Health officials let COVID-infected staff stay on the job

Health authorities around the U.S. are increasingly taking the extraordinary step of allowing nurses and other workers infected with the coronavirus to stay on the job if they have mild symptoms or none at all.

The move is a reaction to the severe hospital staffing shortages and crushing caseloads that the omicron variant is causing.

California health authorities announced over the weekend that hospital staff members who test positive but are symptom-free can continue working. Some hospitals in Rhode Island and Arizona have likewise told employees they can stay on the job if they have no symptoms or just mild ones.

The highly contagious omicron variant has sent new cases of COVID-19 exploding to over 700,000 a day in the U.S. on average, obliterating the record set a year ago. The number of Americans in the hospital with the virus is running at about 110,000, just short of the peak of 124,000 last January.

Many hospitals are not only swamped with cases but severely shorthanded because of so many employees out with COVID-19.


Safety doors failed in NYC high-rise fire that killed 17

NEW YORK (AP) — Investigators sought answers Monday for why safety doors failed to close when fire broke out in a New York high-rise, allowing thick smoke to rise through the tower and kill 17 people, including eight children, in the city's deadliest blaze in more than three decades.

A malfunctioning electric space heater apparently started the fire Sunday in the 19-story building in the Bronx, fire officials said. The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke poured through the apartment’s open door and turned stairwells into dark, ash-choked death traps. The stairs were the only method of escape in a tower too tall for fire escapes.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing and blunted the spread of smoke, but the doors stayed fully open. It was not clear if the doors failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled. Nigro said the apartment door was not obstructed.

The heavy smoke blocked some residents from escaping and incapacitated others as they tried to flee, fire officials said. Firefighters carried out limp children and gave them oxygen and continued making rescues even after their air supplies ran out.

Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at John Jay College in New York City, said closed doors are vital to containing fire and smoke, especially in buildings that do not have automatic sprinkler systems.


Robert Durst, real estate tycoon convicted of murder, dies

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Durst, the wealthy New York real estate heir and failed fugitive dogged for decades with suspicion in the disappearance and deaths of those around him before he was convicted last year of killing his best friend, has died. He was 78.

Durst died of natural causes Monday in a hospital outside the California prison where he was serving a life sentence, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Durst had been held in a hospital lockup in Stockton due to a litany of ailments.

Durst was convicted in September of shooting Susan Berman at point-blank range at her Los Angeles home in 2000. He was sentenced Oct. 14 to life in prison without parole.

Durst had long been suspected of killing his wife, Kathie, who went missing in New York 1982 and was declared legally dead decades later.

But only after Los Angeles prosecutors proved he silenced Berman to prevent her from telling police she helped cover up Kathie’s killing was Durst indicted by a New York grand jury in November for second-degree murder in his wife's death.


Invoking Jan. 6, Dems pivot to fight for voting legislation

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats are mounting an impassioned bid to overhaul Senate rules that stand in the way of their sweeping voting legislation, arguing dark forces unleashed by Donald Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election demand an extraordinary response.

In fiery speeches and interviews, President Joe Biden and top congressional Democrats have seized on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection as a reason to advance their long-stalled voting, ethics and elections package. Senate Republicans, who have repeatedly blocked the legislation, excoriate the measures as a “partisan power grab” and warn that any rule changes will haunt Democrats someday under a GOP majority.

Trump’s false claims of a stolen election not only incited the mob that stormed the Capitol. His unrelenting campaign of disinformation also sparked a GOP effort to pass new state laws that have made it more difficult to vote, while in some cases rendering the administration of elections more susceptible to political influence.

Many Democrats say the moment has come to act decisively in what they view as the civil rights fight of the era. Changing Senate rules early in 2022 offers perhaps the last best chance to counteract Republicans' state-level push before the midterm elections, when Democrats' House majority and slim hold in the 50-50 Senate could be wiped out.

“If Republicans ... continue to hijack the rules of the Senate to turn this chamber into a deep freezer, we are going to consider the appropriate steps necessary,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday, calling the Republican line of argument “gaslighting, pure and simple.”


In 1st, US surgeons transplant pig heart into human patient

In a medical first, doctors transplanted a pig heart into a patient in a last-ditch effort to save his life and a Maryland hospital said Monday that he's doing well three days after the highly experimental surgery.

While it’s too soon to know if the operation really will work, it marks a step in the decades-long quest to one day use animal organs for life-saving transplants. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center say the transplant showed that a heart from a genetically modified animal can function in the human body without immediate rejection.

The patient, David Bennett, a 57-year-old Maryland handyman, knew there was no guarantee the experiment would work but he was dying, ineligible for a human heart transplant and had no other option, his son told The Associated Press.

“It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” Bennett said a day before the surgery, according to a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

On Monday, Bennett was breathing on his own while still connected to a heart-lung machine to help his new heart. The next few weeks will be critical as Bennett recovers from the surgery and doctors carefully monitor how his heart is faring.


GOP steps up bid to persuade Hogan to run for Senate in Md.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans are stepping up a personal campaign to persuade Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to run for the Senate and help the party's chances of regaining control of the chamber.

The recruitment effort has included McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, who held Cabinet positions in the Trump and George W. Bush administrations. Moderate Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine, have also been in direct contact with Hogan to note that his centrist brand of politics would be welcome in a chamber riven with partisanship. Several other Washington officials have made financial pledges or shared internal polling to try to convince Hogan that he has a path to victory.

President Joe Biden carried Maryland by 32 percentage points in 2020 and a Republican hasn't won a statewide federal office in more than 30 years. Hogan, who is prevented by term limits from running for reelection, has long resisted the idea of challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Chris Van Hollen. One of the GOP's most prominent critics of former President Donald Trump, Hogan has toyed with mounting a presidential campaign in 2024.

Still, his willingness to recently engage with high-profile recruiters suggests Hogan has not ruled out a Senate run. If he were to enter the Senate race instead, it would force Democrats to devote money and other resources in a longtime blue state at a time when they're already bracing for a difficult campaign season across the country.

Hogan maintained on Monday that he remains focused on his work as governor.


N. Korea fires possible missile into sea amid stalled talks

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Tuesday fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile into its eastern sea, its second weapons launch in a week, the militaries of South Korea and Japan said.

This month’s launches follow a series of weapons tests in 2021 that underscored how North Korea continues to expand its military capabilities during a self-imposed pandemic lockdown and deadlocked nuclear talks with the United States.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea likely fired a single ballistic missile from an inland area to its eastern sea, and that the South Korean and U.S. militaries were analyzing the launch. It didn’t immediately say how far the weapon flew.

Japan’s Prime Minister’s Office and Defense Ministry also said the weapon was possibly a ballistic missile, but officials didn’t immediately provide more details.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said officials were checking the safety of ships and aircraft around Japan, but there were no immediate reports of disruptions or damage.


Deadly extreme weather year for US as carbon emissions soar

The United States staggered through a steady onslaught of deadly billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in an extra hot 2021, while the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions last year jumped 6% because of surges in coal and long-haul trucking, putting America further behind its 2030 climate change cutting goal.

Three different reports released Monday, though not directly connected, paint a picture of a U.S. in 2021 struggling with global warming and its efforts to curb it.

A report from the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, on Monday said that in 2021 America’s emissions of heat-trapping gas rebounded from the first year of the pandemic at a faster rate than the economy as a whole, making it harder to reach the country’s pledge to the world to cut emissions in half compared to 2005 by 2030. And last year was the deadliest weather year for the contiguous United States since 2011 with 688 people dying in 20 different billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that combined cost at least $145 billion, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday.

That was the second highest number of billion-dollar weather disasters — which are adjusted for inflation with records going back to 1980— and third costliest.

“It was a tough year. Climate change has taken a shotgun approach to hazards across the country," said NOAA climatologist and economist Adam Smith, who compiles billion-dollar weather disasters for NOAA.


The Latest: Georgia takes its 1st lead with game's 1st TD

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Latest on the College Football Playoff championship game (all times local):

10:50 p.m.

Georgia took its first lead of the national championship game with the first touchdown by either team.

A 67-year-old run by James Cook set up Zamir White's 1-yard score that put the Bulldogs ahead of Alabama 13-9 with 1:20 left in the third quarter.

Before White found the end zone, the Southeastern Conference rivals had combined for five field goals.


14-year-old girl shot by police remembered at LA funeral

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A 14-year-old girl who was killed when a Los Angeles police officer fired at a suspect at a clothing store and the bullet pierced a wall was remembered Monday as a happy teen with many friends who loved sports, adored animals and excelled in school.

The body of Valentina Orellana-Peralta was displayed in a pink dress inside a flower-draped casket next to large photos of the girl during a funeral at City of Refuge, United Church of Christ in Gardena, near Los Angeles.

The teen’s father, Juan Pablo Orellana Larenas, said he and her mother will never get over the devastation of losing Valentina so violently.

“As parents, we ask ourselves, is it just for our daughter to die in this way? It’s an answer we will never have,” he said.

Orellana-Peralta died in the arms of her mother, Soledad Peralta, Dec. 23 at a Burlington store in the San Fernando Valley’s North Hollywood neighborhood. Police officers shot and killed a suspect who was behaving erratically and brutally attacked two women.

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