Public health experts say staying home is best to keep yourself and others safe from infection. But if you’re thinking about flying for the holidays, you should know what to expect.
Flights are getting more crowded and more airlines plan to stop blocking seats to accommodate the growing number of people taking to the skies again, reports AP.
Starting Dec. 1, Southwest will join United and American in allowing every seat on planes to be sold. JetBlue will scale back the number of blocked seats, and — along with Delta and Alaska — plans to drop all limits some time next year.
The airline industry says it’s safe to fly, pointing to a report it funded that found the risk of viral spread on planes very low if everyone wears a mask, since planes have good ventilation and strong air filters.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that sitting within 6 feet of others — sometimes for hours — can still increase your risk of getting infected. And though airlines are still requiring passengers to wear masks, there’s no guarantee everyone will comply. More than 1,000 people who refused to wear masks have been banned by U.S. airlines.
Remember that flying also means spending time in airport security lines and gate areas, where you might come into close contact with others.
In an October update on travel, the CDC emphasized the importance of wearing a mask and recommended checking whether infections are rising in the area you’re traveling to.
U.S. regulators on Tuesday allowed emergency use of the first rapid coronavirus test that can be performed entirely at home and delivers results in 30 minutes.
The announcement by the Food and Drug Administration represents an important step in U.S. efforts to expand testing options for COVID-19 beyond health care facilities and testing sites. However, the test will require a prescription, likely limiting its initial use.
The FDA granted emergency authorization to the single-use test kit from Lucira Health, a California manufacturer.
The company’s test allows users to swab themselves to collect a nasal sample. The sample is then swirled in a vial of laboratory solution that plugs into a portable device. Results are displayed as lights labeled positive or negative.
To date, the FDA has authorized nearly 300 tests for coronavirus. The vast majority require a nasal swab performed by a health professional and must be processed at laboratories using high-tech equipment. A handful of tests allow people to collect their own sample at home — a nasal swab or saliva — that’s then shipped to a lab, which usually means waiting days for results.
Health experts have called for options to allow people to test themselves at home, reducing turnaround times and the potential spread of the virus to others, including health care workers. Rapid test results are critical to quickly quarantining those who are infected and tracing their contacts. But for months, U.S. testing has been plagued by slow results due to bottlenecks as testing laboratories. There are other rapid tests but most require a small, special machine operated by a health professional to develop results
“Now, more Americans who may have COVID-19 will be able to take immediate action, based on their results, to protect themselves and those around them,” Dr. Jeff Shuren, director of the FDA’s devices center, said in a statement.
Lucira did not immediately respond to a request for additional details after business hours Tuesday.
The Lucira COVID-19 test grew out of research the company was doing to develop an at-home flu test, according to the company’s website. Lucira adapted its technology to detect COVID-19 after the outbreak.
The test uses technology similar to genetic laboratory-based tests that are the standard tool for COVID-19 screening. That’s different than most rapid tests currently used in the U.S., which look for viral proteins called antigens — not the virus itself.
Anyone that tests positive should isolate and seek care from a health professional, the FDA said in its release. Those who test negative but still have coronavirus symptoms should consult a doctor; a negative result does not rule out COVID-19 infection.
The FDA said Lucira’s test was also authorized for use in doctor’s offices and testing sites. Currently all U.S. testing sites must report results to state and federal health authorities tracking the pandemic. Doctors will be required to report the home test results.
“If the results are not reported back, it may be difficult to figure out what is happening in the community at large,” said Dr. Alberto Gutierrez, former head of the FDA’s testing office, in an interview before the announcement.
More than two dozen companies have been racing for months to develop the first, rapid home-based test for COVID-19. However, the FDA outlined a number of study requirements for manufacturers.
These hurdles have less to do with COVID-19 specifically, and more to do with decades-long concerns about whether people without any medical training can accurately screen themselves and interpret the results.
The FDA has only ever approved one home test for an infectious disease — an HIV test. And even commonplace over-the-counter tests— such as home pregnancy kits — were subject to years of scrutiny before FDA allowed their use in the 1970s.
Experts say that careful approach is warranted for coronavirus.
“I think increased testing closer to patients, including in the home, is the way of the future,” said Dr. Robin Patel of the Mayo Clinic, in an interview before the announcement was made. “But there are considerations that have to be addressed to make sure that this is done in a safe and effective way.”
FDA regulators authorized the new test using their emergency powers to quickly speed the availability of experimental products during public health crises. In normal times, the FDA requires evidence of safety and effectiveness before clearing a new test. But during public health emergencies the agency can lower those standards.
The FDA release did not disclose the test’s accuracy or the study results that regulators used to make the decision.
An agreement announced Tuesday paves the way for the largest dam demolition in U.S. history, a project that promises to reopen hundreds of miles of waterway along the Oregon-California border to salmon that are critical to tribes but have dwindled to almost nothing in recent years.
If approved, the deal would revive plans to remove four massive hydroelectric dams on the lower Klamath River, creating the foundation for the most ambitious salmon restoration effort in history. The project on California’s second-largest river would be at the vanguard of a trend toward dam demolitions in the U.S. as the structures age and become less economically viable amid growing environmental concerns about the health of native fish.
Previous efforts to address problems in the Klamath Basin have fallen apart amid years of legal sparring that generated distrust among tribes, fishing groups, farmers and environmentalists, and the new agreement could face more legal challenges. Some state and federal lawmakers criticized it as a financially irresponsible overreach by leaders in Oregon and California.
“This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down. It’s a new day and a new era,” Yurok Tribe chairman Joseph James said. “To me, this is who we are, to have a free-flowing river just as those who have come before us. ... Our way of life will thrive with these dams being out.”
A half-dozen tribes across Oregon and California, fishing groups and environmentalists had hoped to see demolition work begin as soon as 2022. But those plans stalled in July, when U.S. regulators questioned whether the nonprofit entity formed to oversee the project could adequately respond to any cost overruns or accidents.
The new plan makes Oregon and California equal partners in the demolition with the nonprofit entity, called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, and adds $45 million to the project’s $450 million budget to ease those concerns. Oregon, California and the utility PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric dams and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, will each provide one-third of the additional funds.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must approve the deal. If accepted, it would allow PacifiCorp and Berkshire Hathaway to walk away from aging dams that are more of an albatross than a profit-generator, while addressing regulators’ concerns. Oregon, California and the nonprofit would jointly take over the hydroelectric license from PacifiCorp while the nonprofit will oversee the work.
Buffett said the reworked deal solves a “very complex challenge.”
“I recognize the importance of Klamath dam removal and river restoration for tribal people in the Klamath Basin,” Buffett said in a statement. “We appreciate and respect our tribal partners for their collaboration in forging an agreement that delivers an exceptional outcome for the river, as well as future generations.”
Removed would be the four southernmost dams in a string of six constructed in southern Oregon and far Northern California beginning in 1918.
They were built solely for power generation. They are not used for irrigation and not managed for flood control. The lowest dam on the river, the Iron Gate, has no “fish ladder,” or concrete chutes that fish can pass through.
That’s blocked hundreds of miles of potential fish habitat and spawning grounds, and fish populations have dropped precipitously in recent years. Salmon are at the heart of the culture, beliefs and diet of a half-dozen regional tribes, including the Yurok and Karuk — both parties to the agreement — and they have suffered deeply from that loss.
Coho salmon from the Klamath River are listed as threatened under federal and California law, and their population in the river has fallen anywhere from 52% to 95%. Spring chinook salmon, once the Klamath Basin’s largest run, has dwindled by 98%.
Fall chinook, the last to persist in any significant numbers, have been so meager in the past few years that the Yurok canceled fishing for the first time in the tribe’s memory. In 2017, they bought fish at a grocery store for their annual salmon festival.
“It is bleak, but I want to have hope that with dam removal and with all the prayers that we’ve been sending up all these years, salmon could come back. If we just give them a chance, they will,” said Chook-Chook Hillman, a Karuk tribal member fighting for dam removal. “If you provide a good place for salmon, they’ll always come home.”
PacifiCorp has been operating the dams under an extension of its expired hydroelectric license for years. The license was originally granted before modern environmental laws and renewing it would mean costly renovations to install fish ladders. The utility has said energy generated by the dams no longer makes up a significant part of its portfolio.
In the original deal, PacifiCorp was to transfer its license and contribute $200 million to bow out of the removal project and avoid further costs and liability. An additional $250 million comes from a voter-approved California water bond.
U.S. regulators, however, agreed only on the condition that PacifiCorp remain a co-licensee along with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation — a nonstarter for the utility.
Residents have been caught in the middle. As tribes watched salmon dwindle, some homeowners around a huge reservoir created by one of the dams have sued to stop the demolition.
They say their waterfront property values have already fallen by half because of news coverage associated with demolition and they worry about losing a water source for fighting wildfires in an increasingly fire-prone landscape. Many also oppose the use of ratepayer funds for the project.
U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican, said the agreement puts taxpayers in the two states on the hook. Some state lawmakers in Oregon said Gov. Kate Brown violated her constitutional authority by authorizing the deal without legislative or voter approval.
Further upstream, farmers who rely on two other dams are watching carefully. The removal of the lower four dams won’t affect them directly, but they worry it could set a precedent for dam removal on the Klamath.
More than 1,720 dams have been dismantled around the U.S. since 2012, according to American Rivers, and 26 states undertook dam removal projects in 2019 alone. The Klamath River project would be the largest such project by far if it proceeds.
Looking for toilet paper? Good luck.
A surge of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is sending people back to stores to stockpile again, leaving shelves bare and forcing retailers to put limits on purchases.
Walmart said Tuesday it’s having trouble keeping up with demand for cleaning supplies in some stores. Supermarket chains Kroger and Publix are limiting how much toilet paper and paper towels shoppers can buy after demand spiked recently. And Amazon is sold out of most disinfectant wipes and paper towels.
A similar scene played out back in March, when the pandemic first hit and people hunkered down in their homes.
But Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said he doesn’t expect things to be as bad this go-around since lockdowns are being handled on a regional basis and everyone is better prepared.
“A more informed consumer combined with a more informed manufacturer and a more informed retailer should provide all of us with a greater sense of ease and ensure we can meet this growing demand, “ Freeman said.
The biggest supply issue seems to be paper products: 21% of shelves that stock paper towels and toilet paper are empty, the highest level in at least a month, according to market research company IRI. Cleaning supplies have remained level at 16%. Before the pandemic, 5% to 7% of consumer goods were typically out of stock, IRI said.
Contributing to the problem is the fact that roughly 10% of the workforce at manufacturing plants where the products are made are calling out sick, mainly because they’ve been in contact with others who were tested positive to COVID-19, Freeman said.
Kelly Anderson of Colorado Springs, Colorado, said she needs more supplies now that in-person school in her area was canceled earlier this month and her two children are at home more. She’s noticed others are stocking up, too: Safeway and Walmart were nearly wiped out of bottled water and disinfectant wipes during a recent visit, both of which had been easy to find since the summer.
It’s also been harder to find a time slot to get her groceries delivered. Anderson says she’s had to wait as many as two days instead of same-day delivery. But that’s still not as bad as earlier this year
“March seems like a million years ago, but I do remember freaking out,” she said. “I couldn’t get groceries delivered for a week.”
Walmart said while supplies are stressed in some areas, it thinks it will be able to handle any stockpiling now than earlier this year. Amazon said its working with manufacturers to get items such as disinfecting wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer in stock.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said Tuesday the US will reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, asserting that the decision fulfills President Donald Trump’s pledge to bring forces home from America’s long wars even as Republicans and US allies warn of the dangers of withdrawing before conditions are right.
The plan will accelerate troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan in Trump’s final days in office, despite arguments from senior military officials in favor of a slower, more methodical pullout to preserve hard-fought gains. Trump has refused to concede his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who takes office Jan 20, just five days after the troop withdrawals are to finish.
Miller, who refused to take questions from reporters after reading a prepared statement before TV cameras at the Pentagon, said the US will reduce troop levels in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500.
Speaking a week after taking over for former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was fired by Trump, Miller notably did not say that the drawdown plan had been recommended or endorsed by Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or by other senior military officers. He said only that military commanders had agreed to execute it.
Miller said the US remains ready to respond if conditions in Afghanistan or Iraq deteriorate.
“If the forces of terror, instability, division and hate begin a deliberate campaign to disrupt our efforts, we stand ready to apply the capabilities required to thwart them,” he said in a roughly eight-minute statement — his first extended public remarks since taking office.
The withdrawal plan falls short of Trump’s oft-repeated vow to end America’s long wars. It also runs counter to his guidance that troop withdrawals be based on the conditions on the ground, not a date on the calendar.
In Afghanistan, in particular, military and defense leaders have consistently said the Taliban has not yet met requirements to reduce violent attacks against Afghan government forces. Some have worried that too-fast troop reductions would strengthen the negotiating hand of the Taliban and weaken the position of an already-weak Afghan government.
The decision has already received a cool reception from some Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, and a somewhat uncharacteristically blunt critique from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
“I believe these additional reductions of American troops from terrorist areas are a mistake,” said Rep Mac Thornberry of Texas, who is the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. He said the Taliban, whose hold on power in Kabul was destroyed when US troops invaded the country in October 2001, have “done nothing — met no condition — that would justify this cut.”
‘Not a new policy’
Rep Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, endorsed the Trump decision.
“Our primary goal has been, and continues to be, the prevention of transnational terrorists from launching an attack against the United States from Afghanistan,” Smith said. “In order to contain the terrorist threat as we draw down our troop levels, it is critical that we coordinate the drawdown closely with our allies, as well as our partners in the Afghan government, to protect our interests and those of our allies in Afghanistan.”
Stoltenberg earlier Tuesday warned that NATO could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan too early.
NATO has fewer than 12,000 troops from dozens of nations helping to train and advise the Afghan national security forces. The 30-nation alliance relies heavily on the United States armed forces for transport, logistics and other support.
“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.
Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the president is keeping his promise to the American people to get US troops out of war zones. “By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” O’Brien told reporters at the White House shortly after Miller made the announcement at the Pentagon.
“I want to reiterate that this policy is not new,” O’Brien said. “This has been the president’s policy since he took office.”
Trump has said, however, that his decisions about US troop levels in Afghanistan would be based on conditions on the ground, not on the calendar. He has accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of setting a timetable for troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan that worked against the achievement of military goals. Now, however, Trump is openly declaring a timetable for troop reductions in both countries, even as violence remains high in Afghanistan.
The accelerated withdrawal goes against the longstanding advice of Trump’s military leadership, including Marine Gen Frank McKenzie, top US commander for the Middle East. But officials suggested that commanders will be able to live with the partial pullout, which allows them to keep counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan and gives them time to remove critical equipment.
McKenzie and others have repeatedly argued that a hasty withdrawal could undercut negotiations to finalise ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of Afghan society, including the Afghan government. And they also warn that US forces should remain in the country to keep Islamic State militants in check.
Biden has sounded less absolute about troop withdrawal. He has said some troops could stay in Afghanistan to focus on the counterterrorism mission. In response to a questionnaire before the election, he said: “Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too. But we must end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland and never have to go back.”