Start your day here: COVID drives up U.S. death rate; why test kits are so scarce; migrants are trapped at the Polish border

Published December 22, 2021 at 8:10 AM EST
A migrant squats for a meal at a transport center on the Belarusian-Polish border.
Andrei Pokumeiko/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
Migrants receive food outside the transport and logistics center near the Bruzgi border point on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on Nov. 22.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

The U.S. death rate: COVID sent the death rate soaring in 2020, prompting the biggest drop in life expectancy seen in decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

COVID-19 testing: With omicron tearing through the U.S. and families planning for holiday gatherings, demand for at-home test kits is soaring. Here's why the supply is so short.

Belarusian migrants: Thousands have spent months trapped in miserable conditions on the Polish border, caught in a political standoff between Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and the European Union.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, the National Hockey League is pausing games because of omicron's spread.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

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

Politics

Incoming New York Mayor Eric Adams says he will ignore calls to end solitary confinement

Posted December 22, 2021 at 11:56 AM EST

Incoming New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) says he will ignore city council members who are calling on him to reverse his decision to continue solitary confinement as a punishment in the city's jail systems.

Adams' stance and announcement stands in contrast to the work outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio has done on the issue; the de Blasio administration pledged to end solitary confinement by the end of his term on Dec. 31.

But Adams said last week he will resume the practice when he comes into office, though has not provided significant detail on his plans.

“They better enjoy that one-day reprieve because January 1st they are going back into segregation if they committed a violent act,” Adams said of inmates at a press conference on Dec. 16, according to the Gothamist.

On Tuesday, 30 members of the city council sent a letter to Adams saying human rights groups and mental health experts have determined that solitary confinement is a form of torture and urged him to reverse his position.

"New York City will never torture our way to safety," the members wrote in the letter.

But Adams said yesterday that his comments were taken out of context and that he supports "punitive segregation" for violent inmates, reporter Ben Max tweeted. "If you are violent you must be removed from population," Adams said.

"I wore a bulletproof vest for 22 years and protected the people of this city. And when you do that, then you have the right to question me on safety and public and safety matters," Adams said on the difference between himself and the city council members who signed the letter.

Several studies have researched the detrimental effects of solitary confinement on people who are incarcerated. One study from Cornell University published last year showed that the risk of death within five years post-incarceration was 60% higher for people who had been in solitary confinement even just for a few days.

Economy

The U.S. avoids a holiday shipping crisis despite supply-chain woes, Biden says

Posted December 22, 2021 at 11:36 AM EST
Shipping containers on a freight train at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
A freight train carries cargo shipping containers in the El Paso Sector along the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this month.

President Biden said Wednesday that despite problems in the global supply chain, a crisis in shipping ahead of Christmas has not materialized.

“Packages are moving, gifts are being delivered. Shelves are not empty,” Biden said, citing statistics about retail inventory and on-shelf availability at a meeting with CEOs and his advisers on supply chain issues. (Biden and two of his advisers attended in person — the CEOs, cabinet officials and others attended via zoom.)

Biden said that actions his administration has taken have helped unstick bottlenecks in the shipping systems.

FedEx SEO Fred Smith, the CEO said supply chain issues are not all solved, but said his company was optimistic about moving products during the peak season.

Chris Connor, the head of the American Association of Port Authorities, said there had been “a significant cultural and operational model change” to help smooth the snarls, such as extended hours at U.S. ports, incentives for loading and unloading at less-busy times, and pop-up container yards.

Dinosaurs

A fossilized dinosaur egg shows a link to modern birds

Posted December 22, 2021 at 10:27 AM EST

A new study examining an embryo from a fossilized dinosaur egg has provided further evidence supporting the notion that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.

The embryo fossil was discovered in rocks in east China around the year 2000 and housed in the Yingliang Stone Natural History Museum in Fujian Province, where it was dubbed "Baby Yingliang."

Estimated to be 27 cm long from head to tail, the creature lies inside a 17-cm-long egg. Paleontologists believe it belongs to a toothless theropod dinosaur, or oviraptorosaur, dating back 72 to 66 million years, within the Cretaceous Period.

"The embryo fossil 'Baby Yingliang' was discovered in the late Cretaceous stratum located at the southern part of east China's Jianxi Province. The embryo we previously found was not very complete. However, after three years of detailed study by the joint efforts of Chinese, British and Canadian research teams, the embryo we found this time is the best-preserved dinosaur embryo fossil so far," said Liu Liang, curator of the Fujian Provincial Yingliang Stone Natural History.

Oviraptorosaurs are a group of theropod dinosaurs with feathers. They were found in the Cretaceous stratum of Asia and North America and were closely connected with modern birds.

Space

The James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful of its kind, is set to launch on Christmas

Posted December 22, 2021 at 10:01 AM EST
A yellow telescope stands in a large room as people in white protective outfits work on equipment nearby.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope November 2, 2016 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The launch of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope — the most powerful space telescope ever — has been delayed by a day to at least Dec. 25, in a Christmas consolation prize for astronomers and space geeks everywhere.

The approximately $10 billion telescope has been waiting at a facility in French Guiana for a rocket to take it to the skies on Friday. NASA announcedTuesday that it would delay the launch by at least one day, citing adverse weather conditions.

It is now targeting the morning of Dec. 25, as early as possible in the window between 7:20 a.m. and 7:52 a.m. ET. NASA says it will issue another weather forecast tonight to confirm that plan.

The delay is a relatively minor one, in the scheme of things.

After all, planning for the telescope began more than 30 years ago, and construction started in 2004. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has reported, its launch was delayed so many times over the years that many astronomers feared it would never happen.

"I can't imagine that most of the astronomical community isn't actually just waiting to see it launch and really, really hopes that it works," Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, the director of the Las Cumbres Observatory, told Greenfieldboyce. "Because if it works, it will be a really spectacular scientific instrument."

So what's all the hype about? The powerful telescope should be able to detect infrared light from galaxies so far away that the light from them has been traveling through space for, basically, nearly the entire history of the universe.

Scientists plan to use it to look back in time at the formation of the universe's earliest galaxies. That's key to allowing them to study how the solar system evolved and analyze the gasses of distant planets to look for indications of habitability.

As Greenfieldboyce put it, it's like spending years trying to learn about your childhood only to be handed a treasure trove of baby pictures.

As we prepare for liftoff, take a moment to catch up on some of NPR's stellar coverage of the telescope:

Coronavirus

Chicago and Boston are the latest cities to require proof of vaccination in indoor settings

Posted December 22, 2021 at 9:23 AM EST
A person walks up the stairs into a building, as a line of people wait outside by neon green traffic cones.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
People line up to get tested for COVID-19 at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Mass., on Monday.

Residents of Chicago and Boston will soon be required to show proof of full vaccination in order to enter indoor spaces like gyms, restaurants and entertainment venues, in the latest example of cities tightening public health rules to combat the spread of the omicron variant.

The Chicago Department of Public Health announcedTuesdaythat beginning Jan. 3, the city will require everyone ages 5 and up to be fully vaccinated in order to access indoor dining, fitness and recreation venues. They must present either their vaccination card, a photocopy of it, a digital record or a printed record from their vaccine provider.

"To put it simply, if you have been living vaccine-free, your time is up," Mayor Lori Lightfoot wrote on Twitter. "If you wish to live life as w/the ease to do the things you love, you must be vax'd. This health order may pose an inconvenience to the unvaccinated, and in fact it is inconvenient by design."

The order will remain in effect until city officials have determined the threat of COVID-19 to public health has "diminished significantly," she added.

It comes as Chicago is seeing its highest number of hospitalizations since last winter's surge and its highest rate of deaths in months, Lightfoot said, adding that a post-holiday surge in cases is expected.

The city is averaging nearly 1,800 cases per day, up 79% from just a week ago, according to member station WBEZ. Dr. Allison Arwady, the city's top public health official, predicted it will break its single-day new case record in the next week or so.

"We didn’t want it to get to this point, but given the situation we find ourselves in, we have no choice," Lightfoot tweeted.

As for the fine print: The order defines "fully vaccinated" as two weeks after either one shot of a single-dose vaccine or the second shot of an mRNA vaccine series. Proof of vaccination is not required for employees of such businesses, but masks and weekly negative COVID-19 tests are. The order does not apply to places like houses of worship, grocery stores, schools and locations such as residential or office buildings and the airport.

In announcing its decision, Chicago's health department said the order was driven in part by the omicron variant and is in line with existing requirements in large cities like New York and Los Angeles.

Los Angeles started requiring proof of vaccination at a wide range of businesses in November. New York has required proof of vaccination for indoor settings since early August, and earlier this month announced a vaccine mandate for private companies that is set to take effect on Monday.

Chicago's announcement came one day after Boston said a similar policy would take effect in mid-January.

Under the new order, people must show proof of vaccination in order to get into indoor restaurants, bars, nightclubs, fitness centers and entertainment venues (here's the full list of settings).

It will roll out to different age groups between January and May. Beginning Jan. 15, people ages 12 and up will have to show proof of one dose, which will change to proof of full vaccination one month later. Children between the ages of 5-11 must show proof of one dose starting March 1, everyone ages five and up must show proof of full vaccination beginning May 1.

The order doesn't currently require booster shots, but the city says that is subject to change based on public health data and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. It applies to patrons as well as employees of those businesses.

Mayor Michelle Wu said Boston is also tightening its vaccine requirement for city employees.

City workers have until now been allowed to avoid vaccination by submitting to weekly tests, but will no longer be able to do so unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption, member stationWGBH explains. Citing Wu, it adds that 90 percent of Boston's nearly 18,000-strong workforce has already been vaccinated.

GBH also reports that several Massachusetts cities and towns appear to be following Boston's lead and are expected to announce indoor vaccine requirements imminently.

Other cities are bringing back or tightening public health measures as omicron spreads.

The mayor of Washington, D.C., for example, reinstated its mask mandate effective today — exactly a month after she lifted it — as the city reports consecutive days of record-breaking new infections. And the city council of Oakland, Calif., passed an ordinance on Tuesday requiring proof of vaccination for many indoor businesses, effective Feb. 1.

Coronavirus

Why are COVID tests still so hard to come by?

Posted December 22, 2021 at 8:57 AM EST
People in warm clothes and face masks line up on a city street at night.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
People line up to get tested for COVID-19 outside at a firehouse in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

While COVID tests in many European countries are inexpensive and easy to find, Americans are facing long lines at testing sites and empty pharmacy shelves as the country enters another massive wave of infections.

In New York City, getting tested used to mean a quick trip in and out of a testing center. Now, getting tested in the city can require waiting in a line that snakes around the block, reports NPR's Hansi Lo Wang from Harlem.

To respond to the surge in cases caused by the highly-contagious omicron variant, President Joe Biden announced yesterday plans to buy half a billion at-home COVID tests and distribute them to Americans by mail beginning next month.

But will those tests be sufficient to shore up the U.S.'s spotty testing infrastructure? Experts aren't convinced.

NPR science correspondent Yuki Noguchi joined A Martínez on Morning Edition to dig into why tests are so hard to find when Americans need them most.

She says part of the answer lies in the public's often rubber band-like demand for testing that spikes during COVID waves but falls away when case numbers are down.

Listen here or continue below for Noguchi'sexplainer on what's causing the bottleneck and how much the government's plans will really help.

On why testing is so scarce in the U.S. but widely available in some places in Europe:

Noguchi: You know, the short answer is we focused more on vaccine developments and treatments early in the pandemic and less on testing. So the U.S. government was late in authorizing at-home tests to be sold here. Now, recently, more companies got the green light to do so, but those test makers have to set up factories to make them. And so there's this lag. Another problem is the rapidly shifting demand for these tests. You know, demand spikes during these surges, but falls off a cliff when COVID cases are down. And that makes it extremely hard for test-makers to plan. So, for example, Abbott, one of the earliest test makers authorized to sell here, actually shut down one of its factories early last summer, only then to have to rush back to set it up again once the delta surges came through.

On whether the Biden administration's plans will easee the country's testing shortage overall:

Public health advocates have long argued that the federal government should have played a much bigger role in getting these tests made and distributed. As a big player, they have the power to negotiate lower prices on a huge number of tests, and that's exactly what you need. ... President Biden said next month a website will start distributing half a billion tests to households that request them. And frankly, the sooner the better, because time is very much of the essence. Other states have already tried this approach, like New Hampshire and Ohio and Massachusetts, and they run out, sometimes within hours. So while a half a billion test sounds like a lot, it's actually less than two per American.

On whether the focus should be on other kinds of testing until at-home tests become more widely available:

There are these PCR tests. These are the kinds of tests that are processed in labs, and they tend to be more sensitive, more accurate. And there are now mail-in versions or rapid versions of these PCR tests that are coming to market. But these are also more expensive and can take up to three days to get results. So given how quickly this new omicron variant spreads, that's a huge downside.

So essentially, you're looking at each test having their own pros and cons, and experts say we need to test smarter, as in, we need to use the limited supply of tests we have for the right situation. So if you're sick and you need to confirm a COVID diagnosis to figure out your course of treatment, you need one of those lab tests. But if you're not symptomatic and you just need to know whether it's safe to visit grandma, go to work, ideally, you'd have one of these at-home tests that gives you a result in 15 minutes.

On if the U.S. is facing shortages of PCR tests like it did during last winter's surge:

That was a real issue last year, shortages of plastic pipette tips and chemical reagents were a problem. But today, the shortage primarily seems to be over manpower. Not only do you have a lot of people wanting or needing to get these tests, labs, like hospitals, are having huge staffing problems, and some of these drive-up test sites have closed down when testing demand was low. So you know, that is also contributing to some of the bottlenecks here.

COVID-19

Israel is set to offer 4th shot of COVID-19 vaccine in coming days

Posted December 22, 2021 at 8:22 AM EST

Israel is set to become the first country to offer the fourth shot of the COVID-19 vaccine to older populations, as the nation's health officials anticipate an outbreak of the omicron variant.

While Israel was far ahead of most other countries in vaccinating a majority of its citizens when vaccines first became available and was the first country to offer a booster shot to the general population, their current vaccination rate is now lower than other nations. According to the New York Times tracker, 65% of Israelis have received both COVID vaccines and 46% have one booster.

NPR's Daniel Estrin reports that Israeli health officials are recommending a fourth shot for people 60 and older, those who are medical workers and people with compromised immune systems.

The next round of the vaccine is still pending approval but is expected to be cleared in the coming days.

Coronavirus

COVID sent last year's U.S. death rate soaring, especially among people of color

Posted December 22, 2021 at 8:09 AM EST
A person walks by a fence covered in colorful drawings and a sign reading "Naming the lost/Nombrando a los fallecidos."
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
Memorials hang from the front gate of Greenwood Cemetery during an event and procession organized by Naming the Lost Memorials to remember and celebrate the lives of those killed by the Covid-19 pandemic in June in New York City.

A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report says that the death rate in the U.S. went up dramatically in 2020 compared to the previous year, prompting the biggest drop in life expectancy seen in decades.

As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, many of those deaths were caused directly or indirectly by COVID-19 — but the U.S. was lagging behind other developed countries in health outcomes long before the pandemic hit.

Hear her report on Morning Edition or get details below.

Fast facts:

  • The overall mortality rate of the U.S. went up by nearly 17% last year.
  • That corresponds to a drop in life expectancy of 1.8 years.
  • All age groups 15 and older saw a rise in deaths last year.
  • Ten percent of all deaths were due to COVID-19, making it the third largest cause of death in the country.
  • There was also a rise in deaths from other causes, like heart disease, stroke, and unintentional injuries like drug overdoses.
  • The increase in mortality was twice as high for the Black population, and three times as high for the Hispanic population.
  • The drop in U.S. life expectancy is the largest single-year decrease in more than 75 years.

Expert analysis:

Bob Anderson, chief of the CDC's mortality statistics branch, says that while a large number of deaths are "directly attributable" to COVID-19, many are also indirectly related.

For example, he notes that the virus can cause circulatory complications and therefore could be behind some of the deaths from things like strokes. And he says drug overdose deaths had started to climb at the end of 2019, with the increase getting steeper the following year. Anderson says the pandemic likely had an impact, even if it wasn't the sole driver of that climb.

José Manuel Aburto, a demographer at the University of Oxford, found that among 29 developed countries, American males experienced the biggest drop in life expectancy last year.

"Given the impact of the pandemic specifically in the U.S., it is not surprising that we see this drop in life expectancy," he said. "What I do find very surprising is the magnitude of the loss."

Dr. Steven Woolf, the director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, notes that the U.S. has historically had worse health outcomes than other rich countries, in large part because of socioeconomic disparities and lack of access to care.

Those factors have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and reflected in its disproportionate impact on underprivileged communities, he explains.

Woolf notes that while this is a longer-term problem to fix, the pandemic is still raging. In the short term, he says, we can bring down deaths by following public health guidelines.

Recommended reading:

International

NPR met some of the Middle Eastern migrants trapped at the Belarus-Poland border

Posted December 22, 2021 at 8:01 AM EST
People wearing coats sit on the floor of a warehouse, on pallets or in small green tents.
Andrei Pokumeiko/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
Migrants stay in the transport and logistics centre near the Bruzgi border point on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on November 22, 2021.

Hundreds of migrants are still trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland, essentially caught in a political standoff between Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and the European Union.

The migrants are mostly from Middle Eastern countries, and are trying to make their way to the European Union — in particular, Germany — in order to seek asylum. But they've been forcibly turned away by Polish border guards, meaning they either get stuck in Belarus or try to sneak into the bloc through a dangerous forest area in the border zone.

Here's more context on how the border crisis began and what's at stake for those involved.

NPR's Charles Maynes spoke to Morning Edition from Minsk, Belarus, where he's met some of the migrants. Listen to his reporting or read highlights below.

How did the migrants get here?

The migrants include many families with children, coming from places like Iraq and Syria and certain African countries. Over the fall, they started to hear on social media and through word of mouth that they could get a visa to Belarus and, from there, make their way to the EU. Many paid large sums of money — as much as $4,000 per person — only to get turned away at the Polish border.

Polish authorities are holding the line on immigration and refusing to process asylum seekers, and the EU is backing them up on that, as Maynes explaines.

He says everyone he spoke to had harrowing experiences in "The Junge," the nickname for the swampy forest in the border zone where migrants have tried to find ways into the EU. One of those people said she spent four days hungry in the wilderness before her health started giving out. And at least a dozen people have died trying to make the journey so far.

What are the conditions like in Belarus?

Some 700 people are living in a large warehouse, down from an initial several thousand. Maynes says many have gone home, but the rest have nowhere to go.

He describes conditions as "primitive," but safer inside the warehouse than outdoors. People sleep on makeshift beds, wooden pallets and mattresses on the floor. Most cooking and washing takes place outside, but not all of the migrants have proper winter gear for the frigid weather.

"In fact, a lot of people seem to be sick and coughing, which of course is of concern for obvious reasons given the pandemic, but it's not nearly as crowded as it once was," Maynes says. "My sense was that fundamentally people are grateful to be out of the cold but not happy with where they are, which is stuck, and under guard by Belarusian troops."

What is Lukashenko saying?

Belarus' authoritarian leader visited the warehouse a few weeks ago, and insisted that the people there are free to try to make their way to Europe — though Maynes says he was told "several times" that some migrants have been forcibly deported by Belarusian authorities.

"In the meantime, the tactic seems to be showing the press how well Belarus is treating these people," Maynes says. "The day I showed up they were constructing a makeshift school for children."

Volunteers are helping out as best they can: The Red Cross in Belarus is giving out one free meal of porridge a day, and a mobile food truck is available for those who still have any cash to spend.

What are the migrants saying?

Maybes says he heard constantly that there's virtually no way for migrans to charge their phones. That means that they can't read the news or chat with friends or family, so rumors and misinformation are running rampant.

"In fact, the biggest one is that the EU or Germany will suddenly let them all in on Christmas Day," Maynes explains.

He says that's unlikely. But he's heard from several migrants that if nothing changes soon, they're ready to go back into the forest to try to make the dangerous journey across the border.