Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: August 19, 2021

Taliban commander confirms Afghanistan returning to Sharia law, U.S. to offer COVID booster shots, and more

1

Taliban commander says Afghanistan returning to Sharia law

A high-ranking Taliban commander, Waheedullah Hashimi, confirmed Wednesday that the Islamist group was likely to rule Afghanistan under a system like one it used the last time it was in power two decades ago. "There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country," Hashimi said, adding that the country would be run under Sharia law. The United States is conducting talks with the Taliban to ensure safe passage for Americans and others trying to get to the Kabul airport to leave. Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled after the Taliban seized Kabul on Sunday, surfaced in the United Arab Emirates, and denied allegations that he fled Afghanistan with a large amount of cash.

2

Biden administration to offer coronavirus booster shots

The United States plans to start an effort to distribute Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 booster shots the week of Sept. 20 in response to new data indicating that immunity from the vaccines gradually drops, leading U.S. public health authorities announced Wednesday. "We are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease," said a joint statement by the officials, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock, and White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci. Boosters can help shore up immunity, "especially among those who are at higher risk or were vaccinated during the earlier phases of the vaccination rollout," the officials said.

3

Haiti hospitals overwhelmed as earthquake victims await aid

Hospitals in Haiti on Wednesday struggled to treat as many of the more than 12,200 people injured in Saturday's 7.2-magnitude earthquake as they could. At least 2,189 people have been confirmed dead, but authorities feared the toll could rise as search crews reach remote areas. Heavy rains have delayed rescue efforts on parts of the Caribbean nation's devastated southwestern peninsula. At least 75,000 homes have been confirmed damaged or destroyed. Dozens of people awaited treatment at the main hospital in the city of Jeremie. Doctors said that unless the most severely injured patients could be evacuated to better-equipped facilities, at least a third could die or lose limbs. Tensions have risen as frustrated victims await aid.

4

Jared Kushner friend pardoned by Trump faces state cyberstalking charges

Ken Kurson, the former editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, was charged in New York state criminal court on Wednesday on felony charges of eavesdropping and computer trespass. Kurson is a close friend of former President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and was pardoned by Trump seven months ago after federal prosecutors charged him with cyberstalking and harassing three people. Those allegations emerged during a routine background check after the Trump administration nominated him for a spot on the National Endowment for the Humanities board. The new, state charges involved the alleged use of spyware to monitor the computer use of Kurson's wife at The Observer's Manhattan offices.

5

Education Department to counter state efforts to prevent mask mandates

The Biden administration will use the Education Department's civil rights enforcement authority to prevent states from banning mask mandates in public schools, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Wednesday. The plan escalates the administration's clash with Republican-led states, including Texas and Florida, that have ordered school districts and other local jurisdictions not to require face coverings to curb coronavirus infections, even in areas where the highly infectious Delta variant is rampant. Biden said he directed Cardona "to take additional steps to protect our children" as some governors set "a dangerous tone" by threatening to penalize school officials who require masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that everyone wear face coverings in the classroom.

6

'Unprecedented' Caldor Fire explodes in California

The Caldor Fire continued its explosive growth in California's El Dorado County on Wednesday, expanding to nearly 63,000 acres. The blaze has destroyed a school, a church, and many other buildings, and forced thousands of people to flee rural homes. The fire just started last weekend. Caldor fire response spokesperson Chris Vestal said its behavior has been "unprecedented," with unusually high flame lengths and rapid expansion as it ripped through steep terrain, fueled by what Cal Fire described as "large amounts of dry vegetation." The massive Dixie Fire, which has burned more than 635,000 acres, also continued to burn on Wednesday, threatening the communities of Janesville and Susanville in Lassen County.

7

Fed minutes show officials considering reducing stimulus

Federal Reserve policy makers are considering dialing back their efforts to boost the economy later this year, according to minutes from the Fed's late-July meeting that were released on Wednesday. Fed leaders are nearing a consensus on trimming the central bank's $120 billion in monthly purchases of Treasury and mortgage securities at one of their remaining three 2021 policy meetings, the July minutes indicated. "Most participants noted that, provided that the economy were to evolve broadly as they anticipated, they judged that it could be appropriate to start reducing the pace of asset purchases this year," the minutes said. Some officials were more cautious, suggesting the Fed should wait until next year to make sure the job market has fully recovered from the damage of the coronavirus pandemic.

8

Biden says U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan until evacuation complete

President Biden said Wednesday that the U.S. would leave troops in Afghanistan beyond an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline if necessary to evacuate all Americans following the Taliban's takeover of the country. "We're going to stay until we get them all out," Biden told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. The U.S. is running a massive evacuation effort from the Kabul airport, working on getting out as many as 2,000 people per day. About 10,000 to 15,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan, as do tens of thousands of Afghan allies the Biden administration is trying to evacuate. "The commitment holds to get everyone out that in fact we can get out and everyone who should come out," Biden said. "And I think we'll get there."

9

Judge blocks permits for Alaska oil project

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason on Wednesday blocked permits approved by the Trump administration and backed by the Biden administration for ConocoPhillips' Willow project to extract oil from Alaska's North Slope. Gleason — an Obama appointee — found that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately assess the project's climate impact and other environmental factors, including how it could harm polar bears, a threatened species. The decision marked a significant setback for the project, which could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil per day west of Prudhoe Bay in the Alaskan Arctic. Environmental activists praised the decision, which ConocoPhillips said it would review as it evaluates potential changes to the project.

10

Hurricane Grace approaches Mexico

Hurricane Grace threatened to hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as early as Thursday, after drenching Haiti's earthquake-ravaged southwestern peninsula as a tropical storm earlier in the week. Early Thursday, Grace had top sustained winds of about 80 miles per hour. It threatened to slam into Mexico with powerful winds and a potentially deadly storm surge. "Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion" in areas where the storm could make landfall, the National Hurricane Center warned. In western North Carolina, about 35 people remained unaccounted Wednesday night after the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred, now crossing the Northeast, dumped heavy rains on the Asheville area, causing what local officials described as "significant damage" to roads and bridges.

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