Start your day here: Steps to protect against omicron; an empty holiday Holy Land; Putin's big press conference

Published December 23, 2021 at 8:15 AM EST
A visitor walks in the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
A faithful visits the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday. After a near-total pandemic lockdown last year, Bethlehem hoped for a joyous Christmas this year, but Israel closed again in November after a case of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus was discovered.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

Fighting off omicron: The virulent variant threatens to throw a wrench into holiday plans. These are the steps we can all take to protect ourselves and others.

An empty Holy Land: The little town of Bethlehem had hoped for a more joyful season this year, but the Holy Land is closed to international visitors for a second Christmas in a row due to the omicron variant.

Putin's marathon press conference: The Russian president's annual question-and-answer session can run for four hours or more. This year, with Russian troops at the Ukraine border, the world may pay closer attention.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, he FDA authorizes the first antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 at home.

The Morning Edition live blog will take a break for the holidays, starting tomorrow. See you back here Jan. 3!

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Rachel Treisman, Carol Ritchie and Chris Hopkins)

Just In

Writer Joan Didion has died at 87

Posted December 23, 2021 at 12:28 PM EST
Joan Didion, wearing large sunglasses and a cream-colored jacket, looks off-camera.
Kathy Willens/AP
Author Joan Didion pictured in her New York apartment on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007.

American novelist, journalist and essayist Joan Didion has died at age 87.

Knopf publicist Paul Bogaards confirmed that she died Thursday at her home in New York from complications of Parkinson's Disease.

The best-selling writer began describing her home state, California, for magazines in the 1960s and broadened her subjects over the decades in nonfiction, fiction and films, as NPR's Susan Stamberg put it. Read her remembrance.

Plus, listen here to Didion's interviews on NPR's Fresh Air over the years.

The Royals

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle share first photo of daughter Lilibet on their holiday card, and announce giving for paid leave

Posted December 23, 2021 at 12:02 PM EST
Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle speak during the 2021 Global Citizen Live festival at the Great Lawn, Central Park on September 25, 2021 in New York City.
AFP via Getty Images
Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle speak during the 2021 Global Citizen Live festival at the Great Lawn, Central Park on September 25, 2021 in New York City.

In their 2021 Christmas card released Thursday, Prince Harry and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle announced they were donating to several charities that support families, including refugee families from Afghanistan.

Some of the charities they supported include Team Rubicon, which has helped Afghan families resettle in the U.S., Paid Leave for All and the Marshall Plan for Moms.

"As we look forward to 2022, we have made donations on your behalf to several organizations that honor and protect families — from those being relocated from Afghanistan, to American families in need of paid parental leave," they wrote in the card.

The card's photo features the couple, and their children Archie and Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor, who they call "Lili." It's the first time a photo of their newborn daughter has been released.

The photograph was taken by photographer Alexi Lubomirski, who has photographed the couple before.


This 6th grader gave his classmate the Heimlich and saved a woman from a house fire in one day

Posted December 23, 2021 at 11:43 AM EST

An 11-year-old boy from Oklahoma is being honored for his heroism after he saved a choking classmate and rescued a woman from a house fire in one day.

Davyon Johnson was named an honorary member of both the sheriff's office and police force, and recognized by the board of education in his hometown of Muskogee, a city about 50 miles southeast of Tulsa.

"Davyon performed the Heimlich maneuver on a classmate on December 9 and that evening helped a woman from her house that was on fire," the Muskogee County Sheriff's Office wrote on Facebook last week.

Muskogee Public Schools posted a series of photos showing Johnson posing with his various awards and certificates.

Johnson performed an "abdominal thrust" — also known as the Heimlich maneuver — on a classmate at the 6th & 7th Grade Academy at Ben Franklin, according to the EnidNews & Eagle.

Principal Latricia Dawkins told the newspaper that a student was trying to loosen the cap of his water bottle with his mouth when he choked and stumbled into a nearby classroom, where Johnson rushed over to help.

“Davyon immediately sprinted over and did the Heimlich maneuver,” Dawkins said. “From the account of the witnesses, when he did it the bottle cap popped out.”

Johnson told the newspaper he had learned the maneuver on YouTube and encouraged others to learn it in case of emergencies.

Later that same day, Johnson saved a woman from a burning house. He said he saw her on her porch and crossed the street to help her get into her truck and leave.

"I thought 'Oh, she's not moving fast enough,'" he told Tulsa'sNews on 6. "So I ran across the street and helped her to her truck."

Dawkins told the News & Eagle that Johnson is well-liked by his classmates and teachers, calling him "a kind soul" and "a dual hero."

“He has always indicated that he wants to be an EMT,” she said. “So he got to put that desire into action and immediately saved that young man.”

The year in pictures

Photographers from NPR member stations share their memorable images of 2021

Posted December 23, 2021 at 11:38 AM EST

The images representing 2021 span a range of emotions, from uplift to outrage to heartache.

The year brought a new president and a Capitol riot, a rampaging virus and life-saving vaccines. Not to mention wildfires, controversial trials, stories of human achievement and of tragedy.

NPR asked photographers from member stations around the country to send in their most memorable shots. You can see them all here, and asmall sample below.

Irene Felsch, 7, of Kirkwood, Miss., reacts as resident physician Riti Chokshi (right) administers the COVID-19 vaccine Nov. 9 at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri.
Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Irene Felsch, 7, of Kirkwood, Miss., reacts as resident physician Riti Chokshi (right) administers the COVID-19 vaccine Nov. 9 at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri.

In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 through 11. Brian Munoz of St. Louis Public Radio was there as 7-year-old Irene Felsch got her jab.

Kiersten Vicknair celebrates the inauguration of Biden and Harris in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20.
Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist
Tyrone Turner
Kiersten Vicknair celebrates the inauguration of Biden and Harris in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20.

Washington, D.C., braced for violence on Inauguration Day, but the district was eerily quiet instead. DCist photographer Tyrone Turner caught this image from the streets near the White House.

Fire crews manage a backfire in Sly Park, Calif., on Aug. 23 in the fight against the Caldor Fire, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres in California over the course of more than two months this fall.
Andrew Nixon/CapRadio
Fire crews manage a backfire in Sly Park, Calif., on Aug. 23 in the fight against the Caldor Fire.

The Caldor Fire first brokeoutin August in El Dorado County, and went on to burn hundreds of thousands of acres in California over more than two months this fall. CapRadio photographer Andrew Nixon sent us this image.

Ke' Elronn Hatley grew up racing horses in south Oak Cliff in Dallas with his 10 siblings. The Hatley family was one of the first African American families to race quarter horses in Texas.
Keren Carrión/KERA News
Ke' Elronn Hatley grew up racing horses in south Oak Cliff in Dallas with his 10 siblings.

The Hatley family was one of the first African American families to race quarter horses in Texas. Keren Carrión of KERA captured some of this lost chapter of Texas history.


James Franco admits to sleeping with students from his acting school after years of silence

Posted December 23, 2021 at 10:56 AM EST
James Franco, wearing a tuxedo and bowtie, stands in front of a step-and-repeat.
Jordan Strauss/Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
In this Jan. 7, 2018 file photo, James Franco arrives at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif.

In a rare and wide-ranging interview, James Franco acknowledged he slept with students of the acting school he co-owned, saying he believed their encounters to be consensual despite the striking imbalance of power.

The Oscar-nominated actor has faced several allegations of sexual misconduct since 2018 — which he denied at the time — and earlier this year settled a class-action lawsuit led by two former students who claimed they were sexually exploited and victims of fraud at the now-closed school.

Franco addressed those allegations and his struggles with sex addiction, among other topics, in an interview with The Jess Cagle Show, which posted several clips of the conversation to YouTube on Wednesday ahead of its full release on Thursday afternoon.

"There were people who were upset with me and I needed to listen," Franco said when asked why he had been silent until now. “I’ve just been doing a lot of work and I guess I’m pretty confident in saying, four years? There were some issues that I had to deal with that were also related to addiction. And so I’ve really used my recovery background to kind of start examining this and changing who I was.”

A brief bit of context:

The 2019 lawsuit alleged that Franco and two other men sexually exploited female students at Studio 4, a New York- and Los Angeles-based acting school Franco founded in 2014 (he taught acting there and also at the collegiate level).

The plaintiffs, Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, sought to represent a class of more than 100 former female students. They alleged the school set out to "create a steady stream of young women to objectify and exploit," as well as "circumvent California's 'pay for play' regulations," which prohibit making actors pay for auditions. They told NPR in 2019 that they were promised that as paying students, they would be offered opportunities to audition for roles in Franco's projects.

Part of the complaint involved a class called Sex Scenes, which required students to audition and pay an extra $750. Tither-Kaplan said she assumed the class would teach her how to navigate sex scenes professionally, but that she found its goal to be more for students to "get naked and do sex scenes and not complain and push the envelope."

Franco denied the lawsuit's allegations at the time, with his attorney also saying he would seek damages from the plaintiffs and their lawyers "for filing this scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit." The women dropped their claims in Feb. 2021 after the parties reached a preliminary settlement, and Franco officially agreed to settle the suit for $2.2 million in late June.

"I didn't sleep with anybody in that particular class, but over the course of my teaching I did sleep with students, and that was wrong," Franco said in one video clip. "But ... it's not why I started the school, and I wasn't the person that selected the people to be in the class. So it wasn't a master plan on my part, but yes, there were certain instances where ... I was in a consensual thing with a student and I shouldn't have been."

Cagle pushed back, asking Franco how he could not have been aware of the power imbalance between students and their teacher, a very famous actor.

"I suppose at the time my thinking was if it's consensual, OK," Franco said. "Of course I knew, you know, talking to other people, other teachers or whatever, like, yeah, it’s probably not a cool thing. At the time I was not clear-headed... so I guess it just comes down to, my criteria was, like, if this is consensual I think it's cool, we're all adults."

Read below for more details from the interview.

Franco also said the class was provocatively titled, saying it was about dating and relationships and should have been called something more along the lines of "contemporary romance."

At another point, he acknowledged he had "let a lot of people down," like his students, the Oscars and his coworkers on various movies. Franco talked about being overworked and approaching his breaking point while juggling a Broadway show, movie filming and teaching at four Los Angeles schools. A year before the misconduct allegations emerged, he said, one of his agents staged an intervention about him being a workaholic.

He talked about struggles with addiction, first to alcohol and then to sex. He said after he got sober at the age of 17, he sought validation from his professional success and then with attention from women. The problem, he said, is that "there's never enough."

Franco acknowledged he wasn't faithful in relationships, saying he cheated on "everyone" before his current girlfriend. He said his sponsor had suggested that infidelity and dishonesty could harm his sobriety but wasn't concerned about "whatever happens between two consenting adults" while single. Franco said he used that as "an excuse to just hook up all over the place."

“It was like, ‘Well, we’re being honest here, right,’ and like you said, completely blind to power dynamics or anything like that, but also completely blind to people’s feelings,” he said, adding that his behavior reached a point where he was "hurting everybody."

He also spoke about his longtime friend and collaborator, Seth Rogen, who said earlier this year that he did not plan to work with Franco again in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations.

"I love Seth Rogen," Franco said. "I worked with him for 20 years, we didn't have one fight ... He was my absolute closest work friend, collaborator, we just gelled. And what he said is true, we aren't working together right now and we don't have any plans to work together."

He said that while Rogen's comments were hurtful, he understood that Rogen had to answer for him because he himself was silent. He added that that's another reason he wanted to speak up.

"I don't want Seth or my brother or anyone to have to answer for me anymore," he said.

Four are injured in an explosion and fire at an ExxonMobil plant in Texas

Posted December 23, 2021 at 10:25 AM EST

Four people were injured after an explosion occurred and a fire broke out overnight at an ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

No fatalities were reported as a result of what the office called a “major industrial accident” at the oil refinery.

In a statement issued around 6:30 a.m. local time, ExxonMobil said it was still trying to extinguish the fire at the complex and that air monitoring didn’t show any adverse impacts along the fence line.

“Our first priority is people in the community and in our facilities,” the statement said. “We deeply regret any disruption or inconvenience that this incident may have caused the community.”

Refinery manager Rohan Davis said everyone was accounted for and the four people who were injured are in stable condition, KXAN producer Ricky Garcia reported.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it was sending agency personnel to the scene.

Just In

The FDA has authorized the Merck COVID pill for home use — the second in two days

Posted December 23, 2021 at 9:52 AM EST

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the second antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 at home.

The medicine, called molnupiravir, from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is taken twice a day for five days. Merck says it will have 10 million packs available by the end of the month.

Read more here on the pills and how they work.

The agency authorized Pfizer’s Paxlovid treatment for COVID-19 yesterday.

“Today’s authorization provides an additional treatment option against the COVID-19 virus in the form of a pill that can be taken orally," said Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "Molnupiravir is limited to situations where other FDA-authorized treatments for COVID-19 are inaccessible or are not clinically appropriate and will be a useful treatment option for some patients with COVID-19 at high risk of hospitalization or death."

FDA didn't authorize molnupiravir for use in patients younger than 18 because the drug may interfere with bone and cartilage growth. The agency said the medicine is not recommended for use during pregnancy because animal studies suggested it could harm the fetus.

Food recalls

Fresh Express and Dole are recalling hundreds of salad products over listeria concerns

Posted December 23, 2021 at 9:43 AM EST

Check your fridge: Fresh Express and Dole Fresh Vegetables are recalling dozens of packaged salad products over possible listeria contamination and asking customers to throw them away immediately.

The two recalls appear to be unrelated, but in totality affect more than 400 products across dozens of states and two Canadian provinces.

Fresh Express announcedMonday that it was recalling some 225 varieties of salads that were produced at its Steamwood, Ill., facility and distributed to retailers in the Northeast and Midwest as well as parts of Canada. Dole followed suit on Wednesday with 180 product recalls and is temporarily suspending operations at its facilities in Bessemer City, N.C., and Yuma, Ariz., for cleaning and sanitation.

Both cited concerns of possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause listeria infections. Listeria is a foodborne bacterial illness that can be especially serious for pregnant people, those over 65 and others with weakened immune systems. Other individuals may experience short-term symptoms including high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Learn more here.

Here's what each company is saying, and which salad products they want you to toss.

The strain of bacteria found in a Fresh Express salad matched that of an outbreak that has sickened 10 people across 8 states since 2016

Fresh Express says the recall arose after the Michigan Department of Agriculture got a positive result for Listeria monocytogenes in a routine random sample test of a single package of salad mix that was manufactured at its Steamwood facility and had a use-by date of Dec. 8.

The strain of bacteria detected in that random sample matched the strain of a listeria outbreak that has sickened dozens of people across eight states, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Read on to see the states where these products were distributed.

The outbreak has been associated with 10 illnesses, 10 hospitalizations and one death spanning
these states:

  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia.

The illnesses began on dates ranging from July 26, 2016 to Oct. 19, 2021. The FDA is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local partners to investigate the outbreak.
"Our investigation is ongoing, and we will continue to communicate should additional products be implicated," said Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response.

The company has halted production at the Steamwood facility and recalled a variety of products that were made there. Those include a wide range of greens, lettuce mixes and packaged salads of various sizes. You can find the full list here (the "product codes" listed are located on the front of the packages, below the use-by date).

The recalled products were distributed to

  • Connecticut
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • North Dakota
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Wisconsin
  • Canadian provinces including Ontario and Manitoba.

Fresh Express says it has directed affected retailers to remove the recalled items from their shelves and stop any further shipments from distribution centers.
If you happen to have any of the products in your fridge, the FDA says you should throw them away and not consume them. It also recommends using "extra vigilance in cleaning and sanitizing" any surfaces that may have come into contact with these products, since listeria can survive in refrigerated temperatures and easily spread to other foods and surfaces.

For more information or to obtain a refund, you can call the Fresh Express Consumer Response Center at (800) 242-5472 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. ET.

Dole products from two facilities have also been associated with a strain believed to have caused more than a dozen illnesses since 2014

Dole says it's recalling all Dole-branded and private label packaged salads processed at its Bessemer City and Yuma production facilities over possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

It's also suspending operations at those facilities in order to conduct "an extensive cleaning and sanitation protocol."

Dole says a package of Dole-branded Garden Salad from Bessemer City and a package of shredded iceberg lettuce from Yuma were randomly sampled by Georgia and Michigan, respectively. They proved to be a genetic match with a strain of bacteria that the FDA and CDC believe is responsible for 16 listeria illnesses since 2014.

Dole is recalling some 177 products — ranging from containers of spinach, arugula and other greens to coleslaw and salad kits — made in the Bessemer City facility, and three types of shredded lettuce from the Yuma facility. Here's the full list.

Products affected by the recall have a "best if used by" date between Nov. 30 and Jan. 8, and can be identified using their product lot code at the top right corner of the package.

Recalled items from the Bessemer City facility were distributed in the states of

  • Alabama
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia

Products from the Yuma facility were distributed in the states of

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington

Dole is asking customers who bought these products to throw them away immediately and urging retailers to check their store shelves and warehouse inventories to confirm none of these items are available for purchase.
If you have questions, you can call the Dole Consumer Response Center at 800-356-3111 on weekdays between 5 a.m. and noon E.T.

Winter Olympics

Clap, but don't shout or cheer for athletes at the Beijing Winter Olympics, officials urge

Posted December 23, 2021 at 8:59 AM EST
A visitor runs past an Olympics sign at the Genting Snow Park, which will host events during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in northern China.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Getty Images AsiaPac
A visitor runs past an Olympics sign at the Genting Snow Park, which will host events during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in northern China.

Olympic officials with the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, set to start Feb. 4, are bracing for an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

In an effort to make the games as safe as possible as omicron rages, officials said at a press conference on Thursday that the athletic events might be a little quieter than usual: Precautions in the Olympic playbook for 2022 include encouraging people to clap rather than shout as they watch athletes compete.

"Avoid shouting, cheering and singing — show support or celebrate by clapping instead," officials wrote in the 83-page document outlining safety information for everyone involved in the Olympics process.

This is the second version of the playbook, updated Thursday with more safety information by the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee and Beijing 2022.

Several other pandemic precautions have already been in place for months, including limiting the audience at the games to people from mainland China and requiring a "closed-loop" environment, similar to the bubble that was created for the summer games in Tokyo. But with the omicron variant surging around the world, officials say positive COVID cases will be likely.

“A certain number of positive cases will become a high probability event,” Han Zirong, secretary-general of Beijing’s Winter Games organizing committee, said Thursday.


Vladimir Putin's marathon annual year-end press conference is under extra scrutiny today

Posted December 23, 2021 at 8:25 AM EST
Journalists sit in rows of seats facing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is sitting at a desk in front of a blue background, amplified on a screen to the right.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Journalists listen to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual news conference in Moscow on Thursday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is holding his annual year-end press conference in Moscow today. The event is always a big deal at home, but the world may be watching more closely this year — especially with more than 100,000 Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine.

NPR's Charles Maynes spoke to Morning Edition from Moscow about "The Big Press Conference," which he says is called that for a reason. Listen here or read on for details.

What usually happens?

The conference is promoted on news channels for weeks, with media outlets running countdown clocks that Maynes says cut live at the stroke of noon, regardless of whether Putin is on time. The conference stretches on for hours, and hundreds of journalists clamor to ask the president their questions.

Maynes says Putin usually makes a point of taking a few challenging questions from foreign correspondents — "which he usually bats away" — but most of the questions come from Russian journalists, often from smaller regional outlets. Those tend to be softballs, aimed at bringing Putin's attention to local problems and giving him, as Maynes puts it, "a chance to play the benevolent czar by solving them."

What's different this year?

Last year's event was online because of COVID-19. This year, it's a much smaller format. Just 500 journalists will be there, and each had to pass three negative PCR tests to participate.

And of course, there are the issues at hand, particularly between Russia and Ukraine.

"Russia is demanding from the U.S. and NATO security guarantees beginning with an end to NATO's expansion to Russia's borders and ending, really, with a redo of the post-Cold War world order," Maynes says. He notes Putin seems to be ratcheting up his rhetoric, and with thousands of troops converging at the border, many people are wondering whether this is a negotiation tactic or a sign of something much more alarming.

What does Putin have to gain?

Maynes says the optics are usually good for Putin, calling it "part of his carefully stage-managed image as the father of the nation." The length of the event showcases his stamina, and one of the big intrigues tends to be how long he will talk and whether he will break his record of four hours and 40 minutes.

Plus, the world gets to see journalists falling over themselves to talk to Putin, which Maynes says lends him a bit of a "rockstar persona." In terms of issues raised, the presser is an opportunity for Putin to hit back at the West on the global stage while also showing that he's in command of issues closer to home, from agriculture to industry. In that sense, Maynes says it's theater, but "instructive theater" at that.

What is he saying?

Early headlines out of Putin's appearance focus on his calls for the West to move quickly to meet Russia's demand for security guarantees, especially with talks between Russia and the U.S. set to take place next month.

"We want to ensure our security," Putin said. "We put it straight: there must be no further expansion of NATO eastward."

Read more here.

PLUS: The Biden administration has managed to rebuild some partnerships while facing continued challenges from Russia, Iran, China and other parts of the world. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has this look at Biden's foreign policy during his first year in office.


A primer on masks, boosters and tests to help you through the omicron holiday season

Posted December 23, 2021 at 8:14 AM EST
A woman wearing a KN95 mask hugs a person wearing a red and white Santa hat in a crowded airport.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
An arriving international passenger is embraced at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday.

The rapidly spreading omicron variant — now dominant in the U.S. — looks poised to throw a wrench into many peoples' holiday plans.

A new analysis by the University of Washington projects that the surge will peak by the end of January, and will likely infect more than 400,000 people a day in the U.S. at that point (far more than the 250,000 people infected per day at the peak of last winter's surge).

Some researchers estimate that most people who catch omicron won't get severely sick from it, though others doubt whether there's enough evidence yet to support that. They agree that even if the rate of people getting hospitalized and dying from omicron is lower, the sheer number of people catching the virus could still strain hospital systems nationwide, which are overwhelmed and understaffed.

There are steps that we can take, at the societal as well as individual level, to try to protect ourselves and others amidst the surge.

President Biden announced his plan for combatting a winter surge earlier this week, which includes sending support teams to struggling hospitals as well as a half-billion at-home test kits to people who want them. Some major cities are implementing indoor vaccine mandates, and other localities are giving out free rapid tests to their residents.

Here are some resources to check out as you make or change your winter plans:

Boosters: COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots are key to protecting against severe disease. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff just published a useful guide to how vaccines are working and what you need to know about the timing and efficacy of your booster dose. Read it here.

Masks: Because of how contagious omicron is, experts say now's the time to seriously up your mask game. They advise trading in your cloth mask for a high-filtration model, like a KN95, N95 or KF94 respirator. It's also crucial that your mask fit properly, with no gaps around your nose, cheeks or chin (luckily, there are some hacks you can follow to secure your surgical masks more snugly). NPR 's Maria Godoy walks us through where to buy these masks, how to get the best fit and when exactly to wear them. Read more here.

Rapid testing: Prior to the winter surge, people were mostly taking at-home tests once they developed symptoms. But, as Godoy told All Things Considered, experts now suggest using them as prevention. They advise taking the test an hour or two before heading out to your visit or event. A negative result can indicate you have a low chance of infecting someone else — but keep in mind, it can't tell you whether you'll be infectious the next day.

Of course, at-home tests are hard to come by these days (here's why). So if you've been boosted, are wearing a good mask and avoiding crowds, can you go forth with your holiday plans sans rapid test?

"You have to do your own risk calculation, and it's really personal," Godoy explains. For her, that means skipping her tickets to The Nutcracker so she can keep her plans to see her mom the following night.

If you do plan to see people in the coming days and weeks, here's how to go about it responsibly.


For a second Christmas, the Holy Land is closed to pilgrims because of COVID

Posted December 23, 2021 at 8:04 AM EST
a handful of visitors tour the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Christ, in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on Dec. 15.
Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images
a handful of visitors tour the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Christ, in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on Dec. 15.

The little town of Bethlehem usually teems with pilgrims this time of year, but the Holy Land is closed to international visitors for a second Christmas in a row due to the pandemic.

What are people missing? Husam Jubran, a veteran Palestinian tour guide from the town of Beit Sahour neighboring Bethlehem, took NPR to some of the sites associated with the birthplace of Jesus.

Beit Sahour is home to Shepherds’ Field, a site venerated since Byzantine times as the spot where the Gospel of Luke says angels appeared to shepherds and announced Jesus' birth. Two other sites nearby also claim to be Shepherds’ Field.

“If you want to go 100% archaeology, we can't prove,” says Jubran. “For people coming for religious purposes, it's not about, ‘Oh, prove it to me.’ It's about the faith.”

There are a lot of overlapping stories for a tour guide to tell in a Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as well as overlapping religious traditions. The site of Shepherds’ Field is also associated with the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible.

In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity is where Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, identified the birthplace of Jesus in the fourth century. Her original church was destroyed in the sixth century and rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, then later augmented by the Crusaders.

Architectural elements from each of those periods exist today, from the original floor mosaic of the earliest church to the red limestone pillars of the Justinian reconstruction and the Crusaders’ dazzling golden wall mosaics.

Downstairs is the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth: a cave. Jubran says it makes sense that Jesus’ manger would have been in a cave, where animals were kept in ancient times.

“When I travel in the West Bank, I go to some Palestinian villages, I see people till today living inside the caves, practicing what's been here for thousands of years,” Jubran says.

Israel’s entry ban on foreign visitors during the pandemic means there are none of the usual crowds at the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.

“When I was working — and I've been a guide for 20 years — I never came and found it empty,” Jubran says.

Inside the cave, we are alone.