Biden’s vaccine requirement could ‘very well’ require troops to get the shot

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New vaccine requirements for federal employees expected to be announced by President Joe Biden Thursday “very well” could mean troops will be required to get the shot, a senior Pentagon official told ABC News on Wednesday. But if not, it still may only be a matter of time.

Because COVID-19 vaccines are available to the military under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization (EUA), the shot has so far been strictly voluntary.

“It is not FDA approved, and therefore, it is still a voluntary vaccine,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters earlier this month. “I would like to add that as we speak, almost 69% of DOD personnel have received at least one dose. That’s not bad.”

By last week, the proportion of fully vaccinated troops had risen past 70%, based on data from the Department of Defense. That’s significantly higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimate of 49% for the U.S. population as a whole.

While the DOD can’t independently decide to force service members to take a vaccine that isn’t fully approved, the president “may under certain circumstances waive the option for members of the armed forces to accept or refuse administration of an EUA product,” according to the FDA.

Biden said Tuesday that a federal mandate is “under consideration” and sources familiar with the discussion told ABC News the president is likely to announce federal employees will be required to be vaccinated, or else abide by “stringent COVID-19 protocols like mandatory mask wearing — even in communities not with high or substantial spread — and regular testing.”

The president demurred on the issue when asked by ABC News White House correspondent Karen Travers as he arrived in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday.

“I’m talking about made in America today, that’s all I’m going to talk about,” Biden replied. “Tomorrow I’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about, including COVID.”

If Biden doesn’t include service members in a mandate for federal workers, one could still come later.

Pentagon officials have publicly said they would consider requiring COVID vaccinations, as is done with more than a dozen other vaccines, after the FDA fully approves the vaccines.

“I believe that when it’s formally approved, which we expect pretty soon, we probably will go to that, and then that question will kind of be moot,” Vice Adm. John Nowell told a sailor in a town hall question-and-answer video posted to Facebook last month.

On July 1 the Army Times reported it had obtained an internal Army memo that said commanders should “prepare for a directive to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for service members (on or around) 01 September 2021, pending full FDA licensure,” the order said.

“As a matter of policy we do not comment on leaked documents. The vaccine continues to be voluntary,” Maj. Jackie Wren, an Army spokesperson told ABC News. “If we are directed by DOD to change our posture, we are prepared to do so.”

Mick Mulroy, former deputy assistant secretary of defense and ABC News analyst, said evidence should determine the issue.

“Readiness has always been a key component of any military, especially one as expeditionary as the U.S. Ever since the existence of vaccines they have been a part of the readiness capability,” Mulroy said. “If the medical professionals in the CDC and the DOD determine it is safe and critical to protect our force from COVID and all its variants, then that should be dispositive on the issue.”

So far, the Pentagon has not announced any official decisions for the future.

“There has been no change to our use of the vaccine as a voluntary measure of protection,” Kirby said in a statement to ABC News Tuesday. “We continue to urge everyone in the department to get vaccinated.”

A defense official confirmed on Wednesday that this stance has not changed.

ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Molly Nagle and Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega contributed to this report.

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Children remain unvaccinated as delta variant surges, back-to-school concerns

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(UNITED STATES) — With the COVID-19 delta variant surge once again prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend masks indoors for teachers and other vaccinated school employees, many parents are left wondering if the new landscape of the pandemic means it’s safe for their still-unvaccinated young children to return to school this fall.

Early in the pandemic, epidemiologic data showed parents a reassuring trend: children were less likely to be infected and more likely to have mild infections. However, as COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out and the country made progress toward herd immunity, there came a shift: The viral spread is now predominantly among the unvaccinated, and of the largest unvaccinated populations is children under 12, who are not yet eligible for the available vaccines.

Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics has shown that children have made up a higher proportion of overall COVID-19 infections over the past couple of weeks.

“This increase is concerning, and yet not surprising, as the virus is going to infect those who are not protected,” said Dr. Amanda D. Castel, pediatrician and professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at George Washington University. “Children are still at risk for developing severe complications from COVID-19.”

Fall classrooms will be ground zero for a recipe that epidemiologists fear: Unvaccinated populations combined with close proximity and limited social distancing could become an avenue for disease spread.

While children are not necessarily more vulnerable than they were before, the biology of the disease has changed. The delta variant is more transmissible regardless of age and spreads more efficiently across unvaccinated populations.

“Make no mistake, this is a virus that can cause children to suffer and die,” said Dr. Paul A. Offit, pediatrician and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

An important question now circulates in parent and teacher circles: how do you mitigate risk and still give kids a normal school year? The CDC updated its prior guidance on Tuesday, saying that children and teachers should be wearing masks in school this fall.

Experts agree that a nuanced approach to preventing transmission and creating herd immunity with high vaccination rates is key.

“Teachers can enforce proper social distancing practices and keep extra personal protective equipment (PPE) for themselves and students in supply,” said Kamon Singleton, M.Ed, a teacher at Heyward Gibbes Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina. “Although most schools may provide some PPE, teachers may want to keep an excess of supplies.”

Castel said she believes “layers of protection” are the answer.

“The first layer is to have everyone who can receive a vaccine do so,” Castel said. “Parents of children age 12 and older can make an appointment now. The shots create a bubble of protection not just for kids who have been vaccinated but also for kids who cannot get the vaccine yet. For those that can’t get vaccinated, wearing masks.”

While the pandemic is now largely fueled by those who decide not to vaccinate, this fall and winter, the focus will shift to keeping children from becoming the pandemic’s next target until vaccines are available for all.

Nancy A. Anoruo, MD, MPH, is an internal medicine physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and public health scientist. John Brownstein, Ph.D., is chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an epidemiologist. Both are faculty at Harvard Medical School and contributors to ABC News’ Medical Unit.

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COVID-19 live updates: US reports highest number of new cases in the world

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(NEW YORK) — The United States is facing a COVID-19 surge this summer as the more contagious delta variant spreads.

More than 611,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to real-time data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Just 57.6% of Americans ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC on Tuesday, citing new science on the transmissibility of the delta variant, changed its mask guidance to now recommend everyone in areas with substantial or high levels of transmission — vaccinated or not — wear a face covering in public, indoor settings.

Worldwide, the virus that causes COVID-19 has infected more than 195 million people, with over 4.1 million dying from the disease.

Here’s how the news is developing Thursday. All times Eastern:

Jul 29, 5:41 am
Dozens of cases across US linked to Christian summer camp

At least 75 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across 17 U.S. states have been linked to a Christian summer camp in North Carolina, officials said.

The outbreak is associated with campers and staff who attended The Wilds camp near Rosman in North Carolina’s Transylvania County between June 28 and July 17, according to a statement from the local public health department.

Last week, a spokesperson for the camp told Ashevile ABC affiliate WLOS that they had cancelled sessions that week to work on enhancing COVID-19 protocols. Although there was no plan to cancel further sessions, the spokesperson said the camp was working to limit the number of attendees and started asking campers to get tested for COVID-19 before their sessions.

“We’ve been checking our staff, we’ve been doing screenings for everyone who comes onto the campsite and anticipating they’re coming to our campsite healthy,” the spokesperson told WLOS during a telephone interview last week. “And the anticipation is that they would leave healthy as well.”

Jul 29, 1:20 am
FDA approves shelf life extension for J&J vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration has approved another extension to the shelf life of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine, from four-and-a-half months to six months, J&J said in a statement late Wednesday.

“The decision is based on data from ongoing stability assessment studies, which have demonstrated the vaccine is stable at six months when refrigerated at temperatures of 36 – 46 degrees Fahrenheit,” J&J said.

Jul 29, 12:38 am
CDC changes testing guidance for vaccinated people

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly updated its guidance on testing for vaccinated people on its website.

While the CDC had previously said vaccinated people did not have to get tested for COVID-19 after being exposed to someone with the virus, unless they had symptoms, that is no longer the case.

The government agency now recommends: “If you’ve been around someone who has COVID-19, you should get tested 3-5 days after your exposure, even if you don’t have symptoms.”

“You should also wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until your test result is negative. You should isolate for 10 days if your test result is positive,” the updated guidance states.

Jul 28, 10:20 pm
Disney World brings back indoor mask requirement for all guests

Masks once again will be required while indoors at Disney World, regardless of vaccination status, the company announced Wednesday, as Florida has quickly become a COVID-19 hotspot.

Starting Friday, face coverings will be required for all guests ages 2 and up while indoors, including upon entering and throughout all attractions.

They are also required while riding Disney transportation.

Masks are still optional in outdoor common areas, the company said.

The theme park had initially dropped its mask requirement for vaccinated guests last month.

The updated rule will also go into effect Friday at Disneyland in California.

Disney is the parent company of ABC News.

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Pacific Northwest braces for another heat wave as dozens of wildfires continue to burn

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(NEW YORK) — The Pacific Northwest is bracing for another heat wave as large wildfires continue to burn through the region.

While the spread of wildfires has slowed in recent days, that could soon change. Temperatures near Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, are expected to approach 100 degrees by Friday and dry lightning originating from the deadly monsoons in the Southwest could spark more fires.

Currently, dozens of uncontained wildfires are burning in the U.S., with the majority of them located in the West — a region experiencing tinderbox conditions as a result of megadrought and climate change.

The Dixie Fire near the Feather River Canyon in Northern California has grown to nearly 218,000 acres, destroying more than a dozen structures, and was 23% contained. Crews are prepping for structure protection in Taylorsville, California. The fire is now the largest burning in the state and more than 8,000 people are under evacuation orders, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, currently the largest in the country and the third-largest in state history, has burned through more than 413,000 acres and was 53% contained by Tuesday.

The Tamarack Fire near Gardnerville, Nevada, has scorched more than 68,000 acres by Monday and was 59% contained.

A heat wave is blanketing much of the country outside the West as well.

The heat dome is continuing to build from the north and central Plains to New Orleans. Fifteen states are currently under heat warnings and advisories.

The humidity and high temps will make it feel more like 110 degrees for some areas. Some cities in the upper Midwest, such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Minneapolis, could break records as temperatures climb toward 100 degrees.

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Wisconsin judge finds probable cause to charge police officer in fatal shooting

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(MILWAUKEE, Wis.) — A judge announced Wednesday that he has found probable cause to bring homicide charges against a Wisconsin police officer, five years after a local district attorney declared the officer was justified in his use of deadly force on a man he found sleeping in a car in a suburban Milwaukee park.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn Yamahiro said at a hearing that there is probable cause that former Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah committed the crime of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon when he killed 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr. in 2016.

“This decision has not been taken lightly, nor was it predetermined. It is the result of a careful and extensive review of the evidence in this case,” Yamahiro said.

Yamahiro came to his conclusion after holding a rarely used “John Doe hearing,” which provides a forum and a procedure in Wisconsin for a citizen to ask a court to review a district attorney’s decision not to issue criminal charges in cases where the citizen believes one or more crimes have occurred.

“There is reason to believe, based on the testimony, that Officer Mensah created an unreasonable, substantial risk of death,” Yamahiro said as he read his lengthy decision in a courtroom packed with Anderson’s relatives.

Yamahiro said he will appoint a special prosecutor within 60 days to review the case and “decide which charge or charges, if any, they believe can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, a far higher standard than probable cause.”

Anderson’s loved ones, including his parents, burst into tears and applause upon hearing the judge’s decision. Outside the courtroom, a large crowd of supporters cheered and began chanting Anderson’s name.

“It’s awesome, I can breathe,” Anderson’s mother, Linda Anderson, said after the hearing.

Anderson’s father, Jay Anderson Sr., added, “We feel good. This is something that should have been done five years ago. This is justice, you guys, this is justice.”

Now a Waukesha County, Wisconsin, deputy sheriff, Mensah left the Wauwatosa Police Department after fatally shooting 17-year-old Alvin Cole in 2020, an incident that sparked large protests in and around the Milwaukee area.

It was the third on-duty fatal shooting in five years that Mensah was involved in. His use of deadly force was justified by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in each case, including the 2015 killing of 29-year-old Antonio Gonzales.

The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Yamahiro’s ruling.

“What happened today is historic not just for the state of Wisconsin but for this country,” said Kimberley Motley, an attorney for the Anderson family who requested the John Doe hearing.

Motley also represents the families of Gonzales and Cole.

Anderson’s death unfolded just after 3 a.m. on June 23, 2016, when Mensah found him sleeping in a car in Madison Park.

“Approximately five and one-half minutes after Officer Mensah entered the park, Mr. Anderson was shot,” Yamahiro said.

Mensah claimed he opened fire in self-defense when Anderson “lunged for a gun” that was in the passenger seat of the car he was in, according to evidence presented at the John Doe hearing Yamahiro held between Feb. 19 and May 19 of this year.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Yamahiro said Mensah failed to activate his body-worn camera until after the shooting and did not turn on his squad car’s emergency lights, which would have automatically switched on his vehicle’s dashboard camera. Mensah’s body-worn camera, however, activated automatically and recorded about 25 seconds of the incident without audio and captured the shooting.

“The court has also heard testimony that Officer Mensah failed to activate his emergency lights or recording equipment at the time Antonio Gonzales was shot in 2015,” Yamahiro noted.

In an interview with Milwaukee Police Department investigators, the agency assigned to conduct an independent investigation of the shooting, Mensah claimed that when he approached the vehicle Anderson was in, he saw a handgun through the open passenger-side window lying on the passenger seat.

Mensah claimed that Anderson initially complied with orders to put his hands up, but during the encounter, he claimed Anderson appeared to reach for the gun with his right hand four different times before he lunged for the weapon, according to his statement to investigators.

During the John Doe hearing, two retired police homicide detectives testifying as expert witnesses claimed Mensah’s story of how Anderson was shot conflicted with the physical evidence at the crime scene and the findings of an autopsy that showed Mensah was shot three times in the right side of his head and once in the right shoulder.

Ricky Burems, a retired Milwaukee Police Department detective who has investigated more than 1,000 homicides, testified that if Anderson had been lunging for the gun, he would have sustained wounds to the front of his body, the front of his head or his upper chest and even the top of his head. Burems also said there would have been blood on the passenger seat.

“All of the blood was on the driver’s seat, the driver’s floor, the roof of the driver’s seat, the backrest, the pad or bottom where your legs and butt are and also the driver’s headrest,” Burems said, according to a transcript of his testimony that Yamahiro read in court Wednesday.

“So that tells me that when Mr. Anderson was shot, he was facing straight ahead. If Mr. Anderson had been lunging toward the passenger seat, that’s where his body would have been,” Burems testified. “So there’s no way that he could be shot while extending or leaning or lunging toward the passenger seat and then afterward be upright in the driver’s seat with his hands on his lap.”

Yamahiro also said that before Milwaukee police investigators arrived at Madison Park, the crime scene was compromised by other Wauwatosa police officers who removed the gun from Anderson’s car without first taking photos of the weapon and the position it was in when Anderson was shot.

“That is critical evidence that the Milwaukee Police Department didn’t get to, because Wauwatosa had already handled the gun and already moved it from the car, and already cleared it,” Yamahiro said. “I don’t know if that means they unloaded it or if they looked and saw there were no bullets in it, to begin with.”

Efforts by ABC News to reach Mensah on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office, where Mensah now works, released a statement saying, “In light of Judge Glenn Yamahiro’s decision regarding Joseph Mensah, Sheriff Eric Severson will be reviewing all of his options, and will have a more detailed statement and decision forthcoming.”

Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis, who has been on the job for just three days, read a statement during a brief news conference, saying, “The officers of the Wauwatosa Police Department continue their dedication to public safety for all citizens and understand that this is a time for community healing and trust-building.”

MacGillis said he has contacted the Anderson family in private to express his condolences.

“Now is the time to process the judge’s decision and then move forward,” MacGillis said. “The legal process has played itself out, and it’s going to continue to play itself out. My role is to lead this department, look at processes, look at how we function as an organization.”

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Indianapolis FedEx facility mass shooter wanted to ‘demonstrate his masculinity,’ FBI says

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The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit concluded that the shooter who killed eight at a FedEx facility in April carried out the shooting as “an act of suicidal murder.”

“The shooter decided to commit suicide in a way which he believed would demonstrate his masculinity and capability of fulfilling a final desire to experience killing people,” FBI Indianapolis Special Agent in Charge Paul Keenan said at a press conference announcing the results of the investigation Wednesday.

In April, Brandon Scott Hole allegedly opened fire outside the building and in a locker room area of the FedEx facility just outside of Indianapolis.

Hole was “indiscriminate” at who he shot at both inside and outside of the facility, adding that he was outside for a total of three minutes before walking back into the locker room and taking his own life, Craig McCartt, deputy chief of investigations for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, said.

He was stopped from entering the facility by the physical security barriers put in place.

“It certainty could’ve been much worse had he gotten access to the back part of that facility where there was a lot of other employees,” McCartt said.

Acting U.S. Attorney John Childress said Hole was “exacerbated by mental health issues.”

The Behavioral Analysis Unit concluded that shooter “did not appear” to be motivated by the need to address any injustices, nor did the shooter “appear to have been motivated by bias, or desire to advance any ideology.” Four of the victims of the shooting came from the area’s Sikh community.

The FBI said that after examining over 175,000 files on his computer they found 200 files of “mainly German military, German Nazi things.”

“But there was no indication that there was any animosity towards the Sikh community or any other group for that matter,” Keenan said.

The FBI said there wasn’t any evidence to suggest he targeted the FedEx facility other than that is a location he knew well. Also, the FBI said 73% of mass shooters carry out an attack at a place with which they are familiar. Hole had worked at the facility from August to October 2020.

“He also incorrectly believed he had identified a vulnerability which would have given him unobscured access to many potential victims,” Keenan said.

McCartt also said that Hole’s mother reported him to the IMPD in March 2020, saying he might want to carry out suicide by cop after which the department confiscated a shotgun belonging to Hole. A police report from that incident showed that officers also observed white supremacist material on Hole’s computer.

“He never got that gun back in his possession, but then some months later he was able to buy more firearms,” McCartt explained.

The FBI said Hole started acquiring guns that were used in the eventual shooting in July 2020.

The shooter simply just stopped showing up for work and that is why he lost his job, McCartt explained, adding Hole acted alone in his efforts.

“In talking with other employees and FedEx personnel, he had never had any kind of issue there,” McCartt added.
 

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Mandatory vaccines for some New York state-run hospital workers

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(NEW YORK) — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday announced that all patient-facing health care workers in hospitals run by the state will be required to get vaccinated. He said, “There will be no testing option.”
 
Additionally, as of Labor Day, all state employees must either be vaccinated or get tested on a weekly basis.
 
Governor Cuomo said the decision was made due to the “dramatic action” needed to control a surge in COVID-19 cases linked to the Delta variant. He said school districts in areas of high transmission should also consider taking a more aggressive approach.
 
“I understand the politics, but I understand if we don’t take the right actions, schools can become super-spreaders in September,” Cuomo said.
 
Calling on private sector businesses, Cumo said they should incentivize vaccinations by only allowing vaccinated people in. 
 
75% of adults in New York state have been vaccinated. 

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Colorado officers arrested after body cam video shows suspect being choked

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(AURORA, Colo.) — Two Colorado officers from the Aurora Police Department are facing charges after body camera footage purportedly shows one hitting a suspect in the head and then choking him.

Officers John Haubert and Francine Martinez responded to a reported trespassing, attempting to arrest 29-year-old Kyle Vincent and two other adult men. 

Martinez learned that they all had felony warrants, and the officers tried to take them into custody. When two of the men fled, Haubert drew a pistol and directed it at Vincent.

Haubert grabbed the back of his neck and pressed the gun against Vincent’s head. 

The man denied having a warrant and attempted to avoid being handcuffed. Police say Haubert came on top of the man and grabbed the side of his neck, hitting him with the gun 13 times.

Haubert is facing three felony charges; attempted first-degree assault, second-degree assault and felony menacing. There is also misdemeanor charges of official oppression and official misconduct.

“This is not the Aurora Police Department, this is criminal,” said Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson.

Officer Martinez faces criminal charges for not intervening.

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NASA’s new mission studies how intense thunderstorms may influence climate change

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(SALINA, Kan.) — NASA recently began new research to investigate how extreme summer weather may be affecting the upper layers of earth’s atmosphere.

Kenneth Bowman, Ph.D., the principal investigator for the Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS) research project, spoke to reporters about the project during a press briefing on Tuesday. He said their goal is to understand how intense summer thunderstorms over the U.S. affect the stratosphere — the second layer of earth’s atmosphere as you move toward space — especially as climate change causes severe thunderstorms to occur more often.

“Most thunderstorms occur in the lower layer of the atmosphere, which we call the troposphere. But when we get particularly intense thunderstorms, the updrafts — the rising air in the storm — can actually overshoot into the layer above, which is the stratosphere,” Bowman said.

He said that when this happens, the air in the troposphere can rise up to the stratosphere in as little as 20 to 30 minutes. Those updrafts can transport pollutants and water that might not normally reach this level of the atmosphere in such a short amount of time.

The stratosphere is usually dry, according to the project’s website, and the water and pollutants may “have a significant impact on radiative and chemical processes” in the atmospheric layer.

David Wilmouth, Ph.D., a scientist at Harvard University who is working on the project, said the updrafts could potentially “change the chemical composition of the stratosphere, a process that would not otherwise happen.” Their work will determine if that’s the case.

Bowman explained that the stratosphere is important because it contains the Earth’s ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation that comes from the sun. About 90% of the world’s ozone layer exists within the stratosphere, according to Wilmouth.

Wilmouth said the ozone layer is “critical” for protecting life on earth. If its protective shield was to weaken, humans would be more susceptible to skin cancer, cataracts disease and an impaired immune system, according to NASA.

Dan Csziczo, Ph.D., a professor and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University, said during the briefing that their goal is specifically to understand the composition and size of the particles that make their way up to the stratosphere, and how they might influence the earth’s climate. Csziczo said the research would also help scientists understand the process of cloud formation and subsequent precipitation.

Understanding the relationship between climate change and particulate matter in the air is critical because, ultimately, each of them might exacerbate the impact of the other on humans’ health and way of life.

For the project, NASA is working with several universities across the country, as well as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The mission consists of three eight-week-long deployments over the course of the 2021 and 2022 summer seasons. The DCOTSS will be using NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft for the mission.

DCOTSS will be operated out of Salina, Kansas, a site chosen by the researchers due to its central location within the U.S. It’s also a region of the country that’s particularly prone to severe and intense thunderstorms during the summer.

The ER-2 aircraft is equipped with fully robotic, pre-programmed instruments that can measure the gases and particles that come out of the overshooting tops of the thunderstorms, as well as meteorological information, such as water vapor, Wilmouth said.

The aircraft can only transport its pilot, who must wear a pressurized suit to withstand the high altitudes, which can go as high as 70,000 feet — about twice the altitude of typical commercial airlines, according to the project’s website.

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How students fared during first full school year of COVID-19 pandemic

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(PORTLAND, Ore.) — After a full school year during the COVID-19 pandemic, elementary and middle school students are heading into the fall with lower rates of achievement gains in reading and math than they would have during a typical school year, new research shows.

The researchers say the results were worse in high-poverty areas and could have been even worse overall had thousands of students “missing” from school systems been counted. Separately, they say that it would take “unprecedented” levels of growth to make up for the past school year.

NWEA, a Portland-Oregon-based education research organization that develops pre-K-12 assessments, expedited research on test scores from the 2020-21 school year to help spotlight student needs ahead of the fall.

Researchers compared gains in student achievement in grades 3-8 across the school year to pre-pandemic levels — specifically, the 2018-19 school year — based on the average results of its MAP Growth assessments in reading and math.

They found that, looking at the results of 5.5 million test-takers, students did make modest progress overall over the course of the school year — but not as much as during a typical year. Compared to 2018-19, average achievement gains declined 3 to 6 percentile points in reading depending on the grade level. There was an even steeper decline in math, between 8 and 12 percentile points.

Unexpectedly, the gains in math and reading decelerated between winter and spring relative to a typical school year, researchers found.

“I think many of us expected to maybe start to see some signs of hope closer to the spring, when more kids were returning to the classroom,” Karyn Lewis, a senior research scientist with NWEA, told ABC News. “So that that’s when learning really stalled more was surprising to me.”

Lewis pointed to “pandemic fatigue” as possibly being behind the unanticipated results.

“When I think back and reflect on my own experiences in the winter, that’s I think when pandemic fatigue really started to set in,” she said. “I think that it’s starting to show in these data that kids were also affected.”

When they dug deeper into the data, researchers found that there were even greater declines in math and reading progress for disadvantaged students. Those attending high-poverty schools showed more than double the declines of students attending low-poverty schools for many grades. This was especially pronounced at the elementary level: Third graders in high-poverty schools showed 11-percentile-point declines in reading and 17 percentile-point-declines in math, the report found.

“We know that the pandemic was not an even crisis across families in our country, and families in high-poverty situations were impacted in different ways,” Lewis said. “Parents were less likely to be able to stay home and support virtual learning opportunities because of the way their jobs were structured. These homes may have had less reliable internet access or less reliable access to a dedicated computer. … It’s just layer upon layer of different factors that I think are probably attributing to this.”

The recent findings don’t show the complete picture, Lewis said, due to a higher attrition rate than normal — and so-called “missing” students likely adding to the lower achievers. The overall attrition rate for the 2020-21 school year was about 20%, researchers said — meaning 1 in 5 students who tested the prior year did not test this year. For 2018-19, the overall attrition rate was 13%.

“The kids that went missing are not the random sample of students but are more likely to be in schools that serve a high proportion of kids in poverty, that were lower achieving in prior years and that were from communities of color,” Lewis said. “This may actually be kind of the best-case scenario because we are missing the voices of many of the students in these groups that were most impacted.”

Researchers also emphasized that their work didn’t specifically address the impact of remote learning on performance.

“This national data is fantastic for giving us the lay of the broad landscape, but we really need as districts and schools come back to lean into the local context and look at our own data and see how that compares with the trends that we’re seeing nationally,” Brooke Mabry, strategic content design manager for NWEA’s Professional Learning Design team, told ABC News.

With students going into the fall with, on average, lower gains in math and reading, there would need to be “unprecedented” levels of growth to catch up, Lewis said. The delta variant may also throw a “big curveball” for schools this fall, as COVID-19 cases rise across the country. But there are signs of hope, researchers said.

“We do know that what we learned from what happened with kids over the summer months, when they are out of school altogether, the kids that seem to lose the most across the summer period are also those that tend to rebound the quickest when they’re back in the classroom,” Lewis said. 

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