Start your day here: COVID deaths hit an ominous milestone; Congress raises the debt ceiling; Kronos hack could disrupt payroll for weeks

Published December 15, 2021 at 7:46 AM EST
Lawmakers participate in a moment of silence at the Capitol on Tuesday for the 800,000 American lives lost to COVID-19.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Lawmakers participate in a moment of silence at the Capitol on Tuesday for the 800,000 American lives lost to COVID-19.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

COVID-19 deaths: The U.S. reaches a once-unimaginable 800,000 total confirmed deaths. Some college campuses are returning to remote classes and other measures to fight off a surge in infections.

Debt-ceiling increase: Congress voted almost entirely along party lines to raise the nation's spending limit to allow the government to avoid default until early 2023, leaving the issue to whichever party is in charge after the midterms.

A ransomware attack in HR: Employers ranging from Tesla to NPR to New York's transit system are scrambling to find other ways to pay workers as the HR management service Ultimate Kronos Group says a hack has knocked it out, possibly for weeks.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, a D.C. official sued two extremist groups over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

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

Before You Go

Oreo adds 2 new flavors to entice sweet and salty taste buds

Posted December 15, 2021 at 11:51 AM EST
Mondelez International
Ultimate chocolate, Oreo's newest limited-edition flavor, is packed with three different layers of chocolate creams.

The new year is already looking sweeter. Oreo just added two new flavors to its lineup: toffee crunch and, for a limited time, ultimate chocolate will hit store shelves next month, the company said.

Oreo unveiled the new additions in a Twitter Spaces conversation on Wednesday.

Ultimate chocolate: Oreo describes this limited-edition flavor as “a chocolate lovers dream.” Sandwiched between the classic chocolate wafer are three more layers of chocolate: white, milk and dark chocolate cream.

Toffee crunch: In lieu of its traditional vanilla cream filling, this Oreo features toffee-flavored cream “with sugar crystals for an added crunch.” Good news, sweet-and-salty fiends: This flavor is here to stay, Oreo said.

Mondelez International
Oreo's toffee crunch gets its "crunch" from the sugar crystals inside toffee-flavored cream.

“Both of these flavors will be available nationwide,” an Oreo spokesperson said, “so be on the lookout in the new year — and you'll have to let us know what you think.”

Can't wait till January? Here's a list of Oreo's current offerings.


What to know about the water contamination affecting thousands on an Oahu military base

Posted December 15, 2021 at 11:44 AM EST
Men wearing navy t-shirts try to remove fuel from a water shaft inside a structure.
Bleu Jackson/AP
U.S. Navy
In this Dec. 11, 2021 photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Mobile Diving Salvage Unit One performs inspection and sampling of a water well near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Last week we reported that Hawaii had ordered the U.S. Navy to halt operations at the World War II-era Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility after a petroleum leak was found to have contaminated Honolulu's drinking water supply.

We've since learned that samples from the Red Hill Shaft contained petroleum levels that were 350 times the level considered safe, and that some 3,000 military members and their families have been relocated to temporary housing. The Navy says it's found the source of the gas leak, but state officials and environmental activists are still calling for the facility to be permanently shut down.

Here's a look at the context and latest developments:

It's the latest in a string of fuel leaks at Red Hill

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which was constructed in the early 1940s, consists of 20 steel-lined tanks mined inside a volcanic ridge near Pearl Harbor and can hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel.

The tanks sit above an aquifer that supplies a quarter of the water consumed in urban Honolulu. The site is also about a mile away from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply's Halawa Shaft, which provides 20% of the drinking water for the region.

It had three separate fuel leaks this year alone, and in October received a $325,000 state fine for maintenance and operations violations. Many residents, officials and environmental advocates have long considered the leak-plagued facility an "inevitable environmental and public health disaster," as the Honolulu Civil Beat reports.

The Red Hill water shaft is one of three sources that feed into the Navy's Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system, which includes military housing and two elementary schools. The Navy's water system serves some 93,000 residents.

The troubles began right after Thanksgiving

The state health department first began receiving reports of a "fuel or gasoline-like oder" from water system users in late November. TheAssociated Press reported a week later that nearly 1,000 military households had complained about the tap water, and some people said they experienced cramps and vomiting after drinking it.

The Navy initially dismissed those concerns, with the joint base commander originally telling families that the water was safe to drink (he has since apologized). Health officials said on Nov. 30 that they would investigate the complaints, and urged those on the base to avoid drinking, cooking with it or using it for oral hygiene.

Within days, the health department said a preliminary analysis had detected petroleum products in water samples from one of the sites where odors were reported, and the Navy ultimately said it had detected petroleum products in the Red Hill well.

Health officials said on Dec. 10 that additional samples from the Red Hill shaft contained "total petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organics" 350 times that of levels deemed safe for drinking water. They also tested positive for "gasoline range organics" at more than 66 times the safe level.

A tunnel inside an underground fuel storage facility.
Shannon Haney/AP
A tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii pictured on Jan. 26, 2018.

The Navy contested Hawaii's order to halt operations

On Dec. 7, the Hawaii Department of Health ordered the Navy to suspend operations at the facility and move toward defueling its underground storage tanks, as well as take immediate steps to install a drinking water treatment at the Red Hill Shaft and submit a work plan to assess system integrity.

The Navy informed state officials that it would be contesting the order, even though it had paused operations at the complex — which supplies fuel to U.S. military ships and aircraft that patrol the Pacific — since Nov. 27.

On Dec. 8, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said he had directed the pause of all operations at the Red Hill Underground Storage Tanks until the investigation into the source of the petroleum leak is completed (but not emptying of the tanks, as the order had directed).

Hawaii Public Radio reported on Tuesday that Hawaii's chapter of the Sierra Club filed a motion to intervene in the state's proceedings for the emergency order. A lawyer for Earthjustice, the environmental law firm representing the group, said that move puts pressure on the health department to ensure the Navy follows the terms of the order.

Navy officials say a jet fuel spill is to blame

Adm. Samuel Paparo, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told state lawmakers on Friday that the Navy had determined the source of the water well contamination as jet fuel from a Nov. 20 spill near the storage facility.

“So from the test results and engineering analysis that we’ve done today, it appears some quantity of JP-5 jet fuel entered the Red Hill well in a single event, likely from the Nov. 20 spill, and then subsequently pumped from that well and distributed throughout those portions of our Navy’s water distribution system," he said, according to Stars and Stripes.

Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey, head of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific, outlined a timeline for cleanup.

In the immediate term, the Navy is working with state health officials to directly pump out any petroleum that is floating on top of the well water.

He said the first step is to "flush a full-system volume of clean water" — or about 25 million gallons — through the distribution system, which would take a minimum of four days. The next phase involves flushing every home and facility individually.

VanderLey said the goal is to finish the process and have people back in their homes by Christmas.

A diver sticks their head out of an opening between two wooden boards, surrounded by blue and orange ropes.
Bleu Jackson/AP
U.S. Navy
In this Dec. 11, 2021 photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Mobile Diving Salvage Unit One performs inspection and sampling of a water well near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The crisis' impact is being felt on and beyond the base

Meanwhile, thousands of affected base residents have been relocated to temporary housing.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement this week that more than 3,000 people had been displaced from their military housing and are living in hotels, and "thousands" have been evaluated by medical staff. More information for those impactedis available here.

"We take this very seriously," he added. "And I am personally monitoring our progress and our mitigation efforts. Indeed, Navy leadership updates me daily on the measures they are taking to care for affected military personnel and families, to restore the safety of the water system in military housing, and to coordinate with local authorities – in particular the Hawaii State Department of Health – about the best way forward."

Austin said he expects military leaders in Hawaii to do all they can to get residents back in their homes safely and quickly, and praised their efforts to date, which include establishing a Pregnancy Medical Advice hotline, delivering more than 150,000 gallons of potable water and flying additional water filtration systems to the island.

He also directed Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks to visit the fuel storage facility this week and meet with local officials, residents and experts.

There are concerns that the leak could impact civilian water supply, too.

The state's Board of Water Supply said in early December that it had to shut down the Halawa Shaft as a result of the contamination at the Red Hill well. A report released this week found no contaminants in the water, but officials still have questions about whether that might change and when it might resume service.

Hawaii's congressional delegation has repeatedly asked Gov. David Ige to request an emergency declaration from President Biden, though he told Hawaii Public Radio last week that the situation is complicated because it involves federal property. Listen to the interview here.


A NASA spacecraft has 'touched' the sun for the first time in history

Posted December 15, 2021 at 11:39 AM EST
In this 2018 handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket prepares to launch with the Parker Solar Probe onboard.
Bill Ingalls/NASA/NASA via Getty Images
Getty Images North America
In this 2018 handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket prepares to launch with the Parker Solar Probe onboard.

Three years after its launch, the Parker Solar Probe has finally “touched” the sun.

NASA announced on Tuesday that in April, the probe became the first spacecraft to soar into our nearest star’s upper atmosphere — known as the corona — where it sampled particles and magnetic fields.

"Not only does this milestone provide us with deeper insights into our Sun's evolution and it's impacts on our solar system, but everything we learn about our own star also teaches us more about stars in the rest of the universe,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release.

Officials said Parker’s journey into the sun’s atmosphere was intended to produce discoveries that weren’t possible before.

And it has: NASA scientists used Parker to conclude that some of the “switchbacks” in the solar wind that influence conditions on Earth acutally originate on the sun’s surface.

Parker’s passage through the corona, which lasted a few hours, is just one of many, according to NASA. The next “fly-by” will occur in January.


Derek Chauvin pleads guilty to violating George Floyd’s civil rights

Posted December 15, 2021 at 11:33 AM EST
Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin addresses the court as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over his sentencing in Minneapolis in June. Chauvin has pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating George Floyd’s civil rights. Chauvin’s plea Wednesday, Dec. 15, means he will not face a federal trial in January, though he could end up spending more years behind bars.
Court TV via AP
Pool Court TV
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin addresses the court at his sentencing in Minneapolis in June. Chauvin has pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating George Floyd’s civil rights. Chauvin’s plea on Wednesday, Dec. 15, means he will not face a federal trial in January, though he could end up spending more years behind bars.

Derek Chauvin has pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of George Floyd, the man he was found guilty of murdering. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is white; Floyd was Black.

Chauvin is currently in prison, serving a 22 ½-year sentence that a Minnesota judge handed down in June. Chauvin appeared in court Wednesday to change his plea in the federal case, which had been poised to go to trial next month.

In addition to the charges he faced in relation to Floyd's murder in 2020, the federal case accused Chauvin of violating a 14-year-old’s civil rights in late 2017, when he “held Juvenile 1 by the throat and struck Juvenile 1 multiple times in the head with a flashlight,” according to court documents. Chauvin’s guilty plea also applies to those charges, which accused him of unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force by a police officer.

“Federal prosecutors are recommending a sentence of up to 25 years” for the civil rights violations, member station Minnesota Public Radio reports.

Still facing federal charges are J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao, the three former police officers who were with Chauvin when he pinned Floyd’s chest and face to the asphalt and knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, resulting in his death.

Kueng, Lane, and Thao have pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, as well as to state charges related to Floyd’s death. They’re slated to go on trial for the state charges in March of 2022.

In a federal indictment issued in May, a grand jury said Chauvin and the other officers “willfully deprived George Floyd of the right, secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States, not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law, which includes an arrestee's right to be free from a police officer's deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.”


Scenes from Mexican musical legend Vicente Fernández's memorial service

Posted December 15, 2021 at 10:52 AM EST
A photo of Vicente Fernández hangs on a large screen behind his coffin and flowers.
Refugio Ruiz/AP
Fans of the late Mexican music icon Vicente Fernández attend his funeral service in Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, Mexico on Monday.

Millions of people across Latin America and the United States are mourning Vicente Fernández, the iconic Mexican musician who died on Sunday at the age of 81.

Fernández was considered the last living legend of the Mexican ranchera, the style of song deeply rooted in the values and traditions of rural Mexico.

"He sang about honor and courtship, cockfights and rodeos, love and heartbreak — all while dressed in the elegantly embroidered costume of the charro, Mexico's chivalrous cowboy, and accompanied by a full mariachi ensemble," NPR's Adrian Florido recalls. "Over a six-decade career, his voice became synonymous with Mexico itself. His velvety baritone was instantly recognizable, and his songs worked their way into the daily lives of Mexicans and lovers of Mexico the world over — the soundtrack to wedding parties and quinceañeras, baptisms, birthdays and funerals."

Read or listen to the full remembrance here.

People stand near a coffin as a mariachi band plays on a stage behind it.
Arturo Campos Cedillo/AP
Relatives attend the funeral wake of the late Mexican music icon Vicente Fernández, in Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Mexico on Sunday.

Florido toldMorning Edition yesterday that Fernández's body was brought shortly after his death to a massive stadium in his home state of Jalisco, where 10 thousand people streamed in to pay their respects in a matter of hours.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reported from Mexico City on some of the other memorial events taking place around the country.

People gather in a stadium where a photo of a younger Vicente Fernandez is on a projector.
Refugio Ruiz/AP
Fans attend the funeral service of late musician Vicente Fernández in Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, Mexico on Monday.

Some fans lined up for hours to get into the huge arena on Fernández's ranch in Guadalajara, where his sombrero-covered coffin rested as his mariachi backup band played his greatest hits for hours.

Others mourned in the bars along Mexico City's Garibaldi Plaza, drinking and singing his songs well into the night.

People dressed in black stand near a coffin covered in a wide-brimmed sombrero.
Refugio Ruiz/AP
Relatives of the late Mexican music icon Vicente Fernández attend his funeral service in Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Mexico on Monday.

One fan told Kahn that she anticipates ranchera's decline without Fernández, while others insist the genre and his legacy will live on. Listen to her reporting.

And the loss is being felt deeply in the U.S. too. Florido noted that he heard Spanish radio stations blaring tributes and Fernández's songs blaring out of the cars next to him as he sat in traffic in Los Angeles, which has the largest Mexican American community in the country.

Vicente Fernandez's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is covered in flowers and candles.
Chris Pizzello/AP
Flowers and candles surround the Hollywood Walk of Fame star of the late Mexican musician Vicente Fernandez on Monday.

Thousands of fans visited Fernández's coffin at the VFG Arena in Jalisco throughout Sunday night and Monday morning, joining his family members in saying goodbye before the singer was laid to rest on his ranch later that day.

The Arizona Republic described touching moments from the service, including one of Fernández's sons serenading his wife with "Amor de Los Dos" to symbolize his parents' love. Videos of the singer's most iconic performances played on a screen throughout, and people joined in.

A mariachi band dressed in all-white outfits play guitars and string instruments on stage.
Refugio Ruiz/AP
A mariachi group plays during the funeral service of the late Mexican music icon Vicente Fernández in Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Mexico on Monday.

At one point, the mariachi band began to play Fernández's legendary song "Volver, Volver," which he had long requested that fans sing as he was one day laid to rest.

“I think the day that they bury me, everyone around the world will be singing this song, whether they watch on TV or in person,” he said in 2014, adding “I hope that happens years from now.”

International Dispatch
From Kolkata

A 19th-century story that fostered empathy for refugees still resonates in India today

Posted December 15, 2021 at 10:21 AM EST
 People and a bright blue bus pass down a crowded street lined by signs and shops selling colorful clothing.
Lauren Frayer/NPR
A street scene in modern-day Kolkata, a city in eastern India that has taken in Afghan migrants and refugees for generations. Previously known as Calcutta, it was also Rabindranath Tagore's hometown and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, "The Kabuliwala," about an Afghan migrant.

In 1892, a short story was published in India that helped combat racism. It was about an Afghan migrant, and it helped change attitudes toward real-life refugees.

Could it do the same today?

The story was written by Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913. His story, “The Kabuliwala” — a nickname for someone from the Afghan capital Kabul — is about an Afghan peddler named Rahmat, and his unusual friendship with a little Indian girl.

Rahmat is bedraggled and poor. He sells dried fruit on the streets of what was then called Calcutta, India's colonial capital. He faces discrimination.

But five-year-old Mini shows him rare kindness. They laugh at puns together. His face lights up around her.

And at the end of the story, we learn something poignant, when the peddler pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his breast pocket. On it is a handprint of a child — his own daughter, whom he was forced to leave behind back home in Kabul, and misses dearly.

"Whether it's Americans who are scared of Mexicans, or Indians who are scared of Afghans, or Germans who are scared of Syrian migrants — everyone should read it, because this is what great literature does," says Suketu Mehta, an Indian author in the United States who’s written his own books about the immigrant experience. "It reminds you that the person that's coming to your country, carrying a memento, a handprint of their child, is a parent like you could be a parent — is a human being like you're a human being."

With Afghan refugees again in the news, NPR found a modern-day Kabuliwala in Tagore’s hometown of Kolkata, India. Click here to read or listen to the story.

And click here to read Mehta’s recent essay in Time magazine about the enduring power of Tagore’s Kabuliwala story.


O.J. Simpson gets early release from parole on 2008 armed robbery conviction

Posted December 15, 2021 at 10:06 AM EST
Simpson attends a parole hearing at Lovelock Correctional Center in 2017 in Nevada.
Jason Bean/Pool/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Simpson attends a parole hearing at Lovelock Correctional Center in 2017 in Nevada.

O.J. Simpson is now “a completely free man,” his attorney says after a Nevada parole board granted him early release for his 2008 conviction on armed robbery charges.

Simpson, 74, was granted early discharge for good behavior, his lawyer, Malcolm LaVergne, said Tuesday. He had originally been set for release from parole on Sept. 29, but in the summer, the date was moved up to Feb. 9, according to The Associated Press.

The ex-NFL star and actor was famously acquitted in the 1994 murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman. He was later found liable for their deaths in a California civil case that ordered him to pay $33.5 million to the victims' families.

Years later, he was convicted for armed robbery in Las Vegas after leading five men, including two with guns, in a confrontation with sports collectibles dealers at a casino hotel. He served nine years in prison before being released in 2017. He had been on parole until now.

Nevada State Police spokeswoman Kim Yoko Smith confirmed Tuesday that Simpson had been freed on Dec. 1, a day after a state board of parole approved the move.

Simpson has made no public statement on Tuesday’s news and has not mentioned it on his Twitter account.


Steph Curry just set the new NBA record for career three-pointers

Posted December 15, 2021 at 9:45 AM EST
Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry celebrates after making a three-point basket to break Ray Allen’s record for the most all-time during a game against the New York Knicks on December 14, 2021 in New York City.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry celebrates after making a three-point basket to break Ray Allen’s record during a game against the New York Knicks on Tuesday.


That’s how many three-pointers Steph Curry sunk to set the new all-time NBA record for threes in Tuesday night’s game against the New York Knicks.

The Golden State Warriors point guard went on to score another three baskets from downtown, ending the night with 2,977 career three-pointers.

“I never wanted to call myself the greatest shooter until I got this record,” Curry said in a press conference after the game. “I’m comfortable saying that now.”

The 33-year-old wrested the title from former Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen, who netted 2,973 three-pointers during his 18-year career.

“I pride myself on shooting a high percentage. I pride myself on allowing that to help us win games,” Curry went on. “And now I can pride myself on getting to the longevity of that number that Ray set, and hopefully pushing it to a number that nobody can reach.”

Allen and former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller, who is third in NBA history for three-pointers, were in attendance at Tuesday night’s game to congratulate Curry.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said the seven-time NBA All-Star has changed the game of basketball. “There’ve been figures along the way who have pushed the ball forward, but Steph is the guy who just grabbed it and ran with it,” Kerr said.

The Warriors defeated the Knicks with a final score of 105-96.


Omicron spreads faster than any other variant, WHO says. It’s now in 77 countries

Posted December 15, 2021 at 9:35 AM EST

If you’re worried about the new omicron coronavirus variant, you’re far from alone: The World Health Organization is warning that omicron is spreading like no other strain of COVID-19 has before.

"Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing.

Omicron has been found in 77 countries, less than a month after it was officially reported. As it announced that figure, the WHO added, “the reality is that omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet.”

Omicron’s unusually high number of mutations on its protein spike quickly prompted fears that it would be more transmissible than any other variant, and potentially elude vaccine protections.

Early data from South Africa link the variant to fewer hospitalizations — but experts warn that dynamic might not be the same for every country, saying South Africa’s situation could have more to do with the very high proportion of its citizens who’ve previously been infected with COVID-19. And because of the high transmission rate, health officials are bracing for a wave of new patients, just the same.

"Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems," Tedros said.

The WHO chief said he’s concerned that omicron’s emergence could trigger “vaccine hoarding” — as wealthy nations roll out booster programs for their entire vaccine-eligible population, rather than prioritizing those most at risk.

“Let me be very clear: WHO is not against boosters. We’re against inequity,” Tedros said. He later added, “The order matters. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses.”

Illustrating the massive gap in vaccination status among countries worldwide, Tedros said, “41 countries have still not been able to vaccinate 10% of their populations, and 98 countries have not reached 40%.”

While acknowledging vaccines’ primary role in fighting the coronavirus, Tedros said people must continue to wear face masks and be mindful of physical distance, hygiene and ventilation, stating, “vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis.”

South African officials raised the alarm about the 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.


German police conduct raids to break up alleged assassination plot by anti-vaccine extremists

Posted December 15, 2021 at 9:18 AM EST
A crowd of protesters marches through an area with high-rise buildings, as a line of police officers stand in the foreground.
STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images
Policeman stand in front of protesters during a demonstration of Germany's "Querdenker" (Lateral Thinkers) movement on November 6, 2021 in Leipzig, eastern Germany.

German police confiscated weapons during raids in the eastern cities of Dresden and Heidenau on Wednesday in connection with an alleged plot by radical anti-vaccination activists to kill Saxony’s governor.

Members of a group calling itself “Dresden Offlinevernetzung," or Dresden offline network, had discussed killing state premier Michael Kretschmer on the online platform Telegram, according to police.

Both Dresden and nearby small town Heidenau are located in the country’s state of Saxony, which was once part of communist East Germany. The region has among the lowest vaccine rates and highest number of COVID-19 infections in the country.

Police said they targeted five members of the Telegram group and that after searches of the sites "the initial suspicion was confirmed."

A spokesman for the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) Saxony said five residences and one workplace were searched and that police confiscated weapons, parts of weapons and crossbows, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The raids follow protests against new COVID-19 restrictions and plans to make vaccinations mandatory for people working in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical practices beginning in March. The protests are supported by the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which enjoys considerable support in Saxony, according to Deutsche Welle.

The alleged plot against Kretschmer also follows death threats against other German politicians over COVID-19 policies, as well as the country’s head of infectious diseases.

Nearly 107,000 people in Germany have died since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and since late October, the country has seen a dramatic spike in infections and deaths from the virus.

In his first major address to Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, Olaf Scholz said the country was fed up with anti-vaccine radicals.

"We will not put up with a tiny minority of uninhibited extremists trying to force their will on our entire society," he said.


Congress raises the debt ceiling, pushing the divisive issue to after the 2022 midterms

Posted December 15, 2021 at 9:00 AM EST
Through the tops of trees the dome on top of the U.S. Capitol building can be seen.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
The U.S. Capitol building at sunrise in October.

Lawmakers in the House have agreed to a deal that will allow the federal government to avoid defaulting on its loans until early 2023.

The House voted 221 to 209 Wednesday to increase the federal borrowing limit by $2.5 trillion.

NPR's Kelsey Snell reports the vote was mostly along party lines; Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was the only Republican to join Democrats in voting to approve the measure. Pushing the deadline to 2023 likely means whatever party controls Congress after the 2022 midterm elections will decide how to address the federal debt.

The debt ceiling is a frequent issue in Congress as the federal debt grows larger and the two parties continue to diverge on how they believe it should be managed.

If the U.S. were to default on its loans, the government wouldn't have money for federal obligations like Social Security and Medicare and wouldn't be able to pay staff and make purchases.

Plus, it wouldn't be able to pay the holders of Treasury bonds and other securities, and failure to pay those would constitute default. If the U.S. defaulted on its maturing obligations it would make borrowing loans in the future more difficult and expensive, explains NPR's Ron Elving.

Still on the Democrats' short-term agenda: passing President Biden's roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better legislation before the child tax credit program runs out at the end of the month.

For more on why Congress faces the issue of the debt limit often, read this explainer.


The Kronos ransomware attack could disrupt payrolls for weeks

Posted December 15, 2021 at 8:51 AM EST

If you clock in and out of work through the HR management service Ultimate Kronos Group, also known as Kronos, you may see disruptions to your paychecks and scheduling for weeks, and logging time off at the holidays could be a major headache.

A weekend ransomware attack on Kronos, one of the largest multinational HR management companies, sent companies, municipal governments and universities scrambling for alternate ways to pay their employees. Some organizations resorted to issuing paper checks for the first time in years. The company behind Kronos has urged employers to seek out "alternative business continuity protocols" while it works on a solution.

As NPR's Jonathan Franklin and Becky Sullivan report, the ransomware attack has only affected customers that used a particular product called the Kronos Private Cloud. Kronos said its service could be offline for weeks.

Kronos' clients include a number of big-name employers, including Tesla, MGM Resorts International, Puma, Sainsbury’s and the YMCA. The city of Denver and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority also use Kronos services, as does NPR.

The breach may have gone beyond payroll disruptions and exposed personal information. The city of Cleveland warned employees Monday that the last four digits of Social Security numbers could be at risk.


Hundreds of people were trapped by a fire that broke out in a Hong Kong high-rise

Posted December 15, 2021 at 7:49 AM EST
A firefighter stands on a ladder at the side of a high-rise building where several people are standing on the balcony.
People were rescued by a firefighter at the World Trade Centre in Hong Kong after a fire broke out on Wednesday.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from the rooftop of Hong Kong’s 38-story World Trade Centre tower after a fire broke out on Wednesday.

Dense smoke billowed from the tower — which contains offices and a shopping mall — in the city’s Causeway Bay district, forcing some 100 people to flee to the rooftop and trapping others on a lower floor.

The South China Morning Post, quoting the Information Services Department, said a total of 1,250 people were evacuated by firefighters and 13 were sent to the hospital for treatment — most for smoke inhalation.

Firefighters used extendable ladders to evacuate some people who were trapped on the fifth floor, according to the newspaper. But it appeared that most or all of the people on the roof made their own way downstairs once the fire was under control.

The newspaper says the fire, which broke out around lunchtime, appears to have started in an electrical switch room and then quickly spread to scaffolding on the outside of the building, which is under renovation. The blaze was brought under control by late afternoon.

The blaze was considered a level-three incident on a scale from one to five, with five being the most severe, officials said.


The U.S. passes another tragic COVID threshold as delta surges and omicron looms

Posted December 15, 2021 at 7:48 AM EST
A line of people wait behind a clear plastic tent with a red top reading "COVID-19 testing."
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Pople wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a testing facility in Times Square on Thursday in New York City.

The coronavirus has officially killed more than 800,000 Americans, two years into the pandemic and one year after vaccines first hit the market.

And of course, every one of those lives lost leaves behind a family and community in grief. Morning Edition has been talking to some of them throughout the pandemic, including two this morning. Listen to their remembrances here.

More people died of the virus in 2021 than 2020, which NPR science correspondent Rob Stein says is "exactly the opposite of what everyone thought would happen." So how did we get here? Variants and vaccines, public health experts told NPR.

"One simple answer is that the U.S. just failed to get enough people vaccinated fast enough," Stein toldMorning Edition. "And that's what makes this so tragic, so many of these deaths were preventable."

There are other, more complex factors at play. Stein names a few: a polarized society, a politicized pandemic and a neglected public health system, which he says "all kind of conspired to create this worst-case scenario." Plus, the virus itself has turned out to be more unpredictable and formidable than initially expected.

"Just when we thought we had it licked, another even-more threatening variant erupted," Stein adds.

The delta variant is surging, with the U.S. seeing a sharp rise in cases, deaths and overwhelmed hospitals. The highly transmissible omicron variant is also spreading, prompting experts to worry about another spike and urge Americans to get vaccinated and boosted.

There's no time to waste as the winter approaches, bringing with it holiday gatherings and peak flu season.

As researchers rush to learn more about omicron and how vaccines hold up, some places are reinstituting safety measures like indoor mask mandates.

We're already seeing the impact of omicron on some college campuses: Cornell University shut down its Ithaca campus yesterday due to what officials called a rapid spread of COVID-19 cases among students, with some 469 active cases of the virus reported and evidence of the variant detected "in a significant number of Monday's positive student samples."

It's not alone: Vermont's Middlebury College switched to remote instruction last week amidst a surge, the University of Pennsylvania banned indoor social events over rising cases and Tulane University in New Orleans reinstated a mask mandate and expanded testing last week after a campus spike that it said included probable omicron cases.

More broadly, many campuses across the country are taking steps like delaying the return to campus, reinstating mask mandates in the new semester and requiring booster shots. Read more here.