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Poll: Americans Back Flexibility on Masks, Want to Move on From COVID-19

Most Americans support a flexible approach to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, with cities reimposing mask mandates when cases surge, even as a growing number are eager to get on with their lives, a Reuters/Ipsos poll completed Friday found.

The results of the two-day poll illustrate the balancing act facing U.S. officials as they navigate a health crisis that will not go away.

Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults — including 83% of Democrats and 46% of Republicans — said cities and states should impose mask mandates for indoor public places if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 in their area, the poll found.

At the same time, 44% of respondents said that Americans need to get back to normal and get on with their lives, up from 36% in a poll completed in early February.

The tension between the two sentiments was apparent this week in Philadelphia, which on Monday became the first major U.S. city to reimpose a mask mandate in settings including restaurants, schools and businesses following a rise in local COVID-19 cases, only to reverse course days later.

City officials in Philadelphia, which like most big American cities is run by Democrats and overwhelmingly voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential election, on Thursday said decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts warranted a recommendation that residents wear masks in indoor public spaces, rather than a mandate.

The city is the largest in the state of Pennsylvania, which will be a key battleground in November 8 midterm elections when Democrats will wage an uphill battle to preserve slim majorities in Congress.

More than two years into a public health crisis that has killed nearly 1 million Americans, most U.S. states and localities have eased mask and vaccination requirements.

Mixed results

A bipartisan majority of poll respondents, including 53% of Democrats and 78% of Republicans, said the coronavirus pandemic has reached the point at which decisions to wear masks or vaccinate should be left to individuals rather than the government.

At the same time, just over half of respondents in the poll said they were more likely to support candidates in November that support continued rules, including mask requirements, to combat the pandemic.

Sixty-five percent of respondents supported mask requirements on airplanes, trains and public transport, even after a federal court on Monday struck down a federal mask mandate on public transportation and airplanes.

The Biden administration is appealing the court ruling, however, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the measure was still needed.

Only 44% of respondents said Biden has delivered on his 2020 election campaign pledge to try to control the pandemic, and just 35% said he had delivered on his promises to restart the economy hit by the health crisis.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online, in English, throughout the United States, gathering responses from 1,005 adults. It has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about 4 percentage points. 

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Guterres: Mother Earth Is in Trouble and Action Is Needed

Environmentally, the planet was on a downward slide well before the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution designating April 22 in 2009 as International Mother Earth Day. The aim of this day is to celebrate the wonders of Mother Earth.

The day also is meant to shed light on the issues threatening the health of the world’s ecosystems to ensure their survivability.

Unfortunately, says U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, humans have been poor custodians of our fragile planet, which is facing a triple planetary crisis.

“Climate disruption. Nature and biodiversity loss. Pollution and waste. The triple crisis threatening the well-being and survival of millions of people around the world. The building blocks of happy, healthy lives—clean water, fresh air, a stable and predictable climate—are in disarray, putting the Sustainable Development Goals in Jeopardy.”

Ecosystems support all life on Earth. A healthy ecosystem depends on a healthy planet. Yet, scientists warn the planet is losing 4.7 million hectares of forests every year. They estimate around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction.

And, the warming of the planet, they say, could lead to a climate disaster, rendering the planet uninhabitable.

Despite the dire outlook, Guterres says not all is lost. He says there is still

hope of saving Earth if nations act together to tackle the problems that are endangering the well-being of the planet.

He notes much has been accomplished since the global environmental movement started 50 years ago at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. He says nations have

negotiated agreements which have, among others, succeeded in shrinking the ozone hole.

They have expanded protections for wildlife and ecosystems, and have ended the use of leaded fuel, thus preventing millions of premature deaths.

“But we need to do much more. And much faster. Especially to avert climate catastrophe. We must limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. And we are far off track…At the same time we must invest rapidly in adaptation and resilience, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable who have contributed least to the crisis.”

In June, Sweden will host a high-level U.N. meeting to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first U.N. conference on the human environment. Guterres says the gathering of world leaders will be a great moment to address the triple planetary emergency.

He says we only have one Mother Earth so everyone must do everything to protect her.

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Biden to Sign Executive Order on Earth Day to Protect Country’s Oldest Trees

U.S. President Joe Biden has chosen Earth Day on Friday to sign an executive order to protect some of the country’s largest and oldest trees.

The order the president is scheduled to sign in Washington State will require the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service to identify threats to older trees, such as wildfire and climate change, and develop policies to safeguard them.

Old trees are an ally in fighting climate change because they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming.  Scientists say redwood forests are among the world’s most efficient means of removing and storing carbon dioxide.  Thousands of U.S. redwoods have been destroyed in recent years.

Biden’s order will require federal land managers to define and count mature and old-growth forests nationwide within a year.

The measure is a safeguard designed to protest U.S. forests that have been decimated by fires, drought, and blight in recent years.

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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COVID-19 Restrictions Ease For Millions of Australians

Australia’s most populous states will on Friday abolish a raft of coronavirus rules, including compulsory isolation for close contacts. Some vaccine mandates for key workers will also be scrapped.  Health officials in New South Wales and Victoria say the overhaul to the rules is a “big step” and is part of a plan to “co-exist with COVID-19.”

The new policy is a major overhaul of coronavirus restrictions for more than half of the Australian population. Those who may have come into close contact with COVID-19 in the states of New South Wales and Victoria will no longer have to isolate for seven days. They must, however, wear a mask indoors and be tested regularly. They also need special permission to visit hospitals, nursing homes or prisons.

Many business leaders said the quarantine measures were too strict because they forced workers who weren’t infected to stay at home.

“We get to put COVID in the rear-view mirror and finally leave the baggage of restrictions, isolations, and check-ins behind us. It means that the maximum available staff will now be with us,” said Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce.

Health authorities in Australia say a recent omicron wave has peaked and that many restrictions can be lifted because more than 95% of the population has received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccination.

However, Nancy Baxter, a clinical epidemiologist at Melbourne University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that it is too soon to end mandatory isolation for close contacts.

“Politically, it is expedient for all of these things to be relaxed because it signals that COVID is over,” she said. “But, you know, the problem is COVID hasn’t gotten the memo that COVID is over and what we are seeing in Australia right now is we are seeing one of the world’s highest rate of new cases of COVID per day.”

In other parts of the country, including Western Australia and Queensland, quarantine rules remain in place for those who have come into close contact with confirmed coronavirus cases.

Australia has had some of the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions, including strict lockdowns. For more than two years its international borders were closed to most foreign nationals.

According to government data, about 5.3 million infections and almost 7,000 deaths have been recorded in Australia since the pandemic began.

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Argentine Architect Honors Classic Design at Coachella

The Buenos Aires design and architecture firm Estudio Normal is honoring Argentina’s iconic butterfly chair in a towering art installation at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. From the festival, Genia Dulot has the story.
Camera: Genia Dulot 

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Earth Day Prompts Calls for Businesses to Go Green

Every year on Earth Day — April 22 — people come together to raise awareness about environmental problems. And this year they will focus on accelerating the transition to a prosperous green economy.    

During the event, also known as International Mother Earth Day, some 1 billion people in 190 countries take part in activities that often include planting trees, removing litter from land and water sites, and educating others about the environment.    

As curtailing climate change remains at the forefront of the global environmental agenda, Earth Day this year focuses on a business aspect of that goal: investing in our planet.   

More businesses need to be pulled into the effort to safeguard the planet, especially to fight climate change, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Earthday.org.   

According to the Earthday.org website, “Smart companies are discovering that they no longer have the choice between going green and growing long term profits — sustainability is the path to prosperity.”    

“If you want to solve climate change, follow the money, because the money is overwhelmingly moving into technological solutions, research and development, all of which are green,” Earthday.org President Kathleen Rogers told VOA in an interview.  

Oil and gas companies that rely on fossil fuels are feeling the pressure.   

Companies that don’t go green face a “giant risk,” Rogers cautioned, because the outcry to curb fossil fuels continues to grow.   

Climate scientist Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University agreed, saying that “the transition towards clean energy is already happening.”    

“The great revolution of this century is clean energy, and those energy companies that embrace clean renewable energy are going to prosper in the long term,” he told VOA.   

Rogers noted, however, that while some companies “may not be extracting oil for carbon,” they are using fossil fuels to make plastic, another environmental hazard.    

Most plastic — bags, bottles, containers, etc. — is not recycled, Rogers said. Instead, it ends up taking space in landfills or floating in the oceans.    

“There are devastating impacts from the use of plastic,” Rogers said. Wildlife sometimes mistake it for food, and research has shown that tiny plastic particles have been found in human blood, she added.   

“Today we are as aware of the dangers of plastic as we are of climate change,” Rogers said, so it is important to find a substitute for plastic.    

Earth Day comes on the heels of a United Nations climate panel report, released earlier this month, that said worldwide carbon emissions increased by 12% over the past decade. Despite that gloomy picture, it’s possible to curtail climate change if governments act now, the report said.   

But many people wonder when that will happen, as many governments have stalled on the issue.   

“Stop placing the burden on individuals to solve the problem, and put more of the burden where it belongs, on governments and companies,” Rogers said. 

And that includes Africa, which suffers from environmental problems such as air pollution, water scarcity and the loss of biodiversity.    

“Every country is facing the effects of the climate crisis” even though the continent’s global emissions only range between 2 to 3 percent, explained Derrick Mugisha, an environmental scientist and regional director in Africa for Earthday.org. African leaders must step up and “minimize excuses to reverse the trends of environmental degradation.”    

“In Asia, increased global warming due to climate change can no longer be ignored,” noted Karuna Singh, Earth Day’s regional director for Asia. The changing weather patterns can cause food insecurity and loss of biodiversity and compel people to become “environmental refugees,” she said.    

India, with its dependence on fossil fuels, creates some of the worst air pollution in the world, she said. And the Indian government has recognized the gloomy findings and initiated a process to have experts suggest strategies that will accelerate solutions.  

For Mann, Earth Day is also a reminder that polluters who deny climate change are no longer credible.    

There has been a carefully orchestrated “deflection campaign by polluters to convince us that it’s all on us,” he said. But “70% of carbon pollution comes from just 100 polluters like fossil fuel companies and oil companies,” he added.   

Denis Hayes, the organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, told VOA the event is just as viable today as it was 52 years ago.   

“It’s not just about picking up litter, but finding various remedies to combat climate change, including more efficient renewable power and greener transportation methods. It’s about building a world that is livable for our children.”   

 

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UK Patient Had COVID-19 for 505 Days Straight, Study Shows

A U.K. patient with a severely weakened immune system had COVID-19 for almost a year and a half, scientists reported, underscoring the importance of protecting vulnerable people from the coronavirus.

There’s no way to know for sure whether it was the longest-lasting COVID-19 infection because not everyone gets tested, especially on a regular basis like this case.

But at 505 days, “it certainly seems to be the longest reported infection,” said Dr. Luke Blagdon Snell, an infectious disease expert at the Guy’s & St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.

Snell’s team plans to present several “persistent” COVID-19 cases at an infectious diseases meeting in Portugal this weekend.

Their study investigated which mutations arise — and whether variants evolve — in people with super long infections. It involved nine patients who tested positive for the virus for at least eight weeks. All had weakened immune systems from organ transplants, HIV, cancer or treatment for other illnesses. None were identified for privacy reasons.

Repeated tests showed their infections lingered for an average of 73 days. Two had the virus for more than a year. Previously, researchers said, the longest-known case that was confirmed with a PCR test lasted 335 days.

Persistent COVID-19 is rare and different from long COVID.

“In long COVID, it’s generally assumed the virus has been cleared from your body but the symptoms persist,” Snell said. “With persistent infection, it represents ongoing, active replication of the virus.”

Each time researchers tested patients, they analyzed the genetic code of the virus to make sure it was the same strain and that people didn’t get COVID-19 more than once. Still, genetic sequencing showed that the virus changed over time, mutating as it adapted.

The mutations were similar to the ones that later showed up in widespread variants, Snell said, although none of the patients spawned new mutants that became variants of concern. There’s also no evidence they spread the virus to others.

The person with the longest known infection tested positive in early 2020, was treated with the antiviral drug remdesivir and died sometime in 2021. Researchers declined to name the cause of death and said the person had several other illnesses.

Five patients survived. Two cleared the infection without treatment, two cleared it after treatment and one still has COVID-19. At the last follow-up earlier this year, that patient’s infection had lasted 412 days.

Researchers hope more treatments will be developed to help people with persistent infections beat the virus.

“We do need to be mindful that there are some people who are more susceptible to these problems like persistent infection and severe disease,” Snell said.

Although persistent infections are rare, experts said there are many people with compromised immune systems who remain at risk of severe COVID-19 and who are trying to stay safe after governments lifted restrictions and masks started coming off. And it’s not always easy to know who they are, said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, who was not part of the research.

“Masking in crowds is a considerate thing to do and a way we can protect others,” he said.

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From War to Circus: Ukrainian Dancers Find Comfort on US Stage

Onstage, they dance through hoops and perform acrobatics with smiles on their faces. Off it, they hold anguished phone calls with family back in Ukraine.

Dancers Anna and Olga have found a sense of calm performing in a circus near New York, but they are still living the war they fled thousands of miles away.

“I spent a month without a full night’s sleep. We couldn’t go out to buy food — we were stressed and shaken all the time. It was scary,” recalls Anna Starykh, who left Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February.

Now the 21-year-old is performing with the Flip Circus in the New York City suburb of Yonkers, where she can sleep without being woken by explosions.

More than 4,500 miles away from Kyiv, in a parking lot near the banks of the Hudson River, Starykh and her friends prepare to perform with colleagues from across Europe and South America.

The stage has become their sanctuary.

“Work really helps (us) to calm down and stay positive,” she tells AFP.

Their concern for their family members back home is palpable, though.

“I don’t know in which situation they will be next day, next week, next month. I cry about this,” says 22-year-old Olga Rezekina, who also fled Ukraine after the invasion began and whose parents and brother live in Odesa.

Rezekina and Starykh arrived in the United States with 20-year-old Anastasiia Savych, a Flip Circus veteran who had returned to Ukraine with other circus members to renew her visa when Russian tanks crossed the border Feb. 24.

All are graduates of the Bingo Circus Theater, a circus academy in Ukraine. Rezekina and Starykh joined Flip to replace two of Savych’s male colleagues, who were mobilized to fight and stayed in Ukraine.

On the day of the invasion, Savych left Kyiv for Poland on the train.

“I never saw the capital so empty. No cars, no people outside. Everything was closed. It was like in a horror movie,” she tells AFP.

Two other Ukrainian dancers in their troupe fled via Romania and joined up with them in America on March 10.

‘Leave problems backstage’

They are among more than 5 million people who have left Ukraine since the invasion, according to United Nations estimates.

“When I just arrived here, I felt guilty,” says Savych, whose mother convinced her that she would not be able help the family by staying in Ukraine.

Now she waits to hear that the war is over and that “we won,” Savych says.

“I’m 20 years old and want stay young and not speak about the war,” she tells AFP.

The three friends all have similar but different dreams for the future.

“Live and be safe,” says Starykh, when asked hers. “Traveling around the world,” says Rezekina, while Savych hopes to live permanently in the U.S.

Alexa Vazquez, who helps run Flip — the circus was founded by her family in Mexico more than 50 years ago — says it was difficult getting the women out of Ukraine with airports closed.

“To have these girls here with right now safe means a world to us, especially to me, because they are friends, they are family. We can support them in any way possible,” she tells AFP.

The Ukrainians appear several times in the show, in which animals do not perform.

“People come and they want to look at a good show. You can leave your problems backstage,” concludes Rezekina. 

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