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Detective: Brothers recounted how Jussie Smollet staged hoax

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 10:13

Actor Jussie Smollett, center, arrives Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for day two of his trial in Chicago. Smollett is accused of lying to police when he reported he was the victim of a racist, anti-gay attack in downtown Chicago nearly three years ago, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast/)

CHICAGO — Two brothers arrested for an alleged attack on Jussie Smollett told Chicago police how the ex-“Empire” actor orchestrated the hoax, telling them via text message to meet him “on the low,” paying for supplies and holding a “dry run” in downtown Chicago, the lead investigator testified Tuesday.

Taking the stand as prosecutors began their case against Smollett, former Chicago police detective Michael Theis said he initially viewed the actor as a victim of a homophobic and racist attack and that police “absolutely” didn’t rush to judgment as Smollett’s defense attorney alleged during opening statements Monday.

Theis said roughly two dozen detectives clocked some 3,000 hours on what they thought was a “horrible hate crime” in January 2019. He said they were excited when they were able to track the movements of two suspected attackers using surveillance video and cellphone and rideshare records.

“The crime was a hate crime, a horrible hate crime,” Theis said, noting Smollett reported that his attackers put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him. He said the case had become national and international news and that “everybody from the mayor on down wanted to know what happened,” a reference to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Smollett is charged with felony disorderly conduct for making what prosecutors say was a false police report about the alleged attack. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said if Smollett is convicted it’s likely he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.

After police arrested Abimbola and Olabingo Osundairo — brothers who also worked on the “Empire” set — as they returned to Chicago from Nigeria, the men said Smollett wanted to stage the attack because he was unhappy about how the TV studio handled hate mail the actor had received, Theis said. He said investigators checked out the brothers’ account, including that the actor picked them up days before the attack and drove them around the area of downtown where he lived and talked about what would happen, and corroborated their version of events using GPS, cellphone records and video evidence. Police found no instance where they concluded the men were lying, he added.

“At the end of the investigation, we determined that the alleged hate crime was actually a staged event,” Theis said, and the Osundairo brothers were released.

Defense attorney Nenye Uche said during opening statements late Monday that the brothers attacked Smollett because they didn’t like him and that a $3,500 check the actor paid them was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video. Uche also suggested that a third attacker was involved and told jurors there was not a “shred” of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.

“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Uche said.

Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Smollett’s brother said it has been “incredibly painful” for the family to watch Smollett be accused of something he “did not do.”

“We’re confident in his legal team, and we look forward to people hearing the actual facts of this case,” Jojo Smollett said.

Special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors Monday that Smollett recruited the brothers to help him carry out a fake attack because he believed the television studio didn’t take the hate mail seriously. Smollett then reported the alleged attack to Chicago police. He said he was attacked by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, inflaming political divisions nationwide.

“When he reported the fake hate crime, that was a real crime,” Webb said.

Webb said the letter included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and “MAGA,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan. Webb said police have not determined who wrote that letter.

However, Uche countered that Smollett turned down extra security when the studio offered it.

Webb said Smollett then “devised this fake crime,” holding a “dress rehearsal” with the brothers, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA.” Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and “a rope to make it look like a hate crime,” Webb told jurors. The brothers used a $100 bill that Smollett gave them to buy the supplies, Webb said.

He said Smollett wanted the hoax attack to be captured on surveillance video, but that the camera he thought would record it was pointed in the wrong direction. He also said the original plan called for the men to throw gasoline on Smollett but that they opted for bleach because it would be safer.

Whether Smollett, who is Black and gay, will testify remains an open question. But the siblings will take the witness stand.

Uche portrayed the brothers as unreliable, saying their story has changed while Smollett’s has not, and that when police searched their home they found heroin and guns.

“They are going to lie to your face,” Uche told the jury.

Uche also said evidence “will show a tremendous rush to judgment by various police officials,” and he said prosecutors’ claim about paying for a fake attack by check doesn’t make sense.

“They want you to believe Jussie was stupid enough to pay for a hoax with a check but was smart enough to pay (for supplies) with a $100 bill,” he said.

As for Uche’s suggestion that another attacker may have been involved, buried in nearly 500 pages of Chicago Police Department reports is a statement from an area resident who says she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night. She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”

Her comments could back up Smollett’s contention that his attackers draped a makeshift noose around his neck. Further, if she testifies that the man was white, it would support Smollett’s statements — widely ridiculed because the brothers are Black — that he saw pale or white skin around the eyes of one of his masked attackers.

The 12 jurors plus two alternates who were sworn in late Monday are expected to be shown surveillance video from more than four dozen cameras that police reviewed to trace the brothers’ movements before and after the reported attack, as well as a video showing the brothers purchasing supplies hours earlier.

Webb told jurors that prosecutors have hundreds of hours of video, and a still shot from a camera near Smollett’s condo that shows him walking up stairs after the alleged attack, with a clothesline around his neck and still carrying the sandwich he bought that evening.

Ex-Trump aide Meadows cooperating with House Jan. 6 panel

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 10:09

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (Patrick Semansky/)

WASHINGTON — Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, is cooperating with a House panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, putting off for now the panel’s threat to hold him in contempt, the committee’s chairman said Tuesday.

But the panel “will continue to assess his degree of compliance,” Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson said in a statement.

The agreement comes after two months of negotiations between Meadows and the committee and after the Justice Department indicted longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon for defying a subpoena.

Thompson said Meadows has produced records and will soon appear for an initial deposition.

“The Select Committee expects all witnesses, including Mr. Meadows, to provide all information requested and that the Select Committee is lawfully entitled to receive,” Thompson said.

Meadows’ lawyer, George Terwilliger, said he was continuing to work with the committee and its staff on a “potential accommodation” that would not require Meadows to waive executive privilege nor “forfeit the long-standing position that senior White House aides cannot be compelled to testify before Congress,” as Trump has argued.

“We appreciate the Select Committee’s openness to receiving voluntary responses on non-privileged topics,” Terwilliger said in a statement.

The tentative agreement with Meadows highlights the committee’s efforts to balance its need for information about Trump’s role in the violent insurrection with the former president’s assertions — including in an ongoing court case — that Congress cannot obtain information about his private conversations with top aides at the time.

While the committee has rejected Trump’s arguments and President Joe Biden has waived the privilege as the current executive, the panel wants to move quickly and avoid lengthy legal entanglements, if possible, that could delay the investigation.

Terwilliger had previously made clear that Meadows wouldn’t comply with the panel’s September subpoena because of Trump’s executive privilege claims. The committee rejected those arguments, especially after the White House said that Biden would waive any privilege over Meadows’ interview and as courts shot down Trump’s efforts to stop the committee from gathering information.

The House panel argued that it has questions for Meadows that do not directly involve conversations with Trump and couldn’t be blocked by privilege claims.

In the committee’s subpoena, Thompson cited Meadows’ efforts to overturn Trump’s 2020 election defeat and his pressure on state officials to push the former president’s false claims of widespread voter fraud.

The committee has scheduled a vote for Wednesday to pursue contempt charges against a separate witness, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, after he appeared for a deposition and declined to answer questions.

New York City OKs safe sites for drug use, aiming to curb overdoses

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 09:23

In this June 19, 2018, photo, a safe needle disposal container hangs in the bathroom of VOCAL-NY headquarters in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The first officially authorized safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics have been cleared to open in New York City in hopes of curbing overdoses, the mayor and health commissioner said Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Mary Altaffer/)

NEW YORK — The first officially authorized safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics have been cleared to open in New York City in hopes of curbing overdoses, the mayor and health commissioner said Tuesday.

The “overdose prevention centers” — commonly known as supervised injection sites — have been discussed for years in New York and some other U.S. cities and states. They already exist in Canada, Australia and Europe.

A few unofficial facilities have operated in the city for some time, allowing drug users a monitored place to partake.

Proponents say the facilities save lives by recognizing the reality of drug use and providing a place where users are watched for signs of overdoses, which claimed a record number of lives in the city and nation last year.

“I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Opponents, however, see the sites as a moral failure that essentially sanctions people harming themselves, and federal law bans operating a place for narcotics use.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last month to take up a Philadelphia group’s fight to open a safe injection site, which a divided federal appeals court had rejected. Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia had sued to stop it, citing a 1980s law that was aimed at shuttering locations where people used crack cocaine.

The U.S. Justice Department declined Tuesday to comment on New York City’s plan, which is placing supervised injection sites at existing syringe exchange programs. City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said they were open as of Tuesday.

FILE - In this July 3, 2018 file photo, Evelyn Milan, right, director of services at VOCAL-NY, prepares a package with sterile injecting equipment for a member at the organization's headquarters in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The first officially authorized safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics have been cleared to open in New York City in hopes of curbing overdoses, the mayor and health commissioner said Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) (Mary Altaffer/)

Supervised injection sites don’t sell drugs — users bring their own — but generally have monitors who watch for signs of overdose and can administer an antidote if needed. Chokshi suggested the facilities also would offer people referrals to drug treatment and other services and “bring people in from the streets, improving life for everyone involved.”

The U.S. has been contending for years with a boom in opioid use and deaths, fueled at first by increased prescribing in the 1990s and then by users turning to heroin and illicit fentanyl. Nearly 500,000 people nationwide died of opioid overdoses from 1999-2019, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the epidemic only worsened last year.

The CDC estimates there were more than 93,300 overdose deaths in 2020, up nearly 30% from the prior year’s number. In New York City, more than 2,060 people died of overdoses last year, the most since reporting began in 2000.

Looking at such statistics, cities from San Francisco to the college town of Ithaca, New York, have sought to open supervised injection sites. In July, Rhode Island became the first state to authorize them.

At the same time, some communities in the Seattle area and elsewhere have moved to ban them or discussed doing so.

Researchers have estimated that New York’s City’s proposal could prevent 130 deaths and save $7 million in health care expenses per year. Studies have also found that such facilities reduce HIV infections and 911 calls for overdoses, among other problems.

De Blasio, who is term-limited and leaving office next month, first asked the state for permission to authorize such sites in 2018.

At the time, city officials said they would need approval from the state Health Department and the district attorneys in the areas of the sites, among other officials.

An inquiry was sent Tuesday to the Health Department.

Some of New York City’s five district attorneys, including those in Brooklyn and Manhattan, are open to safe injection sites. But city special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan has expressed reservations, saying the facilities could risk legal problems, neighborhood tension and giving a misimpression that drug use is safe.

How bad will omicron be? Scientists won’t really know for months

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 09:13

Travelers arrive from international flights, including from South Africa, at Newark Liberty International Airport on Nov. 30, 2021, in Newark, New Jersey. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/TNS) (Spencer Platt/)

In a virus that has already killed 5.2 million people across the globe,  50 or so new mutations sound like a nightmare for humanity. But in the age-old battle between microbes and mankind,  that many genetic changes can turn the tide in any direction.

The next chapter of the pandemic could feature an omicron variant that spreads more readily than delta, blows past the defenses of a fully vaccinated immune system, and, like its coronavirus cousin that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, kills more than one-third of those who get it. That worst-case scenario would be an unfathomable disaster, said Dr. Bruce Walker, an immunologist and founding director of the Ragon Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

At the other end of a wide spectrum of possibilities, humanity could catch a break. Omicron could turn out to be a benign variant that spreads as fast as delta, is easily tamed by vaccine, and barely sickens its victims while leaving them with some immunity and little risk of developing “long COVID.” In that case, “nature may have created a natural vaccine,” Walker said.

But it will take weeks and months — and the work of a legion of scientists across the globe — to begin to know whether the omicron variant will change the course of the pandemic, and how.

In the waning days of 2021, microbiologists, immunologists and genetic scientists will offer key early insights into the variant’s penchant for spread and its ability to thwart treatments and vaccines in the confines of a lab.

It will take until early 2022 for contact-tracing teams and epidemiologists to flesh out the emerging picture with real-world data on whom omicron sickens, and the extent of their illnesses. Then mathematical modelers will plug in what’s known, fill in what’s not, and forecast a range of outcomes.

Until those bits and pieces of evidence begin to congeal, all we have are anecdotes, said infectious-disease specialist Dr. Joshua Schiffer of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle, “and the anecdotes are not helpful.”

The impact of the omicron variant “really needs to be assessed in a systematic way, looking at very large numbers of people,” Schiffer said. “This is going to take a bit of time to parse.”

Once again, the coming months will provide the public a lesson in both the science of uncertainty and the uncertainty of science. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the complete picture of omicron’s impact will emerge only in pieces.

Almost two years into a pandemic, scientists need to take the measure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus yet again. This time, they have a variant changed by an unprecedented number of mutations with worrisome histories. And they are assessing its strengths and weaknesses in a diverse population of potential hosts that ranges from uninfected-and-entirely-susceptible to vaccinated-and-boosted.

“There are so many moving parts,” said Dr. Jonathan Li, a Harvard infectious-disease specialist who directs the virology laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

It’s possible that omicron’s detection just happened to coincide with an isolated outbreak or superspreader event that prompted South African scientists to step up their collection of viral coronavirus specimens.

If omicron fails to gain more footholds as it lands in a wider range of places, its apparent role in driving South Africa’s latest outbreak may prove to have been a case of misattribution, Schiffer said.

Now that the omicron variant has been detected in several countries, its powers of transmission will be tested. If it’s found to be gaining ground, the next challenge will be for scientists to determine whether its increased spread is a function of some innate biological advantage that helps it spread from person to person and whether it’s specially equipped to evade the defenses of people who gained immunity from a vaccine or past infection.

A cursory check of omicron’s constellation of mutations raises deep concerns on both fronts.

“This variant seems to have some of the greatest hits when it comes to mutations,” Li said.

A good many of them are heavily concentrated along a string of genetic code that governs the shape and behavior of the spike protein, which the virus uses to latch onto human cells. Two mutations are at a site the virus uses to pry its way into those cells and hijack them for its own replication. And several more have been seen in other variants that are capable of evading antibodies made by the immune system in response to vaccines and previous infections.

That’s just the beginning.

“It’s not only the sheer number of mutations” that’s concerning, Li said. It’s how broadly across the virus’ genome they are scattered, and the range of functions they have the potential to change: “It just has a lot of mutations, all over the place.”

If omicron does establish itself outside southern Africa, scientists will need to gauge the relative contributions of the variant’s increased transmissibility and its ability to overpower a prepared immune system. Those findings will help guide the next steps, including a potential renewal of public health measures and the reformulation of mRNA vaccines and boosters specifically tailored to thwart the new variant. Vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna have said they could ready such vaccines in just a few months’ time.

With lab studies to guide their hunches, scientists should find the task of separating increased transmissibility from so-called immune escape simple enough. If new infections linked to omicron occur primarily in unvaccinated people, heightened transmissibility would seem to be at work. If new infections are just as likely to occur in people who’ve been vaccinated as in those who haven’t, scientists might conclude the variant has found its way around antibodies meant to block it.

But that seemingly straightforward analysis will be complicated by several factors. The COVID-19 vaccines available across the world have ranged widely in their ability to block reinfection.

The waning of vaccine-induced immunity has thrown another wild card into the mix. If a vaccinated person has a breakthrough case involving omicron, it won’t necessarily be clear whether the variant busted through the vaccine’s defenses or those defenses had already fallen on their own.

If it turns out that omicron isn’t readily stopped by vaccines, the world would find itself back at square one, said Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco.

But it may take more than that for the variant to wreak havoc, he added.

The Beta variant first seen in South Africa and the Gamma variant in Brazil both demonstrated the ability to evade vaccine defenses, Chiu said. But when they competed head-to-head against the highly transmissible delta variant in the United States and elsewhere, they didn’t gain much traction, Chiu said.

The lesson: Even if omicron is adept at overcoming vaccines, its impact will be blunted if it can’t unseat delta.

The final test of omicron’s powers to worsen the pandemic will be to understand whether it can make people sicker and cause more deaths than the variants that have come before. If it is both more transmissible and more virulent, the result would be disastrous, Walker said.

“That is the question that’s most important to answer,” he said.

But scientists will have to be patient. It typically takes at least a couple of weeks of illness for an infected person to become sick enough to be placed under intensive care or to die, Walker said. And scientists will have to meld clinical data with genetic sequencing to know whether omicron’s mutations are responsible.

Tulio de Oliveira, the South African geneticist who led the team that identified the omicron variant, said scientists across Africa will be working feverishly to collect that data over the next several weeks. He said he suspects that greater powers of both transmission and of immune escape have pushed omicron into the global spotlight. But he’s reluctant to make predictions about the variant’s ability to sicken.

“The next weeks are so crucial,” he said.

1 million pounds and counting: Recycling fishing nets and lines takes off in Alaska coastal communities

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 08:09

Fishing boats piled with nets take up much of the Cordova boat harbor on September 17, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN archive) (Marc Lester/)

Over 1 million pounds of old fishing nets and lines from Alaska have made it so far to recycling markets where they are remade into plastic pellets and fibers.

The milestone was reached with a recent haul of nets from Dutch Harbor and more are already adding to the total. Shipping vans filled with old gear collected at Haines were offloaded in Seattle last week and another container from Cordova is on its way.

Dutch Harbor was the first to sign on four years ago with Net Your Problem, a small Seattle-based company that jumpstarted fishing gear recycling in Alaska and facilitates its collection and transport, primarily to Europe. The Net Your Problem team has partnered with the city and the region’s Qawalangin tribe to sort through piles of old nets and lines dumped at the landfill and undertake continuing outreach to boat owners to encourage them to recycle their gear.

Similar partnerships have formed in other Alaska coastal communities to start or sustain a recycling effort.

At Cordova, the Copper River Watershed Project collected and prepped roughly 16,000 pounds of gillnets for recycling so far, said Net Your Problem founder Nicole Baker-Loke, a former Alaska fisheries observer and current research associate at Washington State University.

“Cordova is a jewel and we’ve been working with them for two years,” she said, adding that Grundens, maker of outer wear and foul-weather gear for mariners, is using regenerated nylon fabric from Cordova’s recycled fishing nets in several of its clothing lines.

The Haines Friends of Recycling group also has been collecting nets and lines for two years and has so far gone through the arduous task of making sure roughly 8,000 pounds were compliant for recycling.

Fishing gear is made with a mix of plastics and other materials that must be stripped off to be accepted by recyclers, Baker-Loke explained. It’s especially problematic with trawl nets that are collected for recycling at Kodiak.

“One of the things that has really changed for us this year is new regulations restricting the export of mixed plastic waste. It is now very difficult to send multiple types of plastic in a same container to a different country. The polyethylene, polyester, nylon, we need to separate them into their different components before we can ship them out for recycling,” she said. “We have recently signed a new lease for a bigger warehouse in Seattle that will allow us to process the nets there before we send them out.”

Homer is in Net Your Problem’s lineup for fishing gear recycling, Baker-Loke said, and Naknek will begin a program next summer. Her small team also hopes to restart gear recycling in Dillingham and has connected with the Alaska Tribal Conference on Environmental Management to make more coastal regions aware of the opportunity.

Net Your Problem was recently accepted as a vendor in the Backhaul Alaska program, a statewide logistical support system that removes hazardous wastes, old electronics and other items from remote communities.

“If you are one of the participating communities and there is space in the containers that are being sent out through the backhaul program, you only need to pay the recycling fee once it gets to Seattle. You don’t need to pay for any of the transportation, because that is covered by the backhaul program,” Baker-Loke said, crediting U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski for the statewide effort. “That’s another option for communities that may not be participating with NYP yet but are already plugged into this backhaul network.”

Net Your Problem also has launched recycling programs on the East and West coasts with a goal of offering the option to all of the major fishing ports in the U.S.

“I think we’re on our way there,” Baker-Loke said, “and we will work with any interested communities.”

[Alaska lawmakers in both parties demand action on excessive fisheries bycatch]

Bristol Bay booms again

Another massive sockeye run topping 75 million fish is expected at Bristol Bay next summer, 44% larger than the 10-year average and well above the record of more than 66 million fish that returned this year.

State managers project a 2022 catch of just under 60 million sockeye from Bristol Bay’s nine river systems and nearly 2 million at the South Peninsula.

Conversely, in Southeast Alaska a catch of 16 million pink salmon is projected for 2022, down from 48 million pinks this summer.

Several regional salmon summaries for 2021 are posted at Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries page. Some highlights:

• Bristol Bay’s catch of 40.8 million salmon of all species and the preliminary value of $248 million both rank fourth over the last 20 years.

• At Prince William Sound, a harvest of nearly 70 million fish had a value topping $121 million to fishermen, 14% higher than the 10 year average. Average earnings for 477 drift gillnetters were $52,700, compared to a 10-year average of $79,100.

• At Kodiak, 300 permit holders fished this year (51%) for a salmon catch that topped 30 million, well above the 10-year average. The estimated value topped $47 million, with Kodiak seiners each averaging $250,550.

• The 2021 Upper Cook Inlet catch of 1.7 million salmon was the third smallest since 1975. The value to fishermen of about $14 million was the second lowest in 10 years and 48% below the 10-year average.

• Poor runs of chum and coho salmon to Norton Sound resulted in the worst catches since the record lows of the early 2000s. The pink run was well below the records of the last five years, but produced the fifth highest harvest in 61 years due to two buyers on the grounds for the first time in 20 years. The combined harvest of nearly 304,000 salmon was valued at nearly $445,000 to 131 fishermen, less than a quarter of the value over five years but more than 53% higher than last year due to the market for pinks.

Symphony of Seafood winners

First-place winners in the Alaska Symphony of Seafood new products competition were announced at Pacific Marine Expo on Nov. 19. The entries competed in six categories and were judged individually by an expert panel.

The top winner in retail was Echo Falls Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon/Tapas Sliced Mediterranean by Ocean Beauty Seafoods, which also won in the salmon category.

Alaska Grown Ribbon Kelp by Seagrove Kelp Company of Craig won top food service honors.

Wild Alaska Pollock Jerky by Neptune Snacks took top honors in the whitefish category, and Deep Blue Sea Bath Soak by Waterbody of Wrangell won first place in the “Beyond the Plate” category.

The inaugural winner of the first “Bristol Bay Choice” award went to Wild Caught Bristol Bay Sockeye by Alaskan Leader Seafoods. That company’s Wild Caught Alaska Black Cod also was selected as the Seattle People’s Choice.

Second- and third-place entries and the grand prize winner will be announced at a second Symphony awards ceremony in Juneau in February. Top winners receive booth space at the Seafood Expo North America event at Boston in March and entry into its national new products contest.

The Alaska Symphony of Seafood competition has been hosted by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation since 1994.

GOP resistance to preschool plan could imperil key Biden proposal in many states

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 08:07

“We’re going to make sure that every 3- and 4-year-old in America has access to quality preschool,” President Biden has said. (Andrew Harnik/AP) (Andrew Harnik/)

WASHINGTON - The White House’s proposal to create universal prekindergarten would face enormous implementation challenges, as GOP lawmakers in at least a half-dozen states are already balking and others are likely to follow.

The plan, which is included in the social spending package that recently passed the House and is now before the Senate, would provide $110 billion in federal funding for states to offer free prekindergarten for millions of 3- and 4-year-olds across the United States.

Universal prekindergarten has the potential to become one of the most transformative education programs in the country and is considered a legacy goal for the White House. The initiative comes at a time when an unusually large number of women have dropped out of the labor force and have yet to return, in part because of pandemic forces that temporarily closed or in some cases shut down prekindergartens and day cares nationwide. Meanwhile, worker shortages have hamstrung similar programs across the country.

Yet the success of universal prekindergarten would heavily depend on whether states participated and picked up billions of dollars in additional costs. States have had a very uneven approach to implementing federal programs meant to assist Americans in the past year. Emergency housing aid was hardly disbursed in some states, for example, and in states largely led by GOP governors, enhanced federal unemployment assistance was cut off months before it would have expired.

The universal pre-K program would prove another key test of this design.

White House officials have repeatedly said their proposal would mean that all American parents could enroll their children in free pre-K. But these promises depend on state governments kicking in substantial sums on top of the new federal funds in the legislation to create or expand state programs. Partially as a result of these requirements, GOP officials have expressed deep reservations about participating in the new federal system, according to interviews with state lawmakers, conservative policy activists and other early-education experts interviewed by The Washington Post.

“Legislators in Republican-run states are expected to voice opposition to what they see as a highly flawed pre-K plan and take action to stop it,” said Patrick Gleason, vice president of state affairs for Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group working with conservative state lawmakers.

Republican lawmakers in Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina and Minnesota told The Post that they will reject or are troubled by aspects of Biden’s proposed pre-K expansion. GOP state lawmakers in Texas and Arizona have also strongly criticized the plan, according to conservative advocacy groups working closely with officials in those states.

In interviews, Republican lawmakers expressed concern about the new prekindergarten education standards that would be required for participating states, as well as the risk that funding would evaporate, leaving states scrambling to cover expensive programs.

There “absolutely is going to be opposition from Republican state lawmakers,” said Jonathan Bydlak, director of the governance program at the R Street Institute, a conservative group that advocates for free markets. “There’s a philosophical disagreement that this is not the proper role of the federal government and that this is federal meddling, similar to opposition to other education standards in the past.”

Biden’s proposal would come close to fully funding the expansion of prekindergarten programs with federal dollars only in its fourth year, counting on state governments to make up the difference in every other year. Estimates vary, but the federal government’s plan may pay less than half the costs of providing free pre-K to all children ages 3 and 4, which could make it easier for lawmakers in GOP-run states to opt out. The funding is set to expire altogether in the program’s seventh year, because Democrats have sought to reduce the overall cost of Biden’s spending plan to meet the demands of centrist lawmakers.

“Using short-term federal funds for a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t something we are interested in here in Minnesota,” said Republican state Sen. Roger Chamberlain, who runs the education committee in the GOP-controlled Senate. Chamberlain called Biden’s pre-K plan “a bait and switch on our kids’ future.” Minnesota has a small state-funded pre-K program, which had 8,100 children enrolled during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“Paying for these programs upfront but without a plan for long-term funding would be disastrous for Minnesotans, which, unlike the federal government, must balance its budget,” Chamberlain said.

In New Hampshire, which has no state-funded pre-K, state Sen. Jeb Bradley, the Republican majority leader, said he would not support the federal preschool plan, “especially the way it’s been described, funding for six years and then it goes away.”

In North Carolina, Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger said in an emailed statement: “In general, we’re wary of federal policies that have drastic effects on sectors of a state’s economy, especially when those policies come with time-limited federal subsidies that create major uncertainty for state budgets in the out years.” North Carolina has had state-funded pre-K since 2001 and now serves about 1 in 4 of the state’s 4-year-olds, focusing on children from low-income households.

Advocates for universal prekindergarten said that while they had hoped to secure more funding to help states for a longer period of time, they believe the program will become so popular that it will be politically untenable for politicians to refuse to extend it. They also point to the historically bipartisan support for universal preschool, with conservative states like Oklahoma and West Virginia establishing leading programs.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who chairs the House’s Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement to The Post that the plan represents a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Democratic state officials in Colorado, New Mexico, New Jersey and elsewhere also extolled the Biden proposal, saying it would dramatically help them make needed investments to expand pre-K access or achieve universal coverage.

“Every state that participates in this program will find that the benefits for children, parents, and the economy far outweigh the cost,” Scott said.

Policy experts said the bill would still amount to one of the biggest expansions in federal funding for early-childhood education in U.S. history, creating long-term benefits for parents, children and the economy overall.

The legislation also includes provisions intended to create a backstop in case states chose not to participate in the program. The bill would provide funding for the federal government to fund pre-K expansion through local governments or by expanding existing Head Start programs, although it is unclear how many local agencies would participate.

“I really wish the bill went out past 2027, but I’d say that a lot can happen in these few years,” said Rasheed Malik, director of early-childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “It will be a much bigger political risk six years down the line to let this lapse than it is for states and elected members of Congress to encourage everyone to build the system up while we have the opportunity now.”

The Biden administration has made sweeping claims about its pre-K proposal in recent days that appear at odds with the likely reality of GOP resistance.

Speaking in Detroit this month, Biden said, “We’re going to make sure that every 3- and 4-year-old in America has access to quality preschool.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in late October that the Build Back Better bill would “make pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds universal and free.”

“Just one provision in BBB: universal preschool,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on Twitter this month. “For the first time in decades we are adding two years to universal education. Think about it. We are going from 12 to 14 years of free universal public education.”

In an interview earlier this month, three administration officials declined to guarantee that passing the Build Back Better plan would create free and universal pre-K.

“As it cuts many of the biggest costs facing middle class families, the Build Back Better economic growth agenda will make one of the best, most life-changing investments in American competitiveness imaginable: providing for universal, free pre-K across the country,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. Bates added: “If some Republicans try to steal that choice from parents - especially as China is outpacing us in this area - they will have to look their constituents in the eye and explain why their spite over the end of tax giveaways for the rich was worth denying their children a better life, and their communities a stronger economy.”

Part of the challenge facing the administration is how to build out the existing patchwork of state pre-K programs.

Currently, all but six states offer some form of state-funded prekindergarten instruction, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. But these programs tend to kick in around age 4 and don’t serve as broad a swath of children as the Biden plan aims to.

For instance, only Vermont and the District of Columbia currently offer pre-K to more than half of 3-year-olds, whereas the Biden plan aims to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds. The president’s plan would also require states to implement new standards for what children learn in the classroom, upgrade credentials for hiring new preschool instructors and mandate higher teacher pay than most states do currently, said Laura Bornfreund, an education policy expert at New America, a think tank.

These requirements could provide fodder for conservative opposition, particularly when combined with an uncertain federal funding stream to support the changes. State Republicans are also considered unlikely to be interested in supporting a key initiative of the opposition party’s president, particularly as controversies surrounding federal involvement in education emerge as a defining feature of state and local elections, such as the Virginia gubernatorial race.

“Unlike the federal government, Missouri, and virtually every other state, must balance its budget every year,” said Missouri state Sen. Dave Schatz, a Republican and president pro tem of the Missouri Senate, in a statement provided by a spokesman. “Any new federal program that would require Missouri taxpayers to cover the costs is not only a non-starter, but it would also take away precious resources from our own priorities like higher education, workforce development, and public safety.”

Initially, the White House proposed a $200 billion investment in pre-K as part of its plan released this past spring. But as the overall plan shrank dramatically to accommodate the demands of centrist lawmakers, Democrats narrowed their spending ambitions for early-childhood education as well.

As currently proposed in the bill, states would be required to fund a major portion of the expansion in all but the fourth year of the program. Matt Bruenig, founder of the People’s Policy Project, said Democrats’ plan provides enough money in the first three years to fund free pre-K spots for less than 8 percent of eligible children, while leaving the remaining cost to state and local governments.

Even Democratic lawmakers have expressed some concerns about the Biden plan’s fiscal implications for states.

“It may be the intent of the feds to reauthorize in 2028, but no one can count on what isn’t yet,” said Washington Democratic state Sen. Claire Wilson, who led recent state efforts to expand access to preschool. “We would as a state have to really make sure we were able to sustain the system once that funding is terminated.”

Oregon Democratic Rep. Tina Kotek, speaker of the state House, said in a statement provided by a spokesman that she is “excited” about the Biden administration’s efforts and that universal pre-K “would fill a critical gap to support our kids’ futures.”

But, she added, she has concerns about the proposed seven-year timeline.

“It will take time to build up a universal pre-K program due to workforce needs, the development of facility space, and licensing and credentialing of new providers,” she said. “A longer-term federal investment would be critical to making this game-changing investment sustainable and available for families after the start-up phase.”

New info shows omicron spread wider earlier than thought

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 06:49

People wear face mask to protect against the coronavirus at the public transport station Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. According to local authorities wearing face masks mandatory in public transport and passengers need to be vaccinated, recovered or tested negative of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber) (Markus Schreiber/)

BRUSSELS — New findings about the coronavirus’s omicron variant made it clear Tuesday that the emerging threat slipped into countries before their defenses were up, as two distant nations announced their first cases and a third reported its presence before South African officials sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported the variant to the U.N. health agency on Nov. 24. Meanwhile, Japan and France reported their first cases of the new variant that has forced the world once again to pinball between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including how contagious it might be, but a WHO official said Tuesday that there could soon be a steep rise in infections in parts of southern Africa.

It is unclear where or when the variant first emerged, and the Dutch announcement further muddies the timeline. Previously, the Netherlands had said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday — but the new cases predate that.

That hasn’t stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa. Those moves have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.

The latest news though made it increasingly clear that travel bans would struggle to stop the spread of the variant. The Netherlands, Belgium and France have now all reported cases in people who were in their countries before the European Union imposed flight restrictions.

Japan announced that it would ban all foreign visitors beginning Tuesday — but that turned out to be too late. It confirmed its first case that day, a Namibian diplomat who recently arrived from his country.

German authorities, meanwhile, said they had an omicron infection in a man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who was.

The WHO warned Monday that the global risk from omicron is “very high.” and that early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.

The growing number of cases attributed to omicron in Botswana and South Africa suggests that this may be the first sign of a “a steep rise,” Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, regional virologist for the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” Gumede-Moeletsi said.

A health worker checks the body temperature of travelers as a precaution against the coronavirus before allowing them to proceed at train station in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) (Rafiq Maqbool/)
One of two Covid 19 patients is unloaded from a Dornier 328Jet ADAC aircraft by rescue workers at Hanover airport for transfer to hospital by intensive care transport in Langenhagen, Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Seriously ill patients from intensive care units in Bavaria, Thuringia and Saxony are being transported to areas in the north and west of Germany that are currently less severely affected as part of the "cloverleaf" mechanism coordinated between the federal and state governments throughout Germany. (Hauke-Christian Dittrich/dpa via AP) (Hauke-Christian Dittrich/)
Bus passengers wait at a bus stop next to a Stay Safe sign which encourages social distancing and the wearing of masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, in London, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. The emergence of the new COVID-19 omicron variant and the world's desperate and likely futile attempts to keep it at bay are reminders of what scientists have warned for months: The coronavirus will thrive as long as vast parts of the world lack vaccines.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant) (Alastair Grant/)

After a period of low transmission in South Africa, new cases began to rapidly increase in the middle of November. Currently the country is confirming nearly 3,000 new infections per day.

The concentration of omicron cases among university students in the capital of Pretoria is a particular cause for concern because that group is very sociable — and will soon be heading for their homes at the end of the year and mixing with friends and family.

Doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far, but many of them are young adults who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.

Still, many officials tried to calm fears, insisting vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

European Medicines Agency chief, Emer Cooke, insisted that the 27-nation EU was well prepared for the variant. While it is not known how effective current vaccines are against omicron, Cooke said the shots could be adapted within three or four months if need be.

The latest variant makes vaccination efforts even more important, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, noting as many have before that “as long as the virus is replicating somewhere, it could be mutating.”

In the face of the new variant, some introduced new measures aimed at mitigating the spread.

England made face coverings mandatory again on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of the U.K.’s Health Security Agency, Jenny Harries, urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

And after COVID-19 already led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers were beginning to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

World markets continued to seesaw on every piece of medical news, either worrisome or reassuring.

Global shares mostly slipped Tuesday as investors cautiously weighed how much damage omicron may unleash on the global economy.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn, like what happened last year, likely will be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.

In a world that is already unnerved by the more contagious delta variant that filled hospitals again in many places, even in some highly vaccinated nations, the latest developments underscored the need for the whole globe to get their hands on vaccines.

“We have vaccination rates in the United States, in Europe of 50, 60, 70 %, depending on exactly who you’re counting. And in Africa, it’s more like 14, 15 % or less,” Blinken said.

“We know, we know, we know that none of us will be fully safe until everyone is.”

Meldrum reported from Johannesburg. AP journalists from around the world contributed.

Putin warns West: Moscow has ‘red line’ about Ukraine, NATO

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 05:57

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a video call of the VTB Capital "Russia Calling!" Investment Forum in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) (Mikhail Metzel/)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday sternly warned NATO against deploying its troops and weapons to Ukraine, saying it represents a red line for Russia and would trigger a strong response.

Commenting on Western concerns about Russia’s alleged intention to invade Ukraine, he said that Moscow is equally worried about NATO drills near its borders.

Speaking to participants of an online investment forum. the Russian president said that NATO’s eastward expansion has threatened Moscow’s core security interests. He expressed concern that NATO could eventually use the Ukrainian territory to deploy missiles capable of reaching Russia’s command centers in just five minutes.

“The emergence of such threats represents a ‘red line’ for us,” Putin said. “I hope that common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail.”

He added that Moscow has been forced to counter the growing threats by developing new hypersonic weapons.

“What should we do?” Putin said. “We would need to develop something similar to target those who threaten us. And we can do that even now.”

He said a new hypersonic missile that is set to enter service with the Russian navy early next year would be capable of reaching targets in comparable time.

“It would also need just five minutes to reach those who issue orders,” Putin said.

The Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, capable of flying at nine times the speed of sound to a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), has undergone a series of tests, most recently Monday.

Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed worries this month that a Russian military buildup near Ukraine could signal plans by Moscow to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor. NATO foreign ministers warned Russia on Tuesday that any attempt to further destabilize Ukraine would be a costly mistake.

The Kremlin has insisted it has no such intention and has accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after the country’s Kremlin-friendly president was driven from power by mass protests and also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency that broke out in Ukraine’s east.

Earlier this year, a spike in cease-fire violations in the east and a Russian troop concentration near Ukraine fueled war fears, but tensions abated when Moscow pulled back the bulk of its forces after maneuvers in April.

Putin argued that to avoid tensions, Russia and the West should negotiate agreements that would take the parties’ security interests into account. The Russian leader noted that Russia has been strongly worried about NATO’s drills near its borders, pointing at a recent exercise that involved U.S. strategic bombers.

“Strategic bombers, which carry precision weapons and are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, were flying as close as 20 kilometers (12 miles) to our border,” he said. “That represents a threat for us.”

The previous buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine early this year was followed by Putin’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in June in Geneva, where they agreed to launch a dialogue on strategic stability and cyber security. Putin hailed the discussions on cyber security between Russian and U.S. experts, saying “just as with the pandemic, it’s necessary to pool efforts to work efficiently.”

Asked about Biden’s bid to seek a second term, Putin hailed it, saying it would help the U.S. political stability.

The Russian leader also drew a parallel with his own re-election plans, saying that even though he hasn’t decided yet whether to seek re-election when his current six-year term ends in 2024, the possibility of him staying on has helped stability.

The 69-year-old Russian president has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Constitutional amendments approved in 2020 reset Putin’s previous term limits, allowing him to run for president two more times and hold onto power until 2036.

“In line with the constitution, I have the right to get elected to seek a new term, but I haven’t yet made up my mind whether to do it or not,” Putin said. “But the very existence of that right already stabilizes the domestic political situation.”

How big a threat is the omicron variant of coronavirus? Here’s what we know.

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 05:52

A flight crew depart the International Arrivals area at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, on Nov. 29, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS) (Jim Watson/AFP/)

The recent discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has upended the outlook for a pandemic that already was expected to get worse over the winter.

But it will probably take weeks before scientists truly understand whether omicron — declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday, two days after South Africa announced its detection — will end up being as significant as the delta variant.

“It will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant,” the White House said in a statement Sunday after President Biden met with his COVID-19 response team.

The statement said that Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, “continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID.” Fauci also reiterated that booster shots for fully vaccinated individuals provide the strongest available protection from COVID.

Not all variants of concern end up becoming a big deal.

Two — beta, first identified in South Africa, and gamma, first identified in Brazil — never became as consequential globally as delta has become.

Still, there are many reasons why officials are expressing deep concern about omicron even as they acknowledge there is still a lot unknown and it’s possible this variant may peter out.

The omicron variant has not yet been detected in the U.S., although experts say they fully expect it. Confirmed cases already have been reported in the Canadian province of Ontario.

Here’s what we know, as well as questions that remain unanswered:

Q. Is omicron more transmissible than other variants?

A. Fauci said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that omicron is probably more transmissible than other variants.

Its mutations “would strongly suggest that it would be more transmissible,” Fauci said. Troublingly, “it might evade some of the protection of monoclonal antibodies,” a treatment for COVID-19 that can counteract the coronavirus before it can begin destroying the body’s organs.

“If you look at the pattern of what’s going on right now in southern Africa — particularly in South Africa — when you have a spike of infections, they are very heavily weighted toward this new variant, the omicron,” Fauci said. “And, therefore, you have to presume that it has a good degree of transmissibility advantage.”

In another interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Fauci said omicron’s sudden appearance in South Africa was accompanied by a big spike in cases, following a time of low infection levels.

“And when the South Africans looked at it, they said, ‘Oh, my goodness. This is a different virus than we’ve been dealing with.’ So it clearly is giving indication that it has the capability of transmitting rapidly,” Fauci said. “That’s the thing that’s causing us now to be concerned, but also to put the pressure on ourselves now to do something about our preparation for this.”

It’s not clear whether omicron will overtake delta as being the most transmissible variant of the coronavirus.

While omicron is highly contagious, “what we don’t know is whether it can compete with delta,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday.

Officials were worried many months ago about the Beta variant, but in the U.S., Beta “never really took off because delta was so incredibly effective at spreading that it couldn’t compete,” Collins said.

Q. Are the current vaccines less robust against omicron?

A. It’ll probably take two weeks to know whether the vaccines would be less effective against the omicron variant. Lab tests are underway.

Q. Will vaccinations and boosters protect people?

A. Past experience with other well-studied variants, including delta, shows that vaccinations and boosters still generate enough antibodies to provide protection against the coronavirus.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility that this [omicron variant] could completely evade any protection by a vaccine. It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost,” Fauci said on ABC.

That’s also why it’s important that anyone who is unvaccinated — including children 5 and older — get their shots, and fully vaccinated adults get boosters, Fauci said.

Fauci said on NBC that vaccinated people should not wait to get boosters, thinking a more up-to-date vaccine will be coming shortly.

“Get boosted now,” he said.

“When you get boosted, the level of your antibody goes way, way above what the level at its peak was after the second dose. So the booster not only gets you back up to where you were, it gets you way, way, way up,” Fauci said.

The worst-case scenario is that the vaccines now available don’t provide any protection against omicron, but that is unlikely, experts say.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said there is no way omicron will globally revert to the state of the pandemic that emerged nearly two years ago.

“Our vaccines MAY take a hit but will still provide some (may be a lot) protection,” Jha tweeted. “We are in a MUCH better place. This isn’t March 2020.”

Q. Will vaccines need to be updated for omicron?

A. Pfizer and Moderna are working on potential new vaccines designed specifically against omicron, but it’s not clear they will be needed, Collins said in an interview with the news program “Fox News Sunday.”

“All of us hope we don’t need to do that,” he said.

Q. What do the experts think?

A. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a member of Pfizer’s board, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that many experts are confident that vaccinated people who have gotten booster shots will be protected.

“That third dose of the vaccine provides a much broader level of immunity. So it’s not just more antibodies that you develop, but you develop antibodies against more parts of the virus,” Gottlieb said.

A number of vaccine experts “feel reasonably confident that three doses of vaccine is going to be protective.”

Gottlieb said there could be a situation in which lab tests show that blood plasma from those with immunity to COVID-19 and exposed to the omicron variant may suggest that “the neutralization against this virus decline substantially” — which, at first glance, would seem discouraging. This was a big concern with the Beta variant.

But in real-world conditions, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations ended up being almost equally effective against the Beta variant as the initial strain of the coronavirus, Gottlieb said. “You could see a decline in neutralization, and the vaccines will still be effective.”

Q. Does omicron produce more severe illness?

A. There have been reports that those infected in South Africa have had mild illnesses. But that may be the result of the initial group being “mostly young people, who have mild illness anyway. So, I would say we just don’t know,” Collins told CNN.

The initial reported infections have occurred among university students.

The World Health Organization said that “preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with omicron. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants.”

Q. Could differences in vaccination rates affect omicron’s spread?

A. South Africa has a relatively low vaccination rate. According to Our World in Data, about 24% of the population is fully vaccinated; in the U.S., about 58% are fully vaccinated.

Five nations in southern Africa — South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and Malawi — have told Pfizer to “slow down or stop shipping vaccines because they haven’t been able to distribute what they’ve received,” Gottlieb said.

South Africa has also told J&J and Pfizer to throttle back or stop shipments because they have an excess of vaccine, Gottlieb said. Of 30 million Pfizer doses sent to South Africa, only 19 million have been used, he said.

Q. What about the delta variant?

A. The attention on omicron might obscure the fact that the delta variant continues to be a significant threat to California and the U.S.

“While attention has turned to omicron, its functional impact yet unknown, the main issue is that delta is rampant in many countries in Europe and the United States,” tweeted Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla.

The delta variant comprises virtually all of the analyzed coronavirus cases in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Tuesday, new daily COVID-19 hospitalizations nationwide were up by 20% compared with the first week of November.

California saw a troubling uptick in hospitalizations in late October, though numbers have declined in November. Still, health officials in areas with low vaccination rates, such as the San Joaquin Valley, say that hospitals continue to be full and have sought help in transferring some patients to places like L.A. County.

And computer models published on the state’s California COVID Assessment Tool website show some scenarios suggesting a surge in hospitalizations is possible by late winter, particularly if too few vaccinated adults get a booster shot.

It’ll take a couple of weeks before officials in California know whether a surge linked to gatherings over Thanksgiving occurs.

“Already, we’re seeing in different states throughout the United States that — especially in the Midwest and the East, where people are going indoors because of weather changes — we’re seeing high levels of cases,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer for Orange County, said Wednesday.

“And there are some areas still in California that still have high case rates. So I’m hoping that we can stave off another surge until 2022. But there’s still a potential to see a little bit of an increase in December,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

Q. How can people protect themselves?

A. Besides getting vaccinated or boosted, the California Department of Public Health also “recommends everyone wear masks in indoor public places (such as grocery stores and movie theaters) regardless of vaccination status,” the agency said in a statement.

Indoor mask mandates in public areas are required in a number of counties in California, including Los Angeles and Ventura counties, as well as much of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In addition, the California Department of Public Health said, “you should immediately get tested for COVID-19 if you are feeling any symptoms — regardless of your vaccination status. COVID-19 symptoms can feel like a common cold (including just ‘the sniffles’), seasonal allergies or flu. COVID-19 testing in California is free to anyone who needs it.”

People should also test themselves three to five days after travel “to help us stay vigilant for new cases and variants,” California state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan said in a tweet.

Barbados bids farewell to British monarchy, becomes republic

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 05:03

Britain's Prince Charles, centre, stands with Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, right, and former cricketer Garfield Sobers, left, as they attend the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony for Dame Sandra Mason, at Heroes Square, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Barbados has stopped pledging allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II as it shed another vestige of its colonial past and became a republic for the first time in history. Several leaders, dignitaries and artists, including Prince Charles, attended a ceremony that began late Monday and stretched into Tuesday in a popular square where the statue of a well-known British lord was removed last year amid a worldwide push to erase symbols of oppression. (Jeff J Mitchell PA via AP) (Jeff J Mitchell/)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Barbados stopped pledging allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday as it shed another vestige of its colonial past and became a republic for the first time in history.

Several leaders, dignitaries and artists, including Prince Charles and Rihanna, attended the ceremony that began late Monday in a popular square where the statue of a well-known British lord was removed last year amid a worldwide push to erase symbols of oppression.

Fireworks peppered the sky at midnight as Barbados officially became a republic, with screens set up across the island so people could watch the event that featured an orchestra with more than 100 steel pan players and numerous singers, poets and dancers. It was also broadcast online, prompting a flurry of excited messages from Bajans living in the U.S., Canada and beyond.

“Happy Independence Day and freedom to all,” wrote one viewer.

The drive to become a republic began more than two decades ago and culminated with the island’s Parliament electing its first ever president last month in a two-thirds majority vote. Barbados Governor General Sandra Mason was sworn in before dawn on Tuesday as the island marked its 55th anniversary of independence from Britain.

“As cautioned by our first prime minister ... we ought no longer to be found loitering on colonial premises,” she said. “We must seek to redefine our definition of self, of state, and the Barbados brand, in a more complex, fractured and turbulent world. ... Our country and people must dream big dreams and fight to realize them.”

Mason, 72, is an attorney and judge who also has served as ambassador to Venezuela, Colombia, Chile and Brazil. She will help Prime Minister Mia Mottley lead the wealthy Caribbean island of more than 300,000 people that is dependent on tourism, manufacturing and finance.

Barbados didn’t need permission from the U.K. to become a republic, although the island will remain a member of the Commonwealth Realm. It’s an event that the Caribbean hasn’t experienced since the 1970s, when Guyana, Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago became republics.

Barbados became independent from the United Kingdom in November 1966, more than three centuries after English settlers arrived and turned the island into a wealthy sugar colony based on the work of hundreds of thousands of African slaves.

In recent decades, the island has begun distancing itself from its colonial past. In 2005, Barbados dropped the London-based Privy Council and chose the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice as its final court of appeal. Then in 2008, it proposed a referendum on the issue of becoming a republic, but it was pushed back indefinitely. Last year, Barbados announced plans to stop being a constitutional monarchy and removed a statue of British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson from National Heroes Square, the location of the event to celebrate becoming a republic.

“From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude,” said Prince Charles, who thanked Barbadian officials for inviting him and said he has greatly admired what they’ve achieved. “Freedom, justice, and self determination have been your guides.”

During the ceremony, the prime minister awarded pop star Rihanna the honor of National Hero of Barbados, telling her, “May you continue to shine like a diamond,” as they both laughed.

Barbados’ flag, coat of arms and national anthem will remain the same, but certain references will change, according to Suleiman Bulbulia, a columnist for the Barbados Today newspaper. He wrote that the terms “royal” and “crown” will no longer be used, so the Royal Barbados Police Force will become the Barbados Police Service and “crown lands” will become “state lands.”

“It is the beginning of a new era,” he wrote. “Any Barbadian can aspire now to be our Head of State.”

In one California city, rising prices overshadow economy’s strength, spelling trouble for Democrats

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 04:41

Inflation fears have been impacting Santa Clarita, Calif., just north of Los Angeles. Photo for The Washington Post by Allison Zaucha.

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. - A 29-year-old hairdresser is weighing how much more to charge clients because of her rising costs. A 53-year-old property inspector could cancel family jaunts to scenic Monterey because gas is so expensive. And a 63-year-old power plant worker was so startled by the price of bread at the supermarket that he called his wife to make sure it was right.

As the economy picks up momentum in the final weeks of 2021, inflation fears are washing over this politically divided city north of Los Angeles. Consumer spending is strong and some residents acknowledge they’re more secure financially because of the stock market’s performance in the past 12 months. But as they watch prices go up at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and wholesalers, the painful sting of inflation is seeping deep into their mindsets, hardening political views that Democrats across the country could struggle to change ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

“I definitely think it’s not a coincidence that prices were lower in the last administration,” said Alina Sañez, a hairdresser who is fretting over how to pass the spiking costs of supplies she uses, such as disposable gloves, on to her clients.

Sañez said she is a registered Democrat but that her perspective has shifted as she’s watched economic trends impact her personally. As prices rise all around her, she said she holds President Joe Biden responsible. She is telling clients that her $85 charge for a cut, color, and blow dry will no longer cover the blow dry. That will soon cost extra.

Voters such as Sañez could hold the fate of Congress’ Democratic majority in their hands next year. Santa Clarita, a city of around 215,000 some 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is part of California’s 25th congressional district, which elected a Republican House member by just 333 votes in the last election. Although its boundaries could change because of a redistricting process, the district is already being targeted by both political parties as they gear up for bruising midterm elections. Those midterms, less than 12 months away, could shift the balance of power in Washington and force Biden to reckon with an emboldened Republican majority.

The district’s current representative, Republican Mike Garcia, said local voters are rightfully concerned about rising prices, which he blamed partly on massive spending bills pushed by Biden and congressional Democrats. The most recent major initiative to become law, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package enacted in mid-November, had some GOP support, though Garcia opposed it.

He said part of the case he will be making to voters is that they should elect a Republican Congress to put a check on Washington’s spending.

“The problems that we’re seeing are a direct result of the policies, and the policies are a direct result of, unfortunately, this Democrat party that has control of the House and Senate as well as the White House,” Garcia said in an interview, reiterating a common GOP refrain. “Right now, the groupthink mentality that we are suffering from is one of spending our way out of problems when it comes to the economy.”

Economists disagree about how big a role the trillions in relief and stimulus approved by Washington over the course of the pandemic have had on inflation, which is on its highest trajectory in decades. Prices jumped more than 6% in October compared with last year. This is happening, in part, because the economy is snapping back from a historic shock after the coronavirus pandemic closed thousands of businesses and led more than 20 million people to lose their jobs in March and April 2020. Most of those workers have been rehired and the economy is springing back to life.

The White House and congressional Democrats argue that the infrastructure bill and a massive social spending bill now pending on Capitol Hill would actually drive down inflation over time by helping companies transport materials more efficiently by sea, air and roads, a view some economists support. But that argument hasn’t won over every voter.

Christy Smith, a Democratic former state legislator who lost narrowly to Garcia and is seeking a rematch next year, said she backed Biden’s agenda, which she said would help lower inflation while also providing needed services that Garcia has voted against.

“I understand people’s concerns, especially here in a district where, for instance, the price of gas is something that impacts a lot of families here who commute to greater parts of Los Angeles for work,” Smith said in an interview. “On the other hand, you don’t see any saber-rattling out of the Republican side about other costs that are really driving families to the brink right now, like child care, like the cost of prescription drugs and health care, like housing.”

The Santa Clarita area was slammed during the pandemic partly because its largest employers include Princess Cruises and the Magic Mountain amusement park, companies that rely on tourists and travel. Photo for The Washington Post by Allison Zaucha.

In Santa Clarita, almost 2,700 miles from the White House, residents have a mixed view of what’s happening.

In interviews with about two dozen residents the week before Thanksgiving, some welcomed the passage of Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, which they said could bring needed investments to an area that got slammed during the pandemic partly because its largest employers include Princess Cruises and the Magic Mountain amusement park, companies that rely on tourists and travel. But for many, their concerns were more immediate, like why they had to pay nearly $5 for a gallon of gas, and around the same for a loaf of whole-grain bread at a local Vons supermarket.

“I actually called my wife to see if that’s the right price,” Richard Parker, a 63-year-old power plant worker, said after emerging from the grocery store with his cart loaded down with Thanksgiving supplies. He’d purchased two loaves of bread for his wife’s holiday stuffing, settling on one higher-quality variety and one package of Wonder Bread, which was comparatively cheap at $3.59 a loaf.

“Everywhere you go it’s more expensive,” Parker said. Like Sañez and others, he blamed Democrats and the Biden administration, questioning whether the infrastructure law would do anything to help him in the short term, and voicing concerns over whether a daughter who lives near San Diego would have to pay more in rent.

At the same time, Parker acknowledged he was benefiting from a strong stock market that has boosted his and his wife’s retirement savings. The Dow Jones industrial average has risen from 26,852 on election day in 2020 to more than 35,000 today, roughly one year later.

But he was reluctant to give Democrats any credit for that, and it didn’t change his overall pessimism about the economy.

“I don’t even know why it’s going so good when everything else is going poorly,” Parker said of the stock market, which has been buoyed by strong corporate earnings and consumer demand, among other factors.

The views expressed by residents in Santa Clarita largely align with results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll in November that found 70% of Americans pessimistic about the economy, with Biden’s approval rating at new lows and voters more inclined to pick a Republican congressional candidate than a Democratic one.

Santa Clarita residents are watching prices go up at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and wholesalers.Photo for The Washington Post by Allison Zaucha.

These results underscore what’s evident from talking to people here - that Democrats have largely failed to convince voters that the economy is actually doing pretty well. In addition to the strength of the stock market, the unemployment rate has fallen markedly, and workers can command higher wages. Yet the high prices staring residents in the face every time they leave the house seem to block out everything else.

“It looks great on paper but doesn’t affect us in any way, shape or form,” another local resident, John Haymond, said of the stock market. At 53, he’s not about to retire from his job as a property inspector, so his retirement account doesn’t help him now, he said. Instead, he’s worried that with gas prices so high, he’ll have to curtail family drives to Monterey, up the California coast.

“It’s going to impact our ability to travel,” Haymond said outside a Walmart. “Maybe some of the decisions the president is taking have taken a drastic toll.”

Gas prices in California tend to be among the highest in the nation, and in November reached record highs averaging over $4.70 a gallon, an increase of almost 20 cents in one month, according to AAA. Biden has limited ability to impact the price of gas, however, and recently he called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate oil and gas companies and accused them of “anti-consumer” actions leading to higher prices.

Not all residents were complaining about higher prices. Nancy Jones, 70, a retired elementary school teacher, said she’d noticed prices “inching up,” but said she hadn’t really been affected - she drives a compact car and described herself as “a cheap date.”

Jones, a Democrat, blamed Republicans for obstructing Biden’s agenda, adding, “One of the things that disturbs me most is the divisiveness.”

Another resident, Christa Lopez, said she’d just bought a turkey from Costco for $1-a-pound, which she considered a good price.

“Considering covid, I expected it to be worse,” Lopez said of economic conditions generally.

Who is Twitter’s new CEO, Parag Agrawal? 5 things to know.

Alaska News - Tue, 2021-11-30 04:35

In this image provided by Twitter, Parag Agrawal poses for a picture. Newly named Twitter CEO Agrawal has emerged from behind the scenes to take over one of Silicon Valley's highest-profile and politically volatile jobs. (Ellian Raffoul/Courtesy of Twitter via AP) (Ellian Raffoul/)

When Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO of Twitter, the company he co-founded, the first question on everyone’s lips was why now? - and the second was, who’s next?

Dorsey, who tweeted the news Monday after 15 years in company leadership, said Twitter has outgrown its founders as all companies eventually should, and that the time is right for him to go - in part because he has confidence in his replacement, Twitter’s Chief Technology Officer Parag Agrawal.

Here are five important things to know about Twitter’s new CEO:

Parag Agrawal started working at Twitter as a product engineer.

Agrawal started working for the social media giant as an engineer in 2011, and became its CTO in 2017. He is close to outgoing CEO Dorsey and is said to share his vision for the company.

Dorsey spoke in glowing terms about Agrawal’s ascent at Twitter in his resignation email. “Parag started here as an engineer who cared deeply about our work and now he’s our CEO (I also had a similar path . . . he did it better!) This alone makes me proud,” he wrote.

Agrawal is now the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

In taking over from Dorsey, the 37-year-old became the youngest CEO in the S&P 500 - but just by a hair, according to Bloomberg, which reached out to Twitter to confirm Agrawal’s exact birth date and was told he was born later in 1984 than Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg, also 37.

Agrawal leads some of Twitter’s most forward-looking projects.

According to a company release, as CTO Agrawal oversaw Twitter’s “technical strategy, leading work to improve development velocity while advancing the state of Machine Learning across the company.”

In practice, this means Agrawal has worked on some of Twitter’s most future-facing projects involving machine learning, cryptocurrencies and cloud technology, and been a key part of Twitter’s push for the “decentralization” of social media platforms.

Notably, Agrawal has championed and pushed for Twitter to fund a technology project called Bluesky, an attempt to build that future by developing an open source and independent networking protocols for social media that different companies can use.

As CEO of Twitter, Dorsey often had to make calls on how much the social media platform should place freedom of expression above other goals, such as protecting the safety of users, both on and off Twitter.

When Twitter banned Donald Trump in January 2021, accusing the former American president of inciting violence in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Dorsey said it was both the right call for the company and a dangerous precedent to set for the “open internet.”

He will likely steer speech rules on Twitter.

As CEO, Agrawal will likely make calls on matters of free speech in the coming years, too, and those decisions will be closely watched. Some of his past comments hint at his views on the matter.

In a 2020 interview with MIT Technology Review, Agrawal answered a question about how to balance protecting free speech and fighting misinformation on Twitter. He said: “Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation.”

Agrawal argued Twitter’s main role in this is not to decide what’s true and what’s not - and to block users or content accordingly - but rather to decide which subset of content on the Internet gets brought to the attention of users of the platform in the service of a healthy public debate.

That is “a struggle that we’re working through in terms of how we make sure these recommendation systems that we’re building, how we direct people’s attention is leading to a healthy public conversation that is most participatory,” he said at the time.

He’s already involved in controversy - on Twitter.

Agrawal may be Twitter’s new CEO but he doesn’t tweet much - with just 3,239 tweets over 13 years on the platform to Dorsey’s more than 28,000. (Dorsey has been on Twitter for about two extra years.)

Still, shortly after Agrawal was announced as CEO, old tweets of his sparked a controversy among some conservatives in the United States.

In one tweet, dated October 2010, Agrawal wrote, “If they are not gonna make a distinction between muslims and extremists, then why should I distinguish between white people and racists.” It is a direct quote from a “Daily Show” segment on harmful stereotypes, but some Twitter users suggested Agrawal may be biased against White people. The House Judiciary GOP account tweeted a screenshot of Agrawal’s 2010 tweet and described him as “much worse” than Dorsey, while Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn found issue with another of Agrawal’s tweets, this one about religion.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment about the meaning of the tweets.

In his own email to staff, also posted on Twitter, Agrawal hinted at “ambitious goals” for the company and said the challenge would in executing a strategy to make those goals a reality.

Deep gratitude for @jack and our entire team, and so much excitement for the future. Here’s the note I sent to the company. Thank you all for your trust and support

Police calls for Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021

Juneau News - Tue, 2021-11-30 02:30

Juneau Empire
Juneau Empire - The Voice of Alaska's Capital Since 1912

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Police calls for Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021
Wire Service

Wasilla Rep announces gubernatorial bid | <b>Juneau Empire</b>

Juneau Hot Topics - Tue, 2021-11-30 01:25
Rep. Chris Kurka, R-Wasilla, announced Monday he intends to run for governor in next year's statewide elections.

COVID at a Glance for Wednesday, Dec. 1

Juneau News - Mon, 2021-11-29 22:30

Juneau Empire
Juneau Empire - The Voice of Alaska's Capital Since 1912

Numbers come from reports from the City and Borough of Juneau Emergency Operations Center and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, as well as updates from the Alaska Coronavirus Response Hub and City and Borough of Juneau COVID-19 Dashboard.

COVID at a Glance for Wednesday, Dec. 1
Wire Service