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Average new US virus cases below 100K for 1st time in months
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ATLANTA — Average daily new coronavirus cases in the United States dipped below 100,000 in recent days for the first time in months, but experts cautioned Sunday that infections remain high and precautions to slow the pandemic must remain in place.

The seven-day rolling average of new infections was well above 200,000 for much of December and went to roughly 250,000 in January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University, as the pandemic came roaring back after it had been tamed in some places over the summer.

That average dropped below 100,000 on Friday for the first time since Nov. 4. It stayed below 100,000 on Saturday.

“We are still at about 100,000 cases a day. We are still at around 1,500 to 3,500 deaths per day. The cases are more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place.”

On Saturday, the seven-day rolling average for deaths was around 2,500. That number peaked at more than 3,300 earlier in the winter, according to Johns Hopkins.

The U.S. saw a spike of more than 5,400 deaths reported Friday — nearly half from Ohio, where authorities said earlier in the week that they planned to add deaths to the state’s tally over the course of a few days after discovering as many as 4,000 unreported COVID-19 fatalities.

Walensky added that new variants, including one first detected in the United Kingdom that appears to be more transmissible and has already been recorded in more than 30 states, will likely lead to more cases and more deaths.

“All of it is really wraps up into we can’t let our guard down,” she said. “We have to continue wearing masks. We have to continue with our current mitigation measures. And we have to continue getting vaccinated as soon as that vaccine is available to us.”

The U.S. has recorded more than 27.5 million virus cases and more than 484,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins data.

With parents and political leaders eager to have children around the country back in school for in-person learning, it is important that people continue to observe precautions, Walensky said.

“We need to all take responsibility to decrease that community spread, including mask wearing so that we can get our kids and our society back,” she said.

The CDC released guidance on Friday outlining mitigation strategies necessary to reopen schools or to keep them open.

Some teachers have expressed concern about returning to the classroom without having been vaccinated, but the guidelines do not say that’s necessary. Dr. Anthony Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week” that it would be “optimal” if teachers were vaccinated but that other measures laid out in the 24-page document can lessen their risk.

“Practically speaking, when you balance the benefit of getting the children back to school with the fact that the risks are being mitigated, if you follow the recommendations and these new guidelines from the CDC, hopefully, I think that will alleviate the concerns on both sides,” he said.


Wintry weather blanketing US making rare dip to Gulf Coast
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DALLAS — Snow and ice blanketed large swaths of the U.S. on Sunday, prompting canceled flights, making driving perilous and reaching into areas as far south as Texas’ Gulf Coast, where snow and sleet were expected overnight.

“Typically, we just don’t have quite this much cold air in place that far south,” said Marc Chenard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

The storm has prompted officials in Houston, where temperatures were in the 70s earlier this week, to advise residents to prepare for power outages and hazardous roads that could be similar to those experienced in the wake of a Category 5 hurricane.

As rain fell Sunday in the Houston area, the temperature hovered near freezing. “This rain will be transitioning over to just freezing rain, sleet and snow during the overnight through early morning hours tomorrow,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Josh Lichter.

Chenard said significant ice and up to 12 inches of snow were expected across parts of the southern Plains into Monday.

Winter weather conditions are affecting large portions of the U.S., but it is rare for them to extend so far south, Chenard said.

The Dallas area had a covering of snow by Sunday morning, with flakes still falling, and as much as 6 inches was forecast.

With the wintry conditions falling on Valentine’s Day, florists stayed busy even as the snow fell.

In Fort Worth, where it was already icy and snowy, Gordon Boswell Flowers’ general manager said delivery drivers were trying to wrap up before conditions got worse later Sunday afternoon.

“It is icy and snowing and they’re calling for more snow,” Cheri Kirkman said.

Despite the weather, she said they still had some people coming in to pick up gifts. “We’ve got plenty all made up, ready to go,” Kirkman said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who issued a disaster declaration for all of the state’s 254 counties, warned on Saturday: “All of Texas is facing an extremely dangerous winter storm.”

Abbott, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have each activated National Guard units to assist state agencies with tasks including rescuing stranded drivers.

The weather was affecting operations at airports across the area, with more than 760 flights canceled at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and at Dallas Love Field most of the nearly 200 flights for Southwest Airlines, the airport’s main carrier, were canceled.

American Airlines said about 345 of their flights were canceled at DFW Airport, its hub, by early Sunday afternoon. The airline said the storm was also affecting their flights across the region, with operations reduced and canceled at airports across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Officials were discouraging travel in the wintry conditions. By early Sunday afternoon, the Texas Highway Patrol had reported several multi-car pileups in West Texas, including one that involved 25 vehicles and shut down a portion of Interstate 20 westbound.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said a portion of the Turner Turnpike was shut down due to a mutli-vehicle accident, while the Oklahoma Department of Transportation said the southern corridor of Interstate 35 was mostly snow packed in the left lane and conditions were expected to deteriorate.

The National Weather Service said Sunday that the forecast through early Tuesday calls for 8 to 12 inches of snow in central Oklahoma, and 4 to 8 inches in an area extending from eastern Texas to the Ohio Valley in the Northeast.

In Memphis, Tennessee, snow had started falling, and while main roads were still passable, lines were forming at grocery stores as people rushed to stock up.

In Mississippi, sleet in Jackson and other central parts of the state left roads and bridges slick. Bill Parker, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Jackson, said up to three-quarters of an inch of ice could accumulate in central Mississippi, bringing the possibility of power outages or falling tree limbs.

Parts of Kentucky and West Virginia still recovering from an ice storm last week are expected to get up to a quarter-inch of ice or up to 8 inches of snow by Tuesday. About 19,000 customers remained without electricity in southern West Virginia and about 9,000 in eastern Kentucky on Sunday from the storm that moved through on Wednesday and Thursday.

Utilities warned of the likelihood for additional power outages due to falling tree limbs. Hundreds of utility crews and contractors were traveling Sunday to be in place if additional outages occurred.

In Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the flow of electric power in the state, was asking customers to reduce electricity use as much as possible through Tuesday, including closing shades to reduce the amount of heat lost through windows and avoiding the use of large appliances.

“We are experiencing record-breaking electric demand due to the extreme cold temperatures that have gripped Texas,” said ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness. “At the same time, we are dealing with higher-than-normal generation outages due to frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies available to generating units.”

Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, tens of thousands of people were without power after a winter storm blanketed the region with ice and snow and made travel treacherous.


Good dogs! 20 years of covering Westminster Kennel Club show
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NEW YORK — To every sport, there’s a season, a spot on the calendar that fans mark for the big event. World Series, October. College hoops, March. Indy 500, Memorial Day.

For dog owners, it’s right around Valentine’s Day. That’s when they normally cuddle up on the couch with their precious pooch to watch the Super Bowl of Dogs — the Westminster Kennel Club show.

This year, they’ll have to wait for the coveted best in show. Because of coronavirus concerns, the competition was moved from Madison Square Garden this weekend to mid-June at an outdoor estate about 25 miles north of New York City.

For now, AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker and wife Ginger Tidwell share their fondest memories from the green carpet over 20 paws-itively wonderful years covering Westminster:

He’s Numero Uno!

Beagles had always been in the Westminster doghouse. No matter how cute, poor ol’ Snoopy had never, ever won the grand prize. Bow-wow bummer.

That changed in 2008 when perhaps the greatest show dog of all time showed up. A tri-colored package of personality-plus, Uno quickly bayed his way to fan favorite.

A sold-out Garden crowd chanted his name as judge J. Donald Jones studied the seven finalists for nearly three minutes, mulling over his pick for best in show. They say there’s no cheering in the press box, but having been raised in Maryland with beagles — Charlie, Gatsby, Sam and Jake — I looked at Ginger and prayed this was our moment.

When Jones said, “May I have the beagle,” the place went bonkers.

“Ah-roo!” Uno erupted. “Ah-roo!”

This little, merry hound enjoyed a terrific life. He visited President George W. Bush at the White House, rode in a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and brought out the first ball at Busch Stadium and Miller Park.

Uno lived till 13, spending his last years on a ranch in Texas and playing with his buddy, a neighbor’s potbellied pig.

Got Some Grub?

Sometimes the dog that everybody’s barking about isn’t the best in show. Like, Dario the Leonberger.

Winning wasn’t on this big guy’s mind when he romped around the ring in the 2016 working group competition. Naw, he only wanted to gnaw at his handler’s pocket, trying to scarf up a treat.

Doggedly determined, the 2 1/2-year-old eating machine kept nipping at Sam Mammano’s gray suit, hoping to grab some loose rebounds. A dog just being a dog ... and the crowd went crazy, hollering with every step and every bite.

He didn’t win, that went CJ the German shorthaired pointer. But Dario earned a place in dogdom lore forever.

We rushed from our seats on the floor to catch up with Mammano backstage, right after he left the ring. He was a little disappointed, but also could see the charm.

“Good comic relief,” he said. “He’s a young, silly dog and was just having fun.”

K-9 Heroes

Most years, a dog like Appollo wouldn’t get close to the green carpet at the Garden. But the show in 2002 was no ordinary show.

With New York City still in shock from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 20 search and rescue dogs were honored for their tireless work at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

At 10, Appollo the German shepherd was getting a bit gray in the muzzle, his teeth were yellowing. He didn’t look like the 2,500 perfectly primped pooches around him.

Yet there was hardly a dry eye as the 10,000 spectators stood and cheered for the German shepherds, retrievers and their partners, an ovation usually reserved for the star athletes who played in the arena. It was hard not to be swept up in the emotion.

A spotlight featured them as they walked one by one into the center ring and actress Glenn Close sang “God Bless America” during the 15-minute ceremony.

Not the usual reception for this group.

“We were pretty nervous,” said Lt. Daniel Donadio, head of the New York Police Department’s K-9 unit. “We’d rather face gunmen than the crowd.”

Underdogs

Each year, there are the favorites. J.R. the bichon frise, Mick the Kerry blue terrier, Banana Joe the affenpinscher. Wire fox terriers and poodles always seem to take home the hallowed silver bowl.

Then there was Stump.

With floppy ears and a slow roll, the golden-red Sussex spaniel didn’t make our early list of potential champions in 2009. How could he?

Retired from the ring for five years, it was just five days before the show when handler Scott Sommer thought Stump might like to take one final walk at the Garden.

What a walk! At 10 — that’s almost 70 in human years — Stump became the oldest Westminster winner ever.

He was in good company among unlikely top dogs over the years. Rufus the colored bull terrier had a football-shaped noggin and won by a head. Hickory the Scottish deerhound was a rare champion.

Big, barkin’ Josh the Newfoundland slobbered around the ring, then nearly knocked over Ginger in the winner’s circle.

And Stump. That old dog sure taught the young pups some new tricks.

Pooch Planet

Seeing an Azawakh at the Garden was unusual. Loosely called an African greyhound, they made their Westminster debut last year.

Seeing the woman cheering them on was even more eye-catching. Dressed in bright pink and wearing a colorful hijab, Aliya Taylor realized she stood out.

“Like a sore thumb,” she laughed.

The retired Philadelphia police officer is among the few Muslims in the dog show world.

“Our sport welcomes people from all walks of life,” said Gail Miller Bisher, the television host of the event. “That’s our common bond, dogs.”


Impeachment isn't the final word on Capitol riot for Trump
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WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s acquittal at his second impeachment trial may not be the final word on whether he’s to blame for the deadly Capitol riot. The next step for the former president could be the courts.

Now a private citizen, Trump is stripped of his protection from legal liability that the presidency gave him. That change in status is something that even Republicans who voted on Saturday to acquit of inciting the Jan. 6 attack are stressing as they urge Americans to move on from impeachment.

“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office, as an ordinary citizen, unless the statute of limitations has run,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said after that vote. He insisted that the court were a more appropriate venue to hold Trump accountable than a Senate trial.

“He didn’t get away with anything yet,” McConnell said. “Yet.”

The insurrection at the Capitol, in which five people died, is just one of the legal cases shadowing Trump in the months after he was voted out of office. He also faces legal exposure in Georgia over an alleged pressure campaign on state election officials, and in Manhattan over hush-money payments and business deals.

But Trump’s culpability under the law for inciting the riot is by no means clear-cut. The standard is high under court decisions reaching back 50 years. Trump could also be sued by victims, though he has some constitutional protections, including if he acted while carrying out the duties of president. Those cases would come down to his intent.

Legal scholars say a proper criminal investigation takes time, and there are at least five years on the statute of limitations to bring a federal case. New evidence is emerging every day.

“They’re way too early in their investigation to know,” said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School and former federal prosecutor. “The have arrested 200 people, they’re pursuing hundreds more, all of those people could be potential witnesses because some have said ‘Trump made me do it’.”

What’s not known, she said, is what Trump was doing during the time of the riot, and that could be the key. Impeachment didn’t produce many answers. But federal investigators in a criminal inquiry have much more power to compel evidence through grand jury subpoenas.

“It’s not an easy case, but that’s only because what we know now, and that can change,” Levenson said.

The legal issue is whether Trump or any of the speakers at the rally near the White House that preceded the assault on the Capitol incited violence and whether they knew their words would have that effect. That’s the standard the Supreme Court laid out in its 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which overturned the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader.

Trump urged the crowd on Jan. 6 to march on the Capitol, where Congress was meeting to affirm Joe Biden’s presidential election, Trump even promised to go with his supporters, though he didn’t in the end. “You’ll never take our country back with weakness,” Trump said.

He also had spent weeks spinning up supporters over his increasingly combative language and false election claims urging them to “stop the steal.”

Trump’s impeachment lawyers said he didn’t do anything illegal. Trump, in a statement after the acquittal, did not admit to any wrongdoing.

Federal prosecutors have said they are looking at all angles of the assault on the Capitol and whether the violence had been incited. The attorney general for the District of Columbia, Karl Racine, has said that district prosecutors are considering whether to charge Trump under local law that criminalizes statements that motivate people to violence.

“Let it be known that the office of attorney general has a potential charge that it may utilize,” Racine told MSNBC last month. The charge would be a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of six months in jail.

Trump’s top White House lawyer repeatedly warned Trump on Jan. 6 that he could be held liable. That message was delivered in part to prompt Trump to condemn the violence that was carried out in his name and acknowledge that he would leave office Jan. 20, when Biden was inaugurated. He did depart the White House that day.

Since then, many of those charged in the riots say they were acting directly on Trump’s orders. Some offered to testify. A phone call between Trump and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy emerged during the impeachment trial in which McCarthy, as rioters stormed the Capitol, begged Trump to call off the mob. Trump replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

The McCarthy call is significant because it could point to Trump’s intent, state of mind and knowledge of the rioters’ actions.

Court cases that try to prove incitement often bump up against the First Amendment. In recent years, federal judges have taken a hard line against the anti-riot law. The federal appeals court in Virginia narrowed the Anti-Riot Act, with a maximum prison term of five years, because it swept up constitutionally protected speech. The court found invalid parts of the law that encompassed speech tending to “encourage” or “promote” a riot, as well as speech “urging” others to riot or involving mere advocacy of violence.

The same court upheld the convictions of two members of a white supremacist group who admitted they punched and kicked counter-demonstrators during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It’s possible federal prosecutors will decide not to bring charges, and if Trump were indicted in one of the many other separate investigations, federal prosecutors could decide justice would be done elsewhere.

Atlanta prosecutors have recently opened a criminal investigation into Trump’s attempts to overturn his election loss in Georgia, including a Jan. 2 phone call in which he urged that state’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find” enough votes to reverse Biden’s narrow victory.

And Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., is in the midst of an 18-month criminal grand jury investigation focusing in part on hush-money payments paid to women on Trump’s behalf, and whether Trump or his businesses manipulated the value of assets — inflating them in some cases and minimizing them in others — to gain favorable loan terms and tax benefits.

GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who voted to acquit along with McConnell and 41 other Republicans, argued that because Trump is no longer in office, impeachment is not the right way to hold him to account.

“The ultimate accountability is through our criminal justice system where political passions are checked and due process is constitutionally mandated. No president is above the law or immune from criminal prosecution, and that includes former President Trump.”


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