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Let it grow: ‘Elsa’ wins Stillwater Harvest Fest’s giant pumpkin competition

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Let it grow: ‘Elsa’ wins Stillwater Harvest Fest’s giant pumpkin competition

It was a big day in the St. Croix River Valley on Saturday, as hundreds of people gathered for the Stillwater Harvest Fest to see a variety of pumpkins — different shapes, colors and sizes — compete against each other, the most important ranking being weight.

A crowd formed around the pumpkin-weighing area in downtown Stillwater, and with each of the 40-odd gargantuan gourds came laughs, cheers and joy.

Barbara Sawyer, of Illinois, and her husband had come to the festival six years ago and wanted to experience it again this year while visiting family.

“We came again because we had so much fun,” Barbara said. “I like the whole thing about agriculture, growing things.”

One grower, Bev Anderson, presented her pumpkin nicknamed “Tiger Kitty,” inspired by the 2020 North America and Minnesota state record pumpkin, “Tiger King,” which weighed 2,350 pounds and took its name from the Netflix hit series.

Bev Anderson celebrates her pumpkin in the weigh-off event at the Harvest Fest in Stillwater, Minn. on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (Emily Urfer / Pioneer Press)

Anderson was competing with her husband, Don Anderson. Bev’s pumpkin weighed in at 1,540.5 pounds. Then came time for Don to weigh his.

“I need to get 1,539 if I want to eat tonight,” Don said, joking to the crowd.

“Cross your fingers, say a prayer and throw a pumpkin over your shoulder,” said event announcer Chris Brown, as Don’s pumpkin was placed on the scale.

It became apparent that Don, in fact, wouldn’t eat tonight. His pumpkin came in weighing 1,638.5, a personal best for him.

“I got bragging rights in our patch for another year,” Don said.

Bev bought a frozen pizza, which she said she planed to share with her husband.

Don’s personal record will help improve future pumpkins, contest enthusiast Jacob Maristany, said.

Maristany and his wife, Carolyn, of Crystal, have been coming to the Harvest Fest for five years now. They recalled how when they first started coming, their young daughters would sit on the pumpkins.

“We just come to see big pumpkins,” Carolyn said.

Later, another grower, Dan Thompson, got ready to weigh his pumpkin. As the scale read 1,691 pounds, his friends cheered and took photos.

Next came Chris Qualley, a former Minnesota state record holder whose pumpkin weighed 1,918 pounds during his first year growing. Qualley also used seed from the Tiger King, which was grown by Travis Gienger, a horticulture instructor from Anoka.

(Gienger wasn’t as lucky this year: The pumpkin he had hoped to enter split apart because its wall was too thin. He ended up submitting a smaller pumpkin that was only about 400 pounds.)

Qualley was leading the competition, which was sponsored by the St. Croix Growers Association, with his pumpkin weighing 1,846.5 pounds. Then came Jake Johnson of Benson, Minn., whose previous personal best was 1,887 pounds.

Johnson, who stands at 6-foot-10, made his pumpkin, “Elsa,” named after the princess in the Disney film “Frozen,” look small. Nonetheless, Elsa came in at first place, weighing 1,966.5 pounds and winning Johnson the $5,000 prize.

“I’m on Cloud 9. It’s exciting,” Johnson said.

1633834257 347 Let it grow ‘Elsa wins Stillwater Harvest Fests giant pumpkin
Pumpkins participating in the weigh-off event at the Harvest Fest in Stillwater, Minn. on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (Emily Urfer / Pioneer Press)

Johnson, who’s been growing for more than eight years, didn’t expect to win, and was in fact, aiming to get a spot in the top three.

Brown, the announcer, said to the crowd, “Pumpkins are 90 percent water and 10 percent magic.”

Despite the summer’s record-breaking drought, the water still got to Johnson’s pumpkins.

“Growing season went really well,” he said. “Other than it being a drought, it was actually a perfect year to grow a big pumpkin. It was warm. And I can always add water to the garden rather than take water away. Everything fell into place. A lot of its luck.”

The record for the heaviest pumpkin in the world was set last month by Stefano Cutrupi, an Italian farmer whose pumpkin weighed 2,703 pounds. Growers in Stillwater are looking to beat him next year.

“When you’re talking giant pumpkins, it just, it makes the world smile. Everybody loves to see them,” Brown said.

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Australia deports Novak Djokovic for being unvaccinated

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Australia deports Novak Djokovic for being unvaccinated

MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia on Sunday after losing a bid to stay in the country to defend his Australian Open title despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

A masked Djokovic was photographed in a Melbourne airport lounge with two government officials in black uniforms before he left for Dubai. It’s not clear where he will go from there. Among the possibilities are Spain, Monaco or his native Serbia, where he has an almost iconic status and would likely be greeted with a hero’s welcome.

The No. 1-ranked tennis star has spent the past 10 days at the center of a dizzying drama over his vaccination status that has polarized opinion worldwide and struck a chord in Australia, where coronavirus cases are surging.

The 34-year-old said he was “extremely disappointed” by a court’s decision Sunday that led to his deportation. But he added that he respected the ruling and would cooperate with authorities.

The saga began when Djokovic was granted an exemption to strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and Tennis Australia in order to play in the Australian Open. That exemption, based on evidence that he recently recovered from COVID-19, apparently allowed him to receive a visa to enter Australia. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him.

The ensuing back-and-forth raised questions of whether Djokovic was unfairly given special treatment or unfairly singled out because of his celebrity status and saw many complain that the drawn-out battle at the very least made Australia look bad.

A court initially ruled on procedural grounds that Djokovic could stay, but Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, who has wide powers, later decided to deport him. In addition to not being inoculated against the coronavirus, Djokovic is a vocal vaccine skeptic, and the government said his presence could stir up anti-vaccine sentiments.

Three Federal Court judges unanimously upheld the immigration minister’s decision.

Djokovic said he was “uncomfortable” that the focus had been on him since his visa was first canceled on Jan. 6.

“I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love,” he said. “I will now be taking some time to rest and to recuperate, before making any further comments beyond this.”

The decision dashes Djokovic’s hopes of winning a record 21st Grand Slam title. He is currently tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam singles trophies in men’s tennis.

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New Zealand sends flight to see damage from Pacific volcano

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Pacific tsunami threat recedes, volcano ash hinders response

By NICK PERRY

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s military on Monday morning was able to send a surveillance flight to Tonga to assess the extent of the damage from a huge undersea volcanic eruption.

A towering ash cloud had prevented the military from launching any flights earlier to the Pacific island nation.

People on Tonga described their country as looking like a moonscape as they began the task of cleaning up from the tsunami waves and ash fall caused by the eruption. Communications with the island nation remained limited after the internet was cut soon after the eruption on Saturday evening.

There were no reports of injuries or deaths, although concerns remained for the fate of people on some of the smaller islands near the volcano.

Meanwhile, scientists said they didn’t think the eruption would have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.

Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated the amount of sulfur dioxide released would only have a tiny effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius (0.02 Fahrenheit) global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.

Satellite images showed the spectacular undersea eruption Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters.

A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.

In Tonga it sent tsunami waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground.

With internet and phone lines down, friends and family members around the world were left anxiously trying to get in touch.

Government websites and other official sources remained without updates on Sunday afternoon.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Sunday there had not yet been any official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga, but cautioned that authorities hadn’t yet made contact with some coastal areas and smaller islands.

“Communication with Tonga remains very limited. And I know that is causing a huge amount of anxiety for the Tongan community here,” Ardern said.

She said there had been significant damage to boats and shops along the Tongan coastline. The capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, Ardern said, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.

“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.” Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.

Ardern said New Zealand was unable to send a surveillance flight over Tonga on Sunday because the ash cloud was 63,000 feet (19,000 meters) high but they hoped to try again on Monday, followed by supply planes and navy ships.

One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.

Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”

The tsunami waves caused damage to boats as far away as New Zealand and Santa Cruz, California, but did not appear to cause any widespread damage. In northern Peru’s Lambayeque region, two women drowned after being swept away by ″abnormal waves″ following the eruption, authorities said.

Tsunami advisories were earlier issued for Japan, Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.

Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano. She said she hadn’t yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.

“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter he is “deeply concerned for the people of Tonga as they recover from the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and tsunami. The United States stands prepared to provide support to our Pacific neighbors.”

Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji. All internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6:40 p.m. local time Saturday, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.

On Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas and swirling around homes, a church and other buildings. A Twitter user identified as Dr. Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted video showing waves crashing ashore.

“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.

“The surface area of the island appears to have expanded by nearly 45% due to ashfall,” Planet Labs said days before the latest activity.

It’s too early to tell how much ash was produced by the eruption because the volcanic cloud included vapor resulting from sea water interacting with the hot magma, experts said.

The eruption in shallow water may be similar to a series of eruptions between 2016 and 2017 that shaped Bogoslof Island north of the Aleutian Islands, said Michelle Coombs, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory.

“When it erupts in shallow sea water, that interaction between hot magma and sea water adds extra energy to the explosion and creates taller and bigger ash clouds,” Coombs said.

The ash cloud was drifting westward and aircrafts will be likely diverted around its periphery as a precaution, said Scott Bachmeier, a research meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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COVID case-fatality rate declining in Missouri as more infections, fewer deaths reported

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COVID case-fatality rate declining in Missouri as more infections, fewer deaths reported

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – As COVID case totals stay near record highs in Missouri, the state’s case-fatality rate—the ratio of diagnosed cases ending in death—has declined over time as more people contract the virus and survive. However, it is important to understand that the increase in cases has also led to rapid growth in COVID hospitalizations, further straining the healthcare industry.

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), the state has recorded 954,485 cumulative cases of SARS-CoV-2—an increase of 31 positive cases (PCR testing only)—and 13,535 total deaths as of Sunday, Jan. 16, no increase from the day prior. That’s a case fatality rate of 1.42%.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all cases and deaths announced on a particular day occurred in the last 24 hours.

There will be no data update on Monday, Jan. 17, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

(Source: Missouri Dept. of Health and Senior Services)

The state has administered 112,487 doses—including booster shots—of the vaccine in the last 7 days (this metric is subject to a delay, meaning the last three days are not factored in). The highest vaccination rates are among people over 65.

State health officials report 61.9% of the total population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. Approximately 72.9% of all adults 18 years of age and older have initiated the process.

Vaccination remains the safest way to achieve herd immunity. Herd immunity for COVID-19 requires 80% to 90% of the population to have immunity, either by vaccination or recovery from the virus.

Just 4.81% of 3.35 million fully vaccinated Missourians (or 161,228 people) have tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 1, 2021. And 956 people (or 0.03%) of those vaccinated individuals have died from the virus.

The first doses were administered in Missouri on Dec. 13, 2020.

The city of Joplin and St. Louis County have vaccinated at least 60% of their populations. St. Louis City, Kansas City, and Independence, as well as the counties of St. Charles, Boone, Atchison, Jackson, Franklin, and Cole, have at least 50% of their populations fully vaccinated.

The Bureau of Vital Records at DHSS performs a weekly linkage between deaths to the state and death certificates to improve quality and ensure all decedents that died of COVID-19 are reflected in the systems. As a result, the state’s death toll will see a sharp increase from time to time. Again, that does not mean a large number of deaths happened in one day; instead, it is a single-day reported increase.

At the state level, DHSS does track probable or pending COVID deaths. However, those numbers are not added to the state’s death count until confirmed in the disease surveillance system either by the county or through analysis of death certificates. FOX 2 does not include probable or pending numbers.

The 7-day rolling average for cases in Missouri sits at 9,028; yesterday, it was 9,575. Exactly one month ago, the state rolling average was 2,111. 

Approximately 51.6% of all reported cases are for individuals 39 years of age and younger. The state has further broken down the age groups into smaller units. The 18 to 24 age group has 115,311 recorded cases, while 25 to 29-year-olds have 83,701 cases.

People 80 years of age and older account for approximately 40.9% of all recorded deaths in the state.

Month / Year Missouri COVID cases*
(reported that month)
March 2020 1,327
April 2020 6,235
May 2020 5,585
June 2020 8,404
July 2020 28,772
August 2020 34,374
September 2020 41,416
October 2020 57,073
November 2020 116,576
December 2020 92,808
January 2021 66,249
February 2021 19,405
March 2021 11,150
April 2021 12,165
May 2021 9,913
June 2021 12,680
July 2021 42,780
August 2021 60,275
September 2021 45,707
October 2021 33,855
November 2021 37,594
December 2021 74,376
January 2022 138,654
(Source: Missouri Dept. of Health and Senior Services)

Missouri has administered 8,864,829 PCR tests for COVID-19 over the entirety of the pandemic and as of Jan. 15, 19.8% of those tests have come back positive. People who have received multiple PCR tests are not counted twice, according to the state health department.

According to the state health department’s COVID-19 Dashboard, “A PCR test looks for the viral RNA in the nose, throat, or other areas in the respiratory tract to determine if there is an active infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. A positive PCR test means that the person has an active COVID-19 infection.”

The Missouri COVID Dashboard no longer includes the deduplicated method of testing when compiling the 7-day moving average of positive tests. The state is now only using the non-deduplicated method, which is the CDC’s preferred method. That number is calculated using the number of tests taken over the period since many people take multiple tests. Under this way of tabulating things, Missouri has a 34.0% positivity rate as of Jan. 13. Health officials exclude the most recent three days to ensure data accuracy when calculating the moving average.

The 7-day positivity rate was 4.5% on June 1, 15.0% on Aug. 1, and 13.2% on Dec. 1, 2021.

As of Jan. 11, Missouri is reporting 3,526 COVID hospitalizations and a rolling 7-day average of 3,280. The remaining inpatient hospital bed capacity sits at 17% statewide. The state’s public health care metrics lag behind by three days due to reporting delays, especially on weekends. Keep in mind that the state counts all beds available and not just beds that are staffed by medical personnel.

Across Missouri, 715 COVID patients are in ICU beds, leaving the state’s remaining intensive care capacity at 15%.

If you have additional questions about the coronavirus, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is available at 877-435-8411.

As of Jan. 15, the CDC identified 65,159,554 cases of COVID-19 and 847,577 deaths across all 50 states and 9 U.S.-affiliated districts, jurisdictions, and affiliated territories, for a national case-fatality rate of 1.30%.

How do COVID deaths compare to other illnesses, like the flu or even the H1N1 pandemics of 1918 and 2009? It’s a common question.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), preliminary data on the 2018-2019 influenza season in the United States shows an estimated 35,520,883 cases and 34,157 deaths; that would mean a case-fatality rate of 0.09 percent. Case-fatality rates on previous seasons are as follows: 0.136 percent (2017-2018), 0.131 percent (2016-2017), 0.096 percent (2015-2016), and 0.17 percent (2014-2015).

The 1918 H1N1 epidemic, commonly referred to as the “Spanish Flu,” is estimated to have infected 29.4 million Americans and claimed 675,000 lives as a result; a case-fatality rate of 2.3 percent. The Spanish Flu claimed greater numbers of young people than typically expected from other influenzas.

Beginning in January 2009, another H1N1 virus—known as the “swine flu”—spread around the globe and was first detected in the US in April of that year. The CDC identified an estimated 60.8 million cases and 12,469 deaths; a 0.021 percent case-fatality rate.

For more information and updates regarding COVID mandates, data, and the vaccine, click here.

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