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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

COVID at a Glance for Tuesday, Nov. 30

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 Tuesday, Nov. 30
Wire Service

On the Trails: Transition to winter — maybe

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

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

A mat of old leaves lined the roadway, each leaf fringed with crystals, making a pretty mosaic…

On the Trails: Transition to winter — maybe
Wire Service

Juneau eyes options for new City Hall

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

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

From the former Walmart to perched atop a parking garage, there’s options, but no decisions yet.

Juneau eyes options for new City Hall
Michael S. Lockett

‘Memory, manipulation and money’: Trial of Epstein lieutenant Ghislaine Maxwell underway

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 19:21

In this courtroom sketch, assistant U.S. Attorney Lara E. Pomerantz gives her opening statement while pointing to Ghislaine Maxwell, seated far left, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in New York. Two years after Jeffrey Epstein's suicide behind bars, a jury is set to be picked to determine whether his longtime companion, Maxwell, was his puppet or accomplice. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams) (Elizabeth Williams/)

NEW YORK — The much-anticipated trial of accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell began Monday as federal prosecutors in New York laid out their case against the British socialite charged with recruiting girls and young women and trafficking them to have sex with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Epstein and Maxwell were “partners in crime,” prosecutors said, targeting vulnerable minors whom they lured with promises of helping them realize their education or career goals through scholarships, financial assistance and connections in the fashion and entertainment worlds.

However, Maxwell defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim insisted that the British socialite is being used as a “stand-in” for Epstein, who died in 2019, leaving prosecutors without a culprit to blame for the elaborate sex trafficking scheme he operated for nearly two decades in Palm Beach, New York, New Mexico and on his private island in U.S. Virgin Islands.

While prosecutors portrayed Maxwell as Epstein’s right-hand lieutenant, Sternheim suggested that she, too, fell into Epstein’s web. She described Epstein as a charming “21st-century James Bond” who had “many positive traits” and gave portions of his fortune generously to worthy causes.

“This case is about three things: memory, manipulation and money,” Sternheim told the jury. “These are memories from over a quarter of a century ago, and these are women who were manipulated by their desire for a jackpot of money.”

Lisa Bloom, who attended the trial on behalf of eight clients who were victims of Epstein, scoffed at the idea that any of the women would go through the chaos of a high-profile trial just for the money. Many of Epstein’s accusers have received payments from a victims’ compensation fund that distributed assets from Epstein’s estate.

“The clear response is they already got their money, and you know what? They are entitled to it,” said Bloom, who does not represent any of the accusers in the case against Maxwell.

“A 21st-century James Bond?” she added. “Are you kidding me? James Bond was a good guy. Epstein was a bad guy.”

The trial got off to a bumpy start when several potential jurors couldn’t be found. One of them “forgot” about the trial, and two others said they couldn’t serve because of various other issues. In one instance, a potential juror said her husband had just surprised her with a trip during the holidays that would interfere with her serving for the trial, which is expected to last three to six weeks.

But shortly before 1 p.m., a panel of 12 jurors with six alternates was sworn in to hear the case against Maxwell, 59, Epstein’s longtime associate charged with six counts related to recruiting and transporting girls for Epstein to abuse. In some cases, she participated in the sexual abuse, according to prosecutors.

“The defendant was Epstein’s closest associate and second in command. She was involved in every detail of Epstein’s life,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz.

“During the 10 years that the defendant and Epstein committed these crimes together, the defendant was the lady of the house.”

Pomerantz said Maxwell demanded that employees of Epstein never speak about the girls and young women.

“Employees were to see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. There was a culture of silence,” she said. “That was by design, the defendant’s design, because behind closed doors, the defendant and Epstein were committing heinous crimes.”

The alleged victims, some of whom are using pseudonyms to protect their identities, say they were sexually abused between 1994 and 2004.

Accuser No. 1, “Jane,” is a successful actress and singer who has appeared in soap operas and on Broadway and TV. She says she met Epstein and Maxwell when she was 14 at a music camp in Ohio. According to the charges, she was groomed by them as a child, then sexually abused by Epstein for nearly a decade.

A second, Annie Farmer, has publicly said she was flown to New Mexico and abused by Maxwell and Epstein when she was 16.

A third, Carolyn, told prosecutors she was recruited in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2002 when she was 14. She successfully sued Epstein and an alleged co-conspirator who worked for him in Palm Beach, Sarah Kellen, who was never charged. Prosecutors say Carolyn was trafficked by Epstein and Maxwell for many years.

The fourth, Kate, is a former actress and model from Britain who moved to the United States. She was 17, which is above the age of consent in the United Kingdom, when she first became acquainted with Epstein and Maxwell. She claims they groomed her in much the same way they groomed some of their younger, underage alleged victims.

Maxwell, dressed in a cream-colored turtleneck and dark slacks, appeared engaged in the proceedings as she whispered to her team of attorneys and, at one point, waved to her sister, Isabel, who was seated in the front row.

At least four other courtrooms were set aside for the crowd overflow, and all of them were full. The media, the public and the victims waited for hours in the cold dawn to get seats. It took more than an hour to get through security, in part because of COVID protocols.

“I can’t believe this day has come,” said Sarah Ransome, a South African woman who successfully sued Maxwell and Epstein in 2017 for trafficking her when she was 22. “I’m here to support the victims.”

Ransome, who is not testifying in the case, said she had a restless night and has been anxious about the trial ever since Maxwell was first arrested in July 2020 at a 156-acre estate in New Hampshire, where Maxwell had been living under the radar.

“Everyone’s been scratching their heads this last year,” Ransome said. “I’ve been very nervous.”

Epstein was arrested in July 2019 on federal sex trafficking charges but died in his cell a month after his arrest. Authorities ruled his death a suicide by hanging.

Maxwell’s lawyers maintain that she is being tried in his place, and that the evidence against her is thin. There are no eyewitnesses and no documentation to support the allegations, Sternheim told jurors.

“You are not here to judge whether Epstein committed crimes; you are here to determine whether the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ghislaine Maxwell committed the crimes charged,’’ she said.

Epstein had negotiated a strikingly favorable deal with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida more than a decade earlier, an arrangement that had been the subject of the Miami Herald’s 2018 “Perversion of Justice” series. The renewed attention to Epstein’s deal, which allowed him to plead guilty to two prostitution charges and serve his sentence in a county jail, led federal prosecutors to reexamine his case and bring new charges against the financier. Alexander Acosta, the federal prosecutor who had signed off on Epstein’s plea, resigned from his position as U.S. labor secretary in January 2019 in response to the backlash.

Maxwell has been held in federal custody since her July 2020 arrest, deemed a flight risk and denied release on bail four separate times. Her lawyers have argued about her conditions in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, which include constant monitoring and what they have described as inedible food and undrinkable water. At one point, one of her attorneys compared her conditions to that of the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter as portrayed in the film “The Silence of the Lambs.”

In the weeks leading up to trial, Maxwell’s legal team and federal prosecutors have fought to limit define the boundaries of what could be discussed before the jury. Maxwell’s team won partial victories in limiting the testimony of two of the four accusers but lost their bid to block prosecutors from referring to the accusers as “victims.”

Sunday was the busiest day for air travel since the start of the pandemic

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 19:12

Travelers wait to board their flights at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (Brynn Anderson/)

The airline industry breathed a sigh of relief after a busy holiday travel period that ended with more than 2.4 million people moving through airport security checkpoints Sunday, the busiest day for domestic air travel since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The sheer volume of people flying for the Thanksgiving holiday marked a milestone for air travel as passenger counts inch closer to levels not seen since the pandemic was declared. The Transportation Security Administration screened 20.9 million people during the 10-day travel period that ended Sunday, which is 89% of levels recorded before the pandemic, according to TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

The increase signals robust demand for end-of-the-year travel as more people are eager for in-person celebrations nearly two years into the public health crisis.

The Thanksgiving travel surge was a test for airlines still struggling to rebuild operations while confronting a spike in unruly passenger behavior. Carriers were aided by stable weather that contributed to the largely smooth operations.

Airlines have sought in recent months to capitalize on a growing appetite for travel as the pandemic scrambled the industry and left some carriers stretched thin. American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines are among carriers that have stumbled, canceling thousands of flights and leaving customers stranded at airports this summer and fall, in part because of staffing shortages.

Sunday’s busy travel came with no major mishaps in the nation’s skies, airports or security lines, even as some travelers encountered long lines at checkpoints.

“The Thanksgiving holiday travel period went very smoothly, to the point that it was fairly uneventful as it relates to security screening,” Farbstein said. “We were very prepared for the larger volume and so were passengers.”

While Sunday was the busiest air travel day since the start of the pandemic, the second-busiest was Wednesday - the day before Thanksgiving.

Entering the Thanksgiving holiday, airlines did not schedule more flights than they could operate, said Bob Mann, an industry analyst with aviation consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co.

“We were very lucky,” he said. “The weather was on its best behavior and airlines had really doubled down on their ability to fly what they intended to.”

Also helpful, he said, were the robust financial incentives carriers offered workers to discourage absences and to encourage them to take extra shifts.

American Airlines flight attendants were offered triple their pay to work holiday flights if they have perfect attendance through early January 2022. Southwest offered flight attendants and pilots frequent flier miles and other crew extra pay for holiday shifts.

The incentives aimed to appease concerns of potentially chaotic disruptions during the holiday travel season. They also were an answer to unusual circumstances, according to industry experts and labor leaders who say that air travel demand continues to increase faster than airlines are able to ramp up their staffing.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said earlier airline meltdowns showed workers were not willing to pick up overtime at the same pay rate as before the pandemic.

Even as air travel was spared major disruptions, it wasn’t free of hiccups.

Snow and rain led to delays in the Midwest, but it far less severe than anticipated as forecasters had predicted storms with the potential to create major travel problems. Elsewhere, a woman allegedly attacked two flight attendants on a Spirit Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Nashville. She was restrained by another passenger and arrested by airport police for public intoxication.

Aside from those incidents, Nelson said the holiday travel period “was an off-the-charts successful operation . . . reliable, efficient, and on-time for travelers.”

She credited the federal relief program that kept aviation workers in their jobs during the pandemic with the industry’s ability to maintain successful operations. The industry received $54 billion in grants as part of three federal coronavirus aid packages - money that was designed to keep workers on the payroll and ensure carriers could recover from the verge of collapse when passenger counts fell more than 90%.

Lobbying group Airlines for America said the industry’s performance over the holiday week exceeded pre-pandemic years. In preparation for the holiday, U.S. carriers deployed additional aircraft to meet increased demand, hired and trained new employees and recalled workers who had taken voluntary leave, the trade group said.

On-time arrivals of domestic flights between Nov. 17 and Sunday were at 85%, while 99.7% of scheduled flights were completed, according to data from Anuvu reported by A4A.

The spike in domestic travel comes as virus transmissions have fallen from their peak, vaccinations are more widely available to children and many pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted. But it also precedes new travel restrictions announced over the weekend, generally affecting international travel, to slow the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant.

After a successful Thanksgiving holiday, industry analysts and labor leaders say airlines are better positioned going into the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The amount of passenger traffic is traditionally lower and more spread out. Worker incentives are expected to continue through early January and carriers are likely to increase staffing levels.

Still, Mann, of R.W. Mann & Co., said it’s no time to scale back preparations, considering that a key to success in recent days was the lack of unfavorable weather.

“I wouldn’t be taking my eye off the ball at this point because all you need is bad weather and it all goes south really quickly,” he said.

President Biden said South Africa has turned down vaccine doses. But the issue is more complicated than that.

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 19:07

A woman receives a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccine centre, in Soweto, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organization has urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new omicron variant. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell) (Denis Farrell/)

WASHINGTON-- President Joe Biden on Monday rebutted criticism that the United States is hoarding doses of coronavirus vaccines at the expense of South Africa and other middle- and low-income countries, pointing to the fact that South Africa has turned down additional doses in recent days.

But the story of vaccines in Africa is far more complicated than a matter of supply - a reality that became evident as vaccine availability emerged as a flash point in the days after a potentially dangerous new virus variant, dubbed omicron, was identified in southern Africa.

That story includes issues of access, fragile health-care systems and the difficulty of making sure Pfizer’s vaccine remains ultracold.

South Africa faces challenges that mirror many of those that plagued the United States in the early days of its vaccination campaign and even today. South Africa did not begin its vaccination efforts until May, six months after the United States and other Western countries. And it has struggled to get doses to hard-to-reach populations and faced significant vaccine hesitancy, much like the United States and several European countries.

“Why should we be surprised that we need to do vaccine education and behavioral interventions in South Africa when it took us a pretty heavy lift?” said Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. “We are not done with that job in the U.S.”

The U.S. government has “all these people who understand these end-to-end solutions - from increasing supply to actually delivering vaccine - and they are nowhere to be found” in Africa, Omer said.

Experts have said the omicron variant, which has now been confirmed in numerous countries, is the predictable outcome of vast vaccine inequity. They have called on the United States, European countries and global bodies such as the World Health Organization to do more to get doses shipped to low- and middle-income countries. As long as large numbers of people remain unvaccinated, experts argue, the coronavirus has opportunities to mutate and continue spreading. It remains unclear where the omicron variant originated.

Drugmaker Pfizer said five of the eight countries included in a travel ban imposed by the United States - Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - have asked the company in the last several months to pause shipments because of challenges with vaccine uptake.

The company said it expects by the end of the year to ship 43 million doses to the eight southern African countries covered by the U.S. travel ban.

“Given that we have sufficient stock on hand in the country, it doesn’t make sense to receive any more orders, so we have pushed back some of those orders into the early part of next year. We are well-stocked for the moment,” said Ron Whelan, who heads the covid-19 task team at health insurer Discovery Ltd., which has been involved in the rollout of vaccine doses in South Africa. Discovery worked alongside the South African government to secure vaccine doses and set up a distribution system across the country.

Whelan said South Africa’s vaccination program peaked at about 211,000 vaccinations a day. By September, the national vaccination rate had slowed to about 110,000 per day.

He pointed to three factors: significant vaccine hesitancy, apathy and structural barriers, which include people being unable to afford to travel to vaccine sites. He also noted that South Africa’s vaccination program started six months after those in Western countries, which began vaccinating people shortly after Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s vaccines were authorized in December 2020.

“I can tell you it was extremely hard to get access to vaccines especially when you had countries like Canada and the U.S. and various other players ordering vaccines well in advance and in quantities three to four times more than they required,” Whelan said.

The White House said Monday that several federal agencies are working with African experts and institutions to provide resources and technical and financial support in the region to expand vaccine access. It said it has provided more than $273 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to southern African countries, including nearly $12 million to deliver and distribute vaccine doses.

Just five African countries - fewer than 10% of the total on the continent - are projected to reach the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40% of their populations, unless the pace of vaccinations accelerates. Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people, or just 6% of its population.

Nearly 60% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, and more than 40 million Americans have received a booster shot, according to The Washington Post’s vaccination tracker. In South Africa, about 35% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the South African Department of Health, more than in most African nations. Just 3% of Malawi’s population, for instance, has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.

The number of Americans who have received a booster shot exceeds the number of people who have gotten a single vaccine dose in the eight African countries combined on the U.S. travel ban, according to an analysis published Monday by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. About 30 million people total across Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have received at least one dose, according to the analysis.

Higher-income countries have committed to donate 1.98 billion doses around the world; the United States has pledged more than half of those doses - 1.1 billion. About 20% of those doses have been delivered.

Global health experts said a confluence of factors, including sometimes unpredictable deliveries from vaccine manufacturers and limited health-care capacity, have created challenges in ensuring doses make it into arms. Many countries, including South Africa, also went several months without receiving any doses and then received millions at once, overwhelming health-care systems.

In the United States, the Trump administration established Operation Warp Speed to not only help manufacture millions of vaccine doses, but also to help quickly distribute those doses on an unprecedented scale. That effort faced significant challenges during the first weeks of the U.S. vaccination rollout, even as the Defense Department and Department of Health and Human Services worked to harness the military’s logistical infrastructure.

“There’s a reason that Operation Warp Speed didn’t just place an order with Pfizer and get vaccines. There was a whole infrastructure to mass-develop vaccines, expand vaccine production and work out some of the logistics around delivery,” said Zain Rizvi, research director at Public Citizen.

“The stat that always gets me is the Pfizer vaccine was authorized Dec. 11. . . . Imagine if on Dec. 11 last year, the U.S. government said we’re launching Warp Speed for the world,” Rizvi added.

Many African countries lack proper storage for vaccines such as Pfizer’s, which needs to be stored at ultracold temperatures. With some vaccine donations close to their expiration dates, some countries feel they will not have enough time to distribute and safely administer them, experts say. Whelan said that while South Africa has sufficient storage for vaccines such as Pfizer’s, most countries in Africa lack the resources.

“Supply remains important, but it’s now time to shift attention to delivery of doses,” said Amanda Glassman, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “It would be great to have more visibility on how many vaccines do we have right now and what are we doing to get them out there and are we using all possible strategies to get them out there.”

Africa, the second-largest continent by size, consists of 54 countries, each with its own set of challenges in obtaining and distributing vaccine doses. While South Africa has struggled with hesitancy, among other issues, other countries have distributed their doses fairly quickly and have asked for more supply. In Botswana, national surveys showed there was a 76% acceptance rate of vaccines, Malebogo Kebabonye, director of health services at Botswana’s Ministry of Health and Wellness, told the World Health Organization.

“Vaccine distribution and vaccine acceptance arguments are weaponized against the idea of expanding supply,” Rizvi said. “You don’t say Canada doesn’t deserve vaccines because there are hesitancy challenges in the U.S., but somehow it’s acceptable to do that on the African continent.”

Chris Cuomo’s off-air role: Brother Andrew’s strategist

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 19:04

Former New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, left, and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor of Andrew M. Cuomo via AP, left, and Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK — CNN anchor Chris Cuomo had a bigger role than previously known in helping defend his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, from sexual harassment allegations that forced him out of office, newly released transcripts and text messages show.

The TV journalist offered to reach out to “sources,” including other reporters, to find out whether more women were going to come forward and relayed what he was hearing to his brother’s advisers, according to the materials made public Monday.

He also sparred with the former governor’s aides over strategy, urging an apologetic tone and critiquing an early statement that he saw as downplaying the allegations. He accused a top aide of hiding information from his brother.

At the same time, Chris Cuomo told investigators he spoke regularly with his brother, coaching him on his response and admonishing him for “bad judgment.”

Chris Cuomo previously acknowledged it was a “mistake” to act as his brother’s unofficial adviser, but the full extent of his involvement — including using journalistic contacts to scope out accusers — only became clear with Monday’s release of his July interview with investigators and 169 pages of text messages, emails and other communications.

“I was worried that this wasn’t being handled the right way, and it’s not my job to handle it, okay?” Chris Cuomo told investigators, according to the transcript. “I don’t work for the governor.”

Andrew Cuomo resigned in August to avoid a likely impeachment trial, after an investigation led by state Attorney General Letitia James found he sexually harassed at least 11 women.

Chris Cuomo, the host of CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time,” did his show Monday night without mentioning the topic. In the past, he’s said he’s never reported on his brother’s situation for the network and never tried to influence coverage. On-air in August, he said: “I tried to do the right thing,” adding he “wasn’t in control of anything.”

CNN issued a statement saying the transcripts and exhibits “deserve a thorough review and consideration.”

“We will be having conversations and seeking additional clarity about their significance as they relate to CNN over the next several days,” it said.

Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, said journalists must understand they’re working for the public, not politicians.

Kirtley said the extent of Chris Cuomo’s involvement in advising his brother is inappropriate, and since they’re brothers, “Maybe it’s time for him to find another line of work.”

She urged CNN to address the matter promptly, saying: “You can’t act like this is not happening. You’re a news organization.”

Monday’s releases show Chris Cuomo growing frustrated with his brother’s advisers as they scrambled to respond as more women came forward with harassment allegations.

The anchor pressed for greater involvement in crafting his brother’s message and offered up his journalistic sleuthing to find out what other allegations might be looming.

On March 4, Chris Cuomo texted the governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, saying “I have a lead on the wedding girl,” referring to a woman who accused his brother of unwanted touching at a wedding reception.

On March 7, as rumors swirled that more women were about to come forward, DeRosa texted Chris Cuomo: “Can u check your sources.” He replied, “On it.”

“When asked, I would reach out to sources, other journalists, to see if they had heard of anybody else coming out,” Chris Cuomo said in the July deposition.

In one instance, Chris Cuomo said he called a journalist who regularly worked with reporter Ronan Farrow to get information about Farrow’s upcoming article, and didn’t tell anyone at CNN what he was doing. He let DeRosa know the article wasn’t ready for publication yet.

In a March 10 text message, Chris Cuomo lashed out at DeRosa, accusing her of keeping information from his brother after the Albany Times-Union published an interview with an accuser.

“Stop hiding s--- ‚” Chris Cuomo wrote. “We are making mistakes we can’t afford.”

Asked in his deposition about that text, Chris Cuomo explained he was telling her: “Don’t not tell Andrew things.”

“There were conversations that he wasn’t a part of that I thought it was important for him to stay very locked in on these,” Chris Cuomo testified.

Among this latest batch of investigative materials released by James’ office is a video of Andrew Cuomo’s deposition from July — a transcript was made public about three weeks ago — and transcripts or videos of interviews with several Cuomo aides and advisers.

James’ office said it didn’t initially release these because local prosecutors were reviewing them for potential criminal conduct. After a criminal complaint was filed against Cuomo last month, giving him access to the materials through discovery, James’ office said it would make them public “in an effort to provide full transparency.”

The releases were being done on a rolling basis — first with transcripts of the former governor and accusers on Nov. 10 and Monday with his brother, aides and other figures — to allow time for redactions to protect individual privacy, James’ office said.

DeRosa, in her interview released Monday, recalled confronting Andrew Cuomo during a car ride about the allegations. She told investigators that after one accuser came forward, they decided Cuomo would no longer be left alone with junior staff.

Asked about her exchanges with Chris Cuomo, DeRosa testified: “I talked to Chris pretty regularly. He was on some calls that we did, and he advised us on how to respond.”


Villeneuve reported from Albany. Associated Press reporters Jennifer Peltz, David Bauder and Thalia Beaty in New York and Michael Hill in Albany contributed to this report.

Washington state sees more flooding, next storm approaches

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 18:54

A truck drives through water over a road near Everson, Wash., Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 past a car that was stranded by flooding in the area earlier in the month. Localized flooding was expected Monday in Washington state from another in a series of rainstorms, but conditions do not appear to be as severe as when extreme weather hit the region earlier in November. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (Elaine Thompson/)

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Localized flooding in Washington state from another in a series of rainstorms doesn’t appear to be as severe as an extreme weather flooding event earlier in the month.

People in the small communities of Sumas and Everson in northwest Washington had been asked to evacuate voluntarily Saturday night. Both towns near the Canadian border previously saw hundreds evacuated and severe flooding from days of rain that caused an estimated $50 million in damage to Whatcom County.

In Sumas, officials used the flood siren at around 9 a.m. Monday and urged people to shelter in place as water bypassed the Cherry street bridge and then spread through town, albeit somewhat slowly, according to a post on Facebook.

On Monday afternoon, Sumas officials said there was a lot of water around town, but that the water level had started to slowly drop.

“We believe that this will continue to happen throughout the rest of the day,” officials said on Facebook.

On Sunday night, Everson Mayor John Perry posted on Facebook that water levels on a main road through town were “slowly receding” and that Nooksack River levels were dropping.

“It appears that we are through the worst of it for the Everson/Nooksack area,” Perry wrote.

Many local roads in the area and around Bellingham were closed Sunday and Monday because of water over the roadway and some schools in the region kept students from classes as a safety precaution. A landslide Sunday blocked part of northbound Interstate 5 south of Bellingham and officials said an increased threat of landslides will remain for several days.

Bellingham city officials said rainwater exceeded pumping capacity at times on Sunday resulting in an overflow that discharged about 9 million gallons of sewage water into Bellingham Bay.

“The impacts to water quality as the result of the need for sewage overflow are expected to be minimal,” a city news release said.

Downstream in Ferndale, Mayor Greg Hansen told The Bellingham Herald several homes in low-lying areas near the river have seen flooding in latest storm, but the swollen river remains below its levee, he said.

“It definitely has filled the floodways,” Hansen said.

More rain was forecast for Tuesday, the latest deluge from atmospheric rivers — huge plumes of moisture extending over the Pacific and into the Northwest.

Forecasters say the rainfall totals should be less than previous storms, with up to 2 inches expected in northwest Washington and up to 4 inches in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains.

With 18.91 inches of rain recorded at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport between Sept. 1 and Nov. 28, and the impending rain Tuesday, 2021 could have the wettest early fall on record, The Seattle Times reported.

The second wettest September through November period in Seattle was recorded in 2006, with 18.61 inches (47 centimeters) of rain, according to the National Weather Service in Seattle.

“It’s the wettest early fall we’ve had in Seattle in a long, long time,” weather service meteorologist Kirby Cook said Monday. “And in some areas, like Bellingham, it will be the wettest November on record.”

Ferndale’s mayor said the city’s Emergency Operations Center would remain open through the end of the week because of the anticipated Tuesday storm.

“We know we have significant rain coming and we are anticipating another river crest,” Hansen said. “We’re going to continue to stay in a heightened alert status.”

Omicron mutations alarm scientists, but new variant first must prove it can outcompete delta

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 18:52

People stand holding shopping bags on Regent Street in London, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be. In Britain, mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required, starting Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) (Matt Dunham/)

WASHINGTON - When the variant now known as omicron first appeared on a global database of coronavirus genomic sequences, scientists were stunned. This was the weirdest creature they’d seen to date. It had an unruly swarm of mutations. Many were known to be problematic, impeding the ability of antibodies to neutralize the virus. But there had never been a variant with so many of these mutations gathered in a package.

Even though scientists recognized some of these mutations, many others were new and utterly enigmatic.

“We have seen these mutations in other strains, in twos and threes, and each time they were a little harder to neutralize, but didn’t spread particularly well. Now, all together? It’s a complete black box,” Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University, said in an email.

Of the many questions about omicron, the overriding one is whether it’s as bad as it looks at first glance.

President Joe Biden on Monday expressed confidence that the United States can handle the new variant.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said. “We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions, and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

In a preliminary technical brief, the World Health Organization said the “overall global risk” from omicron is “very high,” and recommended that governments worldwide enhance their ability to sequence coronavirus variants, report local cases of omicron to the global health body and accelerate their vaccination drives.

In remarks prepared in advance of congressional testimony Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned that the recent rise in coronavirus cases in the United States and the emergence of omicron “pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation.”

The significance of omicron pivots on several unknowns. Is it more transmissible than the delta variant? Can it cause more severe illness? And can it erode or even completely evade immunity, whether induced by vaccines or previous infections?

Earlier variants, including alpha and delta, had mutated in ways that enhanced their transmissibility. But scientists have long feared the possibility that the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, would evolve to become a more slippery, elusive pathogen - evading, even if only partially, the early lines of defense from the immune system, including neutralizing antibodies.

There are other elements of the immune system, such as “killer” T cells, that provide backup protection, and they are likely to provide protection from severe illness even for new variants such as omicron, infectious-disease experts think.

Omicron has about 30 mutations scattered on three major prongs of the spike protein that is essential to the virus’s ability to infect cells. Disease-fighting antibodies that can potentially neutralize the invading virus target those spike proteins. The mutations change one amino acid to another in a way that can alter the structure or chemistry of the protein and prevent antibodies from binding as they normally would.

Unfortunately, mutations don’t come with handy explanatory labels when they appear in a genomic sequence. And no one can tell how multiple mutations would work as a team - whether they would turn the virus into something even more dangerous than the delta variant or somehow sap omicron’s powers.

“Omicron is like the song ‘One Piece at a Time’ by Johnny Cash, where he puts together a car from stolen bits of lots of different cars. It is made of mutations that were somewhat successful separately in other variants, but together it is hard to say more than it looks weird,” Neuman said.

Scientists don’t want to get ahead of the facts: No one knows yet how this variant behaves in real-world situations. But if it has a high degree of immune evasiveness, vaccine makers will have to revise their formulas, something already in the works at a preliminary stage. This would be a major setback in the world’s efforts to emerge from a pandemic soon to enter its third full year.

The other possibility: Omicron could go the way of alpha, beta, lambda, gamma, mu and other variants that had worrisome mutations and a period of notoriety but were driven virtually to extinction by the more transmissible delta variant.

“We’re in a delta pandemic now. Does this outcompete delta? To be determined,” said Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University who has scrutinized the mutations in omicron. “Delta’s a pretty good virus, right? It’s good in terms of being transmissible. This one would have to show some extraordinary characteristics to outcompete it.”

Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute, said in an email, “The only thing I have somewhat moderate confidence in is that I think this’ll be the most immune evasive variant we have seen to date. Other than that, it’s simply too early to tell - on a scale of 1-10 of how bad this is, it’s either a 3, a 10, or anywhere in-between.”

Laboratory experiments can help characterize whether mutations are consequential or just a random change of no great significance. But omicron is so new that it has not yet been sent through a gantlet of laboratory tests.

“It looks grim, but it needs to be tested and we don’t know how these mutations will act together,” said Bette Korber, a theoretical biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Omicron may not have been fully tested in direct competition with delta. The delta variant, first identified in India early this year, is at least twice as transmissible as the first version of the coronavirus identified in Wuhan, China, nearly two years ago. By summer, delta had routed virtually every other variant on the planet.

South Africa, now late in its springtime, was experiencing a low level of viral transmission before omicron appeared and started a cluster of infections. That cluster could have represented a random superspreader event rather than a clear signal of greater transmissibility of omicron.

Experience offers some hope that omicron could fade as a threat. Other variants - for example, mu - have appeared with mutations that are known to lower the potency of antibodies. But that immune-escape advantage was not enough to overcome a relative weakness in other mechanisms that enable infection. So when the mu variant appeared in Southern California, it generated headlines for a week or two before being crushed by delta.

The origin of omicron is unclear. It came out of a remote part of the virus’s family tree. It is not a descendant of delta, although it shares some of delta’s mutations. With testing and genomic surveillance spotty in some regions, scientists aren’t sure how long this variant has been in circulation. It is possible that omicron has gradually evolved in the human population and simply remained below the radar of the scientific and medical establishments.

Another possibility, still speculative but discussed by many scientists in recent days, is that omicron evolved over many months within an immunocompromised patient with a protracted infection. In a patient treated with therapeutics such as monoclonal antibodies or convalescent sera, a viral strain that can survive the assault can potentially amass a host of mutations. Such cases have been documented, but they are not known to have led to outbreaks in the general population.

Andersen favors another conjecture: That the virus possibly came from an animal. He bases that on the array of mutations not previously seen in humans. The coronavirus is a generalist pathogen that can pass from humans into animal populations - and potentially back again.

The coronavirus has mutated steadily, at a fairly leisurely pace. Some of the mutations that stick around, becoming embedded in the genetic code of the virus going forward, have offered an advantage to the “fitness” of the virus, for example by firming up the spike protein on the surface of the virus and improving its ability to bind to receptor cells.

It is possible that omicron is not as transmissible as the small data set from South Africa has suggested. The discovery of a cluster of omicron infections in a university may have led officials to oversample that population in further testing.

Likewise, the lack of data to date has prevented scientists from reaching conclusions about whether omicron is more capable of causing severe disease. South African officials have said they have not seen evidence of a surge in severe illness. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who treated the first omicron patients there, said her patients so far have tended to have mild or asymptomatic cases. Most of the early South African cases have been among younger people, who are less likely to have severe infections from the virus generally.

Public health officials continue to push vaccination, including booster shots, as the best way to prepare for a new coronavirus variant.

“You have to get your vaccine. You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster,” Biden said.