Start your day here: At-home COVID-19 tests; Joe Manchin's ties to coal; warm thoughts for the winter solstice
Here's what we're following on the shortest day of the year:
Omicron is officially dominant in the U.S.: As depleted hospitals do what they can to prepare for this new surge of COVID-19 cases, President Biden will announce new help for health care facilities and a plan to send a half-billion at-home COVID-19 test kits to people who want them, starting in January.
The politics of Joe Manchin: The Democratic senator, who pulled all support for his party's social spending and climate bill, represents deep-red West Virginia where coal is dominant but in decline. Some point out thatthe state could benefit from a switch to clean energy.
Winter solstice: Today marks the first day of winter (for the Northern Hemisphere, at least) — meaning things can only get brighter from here.
🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, the Pentagon is updating its policies on extremism in its ranks.
— The Morning Edition live blog team
(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)
Kellogg union members ratify a new contract, ending a nearly 3-month strike
The Kellogg's strike is over.
The union representing striking workers at four Kellogg Co. breakfast cereal plants has ratified a deal to end an 11-week work stoppage.
Approval of a new five-year contract for the 1,400 affected workers came after a tentative deal was announced last week. Kellogg had threatened to replace striking workers at plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, prompting criticism from the Biden administration.
“Our striking members at Kellogg’s ready-to-eat cereal production facilities courageously stood their ground and sacrificed so much in order to achieve a fair contract,” Anthony Shelton, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, said in a statement Tuesday. “This agreement makes gains and does not include any concessions.”
The company said in a statement that the ratified deal “furthers our employees' leading wages and benefits, with immediate, across the board wage increases and enhanced benefits for all.”
"We are pleased that we have reached an agreement that brings our cereal employees back to work," CEO Steve Cahillane said. "We look forward to their return and continuing to produce our beloved cereal brands for our customers and consumers."
The most contentious issue had been a two-tiered benefits system that paid workers hired after 2015 at a lower scale than “legacy” employees. The union said the collective bargaining agreement ratified in a vote over the weekend meant there would be “no permanent two-tiered system.” The union also said it had secured a pledge of no plant closings through October 2026, “a clear path to regular full-time employment,” and a “significant increase in the pension multiplier.”
Kellogg workers at the four plants walked off the job on Oct. 5 after talks on a new agreement hit a roadblock.
The European Union's COVID passports will only be valid for 9 months without a booster
Officials are making changes to European Union's vaccine passports, which allow fully vaccinated citizens to travel throughout the region and attend events within certain countries.
The European Commission said on Tuesday that the digital vaccine certificates will only be valid for 9 months without a booster shot, a move that appears aimed at incentivizing vaccines in the face of the highly transmissible omicron variant.
"The strength and success of this invaluable tool for citizens and business lies in its coherent use across the EU," Stella Kyriakides, commissioner for health and food safety, said in a statement. "What is needed now is to ensure that booster campaigns proceed as quickly as possible, that as many citizens are protected by an additional dose and that our certificates remain a key tool for travel and protection of public health.”
The certificates, which took effect in July, show that a person has either recovered from or been vaccinated against COVID-19, or received a negative test result. Despite concerns about social divisions, the passports have generally been hailed as a positive development, with commission officials repeatedly calling them "a success story of the EU" in Tuesday's statement.
The new rules will apply beginning Feb. 1. At that point, vaccine passports will be valid for intra-EU travel for exactly 270 days (or 9 months) after a person's last primary vaccination — either the first shot in a single-dose vaccine, or the second shot in a two-dose series.
The commission first proposed such a policy in late November, around the time that the European Union's public health agency said that COVID-19 boosters should be considered for all adults, with priority given to people over 40. Since then, the omicron variant has spread rapidly, with the EU reporting 1,533 new cases between Dec. 16 and 19 alone.
Officials said the new rules are based on that recent guidancefrom the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which recommends boosters at least six months after the completion of the first vaccination cycle.
"The Certificate will remain valid for a grace period of an additional three months beyond those six months to ensure that national vaccination campaigns can adjust and citizens will have access to booster doses," they added.
Previously, EU member states could set their own rules on how long to accept vaccination certificates in the context of travel.
The commission explained that as booster doses have rolled out, more and more member states have adopted rules governing how long certificates showing primary vaccines should be accepted — for domestic use as well as travel purposes. Those take into account that vaccine-induced protection from the virus appears to diminish over time, it added.
The new policy will standardize intra-EU travel across states. Officials acknowledge that states will introduce their own domestic rules, and encourage them to align them with this latest shift "to provide certainty for travellers and reduce disruptions."
"Unilateral measures in the Member States would bring us back to the fragmentation and uncertainties we have seen last spring," said Didier Reynders, commissioner for justice. "The acceptance period of nine months for vaccination certificates will give citizens and businesses the certainty they need when planning their travels with confidence. It's now up to the Member States to ensure boosters will be rolled out swiftly to protect our health and ensure safe travelling.”
Watching the winter solstice sunrise from an ancient Egyptian temple
Hundreds of people in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor woke up at dawn today to watch a rare sunrise, when the sun lines up with the axis of an ancient temple.
Tourists, local visitors and Egyptian officials watched the first rays of golden sunlight as the sun aligned over the Temple of Amun-Re, an occurrence that happens once a year. The event takes place during winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which marks the beginning of astronomical winter.
Watching the sun slowly rise “is very emotional,” said French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde, who adds that he has seen a much bigger crowd this year compared to 30 years ago.
Luxor sits on the banks of the Nile River and is located about 400 miles south of Cairo. It is home to some of Egypt’s most dramatic ancient temples and pharaonic tombs, including that of King Tutankhamun.
Procter & Gamble recalls 32 shampoo and conditioner products over benzene concerns
Procter & Gamble has recalled 32 of its dry shampoo and conditioner products after detecting benzene, a known carcinogen, in some of them.
The voluntary recall announced Friday includes aerosol products from Pantene, Herbal Essences, Old Spice and others.
“To date, The Procter & Gamble Company has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall and is conducting this recall out of an abundance of caution,” the company said in a statement.
All of the affected products are packaged in aerosol cans, and consumers are eligible for reimbursement.
The company said recent reports showing benzene detected in some aerosols prompted it to review its products. That review found “unexpected levels” of benzene in the propellant that sprays the product out of the can, P&G said.
Consumers can report any problems with the use of the products to the Food and Drug Administration's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program.
A lost eagle from Asia has been spotted in Boston
Spider-Man: No Way Home has been a box office hit this week, but this Asian sea eagle reported in Massachusetts on Monday could have its own film with a similar title — it’s been thousands of miles from home for more than a year.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife posted on Facebook Monday saying the bird, known as the Steller’s sea eagle, was spotted along the Taunton River. They say the large bird weighs up to 20 pounds, with a wingspan of eight feet.
Steller's sea eagles are native to China, Japan, Korea and eastern Russia. And while it’s not entirely rare for birds to lose their way -- a process called vagrancy -- it’s still notable that this eagle was found in Massachusetts.
But what's even wilder is that it appears this same bird has been traveling across North America since at least August 2020.
Last summer, it was first spotted in Alaska, nearly 5,000 miles from home. Then, what appears to be the same exact bird was seen in Texas and then around Nova Scotia on Canada's east coast last month, according to a Smithsonian Magazine article published in Nov. 2020.
The magazine reports that birders felt certain the same eagle was spotted in Alaska, Texas and Nova Scotia because of unique white markings on its wings.
And Massachusetts authorities have said it's likely the same eagle there, too.
LeBron James has spent half of his life in the NBA
Basketball player, philanthropist and all-around legend LeBron James hit yet another major career milestone yesterday. But this one is especially rare and involves a bit of arithmetic.
The 36-year-old Los Angeles Lakers forward, who is currently in his 19th NBA season, has spent exactly half of his life playing professional basketball.
Monday marked 6,752 days from James' birth until his draft day, and 6,752 days from his draft day, according to SBNation's Brady Klopfer. Wild, right?
James reacted with a stunned tweet of his own: "MAN WHAT!!! 😱😱😱😱😱"
Later, he expanded on his thoughts in an Instagram post.
"This is INSANE," he wrote. "Tomorrow i would have spent more time in the league than from being born to being drafted."
James was drafted to the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 26, 2003, and spent his first seven seasons with the team before moving to the Miami Heat, then back to Cleveland before joining the Lakers in 2018.
Over the course of his lengthy career, James has won four championships, four MVPs and tallied 17 All Star selections, among other accolades (there are too many to list, so click here for more impressive facts about him).
Boeing and Airbus urge a delay in 5G wireless service over safety concerns
The heads of the two largest commercial jet makers, Boeing and Airbus, are warning against a plan to deploy new 5G wireless networks starting next month, saying interference from the upgrade could pose a danger to vital aircraft systems.
In a joint letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun and Airbus Americas CEO Jeffrey Knittel called for postponing a planned Jan. 5 rollout of the new technology by AT&T and Verizon Communications.
"5G interference could adversely affect the ability of aircraft to safely operate," the letter said, according to Reuters, adding it could have "an enormous negative impact on the aviation industry."
The companies have expressed concern that 5G, which operates on a frequency close to that used by such aircraft systems as radio altimeters, could cause interference. They’ve warned of possible flight delays in snowstorms and low visibility if 5G is deployed.
Last year, the Radio Technical Commission for Aviation, or RTCA, a non-profit that studies aircraft electronic systems, issued a report concluding that interference from 5G was a legitimate concern and potential safety hazard.
And earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration issued airworthiness directives echoing those concerns.
"[R]adio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from wireless broadband operations,” the FAA said, adding it would require “limitations prohibiting certain operations requiring radio altimeter data when in the presence of 5G C-Band interference” for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
Airlines are also worried. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told a Senate hearing last week that the industry’s top near-term concern “is the deployment of 5G.”
In a statement emailed to NPR, Boeing said the aerospace industry was “focused on fully evaluating and addressing the potential for 5G interference with radio altimeters.”
“We are collaborating with aviation authorities, government leaders, airlines, and industry groups to ensure the continued operational safety of aircraft throughout the aviation system worldwide,” it said.
In November, AT&T and Verizon delayed the launch of C-Band wireless service by a month, and in an effort to break the stalemate, they also reportedly offered to limit power levels emanating from 5G towers for six months to give regulators a chance to assess whether the new technology would cause problems for aircraft.
The Bidens bid farewell to Major and hello to new puppy Commander
There's a new top dog at the White House.
The latest addition to the Biden family is a pure-bred German shepherd puppy named Commander. President Biden shared the news — along with some adorable photo and video footage — on social media Monday.
Michael LaRosa, press secretary for First Lady Jill Biden, told NPR over email that Commander, who is just shy of 4 months old, was a birthday gift from the president's brother and sister-in-law, James and Sara Biden. The president's birthday was November 20.
Commander arrived at the White House on Monday afternoon, LaRosa confirmed.
And the little guy has massive paws to fill, in an administration-slash-family where German shepherds have loomed large.
That adjustment proved a rough one. Major spent time at the family's home in Delaware and received remedial trainingafter two nipping incidents in March, reportedly involving a Secret Service agent and a National Park Service employee.
The president and first lady have both defended Major as a sweet, lovable dog who just needed some extra training to adapt to his new surroundings. Still, it seems they have since decided that the White House may not be the best home for him.
"After consulting with dog trainers, animal behaviorists, and veterinarians, the First Family has decided to follow the experts’ collective recommendation that it would be safest for Major to live in a quieter environment with family friends," LaRosa said. "This is not in reaction to any new or specific incident, but rather a decision reached after several months of deliberation as a family and discussions with experts."
The Bidens are set to welcome another furry family member in the near future: a cat. Rumors and reports about a potential first feline have circulated for months, with the first lady saying in April that "she is waiting in the wings." And now the time has come.
LaRosa confirms a female cat will join the family in January.
The NHL pauses season until after Christmas due to COVID-19 risks
The holiday break is coming early for National Hockey League players.
Because of dozens of recent COVID-related game postponements, the league and the National Hockey League Players' Association have agreed to postpone the five remaining scheduled games set for Thursday.
The league will now begin its holiday break starting at the end of Tuesday night's games and players will report back to their teams on Dec. 26. But upon return from the holiday break, no individual can enter the facility until they have a negative test result.
It's the latest in a series of cancellations or postponements in the sports world due to rising number of COVID-19 cases, as the omicron variant surges around the world.
As of Saturday morning, there were more than 60 players in COVID protocol in the NHL. Each case has been asymptomatic or mild, according to officials, and all but one of the players in the league are vaccinated.
Over the weekend, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association announced they were postponing several games because of infections among athletes and staff.
The White House will mail free COVID tests to Americans in the face of omicron
The U.S.'s coronavirus pandemic has entered a new stage, just as the Biden Administration gets set to announce new government support and many Americans voice their fatigue with mitigation measures.
The highly contagious omicron variant has overtaken delta to become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S.,the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced yesterday. Omicron-caused cases now make up nearly three-fourths of all new infections in the country.
The topline measure is the White House's plans to send 500 million at-home COVID test kits by mail to Americans who want them, with deliveries beginning next month, a senior administration official told reporters.
Biden will also share plans that aim to provide added aid to overwhelmed hospitals, including much-needed health care workers, and plans to expand the nation's capacity to vaccinate more Americans. Biden is also expected to assure those who are vaccinated and boosted that they are well protected against severe illness, although breakthrough COVID cases are likely to become more common as omicron spreads.
The idea of sending a supply of rapid tests to Americans came up in a recent White House press briefing when NPR's Mara Liasson asked press secretary Jen Psaki why the government didn't make free rapid tests available everywhere.
"Should we just send one to every American?" Psaki responded. "Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost and then what happens after that?"
A video of the exchange went viral on Twitter, where many argued that sending tests to every American would go a long way towards boosting testing availability, an area the country has frequently lagged behind in since the pandemic's onset nearly two years ago.
A White House staffer tests positive
The White House announced yesterday a positive COVID case in Biden's orbit. The fully vaccinated and boosted mid-level staffer flew on Air Force One on Friday, and although they tested negative right before the flight, the staffer tested positive on Monday. The president has been tested twice since the flight and is negative, reports NPR's Tamara Keith.
More data on boosters' effectiveness against omicron
News from the U.K.'s research into omicron provided reasons for hope as well as evidence to increase COVID precautions.
Preliminary data from researchers at Imperial College London shows omicron may causeillness that is just as severe as delta-caused COVID-19, but also that two shots plus a booster of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines can offer strong protection against the variant.
With Christmas less than a week away, new cases continue to tick up rapidly. New York and Washington, D.C., broke their pandemic daily case records last week and some cities such as Boston are re-instituting indoor mask mandates to face the worsening spread.
It's the shortest day of the year. Things can only get brighter from here
Today is the winter solstice, at least if you're in the Northern Hemisphere. In addition to marking the official start of winter, it's also the shortest day (and longest night) of the year.
That means from here until the end of June, each day will get a little bit longer — and brighter. Just 182 days to go until summertime!
In the meantime, here are some ways you can celebrate the solstice and prepare for the season:
Catch a glimpse of the last meteor shower of the year
The Ursid meteor shower is expected to peak in the early morning hours Wednesday. It traditionally gets less attention than the famously dazzling Geminid meteor shower, which happened last Monday.
"With the peak of the Ursids coming just a few nights after the full moon, [it] means that these meteors will be in direct competition with what will be in essence a giant celestial floodlight illuminating the sky on the first full night of winter," it explains.
But that doesn't mean it's not worth looking, if you happen to be awake and, ideally, out in the country. EarthSky has these tips: Dress warmly, bring a sleeping bag and plan to spend several hours camped out under a dark sky, beginning in the early morning hours.
"Will you see some? It’ll be tough in the moonlight … but maybe!"
Read The Shortest Day and hear an interview with its award-winning author
Susan Cooper's children's book The Shortest Day, released in 2019, is a celebration of light returning after the winter solstice.
The text of the book is actually a poem she wrote in the 1970s for The Christmas Revels (an annual celebration of the solstice) and has been read at such events for more than four decades. Cooper, herself a Newbery winner, partnered with Caldecott-winning illustrator Carson Ellis to bring its colorful imagery and wintery atmospherics to life.
Revisit the 40th Paul Winter Consort annual winter solstice concert
Fittingly-named saxophone player Paul Winter has been ushering in the winter solstice with a special concert for the last four decades.
Since 1980, the Grammy winner and his slew of special guests have gathered in New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine to mark the occasion with music and dance.
When COVID-19 forced the event to go remote last year, NPR put together a special recording of the previous year's 40th-anniversary celebration, complete with an audio recording and several videos. The 2019 edition featured familiar faces like gospel singer Theresa Thomason, as well as an especially special guest — Noel Paul Stookey, aka Paul from Peter, Paul and Mary! Check it out here.
And for those curious: Winter has in fact put together another celebration this year, for the 42nd solstice in a row. It's called Solstice Saga and his website says it will be a "comprehensive retrospective" highlighting iconic performances from the last four decades.
Prepare to do some "wintering"
A great book to cozy up with in the dark and chilly season is Wintering, by Katherine May. The English writer sees the winter as a transformative time, and set out to explore how people in different cultures accept and even welcome the season.
She's visited Stonehenge during the winter solstice, seen the northern lights in the Arctic, soaked in Iceland's Blue Lagoon and submerged herself in freezing waters. She writes about those experiences — and lessons for getting through tough times — in her book, which also offers some rays of hope.
"Every time we winter, we develop a new knowledge about how to go back into the world," May told Morning Edition last year. "You know, we learn about our tastes and preferences. We learn about what makes us happy. There's no easy answers to any of this, but I do think it makes us more profoundly human. And when we winter, we engage in the work of adaptation and change."
Take care of yourself
Don't forget your physical and mental health, especially with COVID-19 surging and flu season approaching. Here are some resources from across NPR:
- How to cope with SAD, or seasonal affective disorder
- 5 tips for getting through a pandemic winter
- FAQs for combined cold, flu and COVID season
- How to break out of your pandemic slump
- Tips for coping with COVID anxiety this winter
- 9 creative ways to socialize safely
- Evidence-based tricks for how to be happier
- How to move more and celebrate outside this holiday season
Sen. Manchin torpedoed Build Back Better. What happens now?
The fallout from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's rejection of the Build Back Better bill continues this week.
Over the weekend, the Democrat pulled his support from the sweeping social spending and climate package that has come to embody President Biden's domestic agenda, after months of public negotiations and revisions to the bill.
Ken Ward Jr., a ProPublica reporter and co-founder of Mountain State Spotlight, explained on Morning Edition that the politics at play weren't actually that complicated for Manchin. Listen to the full conversation.
He calls West Virginia a "deep red state," where voters are "on the alert for anything they can point to as him being in league with the Democrats." Plus there's the coal industry, which his own family has close ties to today (although Ward notes that his family also knows the negative side, as his uncle died in a mine disaster decades ago).
"One of the things that's kind of maddening is that the kind of investments that this would make in the clean energy transition are things that West Virginia desperately needs right now as the coal industry continues a really cyclical decline in our state," Ward says.
Others are taking note of this as well. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which represents West Virginia coal miners, has urged Manchin to revisit his opposition to the package.
The union published a statement on Monday, outlining several provisions that it argues would have meaningfully helped its members and their communities. Those include:
- Language that would extend the current fee paid by coal companies to fund benefits for Black Lung victims. The union says that fee will be cut in half, shifting the burden from companies to taxpayers.
- Language that would provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields that would employ thousands of miners who have lost their jobs. The union says while it's ready to supply the workforce, those jobs are now at risk.
- Language that would — for what the union says is the first time — penalize "outlaw employers" that prohibit workers from forming a union on the job. Without this kind of provision, the union says "there is no path forward for millions of workers to exercise their rights at work."
“For those and other reasons, we are disappointed that the bill will not pass," the statement says. "We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities."
Notably, the statement opens by describing the "long and friendly" relationship the group has had with the senator (in fact, the union named him an honorary member last year). And it closes by reiterating support for the timely passage of voting rights legislation, urging Manchin and all senators to "do whatever it takes to accomplish that."
"Anti-democracy legislators and their allies are working every day to roll back the right to vote in America," it adds. "Failure by the Senate to stand up to that is unacceptable and a dereliction of their duty to the Constitution.”
Without Manchin or any Republicans on board, Build Back Better appears doomed in the evenly-divided Senate.
Still, Democrats plan to bring the bill to a vote early next year. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter to Senate Democrats on Monday saying that "the Senate will, in fact, consider the Build Back Better Act, very early in the new year so that every Member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television."
As NPR's Brian Naylor put it: "The reference to television was a not-so-veiled jab at Manchin, who announced he would vote no on the measure during an interview on Fox News Sunday."