New U.S. COVID Hot Spots, Biden's Consumer Plan, Spelling Bee Champ: News You Need To Start Your Day

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, Louisiana, celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
John Raoux/AP
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Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, Louisiana, celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Good Morning, hope everyone's having an excellent start to their Friday. We're following a number of domestic and international stories for you this morning:

— The Morning Edition live blog team
Emily Alfin Johnson, Rachel Treisman and William Jones

NPR Exclusive
Coronavirus
COVID-19 Cases Are Surging In The Parts Of The U.S. With Low Vaccination Rates
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New hotspots of the highly contagious delta variant are popping up across the U.S., according to an analysis by NPR and Johns Hopkins University. And, unsurprisingly, they're being driven by low vaccination rates.

🎧 NPR health correspondent Rob Stein walks us through the details:

The country's progress against COVID-19 has essentially hit a wall, as the vaccination campaign stalled and the delta variant became dominant.

State-level data provides an even more dramatic picture: In the past week, the number of people catching the virus has climbed in about half of states, and the number of people hospitalized is up again in at least nine.

Check out NPR's coronavirus tracker to see how your state is doing

A person seen from behind walks towards a brick building, where a sign on the sidewalk reads "Vaccine Entrance,"
Liz Sanders/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg
A patient arrives at the Jordan Valley Community Health Center in Springfield, Missouri, in June. Missouri is one of several U.S. states seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases in areas with low vaccination rates.

NPR and Johns Hopkins looked at county-level data over the course of one month, to hone in on the places where the rise in cases isn't just a temporary blip. Those include Newton County, Mo., which has seen a 182% increase in cases, and Ottowa County, Okla., where cases have soared 828%.

The vast majority of counties experiencing these sustained outbreaks have vaccination rates below the national average. For instance, the vaccination rate in Missouri's Newton County is 16% and 23% in Oklahoma's Ottowa County.

This has implications for the rest of the country, says Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

"One of the things that we keep forgetting about this pandemic is that something that happens in one state is not isolated from something that will happen in another state," she says. "And so as long as we see case increases in any part of the country, it remains a national crisis."

Just In
International
Two American Citizens Among Suspects In The Assassination Of Haiti's President, Officials Say
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Haitians React After President Moïse Is Assassinated At Home
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Getty Images South America
A soldier patrols the area near a police station in Port-au-Prince where people protested after the assassination of Haiti's president.

We're learning more about the suspects that have been arrested in connection with the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

Haitian authorities say they've detained 17 people. According to the authorities, two of the men arrested are American citizens.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has covered Haiti extensively. On today's Morning Edition he reports that:

One of the American citizens arrested is 35-years-old and the other is 55-years-old, according to Haitian officials. Both are reportedly residents of Florida. Canada's foreign ministry says that the younger of the two suspects worked briefly at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti as a bodyguard.

The other 15 suspects are all from Colombia. Colombian police and military officials say they all have military backgrounds.

Video footage has emerged that shows a well-orchestrated attack. In the video you see pickup trucks driving up to the president's residence and people in clear military formation. There are no indications of the president's security guards being injured. At this point, it does not appear as if there was much security at the resistance.

Jason also has details on the current situation on the ground in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, 🎧 which you can listen to here.

Newsmaker
Education
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates Says His Move To Howard University Means He Will 'Truly Go Home'
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Ta-Nehisi Coates, wearing a navy suit, stands in front of a projector screen while speaking into a hand-held microphone, with his other hand raised in the air.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates, pictured in 2019, will be joining the faculty of Howard University this fall.

Investigative journalist and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones made headlines earlier this week when she announced after weeks of controversy that she will be taking a tenured position at Howard University, rather than at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (more on that here).

And she’ll be joined at Howard by another award-winning writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates, author and former national correspondent for The Atlantic, will become the Sterling Brown Chair in the English department of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Coates, a Howard alum, says he’s looking forward to “going home.”

He spoke to NPR’s Leila Fadel about the decision he and Hannah-Jones made, and the implications it may have for Howard — as well as historically Black colleges and universities more broadly.

🎧🎧 You can listen here. Keep reading for highlights from their conversation.

On whether this was a joint decision: "Look, nobody tells Nikole Hannah-Jones what to do ... We certainly had conversations, and I think we were not unaware of what it would mean for both of us to do this at the same time."

On the role Howard played in his life: "It is not a panacea. But what you don't have is, you don't have people questioning, as a friend of mine said to me recently, your basic intelligence. Nobody looks at you and says, 'oh, because you're Black, you are X, Y and Z.' And having that off the table allows for a certain amount of humanity to just shine through for you to see yourself in a very, very, very different way."

On returning to his alma mater: "The ability to truly, truly go home, to be able to return to your block and feel like your block is just as good as anybody else's block — it has the same facilities, it has the same, you know, sort of cohesiveness, it has the same, and to some extent, greater sense of community, is just incredible."

On whether he thinks their new positions will build on the renewed push for support for HBCUs: "I hope so ... But I really, really hope that people remember that we are not the only HBCU. Not only are we not, we cannot be the only HBCU. It's just not possible, nor desirable. And I hope people are thinking about a Bethune-Cookman, I hope people are thinking about a FAMU, I hope people are thinking about a Morgan, a Dillard, an Xavier an A&M, an AT&T. I hope we are keeping the institution of HBCUs at large in mind and not just focusing on one thing."

Coronavirus
Scammers In Mumbai Offered COVID-19 Shots, Then Allegedly Charged People For Salt Water
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Police in India are investigating reports that thousands of people who attended a dozen fake "vaccination camps" throughout Mumbai in May were duped into paying for COVID-19 shots that turned out to be salt water.

NPR's India producer Sushmita Pathak has been covering this story from Mumbai. 🎧 Here's the latest.

Officials say the camps charged 4,000 people as much as $17 a shot, scamming them out of tens of thousands of dollars in all. About half of the victims were injected with saline solution instead of COVID-19 vaccines, and some may have received expired vaccines.

So far police have arrested 14 people, including staff at a government-run vaccination center.

The COVID-19 outbreak this past spring caused India’s health care system to collapse, killing more than 200,000 people and leaving many scrambling for hospital beds and oxygen.

Many people had to wait for weeks to get a vaccine, which were in short supply. It's this desperation that scammers allegedly took advantage of.

Politics
Texas Lawmakers Are Trying (Again) To Pass New Restrictive Voting Laws
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People hold signs reading "Don't Mess With Texas Voters" and "Black Voters Matter."
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Getty Images North America
Members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus held a voting rights rally outside of the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Thursday, the first day of the legislative special session.

Republican lawmakers in Texas are taking another shot at passing new laws that would restrict access to the polls, after Democrats blocked an earlier effort by dramatically walking out of the state Capitol building in May.

The start of the special legislative session comes just one week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can enact more restrictive voting laws for the purpose of curbing fraud — even if that makes it harder for minority communities to exercise their rights.

Ashley Lopez of member station KUT says that decision further raises the already-high stakes in Texas.

"Texas is already one of the hardest, if not the hardest state to vote in. So a lot of these proposed changes to the state's election code are kind of like a thousand little cuts to the few ways that people can actually access the ballot here in Texas."
Ashley Lopez, KUT reporter

She spoke to Morning Edition about what's in the proposals and how exactly they would make voting harder: 🎧Take a listen.

What are Republicans proposing? The bills include bans on drive-through voting and 24-hour voting centers, and would create new ID requirements for voting by mail, which is already pretty limited in Texas. It would also prohibit election officials from giving vote by mail applications to anyone who didn't ask for one, and create a slew of criminal penalties related to voting.

Why do Republicans support these changes? There's been no evidence of widespread election fraud in Texas. But lawmakers say even anecdotes of voter fraud warrant action, and that they are responding to the many Republican voters worried about election security in the wake of 2020. Experts argue that the provisions of these bills won't actually make elections safer, however.

How are Democratic lawmakers responding? They say they are prepared to work with Republicans if they're included more than last time — if not, they are threatening to stop the bill's passage using any power they have.

For more details, check out Lopez's story for KUT.

Review
Movies
🕷'Black Widow' Hits Theaters Today And Reviews From 'The Pop Culture Happy Hour' Team Are In
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Black Widow World Premiere Fan Event
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Getty Images North America
The Black Widow World Premiere Fan Event was held at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on June 29.

Beware: Marvel Cinematic Universe spoilers are unavoidable with this installment. You've been warned.

In a recent interview, actor Scarlett Johansson, who has played Natasha Romanova since 2010's Iron Man 2, touted her character's evolution, over the years.

Black Widow, the character's first solo venture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introduces us to her "family:" Her bluff, overbearing "father" Alexei (David Harbor, in a piece of casting not simply inspired but, somehow, inevitable); her cool, inscrutable "mother" Melina (Rachel Weisz); and, especially, her "sister" Yelena (Florence Pugh).

In today's Pop Culture Happy Hour there's a discusssion of Marvel's near retcon of Black Widow, and what that means for the future of the MCU. 🎧 Spoilers ahead. Take a listen.

Breaking News
International
About 50 People Have Reportedly Been Killed In A Factory Fire In Bangladesh
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A fire at a factory broke out in Bangladesh on Thursday night, reportedly killing about 50 people and injuring many others. The factory manufactures juice and food products, and is located just outside the capital Dhaka.

Industrial disasters and fires are common in Bangladesh because of lax safety standards. The government has ordered an investigation into the cause of the blaze.

Watch this report from NPR's Visual Newscast to learn more:


For more from our Visual Newscast team, ask your smart device to "Play the news from NPR."

Newsmaker
Scripps National Spelling Bee
Zaila Avant-Garde Is the First African American Winner Of The Scripps Spelling Bee
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Zaila Avant-garde during the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
John Raoux/AP
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AP
Zaila Avant-garde upon winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Last night, a 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

"I can't even put into words how I feel right now!" Avant-garde said of her win, which is saying something, because she knows a lot of words.

She says she had been getting ready for two years, and studied 13,000 words a day. The word that won her the competition was "murraya," which is a genus of tropical trees.

"I'd like to say thank you to Bill Murray because the reason I knew that word 'murraya' was because of the movie Lost in Translation which when I was a little kid I used to listen to the soundtrack and so that's how that word was stuck in my head because it was spelled like Bill Murray's name."
— Zaila Avant-garde

The historic nature of her win isn't lost on Avant-garde.

"It made me feel really proud," she said after the win. "I'm really hoping lots of little Brown girls all over the world and stuff are really motivated to try out spelling and stuff because it's really a fun thing to do and it's a great way to kind of connect yourself with education which is super important."

This girl has range: in addition to her spelling bee success, she's an amazing basketball player. She holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple basketballs. One day, she hopes to play in the WNBA. And if this video is anything to go by, the chances of that seem pretty high:

So how will she be celebrating her Spelling Bee win? "Having fun eating a lot, that type of thing."

We're right there with you Zaila. Congratulations!

Newsmaker
Politics
Biden Is Defending The U.S. Troop Withdrawal, But Afghans And Experts Worry
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President Biden is defending his decision to remove American troops from Afghanistan amidst deteriorating security conditions, telling reporters yesterday that it's the "right and responsibility" of the Afghan people to decide their own future.

Meanwhile, the Taliban is making massive strides, gaining territory and threatening to topple the Afghan government.

As NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, the Taliban seized the country's most important border crossing with Iran overnight. And they appear to be beginning efforts to choke off Kabul — local media is reporting on clashes in Ghazni City, about 100 miles south of the capital on a major highway.

Hadid is talking to Afghans who find Biden's remarks disappointing, but not upsetting. She says many of them feel that America is abandoning them just as the war is escalating.

"The Taliban, who are against democracy, who are killing Afghans on a daily basis and who are against women's rights ... are gaining territory in Afghanistan. In the midst of that, America is leaving."
— Abdullah Hasrat, a civil servant speaking as a citizen

Speaking to Morning Edition, longtime foreign policy analyst Aaron David Miller called the troop withdrawal "the boldest and potentially riskiest foreign policy decision of the Biden presidency so far."

Miller worries that post-withdrawal will be "a very ugly picture," predicting a high degree of domestic turmoil and violence on the ground in Afghanistan.

He says it's not the picture that Americans had hoped to see, and will likely become politicized by Biden's critics as a poster child for why the country should not have withdrawn. 🎧 Listen to that conversation here.

Florida Condo Collapse
Condo Association Boards Face New Scrutiny After Surfside Tragedy
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NPR has been learning a lot about the lead-up to the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Fla., including the role that the condo association board may have played.

Condo association boards are comprised of building residents and charged with handling repairs, no matter how mundane or costly. The power those boards possess and the complicated dynamics that exist are coming under new scrutiny in the wake of the recent tragedy.

Local governments in Florida are now cracking down on the boards of buildings that are behind on required inspections. In Miami Beach, more than 500 buildings are undergoing emergency reviews.

Danny Rivero of member station WLRN brings us the story of one condo board struggling to meet a July 19 deadline. Listen here.

As Rivero reports, condo boards in Florida are legally obligated to address safety problems, but don't always know how. And the agency in charge of oversight — in a state with some 4.5 million condo units — has a measly budget.

Breaking News
Politics
A New Biden Order Aims To Tilt Markets In Favor Of Workers And Consumers Over Big Companies
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President Biden is rolling out an executive order today to promote competition across different industries. Those industries include airlines, farming, prescription drugs and internet service providers.

As NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports:

  • The White House believes this will lead to lower prices for consumers, better wages for employees, and eventually, more durable long-term economic growth.
  • The goal is to tilt markets more in favor of workers and consumers over big powerful companies.
  • In total, the executive order includes some 72 different initiatives.
  • One of the main proposals is to direct the Federal Trade Commission to limit noncompetes. Those clauses prevent a lot of workers from quitting one job to go to a better one.
  • Some of the most sweeping measures target the tech sector.

You can read more about those sweeping measures here.

Recommendation
Podcasts
Binge-Worthy Podcasts For Your Summer Adventure
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Some of the podcasts included in NPR One's 'Binge-Worthy Listens For Your Summer Adventure' playlist.
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Some of the podcasts included in NPR One's 'Binge-Worthy Listens For Your Summer Adventure' playlist.

Before you go, we wanted to share some podcasts you can take with you on your summer adventures. The NPR One mobile app is featuring a collection of podcasts from around public media land that are perfect to binge-listen while you work, road-trip and get outdoors! You can find the full collection of over 30 podcasts on the "Explore" tab in the NPR One app.

Here are a few we've been loving already:

  • Seizing Freedom from Virginia Public Media follows the story of how Black Americans risked their lives during the Civil War to fight for their own visions of what freedom could be. 🎧 Start here.
  • La Brega from WNYC and Futuro Studios is a seven-part series available in Spanish and English about life in Puerto Rico. 🎧 Start here.
  • On Our Watch from KQED and NPR examines how police investigate their own after misconduct and the shadow world of police discipline. Their latest episode unpacks new details in the police shooting of Oscar Grant, but we suggest you start here, with episode 1. 🎧
  • Timber Wars from OPB explores the story behind how the last available ancient forests in America were clear-cut in the 1990s and discusses the lasting impact the conflict had on the Pacific Northwest. 🎧 Start here.

There are so many more terrific podcasts to check out, so make sure to toggle to Explore in the NPR One app to see the full list!


Need the app? Download it here from your app store.