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Kids' low COVID-19 vaccination rates called a 'gut punch'

Distrust, misinformation and delays because of the holidays and bad weather have combined to produce what authorities say are alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. children ages 5 to 11.

As of Tuesday, just over 17% were fully vaccinated, more than two months after shots became available to the age group. While Vermont is at 48%, California is just shy of 19% and Mississippi is at only 5%.

Vaccinations among the elementary school set surged after the shots were introduced in the fall, but the numbers have crept up slowly since then, and omicron’s explosive spread appears to have had little effect.

The low rates are “very disturbing,’’ said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s just amazing."

Parents who hesitate “are taking an enormous risk and continuing to fuel the pandemic,’’ Murphy said.


Dems switch strategy on voting bill as Biden pushes action

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats are trying to force a public showdown over their sweeping elections legislation, aiming to launch debate on a key party priority even though there’s no assurance the bill will come to a vote.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer outlined the plan in a memo obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, on the eve of President Joe Biden's visit to meet privately with Senate Democrats about the path forward. It still leaves the Democrats in need of a way to force a vote on the legislation, now blocked by a Republican filibuster.

“We will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation — something that Republicans have thus far denied,” Schumer wrote in the memo to his Democratic colleagues, which described a workaround to avoid a Republican filibuster that for months has blocked formal debate over the legislation on the Senate floor. “Senators can finally make clear to the American people where they stand on protecting our democracy and preserving the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot.”

The strategy does little to resolve the central problem Democrats face — they lack Republican support to pass the elections legislation on a bipartisan basis, but also don't have support from all 50 Democrats for changing the Senate rules to allow passage on their own. But the latest tactic could create an off-ramp from their initial approach, which was to force a vote by Monday on Senate filibuster changes as a way to pressure Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to go along.

By setting up a debate, Schumer will achieve the Democrats' goal of shining a spotlight that spurs senators to say where they stand. The floor debate could stretch for days and carry echoes of civil rights battles a generation ago that led to some of the most famous filibusters in Senate history.


Inflation at 40-year high pressures consumers, Fed and Biden

WASHINGTON (AP) — Inflation jumped at its fastest pace in nearly 40 years last month, a 7% spike from a year earlier that is increasing household expenses, eating into wage gains and heaping pressure on President Joe Biden and the Federal Reserve to address what has become the biggest threat to the U.S. economy.

Prices rose sharply in 2021 for cars, gas, food and furniture as part of a rapid recovery from the pandemic recession. Vast infusions of government aid and ultra-low interest rates helped spur demand for goods, while vaccinations gave people confidence to dine out and travel.

As Americans ramped up spending, supply chains remained squeezed by shortages of workers and raw materials and this magnified price pressures.

The Labor Department reported Wednesday that a measure of inflation that excludes volatile food and gas prices jumped 5.5% in December, also the highest in decades. Overall inflation rose 0.5% from November, down from 0.8% the previous month.

Price gains could slow further as snags in supply chains ease, but most economists say inflation won’t fall back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.


GOP leader McCarthy says he won't cooperate with 1/6 panel

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House panel investigating the U.S. Capitol insurrection requested an interview and records from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday, as it continues to seek first-hand details from members of Congress on former President Donald Trump’s actions on the day hundreds of his supporters brutally beat police, stormed the building and interrupted the certification of the 2020 election.

McCarthy issued a statement saying he would refuse to cooperate. He said the investigation was not legitimate and accused the panel of “abuse of power.”

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democratic chairman of the panel, requested that McCarthy, R-Calif., provide information to the nine-member panel regarding his conversations with Trump “before, during and after” the riot. The request also seeks information about McCarthy’s communications with former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in the days before the attack.

“We also must learn about how the President’s plans for January 6th came together, and all the other ways he attempted to alter the results of the election," Thompson said in the letter. "For example, in advance of January 6th, you reportedly explained to Mark Meadows and the former President that objections to the certification of the electoral votes on January 6th ‘was doomed to fail.’”

Without his cooperation, it remains unclear whether the panel will be able to gain testimony from McCarthy or any other congressional allies of Trump. While the committee has considered subpoenaing fellow lawmakers, that would be an extraordinary move and could run up against legal and political challenges.


Chicago teachers accept COVID deal, keeping kids in school

CHICAGO (AP) — Students in the nation's third-largest school district returned to classrooms Wednesday after Chicago Public Schools canceled five days of classes amid a standoff with the teachers' union over COVID-19 safety protocols.

Their return happened the same day the full membership of the Chicago Teachers Union narrowly gave their stamp of approval to the hard-fought safety plan that includes expanded testing and metrics to shut down individual schools during outbreaks. It passed with roughly 56% of the vote.

Leaders of the union gave their tentative approval two days earlier allowing students to return. They urged members to accept it, acknowledging that teachers didn't get initial demands including a commitment to flip to remote learning districtwide during a surge of COVID-19 infections.

“This vote is a clear show of dissatisfaction with the boss," Union President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement, referring to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “This agreement covers only a portion of the safety guarantees that every one of our school communities deserve ... Our members’ vote today represents a union’s, and a city’s, frustration with a mayor that has simmered since the beginning of this pandemic.

Lightfoot and Schools CEO Pedro Martinez issued a joint statement saying they were pleased with the vote and the agreement would guarantee “predictability and stability for the rest of the school year” in the roughly 350,000-student district.


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Ronnie Spector, '60s icon who sang ‘Be My Baby,’ dies at 78

NEW YORK (AP) — Ronnie Spector, the cat-eyed, bee-hived rock ‘n’ roll siren who sang such 1960s hits as “Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You” and “Walking in the Rain” as the leader of the girl group The Ronettes, has died. She was 78.

Spector died Wednesday after a brief battle with cancer, her family said. “Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face. She was filled with love and gratitude,” a statement said. No other details were revealed.

Tributes flooded social media, from Stevie Van Zandt saying it was an honor to produce her, to Brian Wilson, who wrote on Twitter: “I loved her voice so much and she was a very special person and a dear friend.” Diane Warren called her “The voice of a million teenage dreams including mine.”

The Ronettes’ sexy look and powerful voices — plus songwriting and producing help from Phil Spector — turned them into one of the premier acts of the girl-group era, touring England with The Rolling Stones and befriending the Beatles.

Spector, alongside her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, scored hits with pop masterpieces like “Baby, I Love You,” “Walking in the Rain,” “I Can Hear Music” and “Be My Baby,” which was co-written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.


EXPLAINER: What's next in Prince Andrew sex abuse lawsuit?

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge's ruling against Prince Andrew in a sexual abuse lawsuit Wednesday was bad news for the British royal. But it doesn't say much about whether his accuser, Virginia Giuffre, will ultimately prevail in her civil suit, or even substantially increase the likelihood the case will wind up before a jury.

A look at the ruling and where the case stands:

THE RULING

Giuffre sued Andrew last year, saying that the American financier Jeffrey Epstein and his companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, arranged sexual encounters with the prince starting when she was 17.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan's ruling Wednesday in New York didn't address the truth of those allegations at all. It dealt with narrow legal challenges raised by Andrew's lawyers, who said the lawsuit should be dismissed now, at an extremely early stage.


Army ups bonuses for recruits to $50K, as COVID takes toll

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Army, for the first time, is offering a maximum enlistment bonus of $50,000 to highly skilled recruits who join for six years, The Associated Press has learned, as the service struggles to lure soldiers into certain critical jobs during the continuing pandemic.

Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, head of Army Recruiting Command, told AP that shuttered schools and the competitive job market over the past year have posed significant challenges for recruiters. So heading into the most difficult months of the year for recruiting, the Army is hoping that some extra cash and a few other changes will entice qualified young people to sign up.

“We are still living the implications of 2020 and the onset of COVID, when the school systems basically shut down,” said Vereen. “We lost a full class of young men and women that we didn’t have contact with, face-to-face.”

Two years of the pandemic has made it more difficult to recruit in schools and at public events, and the competition for quality workers has intensified as young people weigh their options.

Some, said Vereen, are taking what he calls a gap year, and “are making the decision that they don’t necessarily need to work right now.”


After Kazakhstan unrest, relatives await detainees' release

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — With about 12,000 people arrested after anti-government protests in Kazakhstan last week, friends and relatives of those held by police waited outside a jail Wednesday, hoping to learn their fate. Some even went to morgues to see if a loved one was among the scores killed in the unprecedented violence in the Central Asian nation.

Authorities have refused to allow relatives or lawyers to see those in custody, giving little information about them, according to human rights activists.

The demonstrations began Jan. 2 in the western part of Kazakhstan over a sharp rise in fuel prices and spread throughout the country, apparently reflecting wider discontent with the government, which declared a state of emergency for the whole country and asked a Russia-led military alliance to send in troops to help restore order.

Another 1,678 people were arrested in the past 24 hours in Almaty, the largest city that was hit hardest by the turmoil, and more than 300 criminal investigations have been opened. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed the unrest on foreign-backed “terrorists,” but did not provide any evidence, and had given shoot-to-kill orders to security forces to quell the unrest.

Outside a branch of the Internal Affairs department that housed a large detention center, a man who gave his name only as Renat said he has been waiting nearly a week to see or get any information about a close friend, Zhandos Nakipovich. He said Nakipovich, whom he described as being like “a brother” to him, was taken into custody on Jan. 4 during a peaceful protest.


Yanks' Balkovec living 'American dream' with manager role

NEW YORK (AP) — Rachel Balkovec is aware of the negativity in her social media feeds and tries to leave it there. Her sisters see it, too, and can't help but pass along certain disparaging reactions to her barrier-breaking journey.

“It's hilarious to me," Balkovec said. "Because it's the American dream."

In the clubhouse? She hasn't seen any of that toxicity there.

Balkovec was introduced Wednesday as manager of the New York Yankees' Low A affiliate in the Florida State League. In taking over the Tampa Tarpons, Balkovec will become the first female manager in the history of affiliated baseball, an appointment 10 years in the making for the former college softball player.

“If you know my story and you have a pulse, I think it’s pretty hard not to get behind what’s going on here," she said.

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