Global Climate Summit, The Latest On The Delta Variant, Afghan Journalists At Risk: News You Need To Start Your Day

Published July 26, 2021 at 6:52 AM EDT
Los Angeles County Makes Masks Mandatory Again Inside As COVID Cases Rise
Mario Tama
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Getty Images North America
People wear face coverings as they pass through Union Station in Los Angeles, California, where a local mask mandate is in effect. The CDC is reconsidering whether vaccinated people should wear masks, with the delta variant causing a sharp rise in cases.

Good morning, hope you had an excellent weekend. We have the latest on the delta surge to begin the week along with a number of other stories we're following:

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily news podcast, reporting on how the U.S. combat role in Iraq could change as President Biden meets Iraq's prime minister today.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

Emily Alfin Johnson, Nell Clark, Casey Noenickx, Rachel Treisman and William Jones

In Case You Missed It
Tokyo Olympics 🥇

Here's What You Need To Know From The Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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Australia's Ariarne Titmus and Team USA's Katie Ledecky react after competing in the final of the women's 400m freestyle final.
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Ariarne Titmus of Team Australia and Katie Ledecky of Team USA react after competing in the women's 400m freestyle final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

🏊‍♀️ Swimming Shocker
American Katie Ledecky took silver in the 400m freestyle. It’s an event she set a world record in at the 2016 Rio Games. She was beaten to the gold by Australia’s Ariarne Titmus.

Less surprisingly, the U.S. men won gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay. This is an event that has been held at 13 Olympics and the U.S. has won 10 times.

And there was a jubilant moment in the pool over the weekend when 18-year-old Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui won gold, despite qualifying with the slowest time.

🛹 Skateboarding Has Arrived And Japan Is Dominating
Japan sealed its dominance in the new Olympic sport when 13-year old Momiji Nishiya took gold in the street competition. She is one of the youngest in Olympic history.

And yesterday, Yuto Horigome of Japan won the men's street event.

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has this terrific read on skateboarding's Olympics arrival.

Momiji Nishiya is seen celebrating after winning the gold medal in the women's street skateboarding competition.
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Japan's Momiji Nishiya celebrates after winning gold in the women's street skateboarding competition.

Looking Ahead To Important Softball And Basketball Games
The U.S. women’s softball team plays for gold tomorrow. They defeated Japan to remain unbeaten in group play and they'll face them again for the title.

Elsewhere, the U.S. men's basketball team are preparing for their next game against Iran on Wednesday. They'll be looking to bounce back after suffering an upset to France, losing 83-76. That's something NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman has been covering.

NPR has a team of journalists in Tokyo. In addition to reporting on the competition, they've got the latest on the COVID-19 situation. Make sure you head here for your updates from Japan.

Just In
Coronavirus

COVID Déjà Vu: Here's Everything We Know About The Surge Of The Delta Variant

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As the Delta variant continues to fuel a sharp rise in cases, the nation's leading infectious disease expert says the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction and a booster may be needed for the most vulnerable groups in the U.S.

Each Monday, Allison Aubrey gives us an update on the pandemic. Here's what we know:

Is it time for vaccinated people to mask up?

  • The CDC is currently reconsidering whether vaccinated people should wear masks
  • L.A. revived its mask mandate a week ago
  • St. Louis is doing the same, today
  • Many public health officials are suggesting that even if there are not mandates, wearing a mask is just the smart thing to do
  • Pediatricians say there's a strong case for uniform mandatory masking (as schools may not be able to effectively monitor who is and who is not vaccinated)
"Nine in 10 people in our hospital right now are unvaccinated. So if they had been vaccinated, the vast, vast majority, if not all of them wouldn't be sick. But furthermore, the other 10% who are here who are vaccinated probably wouldn't be sick either because we wouldn't have this rate of virus spreading throughout the community. So we owe it to them to help them."
— CEO Marc Boom, Houston Methodist Hospital

What do we know about 'breakthrough cases' and booster shots?
It's still possible to get infected with the virus after you're vaccinated but it's much, much more likely to be a mild case that protects against hospitalization and death.

Out of 163 million people fully vaccinated in the U.S., the CDC has received about 5,500 reports of breakthrough infections that have led to hospitalization or death. Recent evidence from the U.K. found an mRNA vaccine to be 96% effective against hospitalization and death.

75% of these patients were over the age of 65 and most have complications, they're either transplant patients or cancer patients and have weakened immune systems. It's this group that is most likely to need a booster shot.

"So if you are vaccinated, you can still become infected. That doesn't mean that you're going to get sick, though, because the way that the vaccines work is they are able to muster a very potent, very powerful immune response as soon as you are exposed to that virus. So even if you do get infected, that infection is going to be contained and rapidly cleared before it can make you sick. That's how the vaccines work."
— virologist Angela Rasmussen, University of Saskatchewan

The vaccination effort:

For their part, a growing number of Republican leaders in areas with low vaccination rates (including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson) have been urging folks to get vaccinated.

  • There were more than 64,000 cases reported on Friday.
  • About 30% of adults in U.S. remain unvaccinated
  • A new AP poll found that 80% of people who have yet to be vaccinated, say they probably won't.
  • Here's what things look like in your state.

Unfortunately, models point to a continued increase in hospitalizations and deaths through the fall if the surge continues and more people don't get vaccinated.

Housing

As The Nationwide Ban On Evictions Lifts, Many Renters Remain Vulnerable. This Georgia County Shows Us Why

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The federal ban on evictions is set to expire on July 31, meaning many more Americans will soon be in danger of losing their homes — especially if they can’t get relief in time.

Congress approved some $50 billion earlier this year to help people catch up on their rent, but that assistance has yet to reach many of the people who need it most.

To see why, NPR’s Chris Arnold focused on one county - DeKalb County, in Georgia.. About 93% of the funding that was allocated to DeKalb County has yet to reach any renters.

County officials worried they wouldn’t get enough money to help everyone, so they imposed some limits on the assistance; for instance, the county would pay only 60% of a household’s back rent.

Like many local governments, they set up an online system for rental assistance. The system got hacked, meaning it took even longer for money to get out the door.

All of this is affecting people like Safiya Kitwana, a single mom of two teenagers who lost her call center job during the pandemic. She didn’t hear back about her application for months. And when she did get the funding, she learned it was only for a portion of the rent she owes, leaving her still thousands of dollars behind.

With the end of the federal eviction moratorium looming, officials in DeKalb say they are reevaluating their approach. And, as Kitwana says, they don’t have a moment to spare.

Read the full story here.

Just In
Business

Tobacco Giant Says They'll Stop Selling Cigarettes In The U.K. In The Next 10 Years

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The iconic Marlboro brand of cigarettes will be taken off the shelves in the U.K. within the next decade. The move has been confirmed by the CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris, Jacek Olczak, in an interview with the Daily Mail. Philip Morris is the maker of Marlboro cigarettes.

Olczak became the company's CEO in May and plans to lead the company's "smoke-free" transformation. He said the company's new mission is to find and provide "less harmful alternatives to cigarettes" to the millions of people who would otherwise still smoke.

In May he said, "Our ambition is that more than half of our net revenues will come from smoke-free products in 2025." Philip Morris is not abandoning products geared toward smokers entirely.

Find out more about how this move is part of a wider societal change in attitudes toward smoking in the U.K.

International Dispatch
Iraq

U.S. Troop Levels Are Top Of Mind As President Biden Hosts Iraq's Prime Minister

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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is seen leaving Downing Street after meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on October 22, 2020.
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Getty Images Europe
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi leaves Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on October 22, 2020, in London. Al-Kadhimi will be hosted by President Biden at the White House today.

President Biden will host Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House today. One of the most pressing topics will be how long to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. There are some 2,500 U.S. troops there now. And talks have been taking place about how to reduce that number.

Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa al-Khadimi has said that Iraq no longer requires the presence of U.S. combat troops in Iraq to fight ISIS. He told the Associated Press that he plans to discuss a time frame for their redeployment during this visit. This is part of an ongoing conversation about the status of U.S. troops in the country.

Analysts I've been speaking with say this is actually more about politics than any real change on the ground. Iranian backed militias and politicians are strong in Iraq. And since the U.S. assassinated Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Qassem Soleimani last year, those aligned with Iran have been calling for action against the United States. So Iraq's prime minister is under a lot of pressure domestically ahead of elections.

The expectation is that U.S. troop levels will in-practice likely remain similar in Iraq. Their role will be redefined, per these discussions, to provide training and intelligence to Iraqi forces. This more or less reflects the reality on the ground now in Iraq.

You can hear more here about the role these U.S. troops are playing in Iraq and how ISIS remains present in the country.

Climate Change

As Climate Change Fuels Disasters In China, Scientists Meet To Advise The Next Decade's Climate Policies

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Storms in Zhengzhou, China, last week dropped the equivalent of a year's worth of rainfall in just three days. As Emily Feng, NPR's Beijing correspondent reports, the water inundated the major city, trapping commuters in the subway and causing flash floods. Authorities report at least 69 people were killed and more than a million displaced. The storms continued northward, flooding further into Henan province.

The Hunan flooding isn't the only weather crisis facing China at the moment either. Further east, a typhoon is barreling into Shanghai, bringing heavy rains and transportation shutdowns. And in Europe, communities are managing a massive cleanup after torrential rain caused fatal flooding in Germany earlier this month.

Many people are asking: Are once-in-a-hundred-years disasters becoming more common? And is climate change making them worse?

200 of the world's top climate scientists are meeting virtually this week to make understanding those questions easier for governments. How? The group will summarize research on climate change into one report governments across the world can use to inform their climate-affecting policies.

Their meeting is organized by a United Nations group called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their last report was published in 2013.

As NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, that feels like an eternity ago because climate change is accelerating so fast. The report won't feature recommendations, instead, it'll explain the scientific consensus so leaders understand how policies are affecting the Earth.

The full report is expected Aug. 9.

Read more on the meeting here.

WABE Reports

Atlanta’s Ex-Mayor Is Running For Office Again After A Corruption Scandal. The Rise In Crime May Help Him

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Atlanta is one of many cities experiencing a rise in crime. As WABE’s Emma Hurt reports, that’s heavily impacting this fall’s mayoral election — but not in the way that you might expect.

During former Mayor Kasim Reed’s two terms in office, Atlanta saw massive economic and population growth, as well as a declining crime rate.

Since he left nearly four years ago, however, his reputation has been tarnished by a federal corruption investigation that’s either indicted or sentenced 10 city officials and contractors for bribery and other crimes.

Reed, who has not been charged, maintains his innocence but has apologized for not catching his employees’ corruption.

The investigation is a deal breaker for some voters. But others, concerned about the crime rate, are throwing their support behind him — he raised a record amount of money when he announced his campaign.

"It’s because people remember what the city was like when I was mayor. And they have come to the conclusion that things were better when I was mayor than since I have been out of office.”
- Former two-term Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed

For more, click here to listen. 🎧

Interview
Press Freedoms

Afghan Journalists Are In Danger As The Taliban Gains And U.S. Troops Withdraw

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Two presenters host a show on "Television of Afghanistan" on November 18, 2001, in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.
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A live television broadcast on "Television of Afghanistan" on November 18, 2001, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The station had been off the air for more than five years previously, under Taliban rule. Engineers had to repair broken equipment to put a show on the air.

The Taliban have assassinated numerous Afghan journalists, and other journalists are asking what’s next.

“The escalation of violence and the onslaught of the Taliban threatens the very survival of press freedom,” says Najib Sharifi, the president of the Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee. Sharifi is himself a journalist who has worked for NPR and other news organizations since 2001.

The Afghan media have come a long way since 20 years ago, when U.S. forces launched their war against the Taliban.

That fall, I was reporting from Afghanistan and I dropped by the only local radio station in Kunduz. When the Taliban controlled Radio Kunduz, they told the announcer what to say. When the Taliban fled, the same announcer denounced the Taliban and praised the new government.

Today, says Sharifi, “Media and press freedom is one of the most notable successes in Afghanistan in the past two decades.” Thousands of journalists work for numerous outlets.

But as the Taliban have advanced, journalists have been forced to sleep in their offices for many days at a time, varying their schedules to avoid being killed on their commutes. They must also self-censor, Sharifi says, avoiding descriptions of Taliban atrocities.

As the Taliban seize some areas, journalists have been forced to shut down operations. “Some of them have even buried their equipment and transmitters” to avoid being used by the Taliban as they were before 2001. Nevertheless, the Taliban have captured five radio stations and put them to use.

NPR and other U.S. news organizations sent a letter to the U.S. government last week, appealing for help evacuating Afghan journalists. Sharifi says many Afghans prefer to stay if they can. But journalists do want some assurance they are “not going to be left behind and beheaded ... We really don’t want to lose what we have achieved.”

Sharifi's interview was particularly powerful. You can hear my full conversation with him here 🎧.

International Dispatch

With An Eye On China, The U.S. Defense Secretary Heads To Southeast Asia To Fortify Ties

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An aerial view of a small fishing village in the Philippines.
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Getty Images AsiaPac
Fishing boats line up along the shore in a small fishing village in the Philippines. As China's presence has expanded its presence in disputed waters, local fisherman have faced harassment.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin travels to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines this week, the first member of President Biden’s cabinet to visit the region.

He arrives as Southeast Asia grapples with growing disputes over the South China Sea, and the smoldering tensions are putting the big power rivalry of the U.S. and China in stark relief.

China claims nearly all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea, and in exercising its dominion has intimidated and harassed smaller coastal countries of the region who also claim parts of the disputed waters.

You can hear about what’s at stake in Secretary Austin’s trip or read more ⤵️

Secretary Austin said he’s going to make the case for a “more fair, open, and inclusive regional order…to ensure all countries get a fair shake.”

“We don't believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules or worse yet, throw them over the transom. And in this regard, I'll emphasize our commitment to the freedom to freedom of the seas. Also make clear where we stand on some unhelpful and unfounded claims by China in the South China Sea.”
Lloyd Austin - Secretary of Defense

In recent months, American naval ships have passed through the South China Sea in exercises the U.S. says are designed to keep the sea lanes open for everyone to navigate. But China has denounced the “freedom of navigation” operations as destabilizing and provocative.

Secretary Austin insisted this weekend that the United States “is a stabilizing force” and that his goal is to “strengthen relationships” in the region.

As the Biden Administration looks for ways to rebuild alliances, including U.S. troop presence in the region, Austin is expected to use an address in Singapore on Tuesday to underscore the “value of partnerships,” as he put it.

Manila could be the cliff-hanger of this trip.

The Philippines military is keen for American help in defending the South China Sea where China has been massing boats around Philippine-claimed reefs.

The Philippine defense secretary has suggested a possible breakthrough on an agreement that allows U.S. troops easy transit into the Philippines. Without it the U.S. presence in the region would be weakened, and analysts say that could embolden China as it eyes expansion in the South China Sea.

But any extension is up to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who runs hot and cold on the United States.

Before You Go
Can't Miss

Ayesha Rascoe Takes Us To 'The Black Hair Experience'

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A pop-up museum in Washington, D.C. called "The Black Hair Experience" is an interactive celebration of all that is Black hair.

The pop-up was previously in Atlanta, and will be in the District until November. But if you can't get there in person, NPR's Ayesha Rascoe visited the exhibit and shared her experience on the latest episode of It's Been A Minute With Sam Sanders.

At The Black Hair Experience, it felt like that freedom was on full display. And that's what touched me so deeply.
— Ayesha Rascoe

🎧 Listen to the episode

Rascoe also shared her own hair evolution (featuring an incredibly adorable photo of her as a teen,) along with photos from the intentionally Instagram-friendly exhibit. Check them out here.

You can find more details on the exhibit from DCist's Aja Beckham here.