Obama curtails 60th birthday bash after delta variant surge
WASHINGTON — The party for the nation’s 44th president will go on, but only for family and close friends.
Former President Barack Obama has scaled back his 60th birthday bash set for this weekend at his Martha’s Vineyard home off the Massachusetts coast due to the surge of infections blamed on the delta variant of the coronavirus, his office said Wednesday.
Attendance is now limited to family and close friends. Published reports had said hundreds of celebrities, politicos and others were expected at Obama’s sprawling house.
“This outdoor event was planned months ago in accordance with all public health guidelines and with COVID safeguards in place,” Obama spokesperson Hannah Hankins said in a statement. “Due to the new spread of the delta variant over the past week, the President and Mrs. Obama have decided to significantly scale back the event to include only family and close friends.”
“President Obama is appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar and looks forward to seeing people soon,” Hankins added.
The two-term president turned 60 on Wednesday. Some conservatives criticized the plans for a milestone birthday celebration after details about the event were published this week.
“If the CDC doesn’t recommend Obama cancel his birthday party, don’t listen when they recommend you shut down your business,” conservative activist Charlie Kirk tweeted on Monday.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people — including those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — resume wearing face coverings in public indoor spaces in areas of “substantial or high transmission” t o protect against the delta variant. Some states and cities also have reinstated mask requirements as infections surge around the country.
The CDC website on Wednesday listed the rate of transmission in Dukes County, Massachusetts, which includes the island of Martha’s Vineyard, as “substantial.”
Massachusetts has not reinstituted mask requirements, leaving those decisions to individual communities. So far, the towns on Martha’s Vineyard have issued mask advisories, but no mandates.
The Biden administration has blamed the latest surge on the approximately 90 million people who remain unvaccinated.
Obama’s defenders stressed that the birthday party is being held outdoors, guests were asked to provide a negative COVID-19 test result and that a coordinator had been enlisted to ensure the event followed all public health guidelines.
Both Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and have urged Americans to also get their shots and follow public health protocols.
“COVID-19 has gotten more contagious, so it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated,” the former president said last week in a tweet that included a link for people to find vaccines. “Vaccines are safe, and the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.”
President Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, did not plan to attend the party.
Mired in crises, Lebanon marks 1 year since horrific blast
BEIRUT — United in grief and anger, families of the victims and other Lebanese came out into the streets of Beirut on Wednesday to demand accountability as banks, businesses and government offices shuttered to mark one year since the horrific explosion at the port of Beirut.
The grim anniversary comes amid an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year. Prayers and protests were planned for later in the day, which has been declared a national day of mourning.
The explosion killed at least 214 people, according to official records, injured and maimed thousands and devastated entire neighborhoods of the city.
It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history — the result of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire broke out. The explosion tore through the city with such force, it caused a tremor across the entire country that was heard and felt as far away as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) away.
It soon emerged in documents that the highly combustible nitrates had been haphazardly stored at a port warehouse alongside other flammable material since 2014, and that multiple high-level officials over the years knew of its presence and did nothing.
A year later, there has been no accountability, and the investigation has yet to answer questions such as who ordered the shipment of the chemicals and why officials ignored repeated internal warnings of their danger.
Several thousand people staged protests outside the port, the justice palace, fire brigade and hard-hit neighborhoods of Beirut on Wednesday, chanting slogans against the country’s political class, widely blamed for the port disaster and years of corruption and mismanagement that plunged Lebanon into bankruptcy.
“This is too big of a crime for it to be swept under the carpet,” said Sara Jaafar, an architect whose house opposite the port was totally destroyed, as she marched toward the rally there.
“It’s important for foreign countries to know we are against this murderous ruling class,” Jaafar added. A year on, she has not been able to go back to her home, which like so many remains in ruins.
Families of the victims were to hold a memorial and prayers at the still wrecked site of the blast at Beirut’s port later Wednesday. A huge metal gavel with the words “Act for Justice” was placed on a wall opposite the port with its shredded grain silos, near the words “My government did this” scrawled in black.
Flags flew at half-staff over government institutions and embassies, and even medical labs and COVID-19 vaccination centers were closed to mark the day. Reflecting the raw anger at the country’s ruling class, posters assailing authorities were hung on the facades of defaced buildings across from the port.
“Here starts your end and our beginning,” read one poster that took up the space of five floors of a high-rise. “Hostages of a murderous state,” read another.
“This is a day of pain and grief. It is the day we lost our loved ones and relatives and children. We hope all those coming down (to the streets) in solidarity with us to respect our pain,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the blast and is now a spokesman for the families fighting for accountability.
The blast, coupled with the devastating economic crisis, political stalemate and rising poverty, have posed the gravest threat to the small country’s stability since its 1975-90 civil war.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Lebanese army said it arrested a number of people who were on their way to take part in anniversary commemorations, saying they had a large number of weapons and ammunition in their possession.
In an extensive investigative report, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called for an international probe into the port blast, accusing Lebanese authorities of trying to thwart the investigation. HRW said a lack of judicial independence, constitution-imposed immunity for high-level officials and a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation rendered it “incapable of credibly delivering justice.”
The explosion — which destroyed and damaged thousands of homes and businesses — and the lack of accountability, have added to the deep political and sectarian divisions, tensions and anguish in a country reeling from multiple crises, including an economic unraveling so severe it has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst in the last 150 years.
The crisis has led to a dramatic currency crash and hyperinflation, plunging more than half of the country’s population below the poverty line. The international community has refused to help Lebanon financially before wide reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Meanwhile, about 40 heads of states and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations were taking part in a conference co-hosted by France and the United Nations on Wednesday, hoping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to meet Lebanon’s growing humanitarian needs.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the virtual event is meant to show support for the Lebanese people — not authorities — and pledged France would provide 100 millions euros ($118.6 million) in the coming months.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis recalled the suffering of the Lebanese people, as he held his first weekly audience with the public since surgery a month ago.
“A year after the terrible explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, that caused death and destruction, my thoughts go to that dear country, above all to the victims, to their families,’’ the pontiff said.
“And so many lost the illusion of living,’’ he added.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed reporting.
British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast
FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates — The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.
Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Persian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the yearslong shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The U.S. military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The U.S. Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the U.S. for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.
DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
China seals city as its worst virus outbreak in a year grows
BEIJING — China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic a year and a half ago escalated Wednesday with dozens more cases around the country, the sealing-off of one city and the punishment of its local leaders.
Since that initial outbreak was tamed last year, China’s people had lived virtually free of the virus, with extremely strict border controls and local distancing and quarantine measures stamping out scattered, small flareups when they occurred.
Now, the country is on high alert as an outbreak of cases connected to the international airport in the eastern city of Nanjing touched at least 17 provinces. China reported 71 new cases of COVID-19 from local transmission Wednesday, more than half of them in coastal Jiangsu province, of which Nanjing is the capital.
In Wuhan, the central city where the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in late 2019, mass testing has shown some of its newly reported cases have a high degree of similarity to cases discovered in Jiangsu province. Those cases have been identified as being caused by the highly transmissible delta variant that first was identified in India.
Meanwhile, another COVID-19 hotspot was emerging in the city of Zhangjiajie, near a scenic area in Hunan province famous for sandstone cliffs, caves, forests and waterfalls that inspired the on-screen landscape in the “Avatar” films.
The city, with a population of about 1.5 million, ordered residential communities sealed Sunday, preventing people from leaving their homes. In a subsequent order on Tuesday, officials said no one, whether tourist or resident, could leave the city.
The city government’s Communist Party disciplinary committee on Wednesday issued a list of local officials who “had a negative impact” on pandemic prevention and control work who would be punished.
The city itself has only recorded 19 cases since last week, three of which were people with no symptoms, which are counted separately. However, individual cases linked to Zhangjiajie’s outbreak have spread to at least five provinces, according to the Shanghai government-owned newspaper the Paper.
Far higher numbers were reported in Yangzhou, a city next to Nanjing, which has recorded 126 cases as of Tuesday.
After announcing last week that they were suspending issuance of passports for travelers except for those with an urgent need, officials at the National Immigration Administration reiterated the message again on Wednesday at a press briefing.
As of Tuesday, China has given more than 1.71 billion vaccine doses to its population of 1.4 billion. It’s not clear how many of those are first or both doses, but at least 40% of the population is fully protected, according to earlier announcements.
Chinese companies have not publicly shared real-world data on how effective their vaccines are against the delta variant, though officials have said the vaccines prevent severe disease and hospitalization.
In addition to the 71 cases of local transmission, 25 travelers from overseas have COVID-19 and have entered quarantine, making the total for Wednesday 96 new cases. The National Health Commission also said 15 people tested positive for the virus but have no symptoms.
China has reported 4,636 deaths and 93,289 cases of COVID-19 overall, most of them from the original outbreak in Wuhan that peaked early last year.
Mayors of flood-hit German towns call for more aid
BERLIN — The mayors of three German towns badly hit by last month’s deadly floods are appealing for more help from the state and federal governments, saying the disaster caused billions of euros (dollars) worth of damage.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, the mayors said they had written to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, Malu Dreyer. They said they were seeking further financial help and the appointment of a special commissioner to oversee the reconstruction in the Ahr Valley, where at least 138 people were killed.
The mayor of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler said his town estimates the damage to individuals, businesses and public infrastructure to be at least 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion). Guido Orthen said his community needs authorities to dispense with some of the usual regulations and make “unconventional decisions” given the scale of the destruction.
His colleague Andreas Geron, the mayor of nearby Sinzig, said the disaster in the valley would “shape a generation.”
“We will never forget what happened to this region,” he told reporters. Twelve residents of an assisted living facility in Sinzig died in the floods and prosecutors are investigating whether officials failed to provide timely warnings to residents.
Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, pushed back against the idea of naming a special commissioner for reconstruction, telling public broadcaster WDR that this risked increasing bureaucracy.
But he said the federal government would provide funding to help state authorities.
Head of UN health agency seeks vaccine booster moratorium
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization called Wednesday for a moratorium on administering booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines as a way to help ensure that doses are available in countries where few people have received their first shots.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the appeal mostly to wealthier countries that have far outpaced the developing world in numbers of vaccinations. He said richer countries have administered about 100 doses of coronavirus vaccines for every 100 people on average, while low-income countries — hampered by short supplies — have provided only about 1.5 doses per 100 people.
WHO officials say the science is unproven about whether giving booster shots to people who have already received two vaccine doses is effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
The U.N. health agency has repeatedly called for rich countries to do more to help improve access to vaccines in the developing world. It has argued that no one is safe until everyone is safe because the longer and more widely the coronavirus circulates, the greater the chance that new variants could emerge — and prolong a global crisis in fighting the pandemic.
The agency has no power to require countries to act, and many in the past have ignored its appeals on issues like donating vaccines, limiting cross-border travel and taking steps to boost production of vaccines in developing countries.
Tedros pointed to a WHO target he had announced in May seeking to ensure that 10% of the populations in all countries receive vaccines against the coronavirus.
“Accordingly, WHO is calling for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of September to enable at least 10% of the population of every country to be vaccinated,” he told a news conference.
To help take the heat out of the pandemic, WHO has been focusing on getting vaccines to older adults, health care workers and other target populations in many countries before booster shot campaigns are carried out.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, a special adviser to Tedros, said the moratorium was about an appeal to countries considering booster doses to “put a hold” on such policies “until and unless we get the rest of the world caught up” in the fight against the pandemic.
“As we’ve seen from the emergence of variant after variant, we cannot get out of it unless the whole world gets out of it together. And with the huge disparity in vaccination coverage, we’re simply not going to be able to achieve that,” Aylward said.
Israel, France, Germany and many Middle Eastern countries have already started administering boosters, and other nations, including the United States and Britain, are considering plans to do so in the wake of the emergence of the highly transmissible delta variant.
Dr. Katherine O’Brien, WHO’s vaccines chief, noted that a “very limited number” of countries were giving booster doses though a larger number were contemplating it.
“The evidence is evolving. It’s moving. We don’t have a full set of evidence around whether this is needed or not,” O’Brien said, adding that the main message was that “we need instead to focus on those people who are most vulnerable.”
WHO officials reiterated their call for global “solidarity” to help battle the coronavirus pandemic and appealed to wealthy countries and corporations to help.
“We need everyone’s cooperation, especially the handful of countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines,” Tedros said, appealing in particular to the influential Group of 20 large economies. “The G-20 has a vital leadership role to play as the countries that are the biggest producers, the biggest consumers and the biggest donors of COVID-19 vaccines.”
He urged the G-20, which currently is chaired by Italy, to make “concrete commitments to support global vaccination targets.”
“We call on everyone with influence — Olympic athletes, investors, business leaders, faith leaders and every individual in their own family and community — to support our call for a moratorium on booster shots until at least the end of September,” Tedros said.
Orcas’ brief visit to Salish Sea bookended by causes of celebration, mourning
MOUNT VERNON — Following an unprecedented absence from the Salish Sea, the region’s endangered Southern Resident orcas visited their “summer home” briefly last week.
The visit followed the happy news that Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed a calf born in February is a female — which could boost the Southern Resident population if she reproduces — and came ahead of NOAA Fisheries’ expansion this week of critical habitat for the imperiled whales.
The visit also brought with it bad news: One of the whales, K21, or Cappuccino, was seen in poor health and has since been presumed dead.
The Southern Resident orca population includes three family groups called J, K and L pods. According to the nonprofit Orca Network, all three pods were seen near San Juan Island on July 27, before heading back toward coastal waters the next day.
“The whale community was ecstatic to see, hear, or just know that all three pods of Southern Resident orcas had returned at long last, after 108 days away at sea, to Haro Strait off San Juan Island,” the Orca Network said on its Facebook page.
The excitement ebbed Wednesday, July 28, when K21 was seen separated from its pod, struggling to swim and appearing unhealthy. The Orca Network said the whale, a male born in 1986, was emaciated and its dorsal fin was collapsed.
“It was shocking and terribly sad to see him that way … a sure sign he was near death,” the organization’s Facebook post states.
Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute said in a news release that K21 was one of the easiest Southern Residents to identify because of a check mark-shaped light patch on his once-mighty dorsal fin. While difficult to lose a star whale from a struggling population, Wieland Shields said the average life expectancy of a male orca is about 30 years, so K21 was past its prime.
The loss of K21 brings the population to 74 whales. For those whales, NOAA Fisheries filed Monday a new rule expanding critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act to include nearly 16,000 square miles of West Coast waters along Washington, Oregon and northern California.
NOAA Fisheries originally designated about 2,560 square miles of the Salish Sea as critical habitat for the whales in 2006.
The federal agency has been working to expand the critical habitat since determining in 2015, in response to a petition the Center for Biological Diversity filed under the Endangered Species Act, that a revision was warranted.
The newly-designated critical habitat includes water ranging from 6.1 to 200 meters deep that contains the same essential features identified as critical to the whales in the Salish Sea, according to a NOAA Fisheries news release. Those features include water quality, the presence of prey species, and conditions for migration, resting and foraging.
According to NOAA Fisheries, while expanding the critical habitat adds a layer of protection for the whales, increasing the number of salmon available for the orcas to eat is most critical for the species’ recovery.
The international ocean advocacy organization Oceana shares that view.
“While this action helps ensure the orcas’ ocean home will be protected, more action is urgently needed to restore wild salmon populations the orcas depend on,” Oceana Senior Scientist Ben Enticknap said in a news release. “Orca and salmon recovery go hand-in-hand.”
Orca researchers with the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology and area nonprofits have said the whales’ relative absence from the Salish Sea this year is likely connected to an absence of Fraser River fish.
Usually, the orcas are seen frequently within the Salish Sea between May and September. This year, before the single-day sighting on July 27, K pod was last seen on July 1, while J pod hadn’t been seen since April, and L pod not since February.
The whales have instead been documented most often near what’s called Swiftsure Bank off Vancouver Island — a potentially better location for hunting salmon this year.
Bail set at $3M in killings of 2 men near Moses Lake
MOSES LAKE — A Moses Lake man has had bail set at $3 million in connection with the shooting deaths of two Moses Lake men on Saturday.
Noe Pena had his first appearance in Grant County Superior Court this week on investigation of two counts of second-degree murder, The Columbia Basin Herald reported.
Pena, 40, is accused shooting Epitacio Martinez-Molina, 52, and his brother, Moises Martinez-Molina, 37, according to Grant County Sheriff’s spokesman Officer Kyle Foreman.
No motive has been confirmed, but Foreman said evidence suggested they were all involved in a poker game.
Deputies were called to a home north of Moses Lake around 11:45 a.m. Saturday after someone reported a man “walking around with a gun in his hand,” according to Foreman. They found Pena walking on a road, ordered him to drop the gun and he eventually did, Foreman said.
Pena was initally taken into custody on suspicion of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Deputies found the men’s bodies after a witness told them they were in the garage of a home where Pena was seen. Grant County Coroner confirmed their identities and cause of death.
Pena remains in the Grant County Jail. It wasn’t immediately known if he has a lawyer to speak on his behalf.
Trump Asks Judge to Block Tax Return Release to Congress
In a 37-page filing, Mr. Trump’s legal team picked up arguments that the Trump-era Justice Department had put forward in a bid to stonewall the congressional request.
Under Armour CEO says company is prepared for 'twists and turns' as Covid-19 cases rise