Austin briefed Biden on options, including moving U.S. troops to nations next to Ukraine


Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin briefed President Joe Biden on Saturday about U.S. options for responding if Russia invades Ukraine as well as options for U.S. military movements in advance of an invasion, according to a defense official and a senior administration official.

As Biden weighed his options, the State Department on Sunday ordered family members of embassy employees in Kyiv to leave and authorized non-emergency diplomatic employees in Ukraine to depart.

It also warned Americans not to travel to Ukraine or Russia, citing the possibility of Russian military action as well as “the potential throughout Russia of harassment towards foreigners,” a department spokesperson said.

Among the options presented for the U.S. military in advance of an invasion were bomber flights over the region, ship visits into the Black Sea, and moving troops and some equipment from other parts of Europe into Poland, Romania, and other countries neighboring Ukraine. 

Austin presented options intended to reassure NATO allies and reinforce their defenses, specifically the defenses of those nations bordering Ukraine, said the officials. The goal is to show unity and strength among NATO and deter Russian aggression against allies in the region, the officials said. 

Biden was at Camp David and Austin briefed him via secure video teleconference (VTC). Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was also on the VTC. Generally the secretary briefs the president and then the chairman provides more operational specifics. 

Some details of the briefing were previously reported by the New York Times.

Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command and supreme allied commander Europe, has been preparing options for weeks, the defense official and senior administration official said. Wolters has the authority to move some forces around his theater but he is keeping Austin and military leaders informed given the gravity of the situation, the officials said.

The briefing to Biden included the latest intelligence that the Russian military has not stopped building up forces around Ukraine, the officials said. 

Another defense official said Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to add more military units and flow forces to the border areas around Ukraine. “He’s getting stronger, literally by the day,” the defense official said. 

The officials would not say whether Biden approved any movements, but the senior administration official did say re-positioning of some troops and assets could happen “in the coming days.”

On Monday, the U.S. military and NATO begin Exercise Neptune Strike ’22, which includes training with NATO allies for capabilities that could be used against Russia. As part of the exercise, the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group will conduct long-range strike training and anti-submarine warfare training from the Mediterranean. 

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the exercise is “designed to demonstrate NATO’s ability to integrate the high-end maritime strike capabilities of an aircraft carrier strike group, to support the deterrence and defense of the alliance.”



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Passports can soon be renewed online, thanks to Biden order


“When a disaster survivor, single parent, immigrant, small business owner, or veteran waits months for the Government to process benefits to which they are entitled, that lost time is a significant cost not only for that individual, but in the aggregate, for our Nation as a whole,” Biden said in the order, which includes new technologies for everything from taxes to veterans’ benefits.



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Opinion | Biden is right to fight omicron variant with travel restrictions — and do more


As they are now, though, the travel precautions are far too porous to achieve this desired outcome. For one thing, they do not apply to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Americans must be able to return home, but we need to acknowledge that if they are coming from southern Africa, they are just as likely as non-residents to carry omicron.



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President Joe Biden to travel by car from Rehoboth Beach to Greenville


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President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden left their Rehoboth Beach-area home to travel by car to their Greenville home shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Both Biden’s team and Delaware State Police were mum about the route, but presumably, they would be taking Route 1 for the majority of the trip. Congestion and delays are likely, especially in Rehoboth and New Castle County.

“No roads will be closed per se, but side streets will be blocked for several minutes and traffic signals will be manipulated to minimize delays,” said Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman Robin Bryson. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued temporary flight restrictions throughout the state through the evening, and in the Wilmington area, through Jan. 2.

The president and his wife had been at their North Shores home, just north of Rehoboth Beach, since Monday. That afternoon, he took in a weekly economic briefing virtually.

The president’s official schedule was empty Tuesday. He and Jill Biden were spotted on the beach with their new dog, Commander.

Biden is scheduled to speak with Russian leader Vladmir Putin on Thursday, at Putin’s request and amid concerns about Russian troops gathering at the Ukraine border.



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Biden to lift African travel ban; Omicron COVID surge cancels flights


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The Biden administration will lift its temporary travel ban on eight countries in southern Africa on Dec. 31, said Kevin Munoz, White House assistant press secretary, in a tweet Friday.

The restrictions were implemented to slow the spread of the omicron variant in the United States, and they applied to South Africa – where omicron was first detected – as well as Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Most noncitizens who have been in those countries within the past 14 days have not been allowed to enter the U.S. 

The news comes after other countries, including Canada, dropped similar travel restrictions. President Joe Biden said earlier this week he was considering reversing the restrictions the U.S. enacted in late November shortly after lifting bans against dozens of other countries.

“We put the travel ban on just to see how much time we had before it hit here so we can begin to decide what we needed by looking at what’s happening in other countries,” Biden said during an address to the nation Tuesday. “But we’re past that now.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advises against travel to the eight countries since they are considered to have “very high” COVID-19 risk. 

Also in the news:

►Travelers with last-minute holiday flights this year are scrambling to find new flights as two major U.S. airlines, Delta and United, have canceled hundreds of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day flights. They cite crew shortages due to sick calls from the fast spreading omicron variant and weather in pockets of the country.

►Federal officials on Thursday loosened isolation requirements for health care workers who test positive in an effort to prevent staffing shortages. New guidance from the CDC says health care workers can come back to work seven days after testing negative and don’t have symptoms. Previously, they were required to be isolated for 10 days.

► COVID-19 cases are continuing to emerge on cruise ships. Among the latest outbreaks: MSC Seashore, which was scheduled to disembark passengers Thursday, sailed with 28 passengers who tested positive for COVID-19.

► Omicron, in a matter of a few weeks, pushed the United States to report cases faster than the delta variant took months to build up to. The nation reported more than a quarter-million cases on Wednesday alone, preliminary reports from Johns Hopkins University show. That makes Wednesday’s count at least the fifth-worst single day’s reporting of the entire pandemic.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 51 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 815,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 278 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 204 million Americans – 61.7% –  are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘 What we’re reading: New treatments against COVID-19 are coming – including a pair of antiviral pills, one from Pfizer and one from Merck. Will they help combat the omicron onslaught? Read the full story.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

A recent study by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases suggests those infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are at reduced risks of hospitalization and severe disease compared to those infected with the delta variant.

The new study, which has not been peer-reviewed, indicated that people diagnosed with the omicron variant were 80% less likely to be hospitalized than those diagnosed with other strains. But researchers also cautioned that at least some of this reduction is likely a result of high population immunity in the country.

A recent survey in Gauteng, the first South African province in which the omicron variant was identified, found 72% of the population had a previous coronavirus infection, according to Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

The rapid spread of the omicron coronavirus variant has prompted flights to be canceled, events to be scaled back and sports stars to be sidelined as the nation celebrates the holidays amid a new wave of infections clouded by uncertainty. 

More than 500 flights have been canceled on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with United and Delta partially blaming the omicron variant

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday that the city’s iconic New Year’s Eve Times Square celebration will be scaled back. And the NFL continues to deal with COVID-19 fallout during its first week of new protocols. Dozens of players have been added to the reserve list in the past few days, including several big names. 

The disruptions may mark a new phase of the pandemic, where health officials are increasingly signaling that many, if not most, Americans will become infected in coming months. But large swaths of the population appear to be well protected from severe illness through vaccines, especially the 64 million people who have received a booster dose.

After Amanda Wilson lost her 15-year-old son, Braden, to COVID-19 early this year, she tried to honor his memory. But in one area, she hit a brick wall: attempting to force change at the California hospital where she believes her son contracted COVID-19 in December 2020.

While seeking treatment for a bleeding cyst, Braden was surrounded for hours by coughing patients in the emergency room, Wilson said. Yet, she has been unable to get the hospital to show her improvements it told her it made or get a lawyer to take her case.

“I was pretty shocked,” Wilson said. “There’s truly no recourse.”

A previous Kaiser Health News investigation documented that more than 10,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 after they were hospitalized for something else in 2020. Yet many others, including Braden Wilson, are not counted in those numbers because they were discharged before testing positive. Still, the KHN findings are the only nationally publicly available data showing rates of patients who tested positive for COVID after admission into individual U.S. hospitals. Read more here. 

— Lauren Weber and Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News

Testing requirements are nothing new in the age of COVID-19, but travelers are finding it more difficult – and more expensive – to visit certain domestic destinations amid the latest testing shortage. 

Puerto Rico resident Sarah Molinari was looking forward to spending time in New York this week to catch up with family and celebrate the holidays. What she didn’t see coming were the hours spent scrolling through COVID-19 testing center websites to make sure she could fly home Tuesday. 

While traveling to the U.S. territory used to be a breeze for Molinari and other vaccinated travelers, that changes Monday when Puerto Rico starts requiring all travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before arriving. 

The new rule comes as the U.S. finds itself in the midst of yet another coronavirus test shortage, with consumers facing limited sales at retailers and long lines at testing centers. Read more here.

A day after authorizing the first antiviral pill to treat COVID-19, the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday authorized a second: Merck’s molnupiravir.

The prescription medication, which can be taken at home, is designed to stop the progression of COVID-19 from mild to severe symptoms in people at high risk. In data presented to an FDA advisory panel in late November, the drug was shown to prevent 30% of infections from progressing – far fewer than Pfizer’s antiviral Paxlovid, which the FDA authorized on Wednesday.

Molnupiravir, produced also by Ridgeback Biotherapeutics should be given within five days of COVID-19 symptoms beginning and should only be given to adults because it may affect bone and cartilage growth, the FDA noted. The drug is not recommended for use during pregnancy because animal studies suggest it may damage the fetus.

Several doctors told USA TODAY that they would only prescribe molnupiravir if they had no other alternative, and the FDA seemed to echo that by noting in its authorization announcement that the drug is to be used by people at high risk for severe disease “for whom alternative COVID-19 treatment options authorized by the FDA are not accessible or clinically appropriate.” Read more here.

– Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

Testing positive for COVID-19 starts a confusing, disruptive and at times frightening process – one that millions of Americans will likely go through in coming weeks as the omicron variant rapidly spreads this holiday season.

First, you need to isolate. That’s a more intense version of quarantining – it means cutting off contact with other people as much as possible, so that you reduce your chances of infecting them. It also means forgoing travel, not going to work and even limiting contact with people in your own household who aren’t infected.

The CDC says it’s a necessary step whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated; showing symptoms or feeling fine.

Everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should also monitor their symptoms. And people who are unvaccinated or at high risk for severe disease should be extra vigilant for symptoms that might require emergency care. Call your doctor for early treatment options.

How long should you isolate? How long will I be contagious? What if you are a close contact with someone who tested positive? Here’s what you should know about omicron and COVID this holiday season.

Contributing: The Associated Press



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Biden says he’s considering lifting travel ban on southern African countries put in place to limit spread of Omicron


The ban has come under increasing scrutiny as the strain is already the predominant one in new cases in the US, and has run rampant in other countries that have not seen similar travel restrictions.

“I’m considering reversing (the travel ban), I’m going to talk to my team in the next couple days,” Biden told reporters after a speech on Covid-19 at the White House.

In late November, Biden acted on advice from the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The Omicron variant eventually made its way to the US and is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in the country, accounting for more than 73% of new cases, according to the CDC.

“Remember why I said we put the travel ban on — it was to see how much time we had before it hit here so we could begin to decide what we needed by looking at what was happening in other countries,” Biden said. “And we’re past that now, and so it’s something that’s being raised with me by the docs and I’ll have an answer for that soon.”

For days the White House has been giving a similar answer on the restrictions. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the ban was never meant to be permanent, and that the administration was “continuing to assess day to day the decision to lift that ban.”

This is a breaking story and will be updated.



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Covid-19 live updates today: Omicron cases, stats, Biden address, travel restrictions, vaccines…


Reuters As Omicron surges, Biden to expand testing and warns unvaccinated

The Biden administration will open federal covid-19 testing sites in New York City this week and buy 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans can order online for free starting in January as it tries to tackle the Omicron variant sweeping the country.

Striking a more dire tone about the risks of remaining unvaccinated, President Joe Biden will lay out the initiatives on Tuesday in a speech that aims to persuade Americans to protect themselves from the fast-spreading variant, a senior administration official said.

The measures include activating some 1,000 military medical personnel to support hospitals.

“We will also note that if you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from covid,” the official said.

With the holiday travel season already begun, new covid-19 cases are surging in the United States, prompting local and federal officials to again confront just how far to go to combat the virus. Federal officials said that Omicron now accounts for 73% of all new cases, up from less than 1% at the beginning of the month.



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Biden Will Travel to Kentucky to Survey Tornado Damage | U.S. News®


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden said on Monday he will visit hard-hit Kentucky on Wednesday to survey damage from deadly tornadoes that devastated a broad swath of the state.

Biden spoke after getting an update on the tornado relief effort from his top advisers. He said he would soon approve a request for emergency assistance from Illinois.

The White House said Biden would travel to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a storm briefing, and to Mayfield and Dawson Springs, Kentucky, to survey storm damage.

Biden vowed the federal government would provide “whatever they need when they need it.”

At least 64 people, including six children, lost their lives in Kentucky, with power still out for thousands and strangers welcoming survivors who lost everything into their homes.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.



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