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Here’s What You Should Do If You’re Receiving Mysterious Packages of Seeds from China

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  • Hundreds of Americans are receiving mysterious packages of seeds they never ordered, many of which are seemingly being sent from countries like China and Taiwan.
  • Because of that, many are worried about whether the seeds are some sort of prank, scam, or even a bio weapon.
  • So far, 28 states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have issued warnings not to plant the seeds, with the USDA also launching a federal investigation.
  • The USDA said Tuesday that, at this point, there is nothing to suggest that these seeds are anything more than a “brushing” scam, which is a disingenuous tactic used by some companies to boost their online reviews.

Mysterious Seeds Being Delivered to U.S. Homes

In a mysterious event that has confused and concerned hundreds of Americans, people are receiving unsolicited packages of seeds from different countries.

In many cases, those seeds are being delivered in white packages (sometimes also yellow envelopes) that appear to be postmarked from countries such as China, Taiwan, Uzbekistan, or Kyrgyzstan. When recipients open those packages, they find the seeds in a sealed bag but find no indication as to what type of seeds they are.

To complicate matters, these recipients seem to be receiving different types of seeds that vary from package to package.

In several documented instances, the packages aren’t even labeled as having seeds; rather, they’re labeled as containing different items. For example, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, some packages have been labeled as jewelry. In a similar situation, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry has reported that other packages were labeled as containing earbuds or toys. 

It appears that other packages labeled as jewelry or tools did, in fact, contain another inexpensive item, but those items were still accompanied by a package of seeds.

In Iowa, officials have said that some of the seeds have been treated and may also contain an unknown insecticide or fungicide. 

So far, at least 28 state agriculture departments have issued warnings about these unsolicited shipments of seeds.

It follows reports from several states, such as in Virginia, where agriculture officials said they’ve received over 900 emails and several hundred telephone calls from people who’ve received these types of packages. In Louisiana, officials have confirmed that about 100 packages have been sent to people across the state. Florida officials have confirmed that about 160 people have received packages. 

Because of that, on Tuesday, the United States Department of Agriculture stepped in, announcing that it is now investigating these shipments. According to a press release, it is working with Customs and Border Protection, as well as other federal agencies.

These mysterious packages aren’t only being received in the United States. Officials in Canada have also begun warning residents to be wary of unsolicited shipments.

What Should I Do if I Receive These Seeds?

If you receive seeds you did not order, do not throw them away — even if your first instinct is to get rid of them as quickly as possible. On a similar note, do not throw away the mailing label or the outer package those seeds came in. 

Instead, state agriculture officials are asking you to contact them. They will then come and pick up the seeds for testing. 

“At this point in time, we don’t have enough information to know if this is a hoax, a prank, an internet scam, or an act of agricultural bio-terrorism,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said. “Unsolicited seeds could be invasive and introduce unknown diseases to local plants, harm livestock or threaten our environment.”

Because of that, officials have also asked people not to plant the seeds as they could introduce foreign pathogens or overwhelm native species; however, in states like Iowa, local outlets reported that some people have already planted those seeds after mistaking them for other seeds they had ordered. In response, Iowa’s agriculture department has now asked people to pull up and destroy those plants. 

In reality, agriculture officials aren’t yet certain if the packages actually originated from China or another country. It could also take time to reach such a conclusion, as the USDA is likely going to have to go through thousands of different seeds.

Meanwhile, China has explicitly denied shipping the packages, saying its postal service strictly abides by restrictions on sending seeds.

“After verification with China Post, those address labels turned out to be fake ones with erroneous layouts and entries,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. “China Post has contacted USPS, asking it to send those fake packages to China for investigation.”

Many States Now Believe this Could be a “Brushing Scam”

In its press release, the USDA said it believes the mysterious packages could be tied to review scams. 

“At this time, we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a ‘brushing scam’ where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales,” the release states. 

A “brushing scam” can work a little like this: A seller of a product creates a fake customer account online—for example, a fake account on Amazon. That seller then places an order for their own product before sending it to an address in another country. Thus, while the account is fake, the address is very much real.

Using a real address then gives the seller the ability to post positive reviews of their own products, thereby improving their ranking on the site. 

Because it is still unclear if this is a brushing scam, it is also unclear whether the sellers potentially running the scam sell seeds or another product.

Still, even if this does prove to be a scam, that doesn’t mean officials aren’t still concerned about the contents being shipped. For example, in Washington, agriculture officials believe some of the packages received in the state contained citrus seeds, which could transmit disease among other citrus. 

See what others are saying: (Iowa Central Dispatch) (NBC News) (Reuters)

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U.S. Cracks Down on Flying With Emotional Support Animals

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  • The Department of Transportation announced new rules Wednesday that only allow dogs to be considered “service animals” for the purposes of flying on a plane.
  • This means airlines will soon no longer need to accommodate emotional support animals and can block them from getting free airfare as well as cabin space.
  • In the past, the department treated service animals and emotional support animals largely the same, despite there being a difference.
  • The rule change has been celebrated by airline groups and passengers who argue that emotional support animals are often used as a way to game the system and transport an animal for free.
  • However, critics of the rule said it would be better to more strictly regulate what qualifies as an emotional support animal and to require training that is more in-line with what service animals go through.

No More Peacocks on Planes

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced new rules on Wednesday that more clearly define what qualifies as a service animal, allowing airlines to turn away hundreds of thousands of animals classified as emotional support animals.

In the past, the Department of Transportation (DOT) treated service animals and emotional support animals largely the same, despite there being a difference. Service animals are trained to help someone with a disability; with certain types of animals being defined under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Emotional support animals are prescribed by a mental health professional and have no training requirements.

For U.S. airlines, there will now be a fundamental difference. According to the DOT’s new rules, airlines will only be required to allow “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

This means no more turkeys, cats, peacocks, parrots, squirrels, or any other animal being allowed, free-of-charge and outside a secure carrier in the cabin of the plane.

Rule Has Long Been in the Works

This new rule wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. For years airlines have asked the DOT to regulate the issue out of concern that people were passing off their pets as emotional support animals. With the lack of regulation about what an ’emotional support animal’ actually is, there was little recourse for airlines.

Rules around emotional support animals have proven to be much more relaxed. In fact, there are mental health companies that will give such a classification online without ever physically seeing the patient or the animal. On top of people trying to get their pets onto flights for free, according to the DOT, airlines were fed up with “requests to transport unusual species of animals onboard aircraft.”

These animals often lacked specific training to be transported in planes, in a cramped space, and surrounded by people for hours on end, leading to animals misbehaving on planes.

According to American Airlines, between 2016 and 2017, the number of emotional support animals being brought on planes went from 481,000 to over 750,000.

The new rule isn’t a blank check for service animal owners.

Under the new rule, airlines are allowed to block certain service dogs from being on a plane if they’re obnoxious to passengers – a rare occurrence considering how well-trained the dogs are.

Additionally, they can ask that owners fill out a new form “attesting to the animal’s training and good behavior, and certifying the animal’s good health.”

Another stand-out in the new ruling was the decision to exclude other highly trained service animals. The DOT considered expanding the rules to allow more than just dogs to be qualified as service animals, which are by far the most common type of service animal.

However, The American With Disabilities Act (ADA) also includes miniature horses as service animals. Those horses can often be smaller than some of the largest breed of dogs. Still, there’s nothing in the ADA that conflicts with the DOT’s decision, as it allows for some restrictions to be placed on miniature horses.

While the ADA only recognizes dogs and miniature horses, there are other intelligent animals that have been used as service animals, such as Capuchin monkeys. These monkeys are increasingly used as service animals because of their dexterity for people with mobility impairments.

Airlines and Services Speak Out

Airlines for America, a trade group for U.S. airlines, was happy with the new rule.

“The Department of Transportation’s final rule will protect the traveling public and airline crewmembers from untrained animals in the cabin, as well as improve air travel accessibility for passengers with disabilities that travel with trained service dogs,” it said in a statement.

American Airlines made a similar statement, with a spokesperson telling outlets: “This new rule reflects a respect for individuals with disabilities who travel with legitimate service animals, which we share while providing clear and practical guidelines that will eliminate the abuse of the system that has been a source of concern for our team members and customers.”

CertaPet, a company that will screen animals and provides letters saying they are emotional support, said in a statement that the rule is “a great disservice to those facing mental health challenges that get emotional support from their animal.” 

The company thinks a better approach would have been to more strictly regulate what qualifies as an emotional support animal and to require training more in-line with what service animals go through.

We understand that there have been incidents that have discredited emotional support animals and the service they provide, but those situations could be prevented by increased regulation,” CertaPet added.

“We think emotional support peacocks are ridiculous too.”

The new rules aren’t in place quite yet. They’re set to go into effect 30 days after they enter the Federal Registrar, which still hasn’t happened. Additionally, this ruling doesn’t preclude airlines from freely allowing emotional support animals on their flights.

It’s recommended to check with your airline before expecting your emotional support animal will get free airfare.

See What Others Are saying: (NPR) (CNN) (BBC)

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Former Presidents Pledge To Get COVID-19 Vaccine Publicly To Prove It’s Safe

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  • Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have pledged to take a coronavirus vaccine once it is made available to the general public.
  • Their promise comes as a vaccine is on the horizon, but many are unwilling to take it. According to a Gallop poll, 42% of Americans do not want to take the vaccine, with many feeling uneasy about how quickly it has been developed and others wanting to wait and see how safe it is.
  • The three former presidents hope their willingness to take it will boost public trust in the vaccine. Facebook is also engaging in efforts to promote that trust by removing posts with misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.
  • The timing for a vaccine could not be any more crucial. On Wednesday the U.S. broke two devastating records, reporting over 2,800 deaths in a day and 100,000 hospitalizations.

Presidents Pledge To Take Vaccine

The three most recent former U.S. presidents have pledged to take the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available to the general public. 

During an interview Barack Obama did on the Joe Madison Show that was published Wednesday, the 44th president said that as long as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases thinks it’s safe, so does he. 

“I promise you that when it’s been made for people who are less at risk, I will be taking it,” he added. “I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed, just so that people know that I trust this science.” 

Representatives for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton told CNN that both would be willing to participate in any effort to encourage people to vaccinate themselves against the deadly coronavirus, which has sickened 14 million Americans and killed over 274,000.

“A few weeks ago President Bush asked me to let Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx know that, when the time is right, he wants to do what he can to help encourage his fellow citizens to get vaccinated,” Bush’s Chief of Staff Freddy Ford told CNN. “First, the vaccines need to be deemed safe and administered to the priority populations. Then, President Bush will get in line for his, and will gladly do so on camera.”

Angel Urena, Clinton’s press secretary, said that he will “definitely take a vaccine as soon as available to him, based on the priorities determined by public health officials. And he will do it in a public setting if it will help urge all Americans to do the same.”

Americans Skeptical of Vaccine

This comes as a vaccine for COVID-19 is on the horizon. Both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted their vaccines for FDA approval and expect to get the go-ahead in just a few weeks. Healthcare workers and vulnerable populations could get shots this month, but many Americans are unwilling to get this vaccine. 

A mid-November Gallup poll asked participants: “If an FDA-approved vaccine to prevent coronavirus/COVID-19 was available right now at no cost, would you agree to be vaccinated?”

In response, 58% said they would, and 42% said they would not. This shows slightly more interest in the vaccine now than in the fall, when Americans were at a 50/50 split on the subject. However, it shows less enthusiasm than in the summer, when 66% of people said they would get the vaccine and only 36% said they would not. 

As far as why so many people would turn down the vaccine, 37% of those who said ‘no’ claimed they felt the vaccine timeline and development was rushed. Another 26% said they wanted to wait to confirm it was safe, while 10% said they wanted to wait to see how effective it is. Many of these people could likely come around and choose to take the vaccine later on. Still, 12% of those who responded ‘no’ said that they do not trust vaccines in general.

Combatting Vaccine Hesitancy

Health officials are working hard on messaging that aims to limit vaccine hesitancy. During a Wednesday appearance on Fox News, Dr. Fauci criticized the fast pace in which the U.K. approved Pfizer’s vaccine, claiming that a turnaround that fast will lead to people questioning whether or not they should take it. 

“If you go quickly and you do it superficially, people are not going to want to get vaccinated,” he explained. “We have the gold standard of a regulatory approach with the FDA. The U.K. did not do it as carefully and they got a couple of days ahead, I don’t think that makes much difference.” 

Social media companies like Facebook are also working on vaccine messaging. On Thursday, the company put out a blog post promising to remove COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. This could involve taking down conspiracy theories and false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines.

The need for a coronavirus vaccine has never been greater. On Wednesday, for the first time since the pandemic began, hospitalizations for COVID-19 topped 100,000, which is a 26% jump from two weeks ago. The U.S. also reported over 2,800 deaths, another pandemic record. Some experts believe the country is on track to regularly surpass 2,000 or 3,000 deaths a day, and even approach 4,000.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (NPR) (Axios)

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COVID-19 May Have Been in the U.S. December 2019, New Study Shows

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  • A new government report found that the coronavirus may have been in the United States in December 2019, weeks before the first confirmed case.
  • For the study, the CDC looked at over 7,000 blood samples taken in nine states between December 13, 2019 and January 12, 2020.
  • Researches found COVID-19 antibodies in 106 of those samples, with at least one sample per state having antibodies.
  • These findings are in line with several other studies in the U.S. and well other countries which have found that the coronavirus was likely spreading globally before health officials were aware of it.

Report Shows Potential U.S. Cases in December

COVID-19 may have made its way to the United States in December of 2019, weeks earlier than previously thought, according to a new government study. 

That study was published Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal. The first coronavirus case was reported in Wuhan, China at the end of December. The first case in the United States was not reported until mid-January, but health experts have long wondered if the disease had been spreading sooner than that. 

For the study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 7,389 blood donations collected by the American Red Cross between December 13, 2019 and January 17, 2020 from donors across nine states.  Of those samples, antibodies showed up in 106. Antibodies came up from people in each state, with 39 coming from California, Oregon and Washington and the other 67 coming from Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Connecticut or Rhode Island.

Further testing was done on a majority of these samples to confirm that these antibodies were related to this specific outbreak and not part of other common coronaviruses. The data showed that they “were obviously from SARSCoV-2 infected individuals.”

“The findings of this report suggest that SARS-CoV-2 infections may have been present in the U.S. in December 2019, earlier than previously recognized,” the authors wrote. 

The study provides major context about the virus and the way it may have been spreading, completely unknown to public health officials for quite some time. The authors of the study believe this information will kelp experts better understand the pandemic, how it started, and how it can be mitigated. 

“Understanding the dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 pandemic from early introduction throughout further progression will advance understanding of the epidemiology of this novel virus and inform allocation of resources and public health prevention interventions to mitigate morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19,” the report said.

While the study provides incredible insight into the start of the coronavirus, the authors did also note there are limitations to what can be learned from it. For example, the data in the study should not be used to measure the magnitude of infections on a state or national level. It also cannot determine if these people came into contact with the virus from traveling, community spread, or another means of transmission. Though, a previous study of blood donors indicated that only around 3% had traveled outside of the U.S. in the 28 days prior to their donation.

Other Studies Suggest Earlier Spread

This is not the first study to suggest that COVID-19 was spreading this widely so soon. Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist explained on Twitter that this news matches up with a wastewater analysis, which found that the virus was potentially in Europe, specifically in Northern Italy, in mid-December. It also matches early indicator data that found excess flu illnesses in the province Wuhan is in during early December. 

Additionally, a separate report published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal last week found that the United States may have had significantly more COVID-19 cases than recorded. Since so many cases go unreported and undetected because many have no or mild symptoms, the study aimed to find the true number of cases the country may have seen at this point. 

“To estimate the cumulative incidence SARS-CoV-2 infections, symptomatic illnesses, and hospitalizations, we adapted a simple probabilistic multiplier model,” the study explained. “Laboratory-confirmed case counts that were reported nationally were adjusted for sources of under-detection based on testing practices in inpatient and outpatient settings and assay sensitivity.”

The authors found that only one out of every 2.5 hospitalized infections and one out of every seven non-hospitalized illnesses may have been nationally reported. This means that between February 27 and September 30, there may have been 52.9 million total infections in the U.S.

These cases, however, are unconfirmed and based on the model created. Currently, the U.S. has seen 13.6 million confirmed cases and lost 268,626 lives to the coronavirus.

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (NPR) (Bloomberg)

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