FRI: The flu is soaring in seven US states and rising in others, health officials say, + More
The flu is soaring in seven US states and rising in others, health officials say- Associated Press
The U.S. flu season is underway, with at least seven states reporting high levels of illnesses and cases rising in other parts of the country, health officials say.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted new flu data on Friday, showing very high activity last week in Louisiana, and high activity in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and South Carolina. It was also high in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory where health officials declared an influenza epidemic earlier this month.
"We're off to the races," said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert
Traditionally, the winter flu season ramps up in December or January. But it took off in October last year, and is making a November entrance this year.
Flu activity was moderate but rising in New York City, Arkansas, California, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. And while flu activity has been high in Alaska for weeks, the state did not report data last week, so it wasn't part of the latest count.
Tracking during flu season relies in part on reports of people with flu-like symptoms who go to doctor's offices or hospitals; many people with the flu are not tested, so their infections aren't lab-confirmed. COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses can sometimes muddy the picture.
Alicia Budd, who leads the CDC's flu surveillance team, said several indicators are showing "continued increases" in flu.
There are different kinds of flu viruses, and the version that's been spreading the most so far this year usually leads to a lesser amount of hospitalizations and deaths in the elderly — the group on whom flu tends to take the largest toll.
So far this fall, the CDC estimates at least 780,000 flu illnesses, at least 8,000 hospitalizations and at least 490 flu-related deaths — including at least one child.
Budd said that it's not yet clear exactly how effective the current flu vaccines are, but the shots are well-matched to the flu strains that are showing up. In the U.S., about 35% of U.S. adults and 33% of children have been vaccinated against flu, current CDC data indicates. That's down compared to last year in both categories.
Flu vaccination rates are better than rates for the other two main respiratory viruses — COVID-19 and RSV. About 14% of adults and 5% of children have gotten the currently recommended COVID-19 shot, and about 13.5% of adults 60 and older have gotten one of the RSV shots that became available earlier this year.
What to know about grand jury evidence on actor Alec Baldwin and the 2021 fatal film set shooting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Prosecutors are preparing to present evidence to a grand jury against Alec Baldwin in the fatal 2021 shooting of a cinematographer on the set of a Western movie in New Mexico.
A grand jury did not take up the case Thursday and a decision on whether to revive criminal charges against Baldwin still could be weeks away. It's a secretive process without public access, as prosecutors present evidence and witnesses possibly testify without a cross-examination or immediate vetting by defense counsel.
Baldwin, lead actor and co-producer of "Rust," was pointing a gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a rehearsal on a movie set outside Santa Fe in October 2021 when the gun went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza. Baldwin has said he pulled back the hammer — but not the trigger — and the gun fired.
Special prosecutors initially dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin in April, saying they were informed the gun might have been modified before the shooting and malfunctioned. They later pivoted after receiving a new analysis of the gun and will ask a grand jury to consider recharging Baldwin.
Here are some of the recent developments.
Special prosecutors are not only marshaling evidence against Baldwin for the grand jury to consider, but also actively preparing for a scheduled February 2024 trial against "Rust" movie armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and evidence tampering in the case.
Those preparations for trial include recent subpoenas for documents from producers of "Rust," and any audio and video recordings held by a Los Angeles film production company that might include Baldwin on the set of "Rust" or his comments about the film elsewhere.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor in Southern California and currently president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, says documents or records uncovered in case against Gutierrez-Reed can be repurposed .
"These can absolutely be used against Baldwin," he said.
Several previously unreleased video clips of Baldwin on the set of "Rust," prior to the fatal shooting, emerged Wednesday on NBC News, without indicating who provided the footage. They show Baldwin firing a prop gun outdoors in the desert and voicing concerns about safety.
"You want to go on the other side of the camera? I don't want to shoot toward you," he says in one clip.
Rahmani says he's seen nothing that would shift core arguments by prosecutors against Baldwin.
"I don't see how any of this is new evidence. It isn't," Rahmani said. "Their theory in the case is going to be that Baldwin pulled the trigger, even though he said he didn't. .... You should never point even a gun at another human being and pull the trigger, even if you believe it contains blanks. That's their theory of the case. This video doesn't change any of that."
Experts in ballistics and forensic testing based in Arizona and New Mexico relied on replacement parts to reassemble the gun fired by Baldwin — after parts of the pistol were broken during earlier testing by the FBI. Their report examined the gun and markings it left on a spent cartridge to conclude that the trigger had to have been pulled or depressed.
The analysis led by Lucien Haag of Forensic Science Services in Arizona stated that although Baldwin repeatedly denied pulling the trigger, "given the tests, findings and observations reported here, the trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver."
An earlier FBI report on the agency's analysis of the gun found that, as is common with firearms of that design, it could go off without pulling the trigger if force was applied to an uncocked hammer — such as by dropping the weapon.
The only way the testers could get it to fire was by striking the gun with a mallet while the hammer was down and resting on the cartridge, or by pulling the trigger while it was fully cocked. The gun eventually broke during testing.
A grand jury could weigh whether there is "probable cause" to bring charges against Baldwin as the target of the investigation. To indict him, at least eight jurors out of 12 must endorse a probable cause finding. A case can't be brought twice before a grand jury on the same evidence, so if they don't proceed this time a second grand jury is less likely.
New Mexico-based prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis say additional facts have come to light that they believe show Baldwin has criminal culpability in the death of Hutchins.
Attorneys for Baldwin say a terrible tragedy has turned into this misguided prosecution attempt and that they will answer any charges in court.
In March, David Halls, "Rust" assistant director and safety coordinator, pleaded no contest to unsafe handling of a firearm and received a suspended sentence of six months of probation. He agreed to cooperate in the investigation of the shooting.
This story has been updated to correct the location of a subpoenaed film production company to Los Angeles, not Malibu.
New Mexico ethics panel issues stricter opinion after AG's office high payment to outside lawyers - Associated Press
New Mexico's ethics commission has issued a stricter interpretation of rules governing state contracts in the wake of a report suggesting the attorney general paid outside lawyers excessive fees to negotiate opioid settlements with major pharmacy chains.
The panel's 11-page advisory opinion issued earlier this week deals specifically with contracts entered into on a contingency basis, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Thursday.
It concluded the state procurement code's limits on expenditures apply to contingency contracts for legal services, a departure from the way some state agencies traditionally have contracted for such services.
The opinion doesn't mention any particular contract. But it comes after Legal Newsline reported in June that the New Mexico Attorney General's Office was paying three law firms about $148 million out of a $453 million opioid settlement with Walgreens — three times as much as other states paid their lawyers to settle similar lawsuits.
Legal Newsline, which covers high-profile civil litigation lawsuits around the country, also reported at the time that New Mexico "for unexplained reasons pulled out of a $4.7 billion national settlement with other states under which the contingency fee rate is 12%" — significantly lower than the roughly 33% rate the state paid the three law firms.
Lauren Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Attorney General's Office, said the contingency fee allocated as a part of the recent settlement with Walgreens was paid under an existing contract that contained no limit on fees.
She said it was done before Attorney General Raúl Torrez took office in January. His predecessor was Hector Balderas.
A contingent-fee agreement occurs when a law firm does not bill or expect payment until and unless the contingency is achieved, according to the advisory opinion.
Rodriguez said Torrez's office didn't receive the commission's advisory opinion until Tuesday and still is reviewing it.
She said Torrez already has instituted a new policy that sets strict limits on contingency fee cases. She said his office will follow the practice of other state attorneys general in relying on in-house attorneys as local counsel whenever possible.
"However we recognize that the conclusion reached by the Commission represents a substantial change in how state agencies have historically contracted for legal services and may hinder the state's ability to secure specialized legal representation when a case involves proprietary information or information that would jeopardize impending litigation if publicly revealed through the procurement process," she added.
The New Mexico State Ethics Commission doesn't disclose who requested the opinion.
Jeremy Farris, the commission's executive director, told the New Mexican that the commission was not asked to opine on any particular contract. He said the board was not taking a closer look at the lucrative contracts involving the settlement with Walgreens.
Native American advocates seek clear plan for addressing missing and murdered cases - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Advocates are calling out New Mexico's Democratic governor for disbanding a task force that was charged with crafting recommendations to address the high rate of killings and missing person cases in Native American communities.
The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women said in a statement Thursday that dissolving the panel of experts only helps to perpetuate the cycles of violence and intergenerational trauma that have created what many have deemed as a national crisis.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office argues that the task force fulfilled its directives to study the scope of the problem and make recommendations and that the state remains committed to implementing those recommendations.
The push by the advocates comes just weeks after a national commission delivered its own recommendations to Congress and the U.S. Justice and Interior departments following hearings across the country and promises by the federal government to funnel more resources to tackling violence in Native American communities.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, said earlier this month that lives will be saved because of the commission's work.
"Everyone deserves to feel safe in their community," Haaland said when the recommendations were announced. "Crimes against Indigenous peoples have long been underfunded and ignored, rooted in the deep history of intergenerational trauma that has affected our communities since colonization."
Her agency and the Justice Department are mandated to respond to the recommendations by early next year.
Almost 600 people attended the national commission's seven field hearings, with many giving emotional testimony.
Members of the Not Invisible Commission have said they hope the recommendations are met with urgency.
"With each passing day, more and more American Indian and Alaska Native persons are victimized due to inadequate prevention and response to this crisis," the commission said in its report.
Still, advocates in New Mexico say more work needs to be done to address jurisdictional challenges among law enforcement agencies and to build support for families.
"It's essential to recognize that MMIWR is not a distant issue or statistic; these are real-life stories and struggles faced by Indigenous families today. The impact has forced these families to adjust their way of life, advocate for themselves, deplete their savings, and endure stress-induced physical and mental illnesses," the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women said.
The organization wants state officials to outline a clear plan for advancing New Mexico's response to the problem.
The New Mexico Indian Affairs Department said Thursday it is developing a dedicated web page and is planning regular meetings and other events aimed at bringing together families with tribal partners and local, state and federal officials.
Aaron Lopez, a spokesperson for the agency, said the task force's work remains foundational for the state in determining the best strategies for curbing violence against Native Americans.
The New Mexico Attorney General's Office also has a special agent who has been working with authorities to help recover people on the FBI's list of those verified as missing from the state and the Navajo Nation, which covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. As of October, there were about 190 names on the list.
While budget recommendations are still being hashed out for the next fiscal year, the Indian Affairs Department already is asking for four new full-time staffers who would be dedicated to helping advance the state's response plan.
James Mountain, head of the department, told lawmakers during a recent hearing that the positions are "absolutely needed" to carry forward the state's work given that the agency serves numerous tribal nations and pueblos.
Biden and Mexico's leader will meet in California. Fentanyl, migrants and Cuba are on the agenda - By Colleen Long and Aamer Madhani Associated Press
President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, two strong allies who don't always get along personally, will talk migration, fentanyl trafficking and Cuba relations on Friday.
The two leaders are in San Francisco for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, where Biden has held a series of face-to-face meetings with other leaders, including China's President Xi Jinping and the leaders of Japan and South Korea, as he seeks to reassure the region that the U.S. and China are competitors, not zero-sum rivals.
Biden's relationship with López Obrador is at times tense, in part because of Biden's willingness to criticize Mexico on topics such as fentanyl production and the killing of journalists. And López Obrador isn't afraid to snub the U.S. leader. He skipped a Los Angeles summit last year where leaders tackled the issue of migration because the U.S. didn't invite Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela. He also initially said he would skip this year's APEC conference, but changed his mind.
López Obrador said he would use Friday's meeting with Biden to take up the case for Cuba and would urge his U.S. counterpart to resume a dialogue with the island nation and end U.S. sanctions.
Biden, meanwhile, was expected to bring up migration as the U.S. continues to manage a growing number of southern border crossings. The leaders also are expected to discuss deadly fentanyl trafficking, particularly after Biden secured an agreement with Xi to curb the illicit opioid.
The issues are related. Human smuggling over the border is a part of cartel operations that also include drug trafficking into the U.S.
Mexico and China are the primary sources for synthetic fentanyl trafficked into the U.S. Nearly all the chemicals needed to make it come from China, and the drugs are then mass-produced in Mexico and trafficked via cartels into the U.S.
The powerful opioid is the deadliest drug in the U.S. today. More than 100,000 deaths a year have been linked to drug overdoses since 2020 and about two-thirds of those are related to fentanyl. The death toll is more than 10 times as in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic.
And migration challenges facing the U.S. are growing increasingly intractable. Democratic leaders at the state and local level are begging for federal assistance to help care for migrant families living in squalid shelters and sleeping in police stations. Republicans are loudly critical of Biden's border policies as too lax. And Congress has not passed an immigration overhaul in decades.
Biden asked for $14 billion border security funding from Congress to help manage the issue, but the temporary spending bill passed this week included no funding for the border, Ukraine aid or Israel.
There are rising numbers of migrants at the border. Arrests for illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico line were up 21% to 218,763 in September, and Biden has repeatedly said Congress should act to fix outdated immigration laws. But in the meantime, his administration has developed policies that aim to deter migrants from making a dangerous and often deadly journey while also opening up new legal immigration pathways.
Mexico's support is critical to any push by the U.S. to clamp down at the southern border, particularly as migrants from nations as far away as Haiti are making the trek on foot up through Mexico and are not easily sent back to their home countries.
Earlier this year, Mexico agreed to continue to accept migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua who are turned away at the border, and up to 100,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who have family in the U.S. will be eligible to live and work there.
According to data on asylum-seekers in Mexico, people from Haiti remained at the top with 18,860 so far this year, higher than the total for the whole of 2022.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is accepting 30,000 people per month from the four nations for two years and offering them the ability to work legally, as long as they come legally, have eligible sponsors and pass vetting and background checks.
Guatemala and Colombia will open regional hubs where people can go to make asylum claims in the hope of stopping them from traveling on foot. But Mexico has so far refused to allow the U.S. to set one up.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.