Briefs: Who's in line for vaccine?

Associated Press

Stories for Friday: Vaccine distribution; EPA, Interior leaders picked; 300 Nigerian schoolboys, freed after being kidnapped

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — The U.S. COVID-19 vaccination campaign has begun, and the few available doses are mostly going into the arms of health-care workers and nursing home residents. 

But what about in January, February and March, when more shots are expected to become available? Who should get those doses?

A federal panel of vaccination experts takes up that question at an emergency meeting this weekend. No matter what the committee decides, there will be differences from state to state.

The panelists are leaning toward putting "essential workers" first because bus drivers, grocery store clerks and similar employees can't work from home. They are the people getting infected most often, and where concerns about racial inequities in risk are most apparent.

But other experts say people age 65 and older should be next, along with people with certain medical conditions. Those are the people who are dying at the highest rates, they say.

Biden picks Regan for EPA nominee, Haaland for interior head

President-elect Joe Biden says he had chosen North Carolina regulator Michael S. Regan as his nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as his pick for interior secretary.

Biden said Thursday that the selections round out what he said would be an experienced climate team ready from their first day in office to tackle the "undeniable, accelerating, punishing reality of climate change." Biden is proposing a sweeping overhaul of the nation's transportation and electrical systems to cut the oil, gas and coal emissions behind worsening global warming.

The picks also help Biden fulfill his promise to put together a Cabinet that reflects the diversity of America. Regan is Black, while Haaland would be the first Native American Cabinet member in U.S. history. Biden will introduce Regan, Haaland and other newly named nominees at an event Saturday.

Regan became environmental chief in North Carolina in 2017 and made a name for himself by pursuing cleanups of industrial toxins and helping the low-income and minority communities hit hardest by pollution. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who hired Regan, told The Associated Press this week that Regan was "a consensus builder and a fierce protector of the environment."

If confirmed by the Senate, Regan would take over the EPA after four years that have seen the Trump administration weaken or eliminate key public health and environmental protections. President Donald Trump had made the agency a special target for his drive to cut regulation, saying early on that he would leave only "bits" of the environmental agency behind.

Trump rollbacks and proposed rollbacks include weakening air pollution rules for industries, slashing protection for wetlands and waterways and eliminating Obama-era efforts to halt climate change by curbing exhaust and smokestack emissions from autos and factories. Opponents say some of many other rollbacks in the agency will make it harder for regulators to adopt new limits based on threats highlighted in public health studies.

In North Carolina, Regan led the negotiations that resulted in the cleanup of the Cape Fear River, which has been dangerously contaminated by PFAS industrial compounds from a chemical plant. PFAS have been associated with increased risk of cancer and other health problems. With Duke Energy, he negotiated what North Carolina says was the largest cleanup agreement for toxic coal ash. 

Regan also created North Carolina's Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to help low-income and minority communities that suffer disproportionate exposure to harmful pollutants from refineries, factories and freeways.

Regan previously spent almost a decade at the federal EPA, including managing a national program for air pollution issues.

Other past work included serving as an associate vice president for climate and energy issues at the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group and as head of his own environmental and energy consulting firm.

For her part, Haaland would be the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, the powerful federal agency that has wielded influence over the nation's tribes for generations.

Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, would be in charge of an agency that has tremendous sway over the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes as well as over much of the nation's vast public lands, waterways, wildlife, national parks and mineral wealth.

She tweeted Thursday, "In 4 years, Trump failed Indian Country & only broke more promises. It was exacerbated by the Administration's failure to take this #pandemic seriously. Looking forward to turning the page on this dark chapter."

Haaland's historic selection was praised by tribal leaders, progressive activists and Democratic figures alike. Some on Biden's transition team had expressed concerns about further thinning a narrow Democratic House majority by picking Haaland for a Cabinet position. But the president-elect decided that the barrier-breaking aspect of her nomination and her experience as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources made her the right pick for the moment.

Regan was praised for his success even during challenging political circumstances. Republicans controlling North Carolina's Legislature during the 2010s had eliminated dozens of department regulatory jobs and pushed business-friendly laws.

Regan "restored morale in the agency," said Bill Holman, who led North Carolina's environmental department. "He renewed the mission of the agency. ... He did the missionary work of going to the General Assembly and listening to a lot of critics of environmental legislation, addressing their concerns and finding common ground." 

Holman said North Carolina has struggled with how to regulate PFAS industrial compounds, but so has every other state. Part of that has to do with a lack of national leadership on the issue, Holman said, something that he believes Regan is poised to correct by returning to Washington. 

Holman said, "Regan believes in science, and I think he will put science and public health at the forefront at EPA."

California clean-air regulator Mary Nichols, who earlier had been considered the front-runner for the EPA job in the Biden administration, had faced increasing objections from progressive groups. They said Nichols had not done enough to address the disproportionate harm low-income and minority communities face from living next to oil and gas installations, factories and freeways.

Trump stays on sidelines as virus vaccine injections begin

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's administration helped deliver vaccinations against the coronavirus earlier than even some in his administration thought possible, but the president has been largely absent from the effort to sell the American public on what aides hope will be a key part of his legacy.

Trump launched Operation Warp Speed — the government campaign to help swiftly develop and distribute vaccines — this spring with great fanfare in the White House Rose Garden. 

But now, five days into the largest vaccination campaign in the nation's history, Trump has held no public events to trumpet the rollout. He hasn't been inoculated himself. He has tweeted only twice about the shot. Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, has taken center stage — touring a vaccine production facility this week and preparing to receive a dose himself on live television Friday morning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both said Thursday that they will get vaccinated in the next few days.

Trump's relative silence comes as he continues to stew about his defeat in the Nov. 3 election and embraces increasingly extreme efforts to overturn the people's will. He's pushed aside the plans of aides who wanted him to be the public face of the vaccination campaign, eschewing visits to labs and production facilities to thank workers, or hosting efforts to build public confidence in the shot, according to people familiar with the conversations. 

The sheepish approach has been surprising, especially for a president rarely shy to take credit, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law who focuses on public health.

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Video interviews about freed Nigerian schoolboys (The Associated Press)

Freed Nigerian schoolboys welcomed after week of captivity

KATSINA, Nigeria — More than 300 Nigerian schoolboys, freed after being kidnapped last week in an attack on their school, have arrived in the capital of Katsina state to celebrations of their release. 

The boys were abducted on the night of Dec. 11 from the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara village in Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria. 

The students arrived Friday in Katsina, the capital of the state, and met with Katsina Gov. Aminu Bello Masari. 

Bleary-eyed and appearing stunned by their ordeal, the boys piled into chairs in a conference room, most still in their school uniforms, some wrapped in gray blankets. The oldest of the boys sat in the front row and were greeted by officials. 

Masari had announced their release late Thursday, saying 344 boarding school students were turned over to security officials. Masari told The Associated Press that no ransom was not paid to secure the boys' freedom. 

Iran builds at underground nuclear facility amid US tensions

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the U.S. over its atomic program, satellite photos obtained Friday by The Associated Press show.

Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, whose discovery by the West in 2009 came in an earlier round of brinkmanship before world powers struck the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. 

While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo likely will trigger new concern in the waning days of the Trump administration before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Already, Iran is building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.

"Any changes at this site will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran's nuclear program is headed," said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who studies Iran. 

Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The IAEA as of yet has not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.

Virus-stricken Macron at presidential retreat with fever

PARIS — As French President Emmanuel Macron rides out the coronavirus in a presidential retreat at Versailles, French doctors are warning families who are heading for the holidays to remain cautious because of an uptick in infections — especially at the dinner table.

While Macron routinely wears a mask and adheres to social distancing rules, he hosted or took part in multiple group meals in the days before testing positive Thursday. Critics say that's a bad example for compatriots advised to keep their gatherings to six people.

Macron is suffering from fever, cough and fatigue, officials with the presidency said Friday. They wouldn't provide details of his treatment. He is staying at the presidential residence of La Lanterne in the former royal city of Versailles.

Macron's positive test comes as French health authorities are again seeing a rise in infections and warning of more as French families prepare to get together for Christmas and New Year festivities. France reported another 18,254 new infections Thursday and its death toll is just under 60,000.

France's Pasteur Institute released a study Friday suggesting that meal times at home and in public are a major source of contamination. Pasteur epidemiologist Arnaud Fontanet said on France-Inter radio Friday that during the holidays, "we can see each other, simply not be too numerous, and at critical moments at meals, not too many people at the same table."

With Trump silent, reprisals for hacks may fall to Biden

WASHINGTON — All fingers are pointing to Russia as the source of the worst-ever hack of U.S. government agencies. But President Donald Trump, long wary of blaming Moscow for cyberattacks, has been silent. 

The lack of any statement seeking to hold Russia responsible casts doubt on the likelihood of a swift response and suggests any retaliation — whether through sanctions, criminal charges or cyber actions — will be left in the hands of President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration.

"I would imagine that the incoming administration wants a menu of what the options are and then is going to choose," said Sarah Mendelson, a Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council. "Is there a graduated assault? Is there an all-out assault? How much out of the gate do you want to do?"

To be sure, it's not uncommon for administrations to refrain from leveling public accusations of blame for hacks until they've accumulated enough evidence. Here, U.S. officials say they only recently became aware of devastating breaches at multiple government agencies in which foreign intelligence agents rooted around undetected for as much as nine months. But Trump's response, or lack thereof, is being closely watched because of his preoccupation with a fruitless effort to overturn the results of last month's election and because of his refusal to publicly acknowledge that Russian hackers interfered in the 2016 presidential election in his favor.

Exactly what action Biden might take is unclear, or how his response might be shaped by criticism that the Obama administration did not act aggressively enough to thwart interference in 2016. He offered clues in a statement Thursday, saying his administration would be proactive in preventing cyberattacks and impose costs on any adversaries behind them. 

Hot spot: California hospitals buckle as virus cases surge

LOS ANGELES — Hospitals across California have all but run out of intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients, ambulances are backing up outside emergency rooms, and tents for triaging the sick are going up as the nation's most populous state emerges as the latest epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.

On Thursday, California reported a staggering 52,000 new cases in a single day — equal to what the entire U.S. was averaging in mid-October — and a one-day record of 379 deaths. More than 16,000 people are in the hospital with the coronavirus across the state, more than triple the number a month ago.

"I've seen more deaths in the last nine months in my ICU than I have in my entire 20-year career," said Amy Arlund, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente Fresno Medical Center. 

While the surging virus has pushed hospitals elsewhere around the country to the breaking point in recent weeks, the crisis is deepening with alarming speed in California, even as the nationwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations this week and the impending release of a second vaccine have boosted hopes of eventually defeating the scourge.

Intensive care unit capacity is at less than 1 percent in many California counties, and morgue space is also running out, in what is increasingly resembling the disaster last spring in New York City.

FDA plans to OK 2nd COVID-19 vaccine after panel endorsement

WASHINGTON — The head of the Food and Drug Administration said late Thursday that his agency will move to quickly authorize the second COVID-19 vaccine to fight the pandemic, hours after the shot won the key endorsement of a government advisory panel.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement that regulators have communicated their plans to drugmaker Moderna, which co-developed the vaccine with the National Institutes of Health. The announcement came after a panel of FDA advisers, in a 20-0 vote, ruled that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks for those 18 years old and up.

Once FDA's emergency use authorization is granted, Moderna will begin shipping millions of doses, earmarked for health workers and nursing home residents, to boost the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history.

The campaign kicked off earlier this week with the first vaccine OK'd in the U.S., developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Moderna's shot showed similarly strong effectiveness, providing 94 percent protection against COVID-19 in the company's ongoing study of 30,000 people.

After eight hours of discussion over technical details of the company's study and follow-up plans, nearly all panelists backed making the vaccine available to help fight the pandemic. One panel member abstained.

Asia Today: Beds in short supply as SKorea sees another jump

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported 1,062 new cases of the coronavirus, its third straight day of over 1,000, as authorities in Seoul warn that hospital beds are in short supply. 

Seoul City said a COVID-19 patient in his 60s died at his home on Tuesday after officials failed to find him a hospital bed for days. The city said an "explosive growth" in patients this month has resulted in an "overload in administrative and medical systems."

The figures released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Friday brought the national caseload to 47,515.

The death toll rose to 645 after 11 more patients died overnight. Among 12,888 active patients, at least 246 were in serious or critical condition, the largest number since the emergence of the pandemic.

Son Young-rae, a senior Health Ministry official, said there were only 49 intensive care beds left for COVID-19 patients nationwide, with just four of them in the capital area. He said health authorities are planning to secure around 170 more ICU beds by early January by designating more hospitals for COVID-19 treatment.

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