Global coronavirus cases have surged to their highest level of the pandemic, with nearly a million-and-a-half confirmed cases a day, driven largely by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Here in the U.S., where hospitalizations are rising rapidly and more than 400,000 people are testing positive daily, many cities held muted New Year’s Eve celebrations. In New York City, some 15,000 people still gathered in Times Square to witness the iconic ball drop. New York state reported a record of over 85,000 new cases on New Year’s Eve. Health experts warn that even though a lower percentage of people infected with Omicron end up hospitalized, the sheer number of cases is pushing the healthcare system past its breaking point. This is top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: “Even if you have a less of a percentage of severity, when you have multi-, multi-, multifold more people getting infected, the net amount is you’re still going to get a lot of people that are going to be needing hospitalization. And that’s the reason why we’re concerned about stressing and straining the hospital system.”
Hospitalizations among children hit new records, with COVID-related admissions increasing by 66% in the last week of December, though the number of fatalities remains comparatively low. This comes as millions of students across the U.S. return to school today. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Sunday in-person learning is a priority but that “bumps in the road” were expected amid the current surge.
In related news, economists are warning that mounting infections and the loss of the increased pandemic-related child tax credit could lead to serious financial hardship for millions of families.
Travel disruptions continued into the new year, with over 2,600 flights canceled on January 1 in the U.S. alone due to a combination of severe winter weather and sick staff.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is the latest high-profile government official to test positive for COVID. He is fully vaccinated and boosted and has reported “mild” symptoms.
In Colorado, at least two people are missing and presumed dead after a fast-spreading wildfire tore through the suburbs of Boulder County, destroying at least 1,000 homes and businesses. The fires were fanned by winds that gusted up to 110 miles per hour. They capped a year of exceptional drought across the western U.S. and came amid an unusually warm December. Louisville, Colorado, resident Paul Bassis saw his home nearly destroyed in the blaze.
Paul Bassis: “Climate change is here now, that this is not some future threat that we have to deal with at some point someday, but this is here and now. … People lost all their belongings, their memories that were in those homes, families that were raised there.”
Later in the broadcast, we’ll go to Boulder to speak with Dr. Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, about the climate change-fueled fire.
A New York jury convicted Ghislaine Maxwell of federal sex trafficking charges for helping Jeffrey Epstein recruit and sexually assault teenage girls. The British socialite was found guilty of five out of six counts and faces up to 65 years in prison. During the three-week trial, four survivors recounted being abused at the hands of Maxwell and Epstein, who killed himself in a Manhattan jail in 2019. In a statement, survivor and witness Annie Farmer said, “I hope that this verdict brings solace to all who need it and demonstrates that no one is above the law. Even those with great power and privilege will be held accountable when they sexually abuse and exploit the young.”
British royal Prince Andrew is now under intensified scrutiny. Following the verdict, another Epstein survivor, Virginia Giuffre, tweeted, “Maxwell did not act alone. Others must be held accountable.” Giuffre has accused Maxwell of trafficking her to Prince Andrew when she was 17. A federal judge on Friday rejected a bid from Andrew’s lawyer to dismiss Giuffre’s lawsuit on the grounds that she no longer resides in the U.S. A New York court is set to unseal a confidential 2009 settlement between Epstein and Giuffre today, and Prince Andrew’s lawyers are expected to argue again for a dismissal of her case against him on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the BBC was forced to apologize after inviting Epstein lawyer Alan Dershowitz on air to comment on the Maxwell verdict. Dershowitz has also been accused of sexual assault by Virginia Giuffre.
Sudan’s civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok stepped down Sunday, warning Sudan’s military leaders are blocking the transition to a fully civilian government. Hamdok was deposed in an October 25 military coup and then restored to power in November. His resignation on Sunday came as Sudanese soldiers killed three people protesting for an end to military rule — pushing the death toll in the post-coup protests to at least 57. The protesters are hoping to topple Sudan’s military dictatorship just as they forced longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir from power in 2019.
Shamaeal al-Nour: “The international community used to support Omar al-Bashir in his final days, and it wasn’t expected that the people in the street would escalate and that protests would turn into a popular revolution. In the end, al-Bashir succumbed to the street. The international community’s role comes after people in the street, I think. The international community does not have the final say.”
In Hong Kong, the independent media outlet Citizen News is shuttering this week, citing safety concerns, days after authorities raided another independent news organization, Stand News, and arrested at least seven staffers. This is the chief editor of Citizen News, Daisy Li.
Daisy Li: “What has changed is not us but the environment. As the editor-in-chief, nowadays there are things that I cannot make the decision for. I am unsure whether a story, a piece of news or a sentence will violate a new regulation under the changing news environment.”
This comes as Hong Kong’s first so-called patriots-only legislature was sworn in today following last month’s election, where all candidates were vetted for their loyalty or selected by pro-Beijing committees.
German officials say they’ve shut down three of the nation’s six remaining nuclear plants ahead of a year-end deadline to cease the use of nuclear power. Germany’s government says it’s on track to phase out the use of coal by 2030 and will continue to scale up renewable energy sources to meet demand for electricity.
Back in the U.S., President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are set to speak at an event Thursday marking the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol insurrection. On Sunday, Wyoming Congressmember Liz Cheney, the top Republican on the House committee investigating the insurrection, told ABC News former President Trump is “clearly unfit for future office” as she described his refusal to stop the violent mob attack on January 6.
Rep. Liz Cheney: “We know, as he was sitting there in the dining room next to the Oval Office, members of his staff were pleading with him to go on television to tell people to stop. We know Leader McCarthy was pleading with him to do that. We know members of his family, we know his daughter — we have firsthand testimony that his daughter Ivanka went in at least twice to ask him to please stop this violence.”
Twitter permanently suspended the personal account of Republican Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene for repeatedly posting misinformation about COVID-19. The suspension came after the far-right Georgia lawmaker tweeted over the weekend about “extremely high amounts of Covid vaccine deaths.” It was Greene’s “fifth strike,” according to Twitter, which previously temporarily suspended her for other false claims about the pandemic. The disabled Twitter handle was Greene’s preferred account, though she still has access to her congressional handle.
Karen Ferguson, the longtime labor lawyer who fought to protect workers’ pensions and retirement plans, has died at the age of 80. Ferguson was head of the Pension Rights Center for more than four decades, where she successfully lobbied Congress for pension reforms while helping thousands of workers recover their retirement benefits. Ferguson got her start in Washington, D.C., as one of “Nader’s Raiders” — a group of lawyers who joined consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group in the 1970s.
In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis reduced the 110-year prison sentence of truck driver Rogel Aguilera-Mederos to 10 years, calling the initial lengthy sentence “unjust.” The case of Aguilera-Mederos, a 26-year-old driver from Cuba, triggered widespread condemnation, including a boycott of Colorado led by other truck drivers in protest. Aguilera-Mederos has said the brakes on his semi-trailer failed when driving downhill, leading to a multi-vehicle pileup that killed four people in 2019. Many are calling on the trucking company to be held liable for the crash.
In South Africa, firefighters have tamed a massive blaze that destroyed parts of the South African Parliament in Cape Town. A suspect has been arrested in connection to the fire, which had been burning since the early hours of Sunday. No one was injured in the fire. The building is also home to thousands of national treasures, including rare books, artwork and historical documents.
In more news from South Africa, friends, family and supporters paid tribute to anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu at an official state funeral in Cape Town Saturday. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the main eulogy during the service at St. George’s Cathedral, where he hailed Tutu as “our national conscience.” Tutu’s family also spoke at the ceremony. This is his daughter, the Reverend Nontombi Naomi Tutu.
Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu: “We thank you for loving our father, grandfather, husband, uncle, brother, brother-in-law. Many of the messages we received have said, 'Thank you for sharing him with the world.' Well, it actually is a two-way street. Because we shared him with the world, you shared part of the love you held for him with us.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu died last week at the age of 90. Click here to see our special on Desmond Tutu in his own words.