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US reports 1st case of omicron variant in returning traveler

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Omicron keeps world jittery as more information drips out

By ZEKE MIILLER and RAF CASERT

The U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of the omicron variant Wednesday — a person in California who had been to South Africa — as scientists around the world raced to establish whether the new, mutant version of the coronavirus is more dangerous than previous ones.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, made the announcement at the White House.

“We knew it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” he said.

The infected person was identified as a traveler who had returned from South Africa on Nov. 22. The person, who was fully vaccinated but had not had a booster shot, tested positive on Monday and had mild symptoms that are improving, officials said. The person agreed to remain in quarantine, and all the individual’s close contacts have been reached and have tested negative.

At least 23 other countries have reported omicron infections, according to the World Health Organization, and governments have rushed to impose travel bans and other restrictions in hopes of containing it.

But the variant is still surrounded by many unknowns, among them: Is it more contagious than other versions, as some scientists are beginning to suspect? Does it make people more seriously ill? And can it evade the vaccine?

“Any declaration of what will or will not happen with this variant, I think it is too early to say,” Fauci said.

He said Americans should continue to follow public health advice to get vaccinated and get their booster shots. “If you look at the things we have been recommending, they’re just the same,” Fauci said.

Genomic sequencing on the patient’s virus was conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed it as consistent with the omicron variant.

“We will likely see this scenario play out multiple times across the country in the coming days or weeks,” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

“This particular case shows the system working as it was designed to work — an individual with travel history from South Africa, an astute laboratory and quick prioritization of the specimen for sequencing, and close coordination with public health officials.”

Nigeria and Saudi Arabia also reported omicron infections Wednesday, marking the first known cases in West Africa and the Persian Gulf region.

South African first researchers alerted the WHO to omicron last week. It is not known where or when the variant first emerged, though it is clear it was circulating in Europe several days before that alert.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it will take two to three weeks before it becomes fully clear what omicron can do to the world.

“This is, in normal times, a short period. In pandemic times, it’s an eternity,” she lamented.

At the same time the omicron is spreading new fear and uncertainty, the dominant delta variant is still creating havoc, especially in Europe, where many countries are dealing with a surge in infections and hospitalizations and some are considering making vaccinations mandatory.

Many countries have barred travelers from southern Africa, and some have gone further. Japan has banned foreign visitors and asked international airlines to stop taking new reservations for all flights arriving in the country until the end of December.

The U.S. is working toward requiring that all air travelers to the country be tested for COVID-19 within a day before boarding their flights, up from the current three days.

On Wednesday, the WHO warned that blanket travel bans are complicating the sharing of lab samples from South Africa that could help scientists understand the new variant.

World leaders continued to emphasize that the best way to contain the pandemic remains vaccinations.

For the first time, von der Leyen said EU nations should consider making vaccinations mandatory, as several have done for certain sectors, or as Austria has done overall. Altogether, 67% of the EU’s population is vaccinated, but that relatively high rate hasn’t stopped several countries from seeing surges.

Greece plans to impose fines of 100 euros ($113) per month on people over 60 who don’t get vaccinated. Slovakia is considering giving that age group 500 euros ($565) if they step forward for the shot. German Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, said he will back a proposal to mandate vaccinations for everybody.

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This story was corrected to show Nigeria now says it found the omicron variant in samples from November, not October.

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Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.

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U.S. orders 8,500 troops on heightened alert amid Russia worry

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U.S. orders 8,500 troops on heightened alert amid Russia worry

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert Monday to potentially deploy to Europe as part of a NATO “response force” amid growing concern that Russia could soon make a military move on Ukraine. President Joe Biden consulted with key European leaders, underscoring U.S. solidarity with allies there.

Putting the U.S.-based troops on heightened alert for Europe suggested diminishing hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will back away from what Biden himself has said looks like a threat to invade neighboring Ukraine.

At stake, beyond the future of Ukraine, is the credibility of a NATO alliance that is central to U.S. defense strategy but that Putin views as a Cold War relic and a threat to Russian security. For Biden, the crisis represents a major test of his ability to forge a united allied stance against Putin.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said about 8,500 U.S.-based troops are being put on alert for possible deployment — not to Ukraine but to NATO territory in Eastern Europe as part of an alliance force meant to signal a unified commitment to deter any wider Putin aggression.

Russia denies it is planning an invasion. It says Western accusations are merely a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Recent days have seen high-stakes diplomacy that has failed to reach any breakthrough, and key players in the drama are making moves that suggest fear of imminent war. Biden has sought to strike a balance between actions meant to deter Putin and those that might provide the Russian leader with an opening to use the huge force he has assembled at Ukraine’s border.

Biden held an 80-minute video call with several European leaders on the Russian military buildup and potential responses to an invasion.

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “We’ll talk about it later.”

The White House said the leaders emphasized their desire for a diplomatic solution to the crisis but also discussed efforts to deter further Russian aggression, “including preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.”

A day earlier, the State Department had ordered the families of all American personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv to leave the country, and it said that nonessential embassy staff could leave at U.S. government expense.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said that U.S. decision was “a premature step” and a sign of “excessive caution.” He said Russia was sowing panic among Ukrainians and foreigners in order to destabilize Ukraine.

Britain said it, too, was withdrawing some diplomats and dependents from its Kyiv Embassy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said an invasion was not inevitable but “the intelligence is pretty gloomy.”

Ordering even a modest number of American troops to be ready for potential deployment to Europe is meant to demonstrate U.S. resolve to support its NATO allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe who feel threatened by Russia and worry that Putin could put them in his crosshairs.

“What this is about is reassurance to our NATO allies,” Kirby told a Pentagon news conference, adding that no troops are intended for deployment to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance but has been assured by Washington of continued U.S. political support and arms supplies.

The Pentagon’s move, which was done at Biden’s direction and on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recommendation, is being made in tandem with actions by other NATO member governments to bolster a defensive presence in Eastern European nations. Denmark, for example, is sending a frigate and F-16 warplanes to Lithuania; Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces, and France stands ready to send troops to Romania.

In a statement prior to Kirby’s announcement, NATO said the Netherlands plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria in April and is putting a ship and land-based units on standby for NATO’s Response Force.

NATO has not made a decision to activate the Response Force, which consists of about 40,000 troops from multiple nations. That force was enhanced in 2014 — the year Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and intervened in support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine — by creating a “spearhead force” of about 20,000 troops on extra-high alert within the larger Response Force.

If NATO does decide to activate the Response Force, the United States will contribute a range of military units, Kirby said.

“It is a NATO call to make,” Kirby said. “For our part, we wanted to make sure that we were ready in case that call should come. And that means making sure that units that would contribute to it are as ready as they can be on as short a notice as possible.”

He said some units will be ordered to be ready to deploy on as little as five days’ notice. Among the 8,500 troops, an unspecified number could be sent to Europe for purposes other than supporting the NATO Response Force, he said. Without providing details, he said they might be deployed “if other situations develop.”

Prior to the U.S. announcement, NATO issued a statement summing up moves already described by member countries. Restating them under the NATO banner appeared aimed at showing resolve. The West is ramping up its rhetoric in the information war that has accompanied the Ukraine standoff.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, demanding that NATO promise it will never allow Ukraine to join and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed.

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Defense: Derek Chauvin called “all of the shots” when George Floyd was killed

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Defense: Derek Chauvin called “all of the shots” when George Floyd was killed

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Prosecutors in the trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights accused the men Monday of standing by as fellow Officer Derek Chauvin “slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them.”

But one defense attorney countered that Chauvin called “all of the shots” as the senior officer at the scene and criticized the Minneapolis Police Department for doing too little to train officers to intervene when a colleague should be stopped. Another officer’s attorney focused on Floyd’s struggle with police before they restrained him. And an attorney for the third officer said his client raised concerns about the restraint of Floyd, but was rebuffed.

Former Officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority. Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin pressed him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes while the 46-year-old Black man was facedown, handcuffed and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back, Lane held his legs and Thao kept bystanders from intervening.

Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter last year in state court in the videotaped killing that triggered worldwide protests and a reexamination of racism and policing. Chauvin also pleaded guilty to a federal count of violating Floyd’s civil rights.

“For second after second, minute after minute, these three CPR-trained defendants stood or knelt next to Officer Chauvin as he slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them,” prosecutor Samantha Trepel, who works for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told the jury during opening statements. “They chose not to protect George Floyd, the man they had handcuffed and placed in their custody.”

Tom Plunkett, Kueng’s attorney, highlighted the rookie status of his client and Lane, and said both men deferred to Chauvin and called him “sir.”

“You’ll see and hear officer Chauvin call all of the shots,” said Plunkett, who also hammered at what he called the Minneapolis Police Department’s lack of training, including on intervention against the unreasonable use of force.

Plunkett noted that Chauvin was Kueng’s field training officer, and as such had “considerable sway” over his future. He also said that Kueng and Lane were not trained in the department’s policy on neck restraint.

He also said that under department policy, Lane actually should have been in charge, because he was the most senior officer in the first car to arrive. Lane and Kueng were responding to a 911 call accusing Floyd of using a counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes at a corner market. Thao and Chauvin responded as backup.

Earlier, Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, said Floyd’s death was a tragedy, “however, a tragedy is not a crime.” He also said a widely watched bystander video of the arrest does not show everything, including Floyd struggling with officers who were trying to put him in a police vehicle.

Kueng, who is Black; Lane, who is white; and Thao, who is Hmong American, are all charged for failing to provide Floyd with medical care. Thao and Kueng face an additional count for failing to stop Chauvin, who is white. Both counts allege the officers’ actions resulted in Floyd’s death.

“We will ask you to hold these men accountable for choosing to do nothing and watch a man die,” Trepel said.

Attorneys for both Kueng and Thao noted that prosecutors must prove the officers willfully violated Floyd’s constitutional rights. It’s a high legal standard; essentially, prosecutors must prove that the officers knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway.

Trepel said videos will show Thao stood directly next to Chauvin, but instead of intervening, he taunted Floyd for using drugs, telling bystanders, “This is why you don’t” use drugs.

She said Kueng “never once” told Chauvin to get off Floyd, even after Floyd stopped struggling and Kueng could not find a pulse. Instead, she said, Keung remained kneeling on Floyd.

Plunkett said Kueng told Chauvin that he could not detect a pulse.

Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said Lane was at Floyd’s legs and could not see Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck.

Lane at one point suggested that they use a restraint called the hobble on Floyd, which would have meant Floyd would have been on his side “and no doubt he’d be alive today,” Gray said. But he said Chauvin said no. Lane also suggested twice that they roll Floyd over, but was rebuffed, Gray said.

Gray also said Lane called an ambulance because of a cut on Floyd’s lip and that Lane later had another officer increase the urgency of the ambulance code. Gray noted that Lane later got into the ambulance and helped perform chest compressions on Floyd.

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A second county election official in Colorado is suspected of security breach

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A second county election official in Colorado is suspected of security breach

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office is investigating a second county clerk over a possible elections security breach and has ordered Elbert County Clerk and Recorder Dallas Schroeder to turn over information related to allegations that he copied a voting system hard drive.

The Democratic secretary of state ordered the Republican county clerk to appear at a deposition Feb. 7 to explain how the copy of the 2021 Dominion Voting Systems hard drive was made after Griswold’s office said Schroeder did not respond to an email request and an election order requiring the disclosure of information about the “potential security protocol breach.” She also asked that video surveillance of voting equipment be turned on and that no one access the voting equipment unaccompanied.

“As Secretary of State, my top priority is to ensure that every eligible Coloradan – Republican, Democrat, and Independent, alike – has access to secure elections and I will always protect Colorado’s election infrastructure,” Griswold said in a statement.

The secretary of state’s office said it doesn’t believe the “unauthorized imaging has created an imminent or direct security risk to Colorado’s elections” because of when it took place.

This is not the first time the secretary of state’s office has launched an investigation over copies of election equipment hard drives. Last year, Griswold’s office sued Republican Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters over allegations of a security breach, resulting in a judge barring Peters from overseeing the 2021 election, and the secretary of state’s office is also trying to stop Peters from overseeing the 2022 election. Peters is still facing multiple lawsuits, ethics investigations and a grand jury investigation of a possible elections breach in her office.

Schroeder is part of a lawsuit against Griswold’s office calling for an “independent forensic audit” of the 2020 election, a common refrain for those pushing baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. As part of the filings, the secretary of state’s office said Schroeder signed an affidavit, dated Jan. 7, which states that he “made a forensic image of everything on the election server, and I saved the image to a secure external hard drive that is kept under lock and key in the Elbert County elections office” before the “trusted build” process took place.

The “trusted build” is a routine update against vulnerabilities, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Colorado House GOP Rep. Ron Hanks of Fremont County filed the lawsuit initially but a judge granted his request to withdraw earlier this month, with Hanks citing his work at the legislature and 2022 campaign for U.S. Senate. Other plaintiffs include Douglas County Clerk and Recorder Merlin Klotz, Rio Blanco County commissioners Gary Moyer and Jeff Rector, and Park County Commissioner Amy Mitchell.

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