Start your day here: Booster doses move a step closer; Taliban leaders visit Russia; Today is Purple Thursday

Published October 21, 2021 at 8:08 AM EDT
A Taliban leader speaks as many journalists hold microphones to his face.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The leader of the Taliban delegation, deputy prime minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, speaks to the media in Moscow on Wednesday.

Good morning,

Here's the news we're keeping an eye on today:

Booster doses: A committee of advisors to the CDC will meet today to discuss COVID-19 boosters of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, one more step in the authorization process.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Today is Purple Thursday, when social media users flood platforms with purple to raise awareness for domestic violence.

Taliban leaders are visiting Russia: Part of their quest to be seen as Afghanistan's legitimate government, they'll meet with 10 nations — but the U.S. isn't one of them.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, Senate Democrats' voting rights bill failed to pass, but they're not giving up on election reforms.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark, Scott Neuman and Chris Hopkins)


Movie theater chain AMC is adding open captions at hundreds of U.S. locations

Posted October 21, 2021 at 11:06 AM EDT
A tall black building bears the red "AMC" logo against a blue sky.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
The AMC Burbank 16 movie theatres complex pictured in April 2020 in Burbank, Calif.

The world's largest movie theater chain is adding onscreen captions at hundreds of U.S. locations, in an effort to make moviegoing more accesible.

AMC Theatres announced last Friday that 240 of its locations — in more than 100 U.S. markets — are adding open captioning to certain showings. The change took effect last week, and is aimed at improving the viewing experience of people who have hearing loss and for whom English is not their first language.

"Inclusive programming is core to AMC’s strategy, and we’re proud to lead the theatrical exhibition industry by making some open caption showtimes available at hundreds of our locations nationwide," Elizabeth Frank, AMC’s chief content officer and executive vice president of worldwide programming, said in a statement.

Open captions — similar to subtitles — appear on the screen and cannot be turned off, while closed captioning is displayed on electronic devices that customers must request. The company says the "vast majority" of showtimes will continue to be offered with closed captioning, meaning it will still make assisted listening devices available at all of its locations.

Every AMC market with at least two theaters will also make some open caption showtimes available weekly for all new releases, the companyt explained. Open captions will also be offered through AMC's private theater rentals program at certain locations.

Moviegoers at participating locations can search for open-caption showtimes on AMC Theatres' website and mobile app. They are currently available for a mix of weekend, weekday, evening and matinee showings, and the company expects them to evolve based on feedback and demand.

"Initial consumer response has been very positive, and we anticipate strong demand with growing awareness of open caption showtimes at AMC," Frank added.

CEO Adam Aron noted on Twitter that the open captions are coming just in time for the big-screen arrival of Disney's Eternals. The film is set to open in theaters on Nov. 5, and features deaf actress Lauren Ridloff as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first deaf superhero.

Ridloff spoke about the moviegoing experience in an interview with the The New York Times last month, describing deaf people as "an afterthought in movie theaters" and calling for change.

"You have to use a special closed-captioning device to watch subtitling in a theater, and it’s a headache, because most of the time the devices don’t work," she explained. "Then you have to go back to the front desk and find somebody to help, and by the time they figure it out that it’s not working — that it’s not going to be subtitled at all — the movie’s halfway done."

Disability rights advocates have long sought to make theaters more accessible, from better audio dubbing to smartphone closed-captioning technology.

Many are praising AMC for its recent announcement.

Christian Vogler, a professor and director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University in D.C., toldthe Washington Post that deaf and hard of hearing advocates "have been asking for expanded access to open captions since forever."

He also said that expanding accessibility could improve the experience of all moviegoers, noting that captions are useful in many scenarios and are being used in more and more places as the technology expands.

American Paralympian Chuck Aokipraised AMC's move as "absolutely phenomenal" in a tweet.

"Captions aren't harmful to the experience, but help millions enjoy the movie more," he wrote. "Well done!"


Heavy rain in the forecast could end fire season in parts of drought-parched California

Posted October 21, 2021 at 10:51 AM EDT
A person walks with an umbrella through gray hazy rain near the Golden Gate Bridge.
Jeff Chiu/AP
A pedestrian carries an umbrella during on a path in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, during a shower on Wednesday. Stronger storms are expected to bring substantial rain within the next week.

A series of strong storms is expected to bring powerful wind, mountain snow and substantial rainfall to the Western U.S., including drought-affected California. The storms could also ease wildfire season in some places in the state.

Areas of California saw showers from the system yesterday, with progressively stronger storms predicted to follow. Forecasters expect the most powerful storm late Saturday into Tuesday. Parts of Northern California could get more than 10 inches of total precipitation over the next week, according to the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at UC San Diego.

Areas in the state desperately need it. The Pacific Northwest is weathering an exceptional drought, including in California, where August 2021 was the driest and hottest August on record. California's most recent water year, which stretches from October to September, was the driest since 1924, according to a report from the California Department of Water Resources.

Gov.Gavin Newsom extended a drought emergency declaration statewide on Tuesday and urged Californians to conserve more water.

Experts say precipitation from the upcoming week's storms won't end the drought, but will be a good start to California's new water year. The heavy rain and snow could have another benefit: It's possible it could soak vegetation enough to end fire season in central and Northern California.

But experts warn the rainfall could also combine with California's recent fire season to create dangerous burn-scar flooding and debris flows in areas downhill or downstream from places devastated by wildfires.

"Rainfall that would normally be absorbed will run off extremely quickly after a wildfire, as burned soil can be as water repellant as pavement. As a result much less rainfall is required to produce a flash flood,"the National Weather Service cautions. Officials say they're most concerned that mudslides could occur in areas with burn scars from the Caldor and Dixie fires.

Fordetailson the incoming storms and their potential effects, read more frommember station KQED.


A drone attack rocks one of the last U.S. bases in Syria

Posted October 21, 2021 at 10:26 AM EDT

At least two drones attacked a U.S. military outpost in Syria, reportedly using rockets to hit the base near the town of al-Tanf. The U.S. military says no injuries have been reported, and all of the base’s roughly 200 personnel are accounted for.

“We can confirm that the Al Tanf Garrison area was subjected to a deliberate and coordinated attack,” CENTCOM spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in a message sent to NPR. “Based on initial reports, the attack utilized both unmanned aerial systems and indirect fire.”

Syrian state media report that the drones fired rockets at the base, causing “a series of explosions.”

The base is near the Iraq border in southern Syria; it's on the main highway linking Baghdad and Damascus. Despite the sharp reduction in the American force in 2019, the U.S. has maintained troops at the base. The small installation has been used to train fighters against the Syrian government. It’s also long been seen as a counter to both ISIS and to Iran.

“American officials believe pro-Iranian militias were behind the attack,” NPR’s Tom Bowman reports for our Newscast unit. “Iran is supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

The base is in a “deconfliction zone” that is meant to prevent accidental skirmishes from breaking out among U.S. and other forces operating in the area, including Russian and Syrian troops.


Can't sleep? A Hong Kong bus company says this ride is a snoozefest

Posted October 21, 2021 at 10:02 AM EDT
Passengers sleep on the upper deck of a double-decker bus in Hong Kong on Saturday.
Kin Cheung/AP
Passengers sleep on the upper deck of a double-decker bus in Hong Kong on Saturday.

Any new parent will confirm the soothing, somnolent effects of a car on tired, cranky infants.

That road noise works on adults, too. A Hong Kong tour company noticed patrons falling asleep on its buses, and recently launched a five-hour, 47-mile ride to nowhere.

The company, ulu tours, hopes riders will find it a snoozefest.

“When we were brainstorming new tours, I saw a social media post from my friend saying that he was stressed out by his work, he couldn’t sleep at night,” Kenneth Kong, ulu's marketing and business manager told the Associated Press. “But when he was traveling on the bus, he was able to sleep well. His post inspired us to create this tour that lets passengers just sleep on the bus.”

Tickets range from $13 to $51 per person, depending on upper or lower deck seating. Riders also get a goodie bag with an eye mask and earplugs.

The first ride launched Saturday and sold out. Some inaugural passengers even brought their own blankets and slippers.


New weekly unemployment claims have hit a new pandemic low

Posted October 21, 2021 at 9:42 AM EDT
A person with long hair wearing jeans and a gray shirt walks through the automatic doors of a store, which are partially covered by a red banner reading "Now Hiring."
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
A "Now Hiring" sign hangs near the entrance to a Winn-Dixie Supermarket on September 21, 2021 in Hallandale, Florida.

The number of people filing new unemployment claims fell 6,000 to 290,000 in the week ending Oct. 16, according to the Department of Labor.

That marked the lowest since March 14, 2020, according to the report.

The claims data continues to raise hopes for a recovery in the labor market after two months of disappointing job growth. So far, earnings have also been encouraging to investors, signaling companies are weathering the impacts of the Delta variant and supply chain issues.

The total number of people on benefits as of Oct. 2 was 3.3 million.


Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, wrote a letter to Congress calling for paid family leave

Posted October 21, 2021 at 9:21 AM EDT
A woman wearing a white short-sleeved dress with bejeweled flowers on it, smiles with her mouth closed while looking ahead.
John Lamparski/Getty Images,
Getty Images North America
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex speaks onstage during Global Citizen Live, New York in September in New York City.

Democrats have been negotiating for weeks over just how much to spend on a budget reconciliation bill that would address key Biden administration priorities in areas like climate change, health care and child care.

And now one more high-profile voice has entered the conversation. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, penned an open letter to House Democratic leaders on Wednesday calling on them not to "compromise or negotiate" when it comes paid family leave.

"Paid leave should be a national right, rather than a patchwork option limited to those whose employers have policies in place, or those who live in one of the few states where a leave program exists," wrote the mother of two. "If we’re going to create a new era of family first policies, let’s make sure that includes a strong paid leave program for every American that’s guaranteed, accessible, and encouraged without stigma or penalty."

Her letter comes as progressive House and Senate Democrats are pushing back against a preliminary decision — by President Biden and their moderate counterparts — to slash funding for a national paid family leave program in a scaled-back version of the bill.

As The Hillreported, Biden informed them at a White House meeting on Wednesday that the Build Back Better Act will provide four weeks of paid leave benefits instead of the original 12.

More than a dozen lawmakers sent a letter of their own to Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in response, urging them to include a comprehensive national paid leave program in the final bill.

"There is no lasting recovery — no real rebuilding — without care. Paid leave is a necessary and long overdue investment that would contribute to adding more than $1.6 trillion to our economy through increased women’s workforce participation," they wrote. "An investment in paid leave will pay dividends for our families, our businesses, and our economy, while creating a more equitable recovery for all."

They said that only 23% of working Americans have access to paid leave through their employer, and just 7% of low-wage workers have access to even a single day of paid family leave.

Meghan's letter touched on similar themes, characterizing the paid leave decision not as right or left but "right or wrong."

She explained that she was writing as an engaged citizen and parent, and reflected on her own experiences, including growing up on the $5 Sizzler salad bar and getting her first job at age 13.

But the actress-turned-duchess, who is married to Britain's Prince Harry, also acknowledged how her position has since changed.

"In June, my husband and I welcomed our second child. Like any parents, we were overjoyed. Like many parents, we were overwhelmed. Like fewer parents, we weren’t confronted with the harsh reality of either spending those first few critical months with our baby or going back to work," she wrote. "We knew we could take her home, and in that vital (and sacred) stage, devote any and everything to our kids and to our family. We knew that by doing so we wouldn’t have to make impossible choices about childcare, work, and medical care that so many have to make every single day."

These choices are by no means new, she acknowledged, but have become increasingly difficult during the pandemic as millions of women have had to drop out of the workforce to care for loved ones full-time.

She concluded by urging lawmakers to act and thanking them for their consideration on behalf of her family, "Archie and Lili and Harry."

The letter was published by the national campaign Paid Leave For All.


Russia calls for inclusive Taliban government during talks with Afghanistan's new rulers

Posted October 21, 2021 at 8:22 AM EDT
Taliban leaders gather at a table with microphones in front of press.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Pool AP
Taliban official Abdul Salam Hanafi, center, and other members of the Taliban delegation arrive for talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

In the highest-level international talks since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Russia called for “a really inclusive government” in the country to establish peace after decades of war.

Moscow hosted the talks that involved a Taliban delegation and representatives from 10 nations, including Pakistan, India, Iran and China. The State Department said Monday that a U.S. representative would not attenddue to “logistical reasons” but said it was open to participating in such talks in the future.

In a country that has seen repeated cycles of violence involving outside powers such as the U.S. and Russia itself, as well as ethnic and sectarian conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it was important for Afghanistan to form an inclusive government “reflecting the interests of not only all ethnic groups but all political forces of the country.”

Speaking with NPR's Scott Detrow on Morning Edition, NPR’s Moscow correspondent, Charles Maynes, described the meeting as “a step forward in the Taliban’s quest for legitimacy.”

Even so, senior Russian diplomats emphasized that formal recognition of the Taliban regime couldn’t come until the Afghan leaders improve human rights and broaden their top circle beyond an all-male, mainly ethnic Pashtun group.

Russia is hoping to establish regional leverage and to ensure security among the Central Asian states along its southern border that were once Soviet satellite countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told reporters in Moscow that “a big political bargaining” was going on with the aim of making the Afghan government more inclusive.

“We expect the Taliban to meet ... the request of the international community about inclusivity and basic human rights, which include broadly all kinds of human rights, and they confirmed that they are working on that, the process of improvement of governance, the process of improving the human rights situation," Kabulov told reporters, according to The Associated Press.

Kabulov acknowledged that “not everyone likes the new government in Afghanistan,” but said “by punishing the government, we punish the whole people.”


The latest COVID news: boosters, breakthrough cases and more

Posted October 21, 2021 at 8:12 AM EDT
A woman wearing a mask and gloves sits at a folding table, in the back corner of a room with pink walls and red curtains.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Safeway pharmacist Ashley McGee fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 booster dose at a vaccination booster shot clinic on Oct. 1 in San Rafael, California.

The COVID-19 news is coming fast and furious. Here are some of the useful stories we're following today.

The FDA has authorized Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — and mix-and-match — boosters

The Food and Drug Administration authorized booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccines made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. It also authorized the use of boosters that differ from the brand of vaccine a person originally got.

That means boosters could soon be available for anyone who got a J&J dose, and certain people who got Moderna. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still needs to sign off, though, and a panel of their advisors is meeting today to discuss boosters and make recommendations on their use.

Read more or listen here.

Colin Powell's death doesn't mean the vaccines aren't working

The death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell from COVID-19 complications earlier this week was jarring for many, especially because his family said he had been fully vaccinated. (He was at higher risk because of his age and certain health conditions.)

It can be unnerving to hear of fully-vaccinated people falling severely ill with COVID-19, but scientists say the U.S. data is clear: People who are fully vaccinated have a far lower risk of getting infected or dying from COVID-19 than the unvaccinated.

Here's what you need to know about breakthrough cases.

Scientists are starting to understand the likely end game for COVID-19

How — if ever — will the pandemic completely end? NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has been asking experts what happens next.

You should hear her explain their answers firsthand. But essentially, the hypothesis is that exposure to the virus will be basically unavoidable — but as the population builds up immunity, it could over time become more similar to the seasonal colds or flu-like illnesses that many of us experience regularly.

"The virus SARS-CoV-2 will probably never go away ... but COVID the disease, the extreme illness that puts many people in the hospital, that could go away," Doucleff explains.

Listen to the full story to learn how that might work.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Today is Purple Thursday. Here's what that means

Posted October 21, 2021 at 8:09 AM EDT

You may or may not know that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a designated time for communities and organizations nationwide to raise awareness about signs of abuse, lift up the stories of survivors and advocate for policy changes.

Domestic violence is pervasive in the U.S., with the National Institutes of Health calling it a "social and public health crisis, crossing lines of class, race, ethnicity and sexuality." It has also proven to have intensified during the pandemic.

On average, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the U.S. will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

National and local organizations are encouraging people to come together all month to raise awareness about domestic violence and work to end it. One of those campaigns is called Purple Thursday, which falls on Oct. 21 and urges people to flood social media with pictures of themselves wearing purple.

It's a "simple, yet meaningful way to raise awareness about domestic violence," as the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence explains.

This year, Purple Thursday also coincides with Spirit Day, an annual LGBTQ awareness day that always falls on the third Thursday in October. Organizations like GLAAD encourage Americans to show their support for LGBTQ youth and speak out against bullying — including by wearing purple. You can learn more about it here.

NPR's Life Kit has these tips for supporting a loved one through domestic violence. Plus, here's a list of hotlines, crisis organizations and other resources for victims and survivors.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. That can include a local shelter, or call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.