Alaska legislative leaders ask Dunleavy to postpone special session as they debate Permanent Fund dividend
The leaders of the four largest voting blocs in the Alaska Legislature have asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy to postpone the start of a scheduled Aug. 2 special session by one or two weeks.
The session, announced in May, is intended to write a new formula for the annual Alaska Permanent Fund dividend payment, though the issue has not yet been listed on the session’s formal agenda.
In a one-paragraph note to the governor, the Senate president, Senate minority leader, House speaker and House minority leader say a delay will allow legislators and staff to make hard preparations and provide “additional time for fiscal plan items under consideration to be reviewed.”
A group of eight legislators has been meeting regularly in public and private in an attempt to find agreement on potential options before the session begins. The committee is divided and has not advanced any proposals.
The postponement letter illustrates divided opinions as well: Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, is asking for a one-week delay; the other three leaders are asking for a two-week delay.
Public testimony on possible options will be accepted in Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks and Juneau. The first opportunity to testify is at 6 p.m. today at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office. Emails are also being accepted at email@example.com.
This article is developing and will be updated. Check back for more.
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) (Natacha Pisarenko/)
TOKYO — Sunisa Lee wanted to quit during quarantine.
It all had become too much. The lingering pain from a broken foot. The deaths of two family members from COVID-19. Her father’s slow recovery from an accident that left him paralyzed.
The urge eventually passed. It always does. Still, less than two months ago the 18-year-old gymnast hobbled around the podium at the U.S. championships, getting by more on grit than anything else.
Tokyo seemed far away. The top of the Olympic podium, even further.
Then suddenly, there she was on Thursday night as a tinny version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoed across Ariake Gymnastics Centre. Gold medal around her neck. A watch party back home among the Hmong-American community in her native Minnesota raging. A victory she never envisioned not yet sinking in.
“It’s crazy,” Lee said after winning the Olympic all-around title following a tight duel with Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade. “It doesn’t seem like real life.”
Even though the pain in Lee’s foot eased — funny how it seemed to get better the more she trained — she arrived in Japan figuring her best shot was at a silver medal. Sure, she’d beaten good friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles during the final day of the U.S. Olympic Trials last month, but that was an anomaly, right?
Then Biles opted out of the all-around competition to focus on her mental health following an eight-year run atop the sport.
Everything was on the table. Gold included. Lee took it with a brilliant set on uneven bars, a nervy performance on beam and a floor exercise that made up for in execution what it might have lacked in aggression.
Her total of 57.433 points was just enough to top Andrade, who earned the first gymnastics all-around medal by a Latin American athlete but missed out on gold when she stepped out of bounds twice during her floor routine.
Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova added bronze to the gold she won in the team final. American Jade Carey, who joined the competition after Biles pulled out, finished eighth.
Biles’ decision to sit out led to the jarring sight of the gymnast considered the greatest of all time cheering on Lee and the rest of the 24-woman field from the stands with the gold that’s been hers for so long now in play for everyone else.
Still, Lee did her best to not think about the stakes. She FaceTimed with her father John — who was paralyzed from the chest down during a freak accident in Minnesota just days before the 2019 national championships — before the meet, just like always. He told her to relax. So she did. Or at least, she tried.
Lee admitted she was getting “in her head” a little bit while prepping for her bar routine, the one that’s currently the hardest in the world. She didn’t exactly look nervous. The 15.300 the judges rewarded her for a series of intricate connections and releases tied Andrade’s near-perfect Cheng vault for the highest score of the night.
Yet it wasn’t Lee’s brilliance that made the difference but her guts. She nearly came off the balance beam while executing a wolf turn — basically a seated spin — needed to suction cup her toes to the 4-inch slab of wood to stay on. Her score of 13.833 moved her in front of Andrade heading into the floor exercise.
Going first, Lee opted for a routine with three tumbling passes instead of four, hoping better execution would override any potential tenths she surrendered by not doing a fourth pass. Her 13.700 was steady, but it left an opening for Andrade.
The 21-year-old Brazilian, two years removed from a third surgery to repair a torn ACL in her knee, had the best floor score of the contenders during qualifying. Yet she bounded out of bounds with both feet at the end of her first tumbling pass. And her right foot stepped off the white mat and onto the surrounding blue carpet.
Needing a 13.802 to win, Andrade received a 13.666 instead. Not that she particularly cared. She wasn’t even sure she would make it to Tokyo until she won the all-around at the Pan American Championships two months ago. She was in tears as she watched her country’s flag raised during an Olympic gymnastics ceremony for the first time.
“This medal represents all Brazil,” she said.
The gold, however, remains in possession of the Americans. Lee’s victory marked the fifth straight by a U.S. woman, with the past three Olympic champions all being women of color.
Biles and 2012 gold medalist Gabby Douglas are Black. Lee’s parents are Hmong, an ethnic group who have historically lived in the mountains of Southeast Asia. Lee’s parents emigrated from Laos to Minnesota, which has the largest concentration of Hmong in the U.S. A large group of friends and family gathered in Minneapolis to watch her make history. She hopes the image of a Hmong standing in front of the world and on top of her sport resonates in a community she sometimes feels can be too restrictive.
“I want people to know that you can reach your dreams and you can just do what you want to do,” she said. “Because you never know what’s going to happen in the end.”
BOSTON — The Biden administration on Thursday announced it will allow a nationwide ban on evictions to expire Saturday, arguing that its hands are tied after the Supreme Court signaled it could only be extended until the end of the month.
The White House said President Joe Biden would have liked to have extended the federal eviction moratorium due to spread of the delta variant. Instead, Biden called on “Congress to extend the eviction moratorium to protect such vulnerable renters and their families without delay.”
The moratorium was put in place put in place last September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Given the recent spread of the Delta variant, including among those Americans both most likely to face evictions and lacking vaccinations, President Biden would have strongly supported a decision by the CDC to further extend this eviction moratorium to protect renters at this moment of heightened vulnerability,” the White House said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has made clear that this option is no longer available.”
The court mustered a bare majority, 5-4 last month, to allow the eviction ban to continue through the end of July. One of those in the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, made clear that he would block any additional extensions unless there was “clear and specific congressional authorization.”
By the end of March, 6.4 million American households were behind on their rent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As of July 5, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had said in June this would be the last time the moratorium would be extended when she set the deadline for July 31. It was initially put in place to prevent further spread of COVID-19 by people put out on the streets and into shelters.
Housing advocates and some lawmakers have called for the moratorium to be extended, due to the increase in coronavirus cases and the fact so little rental assistance has been distributed.
Congress has allocated nearly $47 billion in rental assistance that is supposed to go to help tenants pay off months of back rent. But so far, only about $3 billion of the first tranche of $25 billion has been distributed through June by states and localities. Some states like New York have distributed almost nothing while several have only approved a few million.
“The confluence of the surging Delta variant with 6.5 million families behind on rent and at risk of eviction when the moratorium expires demands immediate action,” Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said. “The public health necessity of extended protections for renters is obvious. If federal court cases made a broad extension impossible, the Biden administration should implement all possible alternatives including a more limited moratorium on federally backed properties.”
The trouble with rental assistance has prompted the Biden administration to hold several events in the past month aimed at pressuring states and cities to increase their rental assistance distribution, coax landlords to participate and make easier for tenants to get money directly.
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta also has released an open letter to state courts around the country encouraging them to pursue measures that would keep eviction cases out of the courts. On Wednesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unveiled a tool that allows tenants to find information about rental assistance in their area.
Despite these efforts, some Democratic lawmakers had demanded the administration extend the moratorium.
“This pandemic is not behind us, and our federal housing policies should reflect that stark reality. With the United States facing the most severe eviction crisis in its history, our local and state governments still need more time to distribute critical rental assistance to help keep a roof over the heads of our constituents,” Democratic U.S. Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Jimmy Gomez of California and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said in a joint statement.
But landlords, who have opposed the moratorium and challenged it repeatedly in court, were against any extension. They have argued the focus should be on speeding up the distribution of rental assistance.
This week, the National Apartment Association and several others this week filed a federal lawsuit asking for $26 billion in damages due to the impact of the moratorium.
The NAA “has long held that eviction moratoria are fundamentally flawed policies, leaving renters saddled with insurmountable debt and rental housing providers unfairly holding the bag despite unprecedented efforts to keep their residents housed over the past 18 months,” Bob Pinnegar, the president and CEO of the NAA, said in a statement.
Corn fritters with grated tomato-garlic sauce (Photo by Kim Sunée)
This summery fritter of sweet corn and soft, tender herbs makes for a colorful appetizer, snack or even brunch dish. Fresh corn off the cob is the star, but grilled or roasted would be equally delicious; when it’s out of season, use frozen and thawed. (Keep the corn cobs to make ice cream or use as a base for corn chowder.) Endlessly adaptable, sub fresh basil for the cilantro and mix with grated Parm; add in some grated carrot, zucchini, sliced mushroom or chopped kimchi. Fresh seasonal tomato sauce pairs well here, but try with tzatziki, pesto, chimichurri, or other favorite dipping sauce. For a more substantial starter or main, top with an egg or a piece of grilled fish.
Corn fritters with grated tomato-garlic sauce
Makes 12 fritters
3 large ripe tomatoes
1 large clove garlic
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour (or rice flour or gluten-free 1-to-1 baking flour)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg, lightly whisked
1 lime, zest and juice
1/2 cup water or vegetable broth
3 cups fresh corn kernels cut from 3 to 4 cobs (or frozen kernels, thawed)
1 serrano or jalapeño, stemmed (and seeded, if desired)
½ cup chopped white or yellow onion
½ cup fresh chopped cilantro or basil
Grapeseed, avocado or vegetable oil, for shallow pan frying
Grate tomatoes and garlic with a box grater into a bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper; set aside. Prep a large platter or sheet pan with paper towels for draining the patties.
In a mixing bowl, combine flour, cumin, baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon fine salt, and whisk to combine. Add egg, juice and zest of lime and 1/2 cup water; stir until smooth. Add corn, serrano, onion and cilantro; stir just to combine.
Place a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet (or other large heavy-bottom, preferably non-stick pan) over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan by 1/4 of an inch. When the oil is hot but not smoking, using a 1/4 cup measure, scoop mixture and place in hot skillet, repeat with two more scoops and gently press down on each with bottom of measuring cup or a wide spatula to form three patties. (Note: make sure to leave enough room in between patties so they can crisp up and not steam.) Cook 3 to 4 minutes, making sure to adjust the heat if patties are browning too quickly. Gently turn fritters and cook another 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Drain on paper towel-lined platter. Season lightly, if desired, with flake salt. Cook remaining fritters and serve hot with grated tomato-garlic sauce.
The Upper Tularik Floodplain in the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. (Environmental Protection Agency) (HANDOUT/)
Mum’s the word from Department of Natural Resources officials regarding their plan to fundamentally change the state’s water rights system.
House Fisheries Committee chair Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, said DNR representatives declined to attend a July 27 hearing on the agency’s proposed changes to in-stream flow reservations and other water regulations because she was told they are in a “quiet period” while they respond to public comments from the extended period that closed April 2.
Tops among the changes first suggested by the Division of Mining, Land and Water in mid-January is adding new language to water reservation regulations stating that water reservation certificates currently issued to private parties would instead be held by DNR, which adjudicates water rights and reservation applications.
Resource development advocates insist the change is needed so control of a public resource is kept within a public agency and to prevent opponents of a given project from attempting to impede development by chasing water rights.
For their part, conservation groups insist the change would strip Alaskans of their rights to protect the fish — another public resource — in waters vulnerable to development.
Alaska’s current system of water rights is generally viewed as one of the most open in the country; it allows anyone to apply for temporary water use authorizations as well as water reservation, or in-stream flow, rights to maintain sufficient stream flows for fish and other wildlife.
Reviewing water reservation applications often takes DNR years in coordination with the departments of Fish and Game and Environmental Conservation, a situation Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for the Homer-based conservation group Cook Inletkeeper, said in the hearing is the result of traditionally pro-development state administrations prioritizing water rights, or use, authorizations over flow reservations to protect habitat.
Currently, the Department of Fish and Game holds the vast majority of flow reservations; another handful is held by federal resource agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Nature Conservancy is one of the few private entities to hold water reservations. It secured four flow reservations near the Pebble deposit in 2017.
DNR officials also said during the public comment period that they could not comment specifically on the proposed regulations. At the time, they cited a section from the Administrative Procedures Act that state’s agency officials proposing a regulatory action “shall make a good faith effort to answer, before the end of the comment period, a question that is relevant to the proposed action, if the question is received in writing or at least 10 days before the end of the public comment period.”
The section of the APA goes on to state that common questions can be answered in a consolidated form on the Alaska Online Public Notice System.
State officials have historically discussed proposed regulatory changes and officials in other agencies have as well during the Dunleavy administration.
Water Section Chief Tom Barrett said more broadly that flow reservations are “significant” in that they can impact other water users in a January interview. He added that the state is not trying to withhold water rights for any one group, noting the DNR commissioner — who approves water reservations — currently has the discretion to discontinue them as well.
According to such answers posted by Mining, Land and Water officials, the changes are meant to better distinguish water reservations from more traditional water right appropriations.
“Traditional water right certificates are issued to persons for a specific beneficial use. Reservations of water are a reserved level or flow that is reserved for a specific public purpose, not the sole use or benefit of the applicant.”
Barrett wrote via email to the Journal on July 27 that it’s unclear exactly when DNR leaders plan to finalize the water regulations but it probably won’t happen for several months.
The proposed regulations are a continuation of an attempt by former Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration to overhaul the water reservation structure, according to Shavelson.
House Bill 77, which drew strong public opposition and died in the Senate in early 2014, would have limited water reservations to public agencies among many other revisions to state resource policies.
While development advocates have long advocated for changes to Alaska’s water use regulations and statutes, one of the state’s largest pro-development lobbying groups is against the current regulations proposed by the Dunleavy administration because they don’t go far enough.
Natural resources attorney Eric Fjelstad testified on behalf of the Resource Development Council for Alaska that the new proposed language also gives the in-stream flow reservation applicant legal standing to manage the reservation, even if DNR is technically the certificate holder.
“We think (in-stream flow reservations) should be a limited tool held by DNR and state subdivisions,” Fjelstad said.
The state’s multilayered process for permitting large development projects addresses the concerns of many who are concerned about the impacts of development on water bodies and fish, notably salmon and the place for instream flow reservations is in a more subtle situation, according to Fjelstad.
He suggested several small water withdrawals along a stream or river is a more likely scenario to result in cumulative damage to the watershed and its inhabitants.
“If you don’t have that large project permitting you can have water withdrawals that aren’t accounted for,” he said.
RDC Executive Director Marleanna Hall wrote in official comments to DNR that giving legal standing to private parties potentially managing in-stream flow reservations “an even more powerful tool for those who oppose development from Alaska. This provision should be removed from the regulations.”
Shavelson contended the insistence by RDC and other development advocates that private parties should not be able to hold in-stream flow reservations as a means for protecting fish habitat is inherently hypocritical because developers, and other private groups, can hold water rights and temporary water use authorizations to divert water out of a lake or stream.
“A Canadian mining company could hold rights to take water out of a salmon stream but Alaskans couldn’t hold the reservation to keep water in the stream and that’s the crux of it,” Shavelson said. “The DNR proposal really takes a government knows best approach to water reservations.”
He urged lawmakers to amend the Alaska Water Use Act to mandate DNR to apply a corresponding water reservation sufficient to preserve fish and wildlife populations — which varies in each water body — to counter each water withdrawal authorization.
“This would be the Alaska Legislature looking at the Water Use Act and making some simple but common sense changes,” Shavelson said.
Commercial fishing boats on Alaska's Bristol Bay. (Alaska Journal of Commerce)
SEATTLE — Amid a fierce June storm that whipped up 8-foot waves, Robin Samuelsen told his four young crew members to let out the gillnets behind his 32-foot boat in the Nushagak district of Bristol Bay.
For the 70-year-old, a veteran of more than a half-century of fishing, this was a tough day to start the 2021 sockeye salmon harvest. But soon the crew, all of them his grandsons, were dancing on the back deck as they spotted splash after splash made by sockeye hitting the net’s mesh in a surprisingly strong display of abundance so early in the season.
In the weeks that followed, storms often returned to make fishing miserable, and at times dangerous. Through it all, the salmon kept surging back from their ocean feeding grounds in what — by this week — developed into a record return of more than 65.5 million sockeye to the Bristol Bay region.
“It was pretty rough out there. It was really rough out there,” Samuelsen said. “But it was a fabulous year here in the Nushagak.”
The massive return once again demonstrated Bristol Bay’s stunning sockeye productivity at a time when these fish are struggling in other parts of North America, in part due to climate change, which can increase the temperature of the rivers adults must navigate to their spawning grounds. It can also reduce food for them in the ocean.
Scientists still are trying to unravel the factors influencing the big Bristol Bay sockeye runs of the past decade. At least so far, climate change in this more northern realm appears to have not undermined their productivity, and some research indicates that warming could be working in the fish’s favor by improving food supplies when they are very young.
Climate and behavior
This summer’s bountiful harvest, which peaked in earlier this month, has generated a surge of deep-red sockeye fillets at the seafood counters of the Pacific Northwest and other U.S. and international markets. These fish were caught by some 2,500 fishermen and crews, and the permit holders include some 650 Washington-based gillnetters. Buoyed by strong consumer demand, processors have offered a price of $1.25 per pound for the whole fish — up from 70 cents per pound last year.
The record season, however, comes with some notable asterisks.
The average size of fish are typically small during a big run. These sockeye have been really small. They averaged 4.5 pounds, down from 5.2 pounds just two years ago, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The record run also was not accompanied by a record harvest, which as of July 23 had tallied more than 39 million sockeye compared with the 1995 all-time record catch of 44 million. The rest of the fish swam upstream to spawning grounds in numbers well above the levels needed to sustain the next generation of salmon, according to fishery managers. This resulted, in part, from the rough weather that on occasion kept some fishing boats from putting out nets.
The adult salmon traverse Bristol Bay as they return from the ocean to freshwater spawning grounds, where the females lay eggs and the males release sperm just before they die.
Historically, most sockeyes that hatched from the spawning grounds spent two years in fresh water. But as the weather warms, these drainages have become warmer and ice-free for longer periods of time, offering more nourishment for juvenile salmon. And many of these fish spend only one year in fresh water and then head out to sea, where they stay from one to three years, according to a study published in 2019 in Nature Ecology & Evolution by Daniel Schindler, a professor in the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences. and two colleagues, Timothy Cline and Jan Ohlberger.
“Climate change is literally speeding up the early part of their life cycle across the whole region,” Schindler said.
Tim Sands, an Alaska Fish and Game biologist who helps manage the Bristol Bay runs, thinks the Nushagak District sockeye have benefited from the warming trend. With improved feeding in fresh water, more fish may have gone out to sea better able to survive to adulthood.
Sands said that the average run of fish to the district’s drainages, up to 2017, was around 8 to 9 million sockeye. Then that year, some 20 million sockeye returned to the district, and 33 million in 2018. This year, the run tops 27 million, and ranks as the biggest producer in the five Bristol Bay fishing districts.
“It just broke the mold. Something happened that just amped up the productivity. My personal belief is it was the warmer winters,” Sands said.
Schindler, in an interview this week from a Bristol Bay fish camp, says the warmer weather also may have made the coastal waters of the Bering Sea more hospitable to these young fish and improved their early survival rates as they first enter salt water.
“We don’t have a lot of data on this but it is certainly a plausible hypothesis,” Schindler said.
Wild salmon runs rise and fall over time, and no one can be sure just how long the Bristol Bay sockeye runs will continue to be gangbusters.
In the ocean, the sockeye face increasing competition for food from other wild salmon and huge numbers of salmon reared in hatcheries that are released into the North Pacific. And long-term warming trends may work against the Bristol Bay sockeye.
In 2019, foreshadowing a more difficult future, one Bristol Bay river — the Igushik — heated up to the point where some adult fish died before they reached the spawning grounds.
Bristol Bay fishermen pull sockeye or red salmon from a net near Naknek, Alaska. (AP Photo/Al Grillo) (AL GRILLO/)
Runs suffer elsewhere
In Alaska, outside of Bristol Bay, many sockeye runs, as well as Chinook runs, have been declining. The diminished runs include the heavily promoted Copper River reds, which this year was forecast to be more than a third below its 10-year average, and is unlikely to even reach that mark.
In British Columbia and the Lower 48, warm freshwater rivers have frequently become obstacles for adult salmon trying to reach spawning grounds. And warmer ocean temperatures already have made life more difficult in some areas where they feed.
The Lake Washington sockeye run, which is sustained by Cedar River spawning grounds, hit a record low return last year despite millions of dollars spent in hatchery and other efforts to revive the numbers.
In the Columbia River Basin, sockeye runs have improved in recent years but remain below historical peaks, which were reached before dams created obstacles to freshwater passage and slow-moving stretches of the river, where water is prone to heat up.
In 2015, most of the basin sockeye run was lost as water temperatures climbed in the Columbia and its tributaries. This summer, more than 142,000 sockeye passed the Bonneville Dam but have again faced warmer water.
In a July 16 video released this week by the Columbia Riverkeeper, sockeye with fungus and lesions are shown lingering in a tributary, far from their upstream spawning grounds.
Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, said that water temperatures above Bonneville Dam are not as bad as 2015. But sockeye survival rates decrease above 68 degrees. This year, as of Tuesday, the temperature topped 70 degrees in the waters below McNary Dam on the Columbia.
“With these temperatures, we would expect that migration upstream will be slower, and survival rates lower,” DeHart said.
Weathering the storm
The 2021 Bristol Bay season came on the heels of a tense 2020 harvest when concerns about COVID-19 prompted strict quarantines of processing workers and other measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Bristol Bay communities.
This year, the unusually stormy weather emerged as a serious challenge to fishermen. On July 1, one boat got stuck on a sandbar, then took on water as it was buffeted by waves. The crew ended up in the water, and one man, later identified as Lance Eric Norby, did not survive.
“It was very unsafe,” said Michael Sather, a Marysville-based gillnetter, who said he worked through some “horrendous weather.”
In the Nushagak District, Samuelsen said the nets, which would be left in the water for up to 45 minutes, sometimes brought in more than 10,000 pounds of sockeye.
Samuelsen is a prominent Native leader in the Bristol Bay region who began fishing as a boy with setnets strung out from shore. He has emerged as a high-profile critic of the Pebble Mine, an open-pit mine proposed in a portion of the Bristol Bay headwaters that has generated fierce opposition.
A key permit was rejected last fall by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And President Joe Biden has said he is opposed to this development. Samuelsen hopes Biden’s words will be followed up by federal action that offers permanent protection to the watershed.
Through the July peak of the Bristol Bay season, Samuelsen and his grandsons bunked each night in the cramped quarters of their boat as they awaited news of when they could put out their nets.
Their galley fare included plenty of fresh-caught sockeye salmon, a meal that Samuelsen said never grows old.
“We barbecue it. We fry it. We’re fish eaters,” Samuelsen said.
People wearing masks wait to board a flight at Kansas City International airport in Kansas City, Mo. Governments and businesses are scrambling to change course following new federal guidance calling for the return of mask wearing in virus hot spots amid a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationwide. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) (Charlie Riedel/)
WASHINGTON - New recommendations from federal health officials this week on when vaccinated Americans should don face masks came with a startling bolt of news: People who have had their shots and become infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus can harbor large amounts of virus just like unvaccinated people. That means they could become spreaders of the disease and should return to wearing masks indoors in certain situations, including when vulnerable people are present.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not publish the new research. In the text of the updated masking guidance, the agency merely cited “CDC COVID-19 Response Team, unpublished data, 2021.”
Some outside scientists have their own message: Show us the data.
“They’re making a claim that people with delta who are vaccinated and unvaccinated have similar levels of viral load, but nobody knows what that means,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health. “It’s meaningless unless we see the data.”
When CDC Director Rochelle Walensky spoke to reporters Tuesday, she cited the “new scientific data” but provided limited details about how the research was done. She said the data comes from outbreak investigations in which researchers compared delta infections among vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
The data will be “published imminently,” according to a federal official knowledgeable about the research but who was not authorized to be a spokesperson for the government.
“These data were alarming and recently presented,” the official said Wednesday. “We saw the data and thought it was urgent enough to act - in the context of a steeply rising, preventable fourth surge of covid-19.”
Because tests showed similar levels of virus in the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the CDC inferred the delta variant can be transmitted by people with breakthrough infections.
“I think the implications [of the data] are that people who are vaccinated, even when they’re asymptomatic, can transmit the virus, which is the scientific foundation of why this recommendation is being made,” Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
But Fauci noted there is not yet clinical data on what the high viral loads mean in terms of disease transmission. “You can make a reasonable assumption that vaccinated people can transmit the virus just like unvaccinated people can,” Fauci said.
Three senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions said the new research convinced health officials that it was time to update the agency’s guidance. When scientists compared viral loads in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals infected with an earlier variant of the virus - the alpha variant, which was dominant in the spring - there were considerable differences in the amount of virus each carried.
The CDC did not answer questions Wednesday about whether it relied on outside sources of data or the number of patients examined in its outbreak investigations.
The medical and scientific community has generally endorsed the change in CDC mask guidance. Several organizations and public health experts issued statements saying the CDC should have gone further and broadened the criteria for deciding which communities have transmission high enough to warrant universal masking indoors.
The question about viral loads is among the many unknowns surrounding SARS-CoV-2, including the frequency of breakthrough infections and whether they play a significant role in the recent rise in cases.
“If we’re seeing more breakthroughs, is it just because the virus is better and the vaccines don’t hold up quite as well, or is the efficacy of the vaccines beginning to wane, independent of the delta?” asked Robert Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “This is three-dimensional chess, there’s a hundred things going on at the same time.”
There is now a Greek-alphabet soup of viral variants competing with one another. The delta, which was first identified in the United States in February and only gained traction in June, is dominant in the United States.
“The big concern is that the next variant that might emerge, just a few mutations away, could potentially evade our vaccine,” Walensky said Tuesday.
There are multiple vaccines deployed to stop the pandemic, with a range of efficacy in stopping mild infections. The vaccines are all highly protective against severe disease and death. Pfizer published data Wednesday showing a modest drop in efficacy over the course of six months.
Although delta is more than twice as transmissible as earlier variants, it does not have some of the mutations seen in other variants that can help the virus evade antibodies. But the delta floods the zone. It grows so quickly in the nose that it may be overwhelming the body’s vaccine-enhanced defenses before the immune system can marshal a robust response, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“The immune response, once activated, takes a while to kick in even among people who have been vaccinated,” Hanage said in an email. “As a result if the virus can copy itself really quickly it might be able to get a few rounds of replication in, even in vaccinated folks, before the immune system brings it under control.”
The Singapore Ministry of Health recently found that three-fourths of coronavirus cases in the past four weeks were in people who were fully or partially vaccinated, most with no or mild symptoms. And in India, vaccinated health-care workers showed high viral loads when infected with the delta, according to a study from University of Cambridge researchers that is not yet peer-reviewed.
The senior author of that study, microbiologist Ravindra Gupta, said the infectivity of people with breakthrough infections has not been “formally measured in a rigorous way,” but the new research shows high viral loads in people with breakthrough delta infections. That suggests vaccinated people should wear masks, he said.
Research by Chinese scientists posted online and not yet peer-reviewed describes the stunning ability of the delta variant to replicate in the human body. The viral load from the delta is 1,000 times that detected in the earliest variants of the virus. That is about 10 times the viral load sparked by the alpha variant, which was first seen in the United Kingdom and became dominant in the United States this spring before the delta overcompeted it.
“Delta is alpha on steroids,” said James Musser, chair of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital and Research Institute.
In the eight hospitals run by Houston Methodist, there are about 300 covid-19 patients, triple the number in early June, Musser said. Most new cases involve the delta variant. He estimated that 20 percent of the covid patients were fully vaccinated before becoming infected.
But he cautioned that most of these patients have underlying medical conditions that impaired their ability to mount an immune response after being vaccinated.
These post-vaccination infections have often been described by Walensky and other medical experts as rare. How rare is unclear. News reports of people getting sick after vaccination have been common in recent weeks. But scientific data is limited.
The CDC on May 1 said it would stop tracking mild and moderate breakthrough cases, and focus only on hospitalizations and deaths. As of July 19, the CDC had documented 5,914 such breakthroughs, including 1,141 deaths.
CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said Wednesday the agency conducts “cohort” studies to obtain estimates of the efficacy of the vaccines that often involve tens of thousands of people. Scientists examine vaccinated and unvaccinated patients for a period of time to see if they develop covid-19, Nordlund said.
Several experts have criticized the agency for not tracking mild and moderate breakthrough cases on a broader scale, arguing it makes it difficult to know how rare these cases really are.
Even though the vaccines remain effective against all variants of the coronavirus, they are not designed to create “sterilizing” immunity. That’s why breakthrough infections happen. The virus can infect the nose and begin replicating before the immune system rallies its range of defenses. The vaccines prime the immune system, including the “B memory” cells that begin cranking out antibodies after detection of an invasive pathogen.
Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said it’s like the fire extinguisher in your kitchen. The immune system ensures you have that fire extinguisher standing by for an emergency. But it can’t prevent the initial conflagration. “You still had a little fire in the kitchen,” Offit said.
Larry Corey, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said it would not be surprising to see a variant emerge that is better at replicating in people’s noses. Animal studies, he said, indicated that vaccines were better at protecting animals’ lungs from infection than their noses. That might help explain why vaccinated people can become infected but rarely develop severe disease.
“The virus is under selective pressure to jump from nose to nose,” Corey said. “So its evolutionary sort of pressure is to do that as efficiently as it can. Delta is more efficient than others.”
Even if tests find lots of virus in vaccinated people, it is uncertain how contagious they are. A study of immunized health-care workers in Israel, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found 39 breakthrough infections among 1,497 fully vaccinated people. About three-fourths of those people had, at some point while infected, what researchers characterized as high viral loads. There was no evidence that a breakthrough case led to other infections.
Natalie Dean, a biostatistics expert at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said she remains unconvinced a high viral load in the nose truly means that vaccinated and unvaccinated people are equally as likely to spread the virus, although she acknowledged there is an ongoing debate about the issue.
“I feel like nasal viral load is one part of a lot of other parts” that determine how infectious a person is, Dean said, adding that she thinks the amount of virus in the throat or lungs could be important and might differ between people who are vaccinated and those who are not.
A hiring sign is displayed outside a retail store in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Thursday, June 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) (Nam Y. Huh/)
WASHINGTON — Fueled by vaccinations and government aid, the U.S. economy grew at a solid 6.5% annual rate last quarter in another sign that the nation has achieved a sustained recovery from the pandemic recession. The total size of the economy has now surpassed its pre-pandemic level.
Thursday’s report from the Commerce Department estimated that the nation’s gross domestic product — its total output of goods and services — accelerated in the April-June quarter from an already robust 6.3% annual growth rate in the first quarter of the year. The quarterly figure was less than analysts had expected, but the economy was likely held back mainly by supply shortages in goods, components and labor.
For all of 2021, the economy is expected to expand perhaps as much as 7%. If so, that would be the strongest calendar-year growth since 1984. And it would mark a sharp reversal from last year’s 3.5% economic contraction — the worst in 74 years — as a result of the pandemic.
Yet overhanging the rosy economic forecasts is the possibility of a resurgent coronavirus in the form of the highly contagious delta variant. The U.S. is now averaging more than 60,000 confirmed new cases a day, up from only about 12,000 a month ago. Should a surge in viral infections cause many consumers to hunker down again and pull back on spending, it would weaken the recovery.
For now, the economy is showing sustained strength. Last month, America’s employers added 850,000 jobs, well above the average of the previous three months. And average hourly pay rose a solid 3.6% compared with a year earlier, faster than the pre-pandemic annual pace.
“The fundamentals for consumers and businesses are still very good,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial, who said he had so far seen no effects from a rise in confirmed viral cases.
Consumer confidence has reached its highest level since the pandemic struck in March 2020, a key reason why retail sales remain solid as Americans shift their spending back to services — from restaurant meals and airline trips to entertainment events and shopping sprees. Businesses are also showing renewed faith in the economy, with orders for manufactured goods pointing to solid corporate investment.
Underpinning the recovery have been trillions in federal rescue money, ranging from stimulus checks to expanded unemployment benefits to small business aid to just-distributed child tax credit payments. And millions of affluent households have benefited from a vast increase in their wealth resulting from surging home equity and stock market gains.
The economy is also receiving substantial support from the Federal Reserve. On Wednesday, the Fed reaffirmed that it will maintain its key short-term interest rate at a record low near zero to keep short-term borrowing costs low. It will also continue to buy government-backed bonds to put downward pressure on long-term loan rates to encourage borrowing and spending.
The recovery, in fact, has been so rapid, with pent-up demand from consumers driving growth after a year of lockdowns, that one looming risk is a potential spike in inflation that could get out of control. Consumer prices jumped 5.4% in June from a year ago, the sharpest spike in 13 years and the fourth straight month of sizable price jumps.
Some economists have warned that by choosing not to begin withdrawing its extraordinary support for the economy, the Fed may end up responding too late and too aggressively to high inflation by quickly jacking up rates and perhaps causing another recession.
But at a news conference Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell underscored his belief that recent inflation readings reflect price spikes in a narrow range of categories — from used cars and airline tickets to hotel rooms and auto rentals — that have been distorted by temporary supply shortages related to the economy’s swift reopening. Those shortages involve items like furniture, appliances, clothing and computer chips, among others.
Magnifying the supply bottlenecks is a rise in viral cases at transportation ports in Asia that have caused some manufacturing plants to shut down. Those bottlenecks could, in turn, continue to obstruct the flow of goods to retailers in the United States.
A shortage of workers, too, has made it harder for restaurants, retailers and many other service-industry employers to fill jobs as consumer demand surges — even employers that have been raising wages. Despite the job market’s steady gains, unemployment, at 5.9%, is still well above the 3.5% rate that prevailed before the pandemic struck. And the economy remains 6.8 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic total.
Should the economy’s shortages persist well into the future, the economy would likely struggle to maintain its current robust pace of growth.
Location of earthquake off the Alaska Peninsula coast. (USGS map)
Much of the Gulf of Alaska coastline from the Aleutians to Kodiak to Prince William Sound were under a tsunami warning Wednesday night following a strong earthquake off the Alaska Peninsula.
The earthquake, with a preliminary magnitude of 8.2, according to the USGS, hit at 10:15 p.m. at a depth of 20 miles.
It triggered tsunami warnings from Samalga Pass in the Aleutians to Prince William Sound. A tsunami advisory was in effect for the rest of Alaska’s coastline, including Southeast Alaska and the western Aleutians.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage, and there were no reports of waves in communities in the region, including those where the projected tsunami times had passed.
A #Tsunami Warning is in effect for South AK & the AK Peninsula.
A #Tsunami Advisory is in effect for SE AK, South AK (Cape Fairweather to Hinchinbrook Entrance), and from Samalga Pass to Amchitka Pass, including Pribilof Islands.
For more information: https://t.co/z50GgCJ88l pic.twitter.com/2maZxRuqO5
A Tsunami Warning remains in effect. A Tsunami Advisory also remains in effect. pic.twitter.com/QLTiROkiri— NWS Anchorage (@NWSAnchorage) July 29, 2021
Tsunami sirens were sounding in several coastal communities, including Kodiak and Homer, where a stream of vehicles were leaving the Homer Spit. The earthquake was felt throughout the region.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough was advising residents of coastal communities south of Anchor Point to move to higher ground. The warning does not affect Anchorage.
Wednesday’s earthquake was Alaska’s largest since an 8.7 quake hit off the Aleutians in 1965. The 1965 Good Friday earthquake, which caused massive damage and loss of life across Southcentral Alaska, was 9.2, and the quake in November 2018, which caused widespread damage, was 7.1.
In Sand Point, Patrick Mayer, the superintendent of schools for the Aleutians East Borough, was sitting in his kitchen when the shaking started.
“It started to go and just didn’t stop,” he said. “It went on for a long time and there were several aftershocks, too. The pantry is empty all over the floor, the fridge is empty all over the floor.”
He went to the city school, located on high ground, as part of the local tsunami evacuation.
A similar situation took place in King Cove, where he estimated about 300 people had crowded into the school gymnasium. In Cold Bay, Michael Ashley said the ground “rolled for a pretty good amount of time,” but the shaking was less severe than the magnitude 7.8 earthquake almost exactly one year ago.
We have reviewed a M8.2 EQ 65 miles S of Perryville at 10:15 pm AKST. This event was felt throughout the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak. For more information and to submit DYFI reports, please go to https://t.co/eyDYAW4cKo— Alaska Earthquake Center (@AKearthquake) July 29, 2021July 29, 2021
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
This undated photo provided by Elizabeth Turner, Laurentian University, shows a field location in Northwest Territories, Canada. Canadian geologist Elizabeth Turner may have found the earliest fossil record of animal life on Earth in the area shown, according to a report published Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in the journal Nature. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Turner/Laurentian University via AP)
WASHINGTON — A Canadian geologist may have found the earliest fossil record of animal life on Earth, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Around a billion years ago, a region of northwest Canada now defined by steep mountains was a prehistoric marine environment where the remains of ancient sponges may be preserved in mineral sediment, the paper says.
Geologist Elizabeth Turner discovered the rocks in a remote region of the Northwest Territories accessible only by helicopter, where she has been excavating since the 1980s. Thin sections of rock contain three-dimensional structures that resemble modern sponge skeletons.
“I believe these are ancient sponges — only this type of organism has this type of network of organic filaments,” said Joachim Reitner, a geobiologist and expert in sponges at Germany’s University of Gottingen, who was not involved in the research.
The dating of adjacent rock layers indicates the samples are about 890 million years old, which would make them about 350 million years older than the oldest undisputed sponge fossils previously found.
“What’s most stunning is the timing,” said Paco Cardenas, an expert on sponges at Sweden’s Uppsala University, who was not involved in the research. “To have discovered sponge fossils from close to 900 million years ago will greatly improve our understanding of early animal evolution.”
Many scientists believe the first animal groups included soft sponges or sponge-like creatures that lack muscles and nerves but have other features of simple animals, including cells with differentiated functions and sperm.
To be sure, there’s very little scientific consensus or certainty about anything dating back a billion years ago, so other researchers will likely continue to vet and debate Turner’s findings.
“I think she’s got a pretty strong case. I think this is very worthy of publishing — it puts the evidence out there for other people to consider,” said David Bottjer, a paleobiologist at University of Southern California, who was not involved in the research.
Scientists believe life on Earth emerged around 3.7 billion years ago. The earliest animals appeared much later, but exactly when is still debated.
Until now, the oldest undisputed fossil sponges date to around 540 million years ago, an era called the Cambrian period.
But scientists using a line of reasoning called the molecular clock — where they analyze the rate of genetic mutations to backdate when two species likely diverged — say that available evidence points to sponges emerging much earlier, around a billion years ago.
Yet no supporting physical evidence has yet been found until now.
“This would be the first time that a sponge fossil has been found from before the Cambrian, and not only before, but way before — that’s what’s most exciting,” said Uppsala University’s Cardenas, adding that the research seems to confirm the molecular clock estimates.
Fossil evidence is scant before the Cambrian period when animals first developed hard skeletons, exoskeletons and shells, which are more likely to be preserved.
“Those kinds of fossils belong to more complicated animals — obviously there has to be a back history” of simpler animals like sponges emerging first, said the paper’s author Turner, who is based at Laurentian University in Ontario.
The dating of 890 million years ago is significant because, if the sponge’s identification is confirmed, it shows that the first animals evolved before a time when oxygen in the atmosphere and ocean reached a level scientists once thought was necessary for animal life. Yet recent research shows that some sponges can survive with very little oxygen.
“Everything on Earth has an ancestor. It’s always been predicted that the first evidence of animal life would be small and cryptic, a very subtle clue,” said Roger Summons, an MIT geobiologist who was not involved in the research.
Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz returns to euphoric Philippines after winning nation’s 1st Olympic gold medal
Hidilyn Diaz of Philippines celebrates as she competes and sets new world record and won the gold medal in the women's 55kg weightlifting event, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Monday, July 26, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) (Luca Bruno/)
MANILA, Philippines — The rewards, the citations and the nationwide parties are going to have to wait, for a week or so anyway.
Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, fresh from winning her country’s first Olympic gold medal in nearly a century at the Tokyo Games, arrived in Manila on Wednesday and was whisked off to a hotel for seven days of quarantine.
“Gold at last!” read a banner at the airport as military personnel waved Philippine flags and applauded when Diaz landed. But not even her historic medal can eclipse coronavirus protocols in a country grappling with continuing virus outbreaks and an economic crisis.
The 30-year-old Diaz, who won gold in the women’s 55-kilogram category on Monday in her fourth Olympic appearance, will be able to collect her rewards once she is released from quarantine.
Philippine officials and business tycoons have offered more than 40 million pesos ($800,000) in cash. Others have pledged a residential condominium unit in an upscale district, a vacation house in a resort city south of Manila, a new van and free gasoline, as well as free commercial flights for life.
President Rodrigo Duterte and his Cabinet members congratulated Diaz by video.
The Philippines has the second-largest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia. Lockdowns and quarantines caused the economy to plummet last year in the country’s worst post-war recession.
The Philippines has competed at every edition of the Summer Olympics since 1924 — except for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games — and has won three silver and seven bronze medals. Diaz won a silver medal in 2016, her country’s first appearance on an Olympic podium in 20 years.
Ahead of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, travel restrictions forced Diaz to undergo training for more than a year in Malaysia. But with her triumph, Diaz earned a place in the country’s “pantheon of legendary athletes,” according to a Philippine Senate citation. She joins the ranks of a handful of Filipino sports celebrities who have earned international acclaim, led by boxer Manny Pacquiao, now a senator and a possible presidential contender in next year’s elections.
Philippine TV networks have run tributes on Diaz, focusing on how she overcame poverty in her southern hometown of Zamboanga through sports. The fifth of six children of a motorcycle taxi driver, she had to carry containers of water for blocks to her house and haul vegetables to be sold in a public market, helping develop her muscles.
People saw her potential for weightlifting early but she was discouraged by others who told her the sport was reserved for men and that they could prevent her from getting pregnant.
But she persisted and won a local weightlifting competition, which served as her springboard to the Olympics.
Military chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said Wednesday that Diaz, who is in the air force, has been promoted to the rank of staff sergeant “for bringing pride and glory to our country.”
Duterte, Roman Catholic church leaders, top business executives, movie celebrities and ordinary Filipinos have expressed gratitude and congratulations. Aside from well wishes, a windfall of financial rewards await. Philippine officials and business tycoons have pledged more than 40 million pesos ($800,000) in cash. Others have pledged a residential condominium unit in an upscale district, a vacation house in a resort city south of Manila, a new van and free gasoline, as well as free commercial flights for life.
China's Chen Keyi tackles Naya Tapper of the United States in their women's rugby sevens match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama) (Shuji Kajiyama/)
After they defeated China 28-14 to win their first rugby sevens match at the Tokyo Olympics, Alev Kelter and her teammates formed a circle, held hands and took two deep breaths in unison.
By then the Americans were breathing easy. Earlier, not so much. China struck first for an early lead and kept the United States off the scoreboard for the first five minutes of the 14-minute match Wednesday at Tokyo Stadium.
“It wasn’t easy at all, so it just showed us that every team is going to bring it and don’t doubt any team,” team member Ilona Maher told reporters after the match. “That was a little wake up call we needed, to play when it’s time to go. Every team is going to bring it.”
Down 7-0, Kelter and her teammates reeled off 28 straight points, 21 of them in the second half. China added a try with time running out for the 14-point difference.
Kelter, a 30-year-old from Eagle River, made an impact for the Americans with a punishing first-half tackle, a conversion kick and a gritty second-half run through a couple of defenders that set up the go-ahead try.
The game was the first of three pool-play games for the Americans. They return to Tokyo Stadium Thursday at 1 a.m. ADT for a match against Japan and again at 5:30 p.m. ADT for a match against Australia.
The 12-team tournament has three pools, each with four teams. The top eight will advance to the quarterfinals early Friday morning.
China jumped to a 7-0 lead. The Americans knotted the score with a try by Kris Thomas that came after Kelter leveled a Chinese ball-carrier. It was 7-7 at the half.
The U.S. took the lead for good, 14-7, on Kristi Kirshe’s try about two minutes into the second half. Kelter got the ball past midfield with a physical run through a couple of Chinese defenders and then passed to Kirshe.
The Americans stretched their lead to 28-7 with another try by Kirshe and one by Kayla Canett.
Kelter, a Chugiak High graduate, is one of two players back from the team that played at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the U.S. finished fifth.
A 23-year-old man was indicted Tuesday on a charge of manslaughter for a crash that killed an Anchorage woman in April.
A warrant was issued Tuesday by the Superior Court for Vincent Henry Friday’s arrest, the state Department of Law said in an online statement.
Traffic cameras captured the crash on the morning of April 25, according to charges filed in the case. In the footage, Friday’s 2015 Chevy Malibu was seen heading southbound on Gambell Street when he failed to negotiate the turn and hit the curb before crossing the median and striking a northbound 2019 Honda HRV driven by 23-year-old Shelbey Skondovitch, the charges said. Skondovitch had been driving in the far left lane on Ingra Street near where the road splits with Gambell Street, the charges said.
Friday’s vehicle was going about 51 to 53 mph when he struck Skondovitch head on, the charges said. She died at the scene, police said.
When officers arrived in the area, they found several beer bottle caps and an empty can of Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage, inside Friday’s car, the charges said. He told police he’d drank in the early hours of the morning and officers noticed signs of impairment from Friday, the charges said.
Friday was brought to a hospital, police said. He was indicted Tuesday on charges of manslaughter, driving under the influence and violating conditions of a release.
Daishen Nix drew a crowd at West High in January 2020 when his Las Vegas high school team played in the Alaska Airlines Classic. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2020) (Marc Lester/)
No need for last names when discussing the holy trinity of Alaska men’s basketball: Trajan, Carlos and Mario.
They are the three players who ascended to the NBA after starring in Division I basketball — Trajan Langdon and Carlos Boozer at Duke, Mario Chalmers at Kansas.
No Alaskan has been drafted since Chalmers in 2008. But with two players who got their start on Anchorage playgrounds poised to be picked in Thursday’s NBA draft, now might be a good time to start talking about Daishen and JT.
Daishen Nix, a 6-foot-5 point guard who opted for the G League instead of college last year. Thor is a 6-9 power forward who shined during his freshman season at Auburn and then declared for the draft.
They played against each other as youngsters and they both left Anchorage at age 14 to pursue NBA dreams.
Nix moved to Las Vegas with his family after he graduated from Mears Middle School — his mom, Mina Tupuola, said the move was made in part to give her son more basketball opportunities — and Thor left after his freshman year at West High to play at a prep school in West Virginia.
“I’ve played against Daishen Nix all my life. It would be crazy to play against him in the NBA,” Thor said in an interview with hoopshype.com.
Both men appear on just about every mock draft out there, with Thor projected by many to go early in the second round and Nix projected to go midway through the second round. Sixty players will be drafted, 30 in the first round and 30 in the second around.
Thor’s early education meant learning about the three guys from Alaska who made it big, and wondering if what they achieved was possible for kids like him and Nix.
“... When I was in middle school, I would think about players like Mario Chalmers, Trajan Langdon and Carlos Boozer (who grew up in Alaska), and think, ‘Can I actually get there with them?’ ‘‘ Thor told USA Today’s The Rookie Wire. “It is crazy to think me and him can actually get there.”
JT Thor left Alaska after one season of JV basketball at West High. Now he’s 18 and waiting to be picked in the NBA draft.
JT Thor, who left Anchorage at 14 to chase his basketball dream, handles the ball for Auburn in a January game against Missouri. Thor is expected to be picked in Thursday's NBA draft. (Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics) (Shanna Lockwood/)
JT Thor turns 19 years old next month. He’s one of the youngest players in this year’s NBA Draft class, but he’s always been ahead of the curve.
He’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his dream, whether it meant graduating from high school a year early to jump-start his college career or leaving Anchorage to live on his own at 14 so he could sharpen his game.
“I don’t want to live life knowing I could’ve gone harder,” Thor said.
Thor stands 6-foot-9, weighs 210 pounds and has an enormous 7-foot-3 wingspan. He spent last season as a freshman at Auburn University, and some projections make him a late first-round pick. Sixty players will be drafted, 30 in each of two rounds.
Before Thor could drive a car, he left his family in Anchorage and moved 4,000 miles to Huntington, West Virginia, to chase his dream of playing basketball and providing for his family.
Living on his own in a dorm room, Thor was homesick a lot that first year, but he also knew the level of competition he faced back home wasn’t going to get him where he wanted to go. He had made a sacrifice — not unlike the sacrifice his mother made 23 years earlier when she left Sudan, a nation ravaged by war at the time, and brought her family to the United States to seek a new opportunity.
She left everything behind and settled in Nebraska, where Thor was born, before moving to Alaska. After several years in Anchorage, the family moved to Atlanta.
JT Thor, who is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, dunks against Florida in a February game at Auburn University. (Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics) (Shanna Lockwood/)
“JT and his family, they are immigrants who came to this country for a better life,” Auburn University basketball coach Bruce Pearl said. “But the No. 1 thing was the work ethic. They followed the work. Whether it was Nebraska or Alaska or Seattle, they followed the work. Whether it was in the poultry industry or the high-tech industry, they followed the work.”
Thor grew up seeing that work ethic. It was instilled in him at an early age and has stayed with him every step of the way — from Anchorage to West Virginia to Atlanta and most recently to Auburn, where he averaged 9.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as a freshman.
“That’s what JT is all about,” said Thor’s brother, Jal Rial of Atlanta. “Him seeing how hard our mom worked. She’s never home. She’s working two, three jobs and still not seeing us have the best of everything. That’s what motivated him. That’s probably still what motivates him today. What he wasn’t good at, he took the hours to really do. Whether it was ball-handling, whether it was lifting weights, all that good stuff. I kind of put it all on my mom.”
Thor spent his freshman year of high school at West High, where he was on the junior varsity team. The next year he was at West Virginia’s Huntington Prep playing alongside numerous Division I prospects.
He realized he was no longer the best player on the court. So what did he do? He worked. He spent all his time in the gym or in the weight room, and if he wasn’t playing basketball, he was watching it, taking in everything he could.
When Thor got to Auburn last year, he didn’t jump right in and dominate. He earned a starting job out of the gate, but it took him a couple of games to adjust to the speed of the game, the different nuances, the new plays.
Again, Thor stayed the course. He never stopped working.
A year ago, Thor wasn’t necessarily on the radar of NBA teams. His combination of size and skill and athleticism was rare, but he was still raw.
If there were any doubts about whether or not he could succeed at the next level, he all but erased those in February with his performance on the road at Kentucky.
Playing in one of the most storied venues in basketball against one of the marquee programs in college basketball, Thor put on a show. He was 8 of 11 from the field, including 5 of 6 from deep, and with 24 points and nine rebounds, he became the only freshman in the last decade to post that stat line in a road game at Rupp Arena.
“That’s why he’s one of my best NBA prospects because he has the ability to elevate his game,” Pearl said after the game. “You have 24 and nine as a freshman in Rupp? That’s pretty good.”
What Thor displayed in that game — the talent, the versatility, the confidence — it’s what has him shooting up teams’ draft boards. He’s worked out for numerous NBA teams over the last month and with every workout, his stock seems to rise.
“He’s got size, a real high-flyer,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said earlier this week. “The fact that he’s so athletic, he can get up and down the floor, he can guard, he can rebound, and he can even rebound the ball and take it himself — kind of rip and run. There is some upside there with him at the next level.”
Thor has worked hard for the chance to go pro, and he thinks he’s ready.
“If you ask me,” he said after a recent workout, “I think I’m a first-round talent.”
House Republicans refuse to follow new mask mandate, leading Pelosi to call McCarthy a ‘moron’ for his comments
WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Wednesday angrily criticized a new order from the Capitol Hill physician to wear masks inside the Capitol due to the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, leading Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy a “moron” over his argument that the decision was not based on science.
Many House Republicans refused to wear masks on the House floor during a series of morning votes, before they called for the chamber to adjourn as GOP members rebuffed attempts by staff to get them to put on a mask.
“This is some serious nanny-state stuff that will only breed resentment. No kidding,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said on the floor, complaining that the House should be focusing on border security. He added: “This institution is a sham. We should adjourn and shut the place down.”
When Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., entered the chamber, a Democratic staff member handed her a mask. Boebert grabbed it and dropped it on the floor, according to people familiar with the interaction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. The congresswoman’s office said she slid it back across the table to the staffer.
Boebert is among the most outspoken Republicans against mask requirements, arguing that they are a sign of authoritarianism rather than an attempt to prevent the spread of a disease that has killed more than 611,000 Americans.
“We might as well start calling this a Perma-demic,” she tweeted Wednesday morning. “Permanent masking. Permanent state of emergency. Permanent control. This will go on until the American people just say enough is enough. The tyrants aren’t giving this up!”
In an email sent late Tuesday to all offices in Congress, the Office of Attending Physician, Brian Monahan, reinstituted the mask mandate in all House office buildings, meeting areas and the chamber to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among members and staff.
While he suggested that “well-fitted, medical-grade filtration” masks be worn in the Senate, Monahan stressed the immediate requirement of use on the House side of the Capitol given the “collection of individuals traveling weekly from various risks.” Masks, however, are not required when an individual is alone inside a room or outside.
Many Republicans have declined to say whether they have been vaccinated, although they represent areas with the biggest spikes in infections.
The order came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new recommendations for mask use Tuesday, urging all vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask indoors if they live in areas with high spread of the delta variant.
Democrats shot back at Republican complaints, noting that the Capitol physician was following the advice of public health officials.
“We always just follow the guidance of the Capitol physician. There is no discussion about should we do it, should we not for one reason or another,” Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters. “It’s the decision of the Capitol physician, who is following the guidance of the CDC about the masks.”
McCarthy, R-Calif., joined Republicans in deriding the new mask mandate despite concerns from public health officials that the delta variant poses a renewed threat to the public, particularly because of the refusal of many people in areas represented by Republicans to get vaccinated.
“Make no mistake - The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state,” McCarthy tweeted shortly after Monahan sent his email Tuesday night.
Asked Wednesday morning by NBC News about McCarthy’s comment, Pelosi responded: “He’s such a moron.”
She declined to repeat that barbed criticism later at a news conference but stood by her assessment of the House minority leader’s comments.
“To say that wearing a mask is not based on science, I think is not wise,” she said. “And that was my comment. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
McCarthy said he wanted more answers from Pelosi about the guidance.
“Well, she’s so brilliant. Can she tell me where the science in the building changes between the House and the Senate?” McCarthy asked Wednesday, listing several other questions he had about the new CDC guidance. “So a lot of questions. If she knows so much science, explain to me where the science changes in the rotunda.”
Later in the day, Republicans met with Monahan to voice their concerns about his decision. In the meeting, which lasted about one hour, numerous members asked the Capitol physician why he would institute a mandate if the District of Columbia has a lower transmission rate than most cities. Monahan responded that the Capitol complex should be seen as a different entity given how many people who travel to and from different parts of the country interact with one another, according to two Republican aides in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting.
Republicans left the meeting saying they were unconvinced by Monahan’s arguments for wearing a mask. Many cited a claim made by Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, that the CDC based its new guidance on a study based in India that failed a peer-review process. But the CDC has not yet released the specific data it relied on to come to its decision, making it unclear how Republicans would know what data was used for the guidance or why they expressed certitude that the decision was based on a study related to India.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has said the agency reviewed outbreak investigations in the United States as part of its evaluation.
During a floor speech Wednesday afternoon, McCarthy claimed that over 85% of Congress has been fully vaccinated, a statistic that has not been confirmed by the Office of Attending Physician. A survey of all 535 members of Congress by CNN found that in May, 100 percent of Democrats from both chambers were fully vaccinated, while 44.8 percent of House Republicans and 92% of Republican senators said the same. Democrats say the lag in vaccinations among conservatives has been holding them back in easing restrictions on Capitol Hill.
Pressed on whether he would push more of his members to get vaccinated in an effort to end the new mask mandate, McCarthy said his conference is already fully vaccinated.
About two dozen Republicans continued to refuse following the mask mandate on the House floor throughout the day Wednesday and risked a fine, including a number of freshmen who sat together. Like a handful of other Republicans, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., walked onto the floor without a mask but put one on when Rep. Greg Pence, R-Ind., reminded him that “you got to wear a mask.”
Republicans have refused to follow the mask guidance in the past, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and other fervent pro-Trump Republicans taking pictures of themselves maskless on the House floor and incurring fines. Greene has likened the push to get people vaccinated to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. She later apologized for those comments after visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, but she has continued to compare Democrats to the Nazis.
Greene, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Pelosi over their fines, arguing that they violate the 27th Amendment since the penalty is taken from their paychecks.
Some Republicans have increased their calls for supporters to get vaccinated amid the spread of the delta variant, which is spreading at a higher rate in some GOP-led states. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., last week urged Americans “to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice” about not getting vaccinated. But he expressed skepticism about masking up in the Senate, noting that the “environment right here is pretty safe.”
McConnell, who was vaccinated in December and has been promoting vaccinations in public remarks ever since, plans to run 60-second radio ads on more than 100 Kentucky radio stations in coming days to promote the vaccine with money from his reelection campaign, McConnell spokesman Doug Andres tweeted Wednesday.
“I’m glad that he’s doing those ads - long overdue,” Pelosi said. “This was so self-evident and so obvious.”
The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
A Kotzebue couple has been charged with more than two dozen felonies for allegedly severely abusing children in their care over a four-year period.
On July 22, a grand jury indicted Mandy Hill, 44, and Abraham Lambert, 35, with 25 counts of assault and endangering child welfare.
The charging document alleges that the couple abused multiple children in their care between 2015 and 2019, withholding food, stomping on a child, choking a child and stabbing a child with scissors, among other severe abuse. The couple caused “serious physical injury,” to at least one of the children, the charges say. One child was starved to the point it “caused protracted impairment” to their health, the documents allege.
The Alaska Bureau of Investigation began looking into allegations against the couple in September 2019 after receiving a report of abuse, the Alaska State Troopers said in a release. The children involved are biological kids of Lambert but not Hill, prosecutor Bailey Woolfstead said at a bail hearing.
Both Hill and Lambert had worked around children.
In 2019, interviewed about her involvement in a memorial for Ashley Johnson Barr, a young Kotzebue girl found murdered, Hill told the Daily News and ProPublica that she’d worked with children in Kotzebue for 16 years. Her positions had included school secretary, she said at the time.
Lambert has worked in maintenance for the Northwest Arctic Borough School Department and coached the Kotzebue High School basketball team, according to a report from KOTZ Radio.
At the bail hearing, Lambert said he had most recently been working as a night watchman and Hill said she’d been working for the city of Kotzebue.
Both were arraigned on July 23 and remain in a Nome jail on bail set at $100,000.
An attorney for Hill didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
A sign encourages COVID-19 safety precautions on Tuesday, July 20, 2021 in Kotzebue. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)
Alaska’s latest COVID-19 surge accelerated this week as state health officials reported 376 new cases for Tuesday alone, the highest single-day tally since early January before the vaccine was widely available.
The state reported 526 new infections total for Monday and Tuesday including 55 nonresident cases, another relatively high number, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard. It wasn’t immediately clear what communities or industries those cases involve.
In addition to 379 Alaskans who have died with the virus, a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta resident in their 80s died due to complications of COVID-19 on Monday, according to the Yukon-Kuskokim Health Corp.
Hospitalizations around the state, especially in Anchorage, are also at levels not seen since the winter. The state was reporting 94 people with COVID-19 hospitalized as of Wednesday.
The highly contagious delta variant first identified in Alaska in May is fueling a “rapid acceleration phase” right now, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said in a briefing Wednesday. “Most of this is driven by people who are unvaccinated.”
Multiple communities statewide are seeing sharp rises in cases. More than half of the newly reported cases were in the Anchorage area.
Officials in the City and Borough of Juneau reported 29 new resident cases over two days. The assembly was meeting Wednesday night to decide whether to extend emergency declaration. An outbreak in Sitka that has sent over a dozen people to the local hospital continued to grow, with 28 cases reported over Monday and Tuesday.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim region also reported 28 cases over two days, plus a new hospitalization.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new recommendations Monday urging people in areas where coronavirus transmission is classified as substantial or high to wear masks when they are indoors in public places.
Most regions of Alaska are at the highest alert level.
“There have been changes in the virus, which have resulted in changes in the science, which have resulted in changes in the messaging from the CDC and from us,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said during a briefing Wednesday.
Zink said fully vaccinated Alaskans with a known close contact that tested positive for the virus should consider getting tested, as should anyone who is experiencing any symptoms of the virus, regardless of vaccination status.
Health officials continue to encourage Alaskans to get vaccinated, noting that the vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing severe illness, including from the more contagious variants.
By Wednesday, almost 48% of all Alaskans had received one dose, and just over 43% were fully vaccinated. The national average of the total U.S. population that’s fully vaccinated is 50%.
People vaccinated against the virus are generally protected against more severe illness but can spread the new variant, state health officials say. The viral load, or amount of virus in an infected person’s nose or mouth, is about the same whether they’re vaccinated or not, McLaughlin said.
The delta variant also appears to incubate more quickly: The interval between exposure and the first positive test is just shy of four days rather than six, he said.
Both findings put new importance on getting tested as soon as symptoms appear, officials say.
A geographic breakdown of the newly reported cases was not immediately available.
Of all the coronavirus tests completed in the state over the last week, 5.5% came back positive. Anything over 5% can indicate a need for broader testing.
That’s higher than at any point in the pandemic except last November, Zink said.
Note: The health department now updates its coronavirus dashboard on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays excluding holidays.
Kikkan Randall speaks to a crowd gathered in Town Square for a celebration after Randall's triumph in cross-country skiing at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)
Kikkan Randall, Alaska’s most decorated cross-country skier, is taking charge of the club that helped her become a skier.
Randall, a 2018 Olympic gold medalist, is the new executive director of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. The position has been vacant for a couple of years, NSAA spokesman Josh Niva said.
Randall participated in the ski club’s Junior Nordic program and grew up racing in events organized by the club.
“We are thrilled to have Kikkan return home to Alaska,” NSAA board president Joey Caterinichio said in a statement released by the club. “We couldn’t ask for a better role model for our community or leader for NSAA.”
Randall, 38, retired from the U.S. Ski Team after the 2018 Winter Olympics. She was an International Olympic Committee athlete representative until June, and she has been living in British Columbia for the last few years.
Caterinichio said Randall is moving back to Anchorage with her son, Breck, who is about to start kindergarten.
“I can’t wait to reconnect with the community and increase the joy of and access to Nordic skiing and our trail system for generations to come,” Randall said in a statement from the ski club.
Portage Glacier, seen from the M/V Ptarmigan on Portage Lake Saturday, June 13, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)
By the time we’re in our 50s, the Arctic will see ice-free summers. We may be seeing our kids off to college, settled into our careers, beginning to need reading glasses for the first time. And the climate in which we live will be vastly different than the climate lived in by our parents, grandparents and our ancestors. Climate change isn’t some hypothetical boogeyman to us — it’s our future and, as we see increasingly intense wildfire seasons, ocean acidification, and warming winters, our present.
Alaska Native peoples, as the first stewards of this land, were some of the first to notice the effects of climate change on our most valuable resources. We see the impact on whales, seals, and polar bears across the North Slope, forests throughout the Interior, and salmon runs throughout the coastal south. In every corner of Alaska, it’s evident that coastal erosion causes entire villages to relocate, greenhouse gases acidify oceans and threaten fish stock collapses, and Arctic warming is three times faster than the global average. Alaskan ways of life, as well as industries from seafood to tourism, stand to suffer. Even though not all our ancestors lived on these lands, our descendants might — and we owe it to them and ourselves to ensure this incredible place we all call home survives to see them.
A problem of this scale requires meaningful solutions, but we can only move to the future by not forgetting the past. This means actively valuing knowledge from frontline Indigenous communities as we build solutions to environmental change. Over thousands of years, Alaska Native peoples have developed and passed down intergenerational knowledge through their languages, cultural practices and lived observations of the North. While Indigenous communities are often among those most affected each day by the changing climate, they also hold the knowledge that can help address and mitigate some of our world’s most pressing problems. Current climate disruption is rooted in inequality, with rural communities and marginalized peoples bearing the brunt of its effects. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Working for change — in climate policy, inequality, or broader injustices — doesn’t always mean marching or writing letters. What can be just as powerful is building community to share our stories — stories that connect us to the lands we share. Those communal stories can lead to collective change, with connection among local communities enabling big shifts in meaningful policy. While resiliency can be achieved through individual actions to a certain extent, that can only get us so far, and we must pursue state-level and national policies at the same time.
As individuals, as a state, and as a country — there are also opportunities here. We have the chance to be really intentional in our community-based solutions, to develop an infrastructure growth system less reliant on extraction, and to embrace problems instead of rejecting them simply because we lack an easy solution. Public perception is shifting, and the world is pushing for a clean, modern energy system. Alaska has the potential to lead the world in that shift, but only if we come together, no matter our political identities, because while these actions may be political, they are not ideological.
When it comes to climate change, innovation and adaptation go hand in hand, and we need our political leaders to become visionaries alongside us. This means elected leaders on both sides of the aisle must act together with Alaskan communities, tribal leaders and our most marginalized neighbors in order to have any chance of effectively tackling climate change. There will be no simple or quick technical solution to this — it will require a cultural shift in order to reach solutions, and a cultural shift won’t come smoothly with only half of the government on board. In order to unleash the powers of prosperity, ingenuity, and progress, we need buy-in from actors across the political landscape — because we all have something to lose.
As young Alaskans and aspiring leaders in this place we call home, we ask you to join us in this effort to raise awareness and push for bipartisan, cross-class and cross-cultural climate solutions for our sake as well as the future generations’.
The co-authors recently participated in an online dialogue as part of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska’s Climate Opportunities Assessment — an ongoing effort in which Alaskan leaders and stakeholder groups are engaging on climate, the opportunities that arise due to climate, bipartisan solutions, and the long-term health of the Last Frontier. Watch the dialogue between the co-authors on the Nature Conservancy’s website.
Eben Hopson is the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation Science lead logistics media creator, a former Arctic Youth Ambassador, and a traditional foods provider and whaler from Utqiaģvik. Carly Dennis currently studies Politics at Pitzer College in Los Angeles, works for the Sitka Conservation Society, and is grateful for growing up on Dena’ina lands in Eagle River. Michaela Stith is the debut author of a travel memoir entitled “Welp: Climate Change and Arctic Identities, as well as the coordinator for Polar Points and Polar Perspectives, two publications of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute. Nathan Baring is a lifelong Alaskan and climate advocate, dedicated to a future career diversifying the state’s economy for the vitality of Alaska’s next generation. A graduate of West Valley High School, Nathan resides in Fairbanks and attends college in Minnesota.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.