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Fires Continue to Spread Across West

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  • Unprecedented fires have been raging across the West Coast, with California, Oregon, and Washington particularly affected.
  • Currently, more than 100 large fires are blazing in the West, and more than half are in the three coastal states alone.
  • In California, more than three million acres have been burned, a record for a single year.
  • The governor of Oregon said Thursday that the state had never seen so many uncontained fires. As of Friday, 500,000 people — more than 10% of the state’s population — had been forced to evacuate their homes.
  • Washington, too, is dealing with record-breaking blazes, as well as massive plumes of smoke that have migrated north from California and Oregon, creating dangerous air conditions.

Fires Spread

Dozens of fires continue to tear up and down the West Coast as California, Oregon, and Washington endure a historic wildfire season.

As of Friday morning, there were at least 100 large fires burning across 12 western states, and more than half of the fires were just in the three coastal states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). 

At least 15 people have died, though officials expect the toll to rise. Entire towns have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands have had to evacuate, and thousands of homes have been lost.

Pictures of apocalyptic orange skies and hazy cityscapes continued to circulate as smoke from the persistent blazes created dangerous air conditions for millions of people.

On Friday, four of the five cities with the worst air quality indexes in the world were Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco, the air quality monitoring website IQAir.com reported.

California

California currently has the most active large fires, with at least 24 current blazes, per the NIFC.

More than three million acres have been burned in California, a record for a single year. Reportedly, an estimated 64,000 people are under evacuation orders.

One of the worst blazes, the August Complex in Northern California, is now considered the biggest fire in the state’s recorded history, according to the state’s fire agency, Cal Fire. The complex of multiple fires has been burning in the Mendocino National Forest since Aug. 17 when it was started by lightning.

The fires, which doubled in size this week, have burnt 471,185 acres and are only 24% contained. 

Several other large fires have also been raging across the northern parts of the state with little containment. Dozens are missing and thousands of homes and structures are believed to have been damaged or destroyed. 

The Bear Fire, which turned the skies of San Francisco orange earlier this week, has forced thousands to evacuate and reportedly damaged around 2,000 structures. Meanwhile, in Southern California, fires also blazed in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.

In Los Angeles, some residents are warily watching the Bobcat Fire, which has burnt around 24,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest just 25 miles northeast of Los Angeles, prompting evacuation warnings for a number of populous areas, including the city of Pasadena.

In a statement on Twitter, California Gov. Gavin Newsom emphasized the historic magnitude of this year’s fire season and pleaded with residents to obey evacuation orders.

“6 of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020,” he wrote. “If you are asked to evacuate please do so immediately. Listen to your local authorities and stay safe.”

Oregon

Just north of California, blazes are spreading rapidly in Oregon, which has never seen so many uncontained fires, according to the state’s governor, Kate Brown.

More than 900,000 acres have burned in the recent fires, nearly double the average of 500,000 a year the state has seen for the last decade.

“I want to be up front in saying that we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and human lives,” Brown said during a press conference Thursday. “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”

So far, more than 500,000 people in Oregon — over 10% of the state’s population — have been forced to evacuate.

As the fires spread further North, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a state of emergency in the city Thursday night. Pictures showed packed, smoke-filled highways as residents fled the approaching infernos.

In addition to the fires, officials in the state are also dealing with widespread misinformation. Several law enforcement agencies have to contradict false rumors that either far-left or far-right groups had purposely started some of the blazes. 

Many of the rumors appear to center around false claims that the far-left group Antifa was responsible for intentionally causing several fires.

Numerous law enforcement officials in multiple jurisdictions have fervently disputed those claims, including the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, which asked that community members stop spreading the misinformation in a post on Facebook.  

“Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON,” the post said. “THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.  Do your part, STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!”

Washington

Washington state is also experiencing unprecedented fires. As of Friday, 16 major fires had scorched around 625,000 acres, the NIFC reported. 

“The enormity of these fires, the geographical scope, the intensity and the destruction are unequal in Washington state history,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday,

In addition to the fallout from their own fires, huge masses of smoke from the wildfires in 

Oregon and California have also been migrating north. On Thursday evening, the National Weather Service warned that a huge cloud of smoke would descend on Washington Friday, creating dangerous air conditions across the state. 

That same day, the Bureau of Land Management of Oregon and Washington shared satellite images on Twitter of massive smoke plumes along the coast.

Officials in all three states continue to worry as they try to contain the historic fires all along the coastal states. Right now, at least seven weeks remain in the prime fire season, and experts say that conditions may be made worse by the La Niña climate pattern, which often brings dry weather and winds across parts of California and the Southwest.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Wall Street Journal) (USA Today)

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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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