White House Steps Up Work on What to do About Thawing Arctic

The Biden administration is stepping up its work to figure about what to do about the thawing Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.

The White House said Friday it is reactivating the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which coordinates domestic regulations and works with other Arctic nations. It also is adding six new members to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, including two Indigenous Alaskans.

The steering committee had been moribund for the past four years, not meeting at a high level, said David Balton, appointed to direct it. He said “it will step up and do more in the Arctic.”

The revamped committee will try to figure out what “needs to be done to get a better handle on addressing the changes in the Arctic,” Balton said.

University of Colorado scientist Twila Moon, who is not involved with the committee or commission, praised the developments. She said that because the Arctic is changing so quickly, “serious issues like national security, stability of buildings and roads, food availability, and much more must be considered and acted on promptly,” Moon said. “The U.S. cannot afford to sit back on Arctic issues.”

Balton, in an interview, said the Arctic is “opening up in a number of ways. Most of this is bad news.”

“But there’s also increased tourism and increased shipping, potentially other industries coming up into the Arctic that need regulation,” he said. “And right now the nations and the peoples of the Arctic are scrambling to keep up with this change.”

The new efforts emphasize working with Indigenous people.

“It’s really important to achieve these goals, so it has to be done in partnership with people who live in the area,” said committee deputy director Raychelle Alauq Daniel, a climate policy analyst and Yup’ik who grew up in Tuntuliak, Alaska.

Superpower tensions are likely to increase in the region as it becomes more ice-free in parts of the year, allowing not just more shipping but the temptation for going after resources such as oil, Balton said.

People who live in the Lower 48 states should still care about what happens in the polar region, Balton said.

“The Arctic is kind of a bellwether for what happens to the planet as a whole. The fate of places like Miami are tied very closely to the fate of Greenland ice sheet,” Balton said. “If you live in Topeka, Kansas, or if you live in California, if you live in Nigeria, your life is going to be affected. … The Arctic matters on all sorts of levels.”

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Biden: 60 Million Americans Eligible for COVID-19 Boosters

U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday that around 60 million Americans are eligible for a booster shot against the coronavirus.

His announcement came after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved a third Pfizer shot for those 65 and older, frontline workers and adults with underlying medical conditions.

Biden urged eligible Americans to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, and he said he would get his own shot as soon as possible.

In comments from the White House Friday, Biden said, “Like your first and second shot, the booster shot is free and easily accessible.”

The CDC approved the boosters for Americans 65 or older; frontline workers such as teachers, health care workers and others whose jobs place them at risk of contracting COVID-19; and those ages 50 to 64 with underlying conditions.

The booster shot will be available for those who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at least six months ago. The White House said Friday 20 million Americans are eligible for the shot immediately, while a total of 60 million Pfizer-shot recipients will be eligible for boosters once they reach the six-month mark.

The European Union’s drug watchdog said Thursday it plans to decide in early October whether to approve a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those over age 16.

Elsewhere, Norway’s government said Friday it would end all remaining coronavirus restrictions on Saturday.

“It is 561 days since we introduced the toughest measures in Norway in peacetime. … Now the time has come to return to a normal daily life,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg told a news conference. 

In Australia, health officials announced Friday that more than half the population had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

A wave of coronavirus infections has led to lockdowns in Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the capital, Canberra. 

Health officials in South Korea said Friday the country set a record for daily cases with 2,434 in the past 24 hours, surpassing a record set last month. 

Officials said that although cases were spiking, the mortality rate and the number of severe cases remain relatively low. They attributed that in large part to a vaccination campaign that prioritized older people and those who were at high risk for disease.

In Singapore, the health ministry announced it was tightening restrictions to fight a wave of coronavirus infections. The new policies include limiting social gatherings to two people, down from five.

The ministry also reported 1,650 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Earlier this week, Singapore said 92% of the population had been fully vaccinated. Officials said about 98% of the confirmed coronavirus cases in the past four weeks were in people who had mild or no symptoms. 

Russia reported 828 deaths from COVID-19 in past 24 hours on Friday, the country’s highest daily number of the pandemic. The toll breaks the record set a day earlier.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Thursday in a video address to the United Nations General Assembly, “It is an indictment on humanity that more than 82% of the world’s vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than 1% has gone to low-income countries,” 

The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 4% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated.

“The hoarding and inequitable distribution with the resultant uneven vaccination patterns across the globe is not acceptable,” Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in a prerecorded message to the assembly on Thursday.

“Vaccine nationalism is self-defeating and contrary to the mantra that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe.’ Whether in the global North or South, rich or poor, old or young, all people of the world deserve access to vaccines.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

 

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CDC Approves Booster Shots for Some Pfizer Vaccine Recipients

The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved Pfizer vaccine booster shots for some individuals who completed their first vaccinations at least six months ago.

Front-line workers – teachers, health care workers and others whose jobs place them at risk of contracting COVID-19 – will be able to get the boosters, in addition to people 65 and older, nursing home residents, and other people, 50-64, with underlying conditions.

Rochelle Walensky added the front-line workers to the list of those eligible for the boosters prepared by a CDC’s advisory panel.

Walensky’s move placed the CDC in agreement with the Food and Drug Administration as to who should get the Pfizer booster shots. FDA recommendations Wednesday included frontline workers.

Also included in the eligibility recommendations are people 18-49 with underlying conditions.

Some information for this report is from the Associated Press.

 

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Simple Australian First-Aid Technique Could Save Shark Bite Survivors

An Australian researcher has developed a new first-aid technique that could save shark attack victims from a fatal loss of blood in the crucial moments after the attack.

The method requires a rescuer or bystander to place his or her fist on the femoral artery, between the hip of the wounded leg and the genitals, and apply pressure using their full body weight to stop blood flow to the leg wound. It is a practice commonly used in some hospital emergency rooms for treating severe leg injuries.

The technique was developed by Dr. Nicholas Taylor, associate dean of the Australian National University Medical School and an avid surfer, and described in a paper published Friday in the Journal of Emergency Medicine Australasia.

Taylor says research has shown that compressing the femoral artery is more effective than applying pressure to a leg wound or using a makeshift tourniquet.

“You don’t need to be necessarily anywhere near the wound to make it work, and in some ways, it is less of a squeamish problem than trying to put pressure on a bleeding limb,” he said. “The trouble with a shark bite, they don’t just cause a clean cut, they cause lots of damage and trauma. They often break bones and rip muscle to pieces, and so trying to push on something to stop it bleeding is almost impossible. But pushing on the groin where there is no blood is actually an easy thing to do.”

Taylor says surfers are at a higher risk of a shark attack, and leg wounds are the most common injury. He says he would like his method to be promoted on first-aid posters at beaches around the world.

“On the International Shark Attack File, most of the shark attacks happen in the USA, followed by Australia, then South Africa and then Europe, and there’s a few islands like Reunion, which tends to get a, you know, disproportionate number of shark attacks,” he said. “Australia was unlucky to lead the world in fatalities in the last couple of years. You know, anywhere where there’s sharks, people are at potential risk, and I think this technique, if it’s well-known, could potentially be a lifesaver.”

The Australian research asserts that shark attacks “are increasing in frequency in Australasia and worldwide.”

The year 2020 was the worst for fatal shark attacks since 2013. The U.S.-based International Shark Attack File recorded 10 deaths last year. Six were in Australian waters.

 

 

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Mask Mandate Prompts Cheers, Jeers in Charlotte, North Carolina

The fluctuating severity of the pandemic and ever-changing public health pronouncements have left North Carolina with a patchwork of masking requirements, mirroring much of the United States. Some residents embrace the mandates, others do not.

“I personally feel like it affects my breathing,” said Mackenzie Gilley when asked about mask-wearing.

Gilley, 26, a leasing agent in a Charlotte high-rise apartment complex, said masks impede her work.

“I have a job that’s always been on the front lines in property management, where it’s very difficult to talk to people and relate to people wearing the mask all day,” Gilley told VOA.

In May of this year, as vaccination rates increased and COVID-19 cases plunged, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper lifted a statewide mask mandate that had been in effect for nearly a year.

In August, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases triggered by the delta variant, the city of Charlotte reimposed a mandate that masks be worn “in any indoor public place, business, or establishment” regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

The Aug. 18 citywide mandate was followed by a similar order for surrounding Mecklenburg County, population 1.1 million, where average daily infection rates topped 500.

The trend of rising infections appears to have reversed in recent weeks, but area residents are nevertheless compelled to embrace a public health measure some find cumbersome, and many had hoped were a thing of the past.

Others applauded Charlotte for requiring masks indoors.

“Personally, I was very happy about the mask mandate,” medical student Kirthi Reddy, 23, told VOA. “I think this is a great step to try and control the virus the best we can.”

Reddy, who is aiming for placement as a medical resident, added, “COVID is something that is rapidly spreading and mutating, so I think it’s very important. If we don’t (mask up), the virus will only mutate and spread even more.”

Gilley urged a case-by-case basis for face coverings.

“I think it should be up to the (individual) business whether or not they want to enforce it,” she said. “It has just gone on for way too long.”

 

Health care professionals like pediatric nurse Zoe Morgan warned against apathy in preventing virus transmission.

“I think the new mask mandate since the delta variant is very necessary,” she said, adding that, even with rising vaccination rates, people shouldn’t lose diligence in protecting themselves.

“I think everyone getting vaccinated and the numbers of vaccinated (people) increasing is wonderful,” Morgan said. “However, the delta variant is just that, it’s a variant. This proves that we can still catch the virus, spread it, even if we are vaccinated.”

Morgan described how a few weeks ago, amid aggressive spread of the delta variant, her entire hospital unit suspended operations when several staffers contracted the virus, forcing her and her colleagues into quarantine. The unit resumed admitting patients this week.

Morgan believes people went about their lives with a false sense of security as the delta variant spread.

“I think this has to do with the delta variant, and people feeling reassured since everyone was getting vaccinated, the numbers were going down, and employees were admittedly less strict and … probably not as diligent as they should have been with masks,” she said.

Enforcing the mandate

Authorities in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are relying on the public to comply with mask mandates rather than strict enforcement. As of the beginning of the week, the local police department reported it had issued zero citations for failing to wear a mask since the renewed orders went into effect.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) “has worked to reach voluntary cooperation with each member of the community through education and conversations,” Public Information Officer Thomas Hildebrand told VOA, saying officers have focused on communication and outreach to the community.

“Our efforts are prompted through a complaint-driven approach,” he said. “This has been the CMPD’s approach to consistent enforcement of the mandate, and it will remain so until the mandate is rescinded.”

Some see voluntary enforcement as no enforcement.

“I think the overall mask mandate should be enforced a little more,” said Tamia Wately.

The 21-year-old works at an arcade park and said that mask-wearing is not strictly enforced in her workplace. She indicated she would welcome more coercive means to force compliance.

“It would definitely make a difference. I think many companies would start enforcing it more,” she said, adding that, to the extent she can make arcade visitors don masks, “I try to do my best.”

Morgan said business owners should do their part.

“I think everyone should just kind of be, in essence, a team player and wear their masks,” she said.

No date has been set for ending mask mandates in the Charlotte area. Local officials told VOA any decision will be made in consultation with Mecklenburg County’s health department.

Meanwhile, the city is incentivizing municipal employees to get vaccinated, offering a $250 pay bonus to those who provide proof of vaccination by Sept. 30. An additional bonus has been promised if the municipal workforce reaches a 75% inoculation rate.

As of Sept. 1, about 62% of Charlotte city employees were vaccinated.

For Mecklenburg County as a whole, about 54% of the population, or just over 600,000 people, were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 16.

 

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Displaced Children in Northeast Syria May Never Recover, Observers Fear 

Nearly 2½ years after the fall of the Islamic State terror group’s self-declared caliphate, there still appears to be no escape for tens of thousands of children left homeless in its wake. 

Aid groups and observers say the children, some from families that flocked to join Islamic State and some from families who fled from its forces, are wasting away in displaced persons camps in northeast Syria, stalked by violence and even death. 

“These children are experiencing traumatic events that no child should have to go through,” said Sonia Khush, Syria response director for Save the Children, in a statement Thursday.

“It is incomprehensible that they are condemned to this life,” Khush added. “Every day they are denied the opportunity to return to their home, denied the specialized services they so desperately need, and denied the right to live in safety and recover from their experiences is a day too many.” 

In a report Thursday, the aid group described the conditions in the two main camps — al-Hol and Roj — as dire for the 40,000 children who live there. 

The camps are strewn with rubbish and waste, the report said, and there is little access to sanitation or health care. Some residents complained they sometimes go days without drinking water. 

Malnutrition rates are rising, and diseases are taking a toll, all contributing to the deaths of two children a week on average through the first eight months of 2021, according to the report. 

Despite a crackdown by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late March and early April,  violence is also widespread. 

The pro-Kurdish Rojava Information Center (RIC) has recorded 86 killings at al-Hol through the end of August, including more than 30 since the start of April. 

In three cases this year, the victims were children, all shot to death. 

“I fear living in the camp,” one 10-year-old told Save the Children. “The people here keep fighting. I close my ears with my hands whenever I hear them fight. I don’t even let my mother go outside.” 

Many of the children are already starting to lash out. Thirty-seven percent of caregivers at the al-Hol camp told Save the Children that their children “are always or usually angry.” 

And there are concerns it will only get worse. 

“The longer they remain in the camps, the more acute a lack of belonging can become, growing frustration, a sense of uncertainty and a risk — particularly for boys — of prolonged detention can all reinforce trauma and isolation,” the report said. 

Others have also been sounding alarms. 

“Fear, worry and stress is commonplace among children, adolescents and young people,” an international aid worker with access to the camps told VOA last year. “Deprived from the traditional community support they enjoyed back home, it has led to significant long-term mental health and psychosocial consequences.” 

The worker further warned that “specialized targeted mental health interventions” had not been available. 

VOA reached out to the SDF and the Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, which oversee security for the camps and have yet to respond to the Save the Children report. But both have repeatedly called for more help to maintain the camps and for third countries to repatriate their citizens.

“The international community must help, and the citizens of every country must return to their homeland,” Ali al-Hassan, a spokesman for the internal security forces, said earlier this year. 

The process, though, has been slow. 

According to Save the Children, since 2017, just under 1,200 children have been repatriated from Syria, with just 14 repatriation operations taking place so far this year. 

The U.S. State Department has consistently pressured countries to take back citizens stuck in northeast Syria. The department itself repatriated 27 known Islamic State supporters from SDF custody.

Still, top U.S. military officials have repeatedly raised concerns that the combined efforts have not been enough. 

“It is one of my very highest concerns,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in April. 

“The long-term threat is ISIS radicalization,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group. “Unless we find a way to pull these children out of these camps … find a way to reintegrate them into civil society and deradicalize them, we are giving ourselves a very significant military problem 10 years down the road.” 

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US Sets the Stage for COVID Booster Shots for Millions

The U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 stood on the verge of a major new phase as government advisers Thursday recommended booster doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for millions of older or otherwise vulnerable Americans — despite doubts the extra shots will do much to slow the pandemic.

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said boosters should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents and those ages 50 to 64 who have underlying health problems that put them at greater risk. The extra dose would be given once they are at least six months past their last Pfizer shot.

Deciding who else might get one was far tougher. While there is little evidence that younger people are in danger of waning immunity, the panel offered the option of a booster for those 18 to 49 who have chronic health problems and want one.

But the advisers refused to go further and open boosters to otherwise healthy front-line health care workers who aren’t at risk of severe illness but want to avoid even a mild infection.

“We might as well just say give it to everyone 18 and older. We have a very effective vaccine, and it’s like saying, ‘It’s not working.’ It is working,” said Dr. Pablo Sanchez of Ohio State University, who helped block the broadest booster option. 

Still, getting the unvaccinated their first shots remains the top priority, and the panel wrestled with whether the booster debate was distracting from that goal.

All three of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. still are highly protective against severe illness, hospitalization and death, even amid the spread of the extra-contagious delta variant. But only about 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, just 55% of the population.

 

“We can give boosters to people, but that’s not really the answer to this pandemic,” said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University. “Hospitals are full because people are not vaccinated. We are declining care to people who deserve care because we are full of unvaccinated COVID-positive patients.”

Thursday’s decision represented a dramatic scaling back of the Biden administration plan, announced last month, to dispense boosters to nearly everyone to shore up their protection. Late Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration, like the CDC, signed off on Pfizer boosters for a much more targeted slice of the American population than the White House envisioned.

It falls to the CDC to set final U.S. policy on who qualifies for the extra shot. The CDC usually follows its advisers’ recommendations. A final decision from the agency was expected later Thursday.

The booster plan marks an important shift in the nation’s vaccination drive. Britain and Israel are already giving a third round of shots over strong objections from the World Health Organization that poor countries don’t have enough for their initial doses.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky opened Thursday’s meeting by stressing that vaccinating the unvaccinated remains the top goal “here in America and around the world.”

Walensky acknowledged that the data on who really needs a booster right away “are not perfect.” “Yet collectively they form a picture for us,” she said, “and they are what we have in this moment to make a decision about the next stage in this pandemic.”

The CDC panel stressed its recommendations will be changed if new evidence shows more people need a booster.

 

The CDC advisers expressed concern over the millions more Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots early in the vaccine rollout. The government still hasn’t considered boosters for those brands and has no data on whether it’s safe or effective to mix-and-match and give those people a Pfizer shot.

“I just don’t understand how later this afternoon we can say to people 65 and older, ‘You’re at risk for severe illness and death, but only half of you can protect yourselves right now,'” said Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University.

About 26 million Americans got their last Pfizer dose at least six months ago, about half of whom are 65 or older. It’s not clear how many more would meet the CDC panel’s initial booster qualifications.

CDC data shows the vaccines still offer strong protection for all ages, but there is a slight drop among the oldest adults. And immunity against milder infection appears to be waning months after people’s initial immunization.

For most people, if you’re not in a group recommended for a booster, “it’s really because we think you’re well-protected,” said Dr. Matthew Daley of Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “This isn’t about who deserves a booster, but who needs a booster.”

Among people who stand to benefit from a booster, there are few risks, the CDC concluded. Serious side effects from the first two Pfizer doses are exceedingly rare, including heart inflammation that sometimes occurs in younger men. Data from Israel, which has given nearly 3 million people — mostly 60 and older — a third Pfizer dose, has uncovered no red flags.

The panelists also wrestled with how to even tell when a booster is needed. While an extra dose revs up numbers of virus-fighting antibodies, those naturally wane over time and no one knows how long the antibody boost from a third Pfizer dose will last — or how much protection it really adds, since the immune system also forms additional defenses after vaccination.

The U.S. has already authorized third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and transplant recipients. Other Americans, healthy or not, have managed to get boosters, in some cases simply by asking. 

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All-Civilian Space Crew Returns Home

The all-amateur crew of the SpaceX Dragon capsule makes it home, but not before a string of first time-ever events. Plus, cosmonauts vote from space, and a film crew readies for a trip to the International Space Station. Buckle up, as VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports on this historic Week in Space.

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Lava, Smoke, Ash Cover La Palma as Volcano Threatens Banana Crop

Jets of red hot lava shot into the sky on Spain’s La Palma on Thursday as a huge cloud of toxic ash drifted from the Cumbre Vieja volcano toward the mainland and jeopardized the island’s economically crucial banana crops.

 

Walls of lava, which turn black when exposed to the air, have advanced slowly westward since Sunday, engulfing everything in their path, including houses, schools and some banana plantations.

 

Farmers near the town of Todoque raced to save as much as possible of their crop, piling their trucks high with sacks of the green bananas, on which many of the islanders depend for their livelihood.

 

“We’re just trying to take everything we can,” said a farmer who gave his name as Roberto from the window of his pickup.  

 

Some 15% of La Palma’s 140 million kilogram annual banana production could be at risk if farmers are unable to access plantations and tend to their crops, Sergio Caceres, manager of producer’s association Asprocan, told Reuters.

 

“There is the main tragedy of destroyed houses — many of those affected are banana producers or employees — but their livelihood is further down the hill,” he said. “Some farms have already been covered.”

 

Caceres said the farmers already were suffering losses and warned that if lava pollutes the water supply it could potentially cause problems for months to come.

 

The island produces around a quarter of the Canary Islands’ renowned bananas, which hold protected designation of origin status.

 

With more than 200 houses destroyed and thousands of evacuated people unable to return home, the Canary Islands’ regional government said it would buy two housing developments with a combined 73 properties for those made homeless. Spanish banks jointly announced they would offer vacant homes they hold across the Canaries as emergency shelter.

 

Property portal Idealista estimated the volcano had so far destroyed property worth about 87 million euros ($102 million). Experts had originally predicted the lava would hit the Atlantic Ocean late Monday, but its descent has slowed to a glacial pace of around 4 meters per hour and authorities say it may stop before reaching the sea.

 

Volcanologists have said gases from the eruption are not harmful to health. But a plume of thick cloud now extends some 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) into the air, raising concerns of visibility for flights. The airport remains open, but authorities have created two exclusion zones where only authorized aircraft can fly.  

 

Prevailing winds are expected to propel the cloud northeast over the rest of the Canary archipelago, the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

 

National weather service AEMET said air quality had not been affected at surface level and ruled out acid rain falling over the mainland or the Balearic Islands and was even unlikely in the Canary islands.

 

Local authorities have warned people to clean food and clothes to avoid ingesting the toxic ash.

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Mandates Give Rise to Booming Black Market for Fake Vaccine Cards

As more businesses, universities, and federal and local governments demand proof of inoculation against COVID-19, the black market for fake vaccine cards appears to be booming.

U.S. Customs officials in Cincinnati, Ohio, intercepted five shipments containing 1,683 counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cards and 2,034 fake Pfizer inoculation stickers since August 16. The shipments from China were headed to private homes and apartments in the states o Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York and Texas.

In August, a Chicago pharmacist was arrested after being accused of selling dozens of authentic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 vaccination cards on eBay. In July, a naturopathic physician in Northern California was arrested for allegedly selling fake COVID-19 immunization treatments and forged vaccination cards. 

‘A type of fraud’

Legal experts compare phony vaccine cards to counterfeit money or fake drivers’ licenses. 

“It’s a type of fraud,” says Wesley Oliver, professor of law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “There’s another theory that you are stealing from the government their insignia and their imprimatur that you are in fact vaccinated, and both are just sort of different styles of the same crime.”

President Joe Biden recently called on all businesses with 100 or more employees to require their workers either be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 once a week. A global cybersecurity company reports that the price of fake vaccine cards and the numbers of people selling them shot up since Biden announced the vaccine mandate in early September.

Pretending to be vaccinated trespasses on other people’s rights, according to Boston University law professor Christopher Robertson. 

“Part of the free enterprise system is we decide where we want to go, and who we want to interact with and on what terms. And so, it really is an invasion of everyone else’s bodily integrity, their security, and knowing that they can be safe going into a place that’s requiring proof of vaccination,” Robertson says. “It’s kind of similar to battery in exposing someone to risk that they didn’t consent to be exposed to.” 

Exposing others to risk

Last month, 15 people in New York were charged in connection with selling and buying phony COVID-19 vaccine cards. A woman who called herself @AntiVaxMomma on Instagram stands accused of selling 250 fake vaccination certificates for about $200 per card. A second suspect, a 27-year-old medical clinic worker, allegedly charged an extra $250 to enter fake vaccine data for at least 10 people into New York’s immunization database. Front-line health care and essential workers are among the people accused of buying the phony cards. 

The idea of health care workers falsifying their vaccination status terrifies cancer patient Diana Martinez, who lives in California. She is one of millions of Americans with an impaired immune system, which makes it harder for her body to fight off disease.

She dreads the thought of getting on an elevator with an unmasked, unvaccinated person. 

“They don’t understand how they look to me. It’s like someone has jumped on with a loaded gun,” Martinez says. “Those few moments when I’m just trying to get up to my doctor’s floor, they may have infected me. They may have ended my life because my immune system is so compromised that I’m more vulnerable to whatever they might be spreading.” 

Martinez could be especially vulnerable because the COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective in people with suppressed immune systems. For example, Martinez’s physician finds that patients with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, don’t respond as well as healthy people do to mRNA vaccines, like the ones produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

“We found that in the patients who got the vaccination, that 45% had a normal response, 22% had an impaired response, and 33% had no response,” says Dr. James Berenson, founder and president of the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research in West Hollywood, California. 

Berenson adds that the list of people with compromised immune systems include “older folks, those who are on immunosuppressive therapies like patients with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriatic arthritis, people on therapies that are trying to tamp down the immune system.”

‘Wide latitude’ for penalties 

When it comes to suspects charged with buying and selling phony vaccination certificates, the judges are certain to look at who was harmed by the alleged crime, according to Oliver. 

“Basically, people are buying the right to take a risk with other people’s lives. That’s not something that we typically see in criminal law,” Oliver says. “The real harm that you’ve done is create a risk to the population. And with most crimes, the degree of harm that you create, or the risk of physical harm, is part of the sentencing scheme.” 

Which could mean that health care workers, or those who work in nursing homes, involved in the buying or selling of forged vaccine cards could face worse penalties. 

“The more people you put at risk, the more vulnerable the population put at risk, clearly, the more harshly you’re going to be sentenced,” Oliver says. 

The integrity of the entire vaccination card system is at stake, Robertson says. 

“It’s similar to forging money. If half of all the currency in circulation was actually fake, then nobody could trust the currency at all,” he says. “When we do detect it, we really have to drop the hammer and make that deterrent signal clear to the public, that we’re not messing around, that lives are at stake.” 

Judges have wide latitude when it comes to sentencing. When making their decision, they consider both physical and financial harm caused by the perpetrator, according to Oliver. He estimates that if convicted, vaccine card fakers could face anywhere from probation to up to 20 years in prison. 

Berenson hopes judges will deliver harsh punishments that encourage people in the broader community to look beyond themselves and focus on the big picture. 

 

“We’re all in this together. It’s not about you — it’s about the bigger good. You need to think about the bigger good,” the cancer physician says. “So, if you get vaccinated, we can get rid of this. And if you actually wear a mask and socially distance, there’s no place for the virus to go. If you don’t, this is going to go on and on and on for years.” 

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Thailand Ramps Up COVID Vaccination, Plans to Reopen Key Tourist Regions

Thailand’s COVID vaccination rate currently stands at less than 25% of the population as the government says it is ramping up inoculations ahead of a planned reopening of several key tourist regions. Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas in the northern part of the country are among the locations included in the plan to reopen by Oct. 15. Steve Sandford visited Chiang Mai and has this report for VOA.

Camera: Steve Sandford

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Florida Changes Quarantine Guidelines for Students Exposed to COVID-19

The southeastern U.S. state of Florida says parents or legal guardians can decide whether or not to quarantine their children if they have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Dr. Joseph Lapado, the state’s newly appointed surgeon general, signed new guidelines Thursday that will allow students to continue attending in-person classes “without restrictions or disparate treatment” as long as they have no symptoms of the virus. The parent or legal guardian can decide to keep their child at home for seven days from the date of last contact with someone who tested positive.

The new guidelines replace a previous one that mandated students enter quarantine for at least four days after being exposed to someone who had tested positive. It does maintain the previous rule that students who test positive either quarantine for 10 days, test negative for the disease and remain free of symptoms or show a doctor’s note giving them permission before returning to school.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis defended the new guidelines during a press conference Wednesday.

“Quarantining healthy students is incredibly damaging for their educational achievement,” DeSantis said.

“It’s also disruptive for families,” he added, saying the state would follow a “symptoms-based approach.”

The new guidelines run counter to recommendations issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for unvaccinated people to isolate for 14 days if they have been within 2 meters of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

The new guidelines also prompted a judge to dismiss a court challenge brought by five local school districts against the state’s ban on local school districts to impose mandatory face masks. The DeSantis administration has withheld funding to school districts and withheld salaries of local superintendents and school board members who went against the governor’s order banning such mandates.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press.

 

 

 

 

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Pfizer Says Kids 5-11 Can Be Vaccinated Against COVID

This week, Pfizer released promising news in the effort to end the coronavirus pandemic, saying its COVID-19 vaccine works for young children. VOA’s Carol Pearson has more on this development.

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US Donates an Additional 500 Million Doses of Pfizer Vaccine

U.S. President Joe Biden convened a virtual COVID-19 summit Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, aiming to rally world leaders, philanthropists, civil society, nongovernmental organizations and industry to defeat the virus by the end of 2022. He also announced an additional donation of half a billion doses of the Pfizer vaccine. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has more.

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Researchers Detect Malaria Resistant to Key Drug in Africa

Scientists have found evidence of a resistant form of malaria in Uganda, a worrying sign that the top drug used against the parasitic disease could ultimately be rendered useless without more action to stop its spread.

Researchers in Uganda analyzed blood samples from patients treated with artemisinin, the primary medicine used for malaria in Africa in combination with other drugs. They found that by 2019, nearly 20% of the samples had genetic mutations, suggesting the treatment was ineffective. Lab tests showed it took much longer for those patients to get rid of the parasites that cause malaria.

Drug-resistant forms of malaria were previously detected in Asia, and health officials have been nervously watching for any signs in Africa, which accounts for more than 90% of the world’s malaria cases. Some isolated drug-resistant strains of malaria have previously been seen in Rwanda.

“Our findings suggest a potential risk of cross-border spread across Africa,” the researchers wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine, which published the study Wednesday.

The drug-resistant strains emerged in Uganda rather than being imported from elsewhere, they reported. They examined 240 blood samples over three years.

Malaria is spread by mosquito bites and kills more than 400,000 people every year, mostly children under 5 and pregnant women.

Resistance has ‘a foothold’

Dr. Philip Rosenthal, a professor of medicine at the University of California- San Francisco, said that the new findings in Uganda, after past results in Rwanda, “prove that resistance really now has a foothold in Africa.”

Rosenthal, who was not involved in the new study, said it was likely there was undetected drug resistance elsewhere on the continent. He said drug-resistant versions of malaria emerged in Cambodia years ago and have now spread across Asia. He predicted a similar path for the disease in Africa, with deadlier consequences given the burden of malaria on the continent.

Dr. Nicholas White, a professor of tropical medicine at Mahidol University in Bangkok, described the new paper’s conclusions about emerging malaria resistance as “unequivocal.”

“We basically rely on one drug for malaria, and now it’s been hobbled,” said White, who also wrote an accompanying editorial in the Journal.

He suggested that instead of the standard approach, where one or two other drugs are used in combination with artemisinin, doctors should now use three, as is often done in treating tuberculosis and HIV.

White said public health officials need to act to stem drug-resistant malaria, by beefing up surveillance and supporting research into new drugs, among other measures.

“We shouldn’t wait until the fire is burning to do something, but that is not what generally happens in global health,” he said, citing the failures to stop the coronavirus pandemic as an example.

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Arctic Sea Ice Shrank Less in 2021, Scientists Say

Scientists with the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in the U.S. state of Colorado said Wednesday that, as summer was ending in the Northern Hemisphere, Arctic sea ice had shrunk less in 2021 than in other recent years. 

Supported by NASA and other federal agencies, the NSIDC is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It is among the research organizations that monitor the ebb and flow of the Arctic ice pack. Scientists with the center determined the ice pack reached its minimum extent for the year on September 16.

Sea ice extent is defined as the total area in which ice concentration is at least 15% 

This year, satellite observations determined Arctic ice covered a minimum of 1.82 million square kilometers, which NSIDC scientists said was the highest minimum coverage since 2014, and the 12th lowest in 43 years of satellite records. 

In a statement, NSIDC Director Mark Serreze said, “We had a reprieve this year — a cool and stormy summer with less ice melt. But the amount of old, thick sea ice is as low as it has ever been in our satellite record.” 

The NSIDC said the last 15 years have produced the lowest 15 sea ice extents in the satellite record. The amount of old, multiyear ice — that is, ice that has remained frozen through at least one summer melt season — is at one of the lowest levels in the ice age record, which began in 1984. 

The center cautioned the Arctic Sea ice extent figures were preliminary, as continued melting could still push the ice minimum extent lower before the early winter freeze begins. NSIDC will issue a formal announcement at the beginning of October with full analysis of the possible causes behind this year’s ice conditions.

 

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