What to know about COVID-19 as 2022 starts with more uncertainty

Published January 3, 2022 at 8:16 AM EST
 A health care worker conducts a test at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at the Dan Paul Plaza on Dec. 29 in Miami.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images North America
A health care worker conducts a test at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at the Dan Paul Plaza on Dec. 29 in Miami.

Good morning,

Here are some of the top stories we're following today:

Omicron spread: The COVID-19 variant is showing no signs of slowing yet. While cases are up, hospitalizations are not rising as fast, and vaccines are working to prevent severe disease. Meanwhile, schools and caregivers are grappling with how best to keep kids safe.

The Big Lie's foothold: A year after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Americans feel that democracy is in crisis. A new NPR/Ipsos poll also found that false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election persist.

Tips for 2022: NPR's Life Kit is bringing you 22 tips to help kick the new year off right, from breaking the cycle of self-criticism to spicing up your vegetables.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, the head of the Capitol Police reflects on what his force has learned in the year since the U.S. Capitol attack.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Danielle Nett)

High drama

21 people spent an icy night stranded midair in a New Mexico tramway

Posted January 3, 2022 at 12:12 PM EST

The first day of 2022 was a wild ride for a group of passengers of the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, a mountain funicular overlooking Albuquerque, N.M.

The 21 people were stuck in two tram cars starting around 10 p.m. MST on Friday, according to the Bernalillo County Fire Department.

The Associated Press reports that all 21 passengers were employees of either the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway or a mountaintop restaurant. Twenty people in one car were being ferried to the base of the mountain at the end of their workday, while one person stranded in another car had been heading up the mountain to provide overnight security.

Sandia Peak Tramway General Manager Michael Donovan told CNN affiliate KRQEthat the two cars got stuck after moisture and winds caused ice to form on the tramway. The cars are stocked with provisions like food, water and emergency heating blankets, he added.

Colleen Elvidge, one of the passengers, posted photos to Facebook showing people crammed together in a tram car, wearing jackets and metallic heat blankets.

"Been stuck in Tram since 9p ... rescue happening soon," she wrote.

Search and rescue crews used ropes to lower the trapped passengers onto the ground and helicopters to ferry them back to the tram's base. They evacuated 2-4 people at a time, even with high winds and poor visibility.

The fire department posted dramatic helmet-camera footage of the rescue process to its Facebook account, showing people hiking up the snow-covered slope to a waiting helicopter.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office said the final passenger was picked up around 4 p.m. local time on Saturday.

All of the passengers were offered medical evaluations, officials said, and no injuries were reported among passengers or members of the rescue teams.

"What an incredible effort by all involved!" the sheriff's office posted on Facebook. "Happy New Year, everyone is safe and we are grateful for the positive outcome."

The real winner

A hockey fan spotted a staffer's suspicious mole from the stands, saving his life

Posted January 3, 2022 at 11:37 AM EST
A woman wearing a blue knitted hat with ears and tails holds up a phone with a note in white text on a black background, reading: "The mole on the back of your neck is possibly cancerous. Please go see a doctor!"
Ted S. Warren/AP
Seattle Kraken fan Nadia Popovici poses for a photo before an NHL hockey game between the Kraken and the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday in Seattle, showing the text of her message to Hamilton on Oct. 23.

An NHL staffer had a cancerous mole removed after a fan of the opposing team spotted it from the stands and urged him to get it checked out. He now credits her with saving his life, and the teams are awarding her a scholarship for medical school this fall.

It all began on Oct. 23, at the Seattle Kraken's first-ever home game against the Vancouver Canucks, according to the league. Brian "Red" Hamilton, an assistant equipment manager for the Canucks, was clearing off the bench when a young woman seated nearby noticed a suspicious mole on the back of his neck.

Kraken fan and Takoma resident Nadia Popovici, 22, recognized the irregular mole from her time volunteering in hospitals (the 2019 University of Washington graduate plans to start medical school this fall). Wanting to warn Hamilton but wary of making him uncomfortable, she typed a note in large font on her phone and pressed it against the glass: "The mole on the back of your neck is possibly cancerous. Please go see a doctor!"

While Hamilton later said he initially "didn't give her the time of day," he asked his wife to take a look the next morning and she noted its weird shape. The team physician also didn't like the look of the mole, and removed it within days. A biopsy revealed malignant melanoma in situ 2, meaning the cancer was only on the outer layer of the skin — and was detected before it could become even more dangerous.

"She didn’t take me out of a burning car like the big stories, but she took me out of a slow fire, and then words out of the doctor’s mouth where if I ignored that for four to five years, I wouldn’t be here," he said at a press conference on Saturday.

Hamilton wanted to thank the person who had set the chain of events in motion, but didn't know her identity. So the Canucks posted a call-out on social media on Saturday, asking hockey fans to help Hamilton connect with "the woman he considers his hero."

"That evening, Oct. 23, and the message you showed me on your cell phone will forever be etched into my brain and has made a true life-changing difference for me and my family," Hamilton's letter reads. "Your instincts were right and that mole on the back of my neck was a malignant melanoma and thanks to your persistence and the quick work of our doctors, it is now gone."

He added that the focus shouldn't be on him, but instead the "incredible person taking the time to notice something concerning and then finding a way to point it out during the chaos of a hockey game."

The note took off on social media, but Popovici didn't immediately notice — the NHL says she was napping after her overnight volunteer shift on a suicide hotline. Her mom saw the post in a fan Facebook group and made the connection.

A man in a blue jacket stands in front of a clear divider, looking at a woman in a hockey jersey and blue knit hat sitting above him on the bleachers.
Ted S. Warren/AP
Seattle Kraken fan Nadia Popovici, center, looks toward Vancouver Canucks assistant equipment manager Brian "Red" Hamilton, left, at the end of an NHL hockey game on Saturday in Seattle.

Popovici — who goes to Kraken games with her stepfather's season tickets, according to theSeattle Times — had already been planning on attending Saturday night's game. But it was no ordinary hockey match.

Hamilton and Popovici had an emotional reunion before the game.

Video footage shared to Twitter shows them hugging and chatting about what happened, from Popovici's original discovery of the mole to Hamilton's far-reaching efforts to find her.

Popovici admitted that she was nervous to bring it up, and tried to catch Hamilton's attention at a moment when there weren't many onlookers. He told her that he was caught off guard by her note but moved by her persistence, and felt he owed it to her to act on it and get the mole checked out.

They also thanked each other profusely. Hamilton thanked Popovici for her life-changing efforts, and Popovici thanked his wife for taking a look and encouraging him to take it seriously.

Popovici also said she's been accepted to several medical schools and will start school in the fall, calling this experience a "pretty priceless" way to kick off that journey.

The NHL, however, did put a price tag on her heroism. The Krakens and Canucks partnered to award her a $10,000 scholarship, which they announced during the game as Popovici's stunned reaction was captured on camera.

As NHL.com has reported, Hamilton was especially shocked that Popovici had managed to even see the mole, since he was wearing a jacket with a radio attached to the back.

But you don't have to be a future medical student to spot melanoma, which is a serious form of skin cancer.

Experts say you should look for these features: asymmetry, border irregularity, color changes, diameter greater than 1/4 inch and evolving (or ABCDE). And here's more from NPR on how to apply sunscreen for maximum protection.


Former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid to lie in state next week

Posted January 3, 2022 at 11:19 AM EST
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Reid died last week at age 82.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 in Nevada. Reid died last week at age 82.

The late senator Harry Reid will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 12, congressional leaders announced Sunday. A titan of Congress for decades, Reid helped pass landmark legislation such as the Affordable Care Act and changed the way Congress approves presidential nominees.

Reid died Jan. 28 of pancreatic cancer at age 82.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the late Nevada Democrat will be honored with a formal arrival and departure ceremony next week. It will be limited to invite-only guests due to the pandemic, the leaders announced in a press release.

"It is my solemn honor as House Speaker to pay tribute to a legendary leader, a great American and my dear friend, Senator Harry Reid,”Pelosi said.

Schumer said Reid will be remembered as "one of history’s most devoted fighters for the people of Nevada and the poor and middle class throughout the country," adding he'd greatly miss Reid, whom he called a dear friend and mentor.

Reid retired from Congress in 2016 after serving over 30 years. Deeply proud to be from the tiny Nevada town of Searchlight, he became known for his bluntness and D.C.-outsider political style.

He led the Senate Democratic Caucus for over a decade and along with the Affordable Care Act, he helped pass the Dodd–Frank Act, a major piece of legislation that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the wake of the Great Recession.. Reid once called the healthcare act "the most important thing we've done for the country and the world."


Israel begins second COVID-19 booster shots for people 60 and older

Posted January 3, 2022 at 10:40 AM EST
A woman gives a man in a black shirt a COVID vaccine, in front of a sign in Arabic.
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Getty Images Europe
Heart transplant patient Sharon Tabib receives a fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Friday in Ramat Gan, Israel.

The first Israelis age 60 and above are getting a fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine. The government ordered the shot over the weekend to help combat a surge in new COVID-19 cases linked to the omicron variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made the announcement at a Sunday evening news conference. He called the omicron version of the coronavirus, which has proven more transmissible than the delta variant, “a different ballgame altogether.”

Last week, Israeli health officials recommended a limited program for the second boosters of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for individuals over 60 with weakened immune systems and for medical workers. At the time, they said they were awaiting more data to decide if the fourth shot should be offered more widely.

Sunday’s announcement expands the availability of the second booster to people aged 60 and older and to medical workers.

Israel’s Maccabi Health Services said that within 12 hours of opening appointments on Sunday night, it had booked more than 20,000 people for the additional booster, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The newspaper said that there were long lines at testing stations across the country amid a 220% increase in new cases last week from the previous seven-day period.

Israel is the first country to offer a second booster shot. Officials say they are deciding whether to eventually extend second boosters to more of the general population.

A small clinical trial in Israel has found that the additional booster carries similar side effects to the previous doses.


The latest on the Colorado wildfire, and how you can help

Posted January 3, 2022 at 10:20 AM EST
Part of a brick wall and fireplace stand on a hill covered in burnt rubble, with fog and snow-covered fields in the distance.
Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images
The remains of home destroyed by the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colo., on Friday.

Two people are still unaccounted for after a fast-moving fire tore through Boulder County, Colo., burning through at least 1,600 acres, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate.

The Denver metro area has since gotten several inches of snow, and some residents are returning to their still-intact homes. But many questions remain about how the winter wildfire started and what will happen to the many people who are now without a place to live.

🎧 Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry has this update on Morning Edition.

How it started

The grassland fire ignited near a shed in a rural part of the county on Thursday, during an extreme windstorm with wind gusts over 100 mph. Sherry explains that the Denver metro area is in the midst of a drought — it has only received about an inch of rain since July — and the dry conditions and high winds helped the fire spread.

The Boulder County Sheriff's Office says it can't yet tell whether the fire was natural or human-caused. The FBI is helping investigate.

What happened

Entire subdivisions were quickly engulfed in flames, which ripped through at least 9.4 square miles and destroyed buildings in suburbs between Denver and Boulder. Read more here.

Sherry spoke to Christina Eisert, who was driving her teenage sons to get haircuts when she saw the fire break out.

"The whole street was like a fire hurricane," Eisert said. "Just smoke, like, I'd say dinner plate-sized pieces of ash falling everywhere, with burning edges. I'm sure that it was from my neighbors' house a block away, burning already."

She turned around and rushed home to get her dogs.

Colorado Wildfire Eisert

What's next

Eisert is not alone: Many people were forced to leave their homes and their possessions.

NPR's Dustin Jones has this story about 28-year-old Taylor Korn, who lost everything in the fire— including urns with her parents' ashes, her birth certificate, irreplaceable family photos, her personal belongings and two puppies.

They're among the thousands who were forced to evacuate and hundreds who lost their homes. Many people are temporarily bunking with friends or family members. Sherry says many questions remain about what will happen next, as there was already a tight housing market in the area and it's expected to take a long time to rebuild.

Here's how you can help people affected by the fire, according to CPR.


Maryland officials are investigating multiple arsons at a Baltimore detention facility

Posted January 3, 2022 at 10:10 AM EST

Maryland officials say they are investigating three "intentionally set" fires at a Baltimore jail that injured more than two dozen people on Sunday night.

First responders arrived at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center around 7:40 p.m. ET to find a fire and "heavy smoke conditions" on the fifth floor, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal.

Correctional officers evacuated occupants of the housing unit, and firefighters reportedly extinguished the fire within minutes. The Baltimore City Fire Department said 28 people were treated for "minor smoke inhalation," and that three incarcerated people and one correctional officer were taken to local hospitals for evaluation.

Multiple fires were set intentionally in the common area of the tier, the state fire marshal's office said.

It tweeted just before midnight that five fires were set by inmates on the fifth floor, three initially and two more while investigators were on the scene.

The items set on fire included “paper products, clothing, and a heavy-duty plastic rolling food cart," the state fire marshal said.

Firefighters who were there helping the investigators quickly put out those fires, they added.

Initial reports were unclear about the cause of the original incident, with Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 calling it a "mattress fire" in a Sunday night Facebook post.

The response to the arson incidents will involve a number of city and state resources, with an investigation underway and charges to be filed.

The state fire marshal's office took the lead in investigating the fire's origin and cause because the detention center is a state facility. It says it will continue its investigation in partnership with detectives assigned to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service Intelligence and Investigative Division, and will file charges charges after consulting with the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office.


Snowfall hitting the Appalachians, Mid-Atlantic could drop up to a foot in some areas

Posted January 3, 2022 at 10:00 AM EST
A woman watches a small snow plow clear snow accumulated in the front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Monday.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images
A woman watches a small snow plow clear snow accumulated in the front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Monday.

Millions of people in the Eastern U.S. are waking up to snow — or the prospect of snow — on the first Monday of the New Year.

A major winter storm is bringing 4-8 inches of snow to the Southern Appalachians, Washington, D.C. and eventually up to New Jersey later in the day, according to the National Weather Service. As much as a foot of snow is possible in some areas.

Officials said the heaviest snowfall, including thundersnow, will occur as rain changes over to frozen precipitation Monday morning, complicating the morning rush hour.

Federal buildings were closed on Monday in the Washington, D.C., area, which was also under a local snow emergency. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency for five counties in the southern part of the state.

The NWS said power outages would be likely as a result of heavy snow accumulating on power lines.

Rain and thunderstorms from Florida to the Carolinas, with the possibility for damaging winds and even tornadoes, were also in the forecast as part of the major storm system.

Just In

The FDA has authorized booster shots for kids ages 12 to 15

Posted January 3, 2022 at 9:51 AM EST

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the use of a Pfizer-BioNTech booster in adolescents 12 to 15 years old.

The agency also shortened the time between the completion of primary vaccination of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and a booster dose to five months from six.

Finally, the FDA allowed for a third dose of vaccine in immunocompromised children 5 to 11 years of age.

Read the release here.


The surgeon general says there's cause for hope despite the challenges of omicron

Posted January 3, 2022 at 9:45 AM EST
A side view of Dr. Vivek Murthy as he speaks, with the White House seal on a wall behind him.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in July.

NPR's Rachel Martin spoke to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy about the omicron surge and keeping kids safe as they return to school after the holiday break.

Listen to the full conversation here, and read highlights below.

Though our cases are at their highest point and we're seeing hospitalizations pick up, Murthy says there are hopeful signs.

“Number one, the more and more data we see is pointing to omicron being less severe. I can't say that yet with 100 percent certainty, but it's looking good based on data from other countries and now increasingly from the U.S.

The second is we're also seeing that omicron has peaked in South Africa and in the UK with the rapid rise, but then a rapid decline in cases. And that gives us some hope that we may see in the U.S. a quick rise and hopefully a quick fall.

But the big thing — and this is what's quite different from last year — is our vaccines are proving that they work to save lives and to keep people out of the hospital. The vast majority of the people in the hospital for COVID right now, as in prior waves, are unvaccinated.

And finally, just keep in mind that we learned over the last year that the same tools that worked to help us gather with loved ones over the holiday and engage in some of the activities we loved, the still work to keep us safe. “

Murthy says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking into whether or not testing should be implemented after the five-day mark before people come out of quarantine.

“That's something that they're actively looking at and considering and they will issue a clarification on their guidance over the next few days. But keep in mind, this guidance applies to people who are asymptomatic. So if you are still having symptoms, if you're still feeling unwell within five or six, you should continue to isolate for the full 10 day period.

And also, even if you do come out of isolation at that five days, it's really important that you wear a mask for the next five days, especially when you're around other people, and that's to help protect them if you are one of the small portion of people who are still infectious at that stage.”

Murthy says our collective goal as a society is to make sure that schools stay open safely, for the benefit of childrens' development.

“The good news is we know what safety measures work to reduce risk. Getting our kids vaccinated helps, masks and ventilation, surveillance testing helps. Now, in the next few weeks, it will be challenging for some schools given the rise in cases. We know some schools made temporary emergency decisions based on their staffing in particular.

But our goal should be to make sure that these disruptions are short-lived and we can get our kids back to school safely. Our best chance of doing that is to implement the mitigation measures that we know have worked to get our kids vaccinated.”


New year, new habits: Your starter kit for a better 2022

Posted January 3, 2022 at 9:31 AM EST
Confetti flies in the air above a crowded Times Square celebrating the new year.
YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images
Confetti flies in the air at Times Square on New Year's Eve in New York City on December 31, 2021. The city of New York limited the number of people allowed to attend this year due to COVID-19.

The beginning of a new year can feel like a chance to start over, but that fresh start can feel double-sided if you feel pressured to set lofty goals that fizzle out by mid-February.

Instead, why not aim to adjust some existing habits for a healthier, gentler way to treat your mind and body in 2022? NPR’s Life Kithas got you covered on how.

Starting Jan. 1st, you’ll get 22 helpful tips for this new year, covering everything from getting rid of the stubborn remnants of your NYE party toreducing your meat consumption.

The latest tip is one everyone can use:How to be kind to yourself and squash your critical inner voice. Banish the brain gremlins and embrace the idea of being your own best friend.

If you’re not quite ready for the idea of wiping the slate clean, there’s still plenty to reflect on from 2021. Here are a few options:

Wherever your head is at, take this opportunity to remember that you made it through 2021. Happy New Year!

Political violence

Here's what to know ahead of the anniversary of the Jan. 6th insurrection

Posted January 3, 2022 at 9:19 AM EST
A view from above can be seen from a window. Below is the National Mall filled with protestors and a large "Trump 2020" sign. The Washington Monument can be seen in the background.
Cheriss May/Getty Images
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A view of Trump supporters seen from inside the U.S. Capitol as Trump supporters storm the building on Jan. 6, 2021.

As the anniversary of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol nears, NPR has been covering the day's lingering after-effects.

Almost a year ago, a pro-Trump mob forced their way into the Capitol, where they attacked law enforcement and members of the media and damaged the building. They were egged on by former President Donald Trump's claim that the integrity of the 2020 election had been compromised, a baseless lie.

As the riot was unfolding, NPR's team on the groundasked one of the rioters, who called himself "Joe from Ohio," what the goal was.

"The people in this house, who stole this election from us, hanging from a gallows out here in this lawn for the whole world to see, so it never happens again. That's what needs to happen. Four by four by four, hanging from a rope out here for treason."
A rioter during the Jan. 6 insurrection who called himself "Joe from Ohio"

Five people died in or as a result of the attack, including several law enforcement officers.

Ahead of the anniversary on Thursday, here's what to know about where the country stands.

There are fears of another attempted coup after the 2024 election

"In short: We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time," three retired U.S. generals wrote in a recent Washington Postop-ed.

Paul Eaton, a retired U.S. Army major general and a senior adviser to VoteVets, spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about what the nation can do to prepare. Listen here.

He says to prevent a future coup from succeeding, the military needs to use war-gaming to practice addressing a hypothetical insurrection like Jan. 6th. And better yet, he says to prevent a coup from taking hold again the nation needs to refocus on civics education, to "make sure that each and every 18-year-old American truly understands the Constitution of the United States, how we got there, how we developed it and what our forefathers wanted us to understand."

Others, including capitol police officers, are also worried as well about the possibility of another attack.

The new U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger tells NPR it's vital to get more officers on the force after over 100 have quit in the past year. This comes while threats against members ofCongress are spiking.

Many of the rioters have gone before judges

In the year since the attack, NPR has been following the hundreds of criminal cases levied against the rioters. The resulting investigation has been the largest in American history: Over 700 people have been criminally charged so far and authorities estimate 2,000 may have participated that day.

NPR's analysis found 13% of the rioters had links to the military or law enforcement, a statistic that experts find particularly worrying. Read the full analysis here.

And those who were on the Capitol grounds aren't the only ones facing repercussions; members of the Trump Administration have been issued congressional subpoenas to testify about their role in the day's events. Organizers of the rally are also facing questions from lawmakers on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

Some have complied with those subpoenas, some haven't. Here's a list of where they stand.

Trump's 'Big Lie' endures

Despite being verifiably untrue, Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen continues to entrap many Americans and threaten democracy.

"I've never been more scared about American democracy than I am right now, because of the metastasizing of the 'Big Lie,' " election law expert Rick Hasen told NPR.

A new NPR/Ipsos poll found that 64% of Americans believe U.S. democracy is "in crisis and at risk of failing."

It also found two-thirds of GOP respondents agreed with the false claim that "voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election" — a key part of the "BigLie". Read more from NPR's Joel Rose and Liz Baker here.


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tests positive for COVID-19

Posted January 3, 2022 at 8:50 AM EST
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, pictured in Seoul, South Korea, in early December, has tested positive for COVID-19.
Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool/Getty Images
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, pictured in Seoul, South Korea, in early December, has tested positive for COVID-19.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has tested positive for COVID-19.

“I tested positive this morning for COVID-19. I requested the test today after exhibiting symptoms while at home on leave,” Austin said in a statement late Sunday. “My symptoms are mild, and I am following my physician’s directions.”

“In keeping with those directions, and in accordance with CDC guidelines, I will quarantine myself at home for the next five days,” he said.

Austin, 68, said that he is fully vaccinated and was boosted in October. He said that while he quarantines, he plans to continue with key meetings and discussions virtually, “to the degree possible” and that Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks would represent him as necessary.

He said that his staff had begun contact tracing and testing anyone who he’d been in contact with over the last week.

“My last meeting with President Biden occurred on Tuesday, December 21st, more than a week before I began to experience symptoms,” Austin said. “I tested negative that very morning. I have not been in the Pentagon since Thursday, where I met briefly — and only — with a few members of my staff. We were properly masked and socially distanced throughout.”

Austin is the second high-profile Biden administration Cabinet member to get COVID-19. In October, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also tested positive. At the time, Mayorkas said he was fully vaccinated and that his symptoms amounted to only “mild congestion.”


Famed fossil hunter and conservationist Richard Leakey dies at 77

Posted January 3, 2022 at 8:11 AM EST
Richard Leakey, Kenyan wildlife conservationist, places a rhino horn to be burned at the zoo in Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.
Petr David Josek/AP
Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, known for his fossil-finding and conservation work in his native Kenya, has died at 77.

Richard Leakey, the world-renowned paleoanthropologist-turned-conservationist, has died at 77.

The death of the native Kenyan was announced late Sunday by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

A cause of death was not given.

Leakey, whose famous parents, Louis and Mary, made profound contributions to the understanding of human evolution through key fossil finds of early hominids, also made important discoveries of his own in the field.

In 1981, he gained public notoriety as the presenter in a BBC television series called The Making of Mankind. By the late 1980s, however, he had shifted his focus, stepping in as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, taking on poachers who threatened to wipe out the country’s elephants and rhinos. He also helped bring international attention to the illicit ivory trade.

In 1993, he lost both legs below the knee following the crash of a small plane he was flying. He briefly entered Kenyan politics, forming a new political party, and in the late BBC television series'90s took up the post of head of Kenya’s civil service, with a determination to fight corruption.

“It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing of Dr. Richard Leakey,” the non-profit Leakey Foundation said in a tweet. “He was a visionary whose great contributions to human origins and wildlife conservation will never be forgotten.”

WildlifeDirect, which Leakey founded in 2004, said in a tribute on its website that he “stood for integrity, hard work and excellence in all areas – be it his work in paleontology, civil service, politics or wildlife conservation.”

“He was a mentor to dozens of Africans in diverse fields and had played a key role in shaping the world’s view on Africa’s place in the human evolution story, on the development of multi-party democracy in Kenya, and on influencing climate change dialogue,” it said, noting that he was “an icon and a national hero whose face graced Time magazine many times.”

Speaking to NPR in 2011, Leakey described some of his important fossil finds nearly three decades before. “It was enormously exciting because every day, practically, for the first six weeks, we were finding things that had never been seen before by modern humans,” he said. “And we were the first to see them and realize that we had things in our hands that were going to answer questions that people have been worrying about for years.”

At the time of his death, Leakey was serving as chairman of the Turkana Basin Instituteat Stony Brook University in the U.S.


Schools and hospitals scramble as U.S. COVID cases keep surging

Posted January 3, 2022 at 7:52 AM EST
People wearing neon vests hand out boxes of COVID tests to cars lined up on a road in a grassy area.
John Moore/Getty Images
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Residents receive free at-home COVID-19 test kits on Sunday in Stamford, Conn.

The rapid spreadof the omicron variant is showing no signs of slowing in the U.S.

The country is averaging between a whopping 300,000 and 400,000 new cases every day, with several states (including New York) recently hitting their all-time new case records. Hospitalizations are also rising — though not as quickly as cases — straining healthcare systems and already-weary intensive care workers. The spike has snarled holiday plans, disrupted air travel and raised questions about the return to work and school.

🎧 NPR's Allison Aubrey brings us these updates onMorning Edition:

Hospital admissions

Cases are up by about 200%, while hospitalizations are up about 25-30%. Some areas are being hit particularly hard — New Jersey is seeing a record surge in hospitalizations, while Ohio's governor has called for National Guard members to be deployed to help in hospitals.

Pediatric cases

There's been an uptick in cases among kids, with Aubrey noting that about 200,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 in the week leading up to Christmas alone.

She spoke with Dr. David Kimberlin, who co-directs the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He said the country has seen about a 50% increase in pediatric hospitalizations over the last few weeks, but the overall numbers are lower than in prior waves of the pandemic, at least so far.

"So it's a mixed story right now, but I think it's going to be bad over these next four to six weeks," he said.

Here's a pediatrician's advice to parents of kids under 5 on omicron, daycare, travel and more.

School operations

As winter break draws to a close, schools must decide whether to resume classes in person, online or both.

Some colleges and universities are starting the new semester remotely, with many requiring boosters and reintroducing masking and social distancing.

Aubrey says K-12 schools are pushing COVID-19 testing and scrambling to answer parents' questions as they prepare to reopen.

She notes that Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC's This Week yesterday that it's safe enough to get kids back in classrooms — especially if they're vaccinated, wearing masks and practicing "test to stay" — as the benefits outweigh the downsides of them missing out on school.

Looking ahead

Fauci also said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is considering adding testing negative to its new isolation guidelines, after receiving pushback. More on that here.

While the numbers right now are staggering, Aubrey says the hope is that the omicron surge will begin to recede as they have in South Africa, which was the first country to detect the variant in November.