Briefs: Vacation was 'obviously a mistake'

Hundreds of thousands of Texans were still grappling with the fallout of a winter storm that crippled the state's power grid
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The Associated Press

DALLAS — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said his family vacation to Mexico was "obviously a mistake" as he returned stateside Thursday following an uproar over his disappearance during a deadly winter storm.

The Republican senator said he began second-guessing the trip since the moment he first got on the plane Wednesday. "In hindsight, I wouldn't have done it," he told reporters.

The Associated Press and other media outlets reported that he had traveled out of the country with his family as hundreds of thousands of Texans were still grappling with the fallout of a winter storm that crippled the state's power grid. The trip drew criticism from leaders in both parties and was seen as potentially damaging to his future political ambitions.

Cruz said in an earlier statement Thursday that he accompanied his family to Cancun a day earlier after his daughters asked to go on a trip with friends, given that school was canceled for the week.

"Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon," Cruz wrote.

"My staff and I are in constant communication with state and local leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas," he continued. "We want our power back, our water on, and our homes warm."

Cruz told reporters Thursday night that he returned to the U.S. because he realized he needed to be in Texas. He said he had originally been scheduled to stay in Mexico through the weekend.

"I didn't want all the screaming and yelling about this trip to distract even one moment from the real issues that I think Texans care about, which is keeping all of our families safe," Cruz said.

"It was obviously a mistake, and in hindsight, I wouldn't have done it," he said.

The fierce political backlash comes as Cruz eyes a second presidential run in 2024. He was already one of the most villainized Republicans in Congress, having created adversaries across the political spectrum in a career defined by far-right policies and fights with the establishment.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Texas woke up Thursday to a fourth day without power, and a water crisis was unfolding after winter storms wreaked havoc on the state's power grid and utilities. 

Texas officials ordered 7 million people — one-quarter of the population of the nation's second-largest state — to boil tap water before drinking the water, after days of record low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and froze pipes.

In Austin, some hospitals faced a loss in water pressure and, in some cases, heat. 

News of Cruz's absence quickly rippled across the state. 

Livia Trevino, a 24-year-old whose Austin home was still without water Thursday, said she felt abandoned by government leaders.

"They are taking vacations and leaving the country, so they don't have to deal with this, and we are freezing to death. We don't have water and we don't have food," she said.

While the situation will not help Cruz's political future, the two-term senator is not in any immediate political danger. His current term expires in early 2025, and the unofficial beginning of the next Republican presidential primary election is two years away.

Old habits imperil Iraq as doctors warn of second virus wave

BAGHDAD — In the busy emergency room of Baghdad's main public hospital, Ali Abbas stood face uncovered, waiting for his sickly father. Dozens of other patients and their relatives mingled without masks. 

It's a scene that confounds health workers in Iraq, who warn that the country is entering a new wave of coronavirus cases, in part because many shirk precautions. 

"I don't believe in the coronavirus, I believe in God," the 21-year-old Abbas said in the middle of the hospital floor, defying the facility's rules requiring masks. 

On Friday, Iraq was under its first full day of a new curfew imposed by the government in response to infection rates that have shot back up again after easing last autumn. The curfew runs all day Friday to Sunday, and from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. the rest of the week. Mosques and schools are closed, large gatherings prohibited, and the wearing of masks and other protective gear will be enforced, according to a statement from the government.

A complete lockdown, including closing airports and borders, is also being considered, two government officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. 

Doctors race to find, vaccinate vulnerable homebound people

A group of health care workers hurried out of a Boston hospital on a recent weekday morning, clutching small red coolers filled with COVID-19 vaccines.

Their challenge: Beat traffic, a looming snowstorm and the clock. They had to get shots in the arms of their homebound patients before the vaccines expired in a few hours. 

"That clock is in the back of my mind the whole time," said Dr. Won Lee, a home care specialist at Boston Medical Center.

Millions of U.S. residents will need COVID-19 vaccines brought to them because they rarely or never leave home. Doctors and nurses who specialize in home care are leading this push and starting to get help from state and local governments around the country.

But they face several challenges. Researchers say many homebound people don't receive regular medical care, which makes it hard to identify everyone who needs a vaccine.

Biden to lay out his foreign policy at G-7, Munich summit

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden will make his first big appearance on the global stage as president on Friday, offering Group of Seven allies and other foreign leaders a glimpse into his plans to dramatically reshape U.S. foreign policy even as he deals with a number of international crises that are coming to a head.

In advance of Biden's virtual appearances at a G-7 meeting and the Munich Security Conference, the White House sought to underscore that the new administration will move quickly to reorient the U.S. away from Donald Trump's "America First" mantra by announcing major reversals of Trump administration policies. 

Biden was expected to use his address to the Munich conference to stress that the U.S. stands ready to rejoin talks about reentering the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal abandoned by the Trump administration. The Biden administration announced Thursday its desire to reengage Iran, and it took action at the United Nations aimed at restoring policy to what it was before President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

Biden was also expected to address economic and national security challenges posed by Russia and China, as well as the two-decade war in Afghanistan, where he faces a May 1 deadline to remove the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops under a Trump administration negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban.

His message was to be girded by an underlying argument that democracies -- not autocracies -- are models of governance that can best meet the challenges of the moment, according to a senior administration official who previewed the president's speech for reporters.

Massive breach fuels calls for US action on cybersecurity

WASHINGTON — Jolted by a sweeping hack that may have revealed government and corporate secrets to Russia, U.S. officials are scrambling to reinforce the nation's cyber defenses and recognizing that an agency created two years ago to protect America's networks and infrastructure lacks the money, tools and authority to counter such sophisticated threats.

The breach, which hijacked widely used software from Texas-based SolarWinds Inc., has exposed the profound vulnerability of civilian government networks and the limitations of efforts to detect threats.

It's also likely to unleash a wave of spending on technology modernization and cybersecurity. 

"It's really highlighted the investments we need to make in cybersecurity to have the visibility to block these attacks in the future," Anne Neuberger, the newly appointed deputy national security adviser for cyber and emergency technology said Wednesday at a White House briefing.

The reaction reflects the severity of a hack that was disclosed only in December. The hackers, as yet unidentified but described by officials as "likely Russian," had unfettered access to the data and email of at least nine U.S. government agencies and about 100 private companies, with the full extent of the compromise still unknown. And while this incident appeared to be aimed at stealing information, it heightened fears that future hackers could damage critical infrastructure, like electrical grids or water systems.

Lights come back on in Texas as water woes rise in the South

AUSTIN, Texas — Many of the millions of Texans who lost power for days after a deadly winter blast overwhelmed the electric grid now have it back, but the crisis was far from over in parts of the South with many people lacking safe drinking water.

About 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power in Texas on Thursday, down from about 3 million a day earlier, though utility officials said limited rolling blackouts were still possible. 

The storms also left more than 450,000 from West Virginia to Louisiana without power and 100,000 in Oregon were still enduring a weeklong outage following a massive ice and snow storm. 

The snow and ice moved into the Appalachians, northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, and later the Northeast as the extreme weather was blamed for the deaths of at least 56 people, with a growing toll of those who perished trying to keep warm. 

In the Houston area, a family died from carbon monoxide as their car idled in their garage. A woman and her three grandchildren were killed in a fire that authorities said might have been caused by a fireplace they were using.

'Alone': How Italian town with 1st known virus death fared

VO, Italy — Italy delivered the first shocking confirmation of locally transmitted coronavirus infections outside of Asia a year ago Sunday, with back-to-back revelations of cases more than 150 kilometers (nearly 100 miles) apart in the country's north.

First, a 38-year-old man in Codogno, an industrial town in the Lombardy region, tested positive for COVID-19, sending panicked residents to pick up their children from school, stock up on provisions at grocery stores and search in vain for surgical masks at pharmacies.

By the evening of Feb. 21, a 77-year-old retired roofer from Vo, a wine-making town in the Veneto region, had died — at the time, the first known fatality from a locally transmitted case of the virus in the West, setting off alarm bells far and wide.

In the days and weeks that followed, densely populated Lombardy would become the epicenter of Italy's outbreak and, by the end of March, countries the world over would be under lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus that has now taken 2.4 million lives. But Vo, as one of the first towns in the West to be isolated, has a unique story, providing some of the first scientific insights into the deadly virus. 

Adriano Trevisan's death sent shockwaves through the town west of Venice. Trevisan, well-known around Vo and a regular at a card game in a local bar, had been hospitalized for two weeks with circulatory issues related to a heart condition that could not be resolved with drugs, according to his physician, Dr. Carlo Petruzzi. There was no reason to suspect the coronavirus — as the retiree had had no contact with China, until then a key element in diagnosis. 

World leaders applaud US formal return to Paris climate pact

The United States is back in the Paris climate accord, just 107 days after it left. 

While Friday's return is heavily symbolic, world leaders say they expect America to prove its seriousness after four years of being pretty much absent. They are especially anticipating an announcement from the U.S. in coming months on its goal for cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases by 2030.

The U.S. return to the Paris agreement became official Friday, almost a month after President Joe Biden told the United Nations that America wants back in. "A cry for survival comes from the planet itself," Biden said in his inaugural address. "A cry that can't be any more desperate or any more clear now."

Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office reversing the pullout ordered by his predecessor, President Donald Trump. The Trump administration had announced its withdrawal from the Paris accord in 2019 but it didn't become effective until Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the election, because of provisions in the agreement.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday that the official American re-entry "is itself very important," as is Biden's announcement that the U.S. will return to providing climate aid to poorer nations, as promised in 2009.