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Florida Groups Canvass Spring Breakers to Warn of Fentanyl

In the days after a group of West Point cadets on spring break were sickened by fentanyl-laced cocaine at a South Florida house party, community activists sprang into action.

They blitzed beaches, warned spring breakers of a surge in recreational drugs cut with the dangerous synthetic opioid and offered an antidote for overdoses, which have risen nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Street teams stood under the blistering sun, handing out beads, pamphlets and samples of naloxone, a drug known by the brand name Narcan, which can revive overdose victims.

“We weren’t sure how people would react,” said Thomas Smith, director of behavioral health services for The Special Purpose Outreach Team, a local mobile medical program. “But the spring breakers have been great. Some say, ‘I don’t do drugs, but my buddy sometimes does something stupid.’ They are happy to get Narcan.”

Smith’s team pulls up to Fort Lauderdale beach in a brightly colored mobile clinic van. They walk the sidewalks that run parallel to the beach, across the main drag from the bustling oceanfront clubs and restaurants.

“Have you heard of Narcan?” Huston Ochoa, a clinical counselor for The SPOT, asked Tristan Gentles on a recent afternoon as music blared from the Elbo Room, a bar at the heart of Fort Lauderdale Beach.

Gentles, who worked as a bartender and bouncer in New York City before moving to Fort Lauderdale, said he appreciates their efforts.

“There’s only so much you can do when you see someone on the floor,” he said, adding that he had witnessed numerous overdoses during his days in New York.

Fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, which can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin or prescription opioids, are what make the overdoes so dangerous, said David Scharf, who oversees community programs for the Broward Sheriff’s Office and is the chairman of the county’s Opioid Community Response Team.

Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that for the first time more than 100,000 Americans had died of drug overdoses over a 12-month period. About two-thirds of the deaths were linked to fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. Stress from the coronavirus pandemic and the use of fentanyl are considered factors in the increase in deaths, according to preliminary reports by the CDC.

Broward County led the state in fentanyl deaths in 2020, the latest year for which statistics are available from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. In the vast majority of the deaths, fentanyl was combined with another drug, the sheriff’s office said.

“One snort, one swallow, one shot can kill,” said Jim Hall, a retired epidemiologist from Nova Southeastern University, who has worked with the county’s opioid response team. “It is not just in Florida but anywhere in North America.”

For the first three months of 2022, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue responded to 373 calls involving a possible overdose, where Narcan was administered, Battalion Chief Stephen Gollan said. That’s an average of more than four per day.

The reaction in Broward was swift after the five U.S. Military Academy cadets overdosed in Wilton Manors on March 10, just as thousands of college students were heading to Fort Lauderdale for spring break.

The following Monday, more than 100 people representing agencies from law enforcement to social service organizations and hospitals met via Zoom to devise a plan to keep spring breakers safe.

Groups such as The SPOT and the South Florida Wellness Network, which partner with the United Way of Broward County, agreed to hit the beaches to talk with people about the dangers associated with fentanyl-laced drugs. They also talked to restaurant and bar owners who could distribute Narcan if “someone went down,” Scharf said.

The groups have so far distributed more than 2,000 doses of Narcan supplied by state grants. The SPOT volunteers handed out packages with two doses of the nasal spray plus instructions.

“It was kind of a blitz operation to get out there as quickly as possible, and to get as much information and Narcan out on the streets,” Scharf said.

The volunteer groups and sheriff’s office don’t have figures on how many of the distributed doses were actually used but believe the program has succeeded in raising awareness.

The region isn’t yet out of the spring break period, which runs until mid-April, but Scharf said organizers have been heartened to see a couple of weekends pass without any overdoses that resulted in emergency calls.

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Space Station’s First All-Private Astronaut Team Docked to Orbiting Platform

The first all-private team of astronauts ever launched to the International Space Station (ISS) arrived safely at the orbiting research platform Saturday to begin a weeklong science mission hailed as a milestone in commercial spaceflight.

The rendezvous came about 21 hours after the four-man team representing Houston-based startup company Axiom Space, Inc. lifted off Friday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, riding atop a SpaceX-launched Falcon 9 rocket.

The Crew Dragon capsule lofted to orbit by the rocket docked with the ISS at about 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT) Saturday as the two space vehicles were flying roughly 250 miles (420 km) above the central Atlantic Ocean, a live NASA webcast of the coupling showed.

The final approach was delayed by a technical glitch that disrupted a video feed used to monitor the capsule’s rendezvous with ISS. The snafu forced the Crew Dragon to pause and hold its position 20 meters away from the station for about 45 minutes while mission control repaired the issue.

With docking achieved, it was expected to take about two hours more for the sealed passageway between the space station and crew capsule to be pressurized and checked for leaks before hatches can be opened, allowing the newly arrived astronauts to come aboard ISS.

The multinational Axiom team, planning to spend eight days in orbit, was led by retired Spanish-born NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, the company’s vice president for business development.

His second-in-command was Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s but the company did not provide his precise age.

Rounding out the Ax-1 crew were investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian business owner and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists.

Stibbe became the second Israeli to fly to space, after Ilan Ramon, who perished with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.

They will be joining the existing ISS occupants of seven regular, government-paid space station crew members – three American astronauts, a German astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts.

Science-focused

The new arrivals brought with them two dozen science and biomedical experiments to conduct aboard the ISS, including research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a technology demonstration to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity.

The mission, a collaboration among Axiom, Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX and NASA, has been touted by all three as a major step in the expansion of space-based commercial activities collectively referred to by insiders as the low-Earth orbit economy, or “LEO economy” for short.

NASA officials say the trend will help the U.S. space agency focus more of its resources on big-science exploration, including its Artemis program to send humans back to the moon and ultimately to Mars.

While the space station has hosted civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission marks the first all-commercial team of astronauts sent to the ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting research laboratory.

The Axiom mission also stands as SpaceX’s sixth human space flight in nearly two years, following four NASA astronaut missions to the space station and the “Inspiration 4” launch in September that sent an all-civilian crew to orbit for the first time. That flight did not dock with the ISS.

Axiom executives say their astronaut ventures and plans to build a private space station in Earth orbit go far beyond the astro-tourism services offered to wealthy thrill-seekers by such companies as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned respectively by billionaire entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.

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Shanghai Showing Strain of Life Under Strict COVID Lockdown

Shanghai is China’s most populous city, a place marked by its expansive worldview and keen sense of its own identity. But now it is chafing at Beijing’s rigid containment methods designed in accordance with the national zero-COVID policy.

Since a wave of infections struck the metropolis of some 25 million people last month, Shanghai officials have imposed a temporary lockdown (March 28), designed a policy separating infected children from their parents (April 2), extended the lockdown indefinitely (April 5), buckled before a public outcry to ease the child-parent separation policy and seen the daily count of new cases hit a record 22,000 (April 8).

Viral videos appear to show residents tackling health workers in hazmat suits and charging through a barricaded street shouting “We want to eat cheap vegetables,” according to France24. Some residents face the mandatory tests “in very Shanghainese style” tweeted one.

What are thought to be government drones whir through residential areas urging people against the temptation to break out from lockdown.

And local authorities have reported more than 73,000 cases in the current wave, virtually all originating with the omicron BA.2 variant, which is more infectious but less lethal than the previous delta strain as evidenced by the lack of any reported deaths in the city.

Shanghai Lingang Fangcai Hospital officially opened on April 5 with nearly 14,000 beds, half of which are already available. Authorities are converting the National Exhibition and Convention Center into a temporary hospital with more than 40,000 beds.

The Global Times, a state-controlled media outlet, reported April 6 that more than 38,000 medical personnel from more than 10 provinces in China had been dispatched to Shanghai to help along with more than 2,000 from the People’s Liberation Army.

Zero-COVID policy

When Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan visited the city on April 2, she stressed “unswerving adherence” to Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, a control measure China has put in place throughout the country since 2020 to curb the spread of the virus.

“It is an arduous task and huge challenge to combat the omicron variant while maintaining the normal operation of core functions in a megacity with a population of 25 million,” Sun said, according to Chinese state-controlled media outlet, Xinhua.

According to Ren Ruihong, the former head of the medical relief department of the Red Cross Foundation of China, the probability of China achieving “zero infection goal” is almost zero judging from the movement of the omicron variant through the nation.

“You can’t test everyone in the entire country every day. When you can’t do that, a lot of asymptomatic or late-infected people have already spread the virus,” Ren told VOA Mandarin.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch said on its website that Beijing’s insistence on draconian lockdown measures has significantly impeded people’s access to health care, food and other life necessities in Shanghai.

“The Chinese government’s ‘Zero-COVID’ approach to pandemic control by imposing stringent citywide lockdowns has resulted in the systematic denial of medical needs of people with serious but non-COVID related illnesses,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

According to HRW’s statement, an unknown number of people have died after being denied medical treatment for their non-COVID related illnesses.

‘Completely chaotic’ response

Shanghai officials also expressed their disappointment in the implementation of Beijing’s zero-COVID measures in Shanghai.

“Shanghai’s epidemic-prevention policy is completely chaotic,” said a community management committee secretary in a nine-minute recorded conversation circulated on Chinese social media, adding that the prevention work she has been assigned is “killing” her.

In another recording of a conversation between a Shanghai citizen and a frontline epidemic-prevention official, the official urged the resident not to go to a hospital and said that mild and asymptomatic patients should be isolated at home.

“When I went to the Fangcang shelter hospital, even the professionals were going crazy because no one listened to what they said,” according to the official speaking to the resident in an audio since deleted from Chinese social media. “Now we all feel complete despair.”

Lin Baohua, a former professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai who now lives in Taiwan, told VOA Mandarin that recent signs indicate that grassroots officials in Shanghai are becoming sympathetic to Shanghai residents’ dissatisfaction.

The last thing the Beijing government wants to see is the collective action of the people, he added.

Xiao Shan, a Chinese news analyst in Beijing, said Shanghai officials are unlikely to oppose the zero-COVID policy, as they have used it to consolidate their power.

“Suddenly they could become managers overnight, wearing red armbands shouting to hundreds of thousands of people in the community.”

Fan Shihping, a Taiwan Normal University professor, told VOA Mandarin that China’s enforcement will have a great impact on Shanghai residents because they did not expect that they, citizens of a Tier 1 city, would be treated in the same way under the zero-COVID policy as residents of second- and third-tier cities.

Tier 1 cities, like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, are the most modern, the most populous and have the best infrastructure and locations, according to Investor Insights Asia. Tier 2 cities are relatively economically developed but less so than new first-tier cities. Tier 3 cities have large populations but little economic or political significance.

Some Shanghai residents have refused to hide their dissatisfaction with the government’s strict COVID measures.

“This is worse than the Cultural Revolution,” said an old man in a video circulated on social media.

Mao, the first leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1949-76, launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966. By the time its turmoil ended a decade later, between 500,000 and 2 million people had died.

“Parks are not open. Shops are not open. We haven’t experienced a horror like this even when the Red Sun, Mao Zedong, died in 1976,” the man continued. “Now I don’t go out and I’m stuck in prison all day.”

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Saudi Arabia to Allow 1 Million Hajj Pilgrims This Year

Saudi Arabia said Saturday it will permit 1 million Muslims from inside and outside the country to participate in this year’s hajj, a sharp uptick after pandemic restrictions forced two years of drastically pared-down pilgrimages.

The hajj ministry “has authorized 1 million pilgrims, both foreign and domestic, to perform the hajj this year,” it said in a statement.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives. Usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, about 2.5 million people took part in 2019.

But after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Saudi authorities allowed only 1,000 pilgrims to participate.

The following year, they upped the total to 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents chosen through a lottery.

This year’s hajj, which will take place in July, will be limited to vaccinated pilgrims under age 65, Saturday’s announcement said.

Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia will be required to submit a negative COVID-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

The government wants to promote pilgrims’ safety “while ensuring that the maximum number of Muslims worldwide can perform the hajj,” Saturday’s statement said.

Easing restrictions

The hajj consists of a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, and surrounding areas of western Saudi Arabia.

Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, as the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is the most powerful source of their political legitimacy.

Before the pandemic, Muslim pilgrimages were key revenue earners for the kingdom, bringing in some $12 billion annually.

The restrictions in 2020 and 2021 stoked resentment among Muslims abroad who were barred.

The kingdom of approximately 34 million people has so far recorded more than 751,000 coronavirus cases, including 9,055 deaths, according to health ministry data.

In early March it announced the lifting of most COVID restrictions including social distancing in public spaces and quarantine for vaccinated arrivals, moves that were expected to facilitate the arrival of Muslim pilgrims.

The decision included suspending “social distancing measures in all open and closed places” including mosques, while masks are now only required in closed spaces.

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Smith Gets 10-Year Oscars Ban Over Slap 

The motion picture academy on Friday banned Will Smith from attending the Oscars or any other academy event for 10 years following his slap of Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. 

The move came after a meeting of the academy’s Board of Governors to discuss a response to Smith’s actions. 

“The 94th Oscars were meant to be a celebration of the many individuals in our community who did incredible work this past year; however, those moments were overshadowed by the unacceptable and harmful behavior we saw Mr. Smith exhibit on stage,” the academy said in a statement. 

‘Inexcusable’ actions

“I accept and respect the academy’s decision,” Smith said in response. He pre-emptively resigned from the academy last week during the run-up to the meeting, calling his actions “shocking, painful and inexcusable.” 

Smith will keep the Oscar he won after the slap, and he will remain eligible to be nominated for and to win more of them in the 10-year period, though he can’t show up to accept them. 

The academy also apologized for its handling of the situation and allowing Smith to stay and accept his best actor award for King Richard. 

“During our telecast, we did not adequately address the situation in the room. For this, we are sorry,” the academy said. “This was an opportunity for us to set an example for our guests, viewers and our Academy family around the world, and we fell short — unprepared for the unprecedented.” 

In a statement in the days following the Oscars, the academy said Smith was asked to leave the ceremony but refused. 

How was he told?

But it’s not clear how the message was delivered to Smith or what form it took, and several media outlets reported that he was never formally told to leave the Dolby Theatre. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that Oscars producer Will Packer had told Smith: “Officially, we don’t want you to leave. We want you to stay.” 

The ban means Smith will not be presenting one of the major awards at next year’s Oscars, as is tradition for the best actor winner. 

The academy in its Friday statement also expressed “deep gratitude to Mr. Rock for maintaining his composure under extraordinary circumstances.” 

The academy has not revoked Oscars from expelled members Harvey Weinstein or Roman Polanski. 

With his resignation last week, Smith lost the ability to vote for nominees and winners. Smith has been nominated for four Oscars, winning once. 

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Donors Pledge Extra $4.8 Billion to Fight COVID Vaccine Inequity

An international donor conference on Friday raised $4.8 billion for the U.N.-backed COVAX plan to deliver coronavirus jabs to poorer countries, organizers said.

“The pandemic is not over, far from it. Until we beat COVID-19 everywhere, we beat it nowhere. That is a fact, and a responsibility for all of us,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, co-host of the online conference.

Scholz, whose bid to make COVID jabs mandatory for over-60s in Germany failed in parliament this week, warned that the ongoing pandemic risked creating new variants that could be “more dangerous” than previous ones.

The conference, hosted by Germany, Ghana, Senegal and Indonesia, sought to address a yawning gap in vaccination rates between the world’s richest and poorest countries.

The COVAX program, co-led by vaccine-sharing alliance Gavi, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, has so far delivered 1.4 billion doses to 145 countries — far short of the planned 2 billion doses by the end of 2021.

Governments from developed nations pledged $3.8 billion Friday to bring the vaccine to 92 low- and middle-income countries.

Development banks including the World Bank and the European Investment Bank contributed $1 billion Friday.

COVAX had said in January that it needed $5.2 billion to fund jabs for the world in 2022.

The WHO wants 70% of every country’s population vaccinated by July.

But records are uneven.

Nearly 80% of France’s population, for example, has received two doses. But only 15% of the population on the continent of Africa is fully vaccinated, according to Oxford University data.

COVAX says it currently has enough doses to vaccinate about 45% of the population in the 92 low- and middle-income countries receiving donations. But 25 of those countries lack the infrastructure for an effective immunization campaign.

Making matters worse, many developing countries are slated to receive doses too close to their expiration date.

“Vaccine inequity is the biggest moral failure of our times, and people and countries are paying the price,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said earlier this year.

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