India tops 200,000 dead as virus surge breaks health system

NEW DELHI (AP) — India crossed a grim milestone Wednesday of 200,000 people lost to the coronavirus as a devastating surge of new infections tears through dense cities and rural areas alike and overwhelms health care systems on the brink of collapse.

The health ministry reported a single-day record 3,293 COVID-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing India's total fatalities to 201,187, as the world's second most populous country endures its darkest chapter of the pandemic yet. 

The country also reported 362,757 new infections, a new global record, which raised the overall total past 17.9 million. The previous high of 350,000 on Monday had capped a five-day streak of recording the largest single-day increases in any country throughout the pandemic.

India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, is the fourth to cross 200,000 deaths, behind the United States, Brazil and Mexico. And as in many nations, experts believe the coronavirus infections and fatalities in India are severe undercounts.

The first known COVID-19 death in India happened on March 12, 2020, in southern Karnataka state. It took five months to reach the first 50,000 dead. The toll hit 100,000 deaths in the next two months in October 2020 and 150,000 three months later in January this year. Deaths slowed until mid-March, only to sharply rise again.

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Biden to pitch sweeping 'family plan' in speech to Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — Marking his first 100 days in office, President Joe Biden will use his first joint address to Congress to pitch a $1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education that would fundamentally transform the role government plays in American life.

Biden will make his case Wednesday night before a pared-down gathering of mask-wearing legislators due to coronavirus restrictions and in a U.S. Capitol still surrounded by black fencing after insurrectionists protesting his election occupied the very dais where he will stand.

In the nationally televised ritual of a president standing before Congress, Biden will lay out a sweeping proposal for universal preschool, two years of free community college, $225 billion for child care and monthly payments of at least $250 to parents. His ideas reflect the frailties that were uncovered last year by the pandemic, and he will make the case that economic growth would best come from taxing the rich to help the middle class and the poor.

His speech will also provide an update on progress in combating the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief checks delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States. He will also champion his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure to be financed solely by higher taxes on corporations.

Seizing an opportunity born of generational calamity, Biden has embraced momentous action over incremental progress, with the goal of making the economy fairer and stronger. But he will be forced to thread the needle between Republicans who cry government overreach and some Democrats who fear he won't go big enough. 

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Outdoor mask guidance echoes what many Americans already do

In the small Nebraska town of Oxford, the school district dropped its mask mandate last month in what was a fairly straight-forward decision: Cases were down dramatically, and it didn't bother local officials that their move flouted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Those federal mask guidelines just didn't seem to fit local conditions well in the town of about 800 people where hardly anyone wears a mask.

"We haven't paid a whole lot of attention to what is going on at the federal level — mainly what is coming out through the state," Southern Valley Superintendent Bryce Jorgensen said. "You just can't compare Chicago to Oxford, Nebraska. Things are just different."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don't need to cover their faces anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers. And those who are unvaccinated can go outside without masks in some situations, too.

For most of the past year, the CDC had been advising Americans to wear masks outdoors if they are within 6 feet of one another.

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Navy SEALs to shift from counterterrorism to global threats

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ten years after they found and killed Osama bin Laden, U.S. Navy SEALs are undergoing a major transition to improve leadership and expand their commando capabilities to better battle threats from global powers like China and Russia.

The new plan cuts the number of SEAL platoons by as much as 30% and increases their size to make the teams more lethal and able to counter sophisticated maritime and undersea adversaries. And there will be a new, intensive screening process for the Navy's elite warriors, to get higher-quality leaders after scandals that rocked the force and involved charges of murder, sexual assault and drug use.

Rear Adm. Hugh Howard, top commander for the SEALs, laid out his plans in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. He said the Navy's special operations forces have been focused on counterterrorism operations but now must begin to evolve beyond those missions. For the past two decades, many have been fighting in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. Now they are focused on going back to sea.

That decision reflects the broader Pentagon strategy to prioritize China and Russia, which are rapidly growing their militaries and trying to expand their influence around the globe. U.S. defense leaders believe that two decades of war against militants and extremists have drained resources, causing America to lose ground against Moscow and Beijing.

The counterterrorism fight had its benefits, allowing the SEALs to sharpen their skills in developing intelligence networks and finding and hitting targets, said Howard, who heads Naval Special Warfare Command, which includes the SEALs and the special warfare combatant-craft crewmen. "Many of these things are transferable, but now we need to put pressure on ourselves to operate against peer threats."

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AP PHOTOS: India's deadly virus surge follows crowded events

NEW DELHI (AP) — India's death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 200,000 as a virus surge sweeps the country, rooted in so-called super-spreader events that were allowed to happen in the months after India thought it had the pandemic under control.

Now India is enduring its darkest chapter yet, with mass funeral pyres, burials and a collapse of the health system compounded by shortages of oxygen, ventilators, and hospital beds.

Fueling the catastrophe were a series of crowded events, like mass rallies by politicians such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, religious holidays and pilgrimages on the River Ganges, where people relaxed their vigilance and didn't wear masks or keep their social distance.

The health ministry on Wednesday reported 3,293 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing India's total fatalities to 201,187. The deaths and the confirmed cases of 17.9 million are thought to be undercounts.

Now the surge is sending its health system toward collapse. Hospitalizations and deaths have reached record highs. Patients are suffocating because hospitals are using up their oxygen supplies. Fires at overwhelmed crematoriums are lighting up night skies.

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Harris takes on 'hard work' in 100 days as vice president

WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate, there were whispers about her ambition — would a former rival be a loyal soldier to a president she so sharply criticized on the campaign trail?

Fueling those whispers was their relationship — while cordial, it was initially not particularly close.

But 100 days into Biden's term, things look very different. Harris has become one of the administration's most prominent advocates for Biden's agenda, standing alongside him at most of his major announcements and building a relationship that aides say is closer than most presidents had with their seconds-in-command.

Harris has taken on one of the administration's toughest tasks — addressing the root causes of migration to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. The problem has bedeviled presidents from both parties for years and has no easy solutions.

Tina Flournoy, Harris' chief of staff, said the vice president has "taken it on with gusto."

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The Hamburglar? How a story about meat limits fell apart

NEW YORK (AP) — President Joe Biden spent only a weekend as the "Hamburglar" in the conservative media world.

But while the false story lasted, it moved with a damaging speed and breadth, another example of a closed ecosystem of information affecting public opinion. 

An academic study published a year before Biden became president was used to speculate that he would place limits on how much red meat Americans can consume as part of his stated goal to sharply reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

It was a potentially potent, visceral argument with punchy cable TV octane, namely that Biden was trying to limit people to eating one hamburger a month — an allegation that could seriously undermine his climate change plan before he even announced it.

There was one main problem: He's said no such thing.

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US Navy fires warning shots in new tense encounter with Iran

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An American warship fired warning shots when vessels of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard came too close to a patrol in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said Wednesday.

The Navy released black-and-white footage of the encounter Monday night in international waters of the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf. In it, lights can be seen in the distance and what appears to be a single gunshot can be heard, with a tracer round racing across the top of the water.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

The Navy said the USS Firebolt fired the warning shots after three fast-attack Guard vessels came within 68 yards (62 meters) of it and the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranoff. 

"The U.S. crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the (Guard) vessels continued their close range maneuvers," said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the Mideast-based 5th Fleet. "The crew of Firebolt then fired warning shots, and the (Guard) vessels moved away to a safe distance from the U.S. vessels."

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In Jaffa, gentrification stokes discord as Arabs pushed out

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — A turreted former Catholic girl's school in Jaffa is being transformed into an exclusive Soho House club. Around the corner, a historic ex-convent is now a five-star hotel. Across the street, the glittering towers of the Andromeda Hill luxury residences overlook the Mediterranean. 

But farther down Yefet Street, working class Arabs of Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood face a starkly different reality. With housing prices out of reach, discontent over the city's rapid transformation into a bastion for Israel's ultra-wealthy is reaching a boiling point. The crisis has taken on nationalistic overtones, with some Arab residents accusing the government of trying to push them out to make way for Jews.

"Ninety percent of people here barely make a living, from hand to mouth, they don't have enough to eat," said Jaffa resident Ibrahim Tartir. "For a young man looking to get married, it's 5,000, 6,000 shekels ($1,800) for rent, not including water and electricity and the rest. How much does he earn? 6,000 a month. How can he live?"

Jaffa, the historic port at the core of the greater Tel Aviv metropolis, is home to around 20,000 Arab residents, remnants of the Palestinian population that lived there before Israel's establishment in 1948. The district has undergone extensive gentrification in recent decades with government encouragement. 

That trend has accelerated in the past several years as real estate prices have skyrocketed amid surging demand. As wealthy Israelis and foreigners move from other areas of Tel Aviv into Jaffa, its mostly working-class Arab residents have been pushed out. This has added ethnic tensions to an economic phenomenon familiar in other cities around the world. 

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Australian who filmed 4 dead and dying police sent to prison

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A speeding driver in Australia was sentenced to 10 months in prison on Wednesday for offenses including what a judge described as the "heartless, cruel and disgraceful" filming of four dead and dying police officers who had just been hit by a truck on a freeway.

Richard Pusey, a 42-year-old mortgage broker, had earlier pleaded guilty in the Victoria state County Court to a rarely-prosecuted charge of outraging public decency over his commentary in crash scene videos shot with his phone. It was the first time the charge had been prosecuted in the state since 1963.

The most serious charge he admitted was reckless conduct endangering persons, which carries a potential maximum of five years in prison.

Judge Trevor Wraight sentenced Pusey to 10 months in prison, backdated to when he was taken into custody 296 days ago. 

Police had pulled Pusey over for driving his Porsche at 149 kilometers (93 miles) per hour on Melbourne's Eastern Freeway in April last year.

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