Category: Sirennet Blog

Sheriff’s office offers Valentine’s Day ‘special’ for exes

From the Associated Press

NASHVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina sheriff’s office is giving people a chance on Valentine’s Day weekend to show their former lovers they’re still wanted by turning them in if they have outstanding warrants.

The Nash County Sheriff’s Office is offering what it calls a “Valentine’s Day Weekend Special,” which it described as “a special too sweet to pass up.”

The “offer” posted on its Facebook page includes what the sheriff’s office described as a set of limited-edition platinum bracelets, free transportation with a chauffeur and a one-night minimum stay in “our luxurious (five-star) accommodations.” It tops the offer with a special Valentine’s dinner.

“Operators are standing by,” says the post at the end, which includes a picture of a rose next to a set of handcuffs.

Some reactions to the post praised the idea as brilliant and hilarious, and one person suggested whoever came up with the idea deserves a raise. The News & Observer of Raleigh reports others did not find it funny. “Nothing like making a joke about people’s freedom!!” one commenter posted.

Scotland vaccinations lead to sharp drop in hospitalizations

By DANICA KIRKA for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Scotland’s COVID-19 vaccination program has led to a sharp drop in hospitalizations, researchers said Monday, boosting hopes that the shots will work as well in the real world as they have in carefully controlled studies.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson with quality control technician Kerri Symington, visits the French biotechnology laboratory Valneva in Livingston, Scotland, Thursday Jan. 28, 2021, where they will be producing a COVID-19 vaccine on a large scale, during a visit to Scotland. (Wattie Cheung/Pool via AP)

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine reduced hospital admissions by up to 94% four weeks after people received their first dose, while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine cut admissions by up to 85%, according to scientists at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Strathclyde and Public Health Scotland.

The preliminary findings were based on a comparison of people who had received one dose of vaccine and those who hadn’t been inoculated yet. The data was gathered between Dec. 8 and Feb. 15, a period when 21% of Scotland’s population received their first vaccine shot.

“These results are very encouraging and have given us great reasons to be optimistic for the future,” said Professor Aziz Sheikh, director of the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute. “We now have national evidence — across an entire country — that vaccination provides protection against COVID-19 hospitalizations.”

About 650,000 people in Scotland received the Pfizer vaccine during the study period and 490,000 had the AstraZeneca shot, according to the Usher Institute. Because hospitalization data was collected 28 days after inoculation, the findings on hospital admissions were based on a subset of 220,000 people who received the Pfizer vaccine and 45,000 who got the AstraZeneca shot.

U.K. regulators authorized widespread use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Dec. 30, almost a month after they approved the Pfizer vaccine.

Outside experts said while the findings are encouraging, they should be interpreted with caution because of the nature of this kind of observational study. In particular, relatively few people were hospitalized after receiving the vaccines during the study period.

Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, urged those making political decisions about the pandemic to be cautious.

“It will be important that euphoria, especially from political sources that do not understand the uncertainty in the numerical values, does not cause premature decisions to be made,” he said “Cautious optimism is justified.”

Earlier this month, Israel reported encouraging results from people receiving the Pfizer vaccine. Six weeks after vaccinations began for people over age 60, there was a 41% drop in confirmed COVID-19 infections and a 31% decline in hospitalizations, according the country’s Ministry of Health.

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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

South Africa’s health care workers eager for first vaccines

By ANDREW MELDRUM for the Associated Press

ELANDSDOORN, South Africa (AP) — After testing thousands of people for coronavirus, South African nurse Asnath Masango says she can’t wait to get vaccinated.

“So many people, I test them and within days they have passed away,” said Masango. “I want protection.”

Nurse Asnath Masango, 56, waits for a patient at Ndlovu Care Group in Elandsdoorn, 200 kms north-east of Johannesburg Thursday Feb. 11, 2021. The Ndlovu center is running a study of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine with 602 people from the community participating. Masango said she can’t wait to get vaccinated. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

C.J. Umunnakwe, a virologist running a lab that has performed more than 40,000 virus tests, says he “wholeheartedly believes in vaccinations. Vaccines save lives.” He plans to talk to those who may be skeptical.

Health care workers at the Ndlovu Care Group in rural northeastern South Africa are eagerly awaiting the first jabs of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will be given out to medical staff starting this week.

That’s despite the fact that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — unlike the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines — has not been approved for general use anywhere in the world.

No matter, say many South African health workers who are enthusiastic about getting the J&J jab, which comes amid a huge shift in the government’s vaccination strategy.

South Africa, with nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 including more than 47,000 deaths, has had 41% of Africa’s reported cases.

Last week South Africa controversially decided to drop the AstraZeneca vaccine — which had been already purchased, delivered and approved in the country — from the first phase in which 1.25 million health care workers will be vaccinated.

The last-minute decision was made after a small test showed the AstraZeneca vaccine offered minimal protection against mild to moderate cases of the variant dominant in South Africa. Although preliminary and not peer-reviewed, the results raised serious questions about how effective the AstraZeneca vaccine would be specifically in South Africa, even though the vaccine has been approved in over 50 other countries around the world.

Health officials decided to change to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which tests show is safe and effective against the variant here. A one-shot vaccine is also easier for many countries to implement.

“The switch has emboldened the skeptics, who say the vaccines have problems,” Umunnakwe said of those who alleged that big pharmaceutical firms are using Africans as guinea pigs.

“I am telling people that the change shows that decisions are being made transparently, that it was driven by science,” he said. “It is proof that we are putting the public as first priority.”

South Africa has purchased 9 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 80,000 will be delivered this week to kick off the inoculation campaign, the president says. South Africa’s regulatory body has approved the J&J shot for testing purposes. Until that vaccine receives full approval, it will be given as part of an “implemented study,” officials say.

At the Ndlovu Care Group, in the small town of Elandsdoorn in Limpopo province, 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Johannesburg, medical workers have seen the devastation wrought by the virus up close. When COVID-19 hit, the center quickly ramped up its laboratory to do PCR tests.

The protective gear that cloaks Masango cannot hide her empathy as she welcomes people who come for a COVID-19 test.

“I’m so skilled at this, you won’t even feel it!” she said to a visitor.

Masango, 56, said she has tested more people than she can count.

“What depresses me the most is when I must tell someone that they are positive,” she said. “They are so frightened … Grandparents die. Breadwinners die. How will their children get food?”

The prospect of getting vaccinated excites her.

“Yo!” she says, eyes widening. “I want that vaccine!”

The Ndlovu Care Group has done more than 40,000 tests in the rural community, including workers at large mines and commercial farms. More than 20,000 of those tests were in January alone, when South Africa was hit by a dramatic resurgence of the disease, driven by the more contagious variant that is now dominant.

The Ndlovu laboratory can carry out the PCR virus tests and get the results within hours. In the January resurgence, it was averaging about 1,600 tests per day.

“We were busy, very busy,” said Umunnakwe, a 35-year-old virologist who came to the center to study HIV and is now studying coronavirus too. He is keenly watching the genomic sequencing in South Africa that identified the new variant.

“By doing sequencing, we don’t just see what is present in the virus today, we can detect what may happen in the future,” said Umunnakwe, adding that he hoped Ndlovu will get the equipment to do sequencing, rare for a rural health center.

Most South Africans are looking forward to getting vaccinated. An impressive 67% of adults said they would definitely or probably take a vaccine, according to a survey by the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council.

Dr. Rebone Maboa, who is running a study of the J&J vaccine at the Ndlovu center, was excited to hear that it will be used in South Africa.

“I’m actually ecstatic!” said Maboa. “I think it’s actually a better vaccine for us here in South Africa, looking at our variant.”

The 42-year-old doctor said 602 people in the community are participating in the test and half were injected with the J&J vaccine in November. She also said her recent recovery from COVID-19 makes her a stronger advocate for getting vaccinated.

“Lack of knowledge makes people much, much more anxious,” said Maboa. “Those who get the vaccine will be role models, vaccine ambassadors who will encourage others.”

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Hospitals still ration medical N95 masks as stockpiles swell

By JASON DEAREN, JULIET LINDERMAN and MARTHA MENDOZA for the Associated Press

Mike Bowen’s warehouse outside Fort Worth, Texas, was piled high with cases of medical-grade N95 face masks. His company, Prestige Ameritech, can churn out 1 million masks every four days, but he doesn’t have orders for nearly that many. So he recently got approval from the government to export them.

Nurses picket Friday, Feb. 12, 2021 in Faribault, Minn., during a healthcare worker protest of a shortage on protective masks. One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S.  finds itself with many millions of N95 masks pouring out of American factories and heading into storage. Yet there still aren’t nearly enough in ICU rooms and hospitals. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

“I’m drowning in these respirators,” Bowen said.

On the same day 1000 miles (1,600 kilometers) north, Mary Turner, a COVID-19 intensive care nurse at a hospital outside Minneapolis, strapped on the one disposable N-95 respirator allotted for her entire shift.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Turner would have thrown out her mask and grabbed a new one after each patient to prevent the spread of disease. But on this day, she’ll wear that mask from one infected person to the next because N95s — they filter out 95% of infectious particles — have supposedly been in short supply since last March.

Turner’s employer, North Memorial Health, said in a statement that supplies have stabilized, but the company is still limiting use because “we must remain mindful of that supply” to ensure everyone’s safety.

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many millions of N95 masks are pouring out of American factories and heading into storage. Yet doctors and nurses like Turner say there still aren’t nearly enough in the “ICU rooms with high-flow oxygen and COVID germs all over.”

While supply and demand issues surrounding N95 respirators are well-documented, until now the reasons for this discrepancy have been unclear.

The logistical breakdown is rooted in federal failures over the past year to coordinate supply chains and provide hospitals with clear rules about how to manage their medical equipment.

Internal government emails obtained by The Associated Press show there were deliberate decisions to withhold vital information about new mask manufacturers and availability. Exclusive trade data and interviews with manufacturers, hospital procurement officials and frontline medical workers reveal a communication breakdown — not an actual shortage — that is depriving doctors, nurses, paramedics and other people risking exposure to COVID-19 of first-rate protection.

Before the pandemic, medical providers followed manufacturer and government guidelines that called for N95s to be discarded after each use, largely to protect doctors and nurses from catching infectious diseases themselves. As N95s ran short, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention modified those guidelines to allow for extended use and reuse only if supplies are “depleted,” a term left undefined.

Hospitals have responded in a variety of ways, the AP has found. Some are back to pre-COVID-19, one-use-per-patient N95 protocols, but most are doling out one mask a day or fewer to each employee. Many hospital procurement officers say they are relying on CDC guidelines for depleted supplies, even if their own stockpiles are robust.Full Coverage: Coronavirus pandemic

Chester “Trey” Moeller, a political appointee who served as the CDC’s deputy chief of staff until President Joe Biden’s inauguration last month, said efforts to increase U.S. mask production were successful, but there has since been a federal breakdown in connecting those who need them with this new supply.

“We are forcing our health care industry to reuse sanitized N95s or even worse, wear one N95 all day long,” he said.

Before the pandemic tore through the U.S., the demand for N95 masks was 1.7 billion per year, with 80% going to industrial uses and 20% into medical, trade groups say. In 2021, demand for N95 masks for medical use is estimated by industry sources to be 5.7 billion.

With the increased demand and prodding from the federal government, U.S. manufacturers stepped in. Bowen’s company, Prestige Ameritech, boosted production from 75,000 N95 respirators a month to almost 10 million during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, many hospitals are building their stockpiles over fears of a future surge, and restricting the number given directly to health care workers.

The AP spoke with a dozen procurement officers who buy supplies for more than 300 hospitals across the U.S. All said they have enough N95s now, between two and 12 months worth, sitting in storage.

Even so, all but two of those hospital systems are limiting their doctors, nurses and other workers to one mask per day, or even one per week. Some say they are waiting for the supply to grow even more, while others say they never plan to go back to pre-COVID-19 usage.

Dean Weber, vice president of corporate supply chain management for Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sanford Health, said the one-N95-per-patient guidelines were established with the help of manufacturers.

“You know, the mask manufacturers are in the business of selling masks,” Weber said. He said he prioritizes safety over cost, but he doesn’t believe these respirators need to be tossed after each use. “We were all, in fact, you know, just infatuated with an N95.”

But John Wright, vice president of supply chains for Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare, says reusing masks or wearing them longer “would not be appropriate” once they have enough supplies. He hopes his 23 hospitals and hundreds of clinics will be back to single use within two weeks.

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As the coronavirus spread through spring and summer, demand for N95 masks surged to unprecedented levels and the respirators disappeared from stockpiles and distributors’ shelves. Hospitals and distributors looked overseas to fill the need.

In March 2020, just six shipping containers arrived in the U.S. with N95s in them, and almost all of those masks were for industrial use, not medical. By September 2020, orders had soared — in one month, almost 3,000 shipping containers of N95s arrived at U.S. ports, almost entirely medical-grade.

Federal officials saw the reliance on imports as a security problem and worked to boost domestic supply, The federal agency that oversees N95 manufacturers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, approved 94 new brands, including 19 new domestic manufacturers, according to the internal government emails.

Over the fall and winter, those domestic producers hired thousands of employees and invested millions in supplies to churn out masks,

As U.S. production rose through the fall and winter, imports plunged. Shipment data maintained by ImportGenius and Panjiva Inc., services that independently track global trade, shows arrivals dropped sharply to about 150 in January 2021.

In Shanghai, Cameron Johnson, a trade consultant at the Tidalwave Solutions recruitment firm and an adjunct business faculty member at New York University, says “the bottom has fallen out of the mask market.”

But the U.S. government failed to help link buyers to the growing supplies. Now some of those U.S.-based makers are facing major financial losses, potential layoffs and bankruptcies.

In December, Moeller, an appointee of President Donald Trump, grew frustrated while working in the office of CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield.

“(NIOSH) had approved almost 20 U.S. manufacturers to make N95 masks, but had not published any guidance or notice of what is ultimately more than 100 million N95 mask-making capacity a month going unsold,” Moeller told the AP.

The Food and Drug Administration was monitoring N95 supply chains, and received $80 million in emergency pandemic funds “to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus.” Of that amount, about $38 million was for efforts related to tracking medical product shortages.

But the agency has still not solved the problem. “There have been a good number of new NIOSH (mask) approvals that have been granted,” said Suzanne Schwartz, director of the FDA’s Office of Strategic Partnerships & Technology Innovation. “Yet the access to those new manufacturers, there seems to be a hurdle there. FDA … is trying to identify that blockage.”

Schwartz said the agency is working with President Joe Biden’s pandemic response team and the health care industry to find answers.

The internal emails show that Moeller in December alerted NIOSH head Dr. John Howard about the unused U.S. N95 manufacturing capacity.

In a Dec. 22 email, Howard acknowledged he was still hearing of shortages: “Apparently, there is a significant domestic production capacity going unused for the lack of orders and we have tried to address this supplier/purchaser disconnect.”

A few weeks later, as a suggested remedy, Howard said the list of domestic N95 manufacturers had now been published for potential buyers. But the list shows up on page 3 of an obscure newsletter published by a University of Cincinnati toxicologist, after a satirical column on “chin warmers,” or improperly worn surgical masks.

NIOSH was not actively promoting the new mask producers, Howard wrote, saying that “to avoid the perception of inequitable treatment and because of the dynamic production landscape, we have not posted information on our website regarding respirator availability.”

Howard, through an agency spokesperson, declined a request for an interview. In a statement, NIOSH also acknowledged “a supply and demand disconnect” exists and said it is working with FEMA and other federal agencies, as well as online sales platforms like Amazon.com Inc., to better connect purchasers with U.S.-made mask producers.

“How could this be happening? You have an obvious need, and you have a tremendous engine of supply,” said Tony Uphoff, president and CEO of Thomas, an online platform for product sourcing. Uphoff said that for decades the N95 market was stable, so when the virus upended the supply chain, procurement officers were unprepared to respond.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. finds itself in a paradox. The more N95s are rationed to alleviate a perceived shortage, the fewer masks are actually reaching the front lines.

N95s still appear on the FDA shortage list, in part because of reports from doctors and nurses who say they still don’t have enough. The American Hospital Association also says there’s a scarcity of N95s, citing global demand. But the government shortage list triggers distributors to limit how many masks they can sell to each hospital.

“The concept is similar to when trading is halted on Wall Street,” said David Hargraves, senior vice president of supply chain for Premier, a group purchasing organization that helps buy equipment and supplies for thousands of hospitals across the U.S. “You put the protective allocation in place to prevent folks from hoarding and overbuying, therefore exacerbating the shortage situation.”

But without clear guidance, hospitals are left to make their own decisions.

Some procurement officers are loath to trust masks from unfamiliar suppliers. Others balk at federally approved domestic manufacturers, some of whom charge more than international makers. And adding new products into a hospital’s inventory can be tricky: Every health care worker must be fit-tested before using a new brand.

“It’s not easy to pivot from one brand to another,” said Katie Dean, health care supply chain director at Stanford Health Care in California, where they are back to using one N95 mask per patient, as needed.

Dr. Robert Hancock, an emergency room doctor and president of the Texas College of Emergency Room Physicians, said hospitals are taking risks by continuing to ration N95s, even when they have enough. He said some doctors tell him they get one N95 mask every five to seven days.

“All the N95s currently out there were designed to be worn once. They were never designed to be reused,” Hancock said. “Hospitals are going to have to come up with some hard data to back up that a mask built for single use is OK to use repeatedly if there are other masks available. It was one thing when we had no choice. But you can’t just say something works because it favors you financially.”

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AP Medical Writer Linda A. Johnson in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, and AP writer Allen Breed in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

Deputies: Man proposes using rings stolen from other lover

From the Associated Press

ORANGE CITY, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man stole an engagement ring and wedding bands from a girlfriend and used them to propose to another girlfriend, according to authorities.

Volusia County Sheriff’s deputies said Thursday they have issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Davis, 48, who had not been found as of Friday.

Their investigation started earlier this year when a woman from Orange City, Florida, told detectives she had discovered her boyfriend was actually engaged to someone else. When she looked up the fiancée’s Facebook page, she noticed a photo of her wearing a wedding band and engagement ring that was identical to her own from a prior marriage, the sheriff’s office said in a news release.

When the Orange City woman checked her jewelry box, she found her rings were missing, as were several other pieces of jewelry, including a diamond ring that belonged to her grandmother. The total value of the stolen property was about $6,270, according to the sheriff’s office.

Orange City is located halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach.

The Orange City woman reached out to the fiancee, who returned some of the items, and they both called it off with Davis, who also went by the names “Joe Brown” and “Marcus Brown,” the sheriff’s office said.

The fiancee, who lives in Orlando, told detectives she had been duped too.

Davis once took the fiancee to a house that actually belonged to the Orange City woman, while she was at work, and claimed it was his. He then asked the fiancee to move in with him, but he then disappeared. By that time, the fiancee discovered her laptop computer and jewelry were missing, the sheriff’s office said.

Even though they did not have his real name, the jilted women remembered he had a relative in North Carolina and detectives were able to track down the relative who identified Davis, according to the sheriff’s office.

Davis has an active arrest warrant for a hit-and-run crash with injuries in Oregon, and previously has been arrested for possession of fictitious ID, filing a false police report, domestic assault and possession of cocaine with intent to sell, the sheriff’s office said.

According to the sheriff’s office, the jail where Davis previously was booked noted he had a tattoo on his left arm that said, “Only God can judge me.”

Support grows for Capitol riot inquiry after Trump acquittal

By HOPE YEN for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — After former President Donald Trump’s acquittal at his second Senate impeachment trial, bipartisan support appears to be growing for an independent Sept. 11-style commission into the deadly insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol.

Lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., with impeachment managers Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., right, speaks to members of the media during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, after the U.S. Senate voted to acquit former President Donald Trump, ending the impeachment trial. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Investigations into the riot were already planned, with Senate hearings scheduled later this month in the Senate Rules Committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has asked retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré to lead an immediate review of the Capitol’s security process.

Lawmakers from both parties, speaking on Sunday’s news shows, signaled that even more inquiries were likely. The Senate verdict Saturday, with its 57-43 majority falling 10 votes short of the two-thirds needed to convict Trump, hardly put to rest the debate about the Republican former president’s culpability for the Jan. 6 assault.

“There should be a complete investigation about what happened,” said Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump. “What was known, who knew it and when they knew, all that, because that builds the basis so this never happens again.”

Cassidy said he was “attempting to hold President Trump accountable,” and added that as Americans hear all the facts, “more folks will move to where I was.” He was censured by his state’s party after the vote.

An independent commission along the lines of the one that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks would probably require legislation to create. That would elevate the investigation a step higher, offering a definitive government-backed accounting of events. Pelosi has expressed support for such a commission while stressing that the members who sit on it would be key. Still, such a panel would pose risks of sharpening partisan divisions or overshadowing President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

“There’s still more evidence that the American people need and deserve to hear and a 9/11 commission is a way to make sure that we secure the Capitol going forward,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a Biden ally. “And that we lay bare the record of just how responsible and how abjectly violating of his constitutional oath President Trump really was.”

House prosecutors who argued for Trump’s conviction of inciting the riot said Sunday they had proved their case. They also railed against the Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and others who they said were “trying to have it both ways” in finding the former president not guilty but criticizing him at the same time.

A close Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., voted for acquittal but acknowledged that Trump had some culpability for the siege at the Capitol that killed five people, including a police officer, and disrupted lawmakers’ certification of Biden’s White House victory. Graham said he looked forward to campaigning with Trump in the 2022 election, when Republicans hope to regain the congressional majority.

“His behavior after the election was over the top,” Graham said. “We need a 9/11 commission to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again.”

The Senate acquitted Trump of a charge of “incitement of insurrection” after House prosecutors laid out a case that he was an “inciter in chief” who unleashed a mob by stoking a monthslong campaign of spreading debunked conspiracy theories and false violent rhetoric that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Trump’s lawyers countered that Trump’s words were not intended to incite the violence and that impeachment was nothing but a “witch hunt” designed to prevent him from serving in office again.

The conviction tally was the most bipartisan in American history but left Trump to declare victory and signal a political revival while a bitterly divided GOP bickered over its direction and his place in the party.

The Republicans who joined Cassidy in voting to convict were Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

“It’s frustrating, but the founders knew what they were doing and so we live with the system that we have,” Democratic Del. Stacey Plaskett, a House prosecutor who represents the Virgin Islands, said of the verdict, describing it as “heartbreaking.” She added: “But, listen, we didn’t need more witnesses. We needed more senators with spines.”

McConnell told Republican senators shortly before the vote that he would vote to acquit Trump. In a blistering speech after the vote, the Kentucky Republican said the president was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day” but that the Senate’s hands were tied to do anything about it because Trump was out of office. The Senate, in an earlier vote, had deemed the trial constitutional.

“It was powerful to hear the 57 guilties and then it was puzzling to hear and see Mitch McConnell stand and say ‘not guilty’ and then, minutes later, stand again and say he was guilty of everything,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa. “History will remember that statement of speaking out of two sides of his mouth,” she said.

Dean also backed the idea of an impartial investigative commission “not guided by politics but filled with people who would stand up to the courage of their conviction.”

The lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., called the trial a “dramatic success in historical terms” by winning unprecedented support from GOP senators. He said the verdict didn’t match the reality of the strength of evidence.

“We successfully prosecuted him and convicted him in the court of public opinion and the court of history,” he said. Pointing to McConnell and other Republican senators critical of Trump but voting to acquit, Raskin said, “They’re trying to have it both ways.”

Raskin and Plaskett defended the House team’s last-minute reversal not to call a witness, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash. They acknowledged they were aware they might lose some GOP votes for conviction if they extended the trial much longer.

Beutler’s statement late Friday that Trump rebuffed a plea from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to call off the rioters was ultimately entered into the trial record.

“I think what we did was, we got what we wanted, which was her statement, which was what she said, and had it put into the record,” Plaskett said.

Cassidy and Dean spoke on ABC’s “This Week,” Graham appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” Raskin was on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and Plaskett appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe, Lisa Mascaro, Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

After shooting, unrest, Wyoming gets its first Black sheriff

By MEAD GRUVER for the Associated Press

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — As a student at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, Aaron Appelhans used to look at the photos of past graduating classes hanging on the wall.

Albany County Sheriff Aaron Appelhans stands in the county courthouse in Laramie, Wyo. Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Appelhans took office in January as Wyoming’s as the state’s first Black sheriff. Formerly a University of Wyoming Police Department patrol sergeant, Appelhans in January became the top law enforcement officer for a county three times the size of Rhode Island yet home to just 650 African Americans out of 39,000 people. Wyoming’s largest city and capital, Cheyenne, got its first Black police chief, James “Jim” Byrd, in 1966. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver)

“I got to see, for the most part, ain’t a whole lot of people that looked like me around here,” he recalled of the mainly white faces.

A decade later, Appelhans was appointed Wyoming’s first Black sheriff, a post he took months after fury over racist policing roiled U.S. cities. His turf includes one of Wyoming’s last Democratic strongholds, but the state is overwhelmingly conservative and white and he’s already faced a racist remark from a lawmaker.

It didn’t surprise him. Wyoming has made progress but remains “very racist,” said Stephen Latham, president of the state NAACP.

Like other parts of the country struggling with police violence, a deputy’s fatal shooting of an unarmed, mentally ill man played a major role in Appelhans’ appointment to Albany County sheriff. The death of 39-year-old Robbie Ramirez during a traffic stop two years ago stoked fierce backlash that carried over into last summer’s protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

The group Albany County for Proper Policing formed after the shooting and pushed for Appelhans to take over when his predecessor, Dave O’Malley, retired.

“Let’s take this anger and pain and turn it into progress in our community,” said Democratic state Rep. Karlee Provenza, the group’s executive director.

Appelhans, 39, grew up near Denver experiencing racism and had relatives in the criminal justice system. He understands both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement, he recently told The Associated Press.

“I am one of those people who do feel that law enforcement really needs to take a good, hard look at what we do,” Appelhans said. “Are we serving our community?”

Formerly a University of Wyoming Police Department sergeant, Appelhans in December became the top law enforcement officer for a county more than three times the size of Rhode Island yet has just 650 African Americans out of 39,000 people.

The county seat is Laramie, home to the University of Wyoming and a liberal city still associated with the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. Ramirez’s killing 20 years later drew less attention but fresh soul-searching.

A grand jury declined to indict sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling for shooting Ramirez. Colling, who grew up in Laramie and knew Ramirez from school, had killed two people as a Las Vegas police officer before being fired there.

A lawsuit accuses Colling of killing Ramirez needlessly. It alleges O’Malley, the former sheriff, overlooked Colling’s “out-of-control temper” and hired him in part because his father was a friend.

Appelhans declined to speak about Colling or the shooting, citing department policy not to comment on pending litigation.

He’s hopeful, though, that grant funding and working with local groups means fewer confrontations.

“We’ve got ‘cops’ as a nickname,” Appelhans said. “We’re not ‘cops.’ I’m listed, just like every other deputy here is listed, as a peace officer. We’re here to keep the peace. And so that’s really kind of one of the big changes I’ve wanted to have law enforcement focus on.”

His work with the university force to try to reduce crimes like sexual assault was encouraging, said Provenza, the lawmaker who helped local Democrats vet sheriff applicants.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for the sheriff’s office to grow and kind of change and evolve into something this community will feel safer working with,” Provenza said.

Appelhans’ leadership training and experience as a detective and in crime prevention point to “likely success” as sheriff, University of Wyoming Police Chief Mike Samp said.

O’Malley, however, said Democrats didn’t put forth anybody qualified for sheriff. Reached in Florida where he lives now, O’Malley said, “I think he’s in way over his head, but, you know, that remains to be seen.”

Because O’Malley was a Democrat, the Albany County Democratic Party recommended three sheriff finalists to the county commission, but not O’Malley’s top pick, an undersheriff.

O’Malley declined to comment on Ramirez’s shooting or the lawsuit. Colling didn’t return a message, and his attorney declined to comment.

Ramirez’s relatives and attorneys didn’t return messages seeking comment on Appelhans’ appointment.

Appelhans said he wasn’t sure he wanted to be sheriff because he will need to campaign next year to keep the job. The rare chance to run a law enforcement agency and make reforms changed his mind, he said.

In December, Republican state Rep. Cyrus Western responded to news of Appelhans’ appointment by posting a clip online that showed a Black character from the movie “Blazing Saddles” asking, “Where the white women at?” In the film, a former slave serves as sheriff of an all-white town.

Western apologized publicly and in a call to Appelhans.

“It was one of the things I knew that would come with the territory of getting this job,” Appelhans said. “I don’t look like everybody else, I don’t think like everybody else. Some people are going to have some problems with that, just based on the way I look. That’s a problem in America.”

Wyoming’s capital and largest city, Cheyenne, got its first Black police chief, James “Jim” Byrd, in 1966. But considering people of color for top law enforcement jobs remains the exception rather than standard practice, said Latham with the Wyoming NAACP.

“You have to bring it to their minds and then they start thinking about it. But in this day and age, it shouldn’t be something that’s on the back burner,” Latham said.

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver.

Police in Europe bust gang hijacking celeb phones, arrest 10

For the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Police have arrested 10 people in the U.K., Belgium and Malta for allegedly hijacking mobile phones belonging to U.S. celebrities including internet influencers, sports stars and musicians to steal personal information and millions in cryptocurrency, authorities said.

The European Union police agency Europol said Wednesday that the gang is believed to have stolen more than $100 million in cryptocurrencies by using so-called SIM swap attacks.

These attacks involve deactivating a victim’s mobile phone SIM card, either by tricking the phone company or using a corrupt insider, so that the number can be transferred to another card under the gang’s control.

The arrests were the result of a joint investigation by U.K., U.S., Canadian, Belgian and Maltese police, Europol said.

Europol didn’t specify the nationalities of those caught in the sweep, but the U.K.’s National Crime Agency said a day earlier that eight men were arrested in England and Scotland. Two others were arrested previously in Belgium and Malta, Europol said.

Neither agency identified the celebrity victims.

Investigators found that after accessing victims’ phone numbers, they were able to take control of apps or accounts by requesting password reset codes sent via SMS. Then they were able to steal money, cryptocurrencies and personal information, including contacts synced online, as well as hack into and post from social media accounts, Europol said.

Europol has warned that SIM swapping is a growing threat carried out by fraudsters.

South Africa scraps AstraZeneca vaccine, will give J&J shots

By ANDREW MELDRUM for the Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa will start vaccinating front-line health workers next week with a shot that is still in testing — an unorthodox strategy announced Wednesday after officials scrapped plans to use another vaccine that a small study suggests is only minimally effective against the variant dominant in the country.

FILE – In this Nov. 30, 2020 file photo, Thabisle khlatshwayo, who received her first shot for a COVID-19 vaccine trial, receives her second AstraZeneca shot at a vaccine trial facility set at Soweto’s Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa. South Africa suspended on Sunday Feb. 7, 2021 plans to inoculate its front-line health care workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine after a small clinical trial suggested that it isn’t effective in preventing mild to moderate illness from the variant dominant in the country. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said South Africa would switch to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and not use Oxford-AstraZeneca’s — which was previously heralded as one of the most promising for the developing world because it’s cheaper and does not require freezer storage like some other leading vaccines.

But a small study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested it was poor at preventing mild to moderate disease caused by the variant first detected in South Africa. Experts have said it might still work well against more severe disease.

Those results threw South Africa’s vaccination campaign into disarray just as it was about to start administering the AstraZeneca vaccine — the only one authorized for general use in the country.

Officials quickly turned their focus to the one-shot J&J vaccine — which has only been approved for use in studies in South Africa and, in fact, hasn’t yet been authorized for general use in any country. The company has applied for emergency use permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and South Africa’s regulatory authority.

Mkhize, in a nationally broadcast address, assured the public that the J&J vaccine is safe, pointing to the fact that it has been tested in 44,000 people so far. It will now be used to launch a drive to inoculate the country’s 1.25 million health workers, he said.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant and the necessary approval processes for use in South Africa are underway,” he said, using the official name for the variant that experts say is more contagious. That variant recently drove a devastating resurgence of the pandemic with nearly twice the cases, hospitalizations and deaths experienced in the initial surge of the disease in the country.

A study of the J&J vaccine in South Africa, part of international trials, showed it was 57% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 in a test conducted when the variant was dominant. It provides even better protection against severe disease, with 85% efficacy after 28 days.

South Africa will begin administering the first shots next week, said Mkhize. The first round aims to reach 100,000 health care workers — and is officially being classified as a study of the vaccine, according to Dr. Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, who led the Johnson & Johnson tests here.

The first doses will come from vaccine sent to the country for testing purposes, and more are expected in March, when a South African pharmaceutical company begins bottling the vaccine here, Mkhize told a parliamentary committee Wednesday.

In all, the country hopes to vaccinate an estimated 40 million people by the end of the year — or about two-thirds of its population. South Africa plans to use the Pfizer vaccine — though it’s not yet authorized — and is also considering others, including Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s Sinopharm and the Moderna one, Mkhize said. Unlike the J&J shot, none of those vaccines has been clinically tested against the variant prevalent in South Africa, although Pfizer has tested blood samples of people exposed to the variant.

The change of course came just one week after South Africa received its first vaccines — 1 million AstraZeneca doses, produced by the Serum Institute of India. But after results of the preliminary study were announced Sunday, South African officials quickly halted the planned rollout.

South Africa’s abrupt cancellation could deal a blow to plans to use the vaccine widely, especially in many poorer countries, since it is being produced in large quantities in India and which the international COVAX facility has purchased in large numbers for distribution around the world.

An added complication for South Africa is that its AstraZeneca doses arrived with an April 30 expiration date. South Africa is looking to swap them, Mkhize said.

South Africa by far has the largest number of COVID-19 cases on the African continent with nearly 1.5 million confirmed, including almost 47,000 deaths. After a resurgence that spiked in early January, cases and deaths are now declining, but medical experts are already warning that South Africa should prepare for another upsurge in May or June, the start of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

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Mystery metal monolith turns out to be Turkish govt gimmick

For the Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A metal monolith that mysteriously appeared and disappeared on a field in southeast Turkey turned out to be a publicity gimmick before a government event Tuesday during which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a space program for the country.

Turkish police officers guard a monolith, found on an open field near Sanliurfa, southeastern Turkey, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021. The metal block was found by a farmer Friday in Sanliurfa province with old Turkic script that reads “Look at the sky, see the moon.” The monolith, 3 meters high (about 10 feet), was discovered near UNESCO World Heritage site Gobeklitepe with its megalithic structures dating back to 10th millennium B.C. Turkish media reported Sunday that gendarmes were looking through CCTV footage and investigating vehicles that may have transported the monolith. Other mysterious monoliths have popped up and some have disappeared in numerous countries since 2020. (Bekir Seyhanli/IHA via AP)

The three-meter-high (about 10-foot-high) metal slab bearing an ancient Turkic script, was found Friday by a farmer in Sanliurfa province. It was discovered near the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gobekli Tepe, which is home to megalithic structures dating to the 10th millennium B.C., thousands of years before Stonehenge.

However, the shiny structure that bore the inscription “Look at the sky, you will see the moon” in the ancient Turkic Gokturk alphabet, was reported gone Tuesday morning, adding to the mystery.

An image of the monolith was later projected on a screen as Erdogan presented Turkey’s space program during a televised event.

“I now present to you Turkey’s 10-year vision, strategy and aims and I say: ‘look at the sky, you will see the moon,’” Erdogan said.

Earlier, the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted the field’s owner as saying he was baffled by both its appearance and disappearance.

“We don’t know if it was placed on my field for marketing purposes or as an advertisement,” Anadolu quoted Fuat Demirdil as saying. “We saw that the metal block was no longer at its place. Residents cannot solve the mystery of the metal block either.”

The agency also quoted local resident Hasan Yildiz as saying the block was still at the field Monday evening, but had disappeared by the morning.

Other mysterious monoliths have similarly appeared and some have disappeared in numerous countries in recent months.

Gobekli Tepe was the setting of the Turkish Netflix mystery series, “The Gift.”