Alaska News

Subscribe to Alaska News feed
Alaska Dispatch News News Feed
Updated: 1 hour 39 min ago

There’s plenty to navigate as more locations welcome travelers while others see COVID surges

Sat, 2021-07-31 11:03

FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, people in the International Arrivals area at Heathrow Airport in London, during England's coronavirus lockdown. The British government has said that starting upcoming Monday Aug. 2, 2021, fully vaccinated travellers from the United States and much of Europe will be able to enter England without the need for quarantining. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE) (Matt Dunham/)

The big travel stories this week center on airlines that are adding international flights for fully-vaccinated travelers. But also in the news: how the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is shaking up plans for visitors and residents alike.

Most recently, England relaxed its 10-day quarantine requirement for fully-vaccinated visitors from the U.S. The new policy is going into effect on Aug. 2. Prospective visitors from the U.S. will have to produce proof of vaccination, as well as a negative COVID test prior to travel. There’s also a requirement for a post-arrival test.

England joins France, Spain, Italy and Canada in welcoming fully-vaccinated travelers from the U.S. Some other European countries allow unvaccinated travelers to visit, as long as travelers take a pre-arrival COVID test.

Right now, though, citizens from Europe and England are not yet allowed to come to the U.S. on vacation. Canadians can fly to the U.S., but are not yet permitted to drive across the border.

As soon as United Airlines got the news on England, the airline added 40 additional weekly flights from its hubs in Houston, Washington, DC, Chicago, Newark and San Francisco. Plus, the airline is planning new nonstop service to London from Boston.

American and Delta joined United in adding service to Europe as COVID-related restrictions eased. Earlier this summer, the carriers added flights to Dubrovnik, Rome, Reykjavik and Athens.

Even as travel restrictions are eased to European destinations, there is a surge of new COVID infections due to the delta variant. Local conditions vary and are subject to change. In France, for example, visitors must produce their “health pass” for admission to bars, cafes, restaurants and shopping malls. Right now, it’s still unclear how U.S. travelers can integrate their vaccination information into a compatible format to get a “pass.”

Aside from Europe, there are other international destinations that welcome U.S. travelers. Although the land border between the U.S. and Mexico remains closed, you can fly there. No test are required for entry. But cases are on the rise and the U.S. State Department advises against travel to Mexico because of the high risk of COVID-19 infection.

Further south, in Costa Rica, no tests are required for travelers to enter. However, travelers must fill out a health pass and purchase mandatory insurance to cover quarantine and medical expenses.

Many other countries have started re-opening their borders to international travelers. But large parts of the world remain closed including China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia and India.

As vaccinations in the U.S. increased, travelers are anxious to fly. While waiting for places like Europe to open, interest in Alaska soared. This summer, Anchorage is enjoying nonstop service from more cities than ever before, including Newark, JFK, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Maui and Honolulu.

Many airlines, including Alaska, United and Delta have announced hundreds of new jet orders to fill the anticipated demand for post-pandemic travel.

Fairbanks also is enjoying a bumper crop of nonstops, from Seattle, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Dallas and Chicago.

Marching in lockstep with the bustling flight schedule is the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant. Alaska’s infections are on the rise — and other destinations are having the same problems.

Juneau reintroduced a mask mandate for some public facilities this week — and new limits are in place for indoor gatherings. Sitka, which suffered a COVID outbreak last week, is considering a new mask mandate.

Last week Disneyland and Disney World introduced mask mandates at both parks. Down in California, three counties have reinstated indoor mask mandates: Sacramento , Los Angeles and Yolo.

COVID cases notwithstanding, robust airline competition continues to hold down air prices on some routes. Last week, Delta Air dropped the price of its Anchorage-Seattle tickets to $77 one-way for travel between Aug. 20 and Sept. 26.

Before the end of the day, Alaska Air matched the $77 one-way fare and offered more travel dates: from Aug. 20 to Nov. 17.

That’s a great price, but from Fairbanks, the price to Seattle on either Delta or Alaska is just $59 one-way. It’s available right now (no advance purchase) through Sept. 30.

In Seattle, King County’s public health officer is recommending everyone wear masks indoors. Although more than 70 percent of King County residents have been vaccinated, new COVID cases are on the rise.

The federal mask mandate still is in force for all airports and aboard passenger aircraft. Also, the mandate applies to sightseeing vessels, trains and buses. The federal mandate is set to expire on Sept. 13.

It’s clear that COVID-19 and the variants continue to impact travel here in Alaska, to the Lower 48 and internationally. If you want to see more of the world, fully-vaccinated travelers certainly have better options right now.

There’s only one way to keep school on track this fall

Sat, 2021-07-31 10:30

iStock / Getty Images (Pornpak Khunatorn/)

The pandemic was over. Until it wasn’t.

For a glorious few weeks — the month of June, roughly — Alaska had its biggest lull in cases since the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was reason to believe it could be permanent. After all, Alaska has so far been spared the worst of the horrors seen in the Lower 48 and globally, and the great distances between communities here has provided some measure of dampening for the virus’ spread.

Unfortunately, Alaska has also fallen well off the pace in vaccinations, which gave the coronavirus a sizable population in which to spread if (or rather, when) it mutated in a way that made it more contagious.

Enter the delta variant. It replicates quicker and generates far more copies of itself in infected people — as much as 1,260 times as many, according to a recent study. That means it spreads farther, faster, easier. And we’ve already seen where it’s heading — even with more than 317,000 Alaskans fully vaccinated, case rates have climbed to levels we haven’t seen since January, during the state’s last big surge in cases. Hospitals are filling up, due partly to COVID-19 and partly to seasonal trends — on Thursday, only one in 20 Anchorage hospital beds was available. Hospital administrators are already sounding the alarm.

Those who don’t appreciate the urgency or necessity of getting vaccinated would do well to consider our community’s position. We have two weeks until K-12 school starts in the Anchorage School District. Cases could very well spike in August to levels that would require not just mandatory masks, but shutdown of sports and other extracurricular activities requiring close contact. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that, if cases kept climbing, schools would have to revert to distanced online teaching. And that’s an outcome no one wants.

And the effects of the pandemic on students go well beyond whether they have to attend school in a mask. Students in kindergarten through 6th grade, being younger than 12 years old, aren’t eligible for the vaccine themselves, so elementary schools present a particularly susceptible group for the virus to spread. And although children rarely suffer serious cases of COVID-19, rarely isn’t never — not to mention the other, potentially much more vulnerable members of their families who stand to be exposed. We can’t afford to roll the dice.

The vaccines are safe. They reduce your potential chance of getting COVID-19 tremendously — for the past several months, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred nearly exclusively among non-vaccinated Alaskans. The vaccines offer far more protection against COVID-19 than the antibodies generated by a previous case of the disease. And they help protect others from the disease through herd immunity — the fewer unvaccinated people the virus encounters, the less likely it is to be able to spread widely.

We’ve beaten back the COVID-19 tide before. We have all the tools we need to fight it — multiple vaccines in abundant supply. But we have to act now. Vaccines don’t work as a cure once you’re already sick, and the more case counts rise, the more likely it will be that the truly devastating aspects of the pandemic — business closures, tourism shutdowns, school and sports disruptions, and long-term health consequences and deaths of our friends and neighbors — will return.

Take the advice of Dr. Anne Zink, Gov. Dunleavy, our congressional delegation and medical professionals throughout our community. Get vaccinated, and urge your friends and family to do the same. Wear a mask indoors in public places, per the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and state authorities. We can beat this. But we all have to be pulling in the same direction to do it.


History can help us grow. But only if we confront its lessons — and teach them.

Sat, 2021-07-31 04:55

Auschwitz-Birkenau, part of a Nazi concentration/extermination camp complex in Poland during World War II. (Pixabay)

Speaking before the German parliament, the Bundestag, in 1985, Richard von Weiszaeker, President of West Germany, urged the following on his audience and his nation: “The young and old generations can and must help each other to understand why it is important to keep memories alive. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection.”

This was a potent message for Germans a generation ago. It is equally potent for U.S. America today; it is a message we need to hear and heed.

The context of Weizsaeker’s talk was decades of German “amnesia,” a collective refusal or inability to acknowledge and probe fully the scope of the Nazi past and the role of every class of Germans in it. That amnesia was coupled with a whitewashed version of the past that painted ordinary, “real” Germany as a victim of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, who had hijacked the German nation and its culture. Germany could not heal and become whole, Weizsaeker counseled, until it stopped distancing itself from its history and came face to face with it.

Susan Neiman, a moral philosopher and cultural analyst (Harvard, Yale, Tel Aviv University) who grew up in Atlanta and has lived since 2000 in Germany, has explored Germany’s acceptance and incorporation of its Nazi past into its identity, which has proceeded apace over the last several decades. It is transforming German culture, she writes in her 2019 book “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” promoting healing and generating a confidence in the future.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Germany, where the culture embraces making rules, sticking to them and being the better for it, should have the wisdom and fortitude to face its past squarely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of U.S. America. The nation-wide reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis together with the Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness of the depth of the unresolved legacy of racial discrimination here. But while some are calling for a national conversation on that legacy, others aggressively oppose that conversation, some going so far as the threaten teachers who would bring it into their classrooms. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Michele Norris, former co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and a winner of journalism’s Peabody Award, noted that in Germany, the conversation about the past involved not just initiatives from leadership, but also projects undertaken at the grass roots of society, from neighborhoods and village councils and individuals willing to confront their parents and their generation, their communities, demanding answers. Who cooperated, went along, prospered? Who sat on the fence, failed to inquire, failed to take action?

One effective citizen initiative are the tens of thousands of stolpersteine, four-inch concrete cubes with a brass plaque on top, embedded flush in sidewalks outside houses and buildings from which persecuted people, mostly Jews, were taken during the Nazi regime. The plaques identify the person(s), their life dates, and dates of deportation and death. Begun in 1992 by a German artist, Gunter Denning, as of this year, more than 75,000 have been placed — not only in Germany, but in 25 other countries as well. Many were placed by local people who have done the research and paid for the plaques and inscribing. To come across the plaques while walking along a sidewalk is a moment of moving historical realization.

Neiman and Norris and many other commentators have made the point that we in the U.S. have yet to fully engage the history of slavery and persecution, the brutality, the separation of families, the rapes and abuse of children, the lynchings, the red-lining, the discriminatory policing, the employment discrimination and much more. Who would want to own that history, Norris asks?

But until we do own it, and the theft of Native land and the treatment of Indigenous people, including Alaska Natives, and the story of the eugenics movement which started here and was nurtured by countless leaders, and much more, we cannot know who we have been, and thus who we are. Enslaved people produced great quantities of American wealth and the comfort it bought, for example, an aspect of slavery’s legacy we have barely acknowledged.

The incomplete embrace of our history feeds open expressions and covert convictions of white supremacy, including the current anti-democratic assault on voting rights. History can help us understand what is happening now, and why. We need to know more of it; we need especially to teach it.

Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Hong Kong police arrest man for booing national anthem

Sat, 2021-07-31 04:49

FILE-In this Friday, July 30, 2021, file photo, people wave a Hong Kong flag and a Chinese national flag as they watch Olympics events at a shopping mall in Hong Kong. Hong Kong police arrested a man Friday, July 30, 2021, on suspicion of insulting the national anthem, after he was allegedly caught booing the Chinese national anthem and waving a Hong Kong colonial flag while watching an Olympic event at a mall. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File) (Vincent Yu/)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Hong Kong police have arrested a man accused of booing the Chinese national anthem while watching an Olympic event at a mall.

The 40-year-old man was allegedly waving colonial-era Hong Kong flags and booing, while urging others to join him in insulting the national anthem, according to a police statement posted on Facebook.

Hong Kong passed a law in June last year that criminalized any actions that insult the national anthem. Violating the law can mean a fine of up to $6,400 (50,000 Hong Kong dollars), and up to nine years in prison.

China’s central government criminalized actions that insult the national flag and emblem in amendments to the law last October, which is also applicable to Hong Kong, a former British colony.

The suspect was standing in a crowd with others on Friday to watch Hong Kong fencer Edgar Cheung in a match that would win him gold, local media reported.

The booing started at the medal ceremony, when the national anthem began playing.

Police said there may be additional arrests and that an active investigation is underway.

Hong Kong was rocked by months of sometimes violent anti-government protests in 2019, which led Beijing to crack down on dissent, including arresting leading pro-democracy activists in the city.

Justice Department says Russians hacked federal prosecutors

Sat, 2021-07-31 04:38

FILE - This May 4, 2021 file photo shows a sign outside the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building in Washington. The Russian hackers behind the massive SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign broke into the email accounts some of the most prominent federal prosecutors’ offices around the country last year, the Department of Justice said Friday, July 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (Patrick Semansky/)

WASHINGTON — The Russian hackers behind the massive SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign broke into the email accounts some of the most prominent federal prosecutors’ offices around the country last year, the Justice Department said.

The department said 80% of Microsoft email accounts used by employees in the four U.S. attorney offices in New York were breached. All told, the Justice Department said 27 U.S. Attorney offices had at least one employee’s email account compromised during the hacking campaign.

The Justice Department said in a statement Friday that it believes the accounts were compromised from May 7 to Dec. 27, 2020. Such a timeframe is notable because the SolarWinds campaign, which infiltrated dozens of private-sector companies and think tanks as well as at least nine U.S. government agencies, was first discovered and publicized in mid-December.

The Biden administration in April announced sanctions, including the expulsion of Russian diplomats, in response to the SolarWinds hack and Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Russia has denied wrongdoing.

Jennifer Rodgers, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, said office emails frequently contained all sorts of sensitive information, including case strategy discussions and names of confidential informants, when she was a federal prosecutor in New York.

“I don’t remember ever having someone bring me a document instead of emailing it to me because of security concerns,” she said, noting exceptions for classified materials.

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts confirmed in January that it was also breached, giving the SolarWinds hackers another entry point to steal confidential information like trade secrets, espionage targets, whistleblower reports and arrest warrants.

The list of affected offices include several large and high-profile ones like those in Los Angeles, Miami, Washington and the Eastern District of Virginia.

The Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, where large numbers of staff were hit, handle some of the most prominent prosecutors in the country.

“New York is the financial center of the world and those districts are particularly well known for investigating and prosecuting white-collar crimes and other cases, including investigating people close to the former president,” said Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham Law School and a former prosecutor in the Southern District.

The department said all victims had been notified and it is working to mitigate “operational, security and privacy risks” caused by the hack. The Justice Department said in January that it had no indication that any classified systems were impacted.

The Justice Department did not provide additional detail about what kind of information was taken and what impact such a hack may have on ongoing cases. Members of Congress have expressed frustration with the Biden administration for not sharing more information about the impact of the SolarWinds campaign.

The Associated Press previously reported that SolarWinds hackers had gained access to email accounts belonging to the then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and members of the department’s cybersecurity staff whose jobs included hunting threats from foreign countries.

We used to love traveling together. Now the pandemic has me flying solo

Sat, 2021-07-31 04:28

Wanda and Wayne,

My girlfriend and I have dated for a few years, and it’s been great. We have amazing jobs, started planning for our future, and love love love traveling together. In fact, we actually met in Oahu randomly at a bar and spent the rest of our vacations hanging out. It was a pretty cool start to what is now a great relationship and it felt meant to be.

We started seriously dating after returning to Anchorage and travel remained a big part of our lives. We took a trip at least every other month, usually somewhere far away, much warmer and focused on adventures and beaches, but sometimes even quick weekends to Portland or L.A. We’ve made some great memories and that time together brought us really close. Even after COVID hit, we traveled around Alaska: lots of road trips and camping, new hikes and new Alaska places we haven’t experienced before.

I’ve been antsy to travel beyond Alaska again and it finally feels safe to go for it. But my girlfriend still refuses to entertain, much less plan a trip Outside. She says COVID and Delta variant anxiety are part of it, but there’s something else that she isn’t sharing or can’t/won’t explain. It’s not money. I’m thinking it might just be reluctance to give up the routine that we created over the past year: being happy being together seeing Alaska and staying close to home, our safe place.

I took a recent weekend trip to Seattle and I felt totally safe wearing a mask pretty much the whole time and being careful about what I did. She seemed fine with my taking the trip. I was hoping it would help her get past her hesitations, but it hasn’t. We have no trips on the horizon even though I’m constantly sharing airfare deals and ideas.

I’m afraid we’re losing a special part of our connection and missing this window in life when we have money and don’t have kids, big bills, or other circumstances tying us down. Any advice helping her take the travel plunge again? Or am I going to be stuck being a staycationer?

Wayne says:

Unfortunately, my fellow travel fanatic, not everyone is as excited or ready to fly, fly away again as we are. Yes, there has definitely been a surge in travel among Americans this summer — families and friends uniting after a very long time apart, people finally able to take their COVID-cancelled adventures and events, and others, like you, who are just traveling because they miss traveling.

But there are just as many people who are waiting to get back in the air, or even roam from home. COVID certainly did a number on the travel, tourism and hospitality industries, and it also did a serious number on our mental health. Some folks still just don’t feel safe or comfortable going indoors, being in small crowds, much less walking through busy airports and then sitting on a plane packed with strangers for four hours or more, just to land and be around even more strangers indoors and outdoors. And yes, the current Delta variant concerns and seeming COVID surge is renewing another round of anxiety for some.

What can you do? Try to understand and appreciate where your girlfriend is at — she doesn’t want to go big on travel right now, plain and simple. Why push it, especially with so many unknowns still in the air? Instead, why not spend another summer exploring Alaska with her: revisiting favorites, checking out a few new places. And maybe cap the summer with a short flight to a small, hospitable AK town with lots of space and outdoor adventures which could provide a comfortable middle ground for both of you? It’s not Oahu, but Sitka and Juneau have their unique charms and fun, too. You may not be frequent flyers for a while, but at least you’ll remain best travel buddies.

Wanda says:

Many people remain in transition professionally, socially and personally, as they contemplate what parts of pre-COVID life they long to retrieve, versus what new pastimes and passions they want to hang on to. It could be anxiety and nerves that are keeping your lady from busting out her passport and booking exotic treks. It could also be she’s realized she’s just as satisfied cruising around our great state, trading air miles for road miles and four-star resorts for rustic cabins.

Or, it could be that after an emotionally arduous 2020-to-present, she’s exhausted versus exhilarated at the idea of a complex trip that means long lines at customs, language barriers, currency conundrums and tiring time zone changes. If we’re honest, while international travel is a lot of things — exciting, fascinating, glorious — it’s also exhausting, expensive and often excessively complex. No wonder she’s not up for that kind of energy investment at this time.

Maybe, just maybe, her reluctance to take flight is rooted in lingering anxiety about leaving the comfort of home. If that’s the case, seize on Wayne’s suggestion to book a trip nearby, like Sitka, Ketchikan or Juneau. All require plane travel, but they’re short flights on big jets to small towns loaded with charm, scenery and unforgettable experiences.

Personally, my first flight coming through COVID was strange — so many masks and distancing requirements and weird pre-packaged snacks! But it also wasn’t strange. Because there was something comforting and familiar about being back on a plane and in an airport again. And personally, it ended up being a gratifying and settling experience. From that lens, giving your girlfriend a vacation to a relatively close-to-Alaska destination could be a great way for her to find her wings again.

A hike gets tense when a dog runs out of sight — and ends with a sloppy kiss and a renewed respect for nature

Sat, 2021-07-31 04:26

Hugo, surveying the country as I try to catch up. (Christine Cunningham photo)

I watched Hugo at the edge of a small mountain lake, his entire body attuned to a snipe at the opposite edge of the water. English setters are pointing dogs, trained to hold a bird for a hunter.

The absence of a shotgun on a midsummer day should have been Hugo’s clue that we weren’t hunting. But the allure of the snipe had him within its spell.

How many times had I seen this play out before? The sudden burst of pointed beak and wings from the grasses, the short-distance flight of the snipe, followed by Hugo’s point — a flash of recognition that sets him on edge.

Hugo’s posture does not resemble the classic cartoon bird dog that points a paw toward a bird. Instead, it resembles a crouching tiger stalk, riveted and as if concealed by jungle leaves. Yet Hugo is most often wholly visible in a wide-open mountain valley or plateau, balanced on front legs hugged to the midline, entire body engaged, tail high.

Ahead of him, 20 or so yards, the snipe moves in beats as if feeding. Winchester, Hugo’s father if not mentor, is a staunch hunter who will stand on point until you arrive. He does not often point snipe, but if he did, I could count on him to stay firm even as one waltzed lightly ahead of him.

Not Hugo. As much as both Steve and I have worked with him and a hundred birds have taught him that he cannot fly, he still hunts for himself. This is especially true when it is not hunting season, and he appoints himself the hunter.

I had lost sight of the dun-colored bird in scabby gray rocks and looked back to Hugo to follow his line of sight. He had begun to creep, stepping one foot into the water. His stalk was so slow and deliberate that it allowed his reflection to remain undisturbed without a ripple beyond the wind.

What a silly head, I thought. If the past was any prediction, he would be occupied for the next 20 minutes as the snipe lured him slowly with its wary meanderings and short-distance flights. Hugo would follow it, like Alice following the White Rabbit into Wonderland, until I called him off.

I took the occasion to empty my pack and sort out my belongings. I laid my whistle, GPS and sunglasses down beside me, wrote a few lines in my notebook, and snapped several photos of Hugo.


A photo I snapped of my belongings and also as a clue as to the place I might have lost my whistle. (Christine Cunningham photo)

Sometimes I will flatter myself and say, “Hugo is my spirit animal.” I admire his wide-open run of the country. He seems to hold nothing back and explore un-checked, and yet, that’s his biggest problem.

“Come on, Hugo. No bird,” I said, an expression used by bird hunters that means, “Not that bird.”

We had planned a short hike, but I figured we had time to head up one more level, following an old mining trail. Hugo gave the snipe a final charge, and the bird sprang into the air. This time, Hugo did not wait to see it land and headed up the trail ahead of me.

As I walked, I thought about how much I needed time in nature. The past few years I have begun to worry more. Instead of being present in the moment, I worry about the pandemic, our fractured relationship with nature, and how the earth seems both at the limit of its capacity to absorb abuse and somehow stronger than us, able to heal itself as well as us.

A piece of mining equipment had fallen from above and rested on the trail. I could hear shouts and laughter below us. These reminded me of the history of the place as a mining camp and how it seemed there are more people outdoors than I have ever seen before. Our “wilderness” was not an undiscovered Eden, much as we felt that way about it.

At this thought, I looked for Hugo. Where had he run off to? My GPS did not show his location.

I grabbed for my whistle, which was not around my neck. I must have left it in the spot where I set down my things. “Hugo!” I yelled.

The trail zigged and zagged up the mountainside, and Hugo appeared at the end of a zig and kept zigging. I headed off-trail in his direction. If I made it across the same rocky stretch, we could drop down into the next valley and follow another trail down to rejoin with the main one.

“Follow the dog” is generally a good principle when bird hunting, especially with Winchester.

Deciding to follow Hugo may have been my second-worst mistake since misplacing my whistle.

“Hugo!” I yelled. When he didn’t appear over the vertical horizon, I began to worry.

I climbed and hollered his name, peered into the next valley — empty except for a few hikers. Several moments lost to panic, I stood at the highest point for a moment, searching for the white flash of his tail.

A man in a bright yellow shirt at the bottom of the valley pointed. He was on the trail, and Hugo was likely down there even though I couldn’t hear if the man was shouting anything up to me.

I made a poor decision to bail off from where I was, directly down a steep face. On my way down, my heart raced as I clung to grass where I could. I slid, fell and scraped myself on rocks.

I stopped and perched on a clump of ground to catch my breath — my nerves shot, my leg muscles shaking.

“Keep calling him,” the man, who I could now hear, shouted.

I did, and a few seconds later, Hugo popped out from behind a rock and jumped into my lap. He was delighted to be reunited and licked my face to show it. Meanwhile, I was terrified he would knock me from my perch.

We made it to the trail, and I put Hugo on a leash. As I ran alongside him, I thanked the man in the yellow shirt as we passed by.

My shock at almost losing Hugo is one of many recent experiences intensified by the profound shock of the pandemic. I’d lost connection with him, but we had both rekindled our love of the wild around us and renewed our respect for the joys and dangers inherent in nature.

As so many more of us seek out the stability of the natural world that we need to survive, I hope it awakens our relationship and identity with the environment. We’ll learn lessons, make memories, and perhaps feel obliged to protect what connects us — maybe not a device but a deep emotional connection to each other.

Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.

Miners, Pilots win opening games in Top of the World baseball playoffs

Sat, 2021-07-31 04:05

Late runs lifted the Mat-Su Miners and Anchorage Glacier Pilots to victories Friday night in the opening games of the Alaska Baseball League’s Top of the World playoffs.

Tyler Wilson belted a two-out, two-run walkoff double to lead the Miners past the Anchorage Bucs 5-4 at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer.

At Lee Jordan Field in Chugiak, the Pilots scored all of their runs in the final two innings for a 4-1 win over the host Chinooks.

The best-of-3 series continue Saturday with a pair of 6 p.m. games in Palmer and Chugiak. Sunday’s games, if necessary, are set for 4 p.m.

The Miners and Bucs were tied 2-2 after two innings, and it stayed that way until the top of the eighth, when Carson Roccaforte cracked a two-run double to give the Bucs a 4-2 lead.

The Miners rallied for three runs in the ninth, when they loaded the bases with a single and two walks. That brought up Wilson, who swung and missed the first two pitches, putting the Bucs one strike away from victory.

A wild pitch by Bucs closer Keaton Chase made it 4-3. Wilson singled on the next pitch to drive in the tying and winning runs.

Both starters performed nicely. The Bucs’ Will Kempner scattered six hits and struck out six in seven innings, and Mat-Su’s Will Johnston struck out 10 and gave up four hits in six innings.

Starters did their jobs in Chugiak too. The Pilots’ Nate Diamond fanned nine and allowed five hits in a six-inning start, and the Chinooks’ Zach Sundine struck out six and gave up five hits in 7 1/3 innings.

Chugiak took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning on a single by Haden Keller.

The Pilots didn’t answer until the eighth, when they scored three runs on an error, a wild pitch and two hits. Tom Tabak got things going with a one-out RBI single that chased Sundine, and the next two runs scored on a wild pitch and a fielder’s choice.

The Pilots tacked on another run in the ninth on a double by Alec Jones.

Eagle River rugby player Alev Kelter places 6th and UAF shooter Sagen Maddalena finishes 5th at Tokyo Olympics

Sat, 2021-07-31 02:47

Alev Kelter of Eagle River (with ball) gets tackled during a pool game against China on Thursday at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama) (Shuji Kajiyama/)

The Tokyo Olympics ended overnight Friday for Eagle River rugby player Alev Kelter and former University of Alaska Fairbanks shooting star Sagen Maddalena.

Kelter placed sixth on the pitch and Maddalena finished fifth on the range.

Kelter and the U.S. women’s rugby sevens team lost their final match, 17-7 to Australia, in the fifth-place game at Tokyo Stadium.

The Americans finished 4-2 in the 12-team tournament, a run that included a quarterfinal loss to Great Britain that eliminated them from medal contention.

Kelter, 30, is a two-time Olympian who was a member of the U.S. team that placed fifth at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Maddalena, 27, earned a chance to fight for a medal in the women’s 50-meter three-position rifle competition by placing second in the qualifying round at the Asaka Shooting Range. She shot 1178-70x to rank one spot behind qualifying leader Yulia Zykova, who shot an Olympic qualifying record of 1182-78x.

In the eight-woman finals, she ranked fourth after the kneeling and prone stages and survived three elimination rounds from the standing position before being knocked out to finish fifth with a score of 427.8.

Congratulations from Nanook Nation to Sagen Maddalena on her 5th Place Finish tonight in Tokyo!

Federal court ruling likely allows unlimited cash in Alaska political campaigns

Fri, 2021-07-30 20:35

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals building in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File) (Marcio Jose Sanchez/)

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned three of Alaska’s main limits on campaign contributions in a major decision on Friday.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission declined to comment on the ruling, saying state attorneys are still examining it, but without additional action, Americans likely will be able to donate unlimited amounts of money directly to Alaska politicians campaigning for office.

“Until the Legislature and governor take action, there are largely no limits,” said Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which argued in support of the state’s restrictions.

“I think it’s a good day for free speech,” said Anchorage attorney Robin Brena, who represented the plaintiffs.

Friday’s ruling affects four rules. It upheld a $5,000 limit on the amount of money a political party can give to a candidate, but it overturned three others:

• A $500 per-year limit on the amount of money an Alaskan can contribute to a particular candidate;

• A $500 per-year limit on contributions to a particular political group;

• A $3,000 limit on the amount of money a candidate can accept from all out-of-state donors combined in a given year.

Those limits were imposed in a 2006 ballot measure that passed with the support of 73% of voters. It applied only to candidates in state and local elections, not those seeking federal office.

Friday’s decision came after almost six years of arguments that began when three Republicans sued, challenging the limits.

Most were upheld in a 2016 Alaska District Court Decision and in a 2018 appeal to the 9th Circuit, but in 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling and told the 9th Circuit to reconsider.

It did, and on Friday, a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 against the restrictions. The ruling suggests that higher limits, indexed to inflation, might pass legal muster, said Weiner and attorney Scott Kendall, who wrote campaign finance disclosure rules in last year’s Ballot Measure 2. That measure requires additional disclosure of some indirect campaign contributions but did not change the amount of any limits.

Kendall was uninvolved in the case but said it is major news for anyone concerned about money in politics.

“I really think the Ninth Circuit said this law is gone. I think there has to be something put in place to to replace it,” he said.

Because the case has already been heard by the Supreme Court, Brena said he believes an appeal is unlikely to succeed, but Weiner noted that one 9th Circuit judge dissented, and if the case is heard by a larger panel of 9th circuit judges, the result could change.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United already allows unlimited contributions to third-party groups forbidden from coordinating with campaigns. Brena said Friday’s ruling “rebalances” things.

“What this does is, it gives the candidate and their campaign an opportunity to be heard in the din, in the conversation, so it’s not just massive, well-financed independent expenditure groups that have special interests, dominating the conversation,” he said.

Kendall disagreed with that interpretation.

“There’s a very different flavor to giving to an (independent expenditure group) versus being able to go to a candidate as an individual and saying, ‘I can subsidize your entire campaign. Here’s a check for $200,000,’” he said. “I think that is a startling and disturbing state of affairs if they don’t fix it.”


Lydia Jacoby’s bid for another Olympic medal slips away

Fri, 2021-07-30 20:00

Lydia Jacoby of Seward swims with her goggles in her mouth Friday in the mixed 4x100-meter medley relay at the Tokyo Olympics. The goggles slipped down as soon as Jacoby dove in the pool. The Americans finished fifth. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) (Gregory Bull/)

A gold medal one day, a goggle malfunction the next.

Seward swimmer Lydia Jacoby’s bid for another medal at the Tokyo Olympics came up short Friday night when the United States placed fifth in the 400-meter mixed medley relay, a new Olympic event.

Jacoby, the 17-year-old who won the gold medal in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke on Monday, swam the breaststroke leg for the United States -- the second of four legs.

As soon as she dove into the pool, her goggles came off and slipped down her face, to her mouth.

Jacoby swam the entire 100 meters that way, and still clocked a solid time of 1 minute, 5.09 seconds. She posted a 1:04.95 in her gold-medal swim.

Great Britain won the race in a world-record 3:37.58. China took the silver in 3:38.86 and Australia won bronze in 3:38.95.

The United States lagged behind in 3:40.58 -- 3.0 seconds behind the winners and 1.63 seconds behind the bronze medalists.

Teams in the mixed medley relay consists two men and two women who swim a combined four legs -- backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle, in that order. Who swims which stroke is up to each country, making the race about strategy as well as speed.

The Americans chose to bookend their team with men -- Ryan Murphy in the backstroke, Caeleb Dressel in the freestyle.

Murphy, who won silver in the 200-meter backstroke and bronze in the 100-meter backstroke, set the pace in the first leg.

Then came Jacoby, whose goggles slipped off immediately.

She was the only woman who swam in that leg -- the seven other teams had men in the breaststroke. She had the sixth-fastest time, and when she touched off to Torri Huske, the United States was in sixth place.

Huske, who placed fourth in the women’s 100-meter butterfly, swam the slowest time of the third leg and was in last place when she touched off to Dressel.

Dressell -- the winner of three gold medals, in the men’s 100-meter free, the 100-meter butterfly and the 400-meter men’s relay -- made up enough time to pull the Americans into fifth place, but a medal was never within his reach.

Whether Jacoby will get another chance to race in Tokyo is unknown.

There’s a chance she could swim the breaststroke in Saturday’s 400-meter women’s medley relay. However, the United States has another option in Lilly King, the world-record holder who won the bronze in Monday’s 100-meter breaststroke finals.

King swam the breaststroke leg in Thursday’s preliminaries for the women’s medley relay. She clocked 1:05.51, which was slower than Jacoby’s googles-in-her-mouth swim Friday.


Caeleb Dressel, of the United States, looks at the scoreboard after he and his teammates, including Lydia Jacoby, finished fifth in the 400-meter mixed medley relay Friday at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Jae C. Hong/)


How Ashli Babbitt went from Capitol rioter to Trump-embraced martyr

Fri, 2021-07-30 19:19

A protester's sign references Babbitt during a July rally outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan. Photo for The Washington Post by Bryan Anselm (Bryan Anselm/)

Her phone rang on that day in early July, nearly six months after a police officer’s bullet killed her daughter as she and a mob of rioters seeking to overturn the election stormed a barricaded door deep inside the U.S. Capitol.

Micki Witthoeft answered the call and listened as former president Donald Trump expressed condolences over Ashli Babbitt’s violent death and acknowledged, she said, that her daughter had died Jan. 6 trying to salvage his lost presidency.

Witthoeft took the opportunity during the 30-minute call to ask Trump for help getting information about Babbitt’s death and to fight for those still imprisoned because of the riot.

After their call, the circumstances of Babbitt’s death - once a focus of right-wing extremists and white supremacists - became a talking point for the nation’s most dominant Republican.

“Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” Trump asked over and over in the ensuing days, suggesting that the 35-year-old Air Force veteran was the victim of an overzealous Capitol Police officer whose identity was being covered up.

“Every time he talks about her, he says her name,” Witthoeft said in a phone interview. “He could say ‘Her’ or ‘She’ or whatever. But he says ‘Ashli Babbitt.’ He is sure to mention her name repeatedly. I appreciate that. It’s millions more people I can reach.”

In the months since Jan. 6, Trump and his allies have waged a fevered campaign to rewrite the narrative of one of the darkest days in the nation’s history, when a mob attacked the Capitol, threatening to kill Vice President Mike Pence and using baseball bats and flagpoles to beat police officers as they hunted for lawmakers, many of whom hid behind locked doors, fearing for their lives.

Yet, instead of marauders invading the Capitol, Trump and his acolytes describe a largely peaceful crowd of protesters unfairly maligned and persecuted by prosecutors, Democrats and mainstream journalists.

At the center of their revisionism is Babbitt, their martyr, whose fatal attempt to leap through a door that led to the House chamber - captured in graphic detail on video - they describe as a heroic act of patriotism.

“An innocent, wonderful, incredible woman, a military woman,” Trump said during an appearance on Fox News. At a Florida rally July 4, he called her shooting “a terrible thing” and said “there was no reason for it.”

Just before she was shot, Babbitt was among a group of rioters bashing in the glass-paneled doors that led to the Speaker’s Lobby, down the hall from the House chamber, where lawmakers were being evacuated.

“There’s a gun! There’s a gun!” someone shouted when an officer, on the other side of the doors, aimed his weapon in the direction of the mob.

Despite the warning, someone appeared to hoist Babbitt up so she could step through an opening in the door created after its glass panels were shattered. A bullet struck her and she fell back on the floor.

Prosecutors determined it was reasonable for the officer to believe he was firing in self-defense or to protect members evacuating the House chamber.

With the 2022 midterm elections looming, Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, are challenging Trump’s narrative about Jan. 6. At a House select committee hearing Tuesday, four police officers catalogued the emotional and physical abuse they suffered defending the Capitol and how betrayed they feel by Republican lawmakers.

“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” D.C. police officer Michael Fanone told the committee. “But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.”

Trump has complained to aides that his supporters were treated far worse than Black Lives Matter protesters charged last summer, and that the Department of Justice and others want to use prosecutions of Jan. 6 crimes to damage him.

The former president, according to three advisers, often talks about the “good people” who traveled to Washington that day, and the crowd’s large size, despite encouragement from some confidants to avoid the subject altogether.

In a statement, Trump confirmed talking to Babbitt’s family and said: “I want to know why is the person who shot Ashli Babbitt getting away with murder?”

Trump’s embrace of Babbitt culminated a six-month progression in which her death, and the fate of dozens of jailed rioters, became a topic invoked by a cluster of House Republicans, and the likes of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Her death has inspired vigils, rallies, rap lyrics, social media hashtags (#justiceforashli), T-shirts (“Ashli Babbitt, American Patriot”), as well as an article in a magazine, the American Conservative, comparing her fate to that of George Floyd, the Black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.

“They’ve got to pretend that Ashli Babbitt was some kind of Osama bin Laden or some kind of guy flying a plane into a building,” Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative podcaster with 1.7 million Twitter followers, told his audience.

D’Souza, whom Trump pardoned in 2018 for making illegal campaign contributions, said a “big lie” has been spun that “there were these seditious Trump supporters trying to overthrow the constitution mounting an al-Qaeda-style attack.”

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin joined in. Questioned during an interview with NBC News about political jailings in his country, Putin asked if the correspondent had “ordered the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman?”

When Trump invoked Babbitt’s name, right-wing organizers said it became easier to generate public interest for those arrested in the Jan. 6 riot.

“It didn’t make me feel more emboldened, but it made other people feel emboldened, which helps me,” said Cara Castronuova of Citizens Against Political Persecution, a New York-based group that has hosted rallies.

“He gives people a voice,” Castronuova said. “They feel if Trump said it, he’s the leader of the United States, so it’s okay to say it.”

Stuart Stevens, a veteran GOP political consultant long critical of Trump, said Republicans are seeking to recast the narrative of Jan. 6 because the commander in chief “inspired domestic terrorists to besiege the Capitol in an effort to overturn the election.”

“That’s not a very good picture, so you have to create an alternative reality - that Trump won and these were good Americans,” Stevens said. “What stirs up more emotion than an innocent woman - a former Air Force vet - who is shot attempting to restore the legally elected president?”

“If you believe that,” he said, “you’ll probably respond to a fundraising appeal that comes with it and you’re more likely to show up at a Trump rally. It’s about intensity and money.”

Stevens, who grew up in Mississippi, compared the Republican campaign to the Lost Cause of the post-Civil War, in which Southern sympathizers sought to recast defenders of slavery, such as Gen. Robert E. Lee as a “benevolent guy.”

“It’s the same instinct, but this is more dangerous,” he said, because the Lost Cause was only embraced by some elements of the Democratic Party, not the entire organization. “It’s now the Republicans’ official position that Joe Biden was not legally elected. In their version, Babbitt wasn’t attempting to overthrow a peaceful process. She was either a tourist or a Trump supporter showing her deep affection to Donald Trump.”

Until her death, Babbitt had lived the anonymous life of an ordinary American, serving in the military for 14 years. Her tenure included a stint protecting the Washington region with an Air National Guard unit known as the Capital Guardians.

After leaving the service, she took over a struggling pool service supply company in her native San Diego, and delved into right-wing politics. She used her Twitter account to praise Trump, denigrate undocumented immigrants and express support for the extremist QAnon ideology that is based on false claims. Her family said she was always political - she voted for President Barack Obama - but never more fervent than during Trump’s presidency.

Babbitt did not tell her mother she was going to Washington on Jan 6. But Witthoeft said she was not surprised. “I would have said, ‘Of course you are, baby,’ " she said, adding her daughter “was a Trump rallygoer. She was going to them all over the place, the car parades, the Trump boat parades.”

In recent weeks, Witthoeft said she noticed Babbitt’s name mentioned more frequently on Fox News, Newsmax and OAN, an uptick she attributes to Trump and House Republicans such as Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

“I think everyone should know her name,” she said.

On a Sunday in downtown Manhattan, across from the United States Courthouse, a crowd of Trump supporters assembled for a “Free Political Prisoners NOW” rally. Organizers promised that Babbitt’s mother and husband would call in to “address those in attendance and those watching around the world on our Live Stream.”

A counterdemonstration of activists cursing and tossing eggs greeted the 100 or so attendees, including activists carrying Trump flags, fringe political candidates and, at least for a few minutes, Bernhard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four Black youths on a train and was dubbed the “subway vigilante.”

“Say her name!” a speaker shouted.

“Ashli Babbitt! Ashli Babbitt!” the crowd chanted.

“American hero!” a woman yelled.

In the days after Jan. 6, interest in her death was far more muted. In Washington, only journalists showed up for a Jan. 9 candlelight vigil advertised for Babbitt at the Washington Monument. Fliers for the event described her as a “wife, mother, veteran, patriot” who was “unjustly killed by US Capitol police.”

At the same time, groups such as the Anti-Defamation League were tracking use of her name on right-wing social media, including a rendering of her face imposed over an image of the Capitol, a drop of blood falling from her neck. In the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, Andrew Anglin wrote that Babbitt “was murdered by cops.”

“She was protecting America from the enemies of the people,” Anglin wrote. “There was absolutely no reason to shoot her, and the cop should be charged with murder.”

Three months later, federal prosecutors cleared the Capitol Police officer who shot Babbitt of any wrongdoing, saying he had not violated her civil rights.

The officer, a lieutenant, was not identified, an omission seized on by House Republicans.

“Who executed Ashli Babbitt?” Gosar, a Trump ally, asked acting U.S. attorney general Jeffrey Rosen at a hearing in May. A month later, while questioning FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Gosar said the officer “appeared to be hiding, lying in wait and then gave no warning before killing her.”

Gosar’s statements about Babbitt’s death, as well as those arrested, have been echoed by Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Louis Gohmert, R-Tex., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

“If this country can demand justice for someone like George Floyd,” Greene told a Newsmax host, “then we can certainly demand justice for Ashli Babbitt.”

On Thursday, she, Gaetz, Gosar and Gohmert showed up at the D.C. jail, demanding to inspect the treatment of those detained in connection with Jan. 6. They were turned away.

Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the narrative suggested by such assertions allows Trump and his allies to “flip what happened and present the attackers as victims.”

“The only word that comes to mind is the amplification of a fringe narrative,” he said. “It’s not as though the narrative has changed. It’s spread and taken hold in larger portions of Trump’s base.”

Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign operative and the leader of Look Ahead America, said initially his group had difficulty drawing crowds to rallies for the Jan. 6 arrestees because “people were afraid to come. The FBI was putting peoples’ pictures up all over the place.”

But he said he has had an easier time more recently - a Phoenix rally in mid-July drew 250 people - “because the issue is being taken seriously.”

Trump, he said, inserted himself into the discourse because he’s “reacting to the fact that we have people bombarding legislators, doing rallies and putting up signs. We have done so much to raise awareness that he thinks, ‘It’s time I should probably talk about it.’ "

At the Manhattan rally, the emcee, Castronuova, held a sign that read “Rest in Peace Ashli Babbitt” as Babbitt’s mother, speaking by phone, told the crowd she felt comfort knowing that the day her daughter died “was a good day for her.”

“Until those son-of-a-bitches took her out of it, she was in her moment,” Witthoeft said. “They tried to silence Ashli’s voice but all they did was make it louder because America was watching.”

“Stand tall, stand proud, stand together,” she told the crowd.

After the call ended, Castronuova promised the audience that “insurrectionist is no longer going to come up” when they “Google Ashli Babbitt’s name in five years.”

“They will not rewrite history,” Castronuova shouted. “She’s a martyr, okay?”

After her death, Ashli Babbitt’s body remained in Washington for weeks while law enforcement completed investigations. Then she was cremated, in keeping with her wishes, and her remains were flown back to San Diego in February, her mother said.

Not long after, her family boarded a boat and scattered her ashes in the waters off Dog Beach. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”

Witthoeft, during the hour-long telephone interview, said she has avoided watching footage of Jan. 6, including “the video of my daughter being murdered.”

“I just won’t do it,” she said, beginning to cry. “They carried my daughter out like a dying animal.”

Since her daughter’s death, she has become politically active. On Saturday, she attended a Trump rally in Phoenix, where she received a standing ovation when Gosar introduced her.

She said she received no response from the offices of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., despite having left “at least 20 messages.” When she called the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Witthoeft said an aide told her that " ‘although this incident is unfortunate, your daughter should not have stormed the Capitol.’ "

Asked about Trump, whose call to her occurred six months after her daughter’s death, Witthoeft laughed nervously and said, “It’s a tricky question. This is such a roller coaster. I feel different things depending on the day.

“If I were to say something negative about Donald Trump,” she said, “my daughter would roll over in the grave, or on her seabed. Out of respect for my daughter, I shouldn’t ever say anything negative about him. She felt strongly enough about him to lay down her life for him and, in death, I believe she loves him still. I know she loves him still.”

Roger Witthoeft, Babbitt’s brother, said he partially blames Trump for his sister’s death. Trump’s speech that day, he said, “should’ve been: ‘I’ll do it in 2024, we’ll get them next time.’ "

“Like every other rally, people would’ve cheered them on, and there might have been some little bit of stuff going on,” he said. “Everyone was just pumped up, and the word selection wasn’t the greatest.”

Nevertheless, Michelle and Roger Witthoeft both say they hope Trump runs again. And Roger Witthoeft said his sister, if she were alive, would not regret what she did Jan. 6. “She would’ve taken the exact same steps, knowing the outcome,” he said. “My sister died for a bigger picture, a bigger cause.”

These days, Michelle Wittheoft said, she writes letters to Jan. 6 arrestees.

“I plan on writing them all - not because I’m Ashli’s mom - I love and support what they did,” she said. “They’re in jail because they are Trump supporters.”

Referring to her daughter, she said, “She made the ultimate sacrifice to bring attention to a stolen election.”

“Half the country loves her and half the country hates her,” she said. “It’s weird to have your child belong to the world.”

$1 trillion infrastructure plan clears another Senate hurdle

Fri, 2021-07-30 18:08

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, center, speaks with Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., left, while Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., walks by at right, as the Senate votes to formally begin debate on a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure plan, a process that could take several days, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, July 30, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/)

WASHINGTON — The Senate further advanced a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure plan Friday with a bipartisan group of senators helping it clear one more hurdle and bracing to see if support can hold during the next few days of debate and efforts to amend it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the chamber should be able to process the legislation quickly given the bipartisan support. But as the day dragged into evening, the full text of what promises to be a massive bill was not finished by the time lawmakers adjourned.

Senators will return for a rare Saturday session as they push through a lengthy process.

“We may need the weekend, we may vote on several amendments, but with the cooperation of our Republican colleagues I believe we can finish the bipartisan infrastructure bill in a matter of days,” Schumer said.

But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, predicted, “It’s going to be a grind.”

The effort got off to a haphazard start Friday. Shortly after the Senate began the procedural vote, it was stopped. Cornyn said the reason was that some of the text in the draft bill did not comport with the agreement between the negotiators. The rare bipartisan work is testing senators’ ability to trust one another.

Several moments later, the vote resumed and the effort to proceed to consideration of the bill passed by a vote of 66-28.

Earlier this week, 17 GOP senators joined all Democrats in voting to start the debate, launching what will be a dayslong process to consider the bill. That support largely held Friday with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky again voting yes to nudge the process along.

But whether the number of Republican senators willing to pass a key part of President Joe Biden’s agenda grows or shrinks in the days ahead will determine if the president’s signature issue can make it across the finish line.

Cornyn said he expects Schumer to allow all senators to have a chance to shape the bill and allow for amendments from members of both political parties.

“I’ve been disappointed that Senator Schumer has seen to fit to try to force us to vote on a bill that does not exist in its entirety, but I hope we can now pump the brakes a little bit and take the time and care to evaluate the benefits and the cost of this legislation,” Cornyn said.

Schumer had hoped to introduce the text of the bill later in the day with supporters aiming to complete action before leaving for the August recess. Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., released a statement saying they were close to finalizing the legislative text and hoped to make it public later in the day.

But Friday came and went without final paperwork that’s now expected Saturday.

“When legislative text is finalized that reflects the product of our group, we will make it public together consistent with the bipartisan way we’ve worked for the last four months,” the senators said.

The bipartisan plan is big, with $550 billion in new spending over five years beyond the typical highway and public works accounts. A draft circulating Capitol Hill indicated it could have more than 2,500 pages when introduced. It’s being financed from funding sources that may not pass muster with deficit hawks, including repurposing untapped COVID-19 relief aid and relying on projected future economic growth.

Among the major investments are $110 billion for roads and bridges, $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion for rail. There’s also $55 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure as well as billions for airports, ports, broadband and electric vehicle charging stations.

The outcome will set the stage for the next debate over Biden’s much more ambitious $3.5 trillion spending package, a strictly partisan pursuit of far-reaching programs and services including child care, tax breaks and health care that touch almost every corner of American life. Republicans strongly oppose that bill, which would require a simple majority, and may try to stop both.

On the other side of the Capitol, a bipartisan group of senators and representative gathered to voice their support for the narrower, bipartisan infrastructure effort and to encourage House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow a quick vote on it after it passes the Senate. However, Pelosi has stated there won’t be an infrastructure bill vote unless the Senate also passes the more ambitious package, too.

“I’m not asking Speaker Pelosi today to support the bill. I’m asking for something a lot more basic than that. I’m asking to give us a vote,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D. “Let us vote.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., also appealed for a stand-alone vote on the bipartisan plan because “that’s what the country wants.”

‘Sicker and younger’: unvaccinated people are driving a new hospitalization trend in Alaska’s COVID-19 wave

Fri, 2021-07-30 17:14

Tiffany Agmata administers a COVID-19 test at a drive-thru testing site outside the Z.J. Loussac Library in Anchorage on Monday, July 19, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Alaska’s latest and still growing COVID-19 wave involves a jarring new trend: younger hospital patients, at times sicker than the older people who needed medical care last year.

Last winter, as the peak of the coronavirus pandemic ripped through the state, the infected patients seen by Dr. Alex Papacostas in his Anchorage emergency room tended to be older, in their 70s and 80s.

Now the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 is driving up case counts around the country and in Alaska, where as of Friday barely 44% of the total population was fully vaccinated.

And now Papacostas is seeing people in their 40s, 50s and 60s with more serious respiratory problems, who need additional oxygen or even mechanical ventilation, he said. None are vaccinated.

“They’re sicker and younger than we were seeing last year, requiring either hospital admission or ICU admission,” said Papacostas, Alaska chapter president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. “They’re really more intensive to care for, because they’re more ill.”

The state reported two new deaths in people with COVID-19 on Friday, both Anchorage residents. One was a woman in her 50s. One was a man in his 40s.

A spike in patients under 50

COVID-19 patients between 35 and 50 are showing up at the ER in greater numbers, getting admitted, and needing more complicated care, hospital and health officials say. Even those who aren’t staying for long run the risk of complications like prolonged breathing difficulties or heart problems.

“What we are seeing is hospitalizations are increasing in younger people, not only in Alaska but nationally,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said at a Thursday media briefing. “This probably has a lot to do with the fact that younger people in general tend to be less vaccinated.”

In July, 36% of people hospitalized in Alaska with COVID-19 are under 50, compared to 23% in November, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. People under 40 make up a quarter of patients, compared to 14% last year.

During last November’s statewide surge in cases, the average age of someone hospitalized was 63, according to Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer. Now it’s 56.

Zink offered one theory about the hospital trend at a science briefing Wednesday: a young person with more stamina may wait longer before seeking medical care. By then, their case is more advanced. She also wondered if such patients are aware of monoclonal antibody treatments that can minimize hospitalizations.

“Overall, our older population is more vaccinated than our younger population,” Zink said. “Younger bodies can usually fight longer.”

Most new cases in Alaskans under 60

State data shows Alaskans in their 20s and 30s continue to hold the top spot in terms of new cases. That corresponds with vaccination trends, health officials say: people who choose to get vaccinated tend to be older and more medically vulnerable, while younger residents are holding off.

Nearly 72% of Alaskans 65 and older are fully vaccinated. Since the pandemic started, people 60 and up make up 84% of the state’s 382 deaths in residents reported as of Friday.

Based on a seven-day average of daily new cases, people under 60 accounted for about three-quarters of the new infections, state data shows. Just over 30% were people between 20 and 39 and 21% were 40 to 59.

Cases in children are also rising, partly because there’s more testing in that age group but also because vaccination isn’t yet available for people under 12, according to state health officials. There have been just 17 children hospitalized with COVID-19 since March 2020, though some were sick enough to require intubation.

‘Flat-lined’ rates

Overall, vaccination rates in Alaska have stalled even with the rising case counts.

State data shows just under 1,000 daily doses per day in June and July, with “little blips” on weekends when more people have time to get shots, according to Matt Bobo, state immunization program director.

“That trend is pretty much flat-lined now,” Bobo said at a briefing this week.

Some communities are seeing local increases, however, like Sitka where there’s a large COVID-19 outbreak that started after the Fourth of July. At the start of the week, half of the 18 patients at the 25-bed Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center had COVID-19, hospital officials said at a recent press conference.

Three quarters of the new cases in Sitka over a two-week period involved people under 50.

“Cases in the community, and in the hospital, are a younger demographic than it was last fall,” said Dr. Elliot Bruhl, chief medical officer for Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. “Maybe that follows from the fact this is the group that’s the least vaccinated in the country.”

Delta’s role

It’s possible the delta variant is one reason medical providers are seeing sicker patients, they say, but it’s too early to know for sure.

Internal research from the Centers for Disease Control obtained by news organizations this week indicates the variant causes more severe illness and spreads as easily as chickenpox.

The delta variant brings another new wrinkle: infected vaccinated people may transmit the virus as readily as those who aren’t immunized. Those findings helped prompt a new CDC recommendation this week that all people, included vaccinated ones, mask up in indoor public spaces in parts of the country with high COVID-19 transmission levels. That includes all of Alaska, though some individual communities have lower spread.

[State encourages vaccinated Alaskans in places with high rates of COVID-19 transmission to mask up again]

Papacostas, with the American College of Emergency Physicians, wonders if the delta variant may be the cause of the more dangerous infections in patients he’s seeing, though that’s just speculation at this point.

“It seems like it’s more efficient at making more copies of itself,” he said. “Maybe their viral load makes more severe illness? I feel like that’s the only way to explain it.”

‘Devastating’

Vaccinated people can spread the virus, growing indications are showing. Two recent outbreaks in Juneau and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region included cases in vaccinated people, a third and a quarter of the total, respectively. In both places, vaccinated people reported milder symptoms.

But vaccinated people rarely require critical care in hospitals, doctors say, so they’re not adding pressure to a health-care system operating at or near capacity, especially in Southcentral.

To date in Alaska, unvaccinated people account for 94% of all COVID-19 cases, 94% of all hospitalizations, and 97% of all deaths, according to a weekly state update.

Hospital administrators are urging broader vaccination amid what they say is a pending health-care capacity crisis exacerbated by rising COVID-19 numbers.

Hospitals are busy with the usual summer rush of Alaskans injured outside, visitors back in the state after the pandemic delayed travel plans -- and “for sure” COVID-19 cases, Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a staff physician with the state health department who worked some ER shifts last week, said during a briefing.

“It’s devastating as a provider to watch patients come in the emergency department when we know we have vaccines available,” Rabinowitz said.

Alaska Baseball League playoffs begin Friday with best-of-3 series in Palmer, Chugiak

Fri, 2021-07-30 17:11

The Alaska Baseball League playoffs begin Friday with 6 p.m. games in Palmer and Chugiak.

The Mat-Su Miners -- who steamrolled their way through the regular season -- take on the Anchorage Bucs at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer, and the Chugiak Chinooks face the Anchorage Glacier Pilots at Lee Jordan Field in Chugiak.

The games kick off the first round of the Top of the World playoffs. The winners of each best-of-3 series advance to the Top of the World Series beginning Monday.

The Miners ran way with the regular-season title with a 29-11 record. Winners of three straight Top of the World Series crowns from 2016-18, they’re eager to carry their regular-season dominance into the playoffs.

The Bucs, winners of the 2019 Top of the World Series, are the No. 4 seed with a 16-25 record. They secured the final playoff spot by edging out the Peninsula Oilers, who finished 14-26.

The series in Chugiak pits two teams separated by 1.5 games and 38 percentage points in the final standings. The Chinooks finished second at 21-18 (.539) and the Pilots were third at 20-20 (.500).

First-round games are Friday and Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at both ballparks. Sunday games are if-necessary.

The Top of the World Series runs Monday through Wednesday, with Wednesday’s game required only if the series is knotted 1-1. The higher seed will host.

Top of the World playoffs

First-round (best of 3)

Friday

6 p.m. -- Pilots at Chinooks, Lee Jordan Field, Chugiak

6 p.m. -- Bucs at Miners, Hermon Brothers Field, Palmer

Saturday

6 p.m. -- Pilots at Chinooks, Lee Jordan Field, Chugiak

6 p.m. -- Bucs at Miners, Hermon Brothers Field, Palmer

Sunday

4 p.m. -- Pilots at Chinooks, Lee Jordan Field, Chugiak (if necessary)

4 p.m. -- Bucs at Miners, Hermon Brothers Field, Palmer (if necessary)

Unprecedented salmon declines force fish donations to Alaska’s Yukon River villages

Fri, 2021-07-30 16:56

Emmonak is seen from the air in 2016. (Lisa Demer / ADN Archive 2016)

For 47 years, Jack Schultheis has spent fishing season around the mouth of Yukon River.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Schultheis said from Emmonak, where he is general manager of Kwik’Pak Fisheries, a commercial enterprise set up to help the regional economy in the Lower Yukon. In a regular season, the operation would be involved in commercial fishing, buying fish, and processing.

But this year, returns of staple salmon species are abysmal, prompting the state, regional non-profits, and processors to coordinate deliveries of fish from other parts of the state. Kwik’Pak isn’t fishing at all. Which means local residents aren’t earning cash to put towards essential needs, including gas and supplies for their own subsistence activities.

Communities up and down the Yukon are coming to terms with a collapse in key stocks, and now confronting the prospect of a winter without enough food. Tribal groups working in the region say the situation is dire, and are scrambling to find alternative ways to get protein and assistance to some of the most rural households in the state.

Runs of kings and chum salmon on the Yukon have been so low that subsistence fishing for both have remained closed. In the case of kings, the number of fish in the river has been in decline for decades, along with the average size of fish harvested, according to decades of data compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But the real story this year are the chum: only a tiny fraction of the number expected have shown up in the Yukon, and nobody can definitively explain why. Hypotheses include warming waters from climate change, the proliferation of hatchery fish, and commercial fishing practices in the Bering Sea. But none of those theories fully account for why so few chum are coming back this year.

“We’re supposed to have 1.6 million fish through the sonar, and we have about 150,000 through the sonar,” Schultheis said of the number of chum counted entering the river.

Chum returns have been poor in the Kuskokwim, Norton Sound, and Kotzebue fisheries, too. But in most of those regions, there are normal enough numbers of pink, sockeye, or silver salmon to allow for some realistic subsistence opportunities.

Not so on the Yukon.

“The 2021 summer chum salmon run was the weakest and latest on record and failed to meet the drainage-wide escapement goal,” said a recent ADF&G assessment of the summer chum run.

Chum enter the Yukon in distinct waves. The earlier “summer chum” season follows closely after the passage of kings, which are typically nearing the Canadian boarder by this time of year. Management biologists have now switched over to monitoring “fall chum” in the river, and are pessimistic there will be enough fish for the subsistence harvest.

Normally at this stage of late summer, Ben Stevens’s fish camp between Stevens Village and Beaver in the Interior would focused on putting up king strips.

“Our smoke house hopefully would have been filled, our folks right now would be focused on drying the fish,” said Stevens, who manages the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Tribal Natural Resources Commission.

He and his family look to chum if they need to backfill a low king run.

As the number of kings returning to the Yukon has declined, particularly in the last decade, abundant chum have helped ensure a degree of food security.

According to ADF&G’s data on subsistence and personal use permits, between 1994 and 2016, 70 percent of the subsistence salmon harvest on the Yukon were chum.

“This is an incredibly unnerving time for our people,” Stevens said. For the first time in years, without any subsistence openings on the river, he found himself at an office in Fairbanks instead of on the river.

In traveling to small Interior communities the last few weeks, Stevens hears acute concern that people with the end of summer fast approaching, people’s smoke houses, fish racks, and freezers are all but empty.

“They’re afraid at some deep, deep levels,” Stevens said. “Our folks say they don’t know what they’re gonna do this winter.”

It’s a worry Stevens said has not been felt so palpably in a long time, but remains a living memory from earlier crashes in fish and animal stocks.

“There’s starvation in our DNA,” he added.

TCC is exploring “all opportunities to get protein to our people,” which could include purchasing bison from the Interior or reindeer from herders in the Norton Sound region to butcher.

They are also coordinating with other regional non-profits, tribes, and the State of Alaska.

“We saw a complete run failure of summer chum coming into the river,” said ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “We’re anticipating, and so far are seeing, very poor returns of fall chum salmon.”


Forklift operator Leonel Tualla moves a container of king salmon at Alaska General Seafoods in Naknek, for delivery and distribution to communities along the Yukon River, on July 21, 2021. (Photo courtesy Bryan Miller)

Last week, The Association of Village Council Presidents and TCC announced a plan to distribute 25,000 pounds of salmon to families. The donations of king and chum salmon come from six seafood processors in Bristol Bay, coordinated through SeaShare, a consortium of non-profits and businesses connected to the fishing industry, which is also helping with delivery logistics. Bucking most other fish trends in Western Alaska, this year’s sockeye returns in Bristol Bay have once again broken recent records, much of it landed by the commercial fleet.

“The Yukon River, from the mouth of the river as it empties into the Bering Sea all the way to the headwaters in Canada, is experiencing an unprecedented situation with salmon this summer,” wrote AVCP CEO Vivian Korthius in a release. “Throughout the whole river, including within the AVCP region, there has been no opportunity for subsistence users to catch salmon to put away for the winter.”

According to Korthius, half of the donated fish will go to communities in AVCP’s coverage area around the mouth of the lower Yukon, and the other half will be delivered to villages further up-river served by TCC.

“We know that the donated salmon will not be enough to fulfill all the needs for the winter,” Korthius wrote. “But, it is certainly greatly appreciated and we are thankful to our neighbors in the Bristol Bay region.”

The idea for sending Bristol Bay fish to the Yukon to as a response to the chum collapse was hatched at a meeting earlier this July in King Salmon among a group of salmon processors.

The state is also figuring out ways to mitigate the crash. Vincent-Lang said the governor’s administration authorized ADF&G to use $75,000 set aside in its budget for food security emergencies to procure more fish for distribution.

“Even though it’s not a lot, it does help,” said Amber Vaska, Executive Director for TCC’s Tribal Government and Client Services.

During last year’s summer of pandemic precarity, TCC alone spent more than $400,000 buying salmon to distribute to families in its region, which does not cover the ten villages in the Lower Yukon.

Vaska said after surveying tribal members, the organization is also looking at ways to further diversify subsistence harvests, including workshops to teach traditional methods for netting Sheefish.

“We don’t see the low salmon run going away any time soon,” she said.

Managers announced a limited subsistence opening along the Yukon last week: families can go after pink, sockeye, and silver salmon, but only using small-mesh nets, fishing rods, or dipnets. While those might be familiar tools for sport fishermen or Southcentral families hoping for a few fillets of Kenai River reds, they are poor ways to put up bulk quantities of fish to last through a winter.

Schultheis said after the opening was announced, a few people he knew caught pinks to dry.

“They don’t like fishing dipnets,” he said. “But it helped. Something is better than nothing.”

He and others at Kwik’Pak have been receiving thousand-pound totes of donated salmon, breaking it down, and coordinating delivery with tribes.

Stevens with TCC said one strategy state and federal officials should pursue in the months ahead is recalibrating management policies with tribes when it comes to wildlife like moose, caribou, and other game. During the height of the pandemic, with flights grounded, seasonal work curtailed, and store shelves empty, people in his communities requested special hunting openings to feed themselves. Managers said no.

“What the hell are we supposed to do in that situation?” Stevens asked. “How about loosening some of those stringent regulations on rural people. That would go a long way.”






‘A rush to get shots’

Fri, 2021-07-30 15:59

Annaliese Schroeder, left, a community health advocate, and Kelsey Conner, a public health information specialist, canvass a north Springfield, Mo., neighborhood Thursday, July 15, 2021, for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department in the hopes of boosting COVID-19 vaccinations. (Jill Toyoshiba /The Kansas City Star via AP) (Jill Toyoshiba/)

They were unmoved by the urgings of President Joe Biden to get vaccinated. They’ve spurned calls from the nation’s leading doctors, as well as from sports heroes and movie stars. But one thing is finally grabbing the attention of millions of unvaccinated Americans - the invasion of the hyper-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

“My friend works at the hospital, and she told me there’s 18-year-olds on ventilators. That scared me,” said Tyler Sprenkle, a recent high school graduate in Goodman, Mo., who got a shot this month.

In nearby Bella Vista, Ark., 25-year-old Chelsah Skaggs said she had been avoiding the shots, citing false reports that they might cause infertility.

But as delta hit her area, she did her own research and became convinced she should get vaccinated. “Skepticism is a good thing,” she said. “But to be ignorant is a different issue. My only regret is not doing it sooner.”

More than 4.7 million newly vaccinated Americans have made similar calculations in the past two weeks, as misgivings about the shots based on ideology, apathy or fear have taken a back seat to the desire to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Half a million shots were given just on Friday, the highest daily tally since July 1, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing Friday. This was also the third week that states with the highest numbers of coronavirus cases also had the highest vaccination numbers, she said.

Vaccine-hesitant pockets of the country turned hot spots, including Louisiana, experienced a 114% increase in uptake, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arkansas recorded a 96% increase, Alabama, 65%, and Missouri, 49%.

Texas last week reported its highest single-day vaccine administration in a month; the numbers, while still far from the peak earlier this year, are more than 25% higher than a month ago.

“There’s a rush to get shots that correlates with delta’s rise and hospitalizations,” said Tesha Montgomery, who runs vaccine clinics for Houston Methodist Hospital. During the week of July 12, the system was giving first shots to about 400 people a day, she said. The week of July 19, that number jumped to 600 a day, and by this Monday, it was up to 1,000 a day.

Unfortunately, Montgomery added, some people do not make their decision until they have had personal encounters with the virus - “family members and other loved ones who have gone through illness, hospitalizations and even death.”

In Arkansas, where the governor on Thursday reimposed a state of emergency and reported that all pediatric ICU beds were full, the number of vaccine doses being administered over the past month has gone from 27,000 a week on average, to 70,000 on average now.

“We have had to bring in more vaccine. For the first time in two-and-a-half months, we are making a new large-scale order, said Col. Robert Ator, who heads the state’s vaccine effort. “People are scared.”

Nationwide, 67% of the eligible U.S. population ages 12 and over has had at least one shot, with 57.7% fully vaccinated, as of this week. But in some parts of the country as few as 20 to 30% of people have been immunized.

Meanwhile, as the early promise of a coronavirus-free summer has given way to new mask mandates and other restrictions, public hostility toward vaccine holdouts has spurred accusations of politic grandstanding, ignorance and selfishness. This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, blamed low vaccination rates in some areas on misinformation by a “‘right-wing echo chamber,” naming individuals including Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

But the reality among those still trying to decide on vaccines is often more nuanced. Several of those in line for shots this week said they had taken a wait-and-see approach, and now that the vaccines had been taken by millions, they were willing to roll up their sleeves. Others said they were newly concerned about exposing parents or grandparents, or young children, to the virus. A few got the vaccine shots to keep their jobs.

The boost in interest may also be driven in part by new incentive programs and campaigns by prominent conservative leaders. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, wrote in an opinion piece this week that those “pushing fake news and conspiracy theories about this vaccine are reckless and causing great harm.” In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, has traveled the state to combat the idea that the shots are a “bioweapon.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is preparing ads to run on more than 100 radio stations in his home state of Kentucky.

“These shots need to get in everybody’s arms as rapidly as possible, or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for - that we went through last year,” McConnell has said. “This is not complicated.”

Miami

On Tuesday morning, a half-dozen vehicles idled in the 15-minute observation area of the drive-up vaccination site in Tropical Park near South Miami. Among those who had just received a shot was 19-year-old Annette Gonzalez.

“I believe in the science, but I didn’t want to be one of the first in line. . . .” she said. “I felt now was like a good time to get vaccinated.”

Nelson Torres, a 54-year-old who got his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, shared Gonzalez’s anxiety and had planned to wait even longer. But with cases surging in Florida, he decided he should get it over with. “You have too many young people getting together in crowded places,” he said.

Madison Carballos, 18, said she wanted to get the vaccine now because she spends a lot of time with her grandparents and works as a youth camp counselor with children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. “It’s getting a little scary out here with the delta variant,” she said.

Los Angeles

On the other side of the country in Los Angeles, Hector Medina, 28, said he hadn’t been particularly worried about covid-19 during the height of the pandemic because he knew he was young and healthy, and friends who had been infected with the coronavirus had recovered. But Medina’s parents, whom he sees about once a week, were vaccinated earlier this year and had been pressing him to do the same.

“Every time we go visit them, they are like, ‘Did you get your vaccine already?’ " he said after he got his second dose at a Kaiser Permanente walk-up clinic in Hollywood. “So that pushed me.”

Anador Velazco, 66, and his wife, Marta Silva, 67, left the walk-up clinic in good spirits after getting their second shots. It meant they were one step closer to visiting their families in Mexico and El Salvador. Silva’s three sons in El Salvador all contracted the virus and survived. Velazco’s younger brother also got it, although he was supposed to be the healthy one.

Velazco said he and his wife delayed getting the shots because she had heard friends complain of feeling sick afterward. “We’ve been kinda uncomfortable with that, so that’s why we waited until almost the last minute.”

Twelve-year-old Shanuan Alcantar also was unsure she wanted to get the vaccine, largely because of the baseless reports she saw online that it would make her arm magnetic.

“I was really scared seeing all of those TikToks of the metal spoons and the magnets” hanging from people’s arms, she said as she visited a clinic in East Los Angeles with her mother, Bellanira Reyes. “I was pretty scared of it, but I decided whatever happens, happens.”

Now that she’s fully vaccinated, she’s excited to be able to go back to school, see her friends and do fun things again. “I want to go back to normality, go see my friends and all of that,” Alcantar said. “It’s been really hard, not having friends, not talking to anyone.”

Philadelphia

In North Philadelphia, 49-year-old Shonda Finley said she was getting vaccinated because she had to do so for her job at a public health organization.

“I never had the time earlier during the pandemic to get the shot twice, and I didn’t trust getting the ‘one and done’ from Johnson & Johnson,” she said.

Finley said she “wouldn’t have gotten it anywhere else” but at the Black Doctors covid-19 Consortium (BDCC), a vaccination clinic in a Black church that has seen a major uptick in community interest. “I felt more comfortable being taken care of by people of color,” she said.

Daniel Turner, 31, an artist, said he came there to get a shot because “my grandmother told me that I couldn’t come see her if I wasn’t vaxxed.”

“I kept trying to dodge getting one cause I hate shots,” he said. “But this time, she was dead serious about me coming around. I’m here for her.”

Brenda Cunningham, 54, a caregiver who got her second Moderna shot, said she thought that the coronavirus “could never get me until I lost someone last month.”

“I felt like, ‘Hey, I can’t control how I go, but I don’t want to be the reason why I go.’ So far, so good with this shot,” she said. “I can’t complain.”

Missouri

When Tyler Sprenkle, 18, announced his new vaccination status to his friends on Facebook this week, he made sure to include the reassurance that he was still a Republican.

“I was afraid people would look down on me, say I was turning into a liberal or a raging Democrat,” he said. “But I’d still rather take that chance than get put on a ventilator and dying.”

Some friends still gave him a hard time, but others were inspired. His parents, younger brother and a high school friend received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the day after he did.

Vaccination rates hover around 20% to 40% in rural southwest Missouri, but demand is increasing. Sprenkle said he believes in vaccines but had felt the development of the coronavirus vaccines was rushed. He is against making vaccines mandatory, saying people will choose the shots once they get correct information.

Sprenkle graduated from high school in May and has been working at his family’s tire shop while studying to be an auctioneer and taking care of his grandparents. He said thinking of them and his own future made him finally decide to get the shots.

“I would feel really bad if I brought it to them,” he said. “Even me being so stubborn, I finally did it.”

In the town of Neosho, population 11,000, an hour from Springfield, about 100 people a day are lining up to get vaccine shots from a local pharmacist. That includes Tim Booyer, 57, a welder who had fretted for months about worrisome Facebook posts detailing the vaccines’ purported side effects.

Although Booyer dismissed reports that the vaccines contained microchips that could be used to track people as absurd, he wasn’t sure what to make of the other allegations of bad side effects. Then, three weeks ago, the delta variant killed a close childhood friend.

Booyer, a metal artist whose work is commissioned by Bass Pro Shop, said he had fabricated his friend’s cremation urn.

“This morning, I had to seal her in a box, weld that shut over her ashes,” he said. “It was rough. Then I made my mind up: I’m gonna get that shot.”

He said he has been sharing his changed thinking with several unvaccinated friends.

“We should have had covid knocked in the head if there weren’t so many hardheaded people like me,” he reflected. “I think we could have saved more than a few lives.”

Hansen reported from Missouri. Francisco Alvarado in Miami, Miranda Green in Los Angeles, and The Washington Post’s Ernest Owens in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

Nothing makes you appreciate life like a near-death experience

Fri, 2021-07-30 14:16

iStock / Getty Images (sudok1/)

I came to on my bedroom floor, scratching at it and wondering why it wasn’t my bed. I tried to move and was hit with an intense pain I’d never felt before. I had apparently had a heart attack and broken four ribs in the fall. I then did what any sane person would do: I dragged myself to my phone and called Bird TLC to tell them I wouldn’t be in for my volunteer shift. Thankfully, they called 911.

I am now post-heart attack, post-four broken ribs, post-open-heart surgery and wondering when the heck I got so old. I’m officially one of those people who owns a bracelet into which I can scream, “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” I remember once laughing at the pathetic nature of that person and her needs. Now, I’m her.

I’m guessing I’m not the only member of the sixties generation that is suddenly coming face-to-face with their own mortality. We all thought we were going to be young forever. Remember that saying, “Never trust anyone over 30?”  Back then, we never thought we’d get over 30. And some of us didn’t – mostly musicians, but still.

For those of us who moved far away from our birth families, being struck down with such rapidity and strength means we have to rely on the families we made up here – people who might be called good friends somewhere else. But in Alaska, so many of us left our families behind in search of something different, something we can hardly define or explain. That left us vulnerable, and we need our friends to wrap us in their arms and make us feel safe.

I have been wrapped up in the arms of everyone from a childhood friend to the Bird Ladies here in Anchorage to the friends I made in Utqiagvik. I was never alone and never scared. And that’s saying a lot.

So what has this journey taught me so far? Glad you asked. I learned that Alaska has some mighty fine doctors and nurses who can help you survive, despite your best efforts to live an unhealthy lifestyle.

I found out that I am the worst patient you will ever encounter. Not being in my own home and able to make my own decisions damn near killed me as much as the heart attack itself. I believe my very early discharge after the surgery occurred because they realized the stress of being in the hospital was going to kill me long before the heart disease. Yep, if I had been one of those nurses, I would have put me in a car and driven me home just to get me gone.

Of course, no trip to a hospital is complete without a reference to the food. Yep. That’s what it was called. Food. You could have fooled me. Don’t think I was able to eat once while I was an inpatient – though here, again, I feel I should point out that if you put me on a low-sodium, low-fat, low-sugar diet, none of it will resemble food as I know it.

Being helpless and near death brings a lot of things into sharper focus. I thought I was invincible. I mean, after all, there I was kicking old age’s butt. I was on my own and totally independent. Only I wasn’t, really, and I’m not now. My own limitations came up and smacked me right in the face and it scared the living daylights out of me. I now face each day more grateful than before but also more frightened than before because I realize how tenuous my grip is on life and how quickly and easily it can slip away.

So here’s my message from the other side of this mess: If you are going to survive, do so with a vengeance. Eat what the doctors tell you. Exercise when they tell you. And at least once a week, treat yourself to something that simply makes you happy. If you’re lucky, when you finally do die, it will be on the day when you have a big grin on your face because you treated yourself to some happiness… and yes, ice cream counts.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska columnist and author. Her book “Coming Into the City” is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Alaska reports two new deaths as coronavirus surge puts every region in high alert

Fri, 2021-07-30 12:36

Alaska on Friday reported three deaths, two of them recent, as a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the highly infectious delta variant continued.

The state reported 585 new cases over two days, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard. There were 100 people hospitalized with the virus, including 16 on ventilators.

During the state’s worst peak last winter, the number of virus-related hospitalizations hovered between 150 and 160. That statistic dropped to around 20 by May but began rising sharply again this month.

State data showed the deaths involved residents of Anchorage, Chugiak and Palmer. Two of the deaths were recent, a health department spokesperson said. One was in May but was reported this week.

In total, 382 Alaskans and seven nonresidents have died from COVID-19.

[Vaccinated people made up three-quarters of those infected in massive Massachusetts COVID-19 outbreak, CDC finds]

The health department also shifted its alert map of the state entirely into the red Friday, indicating rapid COVID-19 transmission. That indicates increased case numbers in the last three regions previously outside the high-alert category: Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Northwest region and a part of Southeast.

The state classifies high alert as a two-week average of more than 10 cases per 100,000 people. It indicates widespread community transmission, with many undetected cases and frequent outbreaks.

The state’s test positivity rate continued to rise by Friday, too. Of all the tests conducted over the past week, 5.65% were positive. Epidemiologists have said a positivity rate over 5% is a cause for concern, because it indicates higher transmission and not enough virus detection.

A geographic breakdown of the newly reported cases was not immediately available.

The state health department said this week that even fully vaccinated Alaskans in communities with high COVID-19 transmission should consider masking up again in public, indoor spaces as an added protection against the delta variant that can be spread by infected vaccinated people. That recommendation was in line with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

Health officials continue to encourage Alaskans to get vaccinated, calling the vaccine the best tool the state has to address rising cases and hospitalizations caused by the virus. By Friday, 48% of all Alaskans had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 43% of the population was considered fully vaccinated.

Evictions are about to restart as tenants wait on billions in unspent rental aid

Fri, 2021-07-30 12:22

In this June 9, 2021, photo, people hold signs during a rally in Boston protesting housing eviction. The Biden administration announced Thursday, July 29 it will allow a nationwide ban on evictions to expire Saturday, arguing that its hands are tied after the Supreme Court signaled it would only be extended until the end of the month. The White House said President Joe Biden would have liked to extend the federal eviction moratorium due to spread of the highly contagious delta variant. Instead, Biden called on "Congress to extend the eviction moratorium to protect such vulnerable renters and their families without delay." (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) (Elise Amendola/)

When the pandemic hit, Angela Bears was afraid that she would bring the virus home to her 3-year-old son, who was in treatment for kidney cancer.

She fell behind on rent for her Kansas City, Mo., home when she decided it was safer to stop going to her warehouse job. Bears said she applied for rental assistance multiple times this spring but never heard back.

Without any government aid, she is now $5,000 behind on her rent and fearing eviction. She is asking for donations online to stay in her home.

“I’ve got boxes. I’ve started packing,” Bears said. “The only thing at this point that matters to me is that my son doesn’t get sick.”

Bears is one of thousands of Americans who have been shortchanged by a yawning disconnect between two well-meaning policies lawmakers passed in response to the pandemic.

One, a federal ban on some evictions, is set to expire Saturday. Another, a $46.5 billion emergency fund aimed at getting rent to tenants at risk of eviction, has been painfully slow to get off the ground, with some states and counties unable to spend even a dollar of the money they were provided months earlier.

The expiration of the federal moratorium, following a last-ditch effort by congressional Democrats to revive it that is expected to fail, will leave renters with few pandemic-era protections as courts begin processing steep backlogs of eviction cases. Only nine states and the District of Columbia have some kind of emergency protections for tenants that will last into August, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

That has magnified criticism of the sluggish Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which some advocates say was flawed from the get-go because it relies on state and local governments across the country to create and administer their own programs. While some states quickly set up programs, others struggled to locate people in need or else received so many applications that the onslaught overwhelmed staff and software systems, causing months-long delays.

Six months after the aid program was approved by President Donald Trump in December, just 12 percent of the first $25 billion in funds had reached people in need due to loss of income from the pandemic, according to the Treasury Department. More than three months after President Joe Biden signed a March relief package with another $21.5 billion for the program, even less of that has been spent.

Unlike other coronavirus aid programs such as stimulus checks or child tax credits, Congress designed the program as a partnership between the federal government, where the money begins, and states and localities, which have leeway to distribute the funds largely as they see fit.

As problems arose, some states and cities stopped accepting applications to make fixes. But the trade-offs are steep: The longer it takes programs to come back online, the longer vulnerable households wait for help.

The city of Los Angeles stopped taking applications after seven weeks because of “unprecedented demand that far exceeded the program funding,” according to a spokeswoman. North Carolina officials had to hire an outside vendor to quickly issue checks to thousands of recipients. The city of Phoenix was overwhelmed by the number of documents it needed to verify and stopped taking applications online, routing people instead to a hotline.

In other places, confusion reigned: Fulton County, Ga., which includes part of Atlanta, received thousands of applications from people who needed to apply to the city of Atlanta for aid. The city of Houston and surrounding Harris County in Texas, merged their programs to eliminate confusion, a move that ultimately made the program one of the nation’s exemplars.

Overall just 36 out of more than 400 states, counties and cities reporting data to the Treasury Department were able to spend half of the money allotted them by the end of June. Another 49 hadn’t spent any funds at all. That included New York state - recipient of $801 million in first-round funds - plus huge metropolitan governments, according to an analysis of Treasury data by The Post.

Advocates and legal aid groups say the program has failed tenants who reasonably expected aid to arrive in time.

“What I am seeing now is an anxiety that I haven’t seen in 20 years of practice, and it continues to grow and compound,” said Jack Newton, director of public services at the nonprofit Bronx Legal Services, in New York City. “The unknowingness about what is going to happen - it really has people frightened, losing sleep, calling our hotline for updates.”

White House and Treasury officials say they are continuing to press states and localities to improve their programs, while giving them the flexibility to design them as they choose. The pace of spending has increased dramatically, with $1.5 billion going to households in the month of June, more than all previous months combined.

“When the Administration arrived, we knew that this would be an enormous challenge and that the systems were not in place at the state and local level to deliver assistance at this unprecedented scale,” said Treasury spokeswoman Elizabeth Bourgeois, in a statement.

Once the ban ends, housing experts say areas of the country with hot housing markets and in-demand apartments may be most likely to see a surge in evictions starting in August.

“I am sure there will be a significant pickup of evictions because the number of people who are behind is about double what you would see in a normal economy,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.

The good news, Zandi said, is that the estimated amount of unpaid rent in America had fallen from $44.1 billion in December to $27.5 billion in June.

But he attributed much of the progress to one-time stimulus programs such as the cash payments that helped people pay rent. Moody’s data shows there are still well over 6 million renters behind and massive disparities between the need of renters and the aid they’ve received.

Experts say they expect to see pockets of America where a lack of funding and expiring renter protections lead to a surge in evictions.

“I’m anticipating that there will be mass confusion about who can be evicted, how they can be evicted, for what reasons and when,” said Anne Kat Alexander of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “There’s already a lot of confusion out there about exactly who is covered by the CDC moratorium and what the CDC moratorium protects from happening to you.”

- - -

Timothy Johnson, a 59-year-old with a chronic hip problem and two young daughters, says his landlord is waiting on $11,000 in unpaid rent for his rent-controlled Bronx apartment. He receives disability payments, and his wife had a job as a department store clerk, but he said it has not been enough to cover the rent.

He said he avoids thinking about what would happen if New York state can’t ultimately provide him and his wife with funds to make up their thousands of dollars in unpaid rent.

“If that happens I’m going to trust in God, because he’s going to make a way,” he said. “He’s always made a way. That’s when your faith kicks in.”

New York has been one of the slowest states to start its aid program. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, said Tuesday that the state finally began making payments in July and that the state would relax documentation requirements, streamline the application process and convene staffers from other state agencies to process applications.

The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance issued a statement from spokesman Anthony Farmer saying the program “has already received more than 100,000 applications and upwards of 7,000 calls a day are being handled with virtually no wait time.”

For now, New York state residents can take solace in the fact that a state ban on evictions remains in effect until the end of August. In addition to New York, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington have some level of protections beyond July.

Some counties and cities have protections, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency also announced Wednesday that properties backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac will give tenants at least 30 days before requiring them to vacate their units. Biden on Thursday also asked the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs to extend their moratoriums through the end of September.

“The places that I think we will be impacted the most will be where they enforced the moratorium well but didn’t get rental assistance out quickly,” said Daryl Fairweather, the chief economist of Redfin, the housing company. “It seems like all the money is out there and exists but the issue is getting it to people who are at risk.”

Some advocates and elected Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, called for the Biden administration to extend the federal moratorium.

But the ban, put in place nearly 11 months ago by the Centers for Disease Control to prevent evictions from contributing to coronavirus infections, has come under withering assault from landlords and federal judges.

The Supreme Court in June allowed the moratorium to stay in place for another month. But Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote at the time that any further extensions would require “clear and specific congressional authorization” through new legislation.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement Thursday saying that the administration would support an extension of the moratorium but that “the Supreme Court has made clear that this option is no longer available,” and that the White House was calling on Congress to pass a new ban for it to hold up in court. Congressional Democrats launched a last-minute effort to extend the ban Thursday, but Hill aides said they don’t expect it to succeed.

- - -

The ban’s expiration has put the spotlight on government efforts to get aid programs up and running.

Treasury officials say the first $25 billion in funds was provided to grantees in February, but unlike federally administered pandemic responses, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Congress designed the Emergency Rental Assistance program to allow governors, state legislatures, mayors and county councils to create and administer their own programs.

That has turned out to be a daunting and confusing task. Some states and counties opened application portals only to see them overwhelmed. Technical glitches dogged other systems.

Under Gov. Greg Abbott, R, Texas has found success, having put $610 million in the hands of renters - more than half of its first round of funding - by Thursday. But that came after its program stumbled out of the gate, requiring the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs to switch software systems and hire additional contractors to right the ship.

Bobby Wilkinson, the agency’s executive director, said his team found success by encouraging landlords to participate in the program. About 85 percent of funds have gone directly to landlords.

“I just want landlords to participate from the get-go. My message has been, ‘Talk to your tenants. Tenants, talk to your landlords. The way to make yourself whole is to participate in our program,’” Wilkinson said.

The Biden White House and Secretary Janet Yellen’s Treasury Department have been trying to raise awareness about funds. Guidance from February and May was widely praised by housing advocates for helping streamline application processes.

The administration also announced other initiatives in June and convened two eviction-prevention meetings, urging an all-hands-on-deck effort since the problem could not be solved by the federal government alone. On Wednesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched an online tool to further help renters and landlords find assistance.

“We have been listening and responding in real time - and will continue to closely examine any doable suggestions for new policy or guidance,” said Gene Sperling, who is overseeing White House stimulus efforts. “With some states and localities showing they can get significant funds out efficiently and effectively, those who are not ramping up their programs faster in light of the end of the eviction moratorium have no excuse nor any place to hide.”

Pages