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Biden signs burst of virus orders, vows ‘Help is on the way’

WASHINGTON (AP) — With a burst of executive orders, President Joe Biden served notice Thursday that America’s war on COVID-19 is under new command, promising an anxious nation progress to reduce infections and lift the siege it has endured for nearly a year.

At the same time, he tried to manage expectations in his second day in office, saying despite the best intentions “we’re going to face setbacks.” He brushed off a reporter’s question on whether his goal of 100 million coronavirus shots in 100 days should be more ambitious, a point pressed by some public health experts.

The 10 orders signed by Biden are aimed at jump starting his national COVID-19 strategy to increase vaccinations and testing, lay the groundwork for reopening schools and businesses, and immediately increase the use of masks — including a requirement that Americans mask up for travel. One directive calls for addressing health care inequities in minority communities hard hit by the virus.

“We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and it will take months to turn this around,” Biden said at the White House. U.S. deaths have have surged past 400,000, and he noted projections that they could reach 500,000 in a month.

But then, looking directly into the TV camera, Biden declared: “To a nation waiting for action, let me be clear on this point: Help is on the way.”

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Health experts blame rapid expansion for vaccine shortages

Public health experts Thursday blamed COVID-19 vaccine shortages around the U.S. in part on the Trump administration’s push to get states to vastly expand their vaccination drives to reach the nation’s estimated 54 million people age 65 and over.

The push that began over a week ago has not been accompanied by enough doses to meet demand, according to state and local officials, leading to frustration and confusion and limiting states’ ability to attack the outbreak that has killed over 400,000 Americans.

Over the past few days, authorities in California, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida and Hawaii warned that their supplies were running out. New York City began canceling or postponing shots or stopped making new appointments because of the shortages, which President Joe Biden has vowed to turn around. Florida’s top health official said the state would deal with the scarcity by restricting vaccines to state residents.

The vaccine rollout so far has been “a major disappointment,” said Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

Problems started with the Trump administration’s “fatal mistake” of not ordering enough vaccine, which was then snapped up by other countries, Topol said. Then, opening the line to senior citizens set people up for disappointment because there wasn’t enough vaccine, he said. The Trump administration also left crucial planning to the states and didn’t provide the necessary funding.

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Fauci unleashed: Doc takes ‘liberating’ turn at center stage

WASHINGTON (AP) — Dr. Anthony Fauci is back.

In truth, the nation’s leading infectious-diseases expert never really went away. But after enduring nearly a year of darts and undermining comments from former President Donald Trump, Fauci now speaks with the authority of the White House again.

He called it “liberating” Thursday to be backed by a science-friendly administration that has embraced his recommendations to battle COVID-19.

“One of the new things in this administration is, If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess,” Fauci said in one pointed observation during a White House briefing. “Just say you don’t know the answer.”

Fauci’s highly visible schedule on Thursday, the first full day of President Joe Biden’s term, underscored the new administration’s confidence in the doctor but also the urgency of the moment.

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Biden halts border wall building after Trump’s final surge

SAN DIEGO (AP) — In the days before Joe Biden became president, construction crews worked quickly to finish Donald Trump’s wall at an iconic cross-border park overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which then-first lady Pat Nixon inaugurated in 1971 as a symbol of international friendship.

Biden on Wednesday ordered a “pause” on all wall construction within a week, one of 17 executive orders issued on his first day in office, including six dealing with immigration.

The order leaves billions of dollars of work unfinished — but still under contract — after Trump worked feverishly last year to build more than 450 miles (720 kilometers), a goal he said he achieved eight days before leaving office.

As of Jan. 15, the government spent $6.1 billion of the $10.8 billion in work it signed contracts to have done, according to a Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of the contracts who spoke on condition of anonymity because details have not been made public. The full amount under contract would have extended Trump’s wall to 664 miles (1,069 kilometers).

Biden, seeking to fulfill a pledge not to build “another foot,” gave his administration two months to determine how much it would cost to cancel contracts and whether money could be spent elsewhere. The Senate aide said fees would be negotiated with contractors and the administration would seek to spend whatever’s left on related uses on the border, such as roads, lights, sensors and other technology.

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McConnell seeks to push Trump impeachment trial to February

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is proposing to push back the start of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to February to give the former president time to prepare and review his case.

House Democrats who voted to impeach Trump last week for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot have signaled they want to move quickly to trial as President Joe Biden begins his term, saying a full reckoning is necessary before the country — and the Congress — can move on.

But McConnell in a statement Thursday evening suggested a more expansive timeline that would see the House transmit the article of impeachment next week, on Jan. 28, launching the trial’s first phase. After that, the Senate would give the president’s defense team and House prosecutors two weeks to file briefs. Arguments in the trial would likely begin in mid-February.

“Senate Republicans are strongly united behind the principle that the institution of the Senate, the office of the presidency, and former President Trump himself all deserve a full and fair process that respects his rights and the serious factual, legal, and constitutional questions at stake,” especially given the unprecedented speed of the House process, McConnell said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is reviewing the plan and will discuss it with McConnell, a spokesperson said. The two leaders are also negotiating how the new 50-50 Senate will work and how they will balance other priorities.

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Amid cancellation talk, Tokyo Olympics `focused on hosting’

TOKYO (AP) — IOC President Thomas Bach and local organizers are pushing back against reports that the postponed Tokyo Olympics will be canceled.

Now set to open July 23, the Tokyo Games were postponed 10 months ago at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and now the event appears threatened again.

The Times of London, citing unidentified government sources, reported that the games will have to be canceled. It quoted an unidentified senior member of the ruling government coalition.

“No one wants to be the first to say so but the consensus is that it’s too difficult,” the source said. “Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

In a statement Friday, the local organizing committee did not address directly The Times story, but said the Olympics were going forward and had the support of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

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Time, transparency needed as Biden inherits frazzled census

Battered by criticism that the 2020 census was dangerously politicized by the Trump administration, the U.S. Census Bureau under a new Biden administration has the tall task of restoring confidence in the numbers that will be used to determine funding and political power.

Picking up the pieces of a long, fractious process that spooled out during a global pandemic starts with transparency about irregularities in the data, former Census Bureau directors, lawmakers and advocates said.

They advised the new administration to take more time to review and process population figures to be sure they get them right. The high-stakes undertaking will determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets as well as the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year.

“We are optimistic that things at the Census Bureau will be better. The question is whether the damage caused by the Trump administration can be rectified,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. Morial’s organization, along with other advocacy groups and municipalities, sued former President Donald Trump’s administration last year over a decision to end the once-a-decade head count early.

According to critics, that damage includes a failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire and a Trump order to figure out who is a citizen and who is in the U.S. illegally. They say another Trump directive to exclude people in the country illegally from the apportionment of congressional seats, shortened schedules to collect and process data, and four political appointments to top positions inside the bureau also threatened the count’s integrity.

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Chicago teachers begin vote to defy order to return to class

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago teachers began voting Thursday to defy orders to report for in-person class next week ahead of elementary students’ return, actions the nation’s third-largest school district said could lead to “an illegal strike.”

The Chicago Teachers Union fiercely opposes Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans over safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. The roughly 355,000-student district, which went online in March 2020, has gradually welcomed students back. Thousands of pre-kindergarten and special education students chose in-person learning this month. Teachers who didn’t show were punished.

Roughly 10,000 educators in kindergarten through eighth grade are expected to report for duty next week, but the union’s House of Delegates approved a resolution late Wednesday to skip classroom teaching and continue remotely. Students in kindergarten to eighth grade have the option to return two days a week starting Feb. 1. No return date has been set for high school students.

Both sides have been negotiating for months with the union, saying the district hasn’t gone far enough in its safety plan and is putting educators at unnecessary risk. CPS officials say, among other things, it has placed thousands of air purifiers in classrooms and required masks. The district also cites a city study on private schools, which have largely remained open.

“We are only moving forward with our reopening plan because public health experts have made it clear that bringing students back is both safe and necessary, and we are fully committed to providing you the safe working environment you deserve,” the district said in a letter to staff Thursday, adding that teachers would be expected to return to work unless they had an approved reason. “A collective failure to do so constitutes an illegal strike.”

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Democrats ask ethics panel to investigate Sens. Cruz, Hawley

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seven Democratic senators on Thursday asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the actions of Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley “to fully understand their role” in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Thousands had gathered that day as Congress voted to formally certify President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in November. Hawley and Cruz led objections in the Senate to Biden’s victory, despite the widespread recognition that the effort would fail.

In the end, Congress certified Biden’s Electoral College victory, but not before thousands marched to the Capitol at Trump’s urging, overwhelmed security and interrupted the proceedings. In the end, the violence led to five deaths, injured dozens of police officers and caused extensive damage to the Capitol.

The Democratic senators said the question for the Senate to determine is not whether Cruz and Hawley had the right to object, but whether the senators failed to put loyalty “to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or Government department.” They also said the investigation should determine whether Cruz, of Texas, and Hawley, of Missouri, engaged in “improper conduct reflecting on the Senate.”

“Until then, a cloud of uncertainty will hang over them and over this body,” the Democratic senators wrote in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Ethics Committee.

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Judge says Amazon won’t have to restore Parler web service

Amazon won’t be forced to immediately restore web service to Parler after a federal judge ruled Thursday against a plea to reinstate the fast-growing social media app, which is favored by followers of former President Donald Trump.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle said she wasn’t dismissing Parler’s “substantive underlying claims” against Amazon, but said it had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction forcing it back online.

Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service on Jan. 11. In court filings, it said the suspension was a “last resort” to block Parler from harboring violent plans to disrupt the presidential transition.

The Seattle tech giant said Parler had shown an “unwillingness and inability” to remove a slew of dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others.

The social media app, a magnet for the far right, sued to get back online, arguing that Amazon Web Services had breached its contract and abused its market power. It said Trump was likely on the brink of joining the platform, following a wave of his followers who flocked to the app after Twitter and Facebook expelled Trump after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.