Start your day here: The omicron variant's red flags; start of Smollett trial; books we love

Published November 30, 2021 at 8:06 AM EST
A sign asks for proof of vaccination in Manhattan at the entrance to a museum on Monday.
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A sign asks for proof of vaccination in Manhattan at the entrance to a museum on Monday.

Good morning,

Here are the top stories we're following today:

Omicron update: The latest COVID-19 variant could be the most infectious one yet, but there's limited information about its potential impact. At this point, scientists do believe existing vaccines offer at least some degree of protection against it.

Smollett trial: The criminal trial against former Empire actor Jussie Smollett is now underway. Smollett is accused of lying to Chicago police about being the purported victim of a racist attack in 2019.

Books we love: NPR's annual curated list of hundreds of our favorite books is out now. This year, we present it in honor of a beloved colleague who made it all happen.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, diplomats work behind the scenes for a new deal between Hamas and Israel.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Rachel Treisman, Carol Ritchie, Nell Clark, Dana Farrington and Nicole Hernandez)


Adele just announced a Las Vegas residency

Posted November 30, 2021 at 11:34 AM EST

Huge news for fans of Adele (that's all of you, right?): The British singer just announced she'll be heading to Las Vegas for a musical residency in the new year.

"Weekends with Adele" will be hosted by the legendary Caesars Palace Hotel Colosseum and run from January to April. The opening show is scheduled for Jan. 21.

Presale tickets dropped this morning and will be on sale through midnight PST on Thursday, according to Adele's website. Additional presale tickets will be available for verified fans starting at 10 a.m. PST next Tuesday.

The news comes just over a week after the release of the musical powerhouse's fourth studio album, 30here's the reviewfrom NPR music critic Ann Powers. It became the year's top-selling album in the U.S. after just three days.

The singer has performed for star-studded live audiences at two specials in recent weeks, one with CBS at Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory and another for Britain's ITV at the London Palladium. She's also announced two back-to-back shows at London's Hyde Park in July 2022.

And she's following in some very famous footsteps. According to Deadline, previous concert residencies at the Colosseum include Elton John, Bette Middler, Cher and Celine Dion.


1 in 3 staffers in Australia’s parliament have been sexually harassed, a report finds

Posted November 30, 2021 at 11:18 AM EST
Thousands of people with placards and banners rally to demand justice for women in Sydney in March as the government reeled from two separate allegations.
Rick Rycroft/AP
Thousands of people with placards and banners rally to demand justice for women in Sydney in March as the government reeled from two separate allegations.

A new report from Australia has found that one in three people working for parliamentary offices in the country has been sexually harassed, detailing a widely concerning culture of abuse in Australia's highest governmental offices.

Titled "Set the Standard," the report showed that women experienced a higher rate of sexual harassment, bullying and sexual assault than men. Forty percent of women experienced sexual harassment there compared to 26% of men. More people who identify as LGBTQ+ experienced harassment compared with than those who identify as heterosexual — 53% compared to 31%.

The report, which was commissioned by Australia’s government, also found that 63% of female parliamentarians experienced sexual harassment, compared to 24% of male parliamentarians. The number is far higher than the national average of women who report being sexually harassed, which is 39%.

Approximately 1% of respondents reported experience of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault; but the survey did not ask them to detail their experience.

The 456-page report comes just months after thousands protested in Australia in March, in another wave of the #MeToo movement.

The protests were in part sparked by Brittany Higgins, a former staffer in parliament, who revealed she had been raped in a minister's office in 2019. Then, four morewomen came forward to say the same man raped them as well.

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The new Miss USA is Elle Smith, a local TV reporter from Kentucky

Posted November 30, 2021 at 11:00 AM EST

Readers, meet your new Miss USA.

Elle Smith traded in her Miss Kentucky sash after winning the pageant on Monday night and is set to head to Israel to compete for the title of Miss Universe in just a few weeks.

Louisville ABC affiliate WHAS11 — where Smith works as a journalist — reports that Smith is the second Miss Kentucky to become Miss USA. She reportedly shone during the swimsuit and evening gown competitions and drew "roaring applause" from the audience for her thoughts on how businesses can be more eco-friendly.

Smith joined the station in Oct. 2020 after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a B.A. in broadcast journalism and a minor in political science, according to her work biography. She served as vice president of the school's National Association of Black Journalists chapter, was a reporter and videographer for school publications and held multiple journalism internships in Arkansas and Washington, D.C.

The NABJ and WHAS11 News were among those who took to social media to congratulate Smith on her win.

In an interview with WHAS11 last week, Smith said she had wanted to participate in pageants since high school but had to wait until she had a "big girl job" in order to afford it. The Miss Kentucky competition that she won in May was her very first.

She talked about balancing her Miss Kentucky responsibilities with her full-time job, and the relationship between the two.

For example, Smith said most of her pageant-related sponsors are located outside the station's viewing area to avoid conflicts of interest, and pushed back on the idea that competing in a bikini might damage her professional credibility. In fact, Smith believes the communication skills she relies on every day at work set her apart in the pageant world.

"A Miss USA, her job is to connect with people," Smith said. "She should be able to speak with a three-year-old, she should be able to speak with a 90-year-old veteran or the CEO of a business, and we do that every single day at work. You're speaking to a wide range of personalities and meeting different people with different perspectives, and so I think that's the big thing that I take from work and then translate it to Miss Kentucky USA, which I hope I can translate to Miss USA."

As the winner of Miss USA, Smith is scheduled to travel to Eilat, Israel to compete in the Miss Universe pageant on Dec. 12. Organizers said the international pageant will take place as planned despite a contestant testing positive for COVID-19, CNN reported on Tuesday.

It is not clear whether Smith will stay in her job as a journalist, and she did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment. A recent profile by the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information said that if Smith were to win the Miss USA title, she will move to Los Angeles on a full salary to represent the nation for a year.


Barbados breaks with the queen and becomes the world's newest republic

Posted November 30, 2021 at 10:31 AM EST
In this image made from video provided by Prime Minister's office, Barbados' Prime Minister Mia Mottley, left, and President Sandra Mason, center, walks with singer Rihanna, in orange, and Prince Charles, right, at the presidential inauguration ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados on Tuesday.
Prime Minister's Office
In this image made from video provided by Prime Minister's office, Barbados' Prime Minister Mia Mottley, left, and President Sandra Mason, center, walks with singer Rihanna, in orange, and Prince Charles, right, at the presidential inauguration ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados on Tuesday.

Fireworks lit up the sky, crowds cheered and the island nation of Barbados officially became a parliamentary republic at midnight Monday, 55 years after its independence from the United Kingdom.

Dame Sandra Mason was named the first president of the country, which had announced in September 2020 it would step away from colonial ties, remove Queen Elizabeth as head of state and complete the process of transitioning to a republic.

The nation ushered in its new phase with singing, musical performances and an appearance by multi-hyphenate and Barbadian-born Rihanna, whowas declareda national hero.

The ceremony was attended by Prince Charles, heir apparent to the British throne. In a speech commemorating the transition, he noted the legacy of slavery inflicted upon the island by the British.

"From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude," Prince Charles said.

“We the people must give Republic Barbados its spirit and its substance,” Mason said in her address. “We must shape its future. We are each other’s and our nation’s keepers. We the people are Barbados.”

Barbados will stay part of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of over 50 countries that retain some ties to Britain. Countries that still call the queen their head of state include Australia, Canada and Jamaica.

NPR's All Things Considered spoke with Mackie Holder, consulate general of Barbados in New York, on whether this may push other countries to make similar moves. Listen here.

"Other Caribbean countries certainly will follow. Whether that will happen in six months, in a year — who knows? But I expect as we go further into the 21st century that we will see some changes and among other countries in the Caribbean as well," Holder said.


Dr. Francis Collins on the risks and unknowns of omicron — and a possible silver lining

Posted November 30, 2021 at 9:48 AM EST
A white-haired man wearing a blue face mask with double helixes sits in front of a nametag, microphone and bottles of hand wipes, sanitizer and water.
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Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in 2020.

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, stopped by Morning Edition to share his biggest questions and concerns about the emerging omicron variant (which you can read more about here).

Collins says he is most concerned about well vaccines, boosters and immunity from previous infections will protect against omicron. He also stressed that the fight against COVID-19 is an international effort and credited South Africa's public health community with being transparent about their discovery.

He also stressed the importance of vaccinations, especially as delta cases are still spreading across the U.S. In fact, Collins said, if there is one potential silver lining in the emergence of a new variant, perhaps it's that it will prompt people who have not gotten the shot to decide it's time to act.

"If there's one more wake-up call that we needed — although I don't think we really needed one — maybe this is one more chance for folks who have been on the fence to say, 'OK, let's do this,'" Collins said.

Listen to his full conversation with NPR's A Martínez or read highlights below.

On questions about the vaccines' efficacy

“There are unanswered questions and they're going to be unanswered for a couple of weeks, as people are pushing with maximum effort to try to identify some of those answers," Collins said. We don't know, for instance, whether this particular variant causes illness that is more or less severe than previous versions of SARS-CoV-2. We do know that it's probably more contagious, at least in South Africa, than other variants, because it spreads so quickly."

But we don't know whether that would be the case in a country that also has a lot of delta currently circulating, like the U.S., he adds, as it's not clear how omicron would compete against delta. Collins stressed that the variant has more than 50 mutations, so is quite different from the original strain that these vaccines were developed to fight.

"That is the biggest concern," he said. "Is this variant such a new virus that previous immunity from being infected or having the vaccine or the booster is not going to give the protection that we hope for?”

On whether omicron is already in the U.S.:

“I think that's a natural expectation when you consider all the other countries, including our neighbors in Canada, that have already seen cases. It's just a matter of time," he said. "And I predict probably when that does happen in the next week or so, people will freak out again, but I don't know that we should be too surprised about it. This virus has proven itself multiple times to cross the globe quite stealthily, and then it pops up."

Collins added that he thinks it's wise to try to slow that process down through travel restrictions like the ones the U.S. has enacted, but says that approach won't be 100% effective.

On global vaccine disparities and willingness to get the jab:

“We have already sent out 275 million doses, including a lot to Africa. All other countries together haven't done that much," he said. "Of course, I'm a person who believes strongly in global health. I wish we were further along and that we had higher vaccination rates."

Collins notes that officials in South Africa tell him they have enough doses, but are also having trouble getting people to actually get vaccinated.

"They're having trouble getting people to actually roll up their sleeves just like we are here," he added. "That's a terrible tragedy, that somehow, in the face of the worst pandemic in more than a century, the biggest resistance seems not to be science, it seems to be human behavior.”

International Dispatch
From Athens

Greece plans to fine unvaccinated residents over the age of 60

Posted November 30, 2021 at 9:35 AM EST
A person with a blonde ponytail wearing a white coat administers a vaccine to a seatedperson inside a van, with signs on the doors in Greek lettering.
Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP via Getty Images
A patient receives a dose of vaccine against Covid-19 in Aristotelous Square in the center of Thessaloniki, Greece, on Friday.

As Greece struggles with a record-high number of coronavirus infections, its government is planning to require COVID-19 vaccines for those aged 60 and over.

Anyone in this age group who refuses the vaccine will be fined 100 euros ($114) each month, starting in January. It’s a lot of money for retirees who receive an average monthly pension of 730 euros ($830).

The fines will go to the Greek national health care system.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a cabinet meeting that this decision “personally tortured” him but that it’s “the price to pay for health.” About half a million older Greeks have not been vaccinated.

“I believe this is an act of justice for those who are vaccinated,” Mitsotakis added. “It is not acceptable that some are deprived of the health care services they need because others stubbornly refuse to do what’s obviously necessary.”

Greece is the second country in the European Union to introduce compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations. Austria announced earlier this month that it would require its entire adult population to get vaccinated by Feb. 1.

The Greek government has already taken other measures to fight rising infections, including banning unvaccinated people from restaurants, cinemas, museums and gyms.

Greece, which has a population of nearly 11 million, has recorded 931,183 infections and 18,067 deaths since the pandemic began last year.


The omicron variant was in Europe a week before South Africa reported it

Posted November 30, 2021 at 9:10 AM EST
A sign points the way for a Covid-19 test center at the Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands on Monday.
Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images
A sign points the way for a Covid-19 test center at the Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands on Monday.

The omicron coronavirus variant was already in the Netherlands a week before South Africa reported the new variant to the World Health Organization, according to a Dutch health agency.

The variant was recently identified in re-tests of samples that were taken on Nov. 19 and 23, theRIVM National Health and Environment Institute announced on Tuesday.

South African officials raised the alarm aboutthe heavily mutated variant, B.1.1.529, on Nov. 24. Two days later, the WHO classified it as a variant of concern and dubbed it omicron. The global health agency says the variantposes a "very high" risk because its mutations could help it spread more easily -- and possibly infect people who might be considered immune to previous variants.

The Netherlands had previously reported more than a dozen omicron COVID-19 cases, detected in tests at an Amsterdam airport on Nov. 26, when 624 people arrived in the country from South Africa.

Dutch authorities scrutinized the older samples after initial PCR tests found abnormalities in the coronavirus’ spike protein — the omicron variant has 26-32 mutations in that area alone, according to the WHO.

The samples were taken at a standard municipal public health service test site, the institute said, adding, “It is not yet clear whether these people had also visited southern Africa.”

As of late Monday, 33 omicron cases had been confirmed in Europe, in eight countries: the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, and Portugal, according to theEuropean Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The omicron variant triggered a rush of new travel restrictions targeting South Africa and other southern African nations, imposed by the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and the EU. Health experts havelong questioned the efficacy of such bans — and in the case of the coronavirus, many believe omicron has already spread too quickly to be contained in a single part of the world.


Former 'Empire' actor Jussie Smollett is on trial this week. Here's a primer

Posted November 30, 2021 at 8:53 AM EST
A Black man wearing a suit and tie and black face mask walks outside, with people surrounding him and a woman holding his arm.
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Former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett arrives at the Leighton Courts Building for the start of jury selection in his trial on Monday in Chicago, Illinois.

It's the second day of the trial of former Empire actor Jussie Smollett, who is accused of lying to Chicago police about being the purported victim of an attack in Jan. 2019.

A lot has happened in the criminal case since then. This piece from NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas is jogging our memory:

At the time

Smollett initially said that two men yelled racist and homophobic slurs at him, kicked him, poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck. They also allegedly told him "This is MAGA country."

Smollett, who is gay and Black, garnered support from high-profile figures like then-Sen. Kamala Harris and Empire co-creator Lee Daniel. But police suspected he was not being entirely truthful.

In the aftermath

Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, two brothers who knew Smollett, told investigators that the actor had recruited them to stage an attack. (Smollett has consistently denied that he faked the attack.)

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnsonsaid at a press conference that Smollett "took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career."

Smollett was arrested in February, and a 16-count indictment was returned in March. But prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against him just weeks later. That decision drew outrage from the city's police and mayor, and prompted officials to file a civil complaint against him to try to recoup the cost of his police complaint.

After the investigation

A Cook County judge then ordered a special prosecutor to investigate the alleged crime as well as the much-criticized dropped case. That prosecutor, Dan Webb, unveiled a new grand jury indictment against Smollett in Jan. 2020 — including the six charges of felony disorderly conduct for which he is now on trial. Smollett pleaded not guilty.

And in August, Webb released a report on Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's handling of the initial investigation, saying he found "substantial abuses of discretion and operational failures" but nothing to support any criminal charges.

The drama did not end there. Just last month, a judge dismissed a last-ditch bid from Smollett's attorneys to drop the case. Check out this helpful timeline from Chip Mitchell of member station WBEZ in Chicago.

In the courtroom

Yesterday's proceedings included jury selection and opening statements. The trial is expected to last about a week, and cameras are not allowed inside, the Associated Press reports.

Webb told jurors that Smollett recruited the two brothers to carry out a fake attack, then reported it to police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours investigating it.

Defense attorney Nenye Uche said the Osundairos attacked Smollett because they didn't like him and that the $3,500 check that he had paid them was for training for an upcoming music video — countering the prosecution's argument that the payment was for staging an attack.

"Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Uche said, according to the AP.

It is not clear whether Smollett will testify himself, though the two brothers will.


Our 2021 Books We Love list honors an NPR coworker we love

Posted November 30, 2021 at 8:32 AM EST
Noa Denmon for NPR

Every year NPR asks independent critics and our staffers, "What was the best book you read this year?" We take their answers and compile them into a massive, interactive, year-end reading guide called Books We Love.

The result: 360 thoughtful selections, all published in 2021, organized to help you find your next favorite. That might be a book about pigeons who smuggle diamonds. Or a profile of today’s Indigenous comedy scene. Or maybe a poetry collection that ruminates on the TV showHorderswith empathy.

Now, when you ask someone what was the best book they read this year, you also might ask them, "... and who recommended it to you?"

For many of us at NPR, the books we loved were recommended by books editor Petra Mayer, who died suddenly on Nov. 13 at age 46. She was one of the original creators behind the first Books We Love in 2013, and she worked hard on this year’s edition. Suggesting books others would love was her superpower and this year's edition of Books We Love is dedicated in her honor.

Petra's coworkers described her impact like this: "She worked tirelessly to broaden our coverage and was a passionate champion for romance, science fiction and fantasy. She was smart, creative, generous, funny, irreverent — and hands down the fastest reader, biggest nerd and best baker on the team."

So in honor of Petra, The NPR team puts our best book recommendations for this year out into the world.

You can easily look through previous years' recommendations, and if you want to learn more about how the interactive site was built you can read aboutthathere.

We hope you spend some time with it today.


Fed chair Powell will tell Congress: Higher inflation is temporary, but he worries about omicron

Posted November 30, 2021 at 8:05 AM EST
Federal Reserve Chariman Jerome Powell at a House committee hearing in December.
Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images
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Federal Reserve Chariman Jerome Powell at a House committee hearing in December.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen are set to testify this morning before a congressional committee to discuss economic recovery from the pandemic amid new uncertainty about the omicron variant.

In his prepared testimony to be presented to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Powell warns that the new coronavirus strain could be a drag on jobs and economic growth and add to uncertainty over inflation.

The omicron variant could make people more hesitant about in-person work, Powell says, warning that could slow the recovery in the job market and "intensify" supply-chain disruptions.

Inflation is already at its highest level in more than three decades. Powell, who was recently reappointed for a second four-year term as Fed chair by President Biden, says those price pressures are still expected to ease in the coming year, but that it's difficult to predict exactly when.  

The new omicron variant was first identified in South Africa and has been found in more than a dozen countries since then. So far, there have been no cases seen in the U.S.

On Monday, Biden met with chief executives of various companies to discuss supply chain problems that threaten to make holiday shopping even more chaotic than usual.

One of those attending the meeting was Mattel chairman and CEO Ynon Kreiz. Speaking toMorning Editionhost Noel King, Kreiz called it a “very good meeting.”

“I was encouraged by President Biden’s commitment to support the private sector in mitigating supply chain disruptions, specifically port congestion,” he said, adding that the president was “very much in listening mode.”

Kreiz said that Mattel anticipated many of the supply chain problems and has been navigating around them since the pandemic began.

He said that the toy company is “expecting a strong holiday season with plenty of toys for children of all ages.”


Officials are eyeing omicron, with delta cases already on the rise

Posted November 30, 2021 at 7:43 AM EST
People line up outside of a concrete building, under a green tent that says "COVID-19 testing" and a clear bubble with a sign reading "EZ TEST NY."
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People line up for COVID-19 tests at a site in Manhattan on Monday.

Officials say it's only a matter of time before the omicron variant of the coronavirus is detected in the U.S. That's cause for concern ("but not panic," as President Biden said yesterday), as some researchers think omicron could be the most infectious variant yet.

We don't yet know how much the existing COVID-19 vaccines might protect against it. The thinking is that the vaccines would provide some protection — as they have for other variants — but the data is very preliminary, NPR's Allison Aubrey explained onMorning Edition.

So what is being done — and what should you do — in the meantime?

Scientists are looking for more data

Scientists are testing the blood of vaccinated people to determine if the antibodies in their plasma are fending off omicron. This will help determine how much the current vaccines protect against the variant, Aubrey explains.

The CDC is strengthening its booster recommendations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strengthened its position on boosters — it previously said adults over 18 "may" get an extra shot, as of yesterday it's saying they "should" get one.

Those boosters would be for anyone who got the Johnson & Johnson shot at least two months ago, or anyone who got the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines at least six months ago.

Vaccine makers are exploring omicron-specific boosters

Pharmaceutical companies are anticipating the possibility that they'll need to alter their booster shots to target the new variant. Biden said yesterday that this hopefully won't be necessary, but that his administration is working with officials at Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans and will do all it can to help if they are in fact needed.

The CEO of Moderna said the company has already made the first DNA template, or the first step in making a new booster. Based on that timeline, Aubrey says, it would likely take three months or so to make a new booster.

There are some glimmers of hope

Aubrey points out that, as a country, we're in better shape now than we were a year ago. Some 74% of eligible Americans have gotten at least one shot, and there are new COVID-19 treatments like monoclonal antibodies available.

Plus, Food and Drug Administration advisers are meeting today to discuss Merck's new COVID pill, which the company says is about 30% effective in preventing serious illness or death. More on that here.

Delta is already causing a COVID surge in some parts of the country

Officials were already bracing for a winter delta surge before omicron entered the picture. Aubrey says they're expecting a period of significant spread to continue, particularly in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Modelers at the University of Washington project that the increase in cases that began in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving will likely continue through the end of January, with about 100,000 cases per day, though omicron does complicate that picture.

New York has declared a state of emergency

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has already declared a state of emergency over the delta variant, as NPR's Brian Mann reports.

He told Morning Edition that the number of available hospital beds is already declining, with officials identifying about three dozen hospitals statewide where capacity is of concern. Hochul's emergency order will help make sure there's enough intensive care unit capacity, he added, and she warned yesterday that nonessential surgeries may be suspended if conditions worsen.

Some local officials across the state enacted mask mandates for indoor spaces last week in the hopes of slowing the spread of delta and preparing for omicron. Mann notes that Hochul has drawn criticism for refusing to implement a statewide mandate — though she said yesterday that it's an option.