Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: December 31, 2021

Wildfires burn hundreds of Colorado homes, Biden holds call with Putin amid Ukraine tensions, and more


Thousands evacuate as Colorado wildfires burn hundreds of homes

Tens of thousands of Colorado residents were told to evacuate on Thursday as two wildfires burned hundreds of homes. Evacuation orders were issued in Louisville and Superior, and the fires were fed by winds of between 80 and 100 miles per hour with gusts up to 115, according to CNN. At least six injuries have been reported, and officials said the fires burned at least 580 homes, as well as a shopping center and a hotel. "I'd like to emphasize that due to the magnitude of this fire, the intensity of this fire and its presence in such a heavily populated area, we would not be surprised if there are injuries or fatalities," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.  


Biden holds call with Putin amid Ukraine tensions

President Biden held another call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, during which the White House said he "urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine" and warned the U.S. and its allies "will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine." The second call between Biden and Putin this month came after Russia amassed troops on the Ukraine border, and it was held at Putin's request. Putin during the 50-minute call warned Biden that any economic sanctions being placed on Russia in response to military action against Ukraine may result in a "complete rupture" of relations between the countries, according to The New York Times. Diplomats from the U.S. and Russia will meet in Geneva next month. 


South Africa 'may have passed the peak' of Omicron wave

Authorities in South Africa say the peak of the country's fourth wave of COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant appears to have passed. "All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level," a statement said following a cabinet meeting. "While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalisation than in previous waves." The cabinet said the "marginal increase" in fatalities was low compared to prior COVID-19 waves, and the country is now easing some COVID-19 restrictions. The news comes as the United States on Thursday again shattered its record for daily COVID-19 cases with more than 580,000, up from 488,000 the day prior.  


New York City's New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square going forward

New York City is moving forward with its famed Times Square New Year's Eve celebration Friday as the state grapples with a record number of COVID-19 cases. The outdoor celebration will be scaled back, with crowds limited to 15,000 people, and proof of vaccination and masks will be required. Outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) told NBC's Today he chose not to cancel the event because "I don't believe in shutdowns" and "we have to fight our way through COVID." Times Square was previously closed to the public for New Year's Eve in 2020. Earlier this week, LL Cool J canceled his Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve Times Square performance after testing positive for COVID-19.  


Prosecutors to dismiss charges against Jeffrey Epstein jail guards

Federal prosecutors are reportedly dropping charges against two prison guards who admitted they falsified records the night of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein's death by suicide. The Metropolitan Correctional Center guards, Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, previously entered into deferred prosecution agreements and were required to complete 100 hours of community service. They also agreed to provide "truthful information related to their employment by the Bureau of Prisons" and cooperate with an inspector general review, and prosecutors say they fulfilled the agreement. An indictment previously said the guards failed to complete their rounds as required on the night of Epstein's suicide and instead slept and browsed the internet at their desks, and they allegedly then signed false certifications. 


CDC says avoid cruise travel 'regardless of vaccination status'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging everyone to avoid cruise ships, including those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. On Thursday, the CDC said that travelers should "avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status." The agency at the same time said it was upgrading its travel health notice to the highest level of level 4, citing "increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant." The move comes as the CDC is investigating or observing dozens of cruise ships with COVID-19 outbreaks. The agency warned that COVID-19 "spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships" and that even for vaccinated people, "the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high." 


FDA to reportedly approve vaccine boosters for 12-to-15-year-olds

The Food and Drug Administration is set to authorize COVID-19 booster doses for those between the ages of 12 and 15. The agency will expand Pfizer booster eligibility to this age group on Monday, The New York Times reported, citing sources familiar with the planning. This would be followed by a meeting of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee in the middle of the week to decide whether to recommend the authorization. The FDA and CDC expanded Pfizer booster eligibility to 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds earlier in December. Additionally, the Times reports regulators will allow adolescents and adults to receive a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine five months after their second dose, up from six months. 


Tesla recalls nearly half a million vehicles due to safety issues

Tesla is recalling nearly 500,000 cars due to safety issues involving the camera and trunk that could increase the risk of an accident. The company will recall over 350,000 Model 3 vehicles, as well as almost 120,000 Model S cars, in the United States. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documents, in the Model 3 vehicles, wear to a coaxial cable could result in the rearview camera display becoming unavailable, while on the Model S vehicles, the hood could "open without warning and obstruct the driver's visibility" due to a latch assembly issue. The recalls come as the NHTSA investigates a Tesla feature allowing video games to be played while a vehicle is moving. 


Unemployment claims fall below 200,000

The number of Americans filing unemployment claims declined to 198,000 last week, the Labor Department said. Additionally, the four-week moving average declined to 199,250, the lowest since October 1969. According to CNBC, the average was 225,000 in December 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the most recent number of weekly claims was higher than the pandemic-era low, CNN notes. The number of continuing claims for the week ending on Dec. 18 reached the lowest level since March 2020 with 1.7 million. As COVID-19 cases climb due to the spread of the Omicron variant, though, PNC chief economist Gus Faucher told CNN that "if consumers change their behavior … job growth could slow dramatically in early 2022." 


BBC to 'look into' its Alan Dershowitz interview on Ghislaine Maxwell verdict

The BBC says an interview it conducted Wednesday with lawyer Alan Dershowitz about British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell's conviction on sex-trafficking charges fell short of its editorial standards. The BBC drew criticism for speaking with Dershowitz about the Jeffrey Epstein associate's conviction without first mentioning that he has been accused of abuse by an Epstein accuser, Virginia Giuffre, and previously defended Epstein. Dershowitz has denied Giuffre's allegations. "Mr. Dershowitz was not a suitable person to interview as an impartial analyst, and we did not make the relevant background clear to our audience," the BBC said. "We will look into how this happened." Dershowitz said it's "entirely appropriate" to "interview victims of Guiffre's false accusations as long as there is full disclosure." 


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