10-story building. The gorge reaches about 250 feet (76.20 meters) deep at its deepest point.

The only thing keeping the 2004 Ford F-350 pickup from falling was the set of “safety chains” attaching the 30-foot camper trailer, which remained on the bridge, to the pickup. A state trooper and local sheriff’s deputy first used an additional set of chains from a nearby semi-truck to help support the dangling pickup truck, holding it in place until additional rescuers with cranes, rope rescue gear and other equipment could arrive.

Emergency crews were then able to rappel down to the hanging truck and attach a harness to each occupant, allowing them to be safely carried back to the bridge. Both were taken to hospitals, and neither appeared to have life-threatening injuries, Hightower said. Two small dogs inside the pickup were also safely rescued, and taken to the home of a nearby family member.

Workers were still attempting to pull the pickup from the precipice Monday evening.

“It was terrifying,” Hightower said. “It was definitely a heroic rescue from everybody that was out there, and thankfully, they’re all fine.”

Witnesses said the truck appeared to lose control before the crash, first swerving to hit the right shoulder barrier before sliding over the left-side guardrail. The truck then tipped over the bridge, with the camper blocking both lanes of the bridge.

The case remains under investigation, Hightower said. Agencies from Gooding, Jerome and Twin Falls responded to the incident, along with regional sheriff’s offices and fire department and paramedic services.

“A rescue like this takes a lot of quick thinking and action but this is what they train for,” she said. “That training just paid off today, and two people are alive because of the hours and hours of training that these emergency responders do.”

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This story has been corrected to show that the pickup truck was dangling roughly 100 feet (30.48 meters) above the floor of the Malad Gorge, which is roughly 250 feet (76.20 meters) deep at its deepest point.

Collaboration with police divides social workers across US

By CHRISTINE FERNANDO for the Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — Rayshard Brooks was killed last June when Atlanta police responding to a report of a man asleep in a car blocking a drive-thru shot him as he tried to run away. Later that summer, a similar situation in Eugene, Oregon, ended much differently: A man reported sleeping in a car was sent home in a cab.

The key? A mobile crisis intervention team designed to be an alternative to police in nonviolent crises responded to the parking lot, calmed the man, contacted his family and called the taxi.

Licensed social worker Deana Ayers poses Jan. 11, 2021 in Minneapolis. Ayers said collaboration between police and social workers risks perpetuating the systemic racism she has seen in the social work field. “Putting social workers in to heal all the wounds as a Band-Aid is just going to blow up in everyone’s face,” she said. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

“I think all the time about how that could’ve ended differently if police responded instead,” said social work master’s student Michelle Perin, an EMT and crisis worker for the team known as CAHOOTS, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets.

Social workers have long worked alongside law enforcement, often treating clients in prisons and jails, inpatient psychiatric facilities and immigration detention centers. A 2020 report on reimagining policing by the National Association of Social Workers suggests collaboration could strengthen public safety, reduce racist incidents and improve the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.

Perin said CAHOOTS works independently, but is fully funded by police with members dispatched through the Eugene police-fire-ambulance communications center. Police and firefighters can call for CAHOOTS and, in some cases, CAHOOTS workers may call police if a person seems a danger to themselves or others.

Following high-profile police brutality cases, cities including Denver, New York City, Chicago and Seattle, are exploring similar programs with the philosophy that dispatching social workers and mental health professionals alongside — or in lieu of — law enforcement could prevent police brutality.

But as cities look to these alternatives in reimagining policing, many social workers are warning increased collaboration with law enforcement risks further harming communities of color — and ignores the deep history of systemic racism within social work itself.

Leigh-Anne Francis, an associate professor of African American studies and women, gender and sexuality studies at The College of New Jersey, said offering social workers as a quick fix to systemic racism is flawed, considering the field’s own legacy, tied to its origins in the 1900s.

“The prevailing narrative was that Black people were genetically defective and couldn’t be helped through social work because they were morally corrupt, poisoned,” Francis said. “They were irredeemable.”

While she said many are quick to see social workers as inherently good, the ghosts of systemically racist policies — like the 1958 Indian Adoption Project to break up Indigenous families and the embrace of the eugenics movement to root out what social workers saw as undesirable traits, including being Black — linger in the predominantly white field today.

Social workers contribute to the criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, said Julia Lyon, a Pennsylvania social worker and member of Social Service Workers United. She sees racism almost every day in social workers’ evaluations of clients, saying they’re more likely to place blame on people of color and advocate for their punishment.

“If you are a Black boy in Philadelphia who’s acting out, there are going to be very different explanations as to why you’re acting out compared to a white boy in the wealthy suburbs,” she said.

Social worker Deana Ayers from Minneapolis said, at its worst, a system in which social workers collaborate with police or replace them in certain situations would be policing with a different name.

“If we’re trying to have social workers solve all these societal problems and be some kind of Band-Aid, then we also have to be doing the work within social work to get rid of this deep-seated, baked-in racism,” Ayers said. “Otherwise, social workers are just going to be police without guns.”

But advocates of collaboration between social workers and police point to how ingrained law enforcement is into American society as evidence of the need for acting within that framework.

“I just think it’s difficult in the current society we live in to say we can’t work with police officers when they’re so embedded in our communities right now,” NASW North Carolina executive director Valerie Arendt said. “I think social workers can and do amazing work within these systems.”

Lucas Cooper, chief of Alexandria, Kentucky’s police department, said the department hired its first social worker in 2016 and now employs two alongside 17 full-time officers. While Cooper at first opposed the plan, wanting more officers instead, he now sees the program as essential and a step in the right direction in confronting flaws within policing.

“They bring a different skillset to the table,” he said. “We don’t know the ins and outs of that world and what social services are available. They fill in a lot of gaps.”

But Leah Jacobs, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, says there’s little research to suggest that collaboration between police and social workers is effective.

“In fact, there is some evidence saying that the opposite may be true, that when you have greater collaboration with police, it can lead to poorer outcomes and greater harm,” she said.

Instead of perpetuating what they see as punishment-based approaches, opponents of police and social workers recommend more investment in community-based intervention.

In her recent paper “Defund the Police: Moving Towards an Anti-Carceral Social Work,” Jacobs lists examples of these creative interventions, including restorative justice programs at schools that emphasize mediating conflict resolution and providing alternatives to detention and suspension.

Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color Of Change — the nation’s largest digital racial justice advocacy group — said interventions should be tailored to the needs of individual communities and, as a result, may look completely different from one community to the next.

“When we say we want to change policing, we’re not saying to just plug in other institutions like social work,” he said. “We have to reimagine policing and public safety, including social work.”

Perin acknowledges she’s cautious when it comes to initiatives that are “pet projects within the police department with social workers tagging alongside,” but sees the need for immediate practical action.

“If we could tear down policing and build something different now, we should. But that’s not the reality,” Perin said. “We need to work toward breaking down the system at the same time as preventing harm now.”

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Fernando is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/christinetfern.

Atlanta-area shootings leave 8 dead, many of Asian descent

By KATE BRUMBACK for the Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — A series of shootings over nearly an hour at three Atlanta area massage parlors left eight people dead and raised fears that the attack was yet another hate crime against people of Asian descent.

Police arrested a 21-year-old Georgia man and said the motive wasn’t immediately known, though many of the victims were women of Asian descent.

Law enforcement officials confer outside a massage parlor following a shooting on Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Atlanta. Shootings at two massage parlors in Atlanta and one in the suburbs have left multiple people dead, many of them women of Asian descent, authorities said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The attacks began Tuesday evening, when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in Acworth, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Atlanta, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker said. Two people died at the scene, and three were taken to a hospital where two died, Baker said.

About an hour later, police responding to a call about a robbery found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at Gold Spa in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, which is home to many tattoo parlors and strip clubs. While there, the officers learned of a call reporting shots fired at another spa across the street, Aromatherapy Spa, and found a woman who appeared to have been shot dead.

“It appears that they may be Asian,” Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden has been briefed on the “horrific shootings” and administration officials have been in contact with the mayor’s office and the FBI.

Surveillance video recorded a man pulling up to the Acworth business about 10 minutes before the attack there, authorities said. The same car was spotted outside the Atlanta businesses. A manhunt was launched, and Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, was taken into custody in Crisp County, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Atlanta, Baker said.

Video evidence “suggests it is extremely likely our suspect is the same as Cherokee County’s, who is in custody,” Atlanta police said in a statement. Authorities haven’t specified charges.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in statement Wednesday that its diplomats in Atlanta have confirmed with police that four of the victims who died were women of Korean descent. The ministry said its Consulate General in Atlanta is trying to confirm the nationality of the women.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in South Korea meeting with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, mentioned the killings during an opening statement.

“We are horrified by this violence which has no place in America or anywhere,” he said, noting that four of the women were believed to be of Korean descent.

The killings came amid a recent wave of attacks against Asian Americans that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus across the United States.

“Our entire family is praying for the victims of these horrific acts of violence,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday evening on Twitter.

FBI spokesman Kevin Rowson said the agency was assisting Atlanta and Cherokee County authorities in the investigation.

Crisp County Sheriff Billy Hancock said in a video posted on Facebook that his deputies and state troopers were notified Tuesday night that a murder suspect out of north Georgia was headed toward their county. Deputies and troopers set up along the interstate and “made contact with the suspect,” he said.

A state trooper performed a PIT, or pursuit intervention technique, maneuver, “which caused the vehicle to spin out of control,” Hancock said. Long was then taken into custody “without incident” and was being held in the Crisp County jail for Cherokee County authorities who were expected to arrive soon to continue their investigation.

Due to the shootings, Atlanta police said they dispatched officers to check nearby similar businesses and increased patrols in the area.

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Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to the this story.

Miami Mayor: Tom Brady of police chiefs gets top Miami job

From the Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) — Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief who forged a national profile by calling for gun control, marching with protesters after George Floyd’s death and criticizing President Donald Trump is taking the top job in the Miami Police Department, news outlets reported.

“I think this is like getting the Tom Brady or the Michael Jordan of police chiefs,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told the Miami Herald.

FILE – In this Nov. 20, 2019 file photo, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks during a press conference at HPD headquarters in Houston. Acevedo, the Houston police chief who forged a national profile by calling for gun controls, marching with protesters after George Floyd’s death and criticizing President Donald Trump is taking the top job in the Miami Police Department, news outlets reported, Monday, March 15, 2021. (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)

The mayor is set to make a formal announcement on Monday morning, and Acevedo is expected to begin the job in about six weeks, news outlets reported. He would replace Chief Jorge Colina, who retired in February, becoming Miami’s fifth chief the past decade.

Acevedo, a 56-year-old Cuban American, spent five years as chief in Houston, overseeing a 5,400-person force with a more than $1 billion yearly budget, after a five-year stint. The Miami police force is much smaller, with a staff of 1,400.

He sent an email to his department, calling the move “truly bittersweet,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

“We have been through so much as an extended family; Hurricane Harvey, two World Series, a Super Bowl, Irma, the summer of protests, and most recently, an ice storm of epic proportion,” Acevedo wrote. “On top of all of this, sadly we have buried 6 of our fallen heroes. No matter the challenge, you have all risen to the occasion, and you have honored the sacrifices of our fallen comrades with resiliency and sustained excellence.”

Acevedo said that with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s final term in office fast approaching, “we decided the timing for this move was good.”

He wasn’t on the radar during a six-week search for a new chief, the Herald and WPLG reported.

He didn’t participate in the months-long interview process by City Manager Art Noriega, who has sole responsibility for the hiring of the city’s police chief. Noriega confirmed Acevedo’s hiring to the Miami Herald on Sunday night.

Acevedo is a Republican who spoke by video on the opening night of the last year’s Democratic convention. That appearance came after Acevedo responded sharply to a demand by President Donald Trump that governors had to start dominating protesters or he’d send in the military. Acevedo told the president to keep his “mouth shut” if he didn’t have anything constructive to say.

Acevedo is active on Twitter, calling for gun control and weighing in on other national issues. He has an image as a progressive reformer, but he’s been criticized for dragging his feet on releasing videos of police shootings, and a task force appointed during last summer’s protests over racial injustice made more than 100 recommendations for improving Houston’s police department.

The Herald reported that Acevedo connected with Suarez through the mayor’s membership in the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Noriega, who met with Acevedo over the past month, began to recruit him.

“It helps to have a mayor that has the profile that he does,” Noriega told the newspaper. “We just landed a change agent for the city in terms of just policing and law enforcement.”

Noriega told the Herald he met quietly with Acevedo on two occasions two weeks ago, and finalized the deal in recent days.

Acevedo was born in Havana and is the son of a Cuban police officer, the Herald reported. The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1968, settling in California, and he received a bachelor of science degree from the University of La Verne.

He served in the California Highway Patrol, working his way to chief in 2005. In 2007, he became police chief in Austin, Texas. In 2016, he became the first Hispanic to run Houston’s police department.

In Miami, Colina led the department through federal oversight after a series of police shootings, the pandemic and last summer’s protest. The city interviewed a number of applicants from within the department, as well as from cities across the country.

Noriega told the Herald that while the internal candidates to replace Colina were strong, he believes Acevedo’s background will complement Miami’s command staff.

“He kind of considers himself a chief-maker. From a command staff standpoint, they should all react incredibly positively to the idea that we’re bringing in somebody who can take them to the next level,” Noriega said. “It’s not slight on them. There were some good internal candidates. But with his background and his skill set, it really is a no-brainer and they should be able to understand that.”

Chile becomes Latin America’s COVID-19 vaccination champion

By EVA VERGARA and PATRICIA LUNA for the Associated Press

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — After being among the world’s hardest-hit nations with COVID-19, Chile is now near the top among countries at vaccinating its population against the virus.

With more than 25% of its people having received at least one shot, the country of 19 million on South America’s Pacific coast is the champion of Latin America, and globally it is just behind Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

Reisents pose for a photo with their updated vaccination cards and Chilean Health Minister Enrique Paris after they were inoculated with their second dose of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine, on the patio of a home for the elderly in Santiago, Chile, Friday, March 5, 2021. No other country in Latin America has had anything near Chile’s success in vaccinating its population. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

That’s a far cry from the beginning of the pandemic, when Chile was criticized over its inability to trace and isolate infected people.

So what is the secret to its success?

Government officials and health experts say it was the country’s early negotiations with vaccine producers, as well as its past experience with robust vaccination programs, a record praised by the World Health Organization.

During the first months of the pandemic, the headlines in Chile were bleak, with the country’s intensive care units almost full and the government unable to control the virus’s spread despite restrictions that included mandatory lockdowns.

But another story was developing in parallel that few people knew about, one that had begun months before and would later guarantee Chile fast access to vaccines.

Andrés Couve, Chile’s minister of science, told The Associated Press that formal negotiations with vaccine-producing companies started last April, only a month after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

By May, Couve said, a team of experts and officials presented a plan to President Sebastián Piñera, including a road map about how to use the country’s network of trade agreements and its previous contacts with pharmaceutical companies to get vaccines once they were developed. Recommendations included being part of clinical trials.

This effort was helped by contacts made months earlier in China. In October 2019, Chilean biochemist Dr. Alexis Kalergis had traveled to Beijing with two Chilean colleagues for an international congress on immunology. There Kalergis met experts from the Chinese pharmaceutical Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

Kalergis had already approached Sinovac about working on vaccine research. So when China announced in January 2020 that it had identified a new virus, and within weeks the world saw it spreading around the globe, Kalergis knew he needed to reach out to his colleagues at Sinovac.

“Taking advantage of our experience, the contacts and the interest that we expressed … we started conversations with Sinovac,” said Kalergis, director of the Milenio Institute for Immunology and Immunotherapy at Chile’s Catholic University.

He spoke to Sinovac colleagues in January and February 2020, then went to Catholic University Dean Ignacio Sánchez with the details, saying they needed to be passed on to the government.

Sánchez approached Chile’s health minister and foreign secretary, urging early negotiations with Sinovac and other pharmaceuticals and for Chile to be part of their clinical trials. The ministers agreed, and the Chilean government began making diplomatic contacts.

By June, long before any other country in Latin America, Chile had secured a contract with Sinovac, which agreed to deliver an early batch once the vaccine was authorized, Kalergis said.

Rodrigo Yáñez, undersecretary for international economic relations and lead negotiator with companies to get the vaccines, said Chile understood from the beginning that it needed to work with different pharmaceutical companies at the same time.

“We looked at different alternatives and didn’t put all the eggs in the same basket,” he said.

Chile was part of a Sinovac clinical trial that started in December and involved 2,300 medical workers. The government has not published its results, saying only that they were good.

Trials for vaccines by AstraZeneca, Janssen and the Chinese pharmaceutical CanSino were also done in Chile, and those results also have not been disclosed.

Chile received its first vaccine doses in December, some 21,000 from Pfizer, but they were fewer than promised. The country immediately began vaccinating medical workers. By the end of January, Chile received the first 4 million doses from Sinovac and was able to speed up inoculation. Massive vaccination started in February.

Chile was administering more than 100,000 shots almost daily since early February, and that more than tripled this week.

On Wednesday, it reached a daily global record of 1.3 shots per 100 inhabitants, followed by Israel with 1.04 doses, according to Our World in Data, a collaboration between researchers at the University of Oxford and the nonprofit Global Change Data Lab.

No other country in Latin America has had anything near Chile’s success. Brazil, for example, has vaccinated only 4% of its population, and Argentina around 3%.

Health Minister Enrique París said Chile has now secured 35 million doses to vaccinate 15 million people, and it’s already helping other countries. Earlier this month, Chilean authorities donated 20,000 Sinovac doses to Paraguay and the same amount to Ecuador.

Chile had “good planning and wisely used the resources it has to make bilateral agreements with some producers,” Jarbas Barbosa, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, said this week.

This is not the first time Chile has conducted a successful vaccination program. Last year, between March and April when the virus was emerging, Chilean authorities vaccinated 8 million people against the flu.

Mario Patiño, 75, was among the first to be vaccinated with a Sinovac dose in February at a school in Lo Prado, a poor residential area of Santiago.

“Everything was perfect, fast, with an excellent service, well organized,” said Patiño, who was getting his second shot on Saturday. “For me, the vaccine means to be calmer.”

US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks

By NICOLE LEWIS of The Marshall Project and MICHAEL R. SISAK of The Associated Press

A Florida correctional officer polled his colleagues earlier this year in a private Facebook group: “Will you take the COVID-19 vaccine if offered?”

The answer from more than half: “Hell no.” Only 40 of the 475 respondents said yes.

Kareen Troitino stands outside the Federal Corrections Institution, Friday, March 12, 2021, in Miami. Troitino, a local correction’s officer union president, said that fewer than half of the facility’s 240 employees have been fully vaccinated as of March 11. Many of the workers who refused had expressed concerns about the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects, Troitino said. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

In Massachusetts, more than half the people employed by the Department of Correction declined to be immunized. A statewide survey in California showed that half of all correction employees will wait to be vaccinated. In Rhode Island, prison staff have refused the vaccine at higher rates than the incarcerated, according to medical director Dr. Justin Berk. And in Iowa, early polling among employees showed a little more than half the staff said they’d get vaccinated.

As states have begun COVID-19 inoculations at prisons across the country, corrections employees are refusing vaccines at alarming rates, causing some public health experts to worry about the prospect of controlling the pandemic both inside and outside. Infection rates in prisons are more than three times as high as in the general public. Prison staff helped accelerate outbreaks by refusing to wear masks, downplaying people’s symptoms, and haphazardly enforcing social distancing and hygiene protocols in confined, poorly ventilated spaces ripe for viral spread.

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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic. Nicole Lewis, Beth Schwartzapfel and Tom Meagher reported for The Marshall Project.

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The Marshall Project and The Associated Press spoke with correctional officers and union leaders nationwide, as well as with public health experts and doctors working inside prisons, to understand why officers are declining to be vaccinated, despite being at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Many employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared they would lose their jobs if they spoke out.

In December and January, at least 37 prison systems began to offer vaccines to their employees, particularly front-line correctional officers and those who work in health care. More than 106,000 prison employees in 29 systems, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press since December. And some states are not tracking employees who get vaccinated in a community setting such as a clinic or pharmacy.

Still, some correctional officers are refusing the vaccine because they fear both short- and long-term side effects of the immunizations. Others have embraced conspiracy theories about the vaccine. Distrust of the prison administration and its handling of the virus has also discouraged officers from being immunized. In some instances, correctional officers said they would rather be fired than be vaccinated.

The resistance to the vaccine is not unique to correctional officers. Health care workers, caretakers in nursing homes and police officers — who have witnessed the worst effects of the pandemic — have declined to be vaccinated at unexpectedly high rates.

The refusal of prison workers to take the vaccine threatens to undermine efforts to control the pandemic both inside and outside of prisons, according to public health experts. Prisons are coronavirus hot spots, so when staff move between the prisons and their home communities after work, they create a pathway for the virus to spread. More than 388,000 incarcerated people and 105,000 staff members have contracted the coronavirus over the last year. In states like Michigan, Kansas and Arizona, that’s meant 1 in 3 staff members have been infected. In Maine, the state with the lowest infection rate, 1 in 20 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Nationwide, those infections proved fatal for 2,474 prisoners and at least 193 staff members.

“People who work in prisons are an essential part of the equation that will lead to reduced disease and less chance of renewed explosive COVID-19 outbreaks in the future,” said Brie Williams, a correctional health expert at the University of California, San Francisco, or UCSF.

At FCI Miami, a federal prison in Florida, fewer than half the facility’s 240 employees had been fully vaccinated as of March 11, according to Kareen Troitino, the local corrections officer union president. Many of the workers who refused had expressed concerns about the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects, Troitino said.

In January, Troitino and FCI Miami warden Sylvester Jenkins sent an email to employees saying that “in an act of solidarity,” they had agreed to get vaccinated and encouraged staff to do the same. “Even though we recognize and respect that this motion is not mandatory; nevertheless, with the intent of promoting staff safety, we encourage all staff to join us,” the Jan. 27 email said.

Only 25 employees signed up. FCI Miami has had two major coronavirus outbreaks, Troitino said: last July, when more than 400 prisoners out of 852 were suspected of having the disease, and in December, when about 100 people were affected at the facility’s minimum-security camp.

Because so many correctional officers and prisoners haven’t been vaccinated, there are fears that could happen again. “Everybody is on edge,” Troitino said. Though he’s gotten the shot, he’s worried about another outbreak and the impact on already stretched staffing at the prison.

The pandemic has strained prisons already struggling with low staffing rates and subpar health care. Low vaccination rates among officers could push prisons to their breaking point. At the height of the outbreak behind bars, several states had to call in the National Guard to temporarily run the facilities because so many staff members had called out sick or refused to work.

At FCI Miami, officers are constantly shuttling sick and elderly prisoners to the hospital, Troitino said. As a result, a skeleton crew of staff is left to operate the prison. Unvaccinated staff only compound the problem as they run the risk of getting sick when outbreaks crop up in the prisons.

“A lot of employees get scared when they find out, ‘Oh, we had an outbreak in a unit, 150 inmates have COVID,’” Troitino said. “Everybody calls in sick.”

Part of the resistance to the vaccine is widespread misinformation among correctional staff, said Brian Dawe, a former correctional officer and national director of One Voice United, a policy and advocacy group for officers. A majority of people in law enforcement lean right, Dawe said. “They get a lot of their information from the right-wing media outlets,” he said. “A lot of them believe you don’t have to wear masks. That it’s like the flu.” National polls have shown that Republicans without college degrees are the most resistant to the vaccine.

Several correctional officers in Florida, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to talk to the press, said many of their colleagues believe that the vaccine could give them the virus. Some have latched onto debunked conspiracy theories circulating on social media, the officers said, believing the vaccine contains tracking devices produced by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who has donated to coronavirus treatment research. (The vaccine does not contain tracking devices.) Others believe the vaccine was hastily produced without enough time to understand the long-term side effects.

“I wouldn’t care if I worked in a dorm with every inmate having COVID, I still wouldn’t get (vaccinated),” said a correctional sergeant who has worked for the Florida Department of Corrections for more than a decade. “If I’m wearing a mask, gloves, washing my hands and being careful — I’d still feel better working like that than putting the vaccine in my body.”

Officer attitudes about the vaccine are so widespread that researchers at UCSF have created a frequently asked questions flyer for the incarcerated that includes: “I heard the guards/officers … at my facility are refusing to get the vaccine. If they aren’t getting it, why should I?” The researchers encourage the incarcerated to learn as much as they can about the vaccine and to make their own decision “regardless of what other people are doing.”

Public health experts have urged states to prioritize vaccinations in prisons and jails but cautioned against prioritizing staff over prisoners. Though numbers aren’t available from many states, at least 15 began vaccinating staff before the incarcerated, The Marshall Project and Associated Press found. “We know they have anti-vax ideations and attitudes,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who leads the COVID Prison Project, which tracks correction officials’ responses to the pandemic. “We have said again and again, we shouldn’t have this two-tier system.”

But guards’ refusal to be vaccinated has been a blessing for some incarcerated people. The vaccines have a short shelf life after being thawed out, so officials have offered the leftover vaccines to prisoners instead of letting them go to waste. Julia Ann Poff is incarcerated at FMC Carswell, a federal prison in Texas for women with special medical and mental health needs, for sending bombs to state and federal officials. She said she received her first shot in mid-December, after several officers declined.

“I consider myself very blessed to have received it,” she wrote, using the prison’s email system. “I have lupus and a recent diagnosis of heart disease, so there was no way I could afford to let myself get (sick).”

Misinformation and conspiracy theories aside, some officers in federal prisons say they are refusing the vaccine because they do not trust the prison administration. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has come under fire by employees and the incarcerated for its response to the coronavirus. Among the criticisms: a lack of masks and soap in the pandemic’s early days, broken thermometers at one facility and sick prisoners who say they were bunched together without social distancing.

At FCI Mendota, a medium-security federal prison near Fresno, California, officials closed off the main employee entrance in January, funneled the employees through a visiting room turned vaccination clinic and forced them to decide on the spot whether to get vaccinated. Employees weren’t allowed to proceed to their posts without either getting vaccinated or signing a form declaring they refused the vaccine.

Aaron McGlothin, a local corrections officers’ union president, said he refused the vaccine citing medical issues, adding that he doesn’t trust prison officials’ motives.

Employers cannot mandate that staff get vaccinated. So correctional officers’ refusal puts incarcerated people at risk as they have no way of protecting themselves from unmasked and unvaccinated officers. By December, 1 in 5 incarcerated people had contracted the coronavirus, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.

Correctional officers can bring the virus home from work and infect family members, too. In extreme cases, those family members themselves become seriously ill or even die. At least five family members of correctional employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the online memorial Mourning Our Losses, which tracks COVID-19 deaths among those who live and work in prisons and jails. In one instance, a Florida correctional officer and his wife died in side-by-side intensive care rooms on the same day.

For some officers, these life and death experiences are a wake-up call. At FCI Miami, where Troitino leads the local officers’ union, several employees contracted the virus or were hospitalized for COVID-19 after officials encouraged them to get vaccinated in late January but they refused. Some of those employees have expressed a change of heart about the vaccine.

“They have called me begging to have the vaccine reserved for them upon their return,” Troitino said. “A few faced life and death and are totally devastated by their experience.”

COVID relief bill could permanently alter social safety net

By ASHRAF KHALIL and ALAN FRAM for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty.

In this March 10, 2021, photo, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gestures after the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill was passed at the Capitol in Washington. Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

With more than $6 billion for food security-related programs, more than $25 billion in emergency rental assistance, nearly $10 billion in emergency mortgage aid for homeowners, and extensions of already-expanded unemployment payments through early September, the package is full of provisions designed to help families and individuals survive and recover from pandemic-induced economic hardships.

“When you stand back and look at it, that’s when you really can appreciate the sheer scope of it,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research & Action Center, a food-security advocacy group. “The scope is both impressive and much needed.”

Several aspects seem targeted at restructuring the country’s social safety net and actually lifting people out of poverty. It’s the kind of ambition and somewhat old school Democratic Party ideal that has observers referencing former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

“We haven’t seen a shift like this seen since FDR. It’s saying families are too big to fail, children are too big to fail, the elderly are too big to fail,” said Andre Perry, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a recognition that the social safety net is not working and was not working prior to the pandemic.”

Biden himself, when signing the package into law Thursday, referenced it as an overt attempt to redraw the country’s economic fault lines in a way that’s bigger than the pandemic. “This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country and giving people in this nation, working people and middle-class folks, the people who built the country — a fighting chance,” Biden said.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it “one of the most transformative and historic bills any of us will ever have the opportunity to support.”

Perry in particular pointed to the expansion of the child tax credit system as a potentially foundational change. The legislation provides families with up to $3,600 this year for each child and also expands the credit to millions of families currently making too little to qualify for the full benefits.

“That is really going to put a dent in child poverty,” Perry said.

In promoting the child tax credit expansion, Democrats rallied around an analysis that predicted it would cut nationwide child poverty by 45%.

The legislation extends through September last year’s 15% increase in benefits offered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, commonly known as food stamps. It also provides extra funds to administer the expanded SNAP program and to expand access to SNAP online purchasing.

The package also includes what amounts to the biggest expansion of federal help for health insurance since the Obama-era Affordable Care Act more than 10 years ago. Several million people could see their health insurance costs reduced, and there’s also an incentive for states to expand Medicaid coverage, if they haven’t already done so.

Those changes, however, won’t be as immediate as the direct cash injections in other areas.

Housing advocates give generally positive reviews, saying the massive relief packages for both renters and home owners should be enough to stave off the debts incurred so far. “This is an appropriate response for an unprecedented time. Clearly there’s a tremendous need to avoid an eviction tsunami,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But she also warned that the economic hardships, and need for assistance, will extend past the end of the pandemic.

“Many of the jobs that low-income workers have lost won’t come back right away,” she said.

Yentel called on Biden to extend the national moratorium on evictions via executive order. The current moratorium, imposed by the Centers for Disease Control as part of the national health emergency, is being challenged in multiple court cases and expires at the end of March.

Many of the legislation’s changes are temporary, but advocates and Democratic legislators are talking openly about making some of them permanent.

“Getting something out of the code is often times harder than getting something into the code,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., told reporters Tuesday, referring to the relief bill’s expansion of the child tax credit.

He added, “What we did is unlikely to go away.”

At this point, the child tax credit expansion would expire at the end of the year without some sort of congressional intervention. But permanently enshrining those changes into law could be a battle. Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated the child tax credit’s cost at $110 billion, making it one of the single most expensive items in the whole package. Extending that over multiple years would be extremely costly, and would likely draw serious opposition, especially from Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, called Democrats’ expansion of those credits “sweeping new government benefits with no work requirements whatsoever,” suggesting the shape of the GOP opposition strategy ahead. But the provision is projected to lift millions of families out of poverty, and progressives believe there will be tremendous pressure on Republicans to allow the change.

Many also want to preserve the bill’s temporarily beefed up earned income tax credit, and its improved tax breaks for caring for children and dependents and for paid sick and family leave.

A study by the Tax Policy Center concluded that the relief package would reduce federal taxes in 2021 by an average of $3,000 per household. Low- and moderate-income households (making $91,000 or less) would receive nearly 70 percent of the tax benefits, the study concluded.

“The question will be do they want child poverty to go back up again” by letting that credit expire, said Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy for the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

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Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.

Federal look into Breonna Taylor’s death casts a wider net

DYLAN LOVAN for the Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Their numbers have dwindled since protesters first flooded Louisville’s streets after police fatally shot Breonna Taylor in her home a year ago, but their push for justice has never waned.

A federal investigation of the shooting that has been quietly proceeding could be their last chance.

FILE – In this Sept. 24, 2020 file photo, protesters march in Louisville, Ky. The three Louisville police officers who fired their guns in the fatal raid at Breonna Taylor’s apartment avoided homicide charges. But an ongoing federal probe could expand beyond the officers who conducted the raid. The warrant that sent the police to Taylor’s home a year ago and how it was obtained are under review by federal investigators. And there are signs the investigation could range into the Louisville police response to protests after the shooting. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, file)

“We can’t expect people to continue to emotionally and mentally keep moving forward when there hasn’t been any justice yet for Breonna Taylor,” said Rep. Attica Scott, a state lawmaker who was tear-gassed and arrested during summer protests in the city. “We’ve been failed every single time from every level of government, and we need a freaking break.”

That could come in the form of the ongoing inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice, which appears to have expanded well beyond the actions of the three police officers who fired their guns into Taylor’s home on March 13, 2020. Last year, a grand jury formed by state Attorney General Daniel Cameron charged one officer with putting Taylor’s neighbors in danger but issued no charges related to her death.

The warrant that sent the police to Taylor’s home was not part of Cameron’s criminal investigation, but that document and how it was obtained are under review by federal investigators. And there are signs the investigation could range into the Louisville police response to protests after the shooting.

Taylor’s death initially flew under the media radar, as the COVID-19 crisis shut down society, but George Floyd’s death in Minnesota and the release of a chilling 911 call from Taylor’s boyfriend in late May sparked interest in the case.

Months of protests, police reforms and investigations followed. The city banned controversial “no-knock” warrants, hired a new police chief and paid a $12 million settlement to Taylor’s mother. Two of the officers who fired shots were dismissed from the department, along with a detective who sought the warrant.

Through it all, protesters continued to chant, “Arrest the Cops!” But that hasn’t happened.

The federal investigation into her death will be “slow and methodical,” experts said, examining everything from what the officers may have been thinking that night to how they were trained leading up to the shooting.MORE STORIES:

“The civil rights investigation will turn the whole situation upside-down,” said Cynthia Deitl, the former head of the FBI’s civil rights unit who has overseen similar police shooting probes. “You look at everything — everything the officers ever learned.”

“It takes time to build a case against police officers,” Deitl said.

She said a change in administrations in Washington wouldn’t have an effect on the officials who are leading the case.

After Taylor’s front door was breached by officers, her boyfriend fired his gun once, saying later that he feared an intruder was entering the apartment. One officer was struck, and he and two other officers fired 32 shots into the apartment, striking Taylor five times.

The FBI has declined to comment on specifics of the investigation, but there are signs that other actions by the Louisville Metro Police Department have drawn their attention. That includes the response to citizen protests, especially in late May and early June when the city was under a curfew and officers patrolled the streets in force.

FBI agents have interviewed a local TV reporter who was struck with pepper balls fired by Louisville police during Taylor demonstrations in early summer.

They also have interviewed witnesses to the shooting death of West Louisville eatery owner David McAtee, who was killed by a National Guard member after Louisville police sprayed his customers with pepper balls during a curfew prompted by protests. McAtee fired two shots from his gun before he was shot dead.

Steve Romines, a lawyer who is suing Louisville police on behalf of McAtee’s family, said he didn’t know if federal investigators’ witness interviews were part of a larger investigation tied to Taylor or a separate probe.

Despite disappointment with the grand jury outcome, there is “cautious and guarded hope” that the federal investigation could bring some measure of justice, community activist Christopher 2X said.

The FBI’s Louisville office has declined to provide details of the federal investigation into the Taylor shooting while it is ongoing.

But on a July conference call with an AP reporter and others organized by 2X, Robert Brown, Louisville FBI’s special agent in charge, said investigators would look “at all aspects of it, where the facts that led up to this, the actual incident and things that might have occurred afterwards.” Civil rights violations by individuals acting in an official capacity, like police officers, can bring up to a life sentence in prison upon conviction, according to the Justice Department.

Cameron, the Kentucky attorney general, has confirmed that federal investigators were looking at how the warrant was obtained.

Two of the Louisville officers, Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison, who fired guns during the March 13 raid have been dismissed, along with Joshua Jaynes, the detective who sought the warrant and later acknowledged that it contained false information. The third officer, Jonathan Mattingly, who was shot in the leg by Taylor’s boyfriend during the raid, remains with the department.

Jaynes may face scrutiny for a false line in the warrant that he wrote for Taylor’s apartment. The detective said he confirmed with a U.S. postal inspector that a suspected drug dealer was receiving packages at Taylor’s home. He later admitted he didn’t contact the postal service.

In a response to a civil lawsuit filed by Taylor’s boyfriend, Jaynes said he made an “honest mistake” and did not knowingly break the law.

A recent internal investigation of the Louisville Police Department by a consulting firm found numerous problems with Louisville’s warrant process. It said supervisors generally approved probable cause statements in search warrants “without performing an in-depth review” of the content.

Proving that Jaynes and other officers were aware they were violating Taylor’s or others’ civil rights will be key to a conviction in a federal case, Deitl said.

It’s a high standard.

“The feds have to prove that the officer knew what he was doing, knew it was wrong and did it anyway,” Deitl said.

That can lead to long-term investigations that sometime last years.

“It’s frustrating for the public, but what I always try to tell the victim’s family is: I know you’re antsy; I know you want an answer from us today,” Deitl said. “But what you really want is an honest and truthful and very thorough investigation, and that’s going to take time.”

Case of UK woman who vanished on way home stirs grief, anger

By JILL LAWLESS for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — The suspected abduction and murder of a young London woman as she walked home has dismayed Britain and revived a painful question: Why are women too often not safe on the streets?

The fate of Sarah Everard is all the more shocking because the suspect arrested on suspicion of killing her is a U.K. police officer whose job was protecting top politicians and diplomats.

A missing sign outside Poynders Court on the A205 in Clapham, London Wednesday March 10, 2021 during the continuing search for Sarah Everard who has been missing for a week. The 33-year-old disappeared on Wednesday March 3 after leaving a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, and began walking to her home in Brixton. The Met Police have said that a serving diplomatic protection officer is being held over the disappearance of Sarah Everard. The officer being held is understood to be the subject of a separate allegation of indecent exposure. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, set out on the 50-minute walk home from a friend’s house in south London at about 9 p.m. on March 3. She did not arrive. On Friday police confirmed that a body found hidden in woodland 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of the city is hers.

London police arrested a member of the force’s Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command on Tuesday as a suspect in the case. The officer in his 40s, whose name has not been released, is being held on suspicion of kidnapping and murder but has not yet been charged.

In a statement issued Thursday, Everard’s family said “our beautiful daughter Sarah was taken from us and we are appealing for any information that will help to solve this terrible crime.”

“I know that the public feel hurt and angry about what has happened, and those are sentiments I share personally,” said Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave,

Everard’s disappearance and killing has caused a nationwide outcry, with thousands appealing on social media for information to help find her. Women also then began sharing experiences of being threatened or attacked — or simply facing the everyday fear of violence when walking alone.

“When she went missing, any woman who has ever walked home alone at night felt that grim, instinctive sense of recognition,” columnist Gaby Hinsliff wrote in The Guardian. “Footsteps on a dark street. Keys gripped between your fingers. There but for the grace of God.”

Organizers of a planned vigil in Everard’s memory planned to go to court Friday after police said they could not gather because of coronavirus restrictions. Britain is now in lockdown and all mass assemblies are banned.

The Reclaim These Streets organizers want to hold a socially distanced gathering Saturday on Clapham Common, an open space on the route of Everard’s walk home.

Anna Birley, one of the organizers, said “safety has been a priority from the get-go.”

“It would be ironic to organize a vigil to think about women’s safety in public spaces without also thinking about the health and safety aspects,” she said.

The police force said in a statement it was “in discussion with the organizers about this event in light of the current COVID regulations.”

The case has raised tough questions for the police. Britain’s police watchdog is investigating how the force handled a complaint of indecent exposure against the same suspect, three days before Everard disappeared.

The Independent Office of Police Conduct is also investigating how the suspect sustained a head injury while he was in custody. The police force says he was found injured in his cell and taken to a hospital for treatment before being returned to a police station.

Brazil hospitals buckle in absence of national virus plan

By DAVID BILLER and DÉBORA ÁLVARES for the Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s hospitals are faltering as a highly contagious coronavirus variant tears through the country, the president insists on unproven treatments and the only attempt to create a national plan to contain COVID-19 has just fallen short.

Relatives attend a burial service of a person who died from complications related to COVID-19 at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 11, 2021. One year after the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic, Brazil is reporting almost 2,000 deaths per day. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

For the last week, Brazilian governors sought to do something President Jair Bolsonaro obstinately rejects: cobble together a proposal for states to help curb the nation’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak yet. The effort was expected to include a curfew, prohibition of crowded events and limits on the hours nonessential services can operate.

The final product, presented Wednesday, was a one-page document that included general support for restricting activity but without any specific measures. Six governors, evidently still wary of antagonizing Bolsonaro, declined to sign on.

Piaui state’s Gov. Wellington Dias told The Associated Press that unless pressure on hospitals is eased, growing numbers of patients will have to endure the disease without a hospital bed or any hope of treatment in an intensive care unit.

“We have reached the limit across Brazil; rare are the exceptions,” Dias, who leads the governors’ forum, said. “The chance of dying without assistance is real.”

Those deaths have already started. In Brazil’s wealthiest state, Sao Paulo, at least 30 patients died this month while waiting for ICU beds, according to a tally published Wednesday by the news site G1. Occupancy of ICUs is above 90% in 15 of 27 capitals, according to the state-run Fiocruz institute. In southern Santa Catarina state, 419 people were waiting for transfer to ICU beds. Neighboring Rio Grande do Sul’s capacity was at 106%. Alexandre Zavascki, a doctor in its capital, described a constant arrival of hospital patients struggling to breathe.

“I have a lot of colleagues who, at times, stop to cry. This isn’t medicine we’re used to performing routinely. This is medicine adapted for a war scenario,” said Zavascki, who oversees infectious disease treatment at a private hospital. “We see a good part of the population refusing to see what’s happening, resisting the facts. Those people could be next to step inside the hospital and will want beds. But there won’t be one.”

The country, he added, needs “more rigid measures” from authorities.

Over the president’s objections, the Supreme Court last year upheld cities’ and states’ jurisdiction to impose restrictions on activity. Even so, Bolsonaro consistently condemned any such moves, saying the economy needed to keep churning and that isolation would cause depression.

The most recent surge is driven by the P1 variant that first became dominant in the Amazonian city Manaus.

Brazil’s failure to arrest the virus’ spread since then is increasingly a concern not just for Latin American neighbors, but also as a warning to the world, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, said in a March 5 press briefing.

“In the whole country, aggressive use of the public health measures, social measures, will be very, very crucial,” he said. “Without doing things to impact transmission or suppress the virus, I don’t think we will be able in Brazil to have the declining trend.”

Last week’s tally of more than 10,000 deaths was Brazil’s highest since the pandemic began, and this week is on track to be even worse after the country posted nearly 2,300 deaths Wednesday — blowing away the prior day’s total that was also a record. At the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, burials are being done one after another, with mourners and cars lined up awaiting their turn.

Brazil has decades of experience with mass immunization campaigns, but rollout has been hobbled by delays, some self-inflicted; 5.5% of its population has been vaccinated.

“Governors, like a lot of the population, are getting fed up with all this inaction,” said Margareth Dalcolmo, a prominent pulmonologist at Fiocruz. She added that their proposed pact will remain symbolic unless it is far-reaching and confronts the federal government.

Brazil’s national council of state health secretaries last week called for the establishment of a national curfew and lockdown in regions that are approaching maximum hospital capacity. Bolsonaro again demurred.

“I won’t decree it,” Bolsonaro said Monday at an event. “And you can be sure of one thing: My army will not go to the street to oblige the people to stay home.”

Restrictions can already be found just outside the presidential palace after the Federal District’s governor, Ibaneis Rocha, implemented a curfew and partial lockdown. Rocha warned Tuesday that he could clamp down harder, sparing only pharmacies and hospitals, if people keep disregarding rules. Currently, 213 people in the district are on the wait list for an ICU bed.

Bolsonaro told reporters Monday that the curfew is “an affront, inadmissible,” and said that even the WHO believes lockdowns are inadequate because they disproportionately hurt the poor. While the WHO acknowledges “profound negative effects,” it says some countries have had no choice but to impose heavy-handed measures to slow transmission, and that governments must make the most of the extra time provided to test and trace cases, while caring for patients.

Such nuance was lost on Bolsonaro. His government continues its search for silver-bullet solutions that so far has served only to stoke false hopes. Any idea appears to warrant consideration, except the ones from public health experts.

Bolsonaro’s government spent millions producing and distributing malaria pills, which have shown no benefit in rigorous studies. Still, Bolsonaro endorsed the drugs. He has also supported treatment with two drugs for fighting parasites, neither of which have shown effectiveness. He again touted their capacity to prevent hospitalizations during a Wednesday event in the presidential palace.

Bolsonaro also dispatched a committee to Israel this week to assess an unproven nasal spray that he has called “a miraculous product.” Fiocruz’s Dalcolmo, whose younger sister is currently in an ICU, called the trip “really pathetic.”

Meanwhile, the city of Araraquara, in Sao Paulo’s interior, has seen new cases turn downward weeks after declaring lockdown amid a crippling surge dominated by the P1 variant. Mayor Edinho Silva told the AP in a message that, without mass vaccination, there was no alternative.

Camila Romano, a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Tropical Medicine, hopes a test her lab developed to identify worrisome variants, including P1, will help monitor and control their spread. She also wants to see stricter government measures, and citizens doing their part.

“Every day is a new surprise, a new variant, a city whose health system enters collapse,” Romano said. “We’re now in the worst phase. Whether this will be the worst phase of all, unfortunately we don’t know what’s yet to come.”

___ Álvares reported from Brasilia. Associated Press videojournalist Tatiana Pollastri contributed from Sao Paulo.

With ‘big one’ coming, quake alert system launches in Oregon

By ANDREW SELSKY for the Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — People in Oregon will be better prepared for earthquakes — particularly important in the Pacific Northwest because experts say “the big one” is coming — as an early warning system launched Thursday, the 10th anniversary of a devastating quake and tsunami in Japan.

California already has the system, while Washington state will join in May to complete coverage of the West Coast. The ShakeAlert system operated by the U.S. Geological Survey uses seismographic sensors to detect significant earthquakes quickly so alerts reach smartphones and people can seek cover before the shaking starts.

FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2019, file photo, a mobile phone customer looks at an earthquake warning application on an iPhone in Los Angeles. An earthquake early warning system operated by the U.S. Geological Survey has been activated in Oregon on the 10th anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. California already has the system. Washington state joins it in May, which will complete coverage of the West Coast of the contiguous United States. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

“It’s very important that (the three states) are all partners in ShakeAlert, because earthquakes don’t respect geographic boundaries, and we have huge population centers all across the West Coast where earthquake risk is the highest in the contiguous U.S.,” said Gabriel Lotto, ShakeAlert user engagement facilitator for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

Earthquakes in the Cascadia subduction zone, which extends from the ocean off Northern California to Canada’s Vancouver Island, have an average magnitude of around 9, making them among the world’s biggest.

A quake in that zone has a 37% probability of happening off Oregon in the next 50 years, with a slightly lower chance of one striking near Washington state, according to Chris Goldfinger, an Oregon State University professor and earthquake geologist.

“When a Cascadia event happens, the critical seconds of notice ShakeAlert warnings provide will save lives and reduce damage to important lifeline systems,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said.

The system cannot predict an earthquake but can give people a jump on seeking cover from falling objects and time to brace themselves.

When an earthquake is detected, people who have alerts activated on their smartphones will get a message saying, “Earthquake detected! Drop, cover, hold on. Protect yourself.” Mobile apps also carry the alerts.

Jenny Crayne of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry told reporters Wednesday that the system works by detecting an initial wave sent out by an earthquake.

“The P wave is first and fast. It travels out and ahead of the S wave, and it is not producing the shaking,” Crayne said. “The S wave is slower and second, and it’s the one that produces the real shaking and damage that you experience during an earthquake.”

The system’s sensors can rapidly detect that initial P wave and send that data to a processing center, where algorithms can determine and estimate the geographical extent of the earthquake, the magnitude and the expected shaking intensity in different areas, Crayne said.

If an area is expected to experience significant shaking, people there will receive an alert. But those at or very close to the epicenter of the quake won’t receive the warning in time because the waves will be too close together.

ShakeAlert can also slow trains to reduce derailments, open firehouse doors so they don’t jam shut and protect water systems with automatic shutoffs. A test of the system in Oregon is planned for the summer.

The rollout in Oregon coincides with the 10th anniversary of Japan’s magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

___

Follow Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky.

Biden signs $1.9T relief bill before speech to nation

By ZEKE MILLER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Marking a year of loss and disruption, President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law the $1.9 trillion relief package that he said will help the U.S. defeat the coronavirus and nurse the economy back to health.

The signing came hours before Biden delivers his first prime-time address since taking office. He’s aiming to steer the nation toward a hungered-for sentiment — hope — as he marks one year since the onset of the pandemic that has killed more than 529,000 Americans.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, arrive at the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Biden said as he signed the bill in the Oval Office.

Biden originally planned to sign the bill on Friday, but it arrived at the White House more quickly than anticipated.

“We want to move as fast as possible,” tweeted White House chief of staff Ron Klain. He added, “We will hold our celebration of the signing on Friday, as planned, with congressional leaders!”

Previewing his remarks, Biden said he would “talk about what we’ve been through as a nation this past year, but more importantly, I’m going to talk about what comes next.”

Biden’s challenge Thursday night will be to honor the sacrifices made by Americans over the last year while encouraging them to remain vigilant despite “virus fatigue” and growing impatience to resume normal activities given the tantalizing promise of vaccines. Speaking on the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic, he’ll mourn the dead, but also project optimism about the future.

“This is a chance for him to really beam into everybody’s living rooms and to be both the mourner in chief and to explain how he’s leading the country out of this,” said presidential historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley.

“This is a big moment,” Brinkley added. “He’s got to win over hearts and minds for people to stay masked and get vaccinated, but also recognize that after the last year, the federal government hasn’t forgotten you.”

Biden’s evening remarks in the East Room are central to a pivotal week for the president as he addresses the defining challenge of his term: shepherding the nation through the twin public health and economic storms brought about by the virus.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released initial guidance for how vaccinated people can resume some normal activities. On Wednesday, Congress approved the president’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” aimed at easing the economic impact of the virus on tens of millions of people. And the nation was on pace to administer its 100 millionth dose of vaccine as soon as Thursday.

Biden said he would focus his remarks on what his administration plans to deliver in the coming months, but also reiterate his call for Americans to continue to practice social distancing and wear face coverings to hasten the end of the pandemic.

“I’m going to launch the next phase of the COVID response and explain what we will do as a government and what we will ask of the American people,” he said.

He added: “There is light at the end of this dark tunnel of the past year. There is real reason for hope.”

Almost exactly one year ago, President Donald Trump addressed the nation to mark the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic. He announced travel restrictions and called for Americans to practice good hygiene but displayed little alarm about the forthcoming catastrophe. Trump, it was later revealed, acknowledged that he had been deliberately “playing down” the threat of the virus.

For Biden, who has promised to level with the American public after the alternate reality of Trump’s virus talk, the imperative is to strike the correct balance “between optimism and grief,” said Princeton history professor and presidential scholar Julian Zelizer.

“Generally, the country likes optimism, and at this particular moment they’re desperate for optimism, but you can’t risk a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment,’” he said, warning against any premature declaration that the threat has been vanquished.

Fifty days into his presidency, Biden is experiencing a polling honeymoon that his predecessor never enjoyed. Yet public sentiment remains stubbornly polarized and fewer people among his critics seem willing to say they’ll give him a chance than was the case for earlier presidents. Overall, he has earned strong marks on his handling of the pandemic.

According to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released last week, 70% of Americans back the Democratic president’s handling of the virus response, including 44% of Republicans.

The White House hopes that as Biden assumes the role of cheerleader for the virus relief package, the elements of the $1.9 trillion bill that are popular with Republicans will boost his support even further.

Brinkley said Biden’s decision to deliver a speech aimed directly at the nation before he makes the traditional presidential address to a joint session of Congress signals that it is as much an “introduction” of the president and his administration to the American people as a status report on his first 50 days in office.

Presidential addresses to Congress “tend to be a series of soundbites,” Brinkley said. “This way, he can make his case directly.”

Still, the prime-time speech is in many ways an anachronism, better suited for an era when Americans had vastly fewer television options and in which a presidential address could reframe the national conversation.

The fragmented media landscape makes it more difficult for Biden to reach people, Zelizer said, but that may be beside the point.

“Everything he’s doing is throwback,” said Zelizer. “It’s part of his effort to create normalcy after the last four years.”

EU gets extra vaccine doses to tackle virus border clusters

By SAMUEL PETREQUIN for the Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive arm has secured an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech for an extra 4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to fight a worrying surge of coronavirus clusters that are prompting the bloc’s nations to impose border restrictions.

The European Commission said Wednesday that the deal will help “tackle coronavirus hot spots” and facilitate free border movement. The extra doses, to be delivered in the next two weeks, come in addition to previously planned vaccine deliveries.

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 European Commission has secured an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech for an extra 4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to tackle a surge of coronavirus clusters that have prompted border restrictions. The doses are expected to be delivered before the end of March. The EU’s executive arm is worried by the worsening situation in several areas, mainly due to the spread of new variants. It also does not want virus clusters to prompt more border restrictions. The EU has cited Tyrol in Austria, Nice and Moselle in France, Bolzano in Italy and some parts of Bavaria and Saxony in Germany as places where COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

“This will help member states in their efforts to keep the spread of new variants under control,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “Through their targeted use where they are most needed, in particular in border regions, these doses will also help ensure or restore free movement of goods and people. These are key for the functioning of health systems and the single market.”

Despite a slowdown in new infections across the European Union, which has 27 nations and 450 million inhabitants, the Commission said it is worried by the epidemiologic situation in several areas, mainly due to the spread of new variants. It cited Tyrol in Austria, Nice and Moselle in France, Bolzano in Italy and some parts of Bavaria and Saxony in Germany as places where COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise.

The German government approved Wednesday a change to its vaccination rules that allows for areas with particularly high rates of infection to diverge from the usual priority by making shots available to younger and healthier people there too. Vogtland county in Saxony, on the border with the Czech Republic, is planning to offer vaccines to all adults starting Thursday in an effort to stop the coronavirus cases there spreading further into the country.

The European Commission said the new Pfizer-BioNTech doses will be made available for purchase to all member states on a pro-rata basis.

The EU has faced sharp criticism over the slow rollout of vaccinations. While Britain, which left the bloc fully in January, has inoculated 35% of its adults, the EU has only reached 9.5%, according to the latest figures.

Overall, the EU has signed six contracts for more than 2 billion vaccine doses, with Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Johnson & Johnson and CureVac. Only the first three are approved so far and they involve two shots per person. The bloc is also in negotiations with two other vaccine manufacturers.

An expert group at the European Medicines Agency will meet Thursday to decide whether the one-dose coronavirus vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson should be authorized for use, a move that would pave the way for its deployment across the EU.

___

Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.

Nicaragua’s San Cristobal volcano erupts, showering ash

From the Associated Press

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Nicaragua’s San Cristobal volcano erupted Tuesday, showering the northwestern city of Chinandega in ash.

Video from the scene showed dramatically reduced visibility in Chinandega early Tuesday afternoon and the sound of cinders falling onto homes, cars and streets.

“I was having lunch at home when the great blast came out and the sky started to darken,”said lawyer Pablo Medina, who lives about 4 miles (7 kilometers) from Nicaragua’s tallest volcano. He said an intense odor of sulfur engulfed his home and ash coated everything.

“It was a rapid eruption, a single big explosion and then the volcano spent some 30 minutes spewing gases,” said writer Jorge Lenín Duarte, a cultural promoter in Chinandega.

Some businesses were forced to close as visibility was reduced to nearly zero. Hours later, residents were still cleaning up.

There has been lesser activity at the volcano recently, “but today’s explosion was something unusual, especially strong,” Duarte said.

The 1,745-meter (5,725-foot) volcano has been periodically active for years. It also emitted a significant ash plume on Feb. 14.

Vice President Rosario Murillo called on Nicaraguans to remain calm and said Tuesday’s activity was part of “usual eruptions.” She the government disaster agency would be monitoring the situation, but there was no mention of evacuations.

Myanmar protesters defy curfew; media outlets ordered shut

From the Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Demonstrators in Myanmar’s biggest city came out Monday night for their first mass protests in defiance of an 8 p.m. curfew, seeking to show support for an estimated 200 students trapped by security forces in a small area of one neighborhood.

In this image taken from video, people stand outside their homes and gather together on a road in Insein township in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, March 8, 2021. Demonstrators in Myanmar’s biggest city came out Monday night for their first mass protests in defiance of an 8 p.m. curfew, seeking to show support for an estimated 200 students trapped by security forces in a small area of one neighborhood. (AP Photo)

The students and other civilians earlier took part in one of the many daily protests across the country against the military’s seizure of power last month that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military government also placed a major curb on media coverage of the crisis. It announced that the licenses of five local media outlets — Mizzima, DVB, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7Day News — have been canceled.

“These media companies are no longer allowed to broadcast or write or give information by using any kind of media platform or using any media technology,” it said on state broadcaster MRTV.

All five had been offering extensive coverage of the protests, often with livestreaming video online. The offices of Myanmar Now were raided by the authorities Monday before the measure was announced.

DVB said it was not surprised by the cancellation and would continue broadcasting on satellite TV and online.

“We worry for the safety of our reporters and our staff, but in the current uprising, the whole country has become the citizens’ journalists and there is no way for military authorities to shut the information flow,” Executive Director Aye Chan Naing told The Associated Press.

The government has detained dozens of journalists since the coup, including a Myanmar Now reporter and Thein Zaw of AP, both of whom have been charged under a public order law that carried a penalty of up to three years in prison.

The night’s street protests began after police cordoned off part of Yangon’s Sanchaung neighborhood and were believed to be conducting door-to-door searches for those who fled attacks by security forces to seek shelter in the homes of sympathetic strangers.

News of their plight spread quickly on social media, and people poured into the streets in neighborhoods all over the city to show solidarity and in hopes of drawing some of the pressure off the hunted protesters. On some streets, they constructed makeshift barricades with whatever was at hand.

In the Insein district, they spread across road junctions, singing songs, chanting pro-democracy slogans and banging objects together.

The diplomatic missions of the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union all issued statements urging the security forces to allow the trapped people to return safely to their homes. Although all have been sharply critical of the Feb. 1 coup and police violence, it is unusual for such diplomatic statements to be issued in connection with a specific, ongoing incident.

“There is heightened tension caused by security forces surrounding Kyun Taw Road in Sanchaung Township, Yangon. We call on those security forces to withdraw and allow people to go home safely,” said the U.S. Embassy’s statement.

Reports on social media citing witnesses said as many as 50 people were arrested overnight in Sanchaung and other parts of the city, but many of those who had been hiding were able to leave safely at dawn Tuesday, a few hours after police abandoned their search.

On Monday night, security forces chased crowds, harassed residents watching from windows, and fired stun grenades. They also were some reports of injuries from rubber bullets.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was following developments in the Sanchaung district where “many of those trapped are women, who were peacefully marching in commemoration of International Women’s Day,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“He calls for maximum restraint and urges for the safe release of all without violence or arrests,” Dujarric said, and for respect of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression for peaceful demonstrators voicing “their hopes and desires for the future of their country.”

Guterres also called the occupation of a number of public hospitals in Myanmar by security forces “completely unacceptable,” the U.N. spokesman said.

The nighttime hours have become increasingly dangerous in Myanmar. Police and army units routinely range through neighborhoods, shooting randomly to intimidate residents and disrupt their sleep, and making targeted arrests.

Security forces shot and killed two people in northern Myanmar during the day, local media reported.

The Irrawaddy online newspaper said the victims were shot in the head during anti-coup protests in Myitkyina in Kachin State. Graphic video on social media showed protesters backing away from tear gas, responding with rocks and then fleeing after a fusillade of what seemed to be automatic gunfire.

Demonstrators hurriedly carried away the injured, including one apparent fatality, a person with a severe head wound. A second body was seen later on a stretcher, his head covered with a cloth.

Another shooting death took place in Pyapon, a city about 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Yangon.

To date, the government’s violent crackdown has left more than 50 protesters dead. At least 18 people were fatally shot Feb. 28 and 38 on Wednesday, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office.

Security forces also clamped down on anti-coup protesters elsewhere Monday, firing tear gas to break up a crowd of about 1,000 people demonstrating in Pyinmana, a satellite town of the capital, Naypyitaw. The protesters deployed fire extinguishers to create a smokescreen as they fled from authorities.

Thousands of protesters who marched in Mandalay, the second-largest city, dispersed on their own amid fears that soldiers and police were planning to break up their demonstration with force.

Meanwhile, an armed force from one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups was deployed to protect anti-coup marchers in the wake of a brutal crackdown by the junta.

The unit from the Karen National Police Force arrived shortly after dawn to accompany about 2,000 protesters near Myitta in Tanintharyi Region in southeastern Myanmar. They carried an assortment of firearms including assault rifles as they marched ahead of the column down dusty rural roads.

The Karen police force is under the control of the Karen National Union, one of many ethnic organizations that have been fighting for greater autonomy from the central government for decades. The KNU employs both political and, through its armed wing, military means to achieve its aims.

Large-scale protests have occurred daily in many cities and towns since Myanmar’s military seized power, and security forces have responded with ever greater use of lethal force and mass arrests.

On Sunday, police occupied hospitals and universities and reportedly arrested hundreds of people involved in protesting the military takeover.

Gibraltar, a vaccine champion, launches ‘Operation Freedom’

By ARITZ PARRA for the Associated Press

GIBRALTAR (AP) — Maskless parents pick up smiling Cinderellas, Harry Potters and hedgehogs from schools that reopened after a two-month hiatus just in time for World Book Day’s costume display. Following weeks under lockdown, a soccer team resumes training at the stadium. Coffee shops and pubs have finally raised their blinds, eager to welcome locals and eyeing the return of tourists.

People cross the Gibraltar airport runway towards the border crossing with Spain, backdropped by the Gibraltar rock, in Gibraltar, Friday, March 5, 2021. Gibraltar, a densely populated narrow peninsula at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, is emerging from a two-month lockdown with the help of a successful vaccination rollout. The British overseas territory is currently on track to complete by the end of March the vaccination of both its residents over age 16 and its vast imported workforce. But the recent easing of restrictions, in what authorities have christened “Operation Freedom,” leaves Gibraltar with the challenge of reopening to a globalized world with unequal access to coronavirus jabs. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

There’s an end-of-hibernation feeling in Gibraltar. The narrow British overseas territory stretching between Spain and the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea is emerging from a devastating virus surge. COVID-19 has killed 93 people, nearly all of them in January and February this year, and infected over 4,000 of its 33,000 residents.

But the compact, high-density geography that is blamed — together with new virus variants — for the surge of infections has also been key to Gibraltar’s successful vaccination campaign, with word-of-mouth facilitating the rollout.

The recent easing of restrictions — what Gibraltar authorities have dubbed “Operation Freedom” — also owes much to the steady delivery of jabs from the U.K.

By the end of March, Gibraltar is on track to have completely vaccinated all residents over 16 and its vast imported workforce, Health Minister Samantha Sacramento told The Associated Press. That’s over 40,000 people. Only 3.5% have so far rejected the vaccine.

But Gibraltar’s struggle to regain normality is only just starting. It still faces the many challenges of reopening in a globalized world with unequal access to vaccines and new virus variants emerging. Sacramento has been working on contingency plans, including topping up vaccinations with a booster.

“Being vaccinated is absolutely no carte blanche to then behave without any restrictions. But then, we also have to go back to being a little bit more human, being able to breathe fresh air,” the minister said in an office atop the local hospital.

“It’s ‘Operation Freedom,’ but with caution,” she added.

Finding that balance can be tricky for a territory linked to both Spain and the U.K. As a British territory, Gibraltar has received five vaccine consignments from London, mostly the Pfizer-BioNTech jab. A handful of AstraZeneca shots have also been reserved for those possibly vulnerable to severe allergic reactions.

Expanding Gibraltar’s limited flights with the U.K., which is also rolling out vaccinations at high speed, could in theory be done by mandating tests and quarantines upon entry. But the contagious virus variant first found in Britain has been a source of concern.

In Spain, restrictions have tamed an end-of-the-year coronavirus surge that strained public hospitals. But, like much of the European Union, Spain is struggling with a slow vaccine rollout that hopes to immunizing 33 million residents, or 70% of its population.

Most Gibraltarians are eager to travel. With an area of only 6.7 square kilometers — a territory only a little bigger than The Vatican and Monaco, most of it dominated by the imposing presence of its famous Rock — Gibraltar can sometimes feel claustrophobic.

“I’ve been on the Rock now for a couple of months, without having stepped foot on Spain. That’s a big part of our lives, going across the border, visiting new cities each weekend. That’s what I’m looking forward to most,” said Christian Segovia, a 24-year-old engineer who works at a shipping company.

With over 15,000 people fully vaccinated and an additional 11,000 awaiting their second dose, people in their 20s are now being called in for their first shots. Non-Gibraltarians who come in to work in health care or other frontline jobs are already vaccinated, and authorities are now trying to inoculate all the remaining trans-border workers.

Vanesa Olivero commutes every day, crossing on foot the airport landing strip that separates Gibraltar from Spain’s La Línea de la Concepción. Some 15,000 workers were making the same trip before the pandemic, but the numbers are lower now because tourism remains closed.

The 40-year-old, who sells tobacco and spirits in one of Gibraltar’s many duty-free shops, says she can’t wait to get her shots because facing customers puts her at risk. She suffers from asthma, has two daughters and older relatives to take care of.

“Just tell me where and when and I’ll present both of my arms,” joked Olivero. “I want all this to be over, to return to normality, to be able to give a hug, to give a kiss, to go for some drinks with friends.”

Gibraltar has issued vaccination cards to people who get their second shot. It’s also developing an app storing vaccine data and test results that authorities want to link with other platforms elsewhere to revive international travel. Critics, though, say such passports discriminate against those unable to access vaccines, especially in poorer countries.

Gino Jiménez, president of Gibraltar’s Catering Association, harbors some doubts but welcomes the app if that helps bring back foreign tourists. His restaurant, a popular local hangout for breakfast and lunch, is following health guidelines to draw back those who “are still testing the waters to see if it’s safe to go out.”

“We are a very close, very sociable community. And there’s nothing like sitting around the table having a cup of coffee and talking,” said Jiménez, who is lobbying the government to quickly vaccinate the nearly 2,000 employees of restaurants and pubs, most of them Spaniards.

Waiters wear two masks, tables are reserved for a maximum of six and there are no afternoon alcohol sales.

After re-opening schools, pushing back the night-time curfew from 10 p.m. to midnight and lifting mandatory mask-wearing in low-density, non-commercial areas, the next big thing The Rock is looking forward to is Gibraltar’s soccer match against the Netherlands on March 30. The World Cup qualifier will be a test for the resumption of mass events, allowing 50% stadium capacity and requiring fans to prove immunity.

While they wait, Gibraltarians are enjoying their new normality. At the Chatham Counterguard, an 18th-century defensive bastion now turned into a strip of pubs and restaurants, a dozen teammates of the Collegians Gibraltar Hockey Team celebrate over pints their first training session since November.

“This is what normality is … to be able to get a beer with your own people,” said Adrian Hernandez, 51. “God, did I miss this!”

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AP journalists Renata Brito and Bernat Armangue contributed.

Trial for ex-cop charged in Floyd’s death forges on, for now

By AMY FORLITI and STEVE KARNOWSKI for the Associaated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death is forging ahead with jury selection, even though a looming appellate ruling could halt the case and delay it for weeks or even months as the state tries to add a third-degree murder count.

In this image from video, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over pretrial motions before jury selection, Monday, March 8, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

Prosecutors are asking the Court of Appeals to put Derek Chauvin’s trial on hold until the issue of adding the third-degree murder count is resolved. The appeals court did not immediately rule on that request, and Judge Peter Cahill said Monday that he intends to keep the trial on track until he’s told to stop.

“Unless the Court of Appeals tells me otherwise, we’re going to keep moving,” he said. Jury selection is expected to begin Tuesday, a day later than scheduled.

Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. The Court of Appeals last week ordered Cahill to consider reinstating a third-degree murder charge that he had dismissed. Legal experts say reinstating the charge would improve the odds of getting a conviction. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, said Monday he would ask the state Supreme Court to review the issue.

On Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to dismiss 16 of the first 50 jurors they reviewed “for cause,” based on their answers to a lengthy questionnaire. The dismissals weren’t debated in court, but such dismissals can be for a host of reasons, such as views that indicate a juror can’t be impartial.

Floyd was declared dead on May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against the Black man’s neck for about nine minutes, holding his position even after Floyd went limp. Floyd’s death was captured on widely seen bystander video and sparked sometimes violent protests in Minneapolis and beyond, leading to a nationwide reckoning on race.

Chauvin and three other officers were fired; the others face an August trial on aiding and abetting charges.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse as proceedings began Monday, many carrying signs that read, “Justice for George Floyd” and “Convict Killer Cops.”

One speaker, DJ Hooker, took a microphone and decried the “cage” of concrete barriers topped by chain-link fencing, barbed wire and razor wire up around the courthouse, part of at least $1 million that has been spent to fortify the downtown area during the trial.

Hooker went on to ridicule talk of the Chauvin trial as “the trial of the century,” saying the jury simply needs to “do the right thing.”

He led the crowd in chants of, “The whole world is watching!”

Inside the courtroom, Chauvin, in a blue suit and black mask, followed the proceedings attentively, making notes on a legal pad. No one attended to support him. Bridgett Floyd, George Floyd’s sister, sat in the seat allocated to Floyd’s family.

Afterward, Bridgett Floyd said the family was glad the trial had finally arrived and is “praying for justice.”

“I sat in the courthouse today and looked at the officer who took my brother’s life,” she said. “That officer took a great man, a great father, a great brother, a great uncle.”

The unintentional second-degree murder charge requires to prosecutors to prove that Chauvin’s conduct was a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death, and that Chauvin was committing felony assault at the time. The third-degree murder charge would require them to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through a dangerous act without regard for human life.

Jury selection could take at least three weeks and will end when 14 jurors are picked — 12 who will deliberate and two alternates. The potential jurors — who must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and residents of Hennepin County — were sent questionnaires to determine how much they have heard about the case and whether they’ve formed any opinions. Besides biographical and demographic information, jurors were asked about prior contacts with police, whether they have protested against police brutality and whether they believe the justice system is fair.

Some of the questions get specific, such as how often a potential juror has watched the bystander video of Floyd’s arrest, or whether they carried a sign at a protest and what that sign said.

Jurors will be questioned individually. The judge, defense attorney and prosecutors can all ask questions. In addition to both sides being able to argue for an unlimited number of “for cause” dismissals, the defense can object to up to 15 potential jurors without giving a reason; prosecutors can block up to nine without providing a reason. Either side can object to these peremptory challenges if they believe the sole reason for disqualifying a juror is race or gender.

Even if a juror says they have had a negative interaction with the police or hold negative views about Black Lives Matter, the key will be trying to find out whether they can put those past experiences or opinions aside and be fair, said Mike Brandt, a local defense attorney.

“We all walk into these with biases. The question is, can you put those biases aside and be fair in this case,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Mohamed Ibrahim contributed this report.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd

Crocodile hunt: Search on for escaped reptiles in S. Africa

By GERALD IMRAY for the Associated Press

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Police and conservation officers were searching Friday for an unknown number of young crocodiles that escaped earlier in the week from a large breeding farm in South Africa.

The crocodiles are suspected to have entered the nearby Breede River after escaping Wednesday morning near the town of Bonnievale in Western Cape province, about 180 kilometers (111 miles) east of Cape Town.

So far, 27 of the reptiles have been recaptured and another seven had to be euthanized, Cape Nature conservation spokeswoman Petro van Rhyn said. Another six were spotted but evaded capture.

The commercial breeding farm contains about 5,000 crocodiles, van Rhyn said, and a big part of the problem is that recovery teams aren’t certain how many escaped. They are waiting for the owner of the farm to give them an accurate count.

“Is it 100, or is it 1,000?” van Rhyn said. “We don’t know.”

The crocodiles are thought to be between 1.2 and 1.5 meters long, according to Cape Nature.

Conservation officers have been using cages with food bait inside to try and capture the crocodiles, but that hasn’t proved to be very successful because the river is full of fish, van Rhyn said.

Police and Cape Nature officers are concentrating on an area as far as five kilometers (three miles) upstream and five kilometers downstream of the escape point but don’t believe the crocodiles will have moved very far.

Van Rhyn said residents of the area should be watchful but shouldn’t panic. Crocodiles are nocturnal and generally shy, she said, it’s highly unlikely to see one on the streets of Bonnievale.

She said it was not a good idea to go swimming in the river there, though.

US and South Korea agree on new cost-sharing deal for troops

By ROBERT BURNS and MATTHEW LEE for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and South Korea have reached agreement in principle on a new arrangement for sharing the cost of the American troop presence, which is intended as a bulwark against the threat of North Korean aggression, both countries announced.

FILE – U.S. Army mobile equipment sits in a field in Yeoncheon, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The State Department says the U.S. and South Korea have reached an agreement in principle on a new arrangement for sharing the cost of the American troop presence. Details were not released, but the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs said Sunday, March 7, 2021 that the deal includes a negotiated increase in Seoul’s share of the cost for the U.S. troop presence. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs said Sunday the deal includes a “negotiated increase” in Seoul’s share of the cost, but it provided no details. The Bureau wrote on Twitter that the agreement, if finalized, would reaffirm the U.S.-South Korean treaty alliance as “the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity for Northeast Asia.”

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Monday issued a similar statement, saying the two countries are seeking to tentatively sign the deal. It said the agreement came after three days of face-to-face talks in Washington.

The U.S. keeps about 28,000 troops in South Korea to help deter potential aggression from North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War. But how much South Korea should pay for the American military presence was a thorny issue in bilateral relations under the Trump administration, which often asked its Asian ally to drastically increase its share.

In 2019, the allies struck a deal that required South Korea to pay about $924 million (1.04 trillion won) for the U.S. troops presence, an increase from $830 million in the previous year. But negotiations for a new cost-sharing plan broke down over a U.S. demand that Seoul pay five times what it previously had paid.

The State Department said in a statement that the increase in the South’s share of the cost was “meaningful” but was not more specific.

The Wall Street Journal, which was first to report the agreement, said it would last through 2025. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it couldn’t immediately confirm the report.

In its statement, the State Department said: “America’s alliances are a tremendous source of our strength. This development reflects the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to reinvigorating and modernizing our democratic alliances around the word to advance our shared security and prosperity.”

Many conservatives in South Korea worried that then-President Donald Trump might use failed cost-sharing negotiations as an excuse to withdraw some U.S. troops in South Korea as a bargaining chip in now-stalled nuclear talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The U.S. and South Korea had also halted or cancelled some of their military exercises in recent years to support the nuclear diplomacy, which eventually fell apart due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea.

On Monday, the South Korea and U.S militaries kicked off annual military drills that would last for nine days. South Korea’s military said the drills are command post exercises and computerized simulation and don’t involve field training. It said the allies reviewed factors like the status of COVID-19 and diplomatic efforts to resume the nuclear talks with North Korea when it decided to hold the drills.

It’s unclear how North Korea would respond to the drills. In the past, the North often called regular U.S.-South Korea drills an invasion rehearsal and responded with missile tests. Lee Jong-joo, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokeswoman, said Monday that Seoul hopes Pyongyang would act flexibly and wisely in response to its efforts to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The prospect for a new cost-sharing plan has been heightened as the Biden administration has been seeking to bolster its alliance with South Korean and other countries.

South Korea began paying for the U.S. military deployment in the early 1990s, after rebuilding its economy from the devastation of the Korean War. The big U.S. military presence in South Korea is a symbol of the countries’ alliance but also a source of long-running anti-American sentiments.

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Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

US journalist arrested while covering protest goes on trial

By RYAN J. FOLEY for the Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A journalist went on trial Monday on charges stemming from her coverage of a protest against racial injustice in Des Moines last year, after Iowa prosecutors defied international pressure to drop a rare effort to punish a working reporter.

Police officers are shown arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa, was dispersed by tear gas. Sahouri is set to stand trial on Monday, March 8, 2021, on misdemeanor charges, a case that prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from advocates for press freedom. (Photo courtesy Katie Akin via AP)

Des Moines Register news reporter Andrea Sahouri, who was pepper-sprayed and jailed while reporting on a clash between protesters and police in May, is charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

If convicted on the simple misdemeanor charges, the 25-year-old could be fined hundreds of dollars and will have a criminal record. A judge could also sentence her up to 30 days in jail on each count, although that would be unusual.

Advocates for journalism and human rights in the U.S. and abroad have pressed Iowa authorities to drop the charges, arguing that Sahouri was simply doing her job by documenting the event. But prosecutors in the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone have pressed forward with the case against Sahouri and her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, who faces the same charges.

The pair are standing trial in a courtroom at Drake University in Des Moines as part of a program for law students. The university is broadcasting the proceedings, which are expected to last two days. Lawyers began selecting a six-member jury from a larger pool on Monday morning.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has not recorded any other trials of working journalists in the country since 2018. Sahouri was among more than 125 reporters detained or arrested during the civil unrest that unfolded across the U.S. in 2020. Thirteen, including Sahouri, still face prosecution although the majority of those arrested were not charged or their charges were dismissed, the group says.

Employees in the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns USA Today, the Register and hundreds of other newspapers, have flooded social media with support for Sahouri in recent days. Columbia Journalism School, where Sahouri graduated in 2019 before joining the Register, expressed solidarity Monday by promoting the hashtags #StandWithAndrea and #JournalismIsNotACrime.

Amnesty International launched a campaign to publicize her case and demand the charges be dismissed.

Sahouri was assigned to cover a May 31 protest at Merle Hay mall, where activists were demanding better treatment for people of color after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white officer put his knee on his neck for about nine minutes.

Some protesters threw water bottles and rocks at police, broke store windows and vandalized a Target store. Police responded by spraying tear gas to disperse a large crowd from an intersection. Sahouri reported the details live on Twitter.

Sahouri was running from the gas when Robnett was hit in the leg with a projectile — likely a tear gas canister or rubber bullet launched by police. She briefly stopped to check on him before continuing around the corner of a Verizon store. Officer Luke Wilson then arrested her, burning her eyes with a blast of pepper spray and cuffing her hands in zip ties, Sahouri says.

Wilson has said he didn’t know Sahouri was a journalist until Robnett intervened during the arrest. Robnett told the officer that Sahouri was a Register journalist and tried to pull Sahouri away from him, Wilson says. Prosecutors say the officer did not activate his body camera during the arrest or use a camera function to retrieve the video after the fact before it was erased.

Sahouri was not wearing press credentials at the time but repeatedly identified herself as press. A Register colleague who wasn’t arrested also immediately vouched for her employment to police. Nonetheless, Sahouri was loaded into a police van and jailed for a couple of hours.

Prosecutors have tried to defend the arrest by arguing that journalists do not have special rights to ignore police dispersal orders, including one that had been given roughly 90 minutes earlier.

Biden, Dems prevail as Senate OKs $1.9T virus relief bill

By ALAN FRAM for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — An exhausted Senate narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Saturday as President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies notched a victory they called crucial for hoisting the country out of the pandemic and economic doldrums.

After laboring all night on a mountain of amendments — nearly all from Republicans and rejected — bleary-eyed senators approved the sprawling package on a 50-49 party-line vote. That sets up final congressional approval by the House next week so lawmakers can whisk it to Biden for his signature.

In this image from video, the vote total of 50-49 on Senate passage of the COVID-19 relief bill, is displayed on screen in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Saturday, March 6, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

The huge measure — its cost is nearly one-tenth the size of the entire U.S. economy — is Biden’s biggest early priority. It stands as his formula for addressing the deadly virus and a limping economy, twin crises that have afflicted the country for a year.

“This nation has suffered too much for much too long,” Biden told reporters at the White House after the vote. “And everything in this package is designed to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation, and put us in a better position to prevail.”

Saturday’s vote was also a crucial political moment for Biden and Democrats, who need nothing short of party unanimity in a 50-50 Senate they run with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote. They hold a slim 10-vote House edge.

Not one Republican backed the bill in the Senate or when it initially passed the House, underscoring the barbed partisan environment that’s characterized the early days of Biden’s presidency.

A small but pivotal band of moderate Democrats leveraged changes in the legislation that incensed progressives, hardly helping Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., guide the measure through the House. But rejection of their first, signature bill was not an option for Democrats, who face two years of running Congress with virtually no room for error.

In a significant sign, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, representing around 100 House liberals, called the Senate’s weakening of some provisions “bad policy and bad politics” but “relatively minor concessions.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said the bill retained its “core bold, progressive elements.”

“They feel like we do, we have to get this done,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the House. He added, “It’s not going to be everything everyone wants. No bill is.”

In a written statement, Pelosi invited Republicans “to join us in recognition of the devastating reality of this vicious virus and economic crisis and of the need for decisive action.”

The bill provides direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans and extended emergency unemployment benefits. There are vast piles of spending for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, states and cities, schools and ailing industries, along with tax breaks to help lower-earning people, families with children and consumers buying health insurance.

Republicans call the measure a wasteful spending spree for Democrats’ liberal allies that ignores recent indications that the pandemic and economy was turning the corner.

“The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He said Democrats’ “top priority wasn’t pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish list.”

The Senate commenced a dreaded “vote-a-rama” — a continuous series of votes on amendments — shortly before midnight Friday, and by its end around noon dispensed with about three dozen. The Senate had been in session since 9 a.m. EST Friday.

Overnight, the chamber looked like an experiment in sleep deprivation. Several lawmakers appeared to rest their eyes or doze at their desks, often burying their faces in their hands. At one point, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, at 48 one of the younger senators, trotted into the chamber and did a prolonged stretch.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, missed the votes to attend his father-in-law’s funeral.

The measure follows five earlier ones totaling about $4 trillion enacted since last spring and comes amid signs of a potential turnaround.

Vaccine supplies are growing, deaths and caseloads have eased but remain frighteningly high, and hiring was surprisingly strong last month, though the economy remains 10 million jobs smaller than pre-pandemic levels.

The Senate package was delayed repeatedly as Democrats made eleventh-hour changes aimed at balancing demands by their competing moderate and progressive factions.

Work on the bill ground to a halt Friday after an agreement among Democrats on extending emergency jobless benefits seemed to collapse. Nearly 12 hours later, top Democrats and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, said they had a deal, and the Senate approved it on a party-line 50-49 vote.

Under their compromise, $300 weekly emergency unemployment checks — on top of regular state benefits — would be renewed, with a final payment Sept. 6. There would also be tax breaks on some of that aid, helping people the pandemic abruptly tossed out of jobs and risked tax penalties on the benefits.

The House relief bill, largely similar to the Senate’s, provided $400 weekly benefits through August. The current $300 per week payments expire March 14, and Democrats want the bill on Biden’s desk by then to avert a lapse.

Manchin and Republicans have asserted that higher jobless benefits discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.

The agreement on jobless benefits wasn’t the only move that showed moderates’ sway.

The Senate voted Friday to eject a House-approved boost in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, a major defeat for progressives. Eight Democrats opposed the increase, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other liberals pledging to continue the effort will face a difficult fight.

Party leaders also agreed to restrict eligibility for the $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans. That amount would be gradually reduced until, under the Senate bill, it reaches zero for people earning $80,000 and couples making $160,000. Those ceilings were higher in the House version.

Many of the rejected GOP amendments were either attempts to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes or for Republicans to demonstrate their zeal for issues that appeal to their voters.

These included defeated efforts to bar funds from going to schools that don’t reopen their doors or let transgender students born male participate in female sports. One amendment would have blocked aid to so-called sanctuary cities, where local authorities don’t help federal officials round up immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

Officers hurt, property damaged at rowdy party in Boulder

From the Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Violence and destruction broke out as officers worked to break up a party involving hundreds of people near the University of Colorado Boulder on Saturday, police said.

Three officers suffered minor injuries from being struck by bricks and rocks, Boulder police told news outlets. The department brought in its SWAT team to help clear the flood of people along a street in an area known as University Hill.

Images shared by local media showed no social distancing and most without masks despite the coronavirus pandemic. An estimated 800 to 1,000 people were there. A few in the raucous crowd damaged and flipped over a vehicle. Others set off fireworks in the middle of the street. A law enforcement armored vehicle and a fire truck were damaged.

Police said in a statement, “the Boulder Department is reviewing all body worn camera footage and shared social media videos/photos to identify the individuals involved in damaging property and assaulting first responders.”

The university also addressed the incident in a statement saying it would not tolerate any students “engaging in acts of violence or damaging property.”

“Any student who is found responsible for having engaged in acts of violence toward the law enforcement or other first responders will be removed from CU Boulder and not readmitted,” the statement said.

Police said in a tweet after shortly after 9 p.m. that the scene had been cleared. No arrests were immediately announced.

Europe staggers as infectious variants power virus surge

By COLLEEN BARRY for the Associated Press

MILAN (AP) — The virus swept through a nursery school and an adjacent elementary school in the Milan suburb of Bollate with amazing speed. In a matter of just days, 45 children and 14 staff members had tested positive.

Genetic analysis confirmed what officials already suspected: The highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in England was racing through the community, a densely packed city of nearly 40,000 with a chemical plant and a Pirelli bicycle tire factory a 15-minute drive from the heart of Milan.

FILE – In this Saturday, Feb. 7, 2021 file photo, people crowd Via del Corso shopping street in Rome, following the ease of restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. Europe recorded 1 million new COVID-19 cases last week, an increase of 9% from the previous week and ending a six-week decline, WHO said Thursday, March 4, 2021. The so-called UK variant is of greatest concern in the 53 countries monitored by WHO in Europe. (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP)

“This demonstrates that the virus has a sort of intelligence. … We can put up all the barriers in the world and imagine that they work, but in the end, it adapts and penetrates them,” lamented Bollate Mayor Francesco Vassallo.

Bollate was the first city in Lombardy, the northern region that has been the epicenter in each of Italy’s three surges, to be sealed off from neighbors because of virus variants that the World Health Organization says are powering another uptick in infections across Europe. The variants also include versions first identified in South Africa and Brazil.

Europe recorded 1 million new COVID-19 cases last week, an increase of 9% from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week decline in new infections, WHO said Thursday.

“The spread of the variants is driving the increase, but not only,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, citing “also the opening of society, when it is not done in a safe and a controlled manner.”

The variant first found in the U.K. is spreading significantly in 27 European countries monitored by WHO and is dominant in at least 10 countries: Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and Portugal.

It is up to 50% more transmissible than the virus that surged last spring and again in the fall, making it more adept at thwarting measures that were previously effective, WHO experts warned. Scientists have concluded that it is also more deadly.

“That is why health systems are struggling more now,” Kluge said. “It really is at a tipping point. We have to hold the fort and be very vigilant.”

In Lombardy, which bore the brunt of Italy’s spring surge, intensive care wards are again filling up, with more than two-thirds of new positive tests being the UK variant, health officials said.

After putting two provinces and some 50 towns on a modified lockdown, Lombardy’s regional governor announced tightened restrictions Friday and closed classrooms for all ages. Cases in Milan schools alone surged 33% in a week, the provincial health system’s chief said.

The situation is dire in the Czech Republic, which this week registered a record-breaking total of nearly 8,500 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Poland is opening temporary hospitals and imposing a partial lockdown as the U.K. variant has grown from 10% of all infections in February to 25% now.

Two patients from hard-hit Slovakia were expected to arrive Saturday for treatment in Germany, where authorities said they had offered to take in 10 patients.

Kluge cited Britain’s experience as cause for optimism, noting that widespread restrictions and the introduction of the vaccine have helped tamp down the variants there and in Israel. The vaccine rollout in the European Union, by comparison, is lagging badly, mostly because of supply problems.

In Britain, the emergence of the more transmissible strain sent cases soaring in December and triggered a national lockdown in January. Cases have since plummeted, from about 60,000 a day in early January to about 7,000 a day now.

Still, a study shows the rate of decline slowing, and the British government says it will tread cautiously with plans to ease the lockdown. That process begins Monday with the reopening of schools. Infection rates are highest in people ages 13 to 17, and officials will watch closely to see whether the return to class brings a spike in infections.

While the U.K. variant is dominant in France, forcing lockdowns in the French Riviera city of Nice and the northern port of Dunkirk, the variant first detected in South Africa has emerged as the most prevalent in France’s Moselle region, which borders Germany and Luxembourg. It represents 55% of the virus circulating there.

Austria’s health minister said Saturday the U.K. variant is now dominant in his country. But the South Africa variant is also a concern in a district of Austria that extends from Italy to Germany, with Austrian officials announcing plans to vaccinate most of the 84,000 residents there to curb its spread. Austria is also requiring motorists along the Brenner highway, a major north-south route, to show negative test results.

The South Africa variant, now present in 26 European countries, is a source of particular concern because of doubts over whether the current vaccines are effective enough against it. The Brazilian variant, which appears capable of reinfecting people, has been detected in 15 European countries.

WHO and its partners are working to strengthen the genetic surveillance needed to track variants across the continent.

The mayor of Bollate has appealed to the regional governor to vaccinate all 40,000 residents immediately, though he expects to be told the vaccine supply is too tight.

Bollate has recorded 3,000 positive cases and 134 deaths — mostly among the elderly — since Italy was stricken a year ago. It took the brunt in the resurgence in November and December, and was caught completely off guard when the U.K. variant arrived, racing through schoolage children before hitting families at home.

“People are starting to get tired that after a year there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” Vassallo said.

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AP correspondents Jill Lawless in London, Karel Janicek in Prague, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed.

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US probing engine fires in nearly 1.9M Toyota RAV4 SUVs

From the Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. government is investigating complaints of engine compartment fires in nearly 1.9 million Toyota RAV4 small SUVs.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating after getting 11 fire complaints involving the 2013 through 2018 model years.

FILE – In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo the Toyota logo is displayed at their shop on the Champs Elysees Avenue in Paris. The U.S. government is investigating complaints of engine compartment fires in nearly 1.9 million Toyota RAV4 small SUVs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating after getting 11 fire complaints involving the 2013 through 2018 model years. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

The RAV4 is the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. that isn’t a pickup truck.

In documents posted Monday, the agency says fires start on the left side of the engine compartment. A terminal on the 12-volt battery may short to the frame, causing loss of electrical power, engine stalling or a fire.

Most of the fires happened while the vehicles are being driven, but four owners complained that fire broke out with the engine off.

A Toyota spokesman would not answer questions about whether the SUVs should be parked outdoors until the matter is resolved, but said the company is cooperating in the probe. A spokeswoman for NHTSA said she is checking into whether the RAV4s should stay outdoors due to the risk of catching fire with the engine off.

NHTSA says improper battery installation or front-end collision repair was a factor in the complaints. The agency says the RAV4 has a higher number of fire complaints in the battery area than comparable vehicles.

Investigators will try to understand better what is contributing to the fires. The vehicles aren’t being recalled but the investigation could lead to one.

Plunging demand for COVID-19 tests may leave US exposed

By MATTHEW PERRONE for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Just five weeks ago, Los Angeles County was conducting more than 350,000 weekly coronavirus tests, including at a massive drive-thru site at Dodger Stadium, as health workers raced to contain the worst COVID-19 hotspot in the U.S.

Pharmacist Mike Ruane, of Scranton, talks to patients who signed up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-thru clinic at Scranton High School in Scranton, Pa., Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Sean McKeag/The Citizens’ Voice via AP)

Now, county officials say testing has nearly collapsed. More than 180 government-supported sites are operating at only a third of their capacity.

“It’s shocking how quickly we’ve gone from moving at 100 miles an hour to about 25,” said Dr. Clemens Hong, who leads the county’s testing operation.

After a year of struggling to boost testing, communities across the country are seeing plummeting demand, shuttering testing sites or even trying to return supplies.

The drop in screening comes at a significant moment in the outbreak: Experts are cautiously optimistic that COVID-19 is receding after killing more than 500,000 people in the U.S. but concerned that emerging variants could prolong the epidemic.

“Everyone is hopeful for rapid, widespread vaccinations, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can drop our guard just yet,” said Hong. “We just don’t have enough people who are immune to rule out another surge.”

U.S. testing hit a peak on Jan. 15, when the country was averaging more than 2 million tests per day. Since then, the average number of daily tests has fallen more than 28%. The drop mirrors declines across all major virus measures since January, including new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Officials say those encouraging trends, together with harsh winter weather, the end of the holiday travel season, pandemic fatigue and a growing focus on vaccinations are sapping interest in testing.

“When you combine all those together you see this decrease,” said Dr. Richard Pescatore of the health department in Delaware, where daily testing has fallen more than 40% since the January peak. “People just aren’t going to go out to testing sites.”

But testing remains important for tracking and containing the outbreak.

L.A. County is opening more testing options near public transportation, schools and offices to make it more convenient. And officials in Santa Clara County are urging residents to “continue getting tested regularly,” highlighting new mobile testing buses and pop-up sites.

President Joe Biden has promised to revamp the nation’s testing system by investing billions more in supplies and government coordination. But with demand falling fast, the country may soon have a glut of unused supplies. The U.S. will be able to conduct nearly 1 billion monthly tests by June, according to projections from researchers at Arizona State University. That’s more than 25 times the country’s current rate of about 40 million tests reported per month.

With more than 150 million new vaccine doses due for delivery by late March, testing is likely to fall further as local governments shift staff and resources to giving shots.

“You have to pick your battles here,” said Dr. Jeffrey Engel of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. “Everyone would agree that if you have one public health nurse, you’re going to use that person for vaccination, not testing.”

Some experts say the country must double down on testing to avoid flare-ups from coronavirus variants that have taken hold in the U.K., South Africa and other places.

“We need to use testing to continue the downward trend,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has been advising Biden officials. “We need to have it there to catch surges from the variants.”

Last week, Minnesota began urging families to get tested every two weeks through the end of the school year as more students return to the classroom.

“To protect this progress, we need to use all the tools at our disposal,” said Dan Huff, an assistant state health commissioner.

But some of the most vocal testing proponents are less worried about the declines in screening. From a public health viewpoint, testing is effective if it helps to quickly find the infected, trace their contacts and isolate them to stop the spread. In most parts of the U.S., that never happened.

Over the holiday season, many Americans still had to wait days to receive test results, rendering them largely useless. That’s led to testing fatigue and dwindling interest, said Dr. Michael Mina of Harvard University.

“It doesn’t exactly give you a lot of gratifying, immediate feedback,” Mina said. “So people’s willingness or interest in getting tested starts to go down.”

Still, U.S. test manufacturers continue ramping up production, with another 110 million rapid and home-based tests expected to hit the market next month.

Government officials long assumed this growing arsenal of cheap, 15-minute tests would be used to regularly screen millions of students and teachers as in-person classes resume. But recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t emphasize testing, describing it as an “additional layer” of protection, behind basic measures like masking and social distancing.

Even without strong federal backing, educational leaders say testing programs will be important for marshaling public confidence needed to fully reopen schools, including in the fall when cases are expected to rise again.

“Schools have asked themselves, justifiably, ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze to set up a big testing effort?’” said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that advises districts in more than 25 states. “Our message to the school systems we work with is: ‘Yes, you need to stand up comprehensive testing because you’re going to need it.’”

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Associated Press writer Brian Melley in Los Angeles and AP data journalist Nicky Forster in New York contributed to this report.

Prince Philip moved to specialized London heart hospital

By DANICA KIRKA for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Prince Philip was transferred Monday to a specialized London heart hospital to undergo testing and observation for a pre-existing heart condition as he continues to be treated for an unspecified infection, Buckingham Palace said.

Police officers stand at an entrance to the King Edward VII Hospital where Prince Philip is being treated for an infection, as an ambulance is driven out, in London, Monday, March 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The 99-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II was moved from King Edward VII’s Hospital, where he has been treated since Feb. 17, to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, which specializes in cardiac care.

The palace says Philip “remains comfortable and is responding to treatment but is expected to remain in hospital until at least the end of the week.”

Philip was admitted to the private King Edward VII’s Hospital in London after feeling ill. Philip’s illness is not believed to be related to COVID-19. Both he and the queen, 94, received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine in early January.

The Bart’s Heart Centre is Europe’s biggest specialized cardiovascular center, the National Health Service said. The center seeks to perform more heart surgery, MRI and CT scans than any other service in the world.

Philip, who retired from royal duties in 2017, rarely appears in public. During England’s current coronavirus lockdown, Philip, also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, has been staying at Windsor Castle, west of London, with the queen.

Philip married the then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and is the longest-serving royal consort in British history. He and the queen have four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

In 2011, he was rushed to a hospital by helicopter after suffering chest pains and was treated for a blocked coronary artery. In 2017, he spent two nights in the hospital and he was hospitalized for 10 days in 2018 for a hip replacement.

Philip was last hospitalized in December 2019, spending four nights in the King Edward VII’s Hospital for what the palace said was planned treatment of a pre-existing condition.

Canadian regulator authorizes AstraZeneca vaccine

By ROB GILLIES for the Associated Press

TORONTO (AP) — Canadian regulators on Friday authorized AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine for all adults.

It is the third COVID-19 vaccine given the green light by Canada, following those from Pfizer and Moderna.

Passengers are screened and get a COVID-19 test as they enter Canada from the United States at the land border crossing in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Health Canada approved the vaccine for use in people 18 and over, expressing confidence it would work for the elderly even though some countries, including France, have authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine only for use in people under 65, saying there is not enough evidence to say whether it works in older adults.

With trials showing about 62% efficacy, the vaccine appears to offer less protection than those already authorized, but experts have said any vaccine with an efficacy rate of over 50% could help stop outbreakADVERTISEMENT

“It’s a good option,” said Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser.

Sharma said no one has died or become severely ill in trials of the vaccines now approved by Canada or in those of Johnson & Johnson and Novavax shots, which could be approved soon.

Health authorities in Germany and other countries have raised concerns that AstraZeneca didn’t test the vaccine in enough older people to prove it works for them, and indicated they would not recommend it for people over 65. Belgium has authorized it only for people 55 and under

Health Canada said its decision was based on pooled analyses from four ongoing clinical studies trials as well as data in countries where it has been approved.

“Based on the totality of the information, the benefit-risk profile of AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine is positive for the proposed indication in adults 18 years and over,” Health Canada said in information posted online.

“We’re starting to get real world evidence. There is evidence that in older age group it would be effective,” Sharma said.

Sharma said the AstraZeneca vaccine licensed by the Serum Institute of India, which uses the same recipe but a slightly different method, is also approved.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has already been authorized in more than 50 countries. It is cheaper and easier to handle than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which needs deep-cold storage that is not widespread in many developing nations. Both vaccines require two shots per person, given weeks apart.

Canada has pre-ordered 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca shot, which was co-developed by researchers at the University of Oxford. It will also receive up to 1.9 million doses through the global vaccine-sharing initiative known as COVAX by the end of June.

Myanmar protesters injured as police escalate use of force

From the Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar security forces cracked down on anti-coup protesters in the country’s second-largest city on Friday, injuring at least three people, two of whom were shot in the chest by rubber bullets and another who suffered a wound on his leg.

An injured protester is escorted as police tried to disperse a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo)

Protesters had gathered on a wide road outside a park in Mandalay in the early afternoon when security forces arrived and began firing what sounded like gunshots and using flash bang grenades to disperse the crowd.

Bullets, shell casings, and other projectiles were later found by local residents on one of the main streets and shown to journalists.

The victims were all taken to a private clinic for treatment. One of the men who was shot in the chest with a rubber bullet also had a white bandage wrapped around his head. The man with an injured leg was later photographed in a cast that stretched from his foot to his knee.

The confrontations underscore the rising tensions between a growing popular revolt and the generals who toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb. 1 takeover that shocked the international community and reversed years of slow progress toward democracy.

Also Friday, a Japanese journalist covering a separate protest in Yangon, the country’s largest city, was detained by police and later released, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency. Yuki Kitazumi could be seen in a video circulating among media as police seized him, with one of the officers briefly putting a truncheon around the journalist’s neck.

Earlier in the day, security forces in Yangon fired warning shots and beat truncheons against their shields while moving to disperse more than 1,000 anti-coup protesters.

The demonstrators had gathered in front of a popular shopping mall, holding placards and chanting slogans denouncing the Feb. 1 coup even as the security presence increased and a water-cannon truck was brought to the area.

When around 50 riot police moved against the protesters, warning shots could be heard, and at least one demonstrator was held by officers. Security forces chased the protesters off the main road and continued to pursue them in the nearby lanes, as some ducked into houses to hide.

On Thursday, supporters of Myanmar’s junta attacked people protesting the military government, using slingshots, iron rods and knives to injure several of them. Photos and videos posted on social media showed groups attacking people in downtown Yangon as police stood by without intervening.

The violence erupted as hundreds marched in support of the coup. They carried banners in English with the slogans “We Stand With Our Defence Services” and “We Stand With State Administration Council,” which is the official name of the junta.

Late Thursday, police turned out in force in Yangon’s Tarmwe neighborhood where they tried to clear the streets of residents protesting the military’s appointment of a new administrator for one ward. Several arrests were made as people scattered in front of riot police who used flash bang grenades to disperse the crowd.

No pro-military rally appeared to be scheduled for Friday.

Suu Kyi has not been seen since the coup. Around 50 of her supporters held a prayer Friday opposite her home in Yangon. The mansion is where she spent many years under house arrest during previous military governments, and the residence has long had iconic status among her supporters.

“Because of the situation, on this day of the full moon we are sending love to, and reciting Buddha’s teachings for Mother Suu, President U Win Myint and all those unlawfully detained,” said Hmuu Sitt yan Naing, who joined the prayer group.

It is believed Suu Kyi is currently being detained in the capital Naypyitaw. She is due to face a court on Monday on charges brought against her by the military junta. The charges are widely seen as politically motivated.

Militia official: US strike in Syria kills 1, wounds several

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, LOLITA C. BALDOR, and ROBERT BURNS for the Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — A U.S. airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group, killing one fighter and wounding several others, an Iraqi militia official said Friday, signaling the first military action undertaken by U.S. President Joe Biden.

FILE – In this Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, in Washington. Kirby announced late Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, that the U.S. military conducted airstrikes against facilities in eastern Syria that the Pentagon said were used by Iran-backed militia groups, in response to recent attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq. Kirby said the action was authorized by President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops.

The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press that the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak of the attack. Syria war monitoring groups said the strikes hit trucks moving weapons to a base for Iranian-backed militias in Boukamal.

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington, shortly after the airstrikes which were carried out Thursday evening Eastern Standard Time.

The Biden administration in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq and send a message to Iran.

The U.S. has in the past targeted facilities in Syria belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, which it has blamed for numerous attacks targeting U.S. personnel and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons that were being taken by trucks entering Syrian territories from Iraq. The group said 22 fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitaries that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The report could not be independently verified.

In a statement, the group confirmed one of its fighters was killed and called the U.S. strike a crime. Kataeb Hezbollah, like other Iranian-backed factions, maintains fighters in Syria to both fight against the Islamic State group and assist Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in that country’s civil war.

Defense Secretary Austin said he was “confident” the U.S. had hit back at the “the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he had recommended the action to President Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. action was a “proportionate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said.

Kirby said the U.S. airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada.

Further details were not immediately available.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticized the U.S. attack as a violation of international law.

“The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible,” she said. “None of those elements is met in the Syria strike.”

Syria condemned the U.S. strike calling it “a cowardly and systematic American aggression,” warning that the attack will lead to consequences.

“This aggression is a negative indication of the policies of the new American administration, which is supposed to adhere to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle,” a statement by Syria’s foreign ministry said.

Biden administration officials condemned the Feb. 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted U.S. personnel or facilities in Iraq.

Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the Feb. 15 attack. He added that U.S. officials were not then able to give a “certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks.”

A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Alwiya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the Feb. 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the U.S. Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade. Iran-backed groups have splintered significantly since the U.S.-directed strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad more than a year ago. Both were key in commanding and controlling a wide array of Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq.

Since their deaths, the militias have become increasingly unruly. Some analysts argue the armed groups have splintered as a tactic to claim attacks under different names to mask their involvement.

The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against U.S. targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of Biden’s inauguration.

The U.S. under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out multiple attacks in Iraq.

Trump had said the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and provoke U.S. escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that culminated in the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Soleimani and brought Iraq to the brink of a proxy war.

U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.

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Baldor and Burns reported from Washington, D.C.

Explainer: Mount Etna puts on its latest spectacular show

By FRANCES D’EMILIO for the Associated Press

ROME (AP) — Mount Etna, the volcano that towers over eastern Sicily, evokes superlatives. It is Europe’s most active volcano and also the continent’s largest.

Flames and smoke billowing from a crater, as seen from the southern side of the Mt Etna volcano, tower over the city of Pedara, Sicily, Wednesday night, Feb. 24, 2021. Europe’s most active volcano has been steadily erupting since last week, belching smoke, ash, and fountains of red-hot lava. (AP Photo/Salvatore Allegra)

And the fiery, noisy show of power it puts on for days or weeks, even years every so often, is always super spectacular. Fortunately, Etna’s latest eruption captivating the world’s attention has caused neither injuries nor evacuation.

But each time it roars back into dramatic action, it wows onlookers and awes geologists who spend their careers monitoring its every quiver, rumble and belch.

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?

On Feb. 16, Etna erupted, sending up high fountains of lava, which rolled down the mountain’s eastern slope toward the uninhabited Bove Valley, which is five kilometers (three miles) wide and eight kilometers (five miles) long. The volcano has belched out ash and lava stones that showered the southern side.

The activity has been continuing since, in bursts more or less intense. The flaming lava lights up the night sky in shocking hues of orange and red. There’s no telling how long this round of exciting activity will last, say volcanologists who work at the Etna Observatory run by the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

While public fascination began with the first dramatic images this month, the explosive activity began in September 2019, becoming much stronger two months ago. The current activity principally involves the south-east crater, which was created in 1971 from a series of fractures.

HARD TO MISS

Etna towers 3,350 meters (around 11,050 feet) above sea level and is 35 kilometers (22 miles) in diameter, although the volcanic activity has changed the mountain’s height over time.

Occasionally, the airport at Catania, eastern Sicily’s largest city, has to close down for hours or days, when ash in the air makes flying in the area dangerous. Early in this recent spell of eruptive activity, the airport closed briefly.

But for pilots and passengers flying to and from Catania at night when the volcano is calmer, a glimpse of fiery red in the dark sky makes for an exciting sight.

LIVING WITH A VOLCANO

With Etna’s lava flows largely contained to its uninhabited slopes, life goes in towns and villages elsewhere on the mountain. Sometimes, like in recent days, lava stones rain down on streets, bounce off cars and rattle roofs.

But many residents generally find that a small inconvenience when weighted against the benefits the volcano brings. Lava flows have left fertile farmland. Apple and citrus trees flourish. Etna red and whites are some of Sicily’s most popular wines, from grapes grown on the volcanic slopes.

Tourism rakes in revenues. Hikers and backpackers enjoy views of the oft-puffing mountain and the sparkling Ionian Sea below. For skiers who want uncrowded slopes, Etna’s a favorite.

IT CAN BE DEADLY

Inspiring ancient Greek legends, Etna has had scores of known eruptions in its history. An eruption in 396 B.C. has been credited with keeping the army of Carthage at bay.

In 1669, in what has been considered the volcano’s worst known eruption, lava buried a swath of Catania, about 23 kilometers (15 miles) away and devastated dozens of villages. An eruption in 1928 cut off a rail route circling the mountain’s base.

More recently, in 1983, dynamite was used to divert lava threatening inhabited areas. In 1992, the army built an earthen wall to contain the lava, flowing from Etna for months, from hitting Zafferana Etnea, a village of a few thousand people. At one point, the smoking lava stopped two kilometers (just over a mile) from the edge of town.

Over the last century, a hiccup in geological time, low-energy explosive eruptions and lava flows, both fed from the summit and side vents, have characterized Etna.

Chief: Capitol assault much bigger than intel suggested

By MICHAEL BALSAMO, MARY CLARE JALONICK and NOMAAN MERCHANT for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The acting U.S. Capitol Police chief was pressed to explain Thursday why the agency hadn’t been prepared to fend off a violent mob of insurrectionists, including white supremacists, who were trying to halt the certification of the presidential election last month, even though officials had compelling advance intelligence.

In this Feb. 2, 2021 file photo, acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman pays respects to U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman denied that law enforcement failed to take seriously warnings of violence before the Jan. 6 insurrection. Three days before the riot, Capitol Police distributed an internal document warning that armed extremists were poised for violence and could attack Congress because they saw it as the last chance to try to overturn the election results, Pittman said.

But the assault was much bigger than they expected, she said.

“There was no such intelligence. Although we knew the likelihood for violence by extremists, no credible threat indicated that tens of thousands would attack the U.S. Capitol, nor did the intelligence received from the FBI or any other law enforcement partner indicate such a threat.”

Later, under questioning by the House subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Tim Ryan, Pittman said that while there may have been thousands of people heading to the Capitol from a pro-Trump rally, about 800 people actually made their way into the building.

Pittman conceded that the agency’s incident command protocols were “not adhered to,” and that there was a “multi-tiered failure.” Officers were left without proper communication or strong guidance from their supervisors as the insurrectionist mob stormed into the building.

The panel’s top Republican, Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, said the top Capitol Police officials “either failed to take seriously the intelligence received or the intelligence failed to reach the right people.”

Pittman’s predecessor as chief testified earlier this week at a hearing that police expected an enraged but more typical protest crowd of Trump backers. But Pittman said intelligence collected before the riot prompted police to take extraordinary measures, including the special arming of officers, intercepting radio frequencies used by the invaders and deploying spies at the Ellipse rally where Trump was sending his supporters marching to the Capitol to “fight like hell.

On Jan. 3, Capitol Police distributed an internal intelligence assessment warning that militia members, white supremacists and other extremist groups were likely to participate, that demonstrators would be armed and that it was possible they would come to the Capitol to try to disrupt the vote, according to Pittman.

But at the same time, she said police didn’t have enough intelligence to predict the violent insurrection that resulted in five deaths, including that of a Capitol Police officer. They prepared for trouble but not an invasion.

“Although the Department’s January 3rd Special Assessment foretold of a significant likelihood for violence on Capitol grounds by extremists groups, it did not identify a specific credible threat indicating that thousands of American citizens would descend upon the U.S. Capitol attacking police officers with the goal of breaking into the U.S. Capitol Building to harm Members and prevent the certification of Electoral College votes,” Pittman said.

Steven Sund, the police force’s former chief who resigned after the riot, testified Tuesday that the intelligence assessment warned white supremacists, members of the far-right Proud Boys and leftist antifa were expected to be in the crowd and might become violent.

“We had planned for the possibility of violence, the possibility of some people being armed, not the possibility of a coordinated military style attack involving thousands against the Capitol,” Sund said.

The FBI also forwarded a warning to local law enforcement officials about online postings that a “war” was coming. But Pittman said it still wasn’t enough to prepare for the mob that attacked the Capitol.

Officers were vastly outnumbered as thousands of rioters descended on the building, some of them wielding planks of wood, stun guns, bear spray and metal pipes as they broke through windows and doors and stormed through the Capitol. Officers were hit with barricades, shoved to the ground, trapped between doors, beaten and bloodied as members of Congress were evacuated and congressional staffers cowered in offices.

Pittman also said the department faced “internal challenges” as it responded to the riot. Officers didn’t properly lock down the Capitol complex, even after an order had been given over the radio to do so. She also said officers didn’t understand when they were allowed to use deadly force, and that less-than-lethal weapons that officers had were not as successful as they expected.

While Pittman said in her testimony that that sergeants and lieutenants were supposed to pass on intelligence to the department’s rank and file, many officers have said they were given little or no information or training for what they would face.

’Four officers told The Associated Press shortly after the riot that they heard nothing from Sund, Pittman, or other top commanders as the building was breached. Officers were left in many cases to improvise or try to save colleagues facing peril.

Pittman also faces internal pressure from her rank and file, particularly after the Capitol Police union recently issued a vote of no confidence against her. She must also lead the department through the start of several investigations into how law enforcement failed to protect the building.

Capitol Police are investigating the actions of 35 police officers on the day of the riot; six of those officers have been suspended with pay, a police spokesman said.

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Merchant reported from Houston.

Pro-military marchers in Myanmar attack anti-coup protesters

For the Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Supporters of Myanmar’s junta attacked people protesting the military government that took power in a coup, using slingshots, iron rods and knives Thursday to injure several of the demonstrators.

In this image taken from video obtained by Than Lwin Khet News, a woman helps an unidentified man lying on the sidewalk of Sule Pagoda Road after he was attacked by a group of men in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Members of a group supporting Myanmar’s military junta have attacked and injured people protesting against the army’s Feb. 1 seizure of power that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. (Than Lwin Thet News via AP)

The violence complicates an already intractable standoff between the military and a protest movement that has been staging large rallies daily to demand that Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government be restored to power. She and other politicians were ousted and arrested on Feb. 1 in a takeover that shocked the international community and reversed years of slow progress toward democracy.

In response, several Western countries have imposed or threatened sanctions against the military. On Thursday, Britain announced further measures against members of the ruling junta for “overseeing human rights violations since the coup.”

Amid the international outrage, Facebook also announced it would ban all accounts linked to the military as well as ads from military-controlled companies.

On Thursday, tensions escalated on the streets between anti-coup protesters and supporters of the military. Photos and videos posted on social media showed groups attacking people in downtown Yangon as police stood by without intervening.

The number of injured people and their condition was not immediately clear.

According to accounts and photos posted on social media, hundreds of people marched Thursday in support of the coup. They carried banners in English with the slogans “We Stand With Our Defence Services” and “We Stand With State Administration Council,” which is the official name of the junta.

When the marchers were jeered at by onlookers near the city’s Central Railway station, they responded by firing slingshots and throwing stones at their critics. Some marchers broke away to chase down a man and then stabbed and kicked him.

Supporters of the military have gathered in the streets before, especially in the days immediately before and after the coup, but had not used violence so openly.

Critics of the military charge its pays people to engage in violence, allegations that are hard to verify. They have been raised during earlier spells of unrest, including a failed anti-military uprising in 1988 and an ambush of Suu Kyi’s motorcade in a remote rural area in 2003, when she was seeking to rally her supporters against the military regime then in power.

Such confrontations could make it harder to resolve Myanmar’s crisis.

Later Thursday, police turned out in force in Yangon’s Tarmwe neighborhood where they tried to clear the streets of residents protesting the military’s appointment of a new administrator for one ward. Several arrests were made as people scattered in front of lines of riot police, who used flash bang grenades to disperse the crowd.

So far, according to the independent Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, eight people have been killed in connection with the junta’s crackdown and 728 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup.

As part of its efforts to quell the opposition, the ruling junta has sought to limit access to the internet, including trying to block Facebook — the gateway to the web for many people in Myanmar. Those efforts have proven largely ineffective.

But on Thursday, Facebook announced a ban of its own: on all military-linked accounts. The social media platform already had deleted several military-linked accounts since the coup, including army-controlled Myawaddy TV and state television broadcaster MRTV. The bans also apply to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

The company said in a statement that it considered the situation in Myanmar an “emergency,” explaining that the ban was triggered by events since the coup, including “deadly violence.”

Facebook and other social media platforms came under enormous criticism in 2017 when right groups said they failed to do enough to stop hate speech against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

The army launched a brutal counterinsurgency operation that year that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to seek safety in neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain in refugee camps. Myanmar security forces burned down villages, killed civilians and engaged in mass rape, and the International Court of Justice is considering whether these actions constitute genocide.

The military says it took power because last November’s election was marked by widespread voting irregularities, an assertion that was refuted by the state election commission, whose members have since been replaced.

The junta has said it will rule for a year and then hold fresh elections.

Embattled Iowa mayor among town officials charged resigns

For the Associated Press

ARMSTRONG, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa mayor who is among a slew of town officials charged with a string of felonies and misdemeanors in a city embezzlement case has resigned his post.

Armstrong Mayor Greg Buum, 69, submitted his written resignation Monday night at a City Council meeting, the Des Moines Register reported. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has charged Buum, the town’s police chief, its city clerk and two former clerks in an alleged plot to loot the city coffers.

Buum also is charged with misusing a saw from the town’s volunteer fire department to benefit his private carpentry business. He and the others — which include police chief Craig Merrill, city clerk Tracie Lang and former city clerks Connie Thackery and Mary Staton — were arrested earlier this month. Buum is free on $67,000 bond.

Armstrong is a community of 900 people located near Iowa’s border with Minnesota and is about 40 miles from the popular Okoboji vacation area in the state’s northwestern corner.

The Latest: Hearing exposes breach between security officers

For the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Latest on congressional testimony about the Capitol insurrection (all times local):

Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs & Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, to examine the January 6th attack on the Capitol. (Erin Scott/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

1:25 p.m.

The former chief law enforcement officer of the U.S. House is denying allegations he didn’t want to call the National Guard before the Jan. 6 riot out of concern that it would look bad.

Paul Irving resigned as House sergeant-at-arms after the deadly insurrection. He testified Tuesday that he met with then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund on Jan. 4 and that he believed they agreed not to ask for the Guard. Sund alleged that Irving denied his request for the Guard, citing “optics.”

Said Irving, “I was not concerned about appearance whatsoever.”

The hearing has renewed a remarkable breach between Sund and Irving about why there wasn’t more security at the Capitol. Irving was one of Sund’s superiors.

Sund says he requested Guard help again at 1:09 p.m. on Jan. 6, as rioters were massing outside the building. Irving denies receiving a call at that time.

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HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FORMER SECURITY OFFICIALS TESTIFYING ON THE CAPITOL INSURRECTION:

Testifying publicly for the first time about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, former security officials say that bad intelligence was to blame for the disastrous failure to anticipate the violent intentions of the mob. That left them unprepared for the attack, which was unlike anything they had ever seen before.

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON:

12:20 p.m.

Police officials who were tasked with protecting the Capitol on Jan. 6 say the FBI did not flag to them an internal report suggesting extremists were preparing for “war.”

The report was issued a day before the riot by the FBI’s Norfolk, Virginia, field office. Washington Metropolitan Police acting Chief Robert Contee says the report came via email and says he believes a warning of that level “would warrant a phone call or something.”

Steven Sund resigned as Capitol Police chief the day after the riot. Sund testified before Congress on Tuesday he was unaware the department had received the report until weeks after the insurrection.

Sund and Contee have criticized the intelligence they received from federal law enforcement about Jan. 6. Sund has called for a review of how the intelligence community studies domestic extremism and shares information across agencies.

The head of the FBI’s office in Washington has said that once he received the Jan. 5 warning from the Virginia office, the information was quickly shared with other law enforcement agencies, including the Capitol Police.

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11:55 a.m.

The key officials in charge of security at the U.S. Capitol disagree on why they didn’t seek National Guard help before the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Steven Sund resigned as chief of the Capitol Police the day after the riot. Sund testified Tuesday that he requested the National Guard be called at 1:09 p.m. on Jan. 6.

Paul Irving is the former House sergeant-at-arms and was one of Sund’s superiors. Irving says he didn’t receive a request until after 2 p.m. Irving says he did not remember Sund making a request at 1:09.

Rioters breached the Capitol’s west side just after 2 p.m.

Irving says he and other Capitol security leaders agreed before Jan. 6 that “the intelligence did not support the troops and collectively decided to let it go.”

The result was Capitol Police officers were badly outnumbered by rioters who in many cases were better armed and prepared to try to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory over Donald Trump.

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11:45 a.m.

A top security official has testified that he was “stunned” over the delayed response to a request for National Guard help during the mob riot at the Capitol.

Acting Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee III told a joint Senate hearing Tuesday that the former U.S. Capitol Police chief was “pleading” with Army officials to deploy Guard troops as the violence rapidly escalated Jan. 6.

The District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police officers had joined to help U.S. Capitol Police during the attack.

Contee says police officers “were out there literally fighting for their lives” but the officials on the call appeared to be going through a ”check the boxes” exercise asking about the optics of stationing National Guard troops at the Capitol. Contee says there “was not an immediate response.”

The officials are testifying in the first public hearing over the siege as a mob loyal to Donald Trump stormed the Capitol to disrupt Congress confirming Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden in the presidential election.

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11:30 a.m.

The former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police says he learned this week that his officers had received a report from an FBI field office in Virginia that forecast in detail the chances extremists could commit “war” in Washington the following day — the day of the Capitol insurrection.

The head of the FBI’s office in Washington has said that once he received the Jan. 5 warning from the Virginia office, the information was quickly shared with other law enforcement agencies through the joint terrorism task force, including the Capitol Police.

Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testified to Congress on Tuesday that an officer on the joint terrorism task force had received the FBI’s memo and forwarded it to a sergeant working on intelligence for the Capitol Police. But Sund says the information was not put forward to any other supervisors. Sund says he wasn’t aware of it.

Sund says he did see an intelligence report created within the Capitol Police force warning that Congress could be targeted on Jan. 6. That report warned extremists were likely to attend and there were calls for people to travel to Washington armed.