US faces wave of omicron deaths in coming weeks, models say
The fast-moving omicron variant may cause less severe disease on average, but COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are climbing and modelers forecast 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die by the time the wave subsides in mid-March.
The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 on Jan. 17 — still below the peak of 3,300 in January 2021. COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents started rising slightly two weeks ago, although still at a rate 10 times less than last year before most residents were vaccinated.
Despite signs omicron causes milder disease on average, the unprecedented level of infection spreading through the country, with cases still soaring in many states, means many vulnerable people will become severely sick. If the higher end of projections comes to pass, that would push total U.S. deaths from COVID-19 over 1 million by early spring.
“A lot of people are still going to die because of how transmissible omicron has been,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “It unfortunately is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Morgues are starting to run out of space in Johnson County, Kansas, said Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the health department. More than 30 residents have died in the county this year, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.
Russia moves more troops westward amid Ukraine tensions
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is a sending an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to Belarus for major war games, officials said Tuesday, a deployment that will further beef up Russian military assets near Ukraine amid Western fears of a planned invasion.
Amid the soaring tensions, the White House warned that Russia could attack its neighbor at “any point,” while the U.K. delivered a batch of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the joint drills with Belarus would involve practicing a joint response to external threats.
Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine from several directions, including from its ally Belarus.
The U.S. again stressed its concern Tuesday, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki describing the Russian forces’ move into Belarus as part of as “extremely dangerous situation.”
AT&T, Verizon pause some new 5G after airlines raise alarm
AT&T and Verizon will delay launching new wireless service near key airports after the nation’s largest airlines said the service would interfere with aircraft technology and cause massive flight disruptions.
The decision from the telecommunication companies arrived Tuesday as the Biden administration tried to broker a settlement between the telecom companies and the airlines over a rollout of new 5G service, scheduled for Wednesday.
Airlines want the new service to be banned within two miles of airport runways.
AT&T said it would delay turning on new cell towers around runways at some airports — it did not say how many or for how long — and work with federal regulators to settle the dispute.
A short time later, Verizon said it will launch its 5G network but added, “we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports.” It blamed airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, saying they “have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports” although it is working in more than 40 countries.
White House: Texas hostage-taker had raised no red flags
DALLAS (AP) — The gunman who took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue in a 10-hour standoff that ended in his death was checked against law enforcement databases before entering the U.S. but raised no red flags, the White House said Tuesday.
Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, arrived in the U.S. at Kennedy Airport in New York on a tourist visa about two weeks ago, officials said. He spent time in Dallas-area homeless shelters before the attack Saturday in the suburb of Colleyville.
Akram was not believed to be included in the Terrorist Screening Database, a listing of known or suspected terrorists maintained by the FBI and shared with a variety of federal agencies, two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press. Had he been included, it would have been extremely difficult for him to get into the country.
“Our understanding, and obviously we’re still looking into this, is that he was checked against U.S. government databases multiple times prior to entering the country, and the U.S. government did not have any derogatory information about the individual in our systems at the time of entry,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
She added: “We’re certainly looking back … what occurred to learn every possible lesson we can to prevent attacks like this in the future.”
White House soft-launches COVID-19 test request website
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Tuesday quietly launched its website for Americans to request free at-home COVID-19 tests, a day before the site was scheduled to officially go online.
The website, COVIDTests.gov, now includes a link for Americans to access an order form run by the U.S. Postal Service. People can order four at-home tests per residential address, to be delivered by the Postal Service. It marks the latest step by President Joe Biden to address criticism of low inventory and long lines for testing during a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the website was in “beta testing” and operating at a “limited capacity” ahead of its official launch. The website will officially launch mid-morning Wednesday, Psaki said.
There were isolated reports Tuesday afternoon of issues relating to the website’s address verification tool erroneously enforcing the four-per-household cap on apartment buildings and other multi-unit dwellings, but it was not immediately clear how widespread the issue was.
At points Tuesday more than 750,000 people were accessing the website at the same time, according to public government tracking data, but it was not immediately known how many orders were placed.
Harris still struggling to define herself one year in VP job
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden put the full weight of his presidency behind voting rights action last week, heading to Capitol Hill in an effort to push Democrats to change Senate rules to pass legislation.
Vice President Kamala Harris — whom Biden tapped to take the lead on passing voting rights legislation in June — wasn’t there.
Both White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Harris aides had no clear answer when asked why the vice president didn’t join Biden in the meeting.
It was yet another example of the difficulty Harris has faced throughout her first year in office, as she’s struggled to define herself and her role.
Harris has grappled with an expansive portfolio of difficult assignments, fielded questions about her relationship with the president and faced what allies say is unprecedented scrutiny for a vice president — without, some worry, adequate support from the White House.
NTSB chief to fed agency: Stop using misleading statistics
WASHINGTON (AP) — With traffic fatalities spiking higher, the nation’s top safety investigator says a widely cited government statistic that 94% of serious crashes are solely due to driver error is misleading and that the Transportation Department should stop using it.
Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she’s surprised the wording remains on the department’s website even as the Biden administration pledges to embark on a broader strategy to stave off crashes through better road design, auto safety features and other measures.
Auto safety advocates have been calling on the department for years to stop using the statistic, including requests by Homendy in recent months as well as a letter from auto safety groups to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last month. They call the figure an unacceptable “excuse” for surging crashes. In a section touting the safety potential of automated vehicles, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s website states “94% of serious crashes are due to human error.”
“That has to change,” Homendy said of NHTSA’s continuing use of the statistic. “It’s dangerous.”
She said the public should be enraged that nearly 40,000 people are dying annually in traffic accidents and millions are injured, but rather sees it as “just a risk people take.”