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10 things you need to know today: December 17, 2021

Coronavirus cases rise as Omicron spreads, the CDC recommends Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over Johnson & Johnson's, and more


Coronavirus cases surge as Omicron concerns spread

Coronavirus cases are spiking again across the United States as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly. The country is reporting more than 120,000 new cases a day on average, according to a New York Times database — a 40 percent increase from two weeks ago. The Biden administration is bracing for a likely wave of Omicron infections that could overwhelm hospitals, even though preliminary research indicates it causes less severe COVID-19 than the still-dominant Delta variant. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) said hospitalizations statewide were up by 70 percent since Thanksgiving. In New York City, positive testing rates doubled in three days. Many offices have canceled holiday parties and Broadway shows have shut down. Some colleges plan to go back to remote instruction after the winter break.


CDC recommends Pfizer, Moderna vaccines over J&J's

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended Thursday that people get Pfizer or Moderna coronavirus vaccines over Johnson & Johnson's, because agency officials have determined that the rate of a rare but potentially fatal blood-clotting condition linked to the J&J vaccine was higher than previously believed. An advisory panel earlier this week unanimously recommended encouraging the use of other vaccines when available. At least 54 people in the U.S., mostly women, have been hospitalized by the blood clots. Nine have died. Walensky said she continued "to encourage all Americans to get vaccinated and boosted." The recommendation doesn't prohibit use of the Johnson & Johnson shot but says other vaccines are preferable if available.


Haiti gang releases remaining U.S., Canadian missionaries 

Haiti's 400 Mawozo gang has released the remaining 12 hostages who were among 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries kidnapped two months ago. Armed gang members seized the missionaries just east of the capital, Port-au-Prince, as they were returning from a visit to an orphanage, and demanded $1 million per captive in ransom. It was not immediately clear whether any ransom was paid. The hostages from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries included five children. Two of the hostages were released in November, and three in early December. The case sparked outrage inside and outside Haiti, and focused international attention on an epidemic of kidnapping in Haiti, where police have lost control of many parts of the capital to gangs.


Workers sue Kentucky candle factory hit by tornado 

Several workers at the Mayfield, Kentucky, candle factory destroyed in a tornado last weekend have filed a lawsuit accusing the company, Mayfield Consumer Products, of showing "flagrant indifference" to their safety. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have requested that a judge certify the case as a class-action suit on behalf of the plant's 110 workers. The plaintiffs said in their lawsuit that their bosses made them stay even though they "knew or should have known about the expected tornado and the danger of serious bodily injuries and death." At least eight people died when the factory collapsed. "They should have sent us home," said employee Elijah Johnson, who survived the collapse and filed the lawsuit. Mayfield Consumer Products spokesman Bob Ferguson said it was "incredibly false" that the company refused to let people leave.


Storms hit central U.S. with most hurricane-force gusts since 2014

Violent windstorms that tore across the central United States battered areas from the Rockies to the Great Lakes, triggering more than 400 severe wind reports from Wednesday to early Thursday, and at least 55 reports of hurricane-force wind gusts, the most since 2014. About 400,000 customers were left without power as storms ripped roofs from buildings, knocked down trees, and overturned trucks. At least one person was killed —  a driver of a Bimbo Bakeries tractor-trailer in Iowa that was knocked over by a powerful gust and rolled into a ditch. Nearly 20 tornados struck across Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska on Wednesday, just days after another outburst of extreme weather sent tornadoes tearing across Kentucky and five other states, killing scores of people.


Judge throws out Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement that shielded Sackler family 

U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon in New York on Thursday rejected OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy settlement because of a provision protecting members of the Sackler family, who own the drug maker, from separate lawsuits over the role of the company's drug OxyContin in the opioid crisis. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, one of the state attorneys general opposing the deal, called the ruling "a seismic victory for justice and accountability" that will "force the Sackler family to confront the pain and devastation they have caused." Steve Miller, chair of Purdue's board of directors, said the ruling would "delay, and perhaps end," the ability of communities and individuals affected by opioid abuse to receive billions to fight the opioid crisis.


Meta bans 7 'surveillance-for-hire' firms

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said Thursday that it had banned seven firms it has concluded used its platforms to spy on 50,000 users in more than 100 countries. The people allegedly targeted included human rights activists, government critics, celebrities, journalists, and others. Meta said the "surveillance-for-hire" firms were associated with 1,500 Facebook and Instagram accounts used to spy on people and get them to provide personal information, which let the companies infect the users' devices with spyware. Some of the spy companies also used Meta's WhatsApp to place malware on people's phones. "Each of these actors rely on networks of fake accounts on our platforms that are used to deceive users and mislead them," Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta's head of security policy, told NPR.


Biden acknowledges that social spending bill won't pass this year

President Biden released a statement late Thursday acknowledging that Democrats won't be able to pass his nearly $2 trillion bill seeking to expand the social safety net until next year. Democrats had hoped to approve the legislation before the end of 2021, but negotiations are moving slowly with moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has balked at the cost. Democrats in the evenly divided Senate need every vote in their caucus to pass the bill. "A two-week cooling-off would not be the worst thing," said one Democratic senator. But House Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said senators should stay through the holiday break until they pass the Build Back Better plan.


FDA lifts restrictions on receiving abortion pills by mail

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday permanently lifted a restriction against accessing abortion pills by mail. The regulator previously required women to obtain the pills for medication abortion, an increasingly common method authorized for ending pregnancies up to 10 weeks' gestation, in person from certified health-care providers. The change came as the Supreme Court considers new abortion restrictions in Mississippi, with members of the high courts' newly expanded conservative majority indicating that they might roll back or overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal nationwide. In April, the FDA temporarily suspended the requirement to obtain the drug, mifepristone, in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.


'Sex and the City' star Chris Noth accused of sexual assault

Two women have accused Sex and the City actor Chris Noth of sexual assault, a week after he returned to his role in the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That, according to The Hollywood Reporter. One woman, identified as Zoe, said Noth assaulted her in Los Angeles in 2004. She said she had "blood on my shirt" and had to go to a hospital for stitches. She said "seeing that he was reprising his role in Sex and the City set off something in me." Another woman, identified as Lily, alleged Noth assaulted her in New York in 2015, leaving her feeling "totally violated." Noth, who played Mr. Big on Sex and the City, denied the allegations. "It's difficult not to question the timing of these stories coming out," he said. "I don't know for certain why they are surfacing now, but I do know this: I did not assault these women."


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