What we know (and don't know) about omicron; Ghislaine Maxwell trial begins; Hanukkah lights for a hard year
It's Monday. Happy start to the festival of lights!
Here's what we're following today:
Omicron unknowns: Countries are beginning to restrict international travel in attempts to keep the coronavirus variant out. Scientists are looking into exactly how much protection the vaccines offer, while pharmaceutical companies say they're working on omicron-specific boosters in case they're needed.
Ghislaine Maxwell trial opens: Maxwell is being tried on several felony counts, including trafficking underage girls for financier Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse. Her attorneys are expected to argue that she's essentially being tried for Epstein's crimes and therefore can't get a fair trial.
Hanukkah begins: The holiday began at sundown last night and runs through Dec. 6. Get in the spirit with the 31st anniversary of Hanukkah Lights, in which Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz revisit some of their favorite pieces of heartwarming Hanukkah fiction.
🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, groundbreaking fashion designer Virgil Abloh has died at age 41.
— The Morning Edition live blog team
(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Nicole Hernandez)
The U.S. is restricting travel from 8 countries as the omicron variant spreads
The U.S. is enacting travel bans in an effort to limit the spread of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, which the World Health Organization warns poses a "very high" global risk.
Starting today, President Biden has imposed travel restrictions for non-U.S. citizens from the following eight countries:
- South Africa
The European Union, Canada, United Kingdom and Israel have announced travel restrictions from southern African countries as well.
The variant was first reported last week in South Africa, where vaccination rates are about 24%.
Cases of the omicron variant have since been confirmed in Botswana, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands, Australia and Hong Kong.
Biden is encouraging children and adults to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
"This pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," he said last week in a statement.
This Cyber Monday, examining the pros and cons of 'buy now, pay later'
Holiday shopping is slated to break records this season.
And whether you're hitting the stores online or in person, you've probably already seen many retailers offering the option to pay in installments — aka "buy now, pay later."
This type of short-term financing allows consumers to make purchases and pay for them at a future date, often without interest. It's convenient, and it's becoming increasingly popular.
Online revenue from buy now, pay later plans has been 10 percent higher this year than in 2020 and 45% higher than 2019, according to Adobe's 2021 holiday season online shopping forecast. One-quarter of respondents to an Adobe survey said they had used it in the last three months, with the top spending categories listed as apparel, electronics and groceries.
Is buying now and paying later worth it? Washington Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary spoke to NPR's A Martínez about the potential pros and cons. Listen to their conversation here.
How it works:
As Singletary explains, consumers pay a small fee at the time of purchase, then pay the rest over installments that could range from every two weeks to every six months.
These aren't typical credit card loans, and many platforms don't charge interest depending on how long the consumer takes to repay it.
"It's a way for retailers to get people to spend, and oftentimes, spend more than they probably should," she adds.
Even though this is technically a loan, Singletary says, it doesn't require people to get credit cards or feel like they're in debt. And the arrangement gives people who may not qualify for a regular credit card a chance to make bigger purchases.
If you're doing OK financially and want to get your kids something for the holidays, but may need a little bit more time, Singletary thinks the buy now pay later option might work for you — as long as you make those regular payments.
Many people end up missing those payments, Singletary says, and platforms may report that to credit bureaus.
Singletary, a mom of three 20-somethings, would not recommend her kids do buy now, pay later — she believes that if you have the money in your pocket but just don't think you should spend it all right away, it's probably a sign you shouldn't go ahead with the purchase.
"Generally speaking, if you don't have the cash now, you probably shouldn't be doing this," she adds.
If you do choose to go with after-pay, Singletary advises you to keep these tips in mind.
Many of these services have apps that send you reminders about upcoming payments — make sure to sign up for those, she says. Also, if you come into the funds you need sooner than expected, put that money in the account the payments are being pulled from, so it's already there when the next installment comes due.
Albatross divorce is real, and climate change is making it more common
Albatrosses are known for their 11-foot wingspans, their ultra-marathon flights and their ability to remain at sea for nearly their entire lives.
But another albatross super-power is under threat from climate change: their ability to form lifelong bonds with a single mate.
The threat, specifically, is rising ocean-surface temperatures, according to a team of researchers from the University of Lisbon, whose findings were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society. Higher surface temperatures make it harder for the birds to find food — and make them late in returning to their breeding grounds.
"Albatrosses are the epitome of love in the animal kingdom," Francesco Ventura, who led the research team, told Morning Edition. "They are strictly socially monogamous."
Although separation is rare in normal times, Albatross breeding pairs sometimes split up when they are unable to breed — and the scientific term for that split, believe it or not, is divorce.
Ventura says that when one bird in a pair is slow to return because of scarcer food in the warmer waters, the other may move on to another love interest in order to breed.
"There is a direct pathway linking the environment to divorce," he says. "And, in particular, higher sea surface temperatures [linking] to divorce."
He adds that birds that have trouble finding food may also experience a rise in stress hormones, which is another barrier to breeding.
"Higher levels of stress hormones might lead them to misinterpret this higher stress as a poor performance by the partner," Ventura says. "And, therefore, divorce."
Listen to hear more from Venture at this link.
Dozens of strangers were snowed in for days at a U.K. pub. Karaoke helped them through it
They came for an Oasis tribute band and stayed for a massive snowstorm.
The Tan Hill Inn in Northern England offers camping, glamping, weddings and now: Snowdays.
Dozens of people, mostly strangers, spent the weekend snowed in together at the remote pub after heavy snowfall blocked the exits.
The Tan Hill Inn, which calls itself the UK's highest pub, was hosting the band Noasis when snowfall made leaving the area dangerous for staff, musicians and pub-goers.
So they stayed — and stayed and stayed — all weekend, waiting for the danger to pass.
Stranded residents slept on the floor and on mattresses provided by the pub, and passed the time by playing quiz games, watching movies and eating Yorkshire puddings.
Plus, they made use of their common interest by singing lots of Oasis karaoke.
Nicola Townsend, the inn’s general manager, reported to a television network that the group started with 61 people snowed in on Friday and had trickled down to about 50 by Monday.
Once the snowfall stopped, residents couldn't head home just yet, as downed powerlines blocked the roads out.
The band was trapped at the pub as well, causing them to miss their next gig in Essex on Saturday. "We're very sorry to announce that we are stranded in Yorkshire, snowed in at the venue after last night's gig at The Tan Hill Inn," the band wrote on Facebook.
Storm Arwen over the weekend brought severe weather including heavy snowfall and dangerous-force winds to parts of Scotland and northern England. The storm has been attributed to three deaths, as well as transportation and power disruptions across the U.K.
All stranded pub-goers were able to leave Monday.
"We will ALWAYS remember this group of amazing people who came together, and hopefully, in challenging circumstances, enjoyed what we all think was a life-changing experience," the pub wrote on Facebook.
Sweden's first female leader quit last week after a few hours. She's just been reelected
It looks like Sweden will soon have its first female prime minister after all. She's the same one who resigned last week, just about seven hours after being tapped to lead the country.
Magdalena Andersson — a 54-year-old former finance minister who leads the Social Democratic Party — was reelected by a slim margin on Monday, and will make history when she officially takes office tomorrow.
Here's what happened. Swedish lawmakers first elected Andersson last Wednesday, but she decided to step down after a budget defeat in parliament made a coalition partner quit.
The government rejected its own budget proposal in favor of one presented by the opposition (which includes the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats), as the Associated Press reported. That prompted the Green Party to leave the two-party minority government.
Andersson later said at a news conference that she did not "want to lead a government where there may be grounds to question its legitimacy." The BBC reports that the prime minister is expected by convention to resign if a coalition party leaves the government.
Andersson also said she would still be interested in leading a Social Democratic one-party government.
And on Monday, she won her second election in less than a week.
Of the 349-member Swedish parliament, known as the Riksdag, 101 members voted yes to Andersson, 173 voted no and 75 abstained. The country's constitution allows prime ministers to be appointed as long as a parliamentary majority (175 people) does not vote against them — so it was a close one.
Andersson told reporters after the vote that she's ready to "take Sweden forward" with a platform focused on welfare, climate change and crime, according to the BBC.
English-language news site The Local reports that Andersson will formally announce her cabinet on Tuesday morning local time. The transition of power will take place shortly after at a change-of-government cabinet meeting with the King of Sweden at the Royal Palace.
Her new government will remain in place until Sweden's next general election, which is scheduled for next September.
“I don’t see this as the start of ten months, I see this as the start of ten years,” she told reporters at a press conference, according to The Local.
Jack Dorsey is stepping down as CEO of Twitter
Jack Dorsey is stepping down as CEO of Twitter, the company announced on Monday.
Parag Agrawal, who has served as its chief technology officer since 2017, will succeed him.
"I've decided to leave Twitter because I believe the company is ready to move on from its founders," Dorsey said in a statement. "My trust in Parag as Twitter's CEO is deep. His work over the past 10 years has been transformational. I'm deeply grateful for his skill, heart, and soul. It's his time to lead."
Dorsey will remain a member of Twitter's board of directors until his term expires at the 2022 meeting of stockholders, the company said.
Dorsey, who co-founded the social media platform in 2006, shared a copy of his resignation email Monday morning on ... you guessed it ... Twitter:
Read more here from NPR's Shannon Bond.
Merriam-Webster's word of the year is, of course, 'vaccine'
In 2020, the Merriam-Webster dictionary selected "pandemic" as its word of the year.
This year, like some 59% of fully inoculated Americans, it went with "vaccine."
The publishing company noted that the word holds particular significance both as a medical term and a vehicle for ideological conflict.
"For many, the word symbolized a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic," it said in Monday's announcement. "But it was also at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more."
The word of the year is determined by data, as Merriam-Webster has explained in the past. It must have been a top lookup at Merriam-Webster.com in the past 12 months, and it must have seen a significant increase in lookups over the previous year.
That was certainly the case with "vaccine" this year. Lookups for the word increased 601% year-over-year from 2020, and were up 1,048% from 2019, the dictionary said.
It notes that interest in the word has been high since the start of the pandemic, with people searching and discussing the funding, development and distribution of vaccines well before they were actually available at pharmacies.
And lookups of "vaccine" jumped by 535% in August, which Merriam-Webster says is because "discussions about policy, approval, and vaccination rates — rather than the vaccine itself — sent people to the dictionary."
For context: This was around the time when New York and California mandated vaccines for health care workers, the Food and Drug Administration granted Pfizer's vaccine full approval and President Biden announced plans for booster shots for the general U.S. public, among other headlines.
"This new higher rate of lookups since August has remained stable throughout the late fall, showing not just a very high interest in vaccine, but one that started high and grew during the course of 2021," Merriam-Webster added.
And what were people finding when they searched up the word? Merriam-Webster says a new type of vaccine merited a new and improved definition.
The company revised its entry for the word in May, since the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines trigger an immune response in an entirely new way.
The definition used to be: A preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease." Now, it reads:
1 : a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body's immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease: such as
a : an antigenic preparation of a typically inactivated or attenuated (see ATTENUATED sense 2) pathogenic agent (such as a bacterium or virus) or one of its components or products (such as a protein or toxin)
b : a preparation of genetic material (such as a strand of synthesized messenger RNA) that is used by the cells of the body to produce an antigenic substance (such as a fragment of virus spike protein)
The dictionary had several runners up for Word of the Year, rounding out the list to a neat 10. The other contenders include insurrection, perseverance, woke, infrastructure, Murraya, cisgender and Meta. But they couldn't compete with "vaccine" for the top spot.
"The promising medical solution to the pandemic that upended our lives in 2020 also became a political argument and source of division," it said. "The biggest science story of our time quickly became the biggest debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine."
Matthew McConaughey says he won't be running for Texas governor (at least for now)
Alright, alright, alright. After months of dropping hints and dodging specifics, Matthew McConaughey has finally announced his much-speculated-about plans for the Texas governor race: He won't be running in it.
The Oscar-winning actor and best-selling author broke the news in a three-minute video posted to Twitter on Sunday night. He mused about what he learned from studying Texas and American politics over the last several years, before pledging to be of service in other ways.
"As a simple kid born in the little town of Uvalde, Texas, it never occurred to me that I would one day be considered for political leadership," McConaughey said. "It's a humbling and inspiring path to ponder. It is also a path that I'm choosing not to take at this moment."
The announcement comes just over two weeks before the candidate filing deadline for the Texas primary.
McConaughey said he's spent the last two years exploring the question of how he can be most useful to himself, his family and the greatest amount of people, and considered running for Texas governor as one means of service.
That fact-finding mission was a very public one. As recently as early October, McConaughey spoke of keeping his options open, telling NPR in a Twitter Spaces conversation that "I am not — until I am."
He also didn't specify which political party he would align with, nor did he answer listener questions about his stance on hot-button issues like the state's restrictive abortion law and Amazon workers' unionization efforts. He did offer some of his signature "bumper sticker" philosophies on life, as NPR reported at the time.
McConaughey's announcement video was punctuated with similar platitudes, as he offered his insights into the current political landscape. Those include:
- "We have some problems we need to fix."
- "Our politics need more purpose."
- "We need more trust in our lives."
- "Our children are our greatest asset."
- "Freedom comes with responsibility."
- "Great leaders serve."
He added that people lead by serving each other, whether they are politicians, CEOs, star athletes, teachers or family members.
"Service is taking on responsibility today so we can have more freedom tomorrow," he said. "Service is making the better choice for you and for me. Service is the investment we make in ourselves."
McConaughey said he would continue this work by investing in entrepreneurs, businesses and foundations that he sees as leaders. He didn't name any particular organizations, but said he would focus on establishments that "are creating pathways to help people succeed in life" and "have a mission to serve and build trust while also generating prosperity."
He concluded by saying that good politicians can be a part of this effort, but "they can't do anything for us unless we chose to do for ourselves."
McConaughey's potential entry into the governor's race had attracted national attention and considerable local support, with some earlier fall polling showing him leading Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
McConaughey has faced criticism for recent comments he made about COVID-19 vaccine requirements for children, saying earlier this month that he “couldn't mandate having to vaccinate the younger kids." He later clarified in an Instagram story that he had been referring to 5 to 11-year-olds and said that his 13-year-old son was fully vaccinated.
Abbott will face several challengers in the Republican primary. And earlier this month, former Texas congressman and 2020 presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke became the first Democrat to join the contest.
Get in the Hanukkah spirit with NPR's seasonal storytelling special
Happy Hanukkah! The Festival of Lights began last night, kicking off an eight-day celebration of love, family, tradition and fried foods.
The holiday celebrates the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple. And for many people, its story of resilience serves as a bright spot in these uncertain times.
For decades, NPR has celebrated Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah?) with classic stories that honor and illuminate the holiday season, in a special lead by legends Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.
This year, for the 31st anniversary of NPR's "Hanukkah Lights," the two are revisiting old favorites from authors Sholem Aleichem, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Ellen Orleans, Lia Pripstein and Clement Clarke Moore.
Click here to listen to the full special or its individual stories. And a hearty "chag sameach" from all of us at Team Live Blog!
Ghislaine Maxwell's trial begins today. Here's what the defense will likely argue
Opening statements begin today in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is charged with sex trafficking underage girls for her friend, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, to sexually abuse.
NPR's Jasmine Garsd joined Morning Edition to lay out what to expect from the start of the much-anticipated trial. Listen here.
Maxwell faces six federal charges of sex trafficking. She's accused of grooming underage girls between the mid-'90s and early 2000s, offering them expensive trips and gifts and then exploiting them. She's also accused of participating in the abuse in some instances. Maxwell maintains she's innocent.
She's charged with trafficking the girls for abuse by Epstein, who died in a federal detention center in 2019 while awaiting trial. His death was ruled a suicide.
If convicted, Maxwell could be sentenced to up to 70 years in prison.
The defense's expected strategy
The defense is likely to argue that there's no way for Maxwell to get a fair trial; that she is, in essence, being tried for Epstein's crimes, according to Garsd.
Her attorneys are also expected to argue that she has already been found guilty in the court of public opinion. Garsd reports that that argument came up during jury selection for the trial, when potential jurors were asked how much time they spend on social media and how much they already know about the case.
Expected to testify are at least four women who say they were underage when they were exploited by Maxwell; other witnesses are yet to be announced.
One of Epstein's most famous accusers, Virginia Giuffre, isn't scheduled to testify. Giuffre has accused several powerful men of being involved in the alleged abuse ring, including Britain's Prince Andrew and attorney Alan Dershowitz, who helped negotiate a plea deal with light punishments for Epstein in 2008 on sex crimes. Those men have denied the allegations.
Here's what we know (and don't know) about omicron, the new coronavirus variant
The World Health Organization declared omicron a "variant of concern" (the first since delta) on Friday. Since then, countries including the U.S. have implemented travel bans, vaccine makers have announced they are developing omicron-specific boosters and more cases of the variant — which was first identified in South Africa — have been confirmed around the world.
(Here's why some experts consider travel bans ineffective and potentially even harmful.)
The variant has been detected in cases in the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands, Australia, Hong Kong and Canada. And public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci say it's only a matter of time before it appears in the U.S.
The WHO warned on Sunday that it had assessed the overall global risk related to omicron as "very high."
"Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder although many of us might think we are done with [COVID-19], it is not done with us," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a special session of the World Health Assembly on Monday.
NPR's Allison Aubrey walks us through the latest developments on Morning Edition. Here are the quick hits:
Questions surround the variant's mutations
The concern is that omicron has many mutations, which could allow it to spread very easily, Aubrey explains.
Fauci told ABC's This Week on Sunday that while more data is needed to know for sure, the "mutation would strongly suggest that it would be more transmissible and that it might evade ... perhaps even antibodies that are induced by vaccine."
Dr. Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health director, said on CNN's State of the Union he thinks people who have already been vaccinated "will probably be OK," but added that scientists will likely need two or three weeks to determine that.
It's unclear exactly how much protection vaccines offer — at least for now
Aubrey notes that the vaccines currently available have been shown to protect against other variants, but omicron's mutations could complicate this.
Scientists will take plasma from vaccinated people and test it to see whether those antibodies fend off the new variant. Doctors will also be tracking cases to get a sense of their severity.
Vaccine makers say they are already working to develop targeted boosters. More here on their efforts.
We were already seeing a surge of cases leading up to Thanksgiving
The U.S. and Europe have been seeing an uptick in cases caused by the delta variant, and public health experts expect holiday travel and gatherings to grow those numbers even more.
The U.S. was average about 94,000 new cases a day before Thanksgiving, Aubrey says, and modelers expect to see "substantial transmission" over the next few weeks. Right now the most notable increases are in — but not limited to — the Northeast and upper Midwest.
If you start to notice possible symptoms, be sure to get tested for COVID-19, and ideally not just once. Aubrey advises getting a PCR test from a pharmacy, testing site or doctor's office, or else taking over-the-counter rapid tests over the course of several days.
Here are more tips on keeping your guard up during a combined COVID-19, cold and flu season.