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The U.S. stood Sunday at the brink of a once-unthinkable tally: 500,000 people lost to the coronavirus.

A year into the pandemic, the running total of lives lost was about 498,000 — roughly the population of Kansas City, Missouri, and just shy of the size of Atlanta. The figure compiled by Johns Hopkins University surpasses the number of people who died in 2019 of chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s, flu and pneumonia combined.

“It’s nothing like we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on CNN's “State of the Union.”

The U.S. virus death toll reached 400,000 on Jan. 19 in the waning hours in office for President Donald Trump, whose handling of the crisis was judged by public health experts to be a singular failure.

The nation could pass this next grim milestone on Monday. President Joe Biden will mark the U.S. crossing 500,000 lives lost from COVID-19 with a moment of silence and candle lighting ceremony at the White House.

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Protests swell after Myanmar junta raises specter of force

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Protesters gathered in Myanmar’s biggest city on Monday despite the ruling junta’s threat to use lethal force against people who join a general strike against the military's takeover three weeks ago.

More than 1,000 protesters gathered near the U.S. Embassy in Yangon despite barriers blocking the way, but left to avoid a confrontation after 20 military trucks with riot police arrived nearby. Protests continued in other parts of the city, including next to Sule Pagoda, a traditional gathering point.

Factories, workplaces and shops were shuttered across the country Monday in response to the call for a nationwide strike. The closings extended to the capital, Naypyitaw.

The junta had warned against a general strike in a public announcement Sunday night on state television broadcaster MRTV.

“It is found that the protesters have raised their incitement towards riot and anarchy mob on the day of 22 February. Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life,” the onscreen text said in English, replicating the spoken announcement in Burmese.

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Hospitals confront water shortages in winter storm aftermath

HOUSTON (AP) — Hospitals across the South grappled with water shortages Sunday in the wake of a devastating winter storm as the region carried on with recovery efforts and the weather offered a balmy respite — temperatures as high as the mid-60s.

At the height of last week's storm, hospitals scrambled to care for patients amid record cold temperatures, snow and ice that battered parts of the country more accustomed to going through winter with light jackets and short sleeves. The icy blast ruptured water mains, knocked out power to millions of utility customers and contributed to at least 76 deaths — half of which occurred in Texas. At least seven people died in Tennessee and four in Portland, Oregon.

A rural hospital in Anahuac, Texas, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Houston, lost both water and power.

William Kiefer, CEO of Chambers Health, which runs the hospital along with two clinics and a wellness center, said the facilities resorted to backup generators and water from a 275-gallon storage tank. They refilled it three times using water from a swimming pool in the wellness center.

When temperatures were in the teens last Monday, a woman about to give birth walked into the hospital after she could not make it through the ice and snow to her hospital in suburban Houston. Emergency room staff delivered the baby safely, Kiefer said.

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Why some Texans are getting sky-high energy bills

After unusual icy weather left millions of Texans without power, some are facing another crisis: Sky-high electricity bills.

The surge in pricing is hitting people who have chosen to pay wholesale prices for their power, which is typically cheaper than paying fixed rates during good weather, but can spike when there’s high demand for electricity. Many of those who have reported receiving large bills are customers of electricity provider Griddy, which only operates in Texas.

Among them is Susan Hosford of Denison, Texas. On a typical February day, she pays Griddy less than $2.50 for power. But the one-day cost spiked to hundreds of dollars after the storm. In all, she was automatically charged $1,346.17 for the first two weeks of February, which was more than she had in her checking account, causing her bank to charge her overdraft fees and affect other bills.

“This whole thing has been a nightmare,” she said.

Here’s more on the soaring electricity bills:

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Russia's COVID-19 vaccination drive slowly picking up speed

IKHALA, Russia (AP) — Maria Piparinen and other elderly residents of Ikhala were relieved when they heard that doctors were finally bringing a few doses of the coronavirus vaccine to their remote, snowy village in the Russian region of Karelia, near the border with Finland.

Otherwise, the 75-year-old said she would have had to hire a car to take her 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the town of Lakhdenpokhya, because the bus no longer runs there.

And besides, “I called the clinic in Lakhdenpokhya, but … they told me (all the slots in) February were booked already,” Piparinen told The Associated Press.

The village of wooden houses — carved out of a dense forest of fir trees about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Finnish border and 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of St. Petersburg — is one of several in the Karelia region where Russia’s vaccination campaign has arrived in recent weeks.

More than 18,000 people have gotten their first dose of the Sputnik V vaccine in the region of 600,000 that was hit hard by COVID-19.

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In Israel and beyond, virus vaccines bring political power

JERUSALEM (AP) — Forget about oil and arms. Coronavirus vaccines are emerging as the newest currency of choice in the Middle East.

Israel’s reopening of its economy, combined with a murky prisoner swap with Syria and the arrival of a batch of vaccines in the Gaza Strip, have all underscored how those with access to the vaccines have political power in the turbulent region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the forefront of this trend, pinning his re-election hopes on the success of his campaign to vaccinate Israel’s adult population. At the same time, he has offered rewards to those who vaccinate and punishments to those who don't.

Israel has jumped out to the world’s fastest vaccination campaign, administering at least one dose to more than half its 9.3 million people and the required two doses to about a third in less than two months. In contrast to the long waits seen in Europe and the U.S., vaccines are plentiful and available almost on demand to anyone who wants one. Clinics have even offered free food and cappuccinos to help lure reluctant holdouts to come in and get the jab.

Netanyahu’s efforts finally seem to be bearing fruit, and the number of new coronavirus infections and serious cases is dropping. That enabled the government on Sunday to lift a number of restrictions, reopening stores, shopping malls, and many schools after a two-month lockdown. In the coming weeks, all schools and restaurants are expected to reopen, just in time for the March 23 election.

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Biden to boost pandemic lending to smallest businesses

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is targeting federal pandemic assistance to the nation's smallest businesses and taking steps to further equity in what is known as the Paycheck Protection Program.

The administration is establishing a two-week window, starting on Wednesday, in which only businesses with fewer than 20 employees — the overwhelming majority of small businesses — can apply for the forgivable loans. Biden's team is also carving out $1 billion to direct toward sole proprietors, such as home contractors and beauticians, the majority of which are owned by women and people of color.

Other efforts will remove a prohibition on lending to a company with at least 20% ownership by a person arrested or convicted for a nonfraud felony in the prior year, as well as allowing those behind on their federal student loans to seek relief through the program. The administration is also clarifying that noncitizen legal residents can apply to the program.

The PPP, first rolled out in the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic and renewed in December, was meant to help keep Americans employed during the economic downturn. It allows small and mid-size businesses suffering a loss of revenue to access federal loans, which are forgivable if 60% of the loan is spent on payroll and the balance on other qualified expenses.

The Biden effort is aimed at correcting disparities in how the program was administered by the Trump administration.

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Garland to focus on civil rights, political independence

WASHINGTON (AP) — Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, will appear for his confirmation hearing vowing to prioritize civil rights, combat extremist attacks and ensure the Justice Department remains politically independent.

Garland, a federal appeals court judge who was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016, will appear Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process with bipartisan support.

Garland’s nomination has gained public support on both sides of the political aisle, from more than 150 former Justice Department officials — including former attorneys general Loretta Lynch, Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, along with 61 former federal judges. Others, including two sons of former Attorney General Edward Levi, have also written letters of support to Congress.

“There have been few moments in history where the role of attorney general — and the occupant of that post — have mattered more,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says in remarks prepared for the hearing.

In his own prepared remarks, Garland focuses on prioritizing policing and civil rights to combat racial discrimination — he says America doesn’t “yet have equal justice” — as well as confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats and restoring the department’s political independence after years of controversial decisions and turmoil.

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FAA orders United to inspect Boeing 777s after emergency

Federal aviation regulators have ordered United Airlines to step up inspections of all Boeing 777s equipped with the type of engine that suffered a catastrophic failure over Denver on Saturday.

United said it is temporarily removing those aircraft from service, as meanwhile Boeing recommended grounding aircraft with that model engine until the Federal Aviation Administration sets an inspection regime. Pratt & Whitney, maker of the engine, said it was sending a team to work with investigators while coordinating with airlines and regulators.

The announcements come a day after United Airlines Flight 328 had to make an emergency landing at Denver International Airport after its right engine blew apart just after takeoff. Pieces of the casing of the engine, a Pratt & Whitney PW4000, rained down on suburban neighborhoods.

The plane with 231 passengers and 10 crew on board landed safely, and nobody aboard or on the ground was reported hurt, authorities said.

The Federal Aviation Administration FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement Sunday that based on an initial review of safety data, inspectors “concluded that the inspection interval should be stepped up for the hollow fan blades that are unique to this model of engine, used solely on Boeing 777 airplanes.”

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Bone cancer survivor to join billionaire on SpaceX flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — After beating bone cancer, Hayley Arceneaux figures rocketing into orbit on SpaceX’s first private flight should be a piece of cosmic cake.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital announced Monday that the 29-year-old physician assistant — a former patient hired last spring — will launch later this year alongside a billionaire who’s using his purchased spaceflight as a charitable fundraiser.

Arceneaux will become the youngest American in space — beating NASA record-holder Sally Ride by over two years — when she blasts off this fall with entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and two yet-to-be-chosen contest winners.

She’ll also be the first to launch with a prosthesis. When she was 10, she had surgery at St. Jude to replace her knee and get a titanium rod in her left thigh bone. She still limps and suffers occasional leg pain, but has been cleared for flight by SpaceX. She’ll serve as the crew’s medical officer.

“My battle with cancer really prepared me for space travel,” Arceneaux said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It made me tough, and then also I think it really taught me to expect the unexpected and go along for the ride.”

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