Start your day here: Omicron's lightning-fast spread, explained; Bangladesh has a birthday; remembering bell hooks

Published December 16, 2021 at 8:10 AM EST
A pedestrian walks past cars lined up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center Los Angeles.
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A pedestrian walks past cars lined up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center Los Angeles.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

Omicron's spread: The variant has made its way to at least 77 countries and 36 U.S. states in less than a month. Scientists may be one step closer to understanding its velocity.

Bangladesh turns 50: In the decades since its tumultuous beginning, the country has made a remarkable turnaround. For example, life expectancy has increased from 46 to 72 years.

Remembering bell hooks: Her 1981 book Ain't I A Woman became a foundational feminist text. NPR revisits a 2000 interview with the trailblazing author.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, the Fed is moving toward raising interest rates next year.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

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

Law

An Instacart driver allegedly ran over an elderly couple's groceries because of their pro-police signage

Posted December 16, 2021 at 11:55 AM EST

Police in Blaine, Minn., say an Instacart worker dropped off groceries for an elderly couple, only to drive over the bags and leave behind a derogatory note after seeing a sign supporting local law enforcement.

The unnamed couple requested a grocery delivery from Cub Foods on Dec. 6, and decided to meet the Instacart delivery person outside out of concern that they might get stuck in the snow if they pulled into the driveway, the Blaine Police Department said this week.

They reported seeing the delivery person driving back and forth in the driveway, and yelling to them to check their Christmas wreath. There they found the grocery receipt with what police described as "a derogatory message."

"After reviewing the context of the written message it appears the delivery driver's actions were in response to a sign supporting law enforcement that is in the homeowner's front yard," the police said.

Police Chief Brian Podany said the note read "Instacart doesn't pay employees, find another slave, f*** the police, racist, pigs," according to local news outlets.

When the driver left, the couple spotted their groceries run over in the driveway. Photos posted to the police department's Facebook account show brown paper bags strewn across snow-covered tire tracks, with bottles and bags of food lying on the ground.

The Washington Post and some local outlets are reporting that a 36-year-old woman has been cited for criminal damage to property. NPR has reached out to the Blaine PD for confirmation.

Instacart told NPR over email that it was "appalled by the unacceptable actions" of the shopper, who has since been removed from the platform.

"We've been in direct contact with the customers to refund their order and provide additional resources," a spokesperson added. "We'll continue to provide support to the impacted customers and will also work directly with local law enforcement on any investigations into this matter."

Police said the couple had received an "outpouring of support from the community."

The Washington Postreported that the couple had purchased about $50 of groceries, citing an online fundraising post by someone who identified herself as a relative.

The page shows a yard sign reading "Thank You Blaine PD," with the "O" in the shape of a heart filled in with the "thin blue line" flag. Some see the flag as a proud tribute to law enforcement, while others see it as a pointed rebuke of the Black Lives Matter movement, as NPR has reported.

The relative, Amber Gray, wrote that the driver “probably doesn’t know how carefully those $50 in groceries were budgeted for. Or how devastating the recent medical diagnosis has been. Or how scared and vulnerable her vile act of hatred made them feel,” according to the Post.

The page raised $13,920 for additional grocery costs and medical expenses before it stopped accepting donations on Thursday.

Weather

The U.S. sets a new record for powerful wind gusts as a storm howls across the Midwest

Posted December 16, 2021 at 11:40 AM EST
A pedestrian walks past tables and chairs for outdoor service at a cafe that were felled by high winds as they hit the Denver metropolitan area on Wednesday.
David Zalubowski/AP
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AP
A pedestrian walks past tables and chairs for outdoor service at a cafe that were felled by high winds as they hit the Denver metropolitan area on Wednesday.

Howling winds tore across the central U.S. on Wednesday, setting a record for the highest number of hurricane-force thunderstorm wind gusts in a day since 2004, the National Weather Service says. At least 55 gusts surpassed the 74-mph threshold for hurricane winds.

“The previous record was from August 10, 2020 with 53,” the NWS Storm Prediction Center said.

Winds peaked at 100 mph in Russell, Kansas, one of many places where existing wind records for December were obliterated, the NWS office in Wichita said.

Gusts ripped up roof shingles and made driving perilous. In Great Bend, Kansas, it toppled a church steeple.

https://twitter.com/KWCH12/status/1471273510475640833

As NPR reported on Wednesday: “The alarming weather events in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, downed trees, caused road closures, and left thousands of residents in multiple stateswithout power well until the morning.

“In Nebraska alone,officials reported wildfires, tornadoes, high winds, rain and snow that seriously impacted traffic and was reportedly blamed for overturned vehicles.

Many cities also saw unseasonably warm temperatures that set new records for the month of December. From Madison to Des Moines to Omaha, the highs blew past old marks. In Moline, Ill., the temperature reached 75 degrees, just 10 days before Christmas.

https://twitter.com/NWSWPC/status/1471307948945285123

Just In
Haiti

All of the kidnapped missionaries in Haiti have been released

Posted December 16, 2021 at 11:29 AM EST
Workers ride out of the gate of the Christian Aid Ministries headquarters in Haiti on Dec. 6.
Odelyn Joseph/AP
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AP
Workers ride out of the gate of the Christian Aid Ministries headquarters in Haiti on Dec. 6.

All of the 17 members of a missionary group who had been held hostage in Haiti are free, exactly two months after they were originally kidnapped by a Haitian gang.

Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries said on Thursday that the 12 remaining hostages had been freed. The first two were released on Nov. 21, and three more were released last Monday.

There were 16 Americans and one Canadian in the group. It included five children, with the hostages ranging in age from 8 months old to 48.

"Join us in praising God that all seventeen of our loved ones are now safe," the group wrote. "Thank you for your fervent prayers throughout the past two months. We hope to provide more information as we are able."

The 400 Mawozo gang in Haiti, which kidnapped the group on Oct. 16, had demanded $1 million ransom per person (it's not clear whether that included the children) or else threatened to kill them.

Opinion

Personal essay: How a haircut changed my mind about Ayn Rand

Posted December 16, 2021 at 11:13 AM EST

(Required)

Ayn Rand in New York City in 1962.
AP
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AP
Ayn Rand in New York City in 1962.

I let my roommate cut my hair a couple of weeks ago. She’d done it before, so it didn’t seem like a risky move. But this time when she stepped back to look at the first few snips, her face quivered with guilt. I knew it was too short, and there was nothing to do but accept my fate. Looking in the mirror, I realized I had been transformed. I had become Ayn Rand.

I’m the intern for NPR’s history podcast, Throughline, and I didn’t know much about Ayn Rand, but before I started working on this episode, I had the feeling I wasn’t supposed to like her. I was assigned to find clips of her, so I spent hours poring over interviews she did, speeches she gave, and articles people wrote about her.

And I was right, I hated her. She spoke like she was obsessed with herself, her head cocked to the side and a condescending smile on her face. I thought the way she viewed the world was harsh and simplistic. Listening to her brush aside things like the genocide of Indigenous people, I felt the same derision that you’d feel watching a problematic scene in an old movie. Ayn Rand made it easy to dismiss her, until I started to recognize parts of myself in her.

Ayn Rand arrived in the U.S. from Russia with big plans — she was determined to make herself into her wildest dreams. She lived in Chicago with relatives, but she was an insufferable roommate. Rand stayed up late, clattering around on her typewriter, and spent a lot of her time watching movies and going on tirades about the Bolsheviks. Burnt out and fed up, her relatives sent her to Hollywood, where she immediately landed a job at her favorite director’s studio. Caught up in the early days of Hollywood, Ayn Rand was dizzy with her own success.

Reading all this, I began to see myself. When I decide to pursue something, I become possessed. In the earliest days of my journalism career, I spent every waking minute consuming other people’s work and thinking about how much I had to learn. I stayed up late and rose early, desperately creating pieces that I hoped would get me somewhere. And, like Ayn Rand, I had a big break — it happened earlier this year when I won NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge.

Doors were flung open for me, people wanted to hear what I had to say. Dizzy with my own success, I found myself signing a contract with NPR to work on my favorite podcast. When Ayn Rand got to Hollywood, she was young and hungry, but also deeply insecure. When I got to Throughline, I couldn’t tell whether I was more eager to prove myself or frightened to fail.

And that’s why I changed my mind about Ayn Rand. Not because I started to agree with her philosophy, but because I understood why she created it. She carved out a place for herself in a male-dominated world, but didn’t think any woman was capable of following her. She wasn’t politically correct. She was belligerent and liked saying things that she knew would upset people. Ayn Rand wanted to be respected, revered and loved. She wanted to look effortlessly cool, so she bottled up her most outrageous parts. She lived by the doctrine of her own greatness, but she also feared that she would never be good enough. I saw that she was all of those things, and then, staring in the mirror after a particularly bad haircut, I saw that she was me.

Listen to the full Throughline episode here.

Anya Steinberg in 2021.
Olivia Liu
Anya Steinberg in Seattle in 2021.

Sports

NFL players are four times more likely to develop ALS, a new study shows

Posted December 16, 2021 at 11:00 AM EST
A general view of the NFL logo on the field is seen before the game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Inglewood, California.
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Researchers examined all 19,423 NFL players who took the field for at least one game from 1960 to 2019 in what they said was the largest study of ALS risk in professional football players.

Professional football players in the NFL are four times more likely to develop and die from ALS than the adult male population, according to new research.

Scientists at Boston University’s CTE Center, who conducted the study released Wednesday, said they couldn’t determine exactly why the rate was higher for those athletes but suggested that repetitive head impacts and traumatic brain injuries may play a role.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a fatal neurodegenerative disease with no known cure. ALS has been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, another degenerative brain disease found in many former football players.

Researchers examined all 19,423 NFL players who took the field for at least one game from 1960 to 2019 in what they said was the largest study of ALS risk in professional football players. Previous, smaller studies have also found links between league play and the disease.

They found that 38 players had received an ALS diagnosis during the study period and 28 had died, a four-fold increase over the rates for the overall U.S. male population adjusted for age and race.

NFL players who developed ALS had significantly longer careers than those who didn’t get the disease, but researchers said other factors like a player's position, body mass index and race didn’t show any differences.

Other factors such as smoking, strenuous physical exertion and exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides may also increase the risk of ALS for NFL players, the study said.

The NFL did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for comment.

Travel

You may soon be able to renew your passport online, instead of sending in documents

Posted December 16, 2021 at 10:44 AM EST
A new executive order from President Biden calls on the State Department to create a system where passports can be renewed online.
Jenny Kane
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AP
A new executive order from President Biden calls on the State Department to create a system where passports can be renewed online.

Renewing your passport isn't an experience most people would consider streamlined — especially during the pandemic. Getting it processed can take from anywhere between eight to 11 weeks, according to the State Department.

But a new executive order from President Joe Biden hopes to cut down on the amount of time people spend accessing all kinds of government services, like scheduling a call back time with the IRS, applying for Social Security and Medicare benefits online and yes, renewing a passport.

One of the points in a new executive order signed on Monday calls on the Secretary of State to create a system where people can renew their passports online, without having to mail in any physical documents.

"Every interaction between the Federal Government and the public ... should be seen as an opportunity for the Government to save an individual's time (and thus reduce "time taxes") and to deliver the level of service that the public expects and deserves," the executive order says.

The White House says the move to streamline the passport renewal process could impact the more than two million daily passengers who come through U.S. airports every year, and help cut down on the time, effort and money it takes to print documents, mail them from a post office and pay using a paper check.

While no further details about the new system have been outlined, the White House says the "new online process will be done with safety and security."

Cream cheese shortage

Kraft will literally pay you not to make cheesecake this holiday season

Posted December 16, 2021 at 10:41 AM EST
A grocery store shelf holds containers of Philadelphia and store-brand cream cheese.
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Cream cheese on a shelf in a Manhattan grocery store earlier this month.

Supply-chain issues are the gift that keeps on giving this holiday season. And the latest unlucky recipient appears to be none other than everyone's favorite bagel topping.

Panic over a cream cheese shortage started earlier this month when The New York Times reported that delis across the city were scrambling for schmear. And it grew last week when popular chain Junior's Cheesecake said it was periodically pausing production of its signature product, citing insufficient supply of the key ingredient.

Food distributors and company spokespeople say various factors are to blame, from a labor shortage and scarcity of packing supplies to sustained demand as a result of more people eating breakfast at home and baking with cream cheese (two particularly pandemic-friendly pastimes).

And where some people see a national debacle, others see a (somewhat cheesy) marketing opportunity.

Kraft Heinz, which owns the Philadelphia brand, is offering to reimburse thousands of holiday shoppers $20 each for desserts they bake or buy that don't contain any cream cheese.

"You may not be able to find Philly to make a cheesecake," reads its website. "So get any other dessert on us."

The "Spread the Feeling" promotion will run from Friday to Jan. 4, but dessert devotees will have just two days to try and claim a spot. The company says that 10,000 online reservations will open at noon ET on Friday, and another 8,000 will become available at noon the next day.

Customers who manage to snag a reservation will get a one-time-use link. They can then buy any dessert or dessert ingredient from a store or restaurant between Friday and Dec. 24, and use that link to submit their dated receipt for reimbursement by the end of the day on Jan. 4. The company says they'll receive their $20 reward within two to four weeks.

"This year, turn that famous cheesecake into those famous brownies, end your meal with a friendly fight over the last holiday cupcake, share some cookies," says the narrator of a brief video ad. "Anything that'll make you feel anything in that cheesecake-shaped hole in your holiday heart."

Cream cheese was in high demand even before this holiday season, the company said.

Kraft Heinz told CNN Business that retail demand jumped 18% in 2020, and the company is shipping 30-35% more cream cheese to restaurants than it did last year.

If you have to skip the cheesecake this Christmas, at least you can try for another treat on Kraft's dime. Plus, there are plenty of cream cheese substitutes — not to mention dairy-free desserts — out there.

Obituaries

Prolific activist, critic and feminist scholar bell hooks knew the power of love

Posted December 16, 2021 at 10:00 AM EST
bell hooks
Liza Matthews for the bell hooks Institute
"Young people, we can love in a deep and profound way that transforms the political world in which we live," bell hooks told NPR in 2000.

Acclaimed author, activist and trailblazing academic bell hooks died Wednesday surrounded by friends and family at her home in Kentucky, her family announced. She was 69 years old.

A professor, poet and the author of more than three dozen wide-ranging books,her influential work often explored the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality and geographic place.

As NPR's Andrew Limbong reports in this obituary onMorning Edition, her work, including her poetry, was always imbued with a sense of hope.

She was known as the author of many books, including the influential Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism published in 1981, and her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, which criticized the era's feminist movement as exclusionary and primarily concerned with white women's experiences.

As news of her death spread, social media users shared remembrances of her work's critical influence on their lives and perceptions of the world.

In 2000, NPR spoke to hooks about the release of her 18th book, All About Love: New Visions. In it, hooks explores the nature of love, what popular culture gets wrong in it's depictions of love and what power love has to transform. You can listen to the full interview here.

During that conversation, NPR asked why hooks' favorite love song: Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson, resonates.

"In this song, Jackie Wilson is talking about how one person can feel like life just has beaten them down, and they haven't been able to find that spark out of the depression or the sadness," hooks said.

"And then someone ignites that spark and they can transform their reality, and that's what I like about it: it's just such an upbeat sense. Don't you just feel lifted up when you hear that music?"

That interview ended on a note of guidance.

"Young people, we can love in a deep and profound way that transforms the political world in which we live," hooks said.

Sports

The Jacksonville Jaguars fire head coach Urban Meyer

Posted December 16, 2021 at 9:34 AM EST
Head coach Urban Meyer of the Jacksonville Jaguars at a game on Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.
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Head coach Urban Meyer of the Jacksonville Jaguars at a game on Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.

Urban Meyer’s tumultuous stint as an NFL coach is over, after the Jacksonville Jaguars fired him Wednesday night, 13 games into the season. Meyer posted a 2-11 record -- and he was fired after a former Jaguars player publicly accused the coach of kicking him and calling him vulgar names.

“I am bitterly disappointed to arrive at the conclusion that an immediate change is imperative for everyone,” Jaguars owner Shad Khan said in a news release about firing Meyer, who won three national championships as a college coach.

Khan fired Meyer shortly after Josh Lambo, the Jaguars’ former placekicker, went public with the latest in a string of stories that have depicted Meyer as disrespectful and abusive to his players and staff.

Lambo, who had missed some kicks during preseason games, told the Tampa Bay Times that Meyer mistreated him during a stretching session at practice in August.

“I’m in a lunge position. Left leg forward, right leg back,” Lambo said. “Urban Meyer, while I’m in that stretch position, comes up to me and says, ‘Hey Dips**t, make your f**king kicks!’ And kicks me in the leg.”

When Lambo told him never to do that again, he said, Meyer replied that he would do it any time he liked.

Lambo, 31, was cut by the Jaguars in October. He’s the most accurate kicker in the franchise’s history, having made 91.6% of the field goals he attempted for Jacksonville. Among many Jaguars fans, Lambo is now being hailed as a hero for speaking up – and for helping to get Meyer fired.

Meyer had been on thin ice in Jacksonville since at least October, when Khan chastised him for his behavior during a road trip for a game in Ohio. After a Thursday night loss to Cincinnati, Meyer stayed in the area rather than travel home with his team -- and a viral video emerged that weekend showing Meyer sitting on a bar stool, with a young woman dancing very close to his lap. A second video showed Meyer apparently touching the woman.

Meyer apologized for that off-field incident. But his coaching was also intensely criticized, after reports recently emerged that Meyer said in a staff meeting that his assistant coaches are all losers. Another report described a heated argument with wide receiver Marvin Jones.

“As I stated in October, regaining our trust and respect was essential. Regrettably, it did not happen,” Khan said as he announced Meyer’s exit.

Meyer was unable to win in the NFL despite the arrival of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft who was heralded as the franchise’s savior.

In a sign of how eager Jacksonville is to move on from the Meyer era, Khan’s statement began not with news of the coach being fired, but by naming his replacement. Darrell Bevell will be the interim head coach for the remaining four games of the season.

International

Five children die after wind picked up a bouncy castle at a school celebration in Tasmania

Posted December 16, 2021 at 9:19 AM EST
Worksafe Tasmania officers inspect a bouncy castle at Hillcrest Primary School in Devonport, Tasmania, on Thursday.
Grant Wells/Reuters
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Worksafe Tasmania officers inspect a bouncy castle at Hillcrest Primary School in Devonport, Tasmania, on Thursday.

Five children were killed and several others injured at a school celebration in Tasmania when a strong gust of wind lifted a bouncy castle more than 30 feet into the air.

Nine students at Hillcrest Primary School in Devonport fell from around 10 meters — or 32 feet — after a "significant local wind event caused a jumping castle and several inflatable 'zorb' balls to lift into the air," Tasmania Police said in a statement on Thursday.

They initially said four children were killed in the incident, but confirmed to NPR that a fifth later died in the hospital.

Four children remain hospitalized, with three in critical condition and one in serious condition, according to Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein.

Commissioner Darren Hine told reporters that the victims include two boys and two girls in Grade 6, which would suggest they were 11 or 12 years old.

“On a day where these children were meant to be celebrating their last day at primary school, instead we are all mourning their loss,” he said.

Hillcrest Primary School had been celebrating the end of the school year with a "Big Day In," according to a post on its Facebook page. The event included water activities like a slip 'n slide and sprinkler play as well as games, dancing, arts and crafts, a bouncy castle and zorb balls (inflatable, transparent orbs also known as "human hamster balls").

The school later posted on Facebook that there had been an accident, and asked parents to urgently pick up their children.

Police said the incident happened around 10 a.m. local time, and that officers and emergency responders arrived on the scene within minutes to begin administering first aid.

Law enforcement and Tasmanian officials are offering their thoughts and sympathies to the loved ones, community members and first responders impacted by the tragedy.

"On a day when school children are celebrating the end of term, so close to Christmas, it is simply inconceivable that this shocking tragedy has occurred," Gutwein said in a statement. "We stand ready to provide whatever support we can to the families directly impacted, the students, staff, the broader community, and emergency services and our first responders who I know have also been deeply impacted."

He added that the incident will be "fully and thoroughly investigated" by police and Worksafe Tasmania, the state's workplace safety regulator.

Hine said investigations are already underway, with witnesses to be interviewed and a report to be prepared for the coroner. Because of that, he could not go into detail about questions like how many kids were on the bouncy castle or what was used to anchor it to the ground.

In the meantime, officials said support and counseling are being made available to all of those involved. Tim Bullard, secretary of the Tasmanian Education Department, said at a briefing that his "immediate priority" is to support children, families and staff who were affected.

"We're coordinating a range of services as a critical response to support students, families and staff, and our approach is being guided by our senior psychologists, who are trained in trauma-informed practice," he said. "We have a team of professional support staff onsite to provide immediate support to students and staff, and this includes our psychologists, social workers and chaplains."

The staff will also be onsite on Friday, he said, with ongoing support to be provided through the weekend and into the holidays.

Other resources mentioned by the police include 24-hour mental health services hotlines, including one specifically for kids.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the events of the day "unthinkably heartbreaking."

"Young children on a fun day out together with their families, and it turns to such horrific tragedy," he told reporters. "At this time of year. It just breaks your heart."

Fatal incidents involving bouncy castles are not unheard of. Two children died and 20 were injured when wind sent a bouncy castle airborne in central China in 2019, and two fairground workers were convicted of manslaughter by gross negligence in 2016 after a bouncy castle was swept nearly 1000 feet across a park while a 7-year-old was still inside. And in 2014, two kindergartners in upstate New York were injured when the bounce house they were playing in was lifted into the air by a strong gust of wind.

NHL

Chicago Blackhawks settle with a former player who says he was sexually assaulted

Posted December 16, 2021 at 8:23 AM EST
Kyle Beach of the Chicago Blackhawks skates against the Detroit Red Wings during a pre-season game in September.
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Kyle Beach of the Chicago Blackhawks skates against the Detroit Red Wings during a pre-season game in September.

The Chicago Blackhawks settled a lawsuit filed by a former player who said he was sexually assaulted by an assistant coach during the team's Stanley Cup-winning season in 2010.

Representatives for the Blackhawks and their former player, Kyle Beach, met for the first time Wednesday for mediation that resulted in a confidential settlement between the two parties.

"The Blackhawks hope that this resolution will bring some measure of peace and closure for Mr. Beach," attorneys for the hockey team said in a statement.

"As for the Blackhawks organization, we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure that, going forward, this team will be a beacon for professionalism, respect and integrity in our community," their statement added. "We remain grateful for the trust and support of the Blackhawks community, and we promise to continue working every day to earn and maintain that trust."

Beach originally filed the lawsuit in May as an anonymous John Doe, saying the organization mishandled his sexual assault allegations. He came forward publicly in October as the man behind the lawsuit.

In an emotional, televised interview, Beach disclosed detail of his assault, how the team treated him, and the emotional fallout of his assault. Beach was 20 years old at the time of his attack.

According to his allegations, Beach complained to team leaders in 2010 that assistant coach Brad Aldrich sexually assaulted him. Upper management of the Blackhawks ignored his complaints until after the team won the Stanley Cup that season.

Beach's lawsuit forced an independent investigation that confirmed his claims. After the report was published, the team ousted two top officials who were there at the time: Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman and senior vice president of hockey operations Al MacIsaac.

Additionally, Joel Quenneville, the coach of the Blackhawks at the time of Beach's assault, resigned from his job with the Florida Panthers. The National Hockey League also fined Chicago $2 million.

NPR reporter Jonathan Franklin contributed to this report.

International

Bangladesh marks 50 years of remarkable progress since its tumultuous birth

Posted December 16, 2021 at 8:09 AM EST
Citizens wave Bangladesh over head. The flag is dark green with a red circle in the center.
Munir Uz Zaman/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
People wave national flags as they gather at the 1971 independence war's martyrs national memorial to celebrate Bangladesh's 50th Victory Day.

Government buildings in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka are lit up in the colors of their national flag today, as celebrations and memorials are held across the country on the 50th anniversary of its birth.

President M. Abdul Hamid inspected troops this morning at a military parade. Hamidand Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also laid wreaths at a national memorial to those killed in the country’s liberation war.

Bangladesh was created on Dec. 16, 1971, in what was previously called East Pakistan. Up to 3 million people died in a nine-month war that ended that day with Pakistan’s surrender.

But the fledgling country was beset by disease and poverty. Up to 10 million people became refugees.

A crowd holds a floral wreath above their heads.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
People hold a memorial wreath at the 1971 independence war's martyrs national memorial on the 50th Victory Day, in Savar, Bangladesh on December 16, 2021.

What a difference 50 years makes.

In the half-century since its creation, Bangladesh has made a remarkable turnaround: Life expectancy has gone from 46 years to 72. Infant mortality has gone from nearly 150 deaths per1,000birthsto 26. The IMF says Bangladesh's GDP is on track to soon exceed those of Denmark and Singapore.

“It is definitely a success story, how much we have progressed," says Farria Naeem, a Dhaka-based economist with the International Growth Centre.

Bangladesh has come far in the 50 years since its birth, but now climate change threatens its next half-century.

Click here for more onMorning Edition on what the country has overcome and what challenges it faces today.

Coronavirus

Officials warn omicron is spreading fast. Here's one clue as to why

Posted December 16, 2021 at 8:04 AM EST
People line up outside next to signs reading "Get your FREE COVID-19 vaccine HERE!"
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
People wait in line to get their Covid-19 vaccination at an outdoor walk-up vaccination site in Franklin Park in Washington, D.C., in November.

The omicron variant has made its way to at least 77 countries and 36 U.S. states in less than a month, with the World Health Organization warning it's spreading like no other strain of COVID-19 has before.

In the U.S., the percentage of cases caused by omicron jumped from 0.4% of the total cases sequenced to 2.9% in just one week, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.K. health officials estimate that the risk of spreading the variant to another household member is three times higher than it is with the (already highly transmissible) delta variant.

What makes omicron such a superspreader? As NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, preliminary data published yesterday offers a first look at how the strain behaves inside the respiratory tract — and a tantalizing clue as to why it's spreading so fast. Read more here.

🎧 The recent COVID-19 surge in the U.S. has been due to delta until now, but NPR's Allison Aubrey explained onMorning Edition that we're seeing that start to change.

She offers Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas as one case study. CEO Marc Boom told Aubrey that the system has seen its positivity rates go from about 6% to 20%., which he said proves that omicron is in the area and spreading rapidly. As of last night, 32% of positive sequences there were omicron cases.

"This is replacing delta in our community at a rate we've never seen, and I would expect it's a matter of weeks only before ... all that we're dealing with is omicron," he said.

Another setting now grappling with the variant's rapid spread is college campuses.

Among them: Cornell University shut down its Ithaca campus due to a COVID-19 surge, The University of Pennsylvania canceled indoor social gatherings and moved finals online and George Washington University in D.C. announced yesterday that all in-person finals, gatherings and events are moving online.

Cornell University Provost Michael Kotlikoff told Aubrey that the school first detected omicron cases on Sunday and has been seeing a 50% rise in cases day-over-day. He said the campus is 98% vaccinated, and almost all of the cases have occurred in fully vaccinated students, with almost all cases either asymptomatic or with mild symptoms (students are isolating nonetheless).

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease doctor and the president's chief medical adviser, said at a White House briefing yesterday that data from the U.K. shows that when people get a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, their protection against omicron goes way back up.

The Biden administration is urging all eligible Americans to get a booster shot and wear a mask in crowded spaces.