‘A gaping hole of rubble:’ Thankful survivor recounts rescue
SURFSIDE, Fla. — Barry Cohen and his wife were sound asleep in their beachside condominium outside Miami when he heard what he thought was a crack of thunder early Thursday. They got up, opened the door leading to their hallway and faced a pile of rubble and billowing smoke.
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, 63, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”
The couple survived the collapse of Champlain Towers South Condo, just yards from the Atlantic surf, but at least one person was killed and rescuers were still combing the building’s rubble for others.
Trying to get out, Cohen said he and his wife tried to take stairs down to the pool area, only to find that door wouldn’t open. They descended to the basement and found rising water there.
The couple returned upstairs, screaming for help. There were eventually brought to safety on a cherry-picker that firefighters used to lower people to the ground, he said.
“I thank them,” Cohen said. “They had such a hard job. It’s amazing what they do. I’m always happy to be alive, but I’m even happier today.”
Discord over whether to halt South Carolina abortion case
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The parties involved in a lawsuit over South Carolina’s new ban on almost all abortions disagree about how the case should be handled while the U.S. Supreme Court considers similar litigation from Mississippi.
Those supporting the restrictions argue they should be allowed to collect information for their defense in the coming months.
Earlier this week, attorneys for both the state and Planned Parenthood signed on to a court filing, which ultimately deferred to a federal district court’s judgment over how to handle the case regarding the “ South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act.”
Passed earlier this year, the law requires doctors to perform ultrasounds to check for a heartbeat in the fetus, which can typically be detected about six weeks after conception. If cardiac activity is detected, the abortion can only be performed if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, or the mother’s life is in danger.
Planned Parenthood attorneys sued immediately to halt the law, which has been blocked from going into effect during their lawsuit. The federal judge overseeing the case has said she’s inclined to put the case on hold entirely following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to take a case from Mississippi — which wants to enforce an abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy — setting up a showdown over whether states can ban abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb.
A myriad of states have passed their own restrictions on abortions in recent years, and abortion rights supporters have argued the case is a threat to reproductive rights. The Supreme Court had previously turned down state appeals over pre-viability abortion bans and will likely hear the Mississippi case in the fall, with a decision likely in the spring of 2022.
A federal judge overseeing the South Carolina lawsuit had ruled she was inclined to stay pending motions in that case until the Mississippi case is decided. In court papers filed this week, attorneys for Planned Parenthood argued that discovery — evidence that the other side intends to use — should be halted entirely if their overall lawsuit is put on hold and “would unnecessarily strain judicial resources.”
Attorneys for the state of South Carolina wrote that they felt discovery should continue while the Supreme Court case is ongoing, arguing that a delay in their own proceedings is “unwarranted.”
About a dozen other states have passed similar or more restrictive abortion bans, which could take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision supporting abortion rights. Federal law supersedes state law.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill into law less than an hour after state lawmakers sent it to him. Opponents have argued many women do not know they are pregnant at six weeks, especially if they are not trying to conceive. And, they argue, with such an early deadline, the law gives women little time to consider whether to have an abortion.
More than 90% of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Falling short: Why the White House will miss its vax target
WASHINGTON — Standing in the State Dining Room on May 4, President Joe Biden laid out a lofty goal to vaccinate 70% of American adults by Independence Day, saying the U.S. would need to overcome “doubters” and laziness to do it. “This is your choice,” he told Americans. “It’s life and death.”
As for the ambition of his 70% goal, Biden added: “I’d like to get it at 100%, but I think realistically we can get to that place between now and July Fourth.”
With the July Fourth holiday approaching, the White House acknowledged this week that Biden will fall shy of his 70% goal and an associated aim of fully vaccinating 165 million adults in the same time frame. The missed milestones are notable in a White House that from the outset has been organized around a strategy of underpromising and overdelivering for the American public.
White House officials, while acknowledging they are set to fall short, insist they’re unconcerned. “We don’t see it exactly like something went wrong,” press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week, stressing that Americans’ lives are still better off than they were when Biden announced the goal.
As of Wednesday, 65.6% of Americans age 18 and older had received at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. The figure is expected to be over 67% by July 4.
A half-dozen officials involved in the vaccination campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the missed target candidly, pointed to a combination of factors, including: the lessened sense of urgency that followed early success in the vaccination campaign; a decision to reach higher than a play-it-safe lower goal; and unexpectedly strong recalcitrance among some Americans toward getting a shot.
Nonetheless, the White House says it’s not letting up on its vaccination efforts. Biden will be in North Carolina on Thursday urging Americans to roll up their sleeves as part of a nationwide “month of action” to drive up the vaccination rate before the holiday. The White House is continuing to roll out increasingly localized programs to encourage specific communities to get vaccinated.
A drop-off in vaccination rates was always expected by the White House, but not as sharp as has proved to be the case. The scale of American reluctance to get vaccinated remains a source of global curiosity, particularly as many nations are still scrambling for doses to protect their most vulnerable populations.
When the 70% goal was first announced by Biden seven weeks ago, on average more than 800,000 Americans were getting their first vaccine dose each day — down from a high of nearly 2 million per day in early April. Now that figure is below 300,000.
Paradoxically, officials believe the strong response to the early vaccination campaign has served to reduce motivation to get a shot for some. One of the most potent motivators for people to get vaccinated was the high rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Now that those figures have dropped to levels not seen since the onset of the pandemic, officials say it’s become harder to convince Americans of the urgency to get a shot — particularly for younger populations that already knew they were at low risk of serious complications from the virus.
Separately, two officials involved in the crafting of the 70% goal said officials knew 65% would have been a safer bet, but they said the White House wanted to reach for a figure closer to experts’ projections of what would be needed for herd immunity to bring down cases and deaths. Aiming for the higher target, the officials said, was seen as adding to the urgency of the campaign and probably increased the vaccination rate above where it would have been with a more modest goal.
Other officials said the White House, which has always cast the vaccination campaign as “hard,” nevertheless failed to grasp the resistance of some Americans to getting a shot when it set the 70% goal.
“The hesitation among younger Americans and among Trump voters has been too hard to overcome,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked with the White House and outside groups to promote vaccinations. “They think they are making a statement by refusing to be vaccinated. For Trump voters, it’s a political statement. For younger adults, it’s about telling the world that they are immune.”
Of the White House, Luntz said, “I think they did as good a job as they could have done.”
The White House points to all that the nation has achieved to play down the significance of the goals it will miss.
Back in March, Biden projected a July Fourth holiday during which Americans would be able to safely gather in small groups for outdoor barbecues — a milestone reached by the U.S. months ago. Nearly all states have lifted their virus restrictions, businesses and schools are open and large gatherings are resuming nationwide.
“The most important metric at the end of the day is: What are we able to do in our lives? How much of ‘normal’ have we been able to recapture?” said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “And I think what we are seeing now is that we have exceeded our expectations.”
The White House also has taken to crunching the vaccination numbers in new ways to put a positive spin on the situation. On Tuesday, the administration announced that 70% of adults 30 and over have been vaccinated — removing the most hesitant population from its denominator. But even that statistic glosses over lower vaccination rates among middle-aged adults (62.4% for those aged 40-49) and millennials (52.8% for those aged 25-39).
The administration’s predicament is all the more notable given what had been an unbroken streak of fulfilled vaccination goals. Before taking office, Biden in December pledged to vaccinate 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of his presidency — a rate that the U.S. was exceeding by the time he was sworn in. Within days he suggested a goal of 150 million and ultimately easily met a revised goal of 200 million shots in the first 100 days.
Biden’s 70% goal also was achievable, officials say — if in retrospect too ambitious — but critically relied less on the government’s ability to procure shots and build capacity to inject them and more on individuals’ willingness to get vaccinated.
“We did that as a team, relying very heavily or exclusively on the docs and scientists,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said Tuesday on how the targets were selected.
More significant that the 70% statistic, officials said, is the vast regional disparities in vaccination, with a state like Vermont vaccinating more than 80% of its population while some in the South and West are below 50%. Within states, there’s even greater variation. In Missouri, some southern and northern counties are well short of 40% and one county is at just 13%.
With the delta variant first identified in India taking hold in the U.S., officials say the next vaccination boost may not come from incentives like lotteries or giveaways, but out of renewed fears of preventable illness and death. Other officials project a significant increase in vaccine uptake once the shots, which have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, receive final approval from the agency.
Heading into the end of the month another Biden goal also was in doubt.
The president last month set a target of shipping 80 million COVID-19 excess vaccine doses overseas by the end of June. U.S. officials say the doses are ready to go, but that regulatory and legal roadblocks in recipient countries are slowing deliveries beyond what was expected.
About 10 million have been shipped so far, including 3 million sent Wednesday to Brazil. Shipments are expected to pick up in the final days of the month, but meeting the goal by June 30 appears unlikely.
It takes time to share a lifesaving and delicate vaccine, one White House official said, but the administration expects to share “every single drop” of the promised doses.
Russia border countries in Europe cool on Putin talks plan
BRUSSELS — Countries bordering Russia expressed deep concern Thursday about a Franco-German plan to resume official meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, likening the move to an attempt to talk a bear out of trying to steal honey.
The European Union is deeply divided in its approach to Moscow. Russia is the EU’s biggest natural gas supplier, and plays a key role in a series of international conflicts and issues linked to Europe’s strategic interests, including the Iran nuclear deal, and conflicts in Syria and Libya.
European heavyweight Germany has strong economic interests there, notably the NordStream 2 undersea pipeline project, and a number of countries, including France, are reluctant to continue waging a sanctions battle with Russia, including over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The EU is concerned that Putin is turning increasingly authoritarian and wants to distance himself from the West. Both the 27-nation trading bloc and the NATO military alliance are struggling to bring Russia to the table. U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting with Putin this month was a rare exception.
“We have to deal with Russia, but being very cautious about the real intentions of Putin’s regime,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told reporters at an EU summit in Brussels, where the issue will be discussed. “So far, we don’t see any radical change in the pattern of behavior of Russia.”
“If, without any positive changes in the behavior of Russia, we start to engage, it will send very uncertain and bad signals, for example to eastern partnership countries,” Nauseda said. “It seems to me like we try to engage a bear to keep a pot of honey safe.”
The other two Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, are also deeply concerned about reaching out to Russia when the Minsk agreements meant to bring peace to Ukraine, whose Crimean Peninsula Russia annexed in 2014, are still not being respected. Conflict simmers in eastern Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists.
“Right now, if it pans out the way it’s proposed, Russia annexes Crimea, Russia wages war in Donbass, and Europe shrugs its shoulders and continues to try to speak a dialogue. The Kremlin does not understand this kind of politics,” said Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins.
“The Kremlin understands power politics. The Kremlin does not understand free concessions as a sign of strength,” Karins said.
His Estonian counterpart, Kaja Kallas, said she’s keen to hear what France and Germany think has improved to permit such a change of policy. “We should be very clear. What is our goal in relationship with Russia, and what has changed, why this is on the table now?”
“What our intelligence tells us is that sanctions work and the European Union has to be more patient,” she added.
But French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe cannot simply tackle its problems with Russia on a case-by-case basis, by continually imposing sanctions or other measures.
“We cannot continue without dialogue. We have to talk, including about our disagreements. It’s the only way to resolve them,” Macron said. “It’s a dialogue that’s necessary for the stability of the European continent, but demanding because we will not give up our interests and values.”
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers that “the events of recent months — not just in Germany — have clearly shown that it’s not enough if we react to the multitude of Russian provocations in an uncoordinated way.”
“Instead, we have to create mechanisms to respond in a common and unified way to provocations” to what she described as “hybrid attacks by Russia.” That includes outreach to countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and the western Balkans, but also engaging Russia and Putin directly.
The plan was welcomed in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin supports the idea to restore “the mechanism of direct contacts between Brussels and Moscow.”
“Putin has spoken about it many times,” Peskov said. “Both Brussels and Moscow really need this dialogue.”
Ukraine, in contrast, was not so keen about the EU outreach.
“Initiatives to resume EU summits with Russia without seeing any progress from the Russian side will be a dangerous deviation from EU sanctions policy,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Brussels.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he had no trouble with top EU officials meeting with Putin, but that “I will not participate in a meeting with Vladimir Putin myself.”
Asked why, he said: “MH17,” — a reference to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia separatists nearly seven years ago, killing 298 people, many of them Dutch.
Ethiopia confirms Tigray airstrike, says fighters targeted
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s military on Thursday confirmed it was responsible for a deadly airstrike on a busy marketplace in the country’s Tigray region that locals say killed dozens of civilians, but the military insisted that only combatants were targeted.
Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble and dozens of survivors were still arriving at regional hospitals with shrapnel and blunt trauma wounds two days after the airstrike, a doctor in the regional capital, Mekele, told The Associated Press. The doctor, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
A military spokesman, Col. Getnet Adane, told journalists that fighters supporting the Tigray region’s former leaders had assembled to celebrate Martyrs’ Day on Tuesday when the airstrike occurred.
“The Ethiopian air force uses the latest technology, so it conducted a precision strike that was successful,” he said. He didn’t comment when reached for further details.
The airstrike in the village of Togoga killed at least 51 people and left 33 missing and more than 100 wounded, a regional health official told the AP. Children were among the victims, health workers said, adding that Ethiopian forces blocked some medical teams from responding and shot at a Red Cross ambulance trying to reach the scene.
“There are a lot of people injured, but they didn’t get medical service and help because of the blockage of the road by the military,” said Dr. Kinfe Redae.
Wounded people were still being evacuated from the scene on Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, calling the transport of seriously injured to an operating center in Mekele “a matter of life and death.”
The airstrike came amid some of the fiercest fighting in Tigray since the conflict began in November as Ethiopian forces, supported by forces from neighboring Eritrea, pursue Tigray’s former leaders. The Ethiopian military spokesman denied Tigray fighters’ claims of gains in recent days, saying Ethiopian forces had been deployed to other locations for Monday’s national election.
The United States and the European Union have condemned the airstrike in Togoga that left children, including a 1-year-old baby. screaming in pain.
A “reprehensible act,” the U.S. State Department said. “Denying victims urgently needed medical care is heinous and absolutely unacceptable. We urge the Ethiopian authorities to ensure full and unhindered medical access to the victims immediately. We also call for an urgent and independent investigation.”
The U.S. also called for an immediate cease-fire in Tigray, where thousands of civilians have been killed and 350,000 people are now facing one of the world’s worst famines in years.
Ethiopia says aid is being delivered to most of Tigray’s 6 million people, but aid workers have said they have been repeatedly denied access to several parts of the region by soldiers.
With Ethiopia recently declaring Tigray’s former ruling party a terrorist group, concerns have been widespread among Tigrayans, aid workers and others that anyone seen as linked to Tigray fighters, including civilians, could be targeted.
Tigrayans were appalled by Ethiopia’s assertion that the airstrike was aimed only at combatants.
“It’s an insult to the people and adding salt to the wounds, you know?” said Hailu Kebede, a former Togoga resident and official with the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party. He described how his brother, who has a shop in the market, ran for his life while his nearby home was destroyed.
“We know the area. I grew up there. There were no combatants,” Hailu said. “The destroyed homes are those of my friends and my family.” One of his friends lost a child in the airstrike while another child had her hand amputated, he said.
The real death toll from the airstrike could be higher because some people likely took the dead home to their nearby villages and buried them without the knowledge of regional officials, Hailu said.
U.S., Germany confront rising antisemitism, Holocaust denial
BERLIN — The United States and Germany launched a new initiative Thursday to stem an alarming rise in antisemitism and Holocaust denial around the world.
The two governments announced the start of a U.S.-Germany Holocaust Dialogue that seeks to reverse the trend that gained traction during the coronavirus pandemic amid a surge in political populism across Europe and the U.S. The dialogue creates a way to develop educational and messaging tools to teach youth and others about the crimes of Nazis and their collaborators.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and several Holocaust survivors were present for the launch at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. All cited links between Holocaust denial, revisionism and ignorance to growing antisemitism as well as to broader discrimination against minorities.
“Holocaust denial and other forms of antisemitism often go hand in hand with homophobia, xenophobia, racism, other hatred,” said Blinken, who is the step-son of a Holocaust survivor. “It’s also a rallying cry for those who seek to tear down our democracies, which we’ve seen in both our countries, (and) often a precursor to violence.”
Maas echoed Blinken’s comments, underscoring the importance of Germany — “the country of the perpetrators,” he said — taking in a leading role in the project.
“In recent years, we have seen antisemitism and racism eating into our society,” Maas said. “Just think of the Yellow Star badge as seen at demonstrations against COVID measures, of the torrent of antisemitic conspiracy theories on the Internet, of the attacks on synagogues and on Jewish people living in our countries, of the rioters in front of the Bundestag or the rampaging mob in the U.S. capital.”
With advancing age severely reducing the number of Holocaust survivors and dimming first-hand memories of the atrocities, Blinken and Maas said the new dialogue would produce innovative ways to educate younger generations about the Holocaust and the troubling buildup that led to the mass extermination of Jews and others in Nazi Germany and elsewhere.
“The Shoah was not a sharp fall, but a gradual descent into darkness,” Blinken said.
Eligibility rule keeps transgender runner out of trials
EUGENE, Ore. — Transgender runner CeCe Telfer will not be allowed to compete in the women’s 400-meter hurdles at U.S. Olympic trials because Telfer has not met the conditions World Athletics established in its eligibility regulations for certain women’s events.
Telfer competed for the men’s team at Division II Franklin Pierce, but took time off, then came back to compete for the women’s team. In 2019, Telfer won the NCAA title.
Telfer was entered in this week’s trials but was ultimately not allowed to compete because of guidelines World Athletics released in 2019 that closed off international women’s events of between 400 meters and a mile to athletes who did not meet the eligibility requirements. Among those requirements was that their testosterone levels had to be below 5 nonomoles per liter (nmol/L) for a span of 12 months.
Telfer’s manager, David McFarland, said Telfer would respect the decision.
“CeCe has turned her focus towards the future and is continuing to train. She will compete on the national — and world — stage again soon,” McFarland said.
USATF said in a statement that in order for athletes to be eligible for the trials, they must meet the requirements to be a member of the U.S. Olympic team, and that eligibility for the Olympics is governed by World Athletics.
It further explained: “Following notification from World Athletics on June 17 that the conditions had not yet been met, USATF provided CeCe with the eligibility requirements and, along with World Athletics, the opportunity to demonstrate her eligibility so that she could compete at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. According to subsequent notification to CeCe from World Athletics on June 22, she has not been able to demonstrate her eligibility.”
In a blog last week in Women’s Health, Telfer said: “I love what I’m doing and I’m getting to live my truth and live my authentic life. I believe that this is my way of being the change that I want to see in the world. And I live by that every single day.”
In its statement, USATF said it “strongly supports inclusivity and providing a clear path to participation in the sport for all, while also maintaining competitive fairness.”
“If CeCe meets the conditions for transgender athlete participation in the future, we wholeheartedly back her participation in international events as a member of Team USATF,” the statement said.
Biggest COVID outbreak hits Northwest detention center as 29 immigrants test positive
SEATTLE — For much of the pandemic, a steadily dropping population at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma has helped keep at bay the kind of large-scale coronavirus outbreaks that have hit some federal immigrant detention centers and state prisons. But since the beginning of June, as federal authorities transferred hundreds of detainees from the southern border, 29 of those held at the Tacoma facility have tested positive.
All were recent transfers, according to court filings in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of older and medically vulnerable individuals. A federal judge has required Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report every new COVID-19 case.
Aaron Korthuis, a NWIRP attorney working on the lawsuit, said the recent cases amount to “clearly the biggest outbreak we’ve seen during COVID.” With the availability of vaccines and testing, he added, “at this point in the pandemic, it feels almost like this sort of thing shouldn’t be happening. “
The facility’s detainees are offered the chance to be vaccinated, and about 70% were as of June 3, according to a court declaration submitted by Drew Bostock, the officer in charge of enforcement and removal operations in ICE’s Seattle field office. ICE and the GEO Group, the private company that runs the detention center, have said they have taken other extensive precautions, including distributing masks and social distancing.
They said it was easier to keep people apart as the pandemic slowed ICE enforcement and the number of people in the 1,575-bed facility dropped. In the spring, it held only about 200.
It’s not clear how many are there now; one June court filing cited a population of 369. The number has climbed as ICE has been transferring people from the southern border, sometimes more than 100 at a time, according to court filings. Korthuis said that’s likely in part because the Biden administration has been letting more asylum-seekers into the country after ending President Donald Trump’s policy of making them wait in Mexico.
“These transfers are necessary to prevent overcrowding and maintain pandemic safety precautions in ICE facilities at the southern border,” Bostock wrote in one declaration.
Another of his declarations, informing the court of five new COVID-19 cases, said the individuals had been tested before being transferred, and that detainees and transport personnel had been required to wear masks.
Eunice Cho, an ACLU senior staff attorney working on the litigation, said she doubts ICE is testing all detainees before transferring them, however. “Whatever mechanism ICE is taking is certainly not sufficient,” she said.
Cho and Korthuis said they believe some detainees are likely contracting COVID-19 either in flight to Tacoma or in the units where they are held once they arrive. Transferred detainees, kept separate from general population for 14 days so they can be tested and monitored for the virus, used to go into cells containing just one or two people, according to Korthuis. Now, as the numbers go up, ICE is reporting some are put into “open bay” units. He and Cho said such units could contain many more people, though they didn’t know how many.
ICE’s Seattle spokesperson, David Yost, said he couldn’t comment on COVID-19 cases or answer questions, referring inquiries to national spokespeople, who couldn’t be reached Wednesday. A GEO Group spokesperson also had no comment on the recent cases, and cited an earlier statement about precautions it has taken.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s office “is involved and monitoring, having been in contact with federal officials,” according to spokesperson Tara Lee. So is the state Department of Health.
Washington’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases, Scott Lindquist, wrote a June letter to the detention center’s administrator with what he said was an urgent request to prevent released detainees from spreading COVID-19 among Washingtonians at large.
He said two recently transferred detainees who had tested positive were released, and appropriately went into isolation for 10 days. ICE filings show the agency coordinated with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to place some such detainees in a “temporary care center” for people who do not have a place to quarantine.
But Lindquist said the two detainees had been in contact with 80 other detainees. They also had been released, but ICE had made no quarantine arrangements with health officials, Lindquist said. “Release without coordination with the local and state public health system could potentially create a public health crisis in Washington state,” he wrote.
Yost did not confirm Lindquist’s account. Reached by phone, the epidemiologist said he had gotten his information from ICE officials, and had met with some Tuesday to talk about the issue. He said ICE has been very amenable to working with health officials.
The C.D.C. extends the national moratorium on evictions through July 31.
Administration officials said this will be the final time they push back the deadline.