Skip to main content

The Associated Press

OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. — A winter storm that left millions without power in record-breaking cold weather claimed more lives, including three people found dead after a tornado hit a seaside town in North Carolina and four family members who perished in a Houston-area house fire while using a fireplace to stay warm.

The storm that overwhelmed power grids and immobilized the Southern Plains on Tuesday carried heavy snow and freezing rain into New England and the Deep South and left behind painfully low temperatures. Wind-chill warnings extended from Canada into Mexico.

In all, at least 20 deaths were reported. Other causes included car crashes and carbon monoxide poisoning. The weather also threatened to affect the nation's COVID-19 vaccination effort. President Joe Biden's administration said delays in vaccine shipments and deliveries were likely.

North Carolina's Brunswick County had little notice of the dangerous weather, and a tornado warning was not issued until the storm was already on the ground.

The National Weather Service was "very surprised how rapidly this storm intensified ... and at the time of night when most people are at home and in bed, it creates a very dangerous situation," Emergency Services Director Ed Conrow said.

Japan begins COVID-19 vaccination drive amid Olympic worries

TOKYO — Months after other major economies, Japan began giving the first coronavirus vaccines to front-line health workers Wednesday. Many are wondering if the campaign will reach enough people, and in time, to save a Summer Olympics already delayed a year by the worst pandemic in a century. 

Despite recent rising infections, Japan has largely dodged the kind of cataclysm that has battered other wealthy countries' economies, social networks and healthcare systems. But the fate of the Olympics, and the billions of dollars at stake should the Games fail, makes Japan's vaccine campaign crucial. Japanese officials are also well aware that China, which has had success eradicating the virus, will host next year's Winter Olympics, something that heightens the desire to make the Tokyo Games happen. 

A big problem as the vaccines roll out — first to medical workers, then the elderly and then, possibly in late spring or early summer, to the rest of the population — are worries about shortages of the imported vaccines Japan relies on, and a long-time reluctance among many Japanese to take vaccines because of fears of relatively-rare side effects that have been played up by the media in the past.

The late rollout will make it impossible to reach so-called "herd immunity" against the virus before the Olympics begin in July, experts say.

The vaccination drive has the support of the government, but there's widespread wariness, even opposition, among citizens to having the Games at all. About 80% of those polled in recent media surveys support cancellation or further postponement of the Olympics because of the virus worries. 

Biden reframes his goal on reopening of elementary schools

MILWAUKEE — President Joe Biden is promising a majority of elementary schools will be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office, restating his goal after his administration came under fire when aides said schools would be considered open if they held in-person learning just one day a week.

Biden's comments, during a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, marked his clearest statement yet on school reopenings. Biden had pledged in December to reopen "the majority of our schools" in his first 100 days but has since faced increasing questions about how he would define and achieve that goal, with school districts operating under a patchwork of different virtual and in-person learning arrangements nationwide.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"I said open a majority of schools in K through eighth grade, because they're the easiest to open, the most needed to be open in terms of the impact on children and families having to stay home," Biden said. 

He said comments by White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier this month that one day a week of in-person learning would meet his goal were "a mistake in the communication." 

Asked when the nation would see kindergarten through eighth grades back to in-person learning five days a week, Biden said, "We'll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days." He said he expected many schools would push to stay open through the summer, but suggested reopening would take longer for high schools due to a higher risk of contagion among older students.

COVID-19 bill would scale up ability to spot virus mutations

U.S. scientists would gain vastly expanded capabilities to identify potentially deadlier mutations of the coronavirus under COVID-19 relief legislation advancing in Congress. 

The U.S. now maps only the genetic makeup of a minuscule fraction of positive virus samples, a situation some experts liken to flying blind. It means the true domestic spread of problematic mutations first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa remains a matter of guesswork.

Such ignorance could prove costly. One worry is that more transmissible forms such as the UK variant could move faster than the nation's ability to get the vaccine into Americans' arms.

"You've got a small number of academic and public health labs that have been basically doing the genomic surveillance," said David O'Connor, an AIDS researcher at the University of Wisconsin. "But there is no national coherence to the strategy."

'A complete bungle': Texas' energy pride goes out with cold

AUSTIN, Texas — Anger over Texas' power grid failing in the face of a record winter freeze mounted Tuesday as millions of residents in the energy capital of the U.S. remained shivering with no assurances that their electricity and heat — out for 36 hours or longer in many homes — would return soon or stay on once it finally does. 

"I know people are angry and frustrated," said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who woke up to more than 1 million people still without power in his city. "So am I."

In all, between 2 and 3 million customers in Texas still had no power nearly two full days after historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge in demand for electricity to warm up homes unaccustomed to such extreme lows, buckling the state's power grid and causing widespread blackouts. More bad weather, including freezing rain, began arriving Tuesday night.

Making matters worse, expectations that the outages would be a shared sacrifice by the state's 30 million residents quickly gave way to a cold reality, as pockets in some of America's largest cities, including San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, were left to shoulder the lasting brunt of a catastrophic power failure, and in subfreezing conditions that Texas' grid operators had known was coming. 

The breakdown sparked growing outrage and demands for answers over how Texas — whose Republican leaders as recently as last year taunted California over the Democratic-led state's rolling blackouts — failed such a massive test of a major point of state pride: energy independence. And it cut through politics, as fuming Texans took to social media to highlight how while their neighborhoods froze in the dark Monday night, downtown skylines glowed despite desperate calls to conserve energy.