Recent news: U.S.A.

December 29, 2020

COVID-19 vaccine rollout to US troops overseas gets underway

The U.S. military began inoculating American troops based overseas this week, focusing on military and civilian health care workers, first responders and command teams.

Troops based in Japan, South Korea and Europe were among the first to receive the vaccine amid rising cases of the coronavirus around the world.

Army Lt. Col. Brian Cohee, a pulmonary and critical care physician, was among the 20 other service members to receive the vaccine at the Brian D. Allgood Army Community Hospital at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. Other locations administering the Moderna vaccine are Osan Air Base and Kunsan Air Base, both also in South Korea.

“I consider it a huge privilege to be able to be the one to start it off here in Korea,” Cohee told Stars and Stripes. “I have taken care of a decent number of coronavirus patients and seen what it can do.”U.S. Forces Japan began inoculations at Yokota Air Base on Monday after receiving just under 8,000 doses last week, a military spokesman said during a Facebook Live event on Tuesday.Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the chief of the 28,500 American troops deployed in South Korea, said in a statement that while the vaccine is 100% voluntary and not mandatory, “I strongly encourage all eligible individuals to receive the vaccine.”

Abrams was among those who were inoculated Tuesday.

He told Stars and Stripes that the Moderna vaccine was painless compared to the lingering effects of the anthrax vaccine series he received going into Operation Desert Shield nearly two decades ago.

The U.S. troops’ deployment in South Korea is meant to deter potential aggression from the North, and Abrams said the COVID-19 vaccine “is another tool that will help USFK maintain a robust combined defensive posture.”

In Europe, the U.S. Army said health clinics in Ansbach, Gragenwoehr and Vilseck, Germany, conducted their first inoculations of health care workers on Monday.

“The FDA only authorizes the use of a COVID-19 vaccine after careful and rigorous testing and trials,” Brig. Gen. Mark Thompson, Regional Health Command Europe commanding general, said in a statement. “We are excited to be playing a role in providing a very safe and effective vaccine to our military community. This vaccine is a vital part of our way forward to protect our people, their families and the communities where we live and work.”

The U.S. government and its partners will distribute 4.67 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and that of Moderna, U.S. Army General Gustave Perna said last week.

According to the FDA, the vaccine may cause some side effects, including pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and other problems.

GOP senators feel the heat on $2,000 stimulus

Several major burners have been turned up under Senate Republicans, who are sweating profusely as momentum builds for hiking the $600 stimulus checks already approved to $2,000.

Massive human suffering across the country, resultant anger among voters, the passage by the Democratic-controlled House of a bill to hike the amount to $2,000 and a promise by Sen. Bernie Sanders that he will block passage of the Defense Bill have all combined to force some Republican senators to resist their inclination to defeat the measure.

The House has passed legislation increasing the payments to $2,000, which President Trump has claimed he supports. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley were among the first GOP Senators to say they support it.

Now, after months of opposing any kind of stimulus package, the Republican senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, say they’ll support $2,000 stimulus checks as well.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a motion Tuesday by Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that the Senate approve the measure by unanimous consent.

Statements by the desperate Republican senatorial candidates in the neck-and-neck races in Georgia and other Republican senators are meaningless, of course, if McConnell succeeds in blocking a vote.

Enter Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, who says he will filibuster and block a vote on the entire military budget, the pet project of many Republicans and some Democrats, too, who are beholden to the nation’s military-industrial complex.

Sanders has vowed that he will block that vote for however long it takes for McConnell to allow a vote on the $2,000 stimulus checks.

“Let me be clear: If Senator McConnell doesn’t agree to an up or down vote to provide the working people of our country a $2,000 direct payment, Congress will not be going home for New Year’s Eve,” Sanders declared Tuesday.

Trump vetoed the defense bill because it contained a measure to change the names of bases named after Confederate war heroes. The Senate is expected to override that veto easily but Sanders has thrown a wrench into those plans.

The move by Sanders is causing the Republicans a host of problems. In the last days of the crucial Georgia campaign, Perdue and Loeffler and Perdue have broken with McConnell on the stimulus and now they will, in the event of a Sanders filibuster, be forced to stay in Washington rather than campaign in Georgia.

Sanders has acknowledged that his filibuster plan is designed to weaken McConnell by splitting GOP senators off against one another and simultaneously sabotage the GOP Senate campaigns in Georgia.

The pile of problems McConnell faces now have increased the likelihood, as the Trump administration exits and the Biden administration enters, that people can expect more meaningful federal help in the coming period.

In short, the deeper McConnell gets into trouble, the greater the chance that more Americans will be able to keep roofs over their heads and provide food for their families.

It is incumbent on Senate Democrats now to do everything in their power to support a Sanders filibuster effort and to assist him in continuing that effort until McConnell agrees to an up or down vote on the $2,000 stimulus bill.

U.S. reports over 2 mln child COVID-19 cases

Over two million children in the United States have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, according to the latest data of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association.

Nearly 179,000 new child COVID-19 cases were reported last week ending Dec. 24, according to the AAP.

Since Nov. 12, there has been an increase of one million child COVID-19 cases. Over the two weeks from Dec. 10 to 24, there was a 22 percent increase in child COVID-19 cases in the country, according to the AAP.

Children accounted for 12.4 percent of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States. The overall rate was 2,658 cases per 100,000 children in the population, according to the report.

“At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is rare among children. However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects,” the AAP said in the report.

US, EU urge release of Wuhan citizen journalist

The United States and European Union on Tuesday demanded that China release a citizen journalist jailed for reports from Wuhan, with top US diplomat Mike Pompeo accusing Beijing of covering up Covid-19.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer in custody since May, was Monday handed four years in prison over her early online accounts that provided a rare unvarnished glimpse of the city where the mysterious respiratory illness was first detected a year ago.

Pompeo in a statement called on China to “release her immediately and unconditionally.”

“The Chinese Communist Party has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the party’s official line, even regarding crucial public health information,” outgoing President Donald Trump’s secretary of state said.

Zhang’s reports challenged Beijing’s official narrative that the government valiantly defeated the virus, questioning hospital capacity and access to virus testing in the early days and showing aggression on the part of Chinese authorities to her filming on her phone.

The 37-year-old was sentenced by a Shanghai court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Pompeo is an outspoken critic of Beijing who has attacked China over its role in the origins of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.7 million lives worldwide.

Amid criticism of Trump’s handling of Covid-19, widely seen as a factor in his election defeat, Pompeo has not ruled out theories, dismissed by mainstream scientists, that China deliberately unleashed the virus.

Pompeo said Tuesday that Beijing’s censorship of Zhang was more evidence of how a “controllable outbreak turned into a deadly global pandemic.”

“Lying is a feature, not a bug of authoritarian regimes,” Pompeo said.

The Chinese government’s “fear of transparency and its ongoing repression of fundamental freedoms are a sign of weakness, not strength, and a threat to all of us.”

The European Union demanded that China release Zhang as well as 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea.

“According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated. It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance,” EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.

The EU statement comes as the bloc finalizes an investment deal with China after seven years of painstaking negotiations, despite concerns about Beijing’s rights record.

The office of the UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, earlier called the verdict part of an “excessive clampdown” on free expression over Covid and said it had raised concerns with Chinese authorities.

US House passes bill to boost stimulus checks to US$2,000 after Trump’s calls

The Democrats-held House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill to boost the second round of federal direct payments to US$2,000 for individuals, up from the US$600 for individuals in the new relief package.

The vote came after President Donald Trump recently asked Congress to increase the amount of stimulus checks. After holding up the legislation for a few days, the outgoing Republican president signed the bipartisan package into law Sunday night.

Following months of deadlock over the size and scope of the relief package, Democratic and Republican lawmakers finally reached a deal on a US$900-billion relief plan.

The House and Senate both approved the package a week ago, along with US$1.4 trillion in government funding for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, 2021, sending the giant spending bill to the president to sign into law.

Trump said in a last-second announcement that he wanted Congress to increase the amount in the stimulus checks and threatened not to sign the bill if changes were not made.

The president asked lawmakers to boost stimulus checks to US$2,000 for individuals or 4,000 dollars for couples, calling the bill’s US$600 direct payment for individuals “ridiculously low.” According to the bill, a family of four would receive up to US$2,400.

The president’s call was embraced by Democrats, who have advocated for higher direct payments, but was frowned upon by some Republicans, who aimed to hold down the plan’s overall cost.

Trump, under pressure from lawmakers of both parties, eventually signed off the US$2.3-trillion spending package, averting a government shutdown and delivering aid to individuals and businesses as the the COVID-19 pandemic worsens.

Trump, however, said he expected the Congress to vote on separate legislation to increase stimulus checks to US$2,000.

The House passed the US$2,000 direct payments in a fast-track procedure that needed two-thirds support. But it remains to be seen whether a Republican-controlled Senate would go along with it, as many Republicans in the chamber even oppose a US$1,200 check, as approved in the CARES Act in late March.

December 28, 2020

Trump signs COVID relief, government-funding measure

President Donald Trump has signed a USD 900 billion pandemic relief package that will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals.

It also averts a government shutdown.

Trump announced the signing in a statement on Sunday night.

The massive bill includes USD 1.4 trillion to fund government agencies through September and contains other end-of-session priorities such as money for cash-starved transit systems and an increase in food stamp benefits.

Democrats are promising more aid to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office, but Republicans are signalling a wait-and-see approach.

December 27, 2020

Millions of Americans lose Covid-19 unemployment payments after Trump resists signing aid package

Millions of Americans have lost their Covid-19 unemployment payments after President Donald Trump resisted signing a sweeping $900 billion aid package into law.

Trump’s resistance to signing the Bill jeopardises other critical assistance for businesses and families set to lapse at the end of the year, and raises the possibility of a government shutdown on Tuesday.

In addition to freezing unemployment benefits, Trump’s lack of action on the Bill would lead to the expiration of eviction protections and put on hold a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theatres, along with money to help schools and vaccine distribution.

Trump is demanding that US politicians more than triple the size of relief cheques that are to be provided under the package, putting the fate of the measure in limbo. The end-of-year Covid-19 relief and spending bill had been considered a done deal before his sudden objections.

The package had won sweeping approval in both houses of Congress and after the White House assured Republican leaders that the President would support it.

Instead, he has assailed the bill’s plan to provide $600 Covid-19 relief cheques to most Americans — insisting it should be $2,000.

House Republicans swiftly rejected that idea during a rare Christmas Eve session, but Trump has not been swayed.

“I simply want to get our great people 2000, rather than the measly 600 that is now in the bill,” Trump tweeted from Palm Beach, where he is spending the Christmas holiday. “Also, stop the billions of dollars in ‘pork’.”

US president-elect Joe Biden called on Trump to sign the Bill immediately as the two federal programmes were set to expire on Saturday. “It is the day after Christmas, and millions of families don’t know if they’ll be able to make ends meet because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign an economic relief bill approved by Congress with an overwhelming and bipartisan majority,” Biden said.

“This abdication of responsibility has devastating consequences,” he said in a statement on Saturday.

Trump has been spending his final days in office golfing and angrily tweeting as he refuses to accept his loss to Biden in the November 3rd election.

On Saturday, he again lashed out at members of his own party for failing to join his quest to try to overturn the results of the election with baseless claims of mass voter fraud that have been repeatedly rejected by the courts.

“If a Democrat Presidential Candidate had an Election Rigged & Stolen, with proof of such acts at a level never seen before, the Democrat Senators would consider it an act of war, and fight to the death,” he railed.

December 26, 2020

US will require negative COVID-19 tests for all UK passengers – CDC

The US government will require all airline passengers arriving from the United Kingdom to test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of departure starting Monday amid concerns about a new coronavirus variant that may be more transmissible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a statement on Thursday that all airline passengers arriving from the UK must test negative in order to fly to the United States. The decision was a turnaround after the Trump administration told US airlines on Tuesday it was not planning to require any testing for arriving UK passengers.

The CDC said an order would be signed on Friday and is effective Monday.

The decision follows the emergence of a highly infectious new coronavirus variant in Britain that has prompted many countries to shut their borders to travelers from there.

A representative from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said on Friday that they are “in close contact with the US authorities and are working urgently to minimise disruption as far as possible,” adding that FCDO will regularly update advice online.

“British travellers should follow the US authorities’ guidance, and speak to their airlines for the latest travel options in the first instance.”

On Thursday, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines said they were requiring all passengers on flights from the United Kingdom to the United States to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure.

The CDC said late on Thursday passengers must test negative via either a PCR or Antigen test. The CDC said “viruses constantly change through mutation, and preliminary analysis in the UK suggests that this new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than previously circulating variants.”

The CDC noted that in March President Donald Trump suspended entry of nearly all foreign nationals who visited the United Kingdom in the past 14 days, which has reduced air travel to the US from Britain by about 90%.

Under the new policy, passengers departing from the UK for the United States must provide written documentation of their laboratory test result (in hard copy or electronic) to the airline, the CDC said.

Airlines must confirm negative test results for all passengers before they board. If passengers choose not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding.

Delta’s policy, expanded from its decision on Monday to require the screenings on UK flights to New York’s JFK Airport, is effective Dec. 24, while United’s requirement begins Dec. 28.

On Monday, the three airlines that fly from London to JFK Delta, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic – agreed to a request from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that they screen passengers from Britain.

US airlines have already drastically scaled back flying to the United Kingdom, as well as the rest of Europe.

December 25, 2020

Massive downtown Nashville explosion: Police investigate RV, potential ties to ‘intentional act’

Nashville authorities believe an explosion that occurred in downtown Nashville early Christmas morning was an “intentional act” and sparked by a vehicle blast. 

Police came across a suspicious RV parked outside a nearby AT&T building near Second Avenue and Commerce Street before 6 a.m., when initially responding to calls of shots fired in the area, said Metro police spokesperson Don Aaron. 

There was no immediate evidence of any shooting but officers alerted the department’s bomb squad, which was en route when a “significant explosion” happened about 30 minutes later,  Aaron said.

Just before the blast, witnesses in the area report a dire warning coming from the RV: “Evacuate now. There is a bomb. A bomb is in this vehicle and will explode.” 

Then, the voice started a 15-minute countdown.

Officers were conducting door-to-door checks in the area and redirected a man walking his dog along the street. The force of the explosion knocked an officer to the ground. Three people were hospitalized with injuries, police said.

Aaron said it was unclear if anyone was inside the RV when it exploded. 

“We will find out who did this,” Special Agent in Charge Matt Foster said at a Friday afternoon news conference. “This is our city, too. We’re putting everything we have into finding who was responsible for what happened here today.”

AT&T service in Nashville were affected from many customers Friday, company spokesperson Jim Greer citing damage to facilities from the explosion. “We are in contact with law enforcement and working as quickly and safely as possible to restore service,” Greer said. 

Betsy Williams, the owner of the Melting Pot building across the street, told The Tennessean that guests reported the RV was stationed there since Thursday night.

Williams, who lives in a loft apartment on the third floor, said she heard the sound of loud, rapid-fire gunshots at about 4:30 a.m.

After multiple rounds of gunshot sounds, Williams said she called 911.

Then, she said, she heard a repeated warning she said came from the RV parked outside her building.

She recalled hearing the announcement warning of a bomb and to evacuate. Then, it started counting down to the explosion, she said.  

Williams said she, her spouse and family left the lofts in their pajamas. She took her cat Mavis but left her valuables behind.

They headed to Nissan Stadium and waited. When they didn’t hear an explosion, they headed back. They were at Second Avenue and Broadway when they saw a fireball fly over the AT&T building on Second Avenue.

“Whoever did it did give fair warning,” Williams said.

She saw the windows in her loft had been blown out. Her Christmas tree was still on inside.

Aaron confirmed investigators believe the recording heard by witnesses originated from the vehicle. Several people were taken to the department’s central precinct for questioning but authorities declined to give more details Friday morning. 

The downtown area was sealed off with an active investigation underway led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the help of Nashville, state and federal agencies. 

Though authorities said there are no indications of additional devices, police were going door-to-door with canines in the downtown area to search nearby buildings. 

President Donald Trump has been briefed and will continue to get regular updates, according to White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere. 

“The President is grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured,” Deere said in a statement. 

The sound of the explosion Friday morning could be heard miles away, as people reported windows shaking from South and East Nashville. 

Plumes of black smoke filled the air with several fires seen along what is typically a busy street that intersects with Nashville’s famed tourist attraction, Lower Broadway. Alarms inside several buildings were heard going off with water pouring into some buildings with structural damage and broken windows.

Trees lining Second Avenue were blackened from the incident. 

Nashville Fire Department Chief William Swann said urban search and rescue and hazmat teams were checking for victims and structural damage in the area surrounding the blast.

“We will keep working until the job is done,” he said. 

Gov. Bill Lee in a statement said the state will provide needed resources to determine what happened and who was responsible. 

U.S. Attorney Don Cochran said in a Friday afternoon news conference that he had been in contact with Acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffery Rosen who said he was devoting the entire resources of the Department of Justice to help. Anyone with information on the explosion is encouraged to go to to submit information. 

Mayor John Cooper said he toured the damage, describing broken glass and water mains with insulation “blown up” into the trees. He estimated about 20 buildings had been impacted. 

“It looks like a bomb went off,” he said. He said it was too soon for any conclusions but said updates will be given throughout the morning. 

The downtown area will be “sealed off” for further investigation and to make sure everything is “completely safe,” according to Cooper. 

“One more event in Nashville’s 2020,” he said.

Andrew Carr, who is staying at the Viridian apartments on Fourth Avenue and Church Street, told The Tennessean he jumped out of bed when he heard what sounded like a “giant thunderclap.” 

He looked out the window and said he saw a “huge fireball” rising up behind an AT&T building on Second Avenue and Commerce Street — describing it almost as “wide as the building itself.” 

Carr said for the next hour he and his family watched the black smoke plumes rise into the sky and could later see debris on top of the AT&T building. 

Residents in the apartment building, he said, have been put in lockdown. 

The owner of the nearby Nashville Downtown Hostel told The Tennessean guests were evacuated to Nissan Stadium for shelter. He said he got a call early Friday from his staff reporting hearing a “loud boom” and the fire alarm going off. He said the hostel is damaged but did not go into details. 

December 24, 2020

US non-profit sues FBI for info about phone hacking capability

Non-profit organization American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanding more information about its capability to gain access to information stored on personal mobile devices.

“The FBI is secretly breaking the encryption that secures our cell phones and laptops from identity thieves, hackers, and abusive governments, and it refuses to even acknowledge that it has information about these efforts — even though some details have been filed publicly in federal court,” ACLU said in a statement this week.

The non-profit said that publicly available information indicates that the Electronic Device Analysis Unit (EDAU), a team within the FBI, has acquired or is in the process of acquiring software that allows the government to unlock and decrypt information that is otherwise securely stored on cell phones.

Public court records also describe instances where the EDAU appeared capable of accessing encrypted information off a locked iPhone, it said.

The EDAU even sought to hire an electronics engineer whose major responsibilities would include “perform(ing) forensic extractions and advanced data recovery on locked and damaged devices.”

And yet, the agency refuses to even confirm or deny the existence of any records pertaining to the EDAU, the ACLU said.

“Seeking some much-needed transparency, today we asked a federal court to intervene and order the DOJ (US Department of Justice) and the FBI to turn over all responsive documents pertaining to the EDAU,” the organisation said.

“We’re demanding the government release records concerning any policies applicable to the EDAU, its technological capabilities to unlock or access electronic devices, and its requests for, purchases of, or uses of software that could enable it to bypass encryption.”

The FBI has repeatedly pressured Apple to build a backdoor into its system, most notably in the San Bernardino case, The verge reported on Wednesday.

The FBI had claimed that some of Apple’s security features prevented it from accessing the contents of the work phone of one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino attack before saying in 2016 that the agency no longer needed Apple’s help in breaking into the iPhone.

Whether the FBI has gained the capability to break iOS encryption remains unclear, said the report.

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