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US faces wave of omicron deaths in coming weeks, models say

The fast-moving omicron variant may cause less severe disease on average, but COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are climbing and modelers forecast 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die by the time the wave subsides in mid-March.

The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 on Jan. 17 — still below the peak of 3,300 in January 2021. COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents started rising slightly two weeks ago, although still at a rate 10 times less than last year before most residents were vaccinated.

Despite signs omicron causes milder disease on average, the unprecedented level of infection spreading through the country, with cases still soaring in many states, means many vulnerable people will become severely sick. If the higher end of projections comes to pass, that would push total U.S. deaths from COVID-19 over 1 million by early spring.

“A lot of people are still going to die because of how transmissible omicron has been,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “It unfortunately is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Morgues are starting to run out of space in Johnson County, Kansas, said Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the health department. More than 30 residents have died in the county this year, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.

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Russia moves more troops westward amid Ukraine tensions

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is a sending an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to Belarus for major war games, officials said Tuesday, a deployment that will further beef up Russian military presence near Ukraine amid Western fears of a planned invasion.

Amid the soaring tensions, the White House warned that Russia could attack its neighbor at “any point,” while the U.K. delivered a batch of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the joint drills with Belarus would involve practicing a joint response to external threats.

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine from several directions, including from its ally Belarus.

The U.S. again stressed its concern Tuesday, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki describing the Russian forces’ move into Belarus as part of as “extremely dangerous situation.”

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Rudy Giuliani among Trump allies subpoenaed by Jan. 6 panel

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House committee investigating the U.S. Capitol insurrection issued subpoenas Tuesday to Rudy Giuliani and other members of Donald Trump’s legal team who filed bogus legal challenges to the 2020 election that fueled the lie that race had been stolen from the former president.

The committee is continuing to widen its scope into Trump’s orbit, this time demanding information and testimony from Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell and Boris Epshteyn. All four publicly pushed Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims in the months after the election.

“The four individuals we’ve subpoenaed today advanced unsupported theories about election fraud, pushed efforts to overturn the election results, or were in direct contact with the former President about attempts to stop the counting of electoral votes,” Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democratic chairman of the panel, said in a statement.

Epshteyn in a tweet called the committee illegitimate and its efforts part of a “witch hunt” against Trump and his supporters. The others who were subpoenaed did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Trump’s legal team sought to overturn the election results in the battleground states by filing lawsuits alleging widespread irregularities with ballots and claims by partisan poll watchers who said they couldn’t see everything going on, in part because of precautions taken as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 50 lawsuits were filed, mostly in battleground states.

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Big voting bill faces defeat as 2 Dems won’t stop filibuster

WASHINGTON (AP) — Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders say is vital for protecting democracy appeared headed for defeat as the Senate churned into debate Tuesday, a devastating setback enabled by President Joe Biden’s own party as two holdout senators refuse to support rule changes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

The Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, faced strong criticism from Black leaders and civil rights organizations for failing to take on what critics call the “ Jim Crow filibuster.”

The debate carries echoes of an earlier era when the Senate filibuster was deployed in lengthy speeches by opponents of civil rights legislation. It comes as Democrats and other voting advocates nationwide warn that Republican-led states are passing laws making it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged the current bill’s likely defeat this week. But he said the fight is not over as he heeds advocates’ call to force all senators to go on record with their positions.

“We ain’t giving up,” Schumer said after an evening strategy meeting. “It is a fight for the soul and the future of America.”

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White House: Texas hostage-taker had raised no red flags

DALLAS (AP) — The gunman who took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue in a 10-hour standoff that ended in his death was checked against law enforcement databases before entering the U.S. but raised no red flags, the White House said Tuesday.

Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, arrived in the U.S. at Kennedy Airport in New York on a tourist visa about two weeks ago, officials said. He spent time in Dallas-area homeless shelters before the attack Saturday in the suburb of Colleyville.

Akram was not believed to be included in the Terrorist Screening Database, a listing of known or suspected terrorists maintained by the FBI and shared with a variety of federal agencies, two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press. Had he been included, it would have been extremely difficult for him to get into the country.

“Our understanding, and obviously we’re still looking into this, is that he was checked against U.S. government databases multiple times prior to entering the country, and the U.S. government did not have any derogatory information about the individual in our systems at the time of entry,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

She added: “We’re certainly looking back … what occurred to learn every possible lesson we can to prevent attacks like this in the future.”

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Fishermen protest after eruption causes oil spill in Peru

LIMA, Peru (AP) — An oil spill on the Peruvian coast caused by the waves from an eruption of an undersea volcano in the South Pacific nation of Tonga prompted dozens of fishermen to protest Tuesday outside the South American country’s main oil refinery.

The men gathered outside the refinery in the province of Callao near Lima’s capital. Peru’s environment minister, Rubén Ramírez, told reporters that authorities estimate 6,000 barrels of oil were spilled in the area rich in marine biodiversity.

Under the eyes of police, the fishermen carried a large Peruvian flag, fishing nets and signs that read “no to ecological crime,” “economically affected families” and “Repsol killer of marine fauna,” which referred to the Spain-based company that manages La Pampilla refinery, which processes around 117,000 oil barrels a day, according its website. They demanded to speak with company representatives, but no executive had approached them.

The company did not immediately returned an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

“There is a massacre of all the hydrobiological biodiversity,” said Roberto Espinoza, leader of the local fishermen. “In the midst of a pandemic, having the sea that feeds us, for not having a contingency plan, they have just destroyed a base of biodiversity.”

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EXPLAINER: Why is filibuster such a barrier to voting bill?

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the fifth time in recent months, Senate Republicans are expected to block Democrats’ sweeping voting legislation this week using a longstanding delaying tactic that can stop a bill in its tracks.

Democrats lament — this time — that Senate rules give outsize power to the chamber’s minority. Yet they are hardly alone in their complaints about the tactic, known as the filibuster, which has been used since the 1800s to block legislation.

Here’s a look at the filibuster, what it does and how it works.

WHAT’S A FILIBUSTER?

Unlike the House, the Senate places few constraints on lawmakers’ right to speak. But senators can use the chamber’s rules to hinder or block votes.

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White House soft-launches COVID-19 test request website

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Tuesday quietly launched its website for Americans to request free at-home COVID-19 tests, a day before the site was scheduled to officially go online.

The website, COVIDTests.gov, now includes a link for “every home in the U.S.” to access an order form run by the U.S. Postal Service. People can order four at-home tests per residential address, to be delivered by the Postal Service. It marks the latest step by President Joe Biden to address criticism of low inventory and long lines for testing during a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the website was in “beta testing” and operating at a “limited capacity” ahead of its official launch. The website will officially launch midmorning Wednesday, Psaki said.

There were isolated reports Tuesday afternoon of problems relating to the website’s address verification tool erroneously enforcing the four-per-household cap on apartment buildings and other multi-unit dwellings. A spokesperson for the Postal Service said in a statement that the error was “occurring in a small percentage of orders.” He said any user needing assistance could file a service request at emailus.usps.com/s/the-postal-store-inquiry or contact a help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.

At points Tuesday more than 750,000 people were accessing the website at the same time, according to public government tracking data, but it was not immediately known how many orders were placed.

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NTSB chief to fed agency: Stop using misleading statistics

WASHINGTON (AP) — With traffic fatalities spiking higher, the nation’s top safety investigator says a widely cited government statistic that 94% of serious crashes are solely due to driver error is misleading and that the Transportation Department should stop using it.

Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she’s surprised the wording remains on the department’s website even as the Biden administration pledges to embark on a broader strategy to stave off crashes through better road design, auto safety features and other measures.

Auto safety advocates have been calling on the department for years to stop using the statistic, including requests by Homendy in recent months as well as a letter from auto safety groups to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last month. They call the figure an unacceptable “excuse” for surging crashes. In a section touting the safety potential of automated vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website states “94% of serious crashes are due to human error.”

“That has to change,” Homendy said of NHTSA’s continuing use of the statistic. “It’s dangerous.”

She said the public should be enraged that nearly 40,000 people are dying annually in traffic accidents and millions are injured, but rather sees it as “just a risk people take.”

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Microsoft buys game maker Activision Blizzard for about $70B

Microsoft is paying the enormous sum of nearly $70 billion for Activision Blizzard, the maker of Candy Crush and Call of Duty, a deal that would immediately make it a larger video-game company than Nintendo while raising questions about the deal’s possible anti-competitive effects.

The all-cash $68.7 billion deal will turn Microsoft, maker of the Xbox gaming system, into one of the world’s largest video game companies. It will also help it compete with tech rivals such as Meta, formerly Facebook, in creating immersive virtual worlds for both work and play.

If the deal survives scrutiny from U.S. and European regulators in the coming months, it could be one of the biggest tech acquisitions in history. Dell bought data-storage company EMC in 2016 for around $60 billion.

Activision has been buffeted for months by allegations of misconduct and unequal pay. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella addressed the issue Tuesday in a conference call with investors.

“The culture of our organization is my No. 1 priority,” Nadella said, adding that ”it’s critical for Activision Blizzard to drive forward” on its commitments to improve its workplace culture.