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Senate Passes $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package

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Senate Passes $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package

President Biden speaks at the White House about efforts to combat COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Evan Vucci/AP

Evan Vucci/AP

Updated at 12:56 p.m. ET

The Senate approved President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan Saturday, securing additional aid for American families, workers and businesses — and a legislative victory for the Biden administration.

After more than 24 hours of debate, the evenly divided Senate voted 50-49 to approve the measure. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaksa was absent because he was in Alaska for a family funeral.

The package delivers a new round of financial assistance to Americans grappling with the impact of the pandemic, including $1,400 direct payments, an extension of supplemental unemployment benefits and an increase to the child tax credit.

Individuals earning up to $75,000 and couples earning up to $150,000 would receive the full direct payments of $1,400 per person. But those payments would phase out for individuals and couples who make more than $80,000 and $160,000, respectively.

The income cutoff was lowered after moderate Democrats demanded that the latest round of checks target lower-income families.

Federal unemployment benefits would be extended through Sept. 6 at the current rate of $300 per week and the first $10,200 of those benefits would be tax-free for households that earn $150,000 or less.

Democrats were under pressure to get the bill to Biden’s desk before current federal unemployment benefits expire on March 14. The budget reconciliation process allowed them to act without Republican backing, requiring only a simple majority to pass the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., signaled Tuesday that Democrats had the support they needed to move forward with the vote. But debate on the Senate floor was delayed when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., indicated Wednesday that he’d require Senate clerks to read the more than 600 page bill on the floor, pushing the vote by several hours.

“We need to highlight the abuse,” Johnson said in a Tweet. “This is not a COVID relief bill. It’s a boondoggle for Democrats.”

I’m going to make the Senate clerk read the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion bill. All several hundred pages of it.

Then I’m going to offer amendments. Many amendments.

We need to highlight the abuse.

This is not a COVID relief bill.

It’s a boondoggle for Democrats.

— Senator Ron Johnson (@SenRonJohnson) March 3, 2021

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday accused the Biden administration of trying to “jam” Republicans on the legislation.

“It is my hope that in the end Senate Republicans will unanimously oppose it, just like House Republicans did,” McConnell said to reporters.

House Democrats’ version of the bill originally included a provision to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, but the Senate parliamentarian decided the provision did not fit the rules that govern budget bills in the Senate.

The House will need to revote on the final version of the bill before it can be signed into law. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement Saturday that the House will vote on an identical measure on Tuesday.

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Bridget Kearney Taps Into The ‘Exhaustion’ Of Being A Woman In New Song

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Bridget Kearney Taps Into The ‘Exhaustion’ Of Being A Woman In New Song

Lake Street Dive’s Bridget Kearney wrote “Being a Woman,” a track on the band’s new album, Obviously. She says she wanted to convey exhaustion.

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California Set To Open Ballparks, Arenas And Theme Parks In April

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California Set To Open Ballparks, Arenas And Theme Parks In April

Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif., September 2020. California announced theme parks, sports arenas and stadiums will be allowed to open on April 1 if they meet health requirements at the county level.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The state of California updated its plans Friday to allow outdoor events at stadiums, ballparks and theme parks to begin to reopen April 1.

Sports facilities and amusement parks will reopen at reduced capacity, contingent on county-level infection rates. The California Department of Public Health released its Blueprint for a Safer Economy guidelines last August, which has dictated the opening and closing of businesses at the county level ever since.

For counties in the state’s most restrictive Purple Tier, outdoor sports and live performances will be limited to 100 people or less and attendees must live in the region. Reservations will be required and concessions sales won’t be available, a CDPH statement said. Attendance is capped at 20% in the Red Tier and 33% in the Orange, both of which can welcome in-state visitors.

A similar standard will be applied to amusement parks. Venues in the Red Tier can reopen at 15% capacity, but more in-state guests will be allowed to visit as infection rates drop, the CDPH said. Masks will still be required for attendees.

“With case rates and hospitalizations significantly lower, the arrival of three highly effective vaccines and targeted efforts aimed at vaccinating the most vulnerable communities, California can begin gradually and safely bringing back more activities, especially those that occur outdoors and where consistent masking is possible,” secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency Mark Ghaly said. “Even with these changes, California retains some of the most robust public health protocols in the country.”

As of now, 87% of Californians, about 35 million people, fall within the state’s Purple Tier, as do many of the state’s top amusement parks. Disneyland Resort and California Adventure, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Sea World and Universal Studios Hollywood are all located in Southern California Purple Tier counties.

However, cases in Los Angeles County, the most populous area in the state, have been on a downward trend since peaking in early January. The county could enter the Red Tier next week, CDPH said, but it has to remain there for two weeks before restrictions are eased.

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Pope Francis Welcomed With Red Carpet And Military Band On First Ever Trip To Iraq

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Pope Francis Welcomed With Red Carpet And Military Band On First Ever Trip To Iraq

The Vatican has sought to make a papal trip to Iraq, the traditional home of Abraham and now a shrinking Christian minority, since 2000. Pope Francis ended his first day there with religious leaders.


After more than a year of staying home at the Vatican, Pope Francis landed today in Baghdad, his first international trip since the start of the pandemic. It’s an unusual visit, not just because of the timing with COVID cases on the rise in Iraq, but also because despite the country’s rich biblical history, despite its shrinking but significant Christian minority, a pope has never visited Iraq before. Well, NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope. She joins us now from Baghdad. Hi, Sylvia.


KELLY: How’s Day 1 of this trip gone so far?

POGGIOLI: It’s been quite something. It’s a long day. But in any case, at the airport, Pope Francis was given a really big, red-carpet reception with military band, all the works. His first stop was at the presidential palace. Lots of pomp and circumstance there, although not many people were wearing masks, and there wasn’t much social distancing, which the Vatican had insisted that, you know, all precautions would be observed.

In any case, in his speech there, he urged Iraqi leaders to treat Iraqi Christians – you know, it’s a community that’s lived here in Iraq since the time of the apostles – to treat them as a precious resource and not what he called an obstacle to be eliminated.


POPE FRANCIS: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: He said, and quote, “the age-old presence of Christians in this land and their contribution to the life of the nation constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all.”

KELLY: What kind of reception is he getting? You said people aren’t wearing masks. Are many people turning out, though, to greet him?

POGGIOLI: Well, look, on the road from the airport to the city, there were clusters of people. They were waving Iraqi and Vatican flags, but there were also long stretches with no one on the streets except heavily armed police. At the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, however, the mood was jubilant.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: Now, keep in mind that this is the church where there was a devastating massacre in 2010, in which some 50 people were killed. The pope recalled that attack in his speech to religious leaders, the priests and nuns who were there. And he again stressed the multi-confessional history of Iraq. And he had a very nice metaphor for this.


FRANCIS: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: He said, here, I think of the familiar image of a carpet – that different churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual colored threads that, woven together, make up a single, beautiful carpet.

KELLY: You’re in Baghdad now. Where else is he headed?

POGGIOLI: Tomorrow he goes to the holy city of Najaf, where he’ll have a really, truly historic encounter with one of the world’s top leaders of Shia Islam, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. And he rarely meets foreign visitors. You know, Francis has pursued interreligious dialogue with Muslims throughout his papacy, but this is the first time he’s going to meet a top Shiite leader.

Then on Sunday, he travels to northern Iraq, where most of the Christian communities live. That’s the area that was devastated by a brutal three-year rule of ISIS. And then later, he will celebrate mass in Erbil Stadium.

KELLY: And one question on timing, Sylvia. We mentioned COVID is bad right now in Iraq. You’re telling us about the crowds coming out to see him, crowds that are not socially distancing. What is the thinking behind why make this visit now?

POGGIOLI: That’s what a lot of reporters have been wondering. Francis says he’s wanted to visit Iraq for a long time, as did his predecessor, John Paul II. But that time, negotiations fell apart with Saddam Hussein. He very – cares very much about those he called Christians on the peripheries, not the so-called first-world European or North or South America. He wants to be close to them. And the visit is not aimed just at Christians in Iraq, but in the Middle East as a whole. So apparently, he even went against the advice of some of his people in the Vatican. He insisted on going. You know, he just might be an old man in a hurry.

KELLY: NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reporting today from Baghdad. She’s traveling with the pope. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

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Andra Day On Portraying BilIie Holiday And The Enduring Strength Of ‘Strange Fruit’

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Andra Day On Portraying BilIie Holiday And The Enduring Strength Of ‘Strange Fruit’

Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, in a still from The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.

Takashi Seida/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation

Takashi Seida/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation

The song “Strange Fruit” was written by a man named Abel Meeropol in the 1930s — but it will forever be associated with Billie Holiday. The lyrics vividly describe a lynching, and this haunting protest song is central to the new movie The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. The Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day plays the title character. The role is Day’s acting debut, but she has already won a Golden Globe for her performance.

“Andra Day” is actually her stage name, a tribute to Holiday herself: Day has been a fan since she was about 11 years old. The artist grabbed it from “Lady Day,” which is a nickname Holiday received from Lester Young, one of her greatest friends. “I love the relationship between her and Lester Young,” Days says, “the amazing, incomparable Lester Young. And he gave her the nickname Lady Day and she called him ‘The President’ or ‘Prez’ for short. And then he named her mother ‘The Dutchess’ — well, that’s Billie’s telling of it, and she would always refer to them as ‘The Royal Family,’ so. I love the name ‘Lady Day.’ It’s, you know, it feels regal to me.”

Andra Day spoke with NPR’s Ari Shapiro about the pressure of playing Billie Holiday, how she initially rejected the role and the enduring intensity of “Strange Fruit.” Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Shapiro: I’m just trying to imagine how a child would relate to this song, “Strange Fruit,” which is so central to this film.

Andra Day: I mean, at 11 years old, even though I didn’t know all the details of what she was talking about, it’s felt. You know what I’m saying? It’s in my DNA. It’s in our DNA.

Our DNA as a country, you mean.

Yeah, I think as a nation. And as a people, as Black people … I remember being very quieted by the song, almost sort of prostrated. All I knew was it made me sad — it made me know that whoever this woman was seeing, made me concerned for her … I knew that she sacrificed. I knew there was some loss. There was such pain there and it was … it stunned me as a child. It really just struck me.

Did the fact that your first acting role wound up being Billie Holiday feel like the universe had conspired in just the right way? Or was it like, your first ever race is suddenly the New York City Marathon? What’s the experience?

Definitely the latter. [Laughs] It just felt like, “Oh, so you want me to do a movie and you want me to do this role?” To be honest with you, my first reaction was actually, “Hell no.” I really didn’t wanna do it. And it turns out Lee [Daniels] didn’t want me to do it either.

Lee Daniels, the director, didn’t want you to do it?

No, he did not want me. It was his manager and his people being like, “You gotta meet her, you gotta meet her,” you know? And my people telling me the same, so. I’d give people the visuals: him and I sitting in that meeting looking at each other like, “What the hell are we doing here?” [Laughs]

So, what won you over? Like, what tipped the scales for you?

You know, for me, I’m a very deeply spiritual person. At least, I like to try and consider myself as one. And so, it was two things in particular. It was prayer, ultimately. I remember kind of being lost in devotion, and I was reading and meditating on a scripture. I was actually trying to pray to get out of it. [Laughs] It was one of those, “Oh God, please God, make this go away!” And instead, what was in devotion that day was a scripture about being caused to do an act of great faith. Not to have somebody do something for you, or to make something go away, but to be caused to weather the storm and to do an act of great faith. And I was like, “Ah… ” And the other thing was meeting Lee, you know. He had such a need to tell her story authentically, to show her as a layered human being. ‘Cause it wasn’t until he was, you know, this age that he understood who Billie was, in that that she was a fighter and that her legacy was intentionally suppressed.

A recording of “Strange Fruit” released by Andra Day in 2017, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative.


So, one of the driving forces of this film is the FBI’s fear of the song “Strange Fruit,” which describes a lynching in these vivid, poetic, awful terms. Can you tell us about what the FBI was so afraid of?

First of all, thank you so much for saying “awful terms,” That’s one of the things for me on set, I realized calling “Strange Fruit” a beautiful song is almost like a slap in the face of what she was trying to do. You know? What makes it beautiful is its truth. But it’s a horrific song. And what they were afraid of was that “Strange Fruit” is truth. It is sheer, unadulterated, uncompromising truth. And when you are trying to persist in a social climate of inequity, in a system of racial inequality – those systems are built on lies, and they’re built on deception. And obviously, a system like that can really only be dismantled with truth and with light. Exposing these dark places, which, that’s what “Strange Fruit” threatened to do. She was integrating audiences. She was trying to fight for equality. And they wanted a system of supremacy — and she was fighting against that.

Day, as Billie Holiday in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, performing “Strange Fruit.”


You know, we so often hear artists talk about the power of art. But the fact that the FBI was afraid of the power of this song says something. And I just wonder what — for you — as a singer, that history tells you about the real world impact that your craft, your music, can have?

First of all, it just reminds me that it is power, you know? You hear this phrase all the time, right, that “Music is the only thing that can enter your psyche without permission.” But it is actually that powerful. I think what its power is is not just the power to move and to shake things, but it’s the power to heal. And in healing, things need to be moved. And they need to be shook. And they need to be torn down or built up, you know. And we see it — we saw it during the ’60s, right, with all of this, sort of, renaissance of artists creating all this protest music surrounding race, surrounding the war. That just reminded me so powerfully, like, “That’s what music does — it heals.”

Can you tell me what it was like to deliver the line, “Your grandkids will be singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ ” knowing that, here we are, 70 or so years later, talking about the song, listening to the song? The song lives on longer than any of the characters in the movie.

When I tell you, even just saying it — hearing you saying it — just gave me goosebumps. That s*** sat in my spirit so heavy and that felt — I was so happy to deliver that. It felt like the final blow. I know that I’ve sung that song. I know her grandkids and so on and so forth. The grandkids of the world have sung that song, ’cause I’ve done it myself. And so, I was also armed with that additional layer, playing her. So, a part of me was like, “Billie Holiday sang it to him,” and then the other part of me was like, “Yeah, b****! We will be singing it! Yes! Yes!” [Laughs] I was like, “You right, sis. We singin’ it.”

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NFL Names Its First Black Female Official

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NFL Names Its First Black Female Official

Maia Chaka, shown here officiating an Alliance of American Football game in 2019, has been named the NFL’s first Black female official.

Denis Poroy/AAF/Getty Images

Denis Poroy/AAF/Getty Images

The NFL has named a Black woman as an official for the first time.

Maia Chaka, a health and physical education teacher in the Virginia Beach area, has participated in the NFL’s officiating development program since 2014 while also refereeing at the college level.

Next season, she will make history when she takes the field in an NFL game.

“I am honored to be selected as an NFL official,” Chaka said in a statement. “But this moment is bigger than a personal accomplishment. It is an accomplishment for all women, my community, and my culture.”

As of last November, 40 of the NFL’s 121 game officials are Black men.

We welcome Maia Chaka to the 2021 roster of game officials!

Maia makes history as the first Black woman to officiate at the @NFL level.

— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) March 5, 2021

The NFL hired its first Black official, Burl Toler, in 1965 and its first full-time female official, Sarah Thomas, in 2015. The NFL has not announced what officiating position Chaka has been hired for.

“Maia’s years of hard work, dedication and perseverance — including as part of the NFL Officiating Development Program — have earned her a position as an NFL official,” Troy Vincent, Sr., NFL executive vice president of football operations, said in a statement. “As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Maia is a trailblazer as the first Black female official and inspires us toward normalizing women on the football field.”

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9 Things To Know About The Unfolding Crisis In Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

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9 Things To Know About The Unfolding Crisis In Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

Women mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers in the village of Dengelat, north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray.

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

For months, a conflict in Ethiopia between the government in Addis Ababa and a defiant region has cost thousands of lives and displaced at least a million people.

Despite the increasing brutality of the conflict in Tigray, until now, it has been largely overlooked by the outside world. But attention and concern is growing with news of alleged atrocities and a worsening refugee crisis.

We’ve put together nine things you should know about the situation in the Horn of Africa.

Where is Tigray and what is going on there?

Tigray is Ethiopia’s northernmost region. Bordering Eritrea, it is home to most of the country’s estimated 7 million ethnic Tigrayans. The ethnic group, which accounts for about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, have had an outsized influence in national affairs.

A map showing Ethiopia’s Tigray region, highlighting key cities.

Associated Press

Associated Press

In early November, the regional government — controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a leftist political party — launched a full-scale siege of a key Ethiopian military base at Sero, using tanks, heavy guns and mortars.

Calling the TPLF assault a “treason that will never be forgotten,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a federal offensive against the region, setting off the conflict.

A damaged tank stands on a road north of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, last month.

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

How bad is the humanitarian crisis?

Bad. But the scope of the problem is still unclear. The United Nations says the humanitarian community has been largely unable to get outside the major cities, such as the regional capital of Mekele, to see what’s happening in the countryside.

So far, the conflict has killed thousands of people, many of whom allegedly died as a result of indiscriminate shelling of cities in Tigray by Ethiopian forces. A local official told Reuters in January that more than two million people have been displaced by fighting, far exceeding previous estimates. The conflict also threatens a regional humanitarian disaster.

In January, the U.N. refugee agency said some 56,000 people had fled the fighting in Tigray, many of whom have ended up in neighboring Sudan.

Last month, The New York Times published a story citing an internal U.S. government report that described a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

Fighters supporting Addis Ababa’s side in the conflict were “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation,” the Times quoted from the report, which also said that, “Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased.”

Tigrayan men sit atop a hill in Ethiopia overlooking part of the Umm Rakouba refugee camp in neighboring Sudan, where many people who fled the ongoing conflict have gone for refuge.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Nariman El-Mofty/AP

What is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front?

The TPLF originally formed in the 1970s to push for Tigrayan self-determination, a goal it later moved away from. In a remarkable twist, it eventually found itself at the center of national politics. It became the dominant player in a coalition of ethnic political parties known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, which led Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades.

Abiy came to power in 2018 as the head of the EPRDF. But a year later, he dissolved the party, saying he hoped to put the party’s history of ethnic divisiveness behind it. Instead, Abiy sought to fold the EPRDF’s constituents into a new political party. But the TPLF refused to go along, instead retreating to its power base in Tigray, where it enjoys widespread support.

What led up to the current conflict?

After it was sidelined at the national level, the TPLF was accused by Abiy’s government of seeking to destabilize Ethiopia by orchestrating ethnic violence across the country.

Abiy had promised to hold the country’s first truly democratic elections last summer. However, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, he postponed them.

The TPLF said that delaying the vote amounted to an unconstitutional extension of Abiy’s presidential term. The group then held its own regional elections anyway, claiming a decisive win. Abiy’s government subsequently declared the Tigray elections invalid.

The two sides called each other illegitimate in the lead-up to the TPLF attack on the Sero base. In response, the government sent the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, backed by soldiers from the Amhara region, which borders Tigray.

Who has the upper hand in the fighting?

After fighting commenced in November, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces quickly captured many of Tigray’s main cities, including the regional capital, Mekele, with approximately a half-million people. Abiy declared the main phase of the conflict over; however, the TPLF still controls large swaths of Tigray. Ethiopia has said it is waging a “final offensive” against the group.

What role has Eritrea played?

Eritrea, which was once part of Ethiopia, fought and won a brutal, decades-long war of independence that ended in 1991. The two countries went to war again in 1998 in a territorial conflict that ended inconclusively in 2000, claiming an estimated 100,000 lives.

However, shortly after taking office, Abiy reached out to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and the two forged a historic peace accord aimed at putting the countries’ mutual enmity in the past. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to resolve the long-standing conflict.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (right) welcomes Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki upon his arrival at the airport in Gondar, for a visit in Ethiopia, in November 2018.

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Abiy appears to have won a staunch ally in Isaias. Eritrean forces are reportedly engaged in the Tigray fight, backing Ethiopia. The Associated Press reported that Eritrean soldiers were involved in a massacre of civilians in the town of Axum in the early days of the conflict. Amnesty International has also blamed Eritrea for the mass killing at Axum. Eritrean forces also reportedly carried out a similar attack on civilians at a church in the Tigrayan town of Dengelat.

Both governments have denied that Eritrean troops are even in Ethiopia. In an interview with state media last month, Isaias didn’t comment on the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray, but he appeared to hint at it. He expressed concern over the Tigray situation and said Eritrea was “trying our level best” to help Ethiopia “in accordance to our obligation,” the BBC reported.

Abiy, speaking to parliament in November, called the Eritrean people “our brothers,” and friends “who stood by our side on a tough day.”

What does the U.N. say?

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has asked Ethiopia for access to Tigray to investigate possible war crimes there, after reports of extrajudicial killings and sexual violence.

Bachelet says her office has verified some atrocities in Tigray, including ones committed by Eritrean forces, as well as the “indiscriminate shelling in Mekele, Humera and Adigrat towns in Tigray region.”

What has the U.S. said?

The Biden administration describes the situation in Tigray as “a deepening humanitarian crisis.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, citing “credible reports” of human rights abuses, has pressed Addis Ababa to end the conflict, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

“The secretary urged the Ethiopian government to take immediate, concrete steps to protect civilians, including refugees, and to prevent further violence,” he said in a statement.

The Biden administration has repeatedly called for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers and Amhara regional forces. It has also asked for the African Union to help resolve the crisis.

Echoing comments made by Blinken, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said “The onus to prevent further atrocities and human suffering falls squarely on the Ethiopian government shoulders.”

“We urge the Ethiopian government to support an immediate end to the fighting in Tigray,” she said. “To that end, the prompt withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential steps, and we urge the broader region to work fast and together toward a peaceful solution.”

An Ethiopian child is seen at Um Rakuba refugee camp in February as those fleeing the conflict in Tigray continue to live under harsh conditions.

Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What is at stake in the conflict?

With the apparent involvement of Eritrea, and a flood of refugees into Sudan, the situation threatens to become both a wider conflict and a deepening humanitarian crisis in a part of the world that has seen more than its share of human misery in recent decades.

For Abiy, the Nobel laureate, and Eritrea’s Isaias, their reputations as peacemakers have taken a severe hit. Allegations of atrocities and possible war crimes could effectively end whatever international good will they enjoyed.

Meanwhile, for President Biden, the conflict could prove a difficult balancing act.

On the one hand, the Biden administration has shown an eagerness to reassert the U.S.’s role as an international champion of human rights, after such considerations took a back seat under former President Donald Trump.

But by shunning Addis Ababa, the administration would risk decades of close U.S.-Ethiopia ties and cooperation in fighting regional terrorism. Since the end of its conflicts with Eritrea, Ethiopia has played a stabilizing role in the Horn of Africa region — most notably making up the backbone of the African Union Mission in Somalia, where peacekeeping forces have sought to tamp down a resurgence of the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab.

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Dudamel And L.A. Philharmonic Reunite For Socially Distanced Virtual Concert Series

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Dudamel And L.A. Philharmonic Reunite For Socially Distanced Virtual Concert Series

Gustavo Dudamel during a press conferece on Sept. 30, 2009 in LA, around the time he was named the music director of the LA Philharmonic.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

After months of lockdown, on a glorious sunny day, I got to watch the Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearse at the famous, near-empty Hollywood Bowl. A year into the pandemic, live concerts are still a rarity in this country, but the LA Phil has been recording concerts here for its online Sound/Stage series.

There were only about seven others scattered in the audience of the vast amphitheater; in sneakers and jeans, conductor Gustavo Dudamel led the orchestra in a piece by composer John Adams, Grand Pianola Music.

Onstage, the musicians were seated 12 feet apart, all wearing facemasks except for the wind players, who were each isolated with plexiglass partitions around them.

“As soon as you start playing, all you hear is yourself,” Greg Roosa, the LA Phil’s second horn player, told me during a break. “It’s really, really hard to kind of hear off in the distance, and you have to really watch the conductor.”

Roosa’s wife, Amy Jo Rhine, is the orchestra’s third horn player. She added, “We have to be hypersensitive to everything that’s happening around us, even more so than normal.”

Dudamel told me he and his orchestra were anxious to perform together, so they were up for anything, including the plexiglass walls. “It creates a different acoustic environment that we are not used to,” he said. “But, you know, we decided to take the challenge. And it was very, very, very challenging.”

The premiere episode from the first season of Sound/Stage.


The concerts the LA Phil recorded last summer and fall are featured on the Sound/Stage series, which streams on its website. The first season opened with an episode called “Love in the Time of COVID,” complete with overhead shots of the lonely Hollywood Bowl and Los Angeles, and a reading of a Pablo Neruda poem.

The second season, which begins today, March 5, launches with a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals. In addition, Dudamel’s nine-year-old son Martín and other children narrate animated folktales.

In other episodes, Dudamel interviews celebrity friends about their musical inspirations, similar to a fundraising series the LA Phil released this past month with the conductor in conversation with Katy Perry, Julie Andrews, Common and others.

The second season of Sound/Stage includes chats with chef José Andrés and performances by Columbian musician Carlos Vives, gospel duo Mary Mary, opera star Nadine Sierra and others. The online series also offers virtual field trips to the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall for school children.

“It’s been a very difficult time for this orchestra, and it’s great they’ve been able to keep up their spirit of experiment and innovation at this period,” said Alex Ross, classical music critic at The New Yorker. He was also invited to watch the orchestra perform at the Hollywood Bowl last summer.

Ross says the LA Phil is known for championing new and diverse music, and that this series goes far beyond videotaped concerts some other big orchestras have made during lockdown. “They haven’t pretended like everything is normal,” he said. “So you see the orchestra on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, but then you see all the empty seats, so you’re reminded the audience is absent. There’s a kind of a loneliness. And I think they’ve been able to use that as a kind of expressive way to show this yearning of the musicians and Gustavo Dudamel to reach out to the audience that’s not there.”

During the past year, LA Phil musicians continued to be paid, but the orchestra lost much of its revenue from the concerts it holds at the Hollywood Bowl, the Ford and Disney Hall. Two of the musicians, flutist Cathy Karoly and her cellist husband Jonathan, collected donations for the orchestra by putting on their own series of chamber music recitals outside their home in Pasadena.

“My colleagues and I had very different ideas about how long we would be out of work, ranging from a couple of months to me saying, no, this is going to take more than a year,” said Karoly. She says she and her husband wanted to continue playing music and not get rusty. They said they were happy to return to the Hollywood Bowl to tape the Sound/Stage concerts.

Percussionist Matthew Howard agreed with them that being back onstage together was amazing. “Even with these restrictions,” he said, “it just feels so nice to make music with people, not via Zoom.”

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Got Questions About Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 Vaccine? We Have Answers

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Got Questions About Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 Vaccine? We Have Answers

A medical worker at South Shore University Hospital gets ready to administer the newly available Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Bay Shore, N.Y., Wednesday. Clinical research found it to be 85% effective in preventing severe disease four weeks after vaccination, and it has demonstrated promising indications of protection against a couple of concerning variants of the coronavirus.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This week, health care providers began administering the first doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. — the third vaccine authorized by the Food and Drug Administration to help stop the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s welcome news in a country that still faces high levels of circulating virus in most regions, and a demand for vaccine that still far outstrips supply.

The J&J vaccine has some significant advantages, health officials say. Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, it can be stored for up to three months at regular refrigerator temperatures, so it’s easier to distribute to more places. And you’re fully vaccinated after just one dose — a welcome convenience for many recipients who dread the two-shot regimen of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University, says that’s a big plus for the J&J vaccine.

“If there are individuals who may not like needles, who may have concerns about returning for a second shot, who may not want the inconvenience of scheduling a second appointment, or who may be concerned that there isn’t enough supply of the vaccine at the moment for a second shot — for those individuals, that convenience of being done [after one dose], fully vaccinated, is really important,” Wen says.

Still, the J&J vaccine is a little different from the others. Here’s what you need to know.

How does the Johnson & Johnson vaccine work?

The J&J shot is based on a different technology than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Those use mRNA, or messenger RNA, to deliver bits of genetic code to cells. This code serves as a sort of instruction sheet — telling cells how to make a harmless piece of the spike protein that sticks out of the surface of the coronavirus. The immune system then learns to recognize the spike protein and fight it.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by contrast, is what’s known as a viral vector vaccine — the same technology that’s been proven safe and effective in creating an Ebola vaccine and others currently in the works. Basically, Johnson & Johnson started with an adenovirus, which causes the common cold, and inactivated it so it can’t make anybody sick. They then used this harmless cold virus to deliver the genetic blueprint of the protein spike to cells, so the immune system will learn to recognize that spike when it runs into the coronavirus.

To be clear, the J&J vaccine “can’t give you the cold virus, and it definitely cannot give you COVID,” says Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease specialist and acting hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center.

Who should get the J&J vaccine?

The vaccine is authorized for people age 18 and older.

How long does it take for protection to kick in?

With all three vaccines, immunity builds over a few weeks after immunization. Data from Johnson & Johnson show that most vaccinated trial participants had a robust immune response 15 days after getting the shot, with significant protection reached by day 29.

Will I be as well protected against getting super sick with COVID-19 if I get the J&J shot as if I get a two-dose version from Pfizer or Moderna?

“When we look at the thing we probably care about most — making sure that we don’t end up in the ICU or dying — the efficacy of the three vaccines is virtually identical,” says Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

The perception that some vaccines may be better than others has to do with the topline numbers from efficacy studies. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were both found to be about 95% effective against preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after the second dose. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by contrast, was found to be 66% protective against moderate and severe disease overall worldwide, and 72% protective against such cases in the U.S.

But you can’t really compare those numbers head to head, says Pierre, because “these were different trials in different places at different times,” and the strains of the coronavirus running around were likely somewhat different. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested more recently, including in South Africa and Brazil, at a time when more contagious variants of the coronavirus were widely circulating in those countries. The Moderna and Pfizer clinical studies, meanwhile, were started earlier, before such variants had become widespread.

Given those differences, Bibbins-Domingo says “the number you should probably compare is 85%” — that’s how effective the J & J vaccine was found to be at preventing severe disease four weeks after immunization.

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, agrees that the J&J vaccine seems to be “terrific” at saving lives. He tells NPR he’s advising his family members to take whichever vaccine comes their way first.

Which vaccine offers the best protection against the worrisome coronavirus variants?

We can’t compare the vaccines head to head on this question, Pierre says, because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines haven’t been subjected to rigorous clinical trials in places where these variants are widespread. But we can say that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine performs well against the variants first detected in Brazil and South Africa, because it was tested in both countries at a time when the variants were already rampant there. And in both countries, the J&J vaccine was still shown to be highly effective against severe disease, according to an analysis posted by the FDA.

“What we see is that we still have good efficacy with this vaccine regardless — even in these areas where the variants were highly prevalent,” Pierre says. “And I think that’s really a fire-tested way to say that this particular vaccine is unequivocally good.” She notes that preliminary data also suggest the J&J vaccine might offer protection against asymptomatic infection.

Why shouldn’t I just hold out for the vaccine with the highest efficacy rate?

Get whichever vaccine you can as soon as you’re eligible, Pierre, Jha and other infectious disease experts urge. The longer you go unvaccinated, the longer you’re at risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection that potentially could kill you.

“I view it as a race against time,” Pierre says, based on the data and her own experience with her mom. Pierre scrambled to schedule an immunization appointment for her mother as soon as the older woman became eligible. But before she could get immunized, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Pierre’s mom recovered from that infection, but more than 500,000 other Americans have not been so fortunate.

Any particular safety or efficacy concerns that people with underlying conditions should worry about with the J&J vaccine?

The CDC says any of the three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. can be given to people with underlying medical conditions, as long as they don’t have contraindications, such as a history of severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of a vaccine or any of its components.

Medical specialists who care for people with diabetes, cancer, coronary artery disease or other conditions that put them at increased risk of severe disease if they get COVID-19 are encouraging their patients to get vaccinated.

The guidance for anyone pregnant or breastfeeding is more nuanced: The CDC and groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say all three vaccines should be made available to those who are pregnant, but they leave the choice about whether to get vaccinated up to each individual. That’s because pregnant people were excluded from the initial clinical trials for all three vaccines, so there’s no firm direct evidence yet on how the vaccine will perform in this group.

That said, taking into account work with other vaccines and animal data, the CDC says that “based on current knowledge, experts believe that COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to the pregnant person or fetus.” Meanwhile, getting COVID-19 can pose a significant risk: Research from the past year has shown that those who are pregnant are at higher risk of a severe case of the disease if they get infected.

Pfizer has recently started a large trial of its vaccine among those who are pregnant, and J & J says it also has plans for such a trial, so more direct evidence about efficacy in that group is on the way.

Though it’s not yet known whether the COVID-19 vaccines will be as effective among patients who are immunocompromised as they are in other people, the vaccines are safe for that group, and “it is recommended that people who are immunocompromised can get this vaccine,” says Dr. Kathleen Mullane of the University of Chicago School of Medicine. She’s an expert in the treatment of infections in immunocompromised patients — such as organ transplant recipients — and served as an investigator in clinical trials for both the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

Mullane advises that no matter which COVID-19 vaccine an immunocompromised patient signs up for, they should talk to their doctor ahead of time. There’s a chance their doctor may adjust the patient’s usual medication or treatment schedule ahead of the shot in order to boost the vaccine’s effectiveness. Your own medical team knows your situation best, and is your best guide in this case, Mullane says.

What kind of side effects should I expect with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

Just as with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the most common side effects are pain and redness at the site of injection, chills, headaches, nausea, body aches, fatigue and fever for a day or two. But many people who get these vaccines don’t experience any side effects. If you do feel achy or feverish after the shot, it’s fine to take a painkiller like Tylenol or ibuprofen, but don’t take it beforehand — that might blunt the immune response, Pierre says.

Side effects tend to be more common in young people because they have more robust immune systems, so it’s just a sign that the vaccine is doing its job, Bibbins-Domingo notes. If you don’t experience side effects, don’t worry either, she says — there are plenty of vaccines “where the most you might feel is a little bit sore at the injection site.”

As with any of the COVID-19 vaccines, there is a remote chance that you could experience a severe allergic reaction, according to the FDA; this would most likely occur within a few minutes to an hour after getting the shot. That’s why vaccinators ask people to stick around for 15 or 30 minutes after getting the shot so they can be monitored and treated if that extremely rare event happens.

But all the experts NPR spoke with say the bottom line is that all three vaccines the FDA has authorized for used against COVID-19 are safe and highly effective. “I would choose any of the three,” Pierre says, “because I know that they will work and they will protect me and they will protect my family.”

As Wen says, “We also want to put an end to this pandemic as soon as we can. And that means getting some level of immunity into as many people as possible and as quickly as possible.”

NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin contributed reporting to this story.

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U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement ‘Sends Important Signal’

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U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement ‘Sends Important Signal’

Kelly Clements, United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees, says that the Biden administration’s promise to welcome more refugees into the U.S. sets an important tone on the international stage.

Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

The number of refugees has soared over the past four years, with more than 26 million refugees worldwide as of mid-2020, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Yet the number of refugees who have resettled in the U.S. has plummeted to a record low of about 12,000 last year, from 85,000 a year at the start of the Trump administration.

President Biden wants to reverse the trend set by his predecessor, with a pledge to raise the cap on refugees in the U.S. up to 125,000 per year. That number does not include asylum-seekers.

Kelly Clements, U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees, says Biden’s interest in bolstering the country’s resettlement program “sends a very important signal” to the international community.

“When the U.S. says ‘We’re back, we want to restart, rebuild an important and robust resettlement program,’ we are absolutely ecstatic,” Clements says in an interview with All Things Considered. “It sends the world an important message and it really sets a signal and a tone for engagement and this important way to change people’s lives quite literally.”

Clements spoke more about what the new administration’s pledge means after former President Trump’s hard-line policies on refugees, as well as her hope to see Trump’s pandemic-era restriction on asylum-seekers overturned.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Can [President Biden] flip the message just by flipping a switch like that? Or after four years of the U.S. saying, “America first,” “Refugees are dangerous” — does that message linger?

I’ve just come from California, actually, and discussions with resettlement agencies. And, while it will take some time to rebuild this program that has been really decimated over the last few years, there is a strong team at the local level, community level — very welcoming communities like San Diego, where I just was — that have strong and important partners that are ready to re-engage and ready to rebuild. Some of these resources have been dedicated to other purposes during the intervening period — in other areas, we’ll quite literally have to rebuild.

I understand your U.N. refugee agency is playing a role in the Biden administration’s effort to unwind the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program. Tell us about what’s happening.

Yes, in fact, we were asked by the United States but also by Mexico to engage with regard to what they call the “MPP unwind” [“MPP” refers to the formal name of the Trump program, Migrant Protection Protocols]. This is a caseload of individuals, families that have been waiting — some for two years. And we had a chance, in fact, a couple of days ago, to talk to some who had already crossed the border.

There are about 26,000 [individuals] that we estimate that are in need of this kind of processing — about half of which, actually over half, we have already registered. And by the end of [Thursday], we will probably see about 1,000 who have crossed into the United States.

The Biden administration has left in place a Trump policy that lets the U.S. turn away migrants due to the pandemic. Does that mean people are going to remain stuck living in dangerous conditions in Mexican border cities?

Obviously, nations have an obligation to protect health. And there are all kinds of challenges that are involved with this. But, you know, we have 70 years of experience working with big health emergencies like Ebola and SARS. And it is possible to both protect health and protect the right for individuals to seek asylum. So this is something obviously we would like to see lifted as quickly as possible so people can actually make their claims directly.

Connor Donevan and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

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