Start your day here: Michigan school shooting aftermath; Fauci on the omicron response; weekend stories you might have missed

Published December 6, 2021 at 8:05 AM EST
People line up for Covid-19 testing in Times Square on Sunday in New York City.
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People line up for Covid-19 testing in Times Square on Sunday in New York City.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

Dr. Anthony Fauci on omicron: The nation's top infectious disease adviser speaks to Morning Edition about the omicron variant and the U.S. response. While researchers race to understand omicron, the delta variant is causing about 100,000 COVID-19 cases a day.

Cannabis tax: San Francisco moves to suspend its tax on cannabis dispensaries to help them compete with dealers selling the drug illegally.

Weekend roundup: The parents of the 15-year-old accused of murdering four students at a high school in Michigan were arrested after a manhunt; the "giant of the Senate" Bob Dole died at 98; a new NPR analysis measures the high COVID death rate in pro-Trump counties.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, the omicron variant has been found in about one-third of U.S. states.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

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


Hawaii saw a blizzard warning before most of the mainland U.S.

Posted December 6, 2021 at 11:45 AM EST

Social media was abuzz this weekend with the news that Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii was under a blizzard warning. ⁠Here's what the Hawaiian summit looked like earlier last week. ⁠

But as NPR's Becky Sullivan and Nicole Werbeck explain: That isn't too out of the ordinary.

It's not unusual to see snow on Hawaii's tallest peaks, which rise more than 13,000 feet in elevation. A blizzard warning was last issued in the state in 2018.⁠

But it is notable for the Pacific island state to see a blizzard warning before most of the continental U.S., the National Weather Service reports.

The NWS had forecast the latest storm with snow accumulations of up to 12 inches and winds gusting over 100 mph.⁠

Click here to read more.

A congressman shared a photo celebrating guns at Christmas, days after a school shooting

Posted December 6, 2021 at 11:36 AM EST

Rep. Thomas Massie, a pro-gun Republican lawmaker from Kentucky, is being criticized for posting a photo to social media that shows his family holding powerful guns just four days after a teenager killed four students at a high school in Oxford, Mich. In that attack, the shooter used a gun his father had bought as an early Christmas gift for his son.

"Merry Christmas!" Massie wrote as he posted his photo, adding, "ps. Santa, please bring ammo."

The image shows Massie, his wife Rhonda, and their family, all holding guns in front of a Christmas tree.

Massie published the message on Saturday, the same day the parents of Ethan Crumbley were arraigned on involuntary manslaughter charges over the school shooting. They're accused of not securing the deadly weapon; prosecutors also say they refused to take their son out of school earlier on the day of the shooting — and that they didn't tell officials about their son's new gun, despite concerns raised by school officials.

Many commenters said it was insensitive for Massie to post an image celebrating guns at Christmas, including one who asked, "Maybe you should talk to the parents of these murdered children and the victims who survived to see if they think this is cute."

One of the most-liked responses made light of the image, stating, "Oh look, it's Y'all Qaeda" — referring to the penchant for posing with rifles that is shared by American gun enthusiasts and the radical extremist group Al Qaeda.

"I'm pro second amendment, but this isn't supporting right to keep and bear arms, this is a gun fetish," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who is an Iraq War veteran, wrote in response to Massie's message.

Fred Guttenberg, a gun-control advocate whose daughter was murdered in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, also replied.

He stated, "since we are sharing family photos, here are mine. One is the last photo that I ever took of Jaime, the other is where she is buried because of the Parkland school shooting. The Michigan school shooter and his family used to take photos like yours as well."

Massie has served in Congress since 2012. He represents Kentucky's 4th congressional district, in the northern portion of the state.

Holiday cheer

Hundreds of Santas hit the ski slopes to raise money for charity

Posted December 6, 2021 at 11:30 AM EST

One snowboarding Santa is a sight. Hundreds of them is a sensation ... and a charity event.

The Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine, held its 21st annual Santa Sunday event yesterday, coaxing scores of festively-dressed skiers and snowboarders to the slopes to raise money for a local nonprofit.

Exactly 232 Santas participated in the ride, the resort said, skiing down its Broadway trail and ringing sleigh bells all the way.

"Each pre-registered Santa made at least a $20 donation and wore a red Santa hat with white pompom, a red Santa jacket, red Santa pants, and a Santa beard to participate in the event," it added.

The event raised more than $5,000 for the River Fund Maine, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that the resort says "aims to create a bright economic future for the community by investing in the education of the area’s youth and by harnessing the recreational assets of the region."

And participants got a little something in return. Sunday River covered their lift tickets for the day and gave them each another ticket for use before Dec. 24. That checks out: Santa's probably pretty well booked after that point.

Food safety

These pork products are being recalled over possible listeria contamination

Posted December 6, 2021 at 11:08 AM EST

A subsidiary of Perdue Premium Meat Company, Inc. is asking customers to avoid eating certain batches of its fully cooked pork products because of possible listeria contamination.

Michigan-based Alexander & Hornung is recalling 234,391 pounds of fully cooked ham and pepperoni products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced on Sunday.

"FSIS is concerned that some product may be in consumers’ refrigerators or freezers," it said, urging people to throw the items away or return them to their place of purchase.

The recall applies to 17 different products, from various kinds of smoked ham to bone-in ham steak to pepperoni. They were shipped to retail locations across the country, and have sell-by dates ranging between Dec. 2021 and May 2022.

The affected products have the establishment number "EST. M10125" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Here's the full list of labels.

"While there have been no illnesses or complaints associated with the products and there is no conclusive evidence that the products were contaminated at the time of shipment, the voluntary recall is being initiated out of an abundance of caution," Alexander & Hornung said in a statement.

The company had alerted FSIS to the problem after product sampling reported positive Listeria monocytogenes results, the agency said.

Consumption of food contaminated with the bacterium can cause listeriosis, a serious infectious that primarily affects older adults, pregnant people, newborns and people with weakened immune systems.

Symptoms can include fever, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions. FSIS says that people in higher-risk categories who experience flu-like symptoms within two months after eating contaminated food should seek medical care and tell their health care provider.

Consumers with food safety questions can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 or live chat via Ask USDA from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET on weekdays.


Attacks in Mali and Niger leave over 100 dead, including civilians and U.N. workers

Posted December 6, 2021 at 10:50 AM EST
French soldiers of the Barkane operation protect themselves in a shelter during a rocket attack at the Gao army base in Mali, on December 5, 2021.
THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images
French soldiers of the Barkane operation protect themselves in a shelter during a rocket attack at the Gao army base in Mali, on December 5, 2021.

A series of attacks in Mali and Niger over the past several days have left dozens of civilians and security forces dead, with authorities condemning the recent spate of violence.

The two West African countries are part of a region that has seen an uptick in extremist attacks this year, with governments struggling to bring the bloodshed under control. It's unclear exactly who was responsible for the recent attacks, but a group of nations in the Sahel region have been battling militants with ties to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda for several years.

On Friday more than 30 civilians, including women and children, were killed near the village of Songho as they rode in a vehicle to a weekly market, according to the United Nations mission in Mali. At least 18 others were injured, officials said.

"This deliberate attack against civilians, which constitutes a serious breach of International Human Rights Law and Humanitarian Law, once again highlights the urgency of the restoration of security and state authority throughout Mali," El-Ghassim Wane, the special representative of the UN Secretary General, said in a statement.

Wane said that on the same day a civilian contractor was killed and another was wounded in an additional attack between the towns of Kidal and Gao in Mali.

Then, on Sunday, two explosions hit UN camps in Gao inflicting damage but no casualties, according to the Agence France Presse.

A deadlier attack that day occurred across the border in Niger, where assailants on motorcycles set upon the Fianto military base, Deutsche Welle reported. Some 79 attackers and 29 soldiers were killed, officials told the outlet.


A Haitian gang has released three more kidnapped missionaries

Posted December 6, 2021 at 10:36 AM EST
A sign with the faded Christian Aid Ministries logo is displayed between a chain fence and green trees.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images
A sign stands outside the Christian Aid Ministries in Titanyen, Haiti, in October.

An Ohio-based religious group announced that three more hostages have been freed by a Haitian gang who had kidnapped 17 Christian missionaries in October.

The gang released two people late last month, and twelve remain hostages.

The 400 Mawozo gang in Haiti is reportedly holding the religious workers, and had demanded $1 million ransom for each person or else threatened to kill them. There are children in the group, and one Canadian. The rest are Americans.

It is unclear which hostages were released. As with the first two hostages to be released, Christian Aid Ministries did not identify those released Sunday in Haiti but did say they are “safe and seem to be in good spirits.”


New York City orders a 'first-in-the-nation' vaccine mandate for private companies

Posted December 6, 2021 at 10:17 AM EST
A sign at a museum in New York City requires visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in November.
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A sign at a museum in New York City requires visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in November.

New York City will implement new measures meant to head off the worsening coronavirus surge, including what its mayor says will be a "first-in-the-nation" vaccine mandate for all private-sector workers to take effect Dec. 27.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the new requirements Monday on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

Theagressive newmeasures also require proof of vaccination with at least one dose for children ages 5-11 for entering in indoor dining, fitness and entertainment venues. Proof of vaccination is already required for people 12 and older to enter those places in New York City.

De Blasio stressed that vaccination was the key to protecting against the virus, including for children.

"Don't end up in a situation where a child is left unprotected. I urge parents really strongly, get that vaccination. It's safe. It's been proven. Here's another incentive to do it," de Blasio said.

The rules also bump up the vaccination level required to be in compliance with other city rules from one dose to two for adults receiving the two-shot mRNA Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

De Blasio called the moves a "preemptive strike" to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The mayor said more information on the announcement is forthcoming from the city's health commissioner, Dr. Dave A. Chokshi.

Driving the decision, de Blasio said, are concerns over winter weather and holiday gatherings causing more people to gather indoors -- where transmission is more likely -- and lingering unknowns about how transmissive and dangerous the omicron variant is.

State health officials identified four coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant in the New York City area, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced Thursday. De Blasio reported community spread is assumed to be happening in the state.

"We knew it would come to New York state at some point," Hochul said. "We're ready for it. This is not surprising."

Scientists are researching the omicron variant, already found in 17 states in the U.S., including the question of how much protection current vaccines offer. Early evidence suggests omicron may be better at evading the immune system than previous strains, but officials say it's too early to tell if it causes a milder or more severe illness than other variants.

The pervasive variant in the United States is still the delta variant, which has been causing about 100,000 cases a day. Case numbers are 50% higher now compared to a month ago, according to the CDC.


More than a dozen COVID cases were found on a cruise ship that just disembarked in New Orleans

Posted December 6, 2021 at 9:44 AM EST
A large cruise ship with colorful designs of skyscrapers, planets and the Statue of Liberty sits in the water against a grey sky.
Richard Drew/AP
The Norwegian Breakaway pictured while docked in New York in May 2013.

At least 17 people have tested positive for COVID-19 — including one probable case of the omicron variant — on a cruise ship that disembarked in New Orleans over the weekend.

Norwegian Cruise Lines confirmed 10 cases among its passengers and crew members on Saturday, and then seven more on Sunday, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. The cruise line confirmed in a statement that it had identified a "handful" of cases onboard the Norwegian Breakaway, and said all of them are asymptomatic.

"One of those cases, which was a South African crew member who was in isolation for the entirety of the cruise, is suspected to have the COVID-19 Omicron variant," a Norwegian Cruise Lines spokesperson said in an email to NPR.

State health officials had previously said that the crew member with the probable omicron case was not a Louisiana resident and did not leave the ship.

There were more than 3,200 people on board, according to the state health department. The ship departed from New Orleans on Nov. 28 and stopped in Belize, Honduras and Mexico before disembarking on Sunday.

Both Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Port of New Orleans said the cruise line requires all guests and crew members to be fully vaccinated, with on-site testing and proof of vaccination needed in order for people to board.

The company says it has implemented quarantine, isolation and contact tracing protocols for the identified cases, and is testing everyone on board before they disembark.

People who test positive will either travel by personal vehicle directly to their personal residence, or self-isolate in accommodations provided by the company.

"We take this matter extremely seriously and will continue to work closely with the CDC, the office of Governor John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana Department of Health as well as the city and port of New Orleans," it said.

The company added that there are currently no changes to scheduled future sailings on the Norwegian Breakaway. It told NPR that it's giving all guests sailing the Dec. 5 voyage an opportunity to cancel without penalty, "in an abundance of caution and in compliance with CDC requirements."

Separately, Louisiana also confirmed its first case of the omicron variant on Sunday, which officials stressed was unrelated to the cruise.


The slogan is now a store: 'Let’s Go Brandon' shop opens in Massachusetts

Posted December 6, 2021 at 9:33 AM EST

“Let’s go Brandon,” a rallying call for ardent Trump supporters, is now the name of a new store in North Attleborough, Mass., with another location nearby.

“Thank you for the incredible warm welcome to your neighborhood,” the business said on its Facebook page early Monday, adding that it had seen an “overwhelming” response in its first weekend of being open.

The store sells T-shirts, flags, hoodies and other items emblazoned with “Let’s go Brandon,” and other pro-Trump messages. The slogan took on a life of its own after a crowd could be heard chanting "F*** Joe Biden!” during an on-track interview with NASCAR driver Brandon Brown. NBC reporter Kelli Stavast noted the background noise — but, she said, the audience was cheering, “'Let's go, Brandon!”

The slogan quickly became a euphemism for people who are still angry over Trump’s defeat by President Biden and to express their displeasure with the current president. Just two months later, the phrase has gone from an internet meme to a brick-and-mortar store.

The North Attleborough store is on a highway between Pawtucket, R.I., and Foxboro, Mass.; another store with the same name is located in Somerset, Mass., on the outskirts of Fall River.

Both stores are operated by Keith Lambert, who previously ran a store at one of the locations called New England for Trump, according to the Fall River Reporter. The new shops focus on an anti-Biden message, including a large sign that reads, “Biden is not my president.”

A message from NPR to the store’s owner Monday morning was not answered before this story published; it was sent before the store’s opening hours.


Scientists race to study omicron, but delta is still behind a deadly U.S. COVID surge

Posted December 6, 2021 at 8:42 AM EST
Air China flight crew members wear protective suits as they arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday.
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Air China flight crew members wear protective suits as they arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has now been identified in about 17 U.S. states, although the number of cases are still very small and scientists are investigating how dangerous it truly is compared to previous strains.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joined Morning Edition to delve into why U.S. cases are continuing to rise despite winter weather keeping many people indoors. Listen here.

Two big questions on health officials' minds: Is the COVID-19 caused by omicron more or less severe than delta; and how much protection do current vaccines offer. Early evidence suggests the omicron variant with its many mutations may be better at evading the immune system than previous strains.

"We're really hopeful that our vaccines will work in a way that even if they don't prevent disease entirely, prevent infection entirely, that they can work to prevent severe disease and keep people out of the hospital," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on ABC.

Scientists are using the blood plasma from fully vaccinated people to study if antibodies in the blood neutralize the omicron variant. Early results of those studies should be coming soon.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, joinedMorning Editionto discuss what folks need to know about the coronavirus situation in the U.S.

Preliminary analysis from South Africa shows the hospitalization rate is lower as omicron spreads than it was during outbreaks caused by past variants. That could potentially mean omicron causes a milder illness, but it's too early to know for sure.

"That could be because it is seemingly, right now, going through younger people more so than older people," Fauci said. "But all reports that we have heard anecdotally is that it does look like it might be a bit milder, but you have to wait until the outbreak matures a bit before you can actually make any definitive statement."

Meanwhile, the delta variant of coronavirus is causing about 100,000 cases a day in the U.S. as the pandemic continues. Cases are nearly 50% higher now compared to a month ago, according to the CDC.

The delta variant is driving outbreaks nationwide and experts say COVID precautions will be critical this holiday season to fight back. Their recommendations are to mask up when indoors and make sure to get fully vaccinated, including with a booster shot when available.

For more on questions around holiday travel and gatherings while cases are on the rise, NPR's Maria Godoy went to the experts.


Taylor Swift sent Don McLean flowers after breaking a record he held for nearly 50 years

Posted December 6, 2021 at 8:25 AM EST

Taylor Swift's 10-minute version of "All Too Well," released last month, did many things: reclaimed one of her most popular songs, sparked a wave of anti-Jake Gyllenhaal memes and ushered in the start of Sad Girl Autumn, among others.

It also broke the record for the longest song to take the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, knocking off Don McLean's "American Pie." The nearly 9-minute song had been there since its release in January 1972.

"'American Pie’ remained on the top for 50 years and now Taylor Swift has unseated such a historic piece of artistry," McLean wrote in a November blog post. "Let’s face it, nobody ever wants to lose that #1 spot, but if I had to lose it to somebody, I sure am glad it was another great singer/songwriter such as Taylor.”

Now it's Miss Americana's turn to pay tribute to the "American Pie" crooner.

Swift sent McLean a bouquet of green and white flowers and a handwritten note, according to photos he posted to Instagram late last week.

"I will never forget that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants," she wrote. "Your music has been so important to me. Sending love one writer of LONG SONGS to another."

Guinness World Records notes that Swift's 10-minute power ballad wasn't the only notable number from Red (Taylor's Version).

She also broke her own record for the most simultaneous U.S. Hot 100 entries by a female — 26 songs from the album made the chart, surpassing her previous record of 18 with 2019's Lover.


SF moves to suspend its cannabis business tax to give legal dealers a boost

Posted December 6, 2021 at 8:11 AM EST
Budtenders at The Green Cross cannabis dispensary help customers in San Francisco, Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Jeff Chiu/AP
Budtenders at The Green Cross cannabis dispensary help customers in San Francisco in March 2020.

City officials in San Francisco want to delay the imposition of a tax on lawful recreational cannabis businesses to help them compete with illegal marijuana dealers.

“Cannabis businesses create good jobs for San Franciscans and provide safe, regulated products to their customers,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said in a tweet.

“Now is not the time to impose a new tax on small businesses that are just getting established and trying to compete with illicit operators,” he added.

Last week the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to suspend the Cannabis Business Tax for the 2021 and 2022 tax years.

The ordinance requires a signature from San Francisco Mayor London Breed before it takes effect.

In 2018 San Francisco voters approved the 1%-5% tax on cannabis businesses, which is scheduled to take effect next year, according to the San FranciscoExaminer.

The tax relief could come as cannabis businesses in the Bay Area struggle to defend against a recent rash of robberies, some of which have turned violent. The losses from the crime spree are estimated to be at least $5 million, MJBizDaily reported.

Supporters of the ordinance, including the San Francisco Cannabis Retailers Alliance, toldthe Board of Supervisors that the cannabis industry is experiencing a drop-off in business following a boom during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and that a tax hike would result in higher prices for consumers.

Weekend wrap

3 stories you might have missed this weekend

Posted December 6, 2021 at 8:03 AM EST
Reporters gather around police officers talking into a microphone, outside a lit warehouse-looking building against a dark night sky.
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Detroit Chief of Police James White briefs members of the press outside the building where James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of suspected Oxford High School shooter Ethan Crumbley, were arrested on Saturday in Detroit.

Good Monday morning. To kickstart the week, we're checking in on some of the biggest storylines from over the weekend. Here's what we're following:

Former Sen. Bob Dole died at 98

Bob Dole, a longtime Senate Republican leader and the party's 1996 presidential nominee, died on Sunday at age 98 after nearly eight decades of public service.

Dole held many titles: World War II combat veteran, public prosecutor, state legislator, representative, U.S. senator, presidential candidate, and occasional The Simpsons character.

"Bob Dole was a giant of the Senate, a powerful committee chairman in the early 1980s and then party leader for 11-and-a-half years," NPR's Mara Liasson explained on Morning Edition. "He was known for passing bills for Republican presidents and stopping them when they came from Democratic presidents, but he also made plenty of bipartisan deals in between." Listen to her full remembrance.

President Biden, as well as a string of former presidents, are remembering Dole as a consummate statesman and standout example of the Greatest Generation. Read more here about Dole's life and legacy.

The parents of the Michigan school shooting suspect were arrested after a manhunt

Jennifer and James Crumbley — the parents of the 15-year-old accused of murdering four students at a high school in Michigan — were arrested early Saturday morning, after police discovered them in a Detroit warehouse following an hours-long manhunt.

They were each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter connected to the deaths, a rare move that the prosecutor says is justified by a series of "egregious" mistakes and missed opportunities in the days leading up to last Tuesday's shooting. Each count is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The parents pleaded not guilty and are being held on a $500,000 bond. Authorities said over the weekend that they are considering charges for a third, unidentified person who helped them hide. Read more here.

Plus, after calls for a third-party investigation, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said on Sunday that her office has offered to help investigate the shooting and the events that preceded it.

An NPR analysis found that pro-Trump counties have far higher COVID deaths

An analysis from NPR's Geoff Brumfiel and Daniel Wood sheds new light on the connection between a person's political identity and their likelihood of developing a serious case of COVID-19.

Brumfiel and Wood looked at deaths from COVID-19 since May 2021 — when vaccines became widely available — and compared those rates to data from the 2020 election. They found that counties that voted overwhelmingly (60% or more) for former President Donald Trump had almost three times the death rate of those that went big for President Joe Biden.

"For another disease, say the flu, there probably isn't this connection because the flu's not politically fraught the way COVID is," Brumfiel tellsMorning Edition. "But unfortunately for COVID, there's this real stark trend, and the bigger the margin for Trump, the higher on average the death rate."

Why is that? Brumfiel explains that those same counties on average have much lower vaccination rates, and the vaccines significantly lower your chances of dying from COVID-19 — by about 14 times, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

His reporting suggests that vaccination rates among Republicans are lagging, in large part because of disinformation. For example, Brumfiel says, polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 94% of Republicans think one or more false statements about COVID-19 and vaccines might be true, which is hugely correlated with the decision to not get vaccinated.

Liz Hamel, who heads polling for Kaiser, says Republicans now make up the largest share of unvaccinated people in America. So what does this mean for the future of the pandemic, especially as the omicron variant spreads?

Read and listen to the details here.