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U.S. plans to evacuate thousands of Afghans who helped U.S.
Author: AAMER MADHANI and ELLEN KNICKMEYER, Associated Press

The Biden administration plans to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who worked with U.S. forces during the war while their applications for U.S. entry are processed, according to officials familiar with the matter.

A senior administration official said planning has accelerated in recent days to relocate Afghans, and their families who assisted Americans during the nearly 20-year-old war to other countries or U.S. territories. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss unannounced plans.

The administration intends to carry out the evacuation later this summer, likely in August, according to a second official familiar with the deliberations but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Both officials added that no country or countries for the planned temporary relocation have been settled on. Evacuating Afghans to a U.S. territory, however, is seen as complicated because it could lead to the visa applicants having greater legal rights as they are vetted.

The White House has begun briefing lawmakers on the outlines of the plans.

The administration has begun to identify a group of interpreters to be relocated outside of Afghanistan before U.S. completes its drawdown by September, said a senior administration official.

Those individuals have already begun the process of applying for special immigrant visas available to Afghans who have worked with the U.S. The official stressed that administration relocation efforts would comply with U.S. consular law and would be coordinated with Congress.

The White House is planning for a variety of scenarios including “additional relocation or evacuation options” if necessary, the official said.

With U.S. and NATO forces facing a Sept. 11 deadline to leave Afghanistan, the Biden administration has faced i ncreased pressure from lawmakers, veterans and others to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters or who otherwise helped U.S. military operations there in the past two decades.

“We have a moral obligation to protect our brave allies who put their lives on the line for us, and we’ve been working for months to engage the administration and make sure there’s a plan, with few concrete results,” Republican Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan said during a House hearing last week.

Despite unusual bipartisan support in Congress, the administration hasn’t publicly gone on record in support of an evacuation as it unwinds a war that started after the 9/11 attacks.

The Biden administration and U.S. military officials have spoken carefully about relocation — and largely sidestepped talk of a mass evacuation — amid growing concerns about the precarious security situation for the Afghanistan government in the face of diminished U.S. military presence. In part, U.S. officials have been concerned that word of an evacuation could trigger a panic in Afghanistan, not to mention further complicate the present security situation.

The Taliban issued a statement earlier this month saying those who worked for U.S. and western interests would not be targeted. Still for many the runaway corruption, deep insecurity and fear of violence from Taliban and from the many heavily armed U.S.-allied warlords has many Afghans seeing the special immigration visas as their last chance to leave their war-tortured nation.

As part of its plan, the White House will also push to surge resources to help process special immigration visa applications to help those who remain in Afghanistan after the U.S. military drawdown but want to leave for the U.S, according to the official.

The official added that the administration is looking to work with Congress to find quick fixes to make the application process more efficient including eliminating duplicative paperwork and adjusting requirements that do not impact national security.

The move to accelerate plans to relocate Afghans who helped the U.S. effort comes as Biden is set to meet on Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Twitter the evacuation plan was “great news” but urged Biden to push his effort to “secure a safe 3rd country to host them into high gear.”

McCaul, of Texas, added Biden “has the ability to save tens of thousands of lives if he takes steps to implement this evacuation immediately.”

Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been pushing the administration to move more quickly on the issue, said Thursday he had not yet seen details of the White House plan.

“As a Marine, I want to see a specific plan,” Moulton said. “I want to see an operational plan to know how this is going to unfold and have confidence that it will be successful.”

Advocates applauded the news, saying the backlog of special immigrant visa applications was too great to overcome even with measures to accelerate the process.

“We need an emergency evacuation now,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, group that resettles refugees in the U.S. “Every day, we are haunted by stories of our allies being attacked, harassed, and even killed by members of the Taliban.”

The stepped-up relocation effort was first reported by The New York Times.

Senators push $953B infrastructure plan, raise hope for deal
Author: LISA MASCARO and KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators is seeking President Joe Biden’s support for a $953 billion infrastructure plan, raising hopes for a breakthrough agreement after arduous negotiations on his top legislative priority.

Biden has invited members of the group of 21 senators, Republicans and Democrats, to the White House on Thursday, and they are scheduled to meet late morning. The pared-down plan, with $559 billion in new spending, has rare bipartisan backing and could open the door to the president’s more sweeping $4 trillion proposals.

The senators have struggled over how to pay for the new spending. The tentative framework tapped previously allocated broadband funds to help cover some of that $65 billion cost, according to details from a person familiar with the proposal who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.

The White House and Democratic leaders cast the bipartisan proposal as a positive development. Biden’s top aides had met with senators for back-to-back meetings on Capitol Hill and later huddled with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“We’re very excited about the prospect of a bipartisan agreement,” Pelosi said Wednesday night. The president’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Biden had called for the meeting at the White House and that the group had made progress “towards an outline of a potential agreement.”

One member of the group, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, said it was time for the group to reach out to other senators for support.

“In good faith, we tried to get there. We didn’t agree on everything, but we were able to get there,” Portman told reporters on Capitol Hill as he left a Wednesday evening meeting with the other senators and the White House team.

Biden has sought $1.7 trillion in his American Jobs Plan, part of nearly $4 trillion in broad infrastructure spending on roads, bridges and broadband internet but also the so-called care economy of child care centers, hospitals and elder care.

With Republicans opposed to Biden’s proposed corporate tax rate increase, from 21% to 28%, the group has looked at other ways to raise revenue. Biden rejected their idea to allow gas taxes paid at the pump to rise with inflation, viewing it as a financial burden on American drivers.

Psaki said the senior staff to the president had two productive meetings with the bipartisan group at the Capitol. The White House team was huddled late into the evening with the Democratic leaders.

The White House said Pelosi and Schumer and the top administration aides agreed on Biden’s goal of infrastructure investments without raising taxes on anyone who makes under $400,000.

According to a White House readout of the meeting, the leaders talked with acting Budget Director Shalanda Young, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, and they discussed the two-track approach ahead — a reference to the smaller bipartisan deal emerging from the group alongside a more sweeping plan of Democratic priorities that Congress is now drafting.

Schumer said the leaders “support the concepts” they have heard from the bipartisan negotiations.

The Democratic leaders also insisted on the two-part process ahead, starting with initial votes in July to consider the bipartisan deal and to launch the lengthy procedure for the Democrats’ proposal, now drafted at nearly $6 trillion.

The Democrats’ bigger proposal would run through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow passage of Biden’s priorities by majority vote, without the need for support from Republicans to overcome the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. It would require multiple rounds of voting that are likely to extend into fall.

Schumer said, “One can’t be done without the other.”

That’s a signal to both parties of the road ahead. Liberal Democrats have been wary of the bipartisan effort because they see it as insufficient and worry it will take the place of Biden’s bigger plan. Republicans are also skeptical of passing a bipartisan bill only to be faced with an even bigger Democratic plan.

“We got our framework. We’re going to the White House,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told reporters. “We wouldn’t be going to the White House if we didn’t think it has broad-based support.”

Turkish, U.S. officials discuss Afghan airport security plans
Author: Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish and U.S. military officials met in Turkey’s capital on Thursday to discuss plans for Turkish troops to continue securing Kabul’s airport after the withdrawal of the U.S. and other NATO troops from Afghanistan.

Turkey, NATO’s only majority-Muslim member, has offered to protect and run the Hamid Karzai International airport — the main gateway into Afghanistan — after the alliance pulls out of the country. The country, which has around 500 non-combat troops in Afghanistan, is however, seeking U.S. and other allies’ support for the mission.

Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit, that Turkey was looking for “diplomatic, logistic and financial assistance” from the United States to protect and operate the airport. Turkey also wanted Pakistan and Hungary to be involved in the mission, he said.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said a technical delegation from the United States had arrived for talks.

“We will continue to take on the responsibility of operating the Hamid Karzai International Airport, which we have been doing for the past six years, if the necessary conditions are met,” Akar said Thursday. “Discussions on this matter are continuing. No decisions have been reached for now.”

Akar said: “We want to achieve the best result for the interests of our country and for those of Afghanistan. That’s what we are working for. Our aim is to continue working for the security, peace and welfare of our Afghan brothers.”

Critics see Turkey’s offer to operate the airport as being part of an effort by Erdogan’s government to mend ties with the United States which have deteriorated over an array of disagreements. Those have centered on Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons and U.S. support to Syrian Kurdish fighters which Ankara says are linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. They question the safety of the Turkish non-combat forces there.

“Mr. Erdogan, let whoever brought Afghanistan to this situation, pick up the pieces,” Meral Aksener, leader of the opposition, nationalist Good Party, said in parliament Wednesday.

“Don’t be so eager to sacrifice your own soldier to save the life of an American soldier,” she said.

Around 2,300-3,500 remaining U.S. troops and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement. There are concerns that the Afghan government and its security forces may be ill-prepared for the withdrawal and that the country may descend into chaos.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan until ousted by a U.S.-led coalition after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America. In recent weeks Taliban fighters have overrun several districts in southern and northern Afghanistan, convincing government security forces to surrender and seizing their weapons and military vehicles.

Russia says next time it may fire to hit intruding warships
Author: VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press

MOSCOW — Russia is prepared to target intruding warships if they fail to heed warnings, a senior Russian diplomat declared Thursday after a Black Sea incident in which a British destroyer sailed near Crimea in an area that Russia claims as its territorial waters.

Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of British destroyer Defender on Wednesday to drive it away from waters near the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Britain denied that account, insisted its ship wasn’t fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.

The incident marked the first time since the Cold War that Moscow acknowledged using live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, underlining the rising threat of military collisions amid Russia-West tensions.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that “the inviolability of the Russian borders is an absolute imperative,” adding that it will be protected “by all means, diplomatic, political and military, if needed.”

He sarcastically suggested the British navy should rename its destroyer from Defender to Aggressor and warned that “those who try to test our strength are taking high risks.” Asked what Russia would do to prevent such intrusions in the future, Ryabkov told reporters it would stand ready to fire on targets if warnings don’t work.

“We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law,” Ryabkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. “If it doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target, if colleagues don’t get it otherwise.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov deplored what he described as a “deliberate and well-prepared provocation” by Britain and seconded the tough warning.

“If unacceptable provocative actions are repeated, if those actions go too far, no options to legitimately protect the borders of the Russian Federation could be excluded,” Peskov told reporters.

On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said a patrol ship fired warning shots after the HMS Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion and sailed 3 kilometers (1.6 nautical miles) into Russia’s territorial waters near Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base in Crimea. It said a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs ahead of the vessel to persuade the Defender to change course. Minutes later, the Defender left Russian waters, the ministry said.

Britain denied the Defender had been fired on or that bombs were dropped in its path. It insisted the ship was making a routine journey through an internationally recognized travel lane and remained in Ukrainian waters. The U.K., like most of the world, recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine despite the peninsula’s 2014 annexation by Russia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would not say whether he had personally approved the Defender’s voyage but suggested the Royal Navy was making a point by taking that route.

“The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory,” Johnson told reporters Thursday during a visit to an army barracks in England. “It was entirely right that we should vindicate the law and pursue freedom of navigation in the way that we did, take the shortest route between two points, and that’s what we did.”

He denied U.K.-Russia relations were at a historic low, noting that “I can remember times in my own lifetime when things have been far worse.”

On Thursday, British Ambassador Deborah Bronnert visited the Russian Foreign Ministry, which lodged a formal protest.

“It was particularly emphasized that if such provocations are repeated, the British side will bear full responsibility for their possible consequences,” the ministry said.

The Russian navy chief, Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov, said Thursday that the British destroyer’s move was clearly provocative, noting that it ignored the warnings in a bid to test Russia’s resolve.

“They came to see how we act,” he told reporters in St. Petersburg. “And they only reacted to the power of weapons. Our navy acted in a competent and safe manner to stop the provocation.”

In April, Russia declared a broader area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships until November, a move that drew strong protests from Ukraine and the West.

A BBC report from HMS Defender did not show bombs being dropped but showed the ship being buzzed by Russian military aircraft and receiving a threat over the radio to change course or be fired upon.

Footage filmed from a Russian warplane and a drone that was released by the Russian Defense Ministry also showed Russian jets flying close to the Defender but didn’t feature any bombs dropped or warning shots fired.

Mikhail Khodaryonok, a retired Russian army colonel who works as a military analyst in Moscow, said the Russian warplane apparently dropped bombs miles away from the British ship. He charged that the British denial that Russia had fired warning shots and dropped bombs to chase the Defender away was an attempt to save face.

“They couldn’t admit that they were forced to change course, that they were aware of a threat that weapons would be used against them,” Khodaryonok said in a telephone interview. “The former ruler of the seas couldn’t allow for a loss of face by admitting that they submitted to the demands of the Russian side to change course.”

Wing of Miami-area condo collapses; many feared dead
Author: WILFREDO LEE, TERRY SPENCER and DAVID FISCHER, WILFREDO LEE, TERRY SPENCER and DAVID FISCHER, Associated Press

SURFSIDE, Fla. — A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed with a roar in a town outside Miami early Thursday, killing at least one person while trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Rescuers pulled dozens of survivors from the tower during the morning and continued to look for more.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the building manager told him the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse around 1:30 a.m., but the exact number of people present was unclear.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean to me that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”

About half of the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told a news conference. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to give them more access, Raide Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue said.

Sally Heyman, of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, told CNN that 51 people were unaccounted for — but that some may not have been in the building at the time of the disaster. The tower has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, and while the building keeps a log of guests staying, it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, Burkett, the mayor, said.

Earlier, Burkett said two people were brought to the hospital, one of whom died. He added that 15 families walked out of the building on their own.

Work was being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have caused the collapse. Authorities did not said what the cause may be.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said officials were “bracing for some bad news just given the destruction that we’re seeing.”

The collapse, which appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower, tore away walls and left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed in what looked like a giant dollhouse. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs still left inside. Air conditioner units were hanging from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.

Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area just outside the building, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with with a light layer of dust from the debris.

Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of lightning. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”

“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”

He and his wife made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.

Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

At an evacuation site set up in a nearby community center, people who live in buildings neighboring the collapse gathered after being told to flee. Some wept. Some were still dressed in pajamas. Some children tried to sleep on mats spread on the floor. When a news conference about the collapse appeared on the TV, the room went silent.

Jennifer Carr was asleep in a neighboring building when she was awakened by a loud boom and her room shook. She thought it was a thunderstorm but checked the weather app on her phone and saw none. The building’s fire alarms went off, and she and her family went outside and saw the collapse.

“It was devastation,” Carr said. “People were running and screaming.”

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said in a tweet that more than 80 units were “on scene with assistance from municipal fire departments.”

Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.

Nicolas Fernandez was waiting early Thursday for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.

“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to hep the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones.”

The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000.

The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The community provides a stark contrast from bustle and glitz of nearby South Beach with a slower-paced neighborhood feel.

Patricia Avilez considered spending the night in her brother-in-law’s vacant condo on Wednesday but didn’t — only to awake to news of the collapse.

“And then I came here, and it’s gone,” she said. “Everything is disaster.”

‘A gaping hole of rubble:’ Thankful survivor recounts rescue
Author: Associated Press

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
Author: MEG KINNARD, Associated Press

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
Author: ZEKE MILLER, Associated Press

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.”

He won’t.

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.

NYT Politics

Pelosi to Create Select Committee to Investigate Jan. 6 Assault on Capitol
Author: Luke Broadwater
“It is imperative that we seek the truth,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday.

Portland Business News

Five Things for Thursday, including a hot startup's cold cash and McAfee in PDX
Author: Christopher Bjorke
Good morning. Here are Five Things ahead of the heat wave. We'll start with what everyone is talking about: The weather forecast is terrifying, showing us triple digits this weekend. KGW-TV reports that the historic heat is already changing the Timbers' schedule and shutting down food carts, where workers would bake like potatoes in the 120-degree interior temps. Subzero temperatures may sound enticing right now. One Portland startup is finding fundraising success with an apparel innovation…

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