Biden promotes milestone of 300M vaccine shots in 150 days
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden took a cautious victory lap Friday in his quest to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, announcing that 300 million vaccine shots have been administered in the 150 days since he took office.
Biden credited scientists, companies, the American people and his whole-of-government effort. The president noted that the widespread vaccination campaign had set the stage for most Americans to have a relatively normal summer as businesses reopen and employers hire.
“We’re heading into a very different summer compared to last year,” the president said. “A bright summer. Prayerfully, a summer of joy.”
But as Biden marks one milestone, he is in danger of failing to meet another: his target to have 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July Fourth, in a little over two weeks.
Overall, about 168 million American adults, or 65.1% of the U.S. population 18 years and older, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
US Catholic bishops OK steps toward possible rebuke of Biden
U.S. Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved the drafting of a “teaching document” that many of them hope will rebuke Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, for receiving Communion despite their support for abortion rights.
The decision, vehemently opposed by a minority of bishops, came despite appeals from the Vatican for a more cautious and collegial approach to the divisive issue. And it raises questions of how closely the bishops will be able to cooperate with the Biden administration on issues such as immigration and racial injustice.
The result of the vote — 168 in favor and 55 against — was announced Friday near the end of a three-day meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that was held virtually. The bishops had cast their votes privately on Thursday after several hours of impassioned debate.
Supporters of the measure said a strong rebuke of Biden is needed because of his recent actions protecting and expanding abortion access, while opponents warned that such action would portray the bishops as a partisan force during a time of bitter political divisions across the country.
As a result of the vote, the USCCB’s doctrine committee will draft a statement on the meaning of Communion in the life of the church that will be submitted for consideration at a future meeting, probably an in-person gathering in November. To be formally adopted, the document would need support of two-thirds of the bishops.
Brazil still debating dubious virus drug amid 500,000 deaths
BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — As Brazil hurtles toward an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world — science is on trial inside the country and the truth is up for grabs.
With the milestone likely to be reached this weekend, Brazil’s Senate is publicly investigating how the toll got so high, focusing on why President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government ignored opportunities to buy vaccines for months while it relentlessly pushed hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug that rigorous studies have shown to be ineffective in treating COVID-19.
The nationally televised hearings have contained enough scientific claims, counterclaims and outright falsehoods to keep fact-checkers busy.
The skepticism has extended to the death toll itself, with Bolsonaro arguing the official tally from his own Health Ministry is greatly exaggerated and some epidemiologists saying the real figure is significantly higher — perhaps hundreds of thousands higher.
Dr. Abdel Latif, who oversees an intensive care unit an hour from Sao Paulo, said the fear and desperation caused by the coronavirus have been compounded by misinformation and opinions from self-styled specialists and a lack of proper guidance from the government.
Apathy greets Iran presidential vote dominated by hard-liner
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranians voted Friday in a presidential election dominated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hard-line protege after the disqualification of his strongest competition, fueling apathy that left some polling places largely deserted despite pleas to support the Islamic Republic at the ballot box.
Opinion polling by state-linked organizations, along with analysts, indicated that judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi — who already is under U.S. sanctions — was the front-runner in a field of only four candidates. Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati is running as the moderate candidate but hasn’t inspired the same support as outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is term-limited from seeking the office again.
As night fell, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. At one polling place inside a mosque in central Tehran, a Shiite cleric played soccer with a young boy as most of its workers napped in a courtyard. At another, officials watched videos on their mobile phones as state television blared beside them, offering only tight shots of locations around the country — as opposed to the long, snaking lines of past elections.
Balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called “crowding” at several polling places nationwide. Paper ballots, stuffed into large plastic boxes, were to be counted by hand through the night, and authorities said they expected to have initial results and turnout figures Saturday morning at the earliest.
“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”
Western heat wave threatens health in vulnerable communities
PHOENIX (AP) — Extreme temperatures like the ones blistering the American West this week aren’t just annoying, they’re deadly.
The record-breaking temperatures this week are a weather emergency, scientists and health care experts say, with heat responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than all other natural disasters combined. With more frequent and intense heat waves likely because of climate change and the worst drought in modern history, they say communities must better protect the vulnerable, like homeless people and those who live in ethnically and racially diverse low-income neighborhoods.
“This heat has an important effect on people and their health,” said Dr. Suganya Karuppana, chief medical director at the Valle del Sol community health clinics in Arizona.
People — along with plants and animals — need cooler temperatures at night to recover from the stress of high heat, scientists and doctors said. But with overnight temperatures in the 90s, that’s not happening.
Karuppana noted that many people she sees may have no car and have to take public transportation in the Phoenix heat, walking through neighborhoods with few trees and waiting at bus and light rail stops with no or little shade. Some people live in poorly ventilated mobile homes or without air conditioning. Or they may work outside in the sun as construction workers or landscapers.
Biden objects to raising gas tax to pay for infrastructure
WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House made clear Friday that President Joe Biden was opposed to letting the federal gasoline tax rise at the rate of inflation to help pay for an infrastructure package that a bipartisan group of 21 senators is trying to craft.
The gas tax increase was part of an early package that called for $579 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, rail and public transit. It’s unclear if it will make the final cut and the White House seems intent on making sure it doesn’t.
“The President has been clear throughout these negotiations: He is adamantly opposed to raising taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said. “After the extraordinarily hard times that ordinary Americans endured in 2020 — job losses, shrinking incomes, squeezed budgets — he is simply not going to allow Congress to raise taxes on those who suffered the most.”
The federal gas tax stands at 18.4 cents a gallon and has not increased since 1993. It helps pay for highways and mass transit programs around the country. Congress has traditionally relied on the user-pay principle to pay for road and bridge work, but is increasingly relying on general funds to accomplish that task. Lawmakers from both parties are wary of attack ads accusing them of supporting a hike in gas prices.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said that indexing the gas tax to inflation was a nonstarter for him.
Fierce Capitol attacks on police in newly released videos
Videos released under court order provide a chilling new look at the chaos at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, including body camera footage that shows a man charging at a police officer with a flagpole and tackling him to the ground.
Federal judges ordered the release of the videos after media organizations, including The Associated Press, went to court to request that the Department of Justice provide access. The videos are being presented as evidence in prosecutors’ cases against three men charged with assaulting police.
The new videos show a Marine Corps veteran and former New York City police officer wielding a flagpole as he attacks police, as well as rioters crushing another officer into a door as he screams in pain. Still another video shows a New Jersey man punching an officer in the head.
The release comes at a time when Republican lawmakers in Washington increasingly try to downplay the siege, portraying the breach of the Capitol as a mostly peaceful protest despite the shocking violence that unfolded.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump fought past police lines to storm the building and interrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s election win over Trump.
Federal holiday pressures companies to give Juneteenth off
NEW YORK (AP) — The declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is putting the pressure on more U.S. companies to give their employees the day off, accelerating a movement that took off last year in response to the racial justice protests that swept the country.
Hundreds of top companies had already pledged last year to observe Juneteenth in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the national reckoning on racism that followed.
But most private companies take their cues from the federal government — the country’s largest employer — in drawing up their holiday calendars. President Joe Biden signed legislation Thursday establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery, following the passage of a bipartisan Congressional bill.
More than 800 companies have publicly pledged to observe Juneteenth, according to HellaCreative, a group of Black creative professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area that launched a campaign last year to build corporate support for making the June 19th an official holiday. That is nearly double the number of companies that had joined the pledge last year.
Patagonia, the outdoor apparel retailer, announced that all of its U.S. stores will be closed Saturday, and its corporate offices would be closed Monday. Other brands, including Target, J.C. Penney and Best Buy had pledged last year to adopt Juneteenth as a paid holiday, though they are keeping stores open. Several major banks have said employees will get a floating paid day off.
Declaration of Juneteenth holiday sparks scramble in states
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Congress and President Joe Biden acted with unusual swiftness this week in approving Juneteenth as a national holiday. That shifted the battle to the states, where the holiday faces a far less enthusiastic response.
Nearly all states recognize Juneteenth in some fashion, at least on paper. But most have been slow to move beyond proclamations issued by governors or resolutions passed by lawmakers. So far, at least nine states have designated it in law as an official paid state holiday — Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington. All but Texas, where the events of the original Juneteenth took place, acted after the killing of George Floyd last year.
This year alone, legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday died in Florida and South Dakota and stalled in Ohio, all states controlled by Republicans. But even in Maryland, where Democrats control the Legislature, a Juneteenth bill passed one chamber only to die in the other.
The effort recalls the drawn-out battles over recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the last time the federal government designated a new holiday. That legislation, finally passed in 1983, scheduled the holiday to begin three years later. It set off bitter debates in the states over whether to enact their own holidays.
Only a handful of states headed into Thursday’s signing of the federal Juneteenth law with the paid holiday on the books to be celebrated in 2021. The governors of Washington, Illinois, Louisiana and Maine, by contrast, all signed more recent laws that were set to kick in for 2022, when June 19 falls on a Sunday.
Bourbon tourism shaking off pandemic slump in Kentucky
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — With tourists flocking to distilleries, concerns about a pandemic hangover for Kentucky’s world-famous bourbon industry are quickly evaporating.
A $19 million tourist center that Heaven Hill Distillery opened just days ago in the heart of the state’s bourbon country is already overflowing — with reservations filling up quickly to learn about whiskey-making and sample its spirits, including its flagship Evan Williams whiskey.
It’s a similar story for the numerous other distilleries in the region that last spring were temporarily closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a year later, the businesses are facing such overwhelming demand for tours that one industry official has started encouraging people to call ahead or check tour availability online before pulling off the highway.
Starting last summer, some distilleries began allowing limited numbers of visitors in accordance with virus restrictions. With capacity limits now lifted, the attractions are gearing up for a full resurgence of guests, many from outside Kentucky.
“We saw it coming, but I don’t think we saw it coming this quick,” said Kentucky Distillers’ Association President Eric Gregory.