News brief: U.K. monitors Russia-Ukraine crisis, COVID cases, massive snowstorm
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
U.S. allies in Europe are taking slightly different approaches toward the crisis in Ukraine.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
NATO allies say they're united in promising massive sanctions if Russia should invade. But some are less eager than others. Germany is seen as hesitant. The U.K. is largely following the U.S. approach - preparing to send soldiers to Eastern Europe. U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss spoke with Britain's Sky News.
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LIZ TRUSS: The No. 1 thing that will stop Vladimir Putin taking action is if he understands the costs of that action.
FADEL: And like the U.S., the U.K. is also providing military help directly to Ukrainian forces. Truss says it's highly likely Russia plans to invade Ukraine, which Russia denies.
INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London. Hey there, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How many troops would the U.K. be sending?
LANGFITT: Not that many. What they're saying is they're considering offering double of their troop deployments through NATO and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. But I've got to say, Steve, this is all very low numbers. Right now 900 British military personnel based in Estonia, about maybe more than a hundred Ukraine training forces there, a squadron of 150 manning light armed vehicles over in Poland. There's also talk of sending jets and warships. But Truss has emphasized that it's highly unlikely U.K. soldiers would fight in Ukraine. And NATO has said it doesn't want to send forces into Ukraine because, you know, Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, which is what this is all about. Putin has been demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never become a NATO member, and NATO's saying no.
INSKEEP: This sounds a little like the U.S. approach. The U.S. also is talking about sending a limited number of troops to Eastern European nations, NATO allies, but not Ukraine. How do extra NATO troops in nearby countries affect the balance in Ukraine itself?
LANGFITT: Well, I don't know that it directly will because, as we've been saying, these troop deployments are, for the most part, going to be outside of. One thing, though, is that the ones inside Ukraine, like the kind that we have seen by the U.K., would help to fight the Russians. But I think the key thing is to put some of these soldiers on the borders with Russia to make sure that if there's fighting, it doesn't spill over into territory of a NATO ally. I was talking to a guy, Steve, named Ben Judah. He's a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. That's a Washington-based think tank. This is what he had to say.
BEN JUDAH: The U.K. is deploying tripwire forces to indicate that if Russia enters these countries that are NATO allies, they will immediately have to face the choice of fighting and killing British troops, bringing Britain into the war. That's why they're there, and that's why they're there in those low numbers.
LANGFITT: But he also said the U.K. is trying to raise the cost to Putin inside Ukraine. And British have been providing Ukraine with a lot of training, thousands of anti-tank weapons. And there's been training - I think the number is around 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers. This is what Ben also added.
JUDAH: One is a long-running program to train snipers, which of course could be extremely useful in the event of Russian invasion or Russian occupation, an attempt to take over major cities.
INSKEEP: Well, that is a pretty dramatic thing. If you're thinking about a Russian occupation, 22,000 snipers is something that would make a dramatic difference. What has prompted the U.K. to take a more aggressive stance than, say, Germany?
LANGFITT: Well, I think there's no doubt there's genuine concern. The U.K., though, also is not as reliant on Russian energy as Germany is, so it has more flexibility. And the other thing is, it's an opportunity to define itself post-Brexit as no longer being in the European Union but still being central to the security of Europe.
INSKEEP: Frank, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.
LANGFITT: Great to talk, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt.
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INSKEEP: New coronavirus cases are falling significantly nationwide as the omicron surge loses steam.
FADEL: But hospitalizations are still near pandemic highs, and deaths have been rising, too. So even as cases drop, deaths are going up.
INSKEEP: To explain, NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Good morning.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So this is something that we've seen before, where the deaths - it's a crude-sounding term - they're a lagging indicator. The deaths go up after cases start to go down. Nevertheless, they're still pretty high. It's a little disturbing - quite disturbing. What can we expect in the coming weeks?
AUBREY: Well, new infections have fallen more than 30% since mid-January. But in areas that are just now peaking or passing their peak, Steve, it's a pretty intense scene. Nearly 18,000 people with COVID are still being admitted to hospitals every day.
AUBREY: I spoke to the head of Houston Methodist Hospital, Dr. Marc Boom, about the situation there.
MARC BOOM: We've seen a pretty sharp decline in infections in Houston. You know, the best metric is our wastewater. Unfortunately, we still see many people coming to our hospitals and getting very ill and dying. And they're really in two groups - they're either unvaccinated individuals, or they're particularly elderly or very, very immunocompromised.
AUBREY: It's completely expected, as we just said, that deaths and hospitalizations would lag behind the peak in infections. But the number of deaths - about 2,300 people are dying each day right now across the country - is quite high. And that number has been rising.
INSKEEP: Why is this relatively mild variant killing so many people?
AUBREY: You know, it's because of the large number of infections - millions and millions and millions of infections. Even if a small percentage become very ill and die, it just speaks to the volume. You know, compared to last January, when most people weren't vaccinated, the death toll is lower. Last January, deaths peaked at about 3,400 or so. But the fact deaths have risen pretty high during this surge was probably avoidable, Dr. Boom argues.
BOOM: Our booster rate in the United States is, frankly, appalling and embarrassing. I mean, when we look at ourselves versus the U.K. and ask ourselves, why are so many more Americans percentagewise dying of COVID than people in the U.K. yet we all kind of are acting similarly, it comes down to a couple of things, but by far, the biggest thing is that they have vaccinated much more effectively the vulnerable population.
AUBREY: And boosted more. And this seems to make a big difference. A new study has found that the third shot of a COVID vaccine boosted protection against death pretty dramatically. This was in people 50 and older in the U.K. infected during this omicron surge.
INSKEEP: Do those facts cause health authorities to still be pushing for more people to get vaccinated and boosted despite all the resistance to that?
AUBREY: Absolutely. At this point, the consensus is that we will be coexisting with COVID for a very long time. Variants will come; variants will go. Some may be consequential; others not. The latest variant, BA.2, this relative of omicron, which has been circulating in Denmark and other countries, has been identified in the U.S. Yesterday on CBS, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said it is possible that this variant could extend the tail of this wave of infections. It will still drop, but it could extend the tail. But he said vaccinated and boosted people should be protected.
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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: There's data out of the U.K. that suggests that a fully boosted person may be more protected against this new variant than they were against the original strain of omicron. And then the final question is, is it more virulent? Is it more dangerous? And so far, based on what we've seen out of Denmark and the U.K., which are collecting very good data on this, it doesn't appear to be a more virulent strain.
AUBREY: An analysis by the U.K. Health Security Agency found that the vaccines appear to be about as effective against this new strain, BA.2, as they are against the original omicron variant.
INSKEEP: One good thing about Mondays is we usually hear from NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks.
AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.
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INSKEEP: OK. Up and down the East Coast, communities are digging out after a blizzard.
FADEL: Massachusetts saw the worst of the storm. Over the weekend, Boston tied its single-day snowfall record with 2 feet dumped. And as you travel southeast from there towards Cape Cod along the coastal communities, there are concerns about flooding and erosion.
INSKEEP: Eve Zuckoff with member station WCAI covers Cape Cod. Good morning.
EVE ZUCKOFF, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Hey. I want people to know that Cape Cod is constantly in motion. The coast is constantly changing. But it sounds like it was a pretty dramatic change over the weekend.
ZUCKOFF: That is right. Over the weekend and into today, we are working on cleanup of snow, downed trees and power lines. And so far, all that cleanup is moving quickly. But during the storm, at one point, 41% of Cape Cod was without power as temperatures dropped into the 10s and low 20s.
ZUCKOFF: At one point, a conservation manager told me that people who didn't have heat at home got in their cars just to kind of drive around so they could stay warm. They ended up getting rescued after they got their car stuck in a snow bank. But by lunchtime today, county officials are hoping that power gets returned to nearly everyone on the cape.
INSKEEP: And is this right that at the same time people were dealing with a winter storm and a snowstorm, they're dealing with flooding?
ZUCKOFF: Yes, absolutely. There were a number of low-lying coastal areas that were completely underwater around high tide during the worst of the storm. I think the most notable flooding was probably on the island of Nantucket. Several of the main downtown roads were covered in a foot of seawater. There are videos where it's pretty hard to tell where the ocean ends and kind of roads begin in front of, like, the local movie theater. At one point, a group of high school students even were paddling around the streets in a canoe.
INSKEEP: I've been around Cape Cod, and I've seen some of those houses that are, like, perched on the edge of some bluff near the beach or right by the beach. How'd they do?
ZUCKOFF: Kind of a mix. Everything remains standing at this point, from reports we've gotten. But yeah, beyond flooding, beach erosion is a problem for a number of those homes that you've seen. And a lot of attention right now is specifically on the sand dunes across the region because they provide this incredible service to the coast, right? Every time a big wave comes, they act like this cushion. But the problem comes when people build their homes on top of these dunes. They're eroding, right? So in this one town called Sandwich, there are several dozen homes built on top of one dune. And we don't yet know exactly how much erosion this storm caused, but a state official who monitors coastal damage told me the dune has definitely changed because of the storm. Before it, there was this kind of healthy slope down to the beach below; now it's a steep 8-foot drop.
ZUCKOFF: And Sandwich isn't alone. There are other towns where you can clearly see this storm has damaged the dunes.
INSKEEP: Even if most or all the homes survived this time, this has to have people thinking about the future.
ZUCKOFF: Absolutely. I think preparation is key for coastal towns. One Sandwich town official named Dave Deconto said he's focused on cleaning up what's just come through, of course, but his mind is also on potential storms of 2023 already.
DAVE DECONTO: It's a long-term process, and the planning has to go so far ahead. I mean, we should be planning for storms now for next winter.
ZUCKOFF: You know, storms like this one that just came through underscore that. Sea level rise, more frequent and intense storms - all these impacts of climate change are forcing some of these towns to ask whether we need to rethink where we're building and perhaps whether we need to retreat altogether in some areas.
INSKEEP: Eve Zuckoff of WCAI. Thanks so much.
ZUCKOFF: Thanks, Steve.
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