The Biden administration will pay community groups to boost trust in COVID vaccines

Published February 8, 2022 at 8:04 AM EST
A pharmacist prepares a booster dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic at a community center in Lawrence, Mass.
Charles Krupa
A pharmacist prepares a booster dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic at a community center in Lawrence, Mass.

Good morning,

We're following these stories today:

Vaccine outreach: The Health Resources and Services Administration is distributing $66.5 million to community groups in 38 states and in Washington, D.C., to build trust in vaccines from the ground up.

Drug overdose deaths are at a record high: The leading killer is fentanyl. A bipartisan commission recommends steps to disrupt the supply and cut the demand of the powerful synthetic opioid.

Protests over Amir Locke shooting: Minneapolis police fatally shot the Black 22-year-old during a no-knock raid.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, another Supreme Court ruling deals a blow to the Voting Rights Act, this time over Alabama's congressional map.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

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


Bush fires continue to tear through Western Australia

Posted February 8, 2022 at 11:44 AM EST
Firefighters pump water to a fire engine from a tanker truck to begin mop up operations after a bushfire that threatened homes was extinguished in the suburbs of Perth on February 2, 2022.
Trevor Collens
AFP via Getty Images
Firefighters pump water to a fire engine from a tanker truck to begin mop up operations after a bush fire that threatened homes was extinguished in the suburbs of Perth on Feb. 2. Fires continue to threaten parts of Western Australia.

Bush fires continue to rage through Western Australia, destroying homes and other structures, and leaving thousands without power.

At least four homes have been lost, said Western Australia Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm. The blaze has spread to more than 148,000 acres of land. In the past five days, more than a dozen fire incidents have been reported across Australia.

Western Australia's Department of Fire and Emergency Services issued multiple "Bushfire Watch and Act" warnings on Tuesday, urging residents in affected areas to leave their homes. Multiple sites remain active and are "dangerous places," the department warned.

One school will be temporarily closed Wednesday because of road closures and fire activity, the state's department of education announced Tuesday. As of Monday, about 2,500 customers remained without power, according to Western Power.

In a Facebook post, the WA fire and emergency services department said it had been a "hellish night" on Saturday.

Stephen Dawson, Western Australia's emergency services minister, said on Sunday that crews have made progress in containing the fires. But the situation remains dangerous.

"There is still a real threat to lives and communities and to homes," Dawson told reporters Sunday.

Klemm said that the intensity of the fires — amid hot and unpredictable conditions — is driven in part by climate change, adding that some fires that in the past wouldn't be a challenge to extinguish have proved challenging.

Winter Olympics

5 female ski jumpers are disqualified at the Olympics over their jumpsuits

Posted February 8, 2022 at 11:34 AM EST

Anger and confusion overflowed at the Olympic mixed team ski jump final in Beijing, after five female competitors were disqualified from the event by officials who said their jumpsuits didn't comply with the rules. The shocking outcome sparked tears and left athletes and coaches struggling to describe what they had just experienced.

The disqualified jumpers represent four of the top ski-jumping teams in the world: Sara Takanashi of Japan; Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria; Katharina Althaus of Germany; and Anna Odine Stroem and Silje Opseth of Norway.

A roundup of reactions, via Reuters:

  • “We just pulled the crap card. That is how you destroy nations, development and the entire sport,” said Germany’s Althaus, who previously won silver in Beijing in an individual event.
  • “This is a parody, but I am not laughing,” said German sports director Horst Huttel.
  • “The sport of ski jumping has experienced one of its darker days,” said Clas Brede Braathen, the Norwegian national team manager for ski jumping.
  • “For me it is a puppet theatre. The entire season the suits have been an issue. I am unbelievably angry and I don’t understand it,” said German team coach Stefan Horngacher.

The controversy marred the Olympic debut of the mixed team competition. Instead of celebrating gender equity -- a main priority for Olympic organizers -- the disqualifications “became the main topic of the day,” according to the sport’s governing body, FIS Ski Jumping.

Slovenia won gold in the event. Silver went to the Russian Olympic Committee and bronze to Canada -- two countries that had never reached the podium in mixed team events at the world championships or the World Cup, according to the Olympics’ news feed.

It appears that the issue with the suits is that they were reportedly too large, potentially giving the skiers an unfair advantage. Ski jumping is governed by exacting rules that account for a number of variables, from an athlete’s weight to the size and cut of their jumpsuits. A large suit could impart an aerodynamic advantage.

Takanashi’s coach “said her suit was supposedly too big around the thighs, even though she wore it in the women's normal hill event on Saturday,” Japan’s NHK News reported. “He added that the extreme dry weather may have affected her body's moisture content.”

Like Takanashi, other athletes said they competed in the same jumpsuits they wore in earlier events. That includes Opseth, who told Norwegian media that what changed wasn’t her suit, but the way it was measured.

But FIS official Aga Baczkowska tells Norwegian public broadcaster NRK that the equipment inspection followed the rules and that it’s up to each team to ensure their suits are in compliance.

As several of the athletes and coaches acknowledged, this is far from the first time women’s jumpsuits have been at the center of controversy.

“For years, every female ski jumper around the world was required to have extra panels sewn in around her hips,” as Emily Russell of North Country Public Radio reported last week. “The International Ski Federation (FIS), which sets competition standards for the sport, said the additional hip panels were meant to fit a woman's body better.”

But some athletes said the extra panels mainly seemed to emphasize the curves in women’s bodies. The FIS changed the rules about those panels in its 2020 specifications -- but now women’s suits are again making headlines, on winter sports’ biggest stage.


A pub that claims to be England's oldest could close its doors because of COVID

Posted February 8, 2022 at 11:27 AM EST

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans, England, claims to be the oldest pub in Britain, with a storied past featuring medieval doves, Oliver Cromwell and a series of tunnels once traversed by monks.

But its future is now uncertain after the property's landlord announced it will be closing because of economic difficulties wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Christo Tofalli, who bought the pub in 2012, said in his Friday Facebook post that "a sustained period of extremely challenging trading conditions" was to blame. Escalating business rates and taxations were tough even before the pandemic hit, he explained, and with tight profit margins and no safety net, the pub was unable to meet its financial obligations.

"Along with my team, I have tried everything to keep the pub going," he wrote. "However, the past two years have been unprecedented for the hospitality industry, and have defeated all of us who have been trying our hardest to ensure this multi-award-winning pub could continue trading into the future."

Tofalli thanked pub staff, regulars and visitors, saying he was heartbroken for the Fighting Cocks family and honored to have played "even a small part in its history."

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks dates back to the 8th century, according to its website. The octagonal, free-standing structure was built in the 11th century and moved to its current location in 1539.

It's been used over the years as a pigeon house, an inn and the site of numerous cockfights before the sport was banned in 1849. Oliver Cromwell reportedly spent a single night at the inn during the Civil War of 1642-1651, before he was designated lord protector.

The building itself has "quite low ceilings as well as intriguing nooks and crannies," the website says. There are tunnels stretching from the beer cellar to nearby St. Albans Cathedral, which were reportedly frequented by monks.

It bills itself as Britain's oldest pub. A spokesperson for Guinness World Records told NPR over email that Ye Olde Fighting Cocks used to hold that record, but the title has been inactive for some time.

"This record was rested in 2000 when it became clear that it was not possible to verify it in full," the spokesperson wrote. "Even when we did publish information in this regard in the past, we were never able to state definitively which was the oldest pub in the country, since the age and historical usage of buildings is in many cases uncertain."

While the pub may be of special historic status, it's far from the only one that has been forced to shut its doors during the pandemic.

Nearly 10,000 licensed premises (including pubs, clubs and restaurants) permanently closed in 2020, SkyNews reported. That represents a 175% rise in net closures compared with the previous year.

Tofalli told TheWashington Postthat this past Christmas was his "last chance" to save the pub. Although public health measures didn't prevent pubs from operating, the omicron surge kept enough people home to prevent it from making up its shortfall.

There appears to be hope on the horizon, however.

Tofalli said he was working with brewery owners Mitchells & Butlers "to lessen the impact" of the pub's closure. A spokesperson for the company told CNN that it is working to reopen it.

"We can confirm that sadly our tenants at Ye Old Fighting Cocks have appointed administrators but can reassure locals that this is not the end for the pub," they said in a statement. "We are currently exploring all opportunities for the site's future and hope to reopen the pub under new management as soon as possible."

There have been other efforts to keep the pub in business, like a GoFundMe page that raised nearly $4,500 before it stopped accepting donations.

Tofalli wrote on Facebook that he couldn't take the money, saying staying open would cost too much to make sense.

"To save my dream we need a fairy godmother with a few quid doing nothing who simply wants the pub to survive for future generations," he said. "I haven’t found one with a spare £3m in 10 years so it’s unlikely."

But he said he was humbled by the idea and the messages of "joy and pain" he had received after his initial announcement.

Tofalli told the BBC that within hours of his Facebook post going live, he was inundated with messages of support from locals as well as international onlookers.

"To be reading about the impact we've had on people is mind-boggling and extremely humbling. We became an important part of the community ... the family we created was huge," he said. "The time has come for me but we will make sure the handover is seamless and the synergy keeps going."


At least 20 are dead and thousands homeless after a cyclone rips through Madagascar

Posted February 8, 2022 at 11:18 AM EST

Cyclone Batsirai swept out of Madagascar on Monday after killing 20 people, displacing 70,000 and devastating the drought-hit island’s agricultural heartland, leading the United Nations to warn of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Madagascar was already reeling from a deadly tropical storm that killed 55 people late last month, and the latest extreme weather event came as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the continent is “bearing both the brunt and the cost” of global warming.

National Security

Deputy national security adviser says Germany and U.S. are united on Ukraine

Posted February 8, 2022 at 10:13 AM EST

President Biden has promised to stop a major gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany if Russian troops invade Ukraine . Although not yet operational, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has emerged as a key issue in the Ukraine crisis.

German German Chancellor Olaf Scholz didn't mention the pipeline by name after meeting with Biden at the White House on Monday. But Germany is one of the largest importers of natural gas, and Russia is one of the world's largest producers.

Biden has not given specifics on how he will ensure an end to the pipeline.

NPR’s Leila Fadel spoke with Daleep Singh, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for international economics. Singh was present during Biden’s meeting with Scholz at the White House.

He assured Fadel that Scholz is on board with Biden's Nord Stream 2 promise.

"When the president's answer was put to Chancellor Scholz, he said there's no daylight between Germany and the United States," Singh said.

Singh also discussed Europe's energy needs, other measures the U.S. is considering if Russia invades and whether U.S. threats could escalate tensions in the region. Listen to the conversation here.

On whether the United States might be able to persuade Germany to halt its plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline

The president was definitive: He said if Russia invades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 will not become operational … And when the president's answer was put to Chancellor Scholz, he said there's no daylight between Germany and the United States, and that they will take all necessary steps together in a united and decisive fashion. … A very reasonable conclusion from that press conference is that whatever is necessary to prevent Nord Stream 2 from becoming operational in the event of an invasion, it would be done.

On Europe’s energy needs

Russia has a one-dimensional economy. It needs oil and gas revenues at least as much as Europe needs its energy supply. But if Russia decides to weaponize energy supplies, particularly gas to Ukraine, we've been working very closely with Germany and with Europe to surge capacity from other parts of the world … and we think we're prepared to compensate for any shortfall that might materialize.

On the specific measures the U.S. is considering taking against Russia if it invades

You can't redraw borders or undermine the free will of a sovereign nation by force ... If Russia sends troops or tanks across the border, we're prepared to impose the most severe sanctions ever levied against Russia, and so are our allies and partners ... We know where Russia's pressure points are. We know where we produce our supply, something that Russia needs and can't get from anywhere else. So that's why instead of taking a gradualist approach, we're prepared to start with sanctions at the top of our escalation ladder and stay there. And that means we're prepared to target Russia's largest financial institutions. We're prepared to impose the most severe measures on those institutions. And we're prepared to manage any unwanted spillovers.

On whether Russian President Vladimir Putin himself would be a possible target of sanctions if Russia invades

No option is off the table.


Ottawa protesters block key border crossing as demonstrations drag on

Posted February 8, 2022 at 9:56 AM EST
Truckers refuel their trucks in the cold during the Freedom Convoy truck protest on February 5, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada.
Minas Panagiotakis
Getty Images
Truckers refuel their trucks in the cold during the "Freedom Convoy" truck protest last week in Ottawa.

A massive protest in Ottawa that began with truck drivers opposing a cross-border vaccine mandate continues to snarl traffic and disrupt everyday life in the Canadian capital.

Officials from the mayor to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have called on the protesters to leave, saying residents in the city of just over 1 million don’t deserve to be harassed. Yet the protesters are showing no signs of relenting, and some have moved into other areas.

The so-called “Freedom Convoy” was blocking traffic Monday night on the Ambassador Bridge, a key crossing between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, the CBC reported. They also got the backing of more than 100 Alaska truck drivers who rallied in support of the convoy, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Still, law enforcement authorities have begun to crack down on the throngs of protesters who have remained in the capital for more than a week.

Ottawa police made several arrests over the weekend, seized fuel from some protesters and issued more than 450 tickets. The city is also under a state of emergency, and a judge ruled that truckers couldn't sound their thunderous horns for 10 days.

Ottawa City Councillor Matthew Luloff told NPR's Morning Edition that what began as a protest over the cross-border vaccine mandate has morphed into a more far-reaching and hostile demonstration against the government.

"Some of the most well-known radicals in this country have now descended upon the capital. Some of them are calling for violence, some of them are threatening individual politicians," said Luloff, who also noted the presence of hate symbols and antisemitic flyers at the protest.

"Now at the same time, there are people within this group that are demonstrating downtown with legitimate concerns," he added, "but you don't have a productive conversation at the business end of a gun or the grill of a semitruck."

The Canadian Trucking Alliance says the “vast majority” of the country’s trucking industry is vaccinated.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 70 First Nations in Saskatchewan, has also criticized the tactics of the protesters and accused them of cultural appropriation, according to Indian Country News.


Josh Neuman, popular YouTuber and skateboarder, dies in a plane crash in Iceland

Posted February 8, 2022 at 9:50 AM EST

Popular American skateboarder and social media influencer Josh Neuman was among the four victims of a small plane crash in Iceland, his family and local authorities confirmed.

Neuman's family said in a statement on Monday that the 22-year-old died "doing what he loved," noting he had just experienced Iceland's northern lights in what he called "the happiest day of [his] life."

He was on a sightseeing flight to create commercial content for the Belgian streetwear brand Suspicious Antwerp, according to The Associated Press. The company confirmed that the occupants of the plane — which had been missing since Thursday — were a Suspicious Antwerp employee, an Icelandic pilot and "two content creators."

The AP reports that the other victims were Suspicious Antwerp sponsorship manager Tim Alings, 27; Belgian skydiver and influencer Nicola Bellavia, 32; and 49-year-old Haraldur Diego, a prominent aviator and pioneer of photography tours.

Their Cessna 172 plane didn't send a distress signal after disappearing from radar last week. After several days of searching involving more than 1,000 search and rescue personnel, responders located the empty aircraft on Saturday in a portion of Lake Thingvallavatn — the country's second-largest lake — about 30 miles east of Reykjavik.

The following day, sonar technology and an autonomous submarine led authorities to four bodies in the lake, reportedly at depths of up to 157 feet. Divers have so far been unable to retrieve them because of poor weather, according to local authorities and the AP.

Suspicious Antwerp thanked local and international emergency services for their help, as well as the "numerous" volunteers who had aided in the search.

"We are enormously distressed by the news and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends," the company said. "We are in close contact with them, as well as with the authorities, and we're doing everything we can to assist them during these difficult times."

Many of Bellavia's more than 21,000 Instagram followers are paying tribute to him in the comments of his most recent post, calling him inspirational and humble and "a kind soul."

Neuman's fans are also remembering him on social media, offering up favorite memories and condolence messages. His parents and brother said in their statement that he "represents the side of humanity we all strive to achieve," living every day to the fullest while being kind to everyone.

"In his quest for adventure, thirst for creativity and passion for personal reflection, he truly impacted all those he touched," they wrote.

Neuman began filming longboarding videos for YouTube when he was 12, according to his website, and has nearly 1.2 million subscribers on the platform.

He attended college in Chapel Hill, N.C., before deciding to pursue extreme sports and content creation full time. He was based in Los Angeles and traveled the world filming footage for YouTube as well as for brands like Prada, GoPro, LG, Sony, Lexus and Suspicious Antwerp.

Many of Neuman's YouTube videos show him longboarding at high speeds in scenic locations. He created one of the "most-watched skateboarding videos on YouTube," the AP reports, with The Washington Post noting that a March 2019 video of Neuman skateboarding through a winding road of tunnels in France has been shared more than 1.6 million times.

The adventurer and entrepreneur followed his passions while also giving back, according to his family.

"Since he was a little boy, he has always taken a significant piece of each dollar earned and given back to charity," they wrote, naming ending homelessness, protecting clean water, aiding animal preservation and fighting deforestation as causes close to his heart.

They pledged to create a charitable foundation in honor of his memory "so that his name, and his enduring spirit, will never perish."


Here are the 2022 Oscar nominees

Posted February 8, 2022 at 9:42 AM EST
A row of five gold Oscars statuettes.
Matt Petit - Handout
A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images
Oscars statuettes on display backstage during the Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in February 2020 in Hollywood.

Attention, movie fans: The Oscars are only weeks away, and now we know who's on the shortlist.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its nominees for the 94th annual Academy Awards Tuesday morning, flagging Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog and Denis Villeneuve's Dune as this year's potential big winners.

The ceremony is scheduled for March 27. Here's the full list of nominees.


After police killing of Amir Locke, protesters call for justice and police chief's resignation

Posted February 8, 2022 at 9:20 AM EST
A crowd of protestors stands in front of a building labeled "POLICE". Someone holds a handmade sign reading "AMIR LOCKE R.I.P."
Nathan Howard
Getty Images
Supporters for Amir Locke march past the Minneapolis Police Department on Saturday.

Protests continue across Minneapolis after police shot and killed Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man, while executing a no-knock search warrant last week.

Body camera footage shows a SWAT team entering an apartment just before 7 a.m. Wednesday without knocking. Instead, officers used a key and shouted "police search warrant."

Locke appears in the video to be asleep under a blanket on the couch when police approach and can then be seen moving from under the blanket while holding a gun. Police open fire, about nine seconds after they entered the apartment, Minnesota Public Radio reports.

Authorities say Locke was not the subject of the search warrant, which was tied to a St. Paul homicide investigation. Locke's family says he was a food delivery driver and had a permit to carry the gun.

"Amir Locke's life mattered," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement to NPR. "He was only 22 years old and had his whole life ahead of him." Ellison says his office is working with the county attorney's office to review if criminal charges will be brought in the case against officers.

The killing has caused outrage nationwide and especially in Minneapolis, where the police murder of George Floyd less than two years ago exposed deep distrust between the community and law enforcement.

Over the weekend, protesters marched through downtown Minneapolis to call for justice for Locke.

A wave of protestors walks along a snowy city street. They hold handmade signs, one in the front reads "JUSTICE FOR AMIR LOCKE"
Nathan Howard
Getty Images
The killing of Amir Locke has brought protesters back to the streets in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by police less than two years ago.

On Monday, demonstrators arrived at City Hall and demanded accountability for those involved; NBC News reports the group included many Black mothers and women. Activists are calling for the firing or resignation of interim Minneapolis Police Chief Amelia Huffman and officer Mark Hanneman, who activists say shot and killed Locke.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has instituted a moratorium on no-knock warrants while the city reviews the department's policies regarding the controversial law enforcement tool.

In an announcement, the mayor's office said Minneapolis police officers will only be able to execute warrants after they knock, announce their presence and wait a reasonable amount of time before entering. Executing a no-knock warrant under the moratorium requires "an imminent threat of harm to an individual or the public and then the warrant must be approved by the Chief."

In March 2020, emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor was killed by police during a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Ky., drawing national attention to the practice and other killings of Black people by white people. Kentucky convened a task force to study the use of search warrants, which unveiled a series of recommended reforms at the end of last year. No-knock warrants have been banned by Louisville's Metro Council. Despite nationwide outrage and demonstrations, no officer has been charged in Taylor's death.

Winter Olympics

Jessie Diggins wins first-ever U.S. Olympic medal in cross-country sprint

Posted February 8, 2022 at 8:53 AM EST

Jessie Diggins broke up a troika of Swedish cross-country racers at the Beijing Olympics on Tuesday, snaring a hard-won bronze medal -- and making history as the first U.S. athlete to medal in an individual sprint in cross-country.

It’s the second medal for Diggins, who won a historic gold in the team sprint free at the Pyeongchang Olympics four years ago. Diggins teamed up with Kikkan Randall for that grueling event, in which two racers pass the relay back and forth three times. They became the first U.S. women to win a medal in cross-country skiing.

But in China on Tuesday, Diggins was on her own, facing the challenge of hanging with Swedish world champion Jonna Sundling -- who blasted out to an early lead with two other Swedes, Maja Dahlqvist and Emma Ribom.

Sundling pulled away to a commanding lead, but Diggins challenged Dahlqvist for silver, finishing just behind her at the line. Another U.S. athlete, Rosie Brennan, came in fourth.

Before she could reach the final, Diggins had to overcome an equipment problem in her quarterfinal race, when she was forced to swap out a broken pole during the race. She still won by 2 seconds, well ahead of Ribom, who was second.

The only other time a U.S. athlete has won an individual medal in cross country came in 1976, when Bill Koch won silver in the men's 30 km race at the Innsbruck Olympics.


Examining the cost of climbing deaths from synthetic opioids, and a new report's recommendations

Posted February 8, 2022 at 8:30 AM EST
Edith Gonzalez and Kimberly Fuentes embrace as they look at signs made by family and friends of people who died after being poisoned by pills containing fentanyl before a protest outside of the Snap, Inc. headquarters on June 4, 2021 in Santa Monica, California.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
Edith Gonzalez and Kimberly Fuentes embrace as they look at signs made by family and friends of people who died after taking pills containing fentanyl in Santa Monica, Calif.

Drug overdoses claim more American lives annually than firearms, homicide or car crashes. And they're reaching record highs: More than 100,000 people died of a drug overdose in a 12-month period — for the first time in history — from April 2020 to April 2021.

The majority of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are increasingly easy to get and permeating traditional drug markets.

A committee made up of members of Congress, federal agencies and field experts just released a nearly 150-page report examining the roots of the crisis, assessing its toll and proposing recommendations for the federal government.

"In terms of loss of life and damage to the economy, illicit synthetic opioids have the effect of a slow-motion weapon of mass destruction in pill form," the report reads.

Morning Edition spoke to WBUR health care reporter Martha Bebinger and Bryce Pardo of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center about the report's contexts and findings. We've combined some of their key takeaways below:

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an opioid, like many painkillers that doctors prescribe, but it's extremely powerful. Pardo says it's more potent than heroin by a factor of at least 25, and Bebinger notes it can shut down breathing "in seconds."

Fentanyl is made from chemicals, as opposed to plants, which means it's cheaper and faster to produce — and that's helped it take over the drug supply. It's now found in many illegal drugs and counterfeit pills.

Pardo explains that it's a more profitable drug — at least in the short term — from a drug trafficking standpoint, which is another reason we're seeing so much of it now. It can be shipped by mail, which makes it especially accessible.

But fentanyl is also showing up unannounced in other drugs, like heroin and cocaine, which misleads users and causes overdose deaths.

Where is it coming from?

Fentanyl is made from chemicals that are mostly produced in China and India, then packed in Mexico and shipped north.

The ease with which people can order sizable amounts of synthetic opioids online contributes to the amount and variability in the drugs that get into the market, Pardo says.

The report suggests the U.S. should try to disrupt that supply in part by targeting the makers of chemicals in China and India, as well as the money laundering operations of Mexican drug cartels. But that's going to require more international cooperation, Bebinger notes.

It also proposed things like getting China to do a better job of regulating its chemical and pharmaceutical sectors — which Pardo calls the largest in the world — and working with Mexico to better detect shipments at ports of entry.

Domestically, the task force is recommending stronger efforts to stop online sales and deliveries by mail. But they're not only looking to supply-side solutions.

"None of this is really new and it isn't stopping the supply now, so the report says the U.S. must focus more on reducing demand for drugs," Bebinger says.

How much does this crisis cost?

The report looks at the recent U.S. overdose deaths and the economic cost associated with the opioid crisis. The epidemic costs the U.S. about a trillion dollars each year, Bebinger says.

Part of that is the financial cost of emergency room visits and incarcerations related to drug use and retailing, Pardo says. But the biggest toll is that of lost productivity because of early deaths.

Those overdosing and dying from synthetic opioids are mostly between 25 and 35 years old, with families, communities and jobs. Pardo says that accounts for the largest segment of the economic costs associated with the opioid crisis.

What next?

The report recommends more education for casual and regular drug users about the fact that fentanyl is in many kinds of substances sold on the street. It also stresses the use of naloxone, the drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, and recommends more distribution of fentanyl test strips that can detect it in various other drugs.

"In short, it urges many ways to keep people alive until they are ready for treatment," Bebinger says.

She notes that the report doesn't endorse supervised consumption sites, which have been shown to save lives in other countries including Canada, but it does call for better access to treatment overall.

It also discusses removing barriers to access, reducing stigma around drug use, promoting recovery in the workplace and other harm reduction strategies, according to Pardo.

The commission also says these efforts should be run through the White House, under a new Cabinet position of director of drug policy. Its members argues that creating that position could help coordinate the 18 federal agencies that play a role in drug policy and would signal the importance of tackling this crisis, Bebinger explains.

"That Cabinet-level position will be seen by some as a significant change, but advocates for people suffering from addiction are already doing a lot of what's recommended in this report," Bebinger says. "They say the U.S. must try new interventions and take bolder action now."

International Dispatch
From Kyiv

Scenes from a women's self-defense class in Ukraine

Posted February 8, 2022 at 8:09 AM EST
Women sit in rows of red seats in an auditorium.
Reena Advani/NPR
There was a full house for the women's self-defense class at Kyiv's Institute of Continuing Education at Taras Shevchenko National University on Saturday.

In the capital of Ukraine, there’s high interest in basic survival skills right now, and a lot of people we’ve met have told us that they have an emergency bag ready should Russia invade.

So it wasn’t surprising that a self-defense class run by a nongovernmental organization and organized by the Ukrainian Women’s Guard had some 200 women show up. In fact, there were more sign-ups than seats at Kyiv's Institute of Continuing Education at Taras Shevchenko National University. And there's so much interest that the NGO will soon start offering online courses.

At Saturday's class, a man dressed in fatigues held court in a school auditorium, demonstrating methods to fend off a potential attacker. All it takes is the clever use of a handkerchief or a simple slapping technique — just a couple of examples that could be life-changing.

Here's what it looked like:

Listen to the full story here.


The Biden administration will pay community groups to help boost trust in vaccines

Posted February 8, 2022 at 8:04 AM EST
A hand holding a pen fills out a CDC vaccine record card on top of a white table.
Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images
A nurse fills out a vaccine card at an L.A. Care Health Plan vaccination clinic at Los Angeles Mission College.

In this politically polarized time, White House health officials have acknowledged that they are not always the best messengers when it comes to promoting COVID-19 vaccines.

So the Biden administration has worked to equip community groups to do their own local outreach. On Tuesday, the Health Resources and Services Administration is distributing $66.5 million to community groups working in 38 states and in Washington, D.C. This is the fourth round of the $250 million in funding allocated in the American Rescue Plan.

“Whether that trusted messenger is your schoolteacher or your pastor or your barber, what we want is for those people to guide you on this very important decision and encourage you to take the steps you need to take to stay safe from COVID,” Health Secretary Xavier Becerra tells NPR. “The program that we're announcing this week is to provide additional resources to trusted voices in our communities throughout the country so that they can reach folks.”

“We know there are still millions of Americans who need to be vaccinated, and millions of those Americans are willing to be vaccinated, so we want to reach them,” he adds.

One group receiving more than $11 million Tuesday is Communities RISE Together, an initiative supported by the Public Health Institute. Dr. Somava Saha, who co-leads the effort, says the administration’s decision to fund local community groups is smart and “flips it from ‘trust us’ to ‘we trust you.’ ”

Saha says RISE’s successes in the past seven months since it first received funding proves that the approach is effective: The coalition of community groups has been able to connect about 160,000 people to services like food and housing and mental health support and has vaccinated more than 137,800 people, she says, adding that there are "probably a few hundred thousand more that have gotten vaccinations elsewhere as a result of [outreach] efforts.” 

The racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccinations have narrowed since the initial gaps at the beginning of the rollout, according to a recent analysis from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

Samantha Artiga, director of the Racial Equity and Health Policy Program at KFF, notes that the highly contagious delta and omicron variants may have spurred more people to get vaccinated, but that outreach efforts focused on equity and making the logistics easier likely helped as well.