Here's what you need to know about high-filtration masks and where to get them

Published January 13, 2022 at 8:49 AM EST
Employees make respirator masks at a family-owned medical equipment factory in Miami in February 2021.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
Employees make respirator masks at a family-owned medical equipment factory in Miami in February 2021.

Good morning,

Here's what we're watching today:

Mask advice: Omicron is aggressive and your cloth mask is likely not up to the challenge. Here are tips for what offers the best protection (and getting the real deal).

Amtrak settlement: Amtrak has paid $2 million to passengers who experienced disability discrimination as part of an agreement reached in 2020.

War crimes case: An ex-Syrian officer was convicted of torture in a landmark trial held in Germany. Those who testified had to stare down threats.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, what Russia wants out of its talks with NATO leaders and why it's so hard for the U.S. to meet Moscow partway.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Dana Farrington, Nell Clark, Rachel Treisman and Danny Nett)

Au revoir

After more than 70 years, the FDA is dropping its regulation for French dressing

Posted January 13, 2022 at 12:17 PM EST
A container of Wish-Bone’s Deluxe French salad dressing
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
When it comes to French dressing, many consumers expect red or red-orange color and tomato or tomato-derived elements — none of which are required under the standards.

Who knew?

After more than 70 years, the federal government has decided that French dressing no longer needs to be regulated.

“When the standard of identity was established in 1950, French dressing was one of three types of dressings we identified,” the Food and Drug Administration said in the final rule posted in the Federal Register on Thursday. The other two were mayonnaise and just “salad dressing.”

French dressing is the only pourable dressing required to adhere to standards that require it to contain oil, acidifying ingredients and seasoning. Other foods, including bread, jam and juices, have their own standards of identity.

When it comes to French dressing, many consumers expect red or red-orange color and tomato or tomato-derived elements — none of which are required under the standards.

The Association for Dressing and Sauces, an industry group founded in 1926, petitioned for the standards to be revoked in 1998, citing the explosion in varieties of salad dressings available — among them, ranch, cheese, peppercorn and Italian. French dressing is no longer a baseline for other dressings and has become “marginalized,” the association said.

In December 2020, the FDA proposed revoking the standard for French dressing in the name of “flexibility” and “innovation.” French dressing’s standard of identity was not honest or fair, either, according to the FDA’s final rule.

“There are a wide variety of French-style dressings on the market, and these will continue to be available based on consumer demand,” the industry association wrote in a public comment on the revocation of the standards last spring.

“Today, the@US_FDA revoked the standard of identity for#frenchdressing because it is ... gasp ... outdated,” the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy at UCLA tweeted.

The final rule, which will go into effect Feb. 14, won’t require makers to change their manufacturing practices, the FDA said.

123 degrees Fahrenheit: Australia sees its highest temperature since 1960

Posted January 13, 2022 at 12:03 PM EST

Record heat is searing Western Australia, where temperatures soared to a high of more than 123 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday. The 50.7 degrees Celsius set a new state record, and it tied the national mark that was set 62 years ago, the country’s Bureau of Meteorology says.

The extreme heat hit the coastal town of Onslow, far north of Perth. Unfortunately, residents won’t get much respite from the heat: the low temps will only fall to 32 degrees Celsius (around 90 degrees) before rising back to 48 degrees Celsius on Friday, according to the weather agency.

In a country whose tourism ad campaign once celebrated the idea of throwing a "shrimp on the barbie,” the air in Onslow was hot enough Thursday to skip the barbecue grill altogether: shrimp is considered cooked at 120 degrees F.

Western Australia has been on the alert for the heightened threat of bush fires for weeks. The huge and arid state has seen 20% less winter rainfall in its southwest portion since the 1970s, the national broadcaster ABC says, adding that the drop has been linked to climate change.

The high-temperature record that was initially set in 1960 was recorded in Oodnadatta, an Outback town in South Australia.

Ice ice baby

Maine's famous spinning ice disk is back, and you won't want to miss it

Posted January 13, 2022 at 11:53 AM EST
A river with a large circle of ice in the middle, against a dark sky.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
A large ice disk slowly rotates in the Presumpscot River in Westbrook, Maine on Thursday.

Three years ago, a massive, rotating disk of ice appeared in a Maine river, dazzling internet observers, attracting visitors and putting the city of Westbrook on the map.

And now the famous frozen phenomenon is back.

The ice disk began to form again in the Presumpscot River on Tuesday, according to the city's Facebook page, and was in full swing by Wednesday. As of Thursday, officials say, it's "standing still, but still there."

City officials are cautioning residents not to go out on the ice but are encouraging them to marvel from a distance and share their images of the ice disk as long as it sticks around.

The phenomenon isn't totally unheard of, as NPR reported in 2019. Scientists say it's naturally occurring and has happened in other places — it even partially formed in Westbrook again in 2020. But it's not totally understood, either.

Paul Nakroshis, an associate professor of physics at the University of Southern Maine, told Maine Public years ago that how and why ice disks form is a bit of a mystery.

"It’s probably formed — and this is speculation — by the aggregation of small little bits of ice or in an initial big chunk of ice that, because of initial rotation, little pieces of ice glob onto it," he said, referencing a 2016 paper in which researchers created a small ice disk in a lab.

He explained that the paper talked about ice melting under the disk, causing water to sink downward and producing a vortex that prompts the disk to rotate.

"However, based on my reading of the paper, the water in the Westbrook river is not actually warm enough to cause the effect that the paper talks about," he added. "So most likely the cause of the rotation is just the river water going by the disk, and once it starts rotating in that direction, it’s probably going to continue."

To know more about why a particular disk forms and rotates as it does, Nakroshis said researchers would have to answer a number of questions about things like river topography, water temperature and currents.

But for now, we'll put those questions on ice and enjoy the view.

Here's what it looked like in 2019:


The ‘Rust’ armorer is suing the film’s ammo supplier over the deadly, on-set shooting

Posted January 13, 2022 at 11:15 AM EST
This aerial photo shows the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, where the movie 'Rust' was being filmed. The fatal on-set shooting took place two days earlier.
Jae C. Hong
The movie "Rust" was being filmed at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., where the fatal shooting took place in October.

The woman in charge of firearms on the set of the film Rust, where a deadly October shooting left cinematographer Halyna Hutchins dead, is blaming the movie’s ammunition supplier for the fatal accident.

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the armorer and key props assistant on Rust, filed a lawsuit in New Mexico state court on Wednesday saying she bought live ammunition that she believed to be dummy rounds.

The complaint names PDQ Arm and Prop. and founder and managing member Seth Kenney as defendants.

“Hannah relied upon and trusted that Defendants would only supply dummy prop ammunition, or blanks, and no live rounds were ever to be on set,” the lawsuit reads.

Countless questions remain about the deadly on-set shooting, which also injured director Joel Souza and rekindled the debate over safety protocols in the film industry.

Actor Alec Baldwin, who was holding the gun when the fatal shot was fired, later said in interviews that he was told he had a “cold gun,” which meant the firearm was empty or only contained dummy rounds. He said he never pulled the trigger.

NPR was unable to reach PDQ Arm and Prop. for comment.

Law enforcement

Virginia Beach Police used forged DNA reports to get confessions, state attorney general says

Posted January 13, 2022 at 11:05 AM EST

The Virginia Beach Police Department used forged documents with fake DNA evidence in interrogations in order to get confessions on at least five occasions, the state Attorney General Mark Herring said.

Herring's Office of Civil Rights concluded an investigation last April that found that the police department was forging documents pretending to be from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. The department used these forged documents on at least five occasions between March 2016 and February 2020, according to the investigation.

“This was an extremely troubling and potentially unconstitutional tactic that abused the name of the Commonwealth to try to coerce confessions,” Herring said in a statementon Wednesday.

“It also abused the good name and reputation of the Commonwealth’s hard-working forensic scientists and professionals who work hard to provide accurate, solid evidence in support of our law enforcement agencies. While I appreciate that Virginia Beach Police put an end to this practice and cooperated with our investigation, this is clearly a tactic that should never have been used," he said.

The Virginia Beach Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement to The Washington Post, the department said that what happened, “though legal, was not in the spirit of what the community expects.”

The investigation into the Virginia Beach Police Department began when a request was made to the forensic department to provide a copy of one of the forged documents, but DFS never created or knew about the document in the first place.

Investigators from Herring's office found that the police department was using the forged documents as "supposed evidence" to try to get confessions, cooperation and convictions. The police department would lie and say the suspect's DNA was connected with the crime and provide that in the document, which had forged letterhead and contact information, according to the investigation. On two occasions, the investigation found, the police department included a signature from a made-up employee at DFS. In one case, the forged document was presented in court as evidence.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Beach City Council agreed to new reforms to stop the practice from continuing and to alter policy, but those reforms are only in effect for at least two years.

International Dispatch
From Tel Aviv

U.S. seeks answers after an 80-year-old Palestinian American man died post-detention in Israel

Posted January 13, 2022 at 10:33 AM EST
Men carry a body draped in a Palestinian flag.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh
AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of Omar Abdalmajeed Asad, 80, who was found dead after being detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, in Jiljilya village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Thursday.

Israel's army says it's investigating the death of an 80-year-old Palestinian American man after he was detained by Israeli troops.

Palestinian officials say Israeli troops were raiding a village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank when they dragged Omar Asad out of his car, blindfolded and handcuffed him and left him in a house under construction. They say he was discovered hours later, dead, apparently from a heart attack.

The Israeli military says that its troops had raided the village to "thwart terrorist activity" and that they detained the Palestinian man after he "resisted a check" and then released him while he was still alive. His family says he was treated roughly.

The Israeli army says it’s investigating, and the U.S. State Department says it has asked Israel for clarification about the incident.


Amtrak paid over $2 million to passengers with disabilities in a discrimination settlement

Posted January 13, 2022 at 10:09 AM EST
An Amtrak logo can been seen on a silver train as the train car sits at a station with palm trees. A worker in an Amtrak jacket walks nearby.
Mario Tama
Getty Images North America
The Justice Department said Amtrak failed to make stations in its intercity rail transportation system accessible, including to wheelchair users.

The rail transportation company Amtrak has paid over $2 million to more than 1,500 people with disabilities who experienced discrimination while traveling by train or trying to, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday. The money is part of a settlement agreement to resolve the United States’ determination that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make certain stations accessible to travelers with disabilities.

“These payments, as well as Amtrak’s ongoing efforts to make rail stations accessible pursuant to our settlement agreement, bring both Amtrak and our nation one step closer to realizing the ADA’s promise of equal opportunity for people with disabilities,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The 2020 settlement resolves a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department against Amtrak. The Justice Department alleged Amtrak violated, and continued to violate, the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make stations in its intercity rail transportation system accessible, including to wheelchair users. Violations listed in the suit include inaccessible building entrances, bathrooms, elevators and passenger platforms.

In addition to compensating those who were discriminated against, Amtrak also agreed to "design at least 135 stations to be accessible, complete construction at 90 of those stations, and have at least 45 more under construction," over the next nine years. The company will also train staff on the ADA's requirements and implement a new system for evaluating ADA complaints at the company. Individuals were able to submit compensation claims up until May 29, 2021.

The ADA is the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by public entities and requires companies make "reasonable accommodations" so that people with disabilities have comparable access as people without disabilities have. When Congress passed the ADA in 1990, it required Amtrak to make its network of transportation accessible by 2010, but the Justice Department's investigation found Amtrak did not do that.

The Department of Justice began investigating Amtrak after receiving complains in 2011 and 2012 from people with disabilities who alleged that certain Amtrak stations were inaccessible, as well as a detailed complaint from the National Disability Rights Network the next year alleging the same.

In the suit, the Justice Department alleged, "Amtrak acted intentionally by failing to make its existing stations accessible," and "unless restrained by this Court, Amtrak will continue to violate the ADA and cause harm to individuals with disabilities."

Amtrak entered into the settlement agreement with the Justice Department to resolve the alleged violations of the ADA in December 2020.

Amtrak was criticized in 2020 after two riders who use power wheelchairs were asked to pay at least $25,000 for a train ticket for a two-hour ride that usually costs $16. After NPR's Joe Shapiro reported on the price and people with disabilities led protests, Amtrak reversed course and dropped the policy that caused the high bill.

Music festivals

Coachella and Bonnaroo are coming back with star-studded lineups

Posted January 13, 2022 at 9:33 AM EST
A tilted view shows yellow balloons against a blue sky, with palm trees and tall orange and blue structures visible in the distance.
Presley Ann
Getty Images North America
The 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., was the last time the event was held. It was canceled in 2020 and put off for a year in 2021.

Two fan-favorite music festivals announced their lineups this week, setting the stage for a highly anticipated comeback after two years of pandemic cancellations.

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is set to run from June 16 to 19 in Manchester, Tenn. Headliners will include Stevie Nicks, Machine Gun Kelly, Roddy Ricch, Gryffin, J. Cole, The Chicks, Illenium, Tool, Flume and 21 Savage.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., has its typical two-weekend event planned for April 15-17 and 22-24. Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West) lead the lineup, which also features musicians like Megan Thee Stallion, Phoebe Bridgers, Doja Cat, Maggie Rodgers, Brockhampton and Ari Lennox.

Coachella was canceled in 2020 and delayed last year to 2022. Bonnaroo skipped a year but was set to go on last September, until rainfall from Hurricane Ida flooded the fairgrounds and prompted a last-minute cancellation.

Organizers of both festivals are opening ticket sales this week — Bonnaroo on Thursday and Coachella starting on Friday — even as the omicron surge sends cases and hospitalizations skyrocketing in the U.S.

Bonnaroo says measures like masks and proof of negative test or full vaccination may be required, while Coachella is mandating proof of full vaccination or a negative test result from within 72 hours of the event.

See the full lineups below:


Quebec’s ‘unvaxxed tax’ has people rushing to get vaccinated

Posted January 13, 2022 at 9:23 AM EST

Quebec’s plan to put a "significant" health tax on unvaccinated people — who account for a large share of COVID-19 hospitalizations — quickly drove a rush of new appointments this week, health officials say.

“It’s encouraging!” said Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé, in a tweet announcing the new gains.

Dubé said the number of new vaccine appointments shot up in the 48 hours around the announcement, reaching what he called a record for several days.

Quebec has reported the most COVID-19 deaths of any Canadian province, with more than 12,000 people losing their lives. With omicron driving new infections, officials recently ordered school closures and a 10 p.m. curfew.

When Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced the plan for a levy on the unvaccinated, he said that only around 10% of Quebec’s population is unvaccinated but that they make up 50% of all intensive care cases.

Health officials also noted that the average cost of a COVID-19 case in hospital is $23,000 Canadian. For intensive care, the cost rises to $50,000.

"Those who refuse to get their first doses in the coming weeks will have to pay a new health contribution," Legault said Tuesday. "The majority are asking that there be consequences. ... It's a question of fairness for the 90% of the population that have made some sacrifices. We owe them."

The health penalty would not apply to people with legitimate medical exemptions, Legault said. He hasn’t given a date for when the penalty will be enacted.

Legault said late Wednesday that Quebec’s schools and colleges are now cleared to reopen on Monday. There are also reports that the curfew will be lifted on the same day.

Quebec has been trying to raise vaccination rates in a number of ways — including requiring a vaccine passport for anyone who wants to visit a liquor or cannabis store. In the province, roughly 90% of its eligible population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Canada's COVID-19 tracker.

In another sign of the fallout over vaccines in the province, a judge recently temporarily suspended a father’s visitation rights to see his child because he is unvaccinated.

The special health tax immediately stirred controversy among vaccine skeptics and civil rights groups, who question whether it’s legal and how it might be fairly enforced. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about Quebec’s plan on Wednesday, he said it was too soon to comment on it.


What it took to convict a former Syrian official of war crimes

Posted January 13, 2022 at 8:49 AM EST
A crowd of reporters holding microphones surrounds a man in a suit outside of a brown courthouse building.
Bernd Lauter/AFP via Getty Images
Syrian lawyer and human rights activist Mazen Darwish (C) talks to journalists outside the courthouse where former Syrian intelligence officer Anwar Raslan stood on trial for crimes against humanity in Koblenz, western Germany, on Thursday.

A federal court in Koblenz, Germany, has issued a life sentence for a former Syrian intelligence officer charged with crimes against humanity.

Anwar Raslan was accused of more than 30 counts of murder, 4,000 counts of torture and charges of sexual assault from when he oversaw a notorious prison in Damascus in 2011 and 2012.

This is the first time a high-ranking former Syrian official (and by extension, the Assad regime) has been held accountable for war crimes in Syria.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been covering the landmark trial, which began in April 2020. It spanned more than 100 court days and more than 100 testifying witnesses, including 50 torture survivors who gave testimony during closing arguments in December.

As Amos reports from Koblenz:

"The defendant, Anwar Raslan, was stoic as the five judges strode into a silent court room. The judges remained standing to deliver the guilty verdict and delivered a life sentence to the 58-year-old former colonel . The court room was packed with Syrian lawyers and activists who had worked for this moment for years. The judges also read out the names of Syrian torture survivors, who were also in the courtroom."

The trial sends a message of accountability to the Assad regime, which has long denied that there is torture in Syrian prisons despite plenty of testimony and evidence to the contrary.

Legal experts are calling it an important blueprint for future war crimes prosecutions. Still, some Syrian exiles in Germany say the trial was conducted inaccessibly — far from their community in Berlin, with no transcript of proceedings or audio recordings made available.

The risks for those who testified

There was also no witness protection offered to those involved, even as the Assad regime threatened their families back home in Syria. Some witnesses even withdrew from the proceedings out of fear, though many torture survivors braved the risks to deliver harrowing testimony in court.

Amos spoke with some of those witnesses last fall. Read or listen to her reporting.

One of them, Hassan Mahmoud, planned to speak about his youngest brother, who died in the prison Raslan ran just 12 days after he was arrested in 2012.

But as the date for his testimony neared, Syrian security officers went searching for his brother Waseem back in Syria, which the brothers interpreted as a threat. Hassan refused to testify until his brother got out of the country (he did, in a saga they described in dramatic terms but would not go into detail about).

Another, Wassim Mukdad, testified in August about his experience in the prison in 2011 — as Raslan sat just feet away. He said sharing his experience wasn't easy, but saw it as "the first step in a long way towards justice."

Mukdad later said the verdict sent a message of accountability to the Assad regime.

"We feel that we achieved something," he told Amos. "Our pain and our suffering is not in vain."

Read more from Amos about the verdict and its impact.


You need a better face mask. Here's how to pick one

Posted January 13, 2022 at 8:03 AM EST
Maryland Cremation Services transporter Morgan Dean-McMillan adjusts her N95 face mask in May 2020 in Silver Spring, Md.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Maryland Cremation Services transporter Morgan Dean-McMillan adjusts her N95 face mask in May 2020 in Silver Spring, Md.

The highly transmissable omicron variant has brought with it a lot of disruptions and questions — and for many people, that includes confusion about which masks to wear and where to buy them.

Experts say it's time to trade in your cloth face coverings for high-quality filtration masks, like N95s, KN95s and KF94s.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said yesterday that the agency will be updating its guidance, and reiterated that any mask is better than no mask. Officials in cities like New York and Los Angeles have already told residents it's time to level up.

NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy has spent most of the pandemic researching masks and trying them out on her own family. She told Morning Edition which ones she recommends, and how to make sure you're getting the real deal. Listen to that here.

N95 masks

N95 masks and similar respirators offer way more protection than cloth masks, Godoy says, noting that they get their name because they're designed to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles when worn correctly. They're also made with material that has an electrostatic charge to trap incoming particles, plus they have a snug fit, which offers better protection.

And they come in a variety of shapes — from cups to middle folds to duck bills — so you can test out which model feels most comfortable. And all N95s are made to U.S. government standards and rigorously tested, so they're a reliable choice no matter which shape you pick.

KN95 and KF94 masks

These are pretty good options, too — they both use ear loops, which adds comfort, but don't seal quite as tightly to your face.

Since N95s are not regulated for kids, these are the best options for your little ones. For more help navigating those, Godoy points to Aaron Collins — aka "Mask Nerd" — who offers rankings and recommendations on his Twitter page.

KF94s are made to a Korean standard and regulated by the South Korean government. KN95s are made to a Chinese standard, but the Chinese government doesn't strictly regulate them. There are definitely some good KN95s out there, Godoy says, but there are also a lot of low-quality and fake ones on the market.

Don't get scammed online

A word of advice for those of you who may be opening a new tab to shop for better masks: Make sure you're buying from a tested source, as experts told Godoy.

For instance, Project N95 sells masks from vetted distributors, and you can visit stores like Home Depot and Lowe's to survey their shelves. Korean importers like Be Healthy USA and Kollecte USAare a good bet for KF94s.

And if you're browsing on Amazon, experts advise going to the manufacturers' shop — like the 3M store or the Kimberly-Clark store — rather than third-party venders.

Read more tips from Godoy here.