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The Associated Press

After a punishing fall that left hospitals struggling, some Midwestern states are seeing a decline in new coronavirus cases. But the signs of improvement are offset by the virus's accelerating spread on both coasts: In California, officials scrambled to distribute body bags and deploy mobile morgues as infections rose at an alarming rate.

States including Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska have seen decreases in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 over the past couple of weeks. All, however, are still experiencing an alarming number of deaths and hospitalizations because of the earlier surge of cases.

With winter weather driving people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, there's no guarantee the improving dynamic can be maintained, doctors and public health officials say.

"We have a vaccine rolling out, but that doesn't change the overall picture," Dr. James Lawler with the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security told the Omaha World-Herald. "Things could still turn south pretty easily."

But he and others are encouraged by the figures. In Iowa, for example, the number of new virus cases reported daily has declined over the past two weeks from nearly 1,800 to about 1,250. In Nebraska, it has gone from about 1,800 a day to a little under 1,300. "I am fingers crossed right now," said Dr. Stacey Marlow, an emergency room physician at UnityPoint Allen Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa. "The COVID patients that I am seeing are very, very sick. But there are ... less of them."

Deaths from the virus in Iowa have continued to rise sharply, to an average of 79 a day, up from 28 two weeks ago.

Nationwide, the death toll has topped 300,000, with more than 16 million confirmed infections. On average, the U.S. is seeing about 2,400 deaths and over 215,000 new cases per day. An influential model from the University of Washington says deaths could total 502,000 by April 1, even with a vaccine. 

Lawler said more Nebraska residents appear to be following warnings to limit dining out and wear masks in public. It helps that a number of Nebraska cities recently passed mask mandates, he said.

White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx said the progress in Midwestern states is being offset by a "deteriorating situation" on both coasts.
Nationwide, the number of people in the hospital with the virus has hit an all-time high of more than 110,000, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Flattening curve wasn't enough for New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand this year pulled off a moonshot that remains the envy of most other nations: It eliminated the coronavirus.

But the goal was driven as much by fear as it was ambition, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. She said the target grew from an early realization the nation's health system simply couldn't cope with a big outbreak.

And there have been plenty of bumps along the way. When a handful of unexplained cases began cropping up in August, Ardern found herself defending wildly exaggerated claims from President Donald Trump, who told crowds at rallies there was a massive resurgence and "It's over for New Zealand. Everything's gone."

"Was angry the word?" Ardern said, reflecting on Trump's comments. She said while the new cases were deeply concerning, "to be described in that way was a misrepresentation of New Zealand's position."

Turning the page? Republicans acknowledge Biden's victory

WASHINGTON — More than a month after the election, top Republicans finally acknowledged Joe Biden as the next U.S. president, a collapse in GOP resistance to the millions of voters who decisively chose the Democrat. Foreign leaders joined the parade, too, including Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Speaking on Tuesday from the floor of the U.S. Senate where Biden spent 36 years of his career, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell congratulated his former colleague as president-elect. The two men spoke later in the day.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, was to meet with his likely successor in the new administration, Antony Blinken. And GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of President Donald Trump's closest allies, said he'd spoken with some of Biden's Cabinet picks.

A similar shift unfolded in capitals across the world, where leaders including Russia's Putin and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador acknowledged Biden's win. 

The moves came a day after electors nationwide formally cast votes affirming Biden's victory in last month's presidential election. And while that clears a more stable path for Biden to assume the presidency, it does little to stop Trump from continuing to try to undermine confidence in the results with baseless allegations that have been rejected by judges across the political spectrum.

Trump voters accept Biden election win 'with reservations'

WASHINGTON — Robert Reed says he will always believe the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump. The retired police officer-turned-construction worker believes fraud marred the vote, no matter how many courts rejected that claim. Still, a day after the Electoral College made Joe Biden's win official, the ardent Trump supporter from the suburbs of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was ready to move on.

"I think it's pretty much over," Reed said of Trump's ongoing quest to overturn the results of the election. "I trust the Electoral College."

For weeks, Trump has been on a mission to convince his loyal base that his victory was stolen and the contest was rigged. With help from conservative media, polls show he's had considerable success. But now that the Electoral College has formalized Biden's win and Republican officials, including Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, are finally acknowledging Biden as president-elect, many Trump voters across the country seem to be doing the same. 

Interviews with voters, along with fresh surveys of Republicans, suggest their unfounded doubts about the integrity of the vote remain. But there is far less consensus on what should be done about it and whether to carry that resentment forward.

For some, like Reed, the Electoral College vote was the clear end of a process. Others have vowed to continue to protest with demonstrations like the one that turned violent in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. And some said they hoped GOP leaders would press for more investigations to put the doubts Trump sowed to rest. 

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Minnesota juvenile lifer walks free after 18 years in prison

MINNEAPOLIS — A Black man sent to prison for life as a teenager took his first steps of freedom Tuesday to the sound of ringing bells and cheering family members and supporters, hours after a pardons board commuted his sentence in a high-profile murder case. 

Myon Burrell's prosecution and harsh punishment raised questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system that put him away nearly two decades ago for the death of a young girl killed by a stray bullet. Earlier this year, The Associated Press and APM Reports uncovered new evidence and serious flaws in the police investigation, ultimately leading to the creation of an independent national legal panel to review the case.

Last week, panel members published their findings, raising many of the same concerns, including that police had "tunnel vision" while pursuing Burrell as a suspect. The panel said it saw no purpose served by keeping Burrell locked up, pointing to his age at the time of the crime and his good behavior behind bars. 

Burrell's request for a pardon was denied. But it was the first time in at least 22 years that Minnesota commuted a sentence in a murder case, according the the Department of Corrections. 

And the release was swift. Just hours after learning his life sentence had been commuted, with two remaining years to be served on supervised release, he walked out the front door of Stillwater prison into below-freezing temperatures. Dozens of bundled supporters, some holding signs and balloons, surrounded Burrell while cheering "Myon's free! Myon's free!" 

Germany enters harder lockdown as virus deaths hit new high

BERLIN — Germany hit a new record level of coronavirus deaths as it entered a harder lockdown Wednesday, closing shops and schools to try to bring down stubbornly high new cases.

The country recorded 179.8 deaths of new infections per 100,000 residents over the last seven days, a new high and significantly more than the 149 per 100,000 reported a week ago by the Robert Koch Institute, the country's disease control center.

It also blew past its previous daily total, with Germany's 16 states reporting 952 people had died of the virus, the agency said. That was far greater than the previous daily record set Friday of 598 deaths, although included two days of figures from the hard-hit eastern state of Saxony, which did not report Tuesday. It brought the country's overall pandemic death toll to 23,427. 

Faced with exponentially increasing cases in October, Germany implemented a "lockdown light" at the start of November, which closed bars and restaurants but left shops open. The measures succeeded in leveling off the numbers of new daily infections, but didn't bring them down, prompting the new stricter restrictions.

In addition to closing shops and moving children to remote learning for the few days before the Christmas holidays, private gatherings are being limited to two households with a maximum of five people, among other things.

UK still plans to ease restrictions on holiday gatherings

LONDON — Britain's easing of restrictions for family gatherings over Christmas looks like it's still on despite a sharp spike in new coronavirus infections that's raised fears of another wave of cases and deaths in the new year.

Britain's communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said further discussions will take place on Wednesday between leaders from the four nations of the U.K. about the planned relaxation. However, he gave no indication that a change would be announced, beyond urging people to think harder about their holiday plans.

"It could be counterproductive to produce overly restrictive rules rather than providing very clear and sober guidance and ask people to think carefully and come to their informed judgment," he told BBC radio. 

Criticism of the planned five-day easing of restrictions, which would allow three households to form a holiday bubble, have ratcheted higher in recent days. With new infections rising in many places, concerns are growing that the relaxation will only escalate infections and deaths and put too much pressure on the already-stressed National Health Service. 

Michael Gove, a senior member of Britain's Conservative government, which sets public health policy for England, has met with leaders from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the U.K.'s Christmas plans, and the group will meet again Wednesday. They agreed last month to allow a maximum of three households to mix between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27, regardless of what local restrictions are in place. 

Biden's challenge: Creating a COVID-19-free White House

WASHINGTON  — Three blocks from the White House, office space for more than 500 Biden transition staffers sits mostly idle. The government is shipping out laptops so staffers can work from home. President-elect Joe Biden, surrounded by just a handful of aides in Delaware, is using Zoom to oversee his plans to assume power.

But Biden soon will be entering a no-Zoom zone at the White House — just one sign of the challenges his new administration will face when it moves to Washington in the midst of a pandemic.

After months of making a virtue of the cautious approach his campaign and transition team have taken toward COVID-19, Biden's prudence will be tested by technology and tradition when he arrives on Jan. 20.

White House computers don't allow the popular video conference software Zoom or rival systems like Google Meet and Slack. Government-issue cellphones only gained texting capabilities a few years ago. And many employees will need to be present at the White House to access classified information. 

Biden's team has limited experience with staffing a physical office during the pandemic. His campaign went all-virtual in mid-March, clearing out its Philadelphia headquarters and sending staff back to their families in Washington, New York and beyond. His transition team plotted out his path to power entirely online.

China prepares for return of lunar probe with moon samples

BEIJING — Chinese ground crews are standing by for the return of a lunar probe bringing back the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in more than 45 years. 

The Chang'e probe is expected to land in the Siziwang district of the vast Inner Mongolia region late Wednesday or early Thursday. It fired its engines early Wednesday to put it on course before the orbiter separates from the return vehicle, with all systems functioning as expected, the China National Space Administration said. 

Recovery of the return vehicle will be complicated by its small size, darkness and heavy snow, state media reported. Plans call for it to perform an initial bounce off the Earth's atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating down on parachutes, making it difficult to precisely calculate where it will land, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Bian Hancheng, a leader of the recovery crew, as saying. 

State broadcaster CCTV showed four military helicopters standing by Wednesday morning at a base on the snow-covered grasslands. Crews in vehicles on the ground will also seek to hone in on signals. While sprawling in size, the area is relatively familiar because of its use as a landing site for China's Shenzhou crewed spaceships. 

Chang'e 5 set down on the moon on Dec. 1 and collected about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples by scooping them from the surface, and by drilling 2 meters (about 6 feet) into the moon's crust. The samples were deposited in a sealed container that was carried back to the return module by an ascent vehicle.