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News brief: omicron variant, pro-Trump counties' COVID rates, Mich. school shooting

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Omicron has now shown up in about one third of U.S. states.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That makes the new variant one factor, though not the only factor, in a sharp increase of COVID cases across this country. The delta variant is more common just now. In total, the U.S. is averaging about 100,000 cases per day. So how do we keep it from growing even worse as the weather grows colder?

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us with the latest. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about how the omicron variant is spreading at this point?

AUBREY: Well, the variant is spreading throughout the U.S., with cases in about 17 states now, including Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington. The New York City area has identified multiple cases. Some are linked to travel in South Africa; some are not. So the state's health commissioner says it appears omicron has begun to spread from person to person within the community. Now, it is not clear, Rachel, if omicron will take over delta. Right now, delta is still circulating widely. On Friday, the CDC reported the highest number of cases since the Thanksgiving holiday. Cases are up about 50% nationwide compared to a month ago, and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky spoke about the situation on ABC yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC BROADCAST)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We have about 90 to 100,000 cases a day right now in the United States. And 99.9% of them are the delta variant. So we have an issue right now in the United States with delta, and we have so many things that we can do about delta, including getting vaccinated, including getting boosted.

AUBREY: So her message is - you heard it - get vaccinated, and if you're eligible, get boosted.

MARTIN: So I mean, we know that delta is the main variant right now, as you just explained. But still, there are a lot of concerns about omicron, what it would mean. Is there any more clarity on whether the current vaccines protect against it?

AUBREY: You know, it is still very early on. But so far, cases in vaccinated people have appeared to be mild. Now, this does suggest, of course, that vaccinated people can be vulnerable to infection with omicron. But Dr. Walensky says being fully vaccinated and boosted should provide some protection against the new variant, even though it has a lot of mutations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC BROADCAST)

WALENSKY: We're really hopeful that our vaccines will work in a way that even if they don't prevent disease entirely - prevent infection entirely, that they can work to prevent severe disease and keep people out of the hospital.

AUBREY: Now, right now, Rachel, scientists are doing studies. They take plasma from fully vaccinated people and see if antibodies in the blood neutralize or kind of fend off the omicron variant. Some early results of studies should be coming very soon, and they will provide some key information. In addition, as there are more cases around the globe, doctors are tracking the severity of infections.

MARTIN: And because nothing is ever easy, Allison, all this is happening at the holidays, when people are getting ready to travel, finally, to go see family and friends. How should we all think about our travel plans?

AUBREY: You know, I mean, certainly for international travel, the threat of omicron has already led to restrictions. We've seen that and some more testing requirements. For domestic travel, I think - and for domestic gatherings, holiday gatherings - none of the infectious disease experts I've spoken to say people should cancel plans. But Emily Landon of the University of Chicago said to me, people should take precautions, right? I mean, including the very simple step of masking, especially in indoor crowded spaces. She says even if you live in a place that has relaxed masking mandates, it's still beneficial.

EMILY LANDON: Masks are essential. They're the best way that we have of preventing the transmission of COVID. It's about sharing air. People with COVID, whether they know or not that they have COVID, are breathing COVID out, and it's contaminating the air. And you get into that space or you are in the room, you know, that's how we're getting COVID.

MARTIN: All right. So mask up. NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we know COVID-19 has gotten politicized over the past couple of years, but now we're learning that your political identity might be a determining factor in whether you get a very serious case of the virus.

INSKEEP: A new analysis from NPR News finds counties that voted big for Donald Trump had almost three times the death rate of counties that voted big for Joe Biden. Surveys suggest that vaccination rates among Republicans are lagging and disinformation is playing a role.

MARTIN: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel is here. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Explain what you found when you were looking at this data.

BRUMFIEL: Right. My colleague Daniel Wood and I looked at deaths from COVID-19 since May of 2021. That's when the vaccines became widely available. And what we did was we compared those death rates to election data from the 2020 election. We found that counties that went heavily for Trump - 60% or more - had much higher death rates than those that went for Biden. Now, for another disease, say, like the flu, there probably isn't this connection because the flu's not politically fraught the way...

MARTIN: Right.

BRUMFIEL: ...COVID is. But unfortunately, for COVID, there's this real stark trend. And the bigger the margin for Trump, the higher, on average, the death rate.

MARTIN: So why? (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: I mean, it's actually remarkably simple. Those counties, also on average, have much lower vaccination rates. We checked that trend as well. And vaccination lowers your chances of dying from COVID by 14 times, according to the CDC. So I mean, it's a huge effect, getting vaccinated.

MARTIN: So when we think about why Republicans are still falling behind on vaccination, I mean, is this where the disinformation comes in?

BRUMFIEL: That's exactly right. I mean, I spoke to this guy named Mark Valentine. His brother was a conservative talk show host, Phil Valentine, who died back in August from COVID-19. And Mark told me that conservatives' trust in official sources of information is very low, and that lets lies about the vaccines take hold and spread. He sort of describes conservative America as the perfect marketplace for anti-vaccine propaganda.

MARK VALENTINE: They're selling it, and people are buying it. And folks are dying.

BRUMFIEL: And the polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation really shows that connection. Ninety-four percent of Republicans think one or more false statements about COVID and vaccines might be true. And many believe multiple statements. Belief in these false statements is hugely correlated with the decision not to take the vaccine. Liz Hamel heads polling for Kaiser. She says Republicans now make up the largest share of unvaccinated people in America.

LIZ HAMEL: An unvaccinated person is three times as likely to lean Republican as they are to lean Democrat.

MARTIN: Three times - I mean, that's big. So here we are...

BRUMFIEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...At the holiday season. Cases are rising again. Omicron variant is out there. Where's all this heading from your perspective when you look at these numbers?

BRUMFIEL: It's pretty discouraging. I mean, vaccine mandates have driven up the numbers somewhat, but several folks I spoke to actually fear it's going to make things worse in this particular group. I mean, it's supercharged the misinformation and the politics around vaccines. Mark Valentine's been trying to convince people that they need to get vaccinated, and he's found it to be a real uphill battle.

VALENTINE: People have a natural aversion to the realities of horrific things like this until it hits them.

BRUMFIEL: He thinks trust is low, and so it may take more direct contact with COVID to convince people. And unfortunately, that may be what's about to happen.

MARTIN: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, we appreciate you. Thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: How do you measure accountability for an act of violence in which the alleged shooter is a 15-year-old?

INSKEEP: Ethan Crumbley is the teenager accused of killing four people at Oxford High School outside Detroit. Police do not think responsibility stops there. Prosecutors charged his parents with involuntary manslaughter after learning their role in arming their son and ignoring warning signs. The next question is what responsibility the school might face. The Michigan state attorney general is asking how school officials handled earlier incidents.

MARTIN: For more, we're joined by Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET in Detroit. So Quinn, I mean, what questions are being raised about the school's role in the shooting?

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Well, some parents and law enforcement officials wonder if the school should have made sure the suspect, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, never returned to class after he was summoned to the front office on the day of the shooting. The superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, Tim Throne, initially addressed the concerns in a video posted a few days afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

TIM THRONE: You know, there's just - there's been a lot of talk about the student that was apprehended, that he was, you know, called up to the office and all that kind of stuff. No discipline was warranted. There are no discipline records at the high school.

MARTIN: So clearly, the superintendent has some questions about all of this, though, because now they're calling for an independent investigation into what school officials did or didn't do. Right?

KLINEFELTER: Right. In a public letter over the weekend, Throne wrote that he wanted a full and transparent accounting. The superintendent is still defending the actions of school officials. And remember, this is what officials have said happened. The day before the shooting, a teacher noticed the suspect looking at photos of ammunition on his phone during class. And the teacher reported that to school officials. Later that day, the teen told a counselor shooting sports were a hobby of his family.

Then the next day, the day of the shooting, something else happened. A different teacher found a drawing the suspect had done, a picture of a gun, a bullet and what appeared to be a person shot twice, along with phrases like blood everywhere and the thoughts won't stop; help me. The student was sent to the office. His parents were called. The boy told educators that the note was part of a video game he was designing and that he wanted to do that for a career. The school said he was calm and that he was worried about missing classroom assignments and started doing homework while he was waiting for his parents to show up. When they arrived, the parents refused to take their son home for the day. And school officials say he had no prior disciplinary history, so they returned him to class.

MARTIN: Still hard to shake, the image of a note that he had written that said the words help me, right? So now his parents have been arrested, James and Jennifer Crumbley. Can you explain the charges against them?

KLINEFELTER: They're charged with involuntary manslaughter. The prosecutor says the parents should have known that their son was showing dangerous tendencies and that he had easy access to a 9 mm handgun since they allegedly bought it for him as a Christmas present four days before. She says the parents' actions went far beyond mere negligence to becoming criminal behavior. The parents are in jail now. They missed a court arraignment and were arrested hours later after authorities said they were on the run. They're each being held and a half-million-dollar bond.

MARTIN: You've talked to folks there in the community, in Detroit and the suburbs. What are people telling you?

KLINEFELTER: Shock, sympathy being expressed towards the victims and some cautious steps taken, both here in Michigan and across the country. Officials closed hundreds of schools nationwide last week, and there were dozens of copycat threats of violence called into law enforcement agencies.

MARTIN: Quinn Klinefelter of our member station WDET in Detroit. Quinn, thanks for your reporting.

KLINEFELTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.