In Brief: July 23, 2021

  • House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., joined by House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., left, and members of the GOP Doctors Caucus, speaks during a news conference about the Delta variant of COVID-19 and the origin of the virus, at the Capitol on Thursday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Vaccinations rise in some states with soaring infections

Vaccinations are beginning to rise in some states where COVID-19 cases are soaring, White House officials said Thursday in a sign that the summer surge is getting the attention of vaccine-hesitant Americans as hospitals in the South are being overrun with patients.

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Coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters that several states with the highest proportions of new infections have seen residents get vaccinated at higher rates than the nation as a whole. Officials cited Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada as examples.

“The fourth surge is real, and the numbers are quite frightening at the moment,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said on a New Orleans radio show. Edwards, a Democrat, added: “There’s no doubt that we are going in the wrong direction, and we’re going there in a hurry.”

Louisiana reported 2,843 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, a day after reporting 5,388 — the third-highest level since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations are up steeply in the last month, from 242 on June 19 to 913 in the latest report. Fifteen new deaths were reported Thursday.

Just 36% of Louisiana’s population is fully vaccinated, state health department data shows. Nationally, 56.3% of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

GOP’s vaccine push comes with strong words, few actions

WASHINGTON — Republican politicians are under increasing pressure to speak out to persuade COVID-19 vaccine skeptics to roll up their sleeves and take the shots as a new, more contagious variant sends caseloads soaring. But after months of ignoring — and, in some cases, stoking — misinformation about the virus, experts warn it may be too late to change the minds of many who are refusing.

In recent news conferences and statements, some prominent Republicans have been imploring their constituents to lay lingering doubts aside. In Washington, the so-called Doctors Caucus gathered at the Capitol for an event to combat vaccine hesitancy. And in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this week pointed to data showing the vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients hadn’t received shots.

“These vaccines are saving lives,” said DeSantis, who recently began selling campaign merchandise mocking masks and medical experts.

The outreach comes as COVID-19 cases have nearly tripled in the U.S. over the last two weeks, driven by the explosion of the new delta variant, especially in pockets of the country where vaccination rates are low. Public health officials believe the variant is at least twice as contagious as the original version, but the shots appear to offer robust protection against serious illness for most people.

Indeed, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now people who haven’t been vaccinated. Nonetheless, just 56.2% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From wire sources

Room for 10,000: Inside China’s largest detention center

DABANCHENG, China — The Uyghur inmates sat in uniform rows with their legs crossed in lotus position and their backs ramrod straight, numbered and tagged, gazing at a television playing grainy black-and-white images of Chinese Communist Party history.

This is one of an estimated 240 cells in just one section of Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng, seen by Associated Press journalists granted extraordinary access during a state-led tour to China’s far west Xinjiang region. The detention center is the largest in the country and possibly the world, with a complex that sprawls over 220 acres — making it twice as large as Vatican City. A sign at the front identified it as a “kanshousuo,” a pre-trial detention facility.

Chinese officials declined to say how many inmates were there, saying the number varied. But the AP estimated the center could hold roughly 10,000 people and many more if crowded, based on satellite imagery and the cells and benches seen during the tour. While the BBC and Reuters have in the past reported from the outside, the AP was the first Western media organization allowed in.

This site suggests that China still holds and plans to hold vast numbers of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in detention. Satellite imagery shows that new buildings stretching almost a mile long were added to the Dabancheng detention facility in 2019.

China has described its sweeping lockup of a million or more minorities over the past four years as a “war against terror,” after a series of knifings and bombings by a small number of extremist Uyghurs native to Xinjiang. Among its most controversial aspects were the so-called vocational “training centers” – described by former detainees as brutal internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

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Pelosi says ‘deadly serious’ Jan. 6 probe to go without GOP

WASHINGTON — Unfazed by Republican threats of a boycott, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared Thursday that a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection will take on its “deadly serious” work whether Republicans participate or not.

The Republicans’ House leader, Kevin McCarthy, called the committee a “sham process” and suggested that GOP lawmakers who take part could face consequences. McCarthy said Pelosi’s rejection of two of the Republicans he had attempted to appoint was an “egregious abuse of power.”

The escalating tension between the two parties — before the investigation has even started — is emblematic of the raw partisan anger that has only worsened on Capitol Hill since former President Donald Trump’s supporters laid siege to the Capitol and interrupted the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. With most Republicans still loyal to Trump, and many downplaying the severity of the violent attack, there is little bipartisan unity to be found.

McCarthy said Wednesday that he would withdraw the names of all five Republicans he had appointed after Pelosi rejected two of them, Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio. Pelosi made clear on Thursday that she won’t relent, and Democrats mulled filling the empty seats themselves.

“It is my responsibility as the speaker of the House to make sure we get to the truth of this, and we will not let their antics stand in the way of that,” Pelosi said of the Republicans.

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Kaseya gets master decryption key after July 4 global attack

BOSTON — The Florida company whose software was exploited in the devastating Fourth of July weekend ransomware attack, Kaseya, has received a universal key that will decrypt all of the more than 1,000 businesses and public organizations crippled in the global incident.

Kaseya spokeswoman Dana Liedholm would not say Thursday how the key was obtained or whether a ransom was paid. She said only that it came from a “trusted third party” and that Kaseya was distributing it to all victims. The cybersecurity firm Emsisoft confirmed that the key worked and was providing support.

Ransomware analysts offered multiple possible explanations for why the master key, which can unlock the scrambled data of all the attack’s victims, has now appeared. They include: Kaseya paid; a government paid; a number of victims pooled funds; the Kremlin seized the key from the criminals and handed it over through intermediaries — or perhaps the main attacker didn’t get paid by the gang whose ransomware was used.

The Russia-linked criminal syndicate that supplied the malware, REvil, disappeared from the internet on July 13. That likely deprived whoever carried out the attack of income because such affiliates split ransoms with the syndicates that lease them the ransomware. In the Kaseya attack, the syndicate was believed overwhelmed by more ransom negotiations than it could manage, and decided to ask $50 million to $70 million for a master key that would unlock all infections.

By now, many victims will have rebuilt their networks or restored them from backups.

Dems renew questions about FBI background check of Kavanaugh

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are raising new concerns about the thoroughness of the FBI’s background investigation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after the FBI revealed that it had received thousands of tips and had provided “all relevant” ones to the White House counsel’s office.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, responding to longstanding questions from Democrats, disclosed in a letter late last month that it had received more than 4,500 tips as it investigated the nominee’s past following his 2018 nomination by President Donald Trump. The process was the first time that the FBI had set up a tip line for a nominee undergoing Senate confirmation, Wray said.

A group of Democratic senators said in a letter to Wray dated Wednesday that his response “raises significant additional questions.” They called on him to explain, among other things, how many tips the FBI decided were relevant and what criteria agents used to make that determination and what policies and procedures were used to vet the tips. The senators also asked for more information about the tip line, including how it was staffed and how the tips were recorded or preserved.

“Your letter confirms that the FBI’s tip line was a departure from past practice and that the FBI was politically constrained by the Trump White House,” the senators wrote.

Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in October 2018 after a rancorous process in which claims emerged that he had sexually assaulted women three decades ago. He emphatically denied the allegations.

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US churches reckon with traumatic legacy of Native schools

The discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada have prompted renewed calls for a reckoning over the traumatic legacy of similar schools in the United States — and in particular by the churches that operated many of them.

U.S. Catholic and Protestant denominations operated more than 150 boarding schools between the 19th and 20th centuries. Native American and Alaskan Native children were regularly severed from their tribal families, customs, language and religion and brought to the schools in a push to assimilate and Christianize them.

Some U.S. churches have been reckoning with this activity for years through ceremonies, apologies and archival investigations, while others are just getting started. Some advocates say churches have more work to do in opening their archives, educating the public about what was done in the name of their faith and helping former students and their relatives tell their stories of family trauma.

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“We all need to work together on this,” said the Rev. Bradley Hauff, a Minnesota-based Episcopal priest and missioner for Indigenous Ministries with the Episcopal Church.

“What’s happening in Canada, that’s a wakeup call to us,” said Hauff, who is enrolled with the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

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