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Summer setback: COVID deaths and cases rising again globally

COVID-19 deaths and cases are on the rise again globally in a dispiriting setback that is triggering another round of restrictions and dampening hopes for an almost normal summer of fun.

The World Health Organization reported Wednesday that deaths climbed last week after nine straight weeks of decline. It recorded more than 55,000 lives lost, a 3 percent increase from the week before.

Cases rose 10 percent last week to nearly 3 million, with the highest numbers recorded in Brazil, India, Indonesia and Britain, WHO said.

The reversal has been attributed to low vaccination rates, the relaxation of mask rules and other precautions, and the swift spread of the more-contagious delta variant, which WHO said has now been identified in 111 countries and is expected to become globally dominant in the coming months.

Sarah McCool, a professor of public health at Georgia State University, said the combination amounts to a "recipe for a potential tinderbox."

WASHINGTON

Biden pitches huge budget, says Dems will 'get a lot done'

President Joe Biden made a quick foray to the Capitol Wednesday hunting support for his multitrillion-dollar agenda of infrastructure, health care and other programs, a potential landmark achievement that would require near-unanimous backing from fractious Democrats.

His visit came a day after Senate Democratic leaders capped weeks of bargaining by agreeing to spend a mammoth $3.5 trillion over the coming decade on initiatives focusing on climate change, education, a Medicare expansion and more. That's on top of a separate $1 trillion bipartisan compromise on roads, water systems and other infrastructure projects that senators from both parties are negotiating, with Biden's support.

The president spent just under an hour at a closed-door lunch with Democratic senators in the building where he served for 36 years as a Delaware senator and where his party controls the House and Senate, though just barely. Participants said Biden paced the room with a microphone taking questions and received several standing ovations.

"It is great to be home," Biden told reporters after his first working meeting at the Capitol with lawmakers since becoming president. "It is great to be with my colleagues, and I think we are going to get a lot done."

Democrats' accord on their overall $3.5 trillion figure was a major step for a party whose rival moderate and progressive factions have competing visions of how costly and bold the final package should be. Many agree that bolstering lower-earning and middle-class families, and raising taxes on wealthy people and big corporations to help pay for it, would nurture long-term economic growth and pay political dividends in next year's elections for control of Congress.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.

911 recordings show panic, disbelief when Florida condo fell

Recordings of 911 calls after an oceanfront Florida condominium building collapsed in the middle of the night show disbelief, panic and confusion as people tried to comprehend the disaster.

"Oh my God! The whole building collapsed!" said one caller told a dispatcher at the Miami-Dade Police Department, which released the recordings Wednesday from the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. The names of the callers were not released.

"We've gotta get out. Hurry up, hurry up. There's a big explosion," a second caller said. "There's a lot of smoke. I can't see anything. We gotta go. I can't see nothing but smoke."

At least 96 people died in the collapse, and a handful of others are still missing. A cause has not yet been pinpointed, although there were several previous warnings of major structural damage at the 40-year-old building.

One 911 caller, a woman, said she saw what appeared to be a large depression near the swimming pool, which had concrete problems that investigators are looking into as they try to identify a cause.

WASHINGTON

Watchdog: FBI mishandled Nassar-USA Gymnastics abuse case

The FBI made "fundamental" errors in investigating sexual abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar and did not treat the case with the "utmost seriousness," the Justice Department's inspector general said Wednesday. More athletes said they were molested before the the FBI swung into action.

The FBI acknowledged conduct that was "inexcusable and a discredit" to America's premier law enforcement agency and all.

The long-awaited watchdog report raises troubling questions about how the department and the FBI handled the case and it highlights major missteps at the FBI between the time the allegations were first reported and Nassar's arrest.

The inspector general's investigation was spurred by allegations that the FBI failed to promptly address complaints made in 2015 against Nassar. USA Gymnastics had conducted its own internal investigation and then the organization's then-president, Stephen Penny, reported the allegations to the FBI's field office in Indianapolis. But it took months before the bureau opened a formal investigation.

At least 40 girls and women said they were molested over a 14-month period while the FBI was aware of other sexual abuse allegations involving Nassar. Officials at USA Gymnastics also contacted FBI officials in Los Angeles in May 2016 after eight months of inactivity from agents in Indianapolis.

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JOHANNESBURG

'I was in tears': South Africans take stand against rioting

Surveying the uneasy standoff between South African soldiers and huddles of young men faced off Wednesday across the rubble-strewn street in front of Soweto's Maponya mall, Katlego Motati shook her head sadly.

"I'm standing here against vandals and hooligans," the 32-year-old said of the weeklong unrest and looting sparked by the imprisonment of ex-President Jacob Zuma, which has left at least 72 people dead.

She was one of scores of residents who came out to stand against the rioting that has rocked poor areas of South Africa.

"When I saw the destruction ... I was in tears, seeing how all this has panned out," Motati said. "At the end of the day, we will be struggling because of this. Our economy is going to be really damaged."

South African police and the army grappled to bring order Wednesday to impoverished areas in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu-Natal provinces that have been hit by rioting and theft sparked by Zuma's imprisonment last week.

WASHINGTON

US to begin evacuating Afghans who aided American military

The Biden administration said Wednesday that it is prepared to begin evacuation flights for Afghan interpreters and translators who aided the U.S. military effort in the nearly 20-year war.

The Operation Allies Refuge flights out of Afghanistan during the last week of July will be available first for special immigrant visa applicants already in the process of applying for U.S. residency, according to the White House.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to detail how many Afghans are expected to be among those evacuated in the first flights or where those evacuated will be taken, citing security concerns.

"The reason that we are taking these steps is because these are courageous individuals," Psaki said. "We want to make sure we recognize and value the role they've played over the last several years."

Confirmation on the timeline of the evacuation flights came as President Joe Biden was to meet Wednesday with Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, who earlier this week stepped down as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Psaki said Biden wanted to personally thank Miller for conducting an "orderly and safe" drawdown of U.S. troops.

RIO DE JANEIRO

After bad hiccups, Bolsonaro may need intestinal surgery

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has suffered from a 10-day bout of unshakable hiccups, was admitted Wednesday to a hospital where he was being evaluated for possible emergency surgery to clear an intestinal obstruction, his office said.

Bolsonaro, 66, was admitted to the Armed Forces Hospital in Brasilia early in the morning and was "feeling well," according to an initial statement that said doctors were examining his persistent hiccups.

But hours later, the president's office said Dr. Antonio Luiz Macedo, the surgeon who operated on Bolsonaro after he was stabbed in the abdomen during the 2018 presidential campaign, decided to transfer him to Sao Paulo, where he will undergo additional tests to evaluate the need for an emergency surgery.

Bolsonaro posted on his official Twitter account a photo of himself lying on a hospital bed, eyes closed, several monitoring sensors stuck to his bare torso.

The 2018 stabbing caused intestinal damage and serious internal bleeding and the president has gone through several surgeries since, some unrelated to the attack.

Device taps brain waves to help paralyzed man communicate

In a medical first, researchers harnessed the brain waves of a paralyzed man unable to speak — and turned what he intended to say into sentences on a computer screen.

It will take years of additional research but the study, reported Wednesday, marks an important step toward one day restoring more natural communication for people who can't talk because of injury or illness.

"Most of us take for granted how easily we communicate through speech," said Dr. Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the work. "It's exciting to think we're at the very beginning of a new chapter, a new field" to ease the devastation of patients who lost that ability.

Today, people who can't speak or write because of paralysis have very limited ways of communicating. For example, the man in the experiment, who was not identified to protect his privacy, uses a pointer attached to a baseball cap that lets him move his head to touch words or letters on a screen. Other devices can pick up patients' eye movements. But it's a frustratingly slow and limited substitution for speech.

Tapping brain signals to work around a disability is a hot field. In recent years, experiments with mind-controlled prosthetics have allowed paralyzed people to shake hands or take a drink using a robotic arm -- they imagine moving and those brain signals are relayed through a computer to the artificial limb.

-- The Associated Press