Cyberattacks Increasingly Hobble Pandemic-Weary US Schools

For teachers at a middle school in New Mexico’s largest city, the first inkling of a widespread tech problem came during an early morning staff call. On the video, there were shout-outs for a new custodian for his hard work, and the typical announcements from administrators and the union rep. But in the chat, there were hints of a looming crisis. Nobody could open attendance records, and everyone was locked out of class rosters and grades. Albuquerque administrators later confirmed the outage that blocked access to the district’s student database — which also includes emergency contacts and lists of which adults are authorized to pick up which children — was due to a ransomware attack. “I didn’t realize how important it was until I couldn’t use it,” said Sarah Hager, a Cleveland Middle School art teacher. Cyberattacks like the one that canceled classes for two days in Albuquerque’s biggest school district have become a growing threat to U.S. schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year. And the coronavirus pandemic has compounded their effects: More money has been demanded, and more schools have had to shut down as they scramble to recover data or even manually wipe all laptops. “Pretty much any way that you cut it, incidents have both been growing more frequent and more significant,” said Doug Levin, director of the K12 Security Information Exchange, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps schools defend against cybersecurity risk. Precise data is hard to come by since most schools are not …

US FDA Gives Full Approval to Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ((FDA)) Monday gave full approval to U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which will be marketed under the name Spikevax. The vaccine has been widely distributed in the United States and around the world under the FDA’s emergency use authorization since December of 2020. It is the second COVID-19 vaccine the agency has fully approved, after Pfizer’s vaccine received the designation in August of 2021. In a statement, acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said full authorization of the vaccine is an important step in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that while hundreds of millions of doses of the Moderna shot have been administered under the emergency use authorization, she understands “for some individuals, FDA approval of this vaccine may instill additional confidence in making the decision to get vaccinated.” Woodcock said the public can be assured that the Moderna vaccine “meets the FDA’s high standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality required of any vaccine approved for use in the United States.” The Moderna vaccine has been approved for use in more than 70 countries including Britain, Canada, Japan and those in the European Union. Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters. …

Military to Aid Outback Town Cut Off by Australian Floods

The Australian air force is preparing to deliver 20 tons of emergency supplies to remote communities cut off by flood waters. Traffic has been disrupted on the main highway and railway between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory.     Heavy rain and storms in recent days have damaged freight routes in South Australia.  A 14-day major emergency was declared Friday by state authorities. It gives the police special powers to ensure food reaches isolated communities.  South Australia has a population of 1.7 million who are already under a major emergency declaration for COVID-19. The state was also badly impacted by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, although the floods have occurred away from the areas worst-hit by the fires.  The area is expected to receive yet more rain, with up to 200 millimeters forecast in the coming days.   A military plane is scheduled to land Monday in the outback settlement of Coober Pedy to deliver food and other essentials.   The town is 850 kilometers north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway and is known as the “opal capital of the world” because of its mining resources. The impact on mining and farming might not be known for days.  Tim Jackson, the administrator of the Coober Pedy Council, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the arrival of supplies would ease community concerns.  “People are pretty relaxed generally speaking, I think, and particularly now that they know there is a significant food drop being made …

Beijing Seals Off More Residential Areas, Reports 12 Cases

Beijing officials said Sunday they sealed off several residential communities in the city’s northern district after two cases of COVID-19 were found. Residents in the Anzhenli neighborhood in Chaoyang district were sealed off on Saturday, and will not be allowed to leave their compound. Beijing is on high alert as it prepares to host the Olympic Games opening on Friday. While the cases are low compared to other countries in the region, China has double down on its “zero-tolerance” policy, which includes breaking the chain of transmission as soon as it is found. The city is also setting up 19 points in the area to test residents every day until Friday, officials said at a briefing on the pandemic, according to state-backed Beijing News. The Chinese capital reported a total of 12 cases of COVID-19 between 4 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, said Pang Xinghuo, the vice head of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control. All those cases came from people who were already under some kind of pandemic control measures. The city conducted multiple rounds of testing for millions of residents this past week in Fengtai district, where some residential compounds were locked down. …

2 NY Nurses Allegedly Forged COVID Vaccination Cards, Made $1.5 Million

New York authorities have arrested two Long Island nurses who officials say made more than $1.5 million by forging COVID-19 vaccination cards. Julie DeVuono, the owner of Wild Child Pediatric Healthcare and her employee, Marissa Urraro, have been charged with felony forgery, authorities say. DeVuono was also charged with offering a false instrument for filing. Officials say the two women entered the false information on the cards into New York’s immunization database. The Suffolk County district attorney’s office said the women sold the fake cards for $220 for adults and $85 for children. Officials say about $900,000 in cash was seized from DeVuono’s home. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, is in self-isolation until Tuesday after a possible COVID exposure on a flight to Auckland, officials said Saturday. “The prime minister is asymptomatic and is feeling well,” her office said. She is scheduled to be tested for the virus Sunday. India’s health ministry said Sunday that 234,281 people had tested positive for COVID in the previous 24-hour period. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 daily cases of the coronavirus were reported in Russia for the first time Saturday as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads throughout the country. The government’s coronavirus task force reported a record high 113,122 new cases, a sevenfold increase from earlier in January.     …

Myanmar Cybersecurity Law ‘Days’ Away as Coup Anniversary Nears

Myanmar’s military government is set to pass a new cybersecurity law that will ban the use of internet services, a move that has been condemned by digital rights activists and business groups. The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since a coup by the military last February. A widespread grassroots movement has seen thousands refuse to accept military rule, with anti-coup communications and demonstrations now largely mobilized online. But a draft bill released by the junta, if passed, would criminalize the use of virtual private networks and online gambling, carrying a punishment of one to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $2,800. The first draft of the bill was released last year, but progress on the legislation slowed after substantial public outcry and industrywide criticism. The legislation is expected to become law next week. “We are speculating the bill will actually be official within just a few days, it might come before the first of February,” Ma Htike, a digital rights activist, told VOA. People living in Myanmar rely heavily on internet access, especially social media platforms such as Facebook, for news, and many have struggled to get online since the junta took control of the country’s telecommunication regulators after the Feb. 1, 2021, coup. Major Norwegian telecommunication operator Telenor recently quit its operations inside the country because of the political situation. The military regularly shuts down the internet, routinely blocks social media platforms and censors what information can be found online, all in the name of …

Hong Kong Allows Pet Stores to Resume Hamster Sales After COVID Cull

Dozens of pet stores that sold hamsters in Hong Kong may resume business starting Sunday, Hong Kong’s government said, after being shuttered last week and culling thousands of hamsters over coronavirus fears. Authorities enraged pet lovers with an order to cull more than 2,200 hamsters after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive. Imported hamsters from Holland into the Chinese territory had been cited as the source. All hamster imports remain banned. The city’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said in a statement late Saturday that it collected 1,134 samples from animals other than hamsters including rabbits and chinchillas, which were all negative. Five stores, including the Little Boss pet shop, where authorities traced the outbreak, remained closed until they pass “the virus test,” the government said. “All the other concerned pet shops on the other hand have been thoroughly disinfected and cleaned and the environmental swabs collected from these shops have all passed the COVID-19 virus test,” it said. The government said on Friday it would compensate pet shops trading in hamsters, offering a one-off payment of up to $3,850. People who had in recent weeks bought hamsters, popular apartment pets in the congested city, were ordered to surrender them for testing and what the government described as “humane dispatch.” Thousands of people offered to adopt unwanted hamsters amid a public outcry against the government and its pandemic advisers, which authorities called irrational. A study published in The Lancet medical journal, which …

Australia Promises Multimillion Dollar Plan to Tackle Great Barrier Reef Pollution

There has been a mixed response to Australia’s $700 million plan to combat water pollution on the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system. The nine-year Australian plan promises to fund projects that reduce erosion and pesticides and fertilizers running off farmland into the sea.  There will be other conservation efforts, including combating coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish and illegal fishing. The Australian Marine Conservation Society has welcomed the initiative.  It said that curbing pollution was essential to build the reef’s “resilience to climate change.”  Environment Minister Sussan Ley says the plan will help protect one of the country’s great natural treasures.   “This is an extraordinary investment in a reef.  I don’t think there has ever been one as large anywhere in the world,” said Ley. “The reef economy is worth 6.4 billion [Australian] dollars, there are 64,000 jobs that depend on the reef and if you live anywhere along one of our reef communities in Queensland, you know how important it is.  So, it is also about COVID recovery because our tourism operators are waiting to show national and international tourists our beautiful Great Barrier Reef.” However, other scientists have said that action to improve water quality will mean nothing if global carbon emissions are not reduced.   They have identified climate change as the major threat to the 344,400-square-kilometer ecosystem that stretches down Australia’s northeast coast.  Warming ocean temperatures have caused widespread coral bleaching in recent years.   Under stress, the corals expel symbiotic algae, which live in their tissues, …

Scientists Call Rich Nations’ Failure to Provide Vaccines to World ‘Reckless’

A group of 300 scientists say wealthy nations’ failure to provide the rest of the world with access to COVID-19 vaccines is a “reckless approach to public health” that results in conditions that allow for variants, such as the highly contagious omicron variant, to emerge. In a letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the scientists said Britain’s people and the National Health Service have been placed at risk because of the UK’s global vaccination policy, according to a report in The Telegraph. Reuters reports that the letter urges Britain to support the waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-17 vaccines, tests and treatments. The scientists who signed the letter include a Nobel prize winner and a former National Health Service chief executive, The Telegraph reported. Three billion people worldwide remain unvaccinated. Nineteen COVID-19 cases were reported Friday among Winter Olympics athletes and officials in China, bringing their total number of cases to 36. Pope Francis said Friday at the International Catholic Media Consortium on COVID-19 Vaccines, “To be properly informed, to be helped to understand situations based on scientific data and not fake news, is a human right.” More than 370 million global COVID-19 infections have been recorded, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and nearly 10 billion vaccine doses have been administered. …

Omicron Drives US Deaths Higher Than in Fall’s Delta Wave

Omicron, the highly contagious coronavirus variant sweeping across the country, is driving the daily American death toll higher than was the case during last fall’s delta wave, with deaths likely to keep rising for days or even weeks.  The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been climbing since mid-November, reaching 2,267 on Thursday and surpassing a September peak of 2,100 when delta was the dominant variant.  Now omicron is estimated to account for nearly all the virus circulating in the nation. And even though it causes less severe disease for most people, the fact that it is more transmissible means more people are falling ill and dying.  “Omicron will push us over a million deaths,” said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California-Irvine. “That will cause a lot of soul searching. There will be a lot of discussion about what we could have done differently, how many of the deaths were preventable.”  The average daily death toll is now at the same level as last February, when the country was slowly coming off its all-time high of 3,300 a day.  More Americans are taking precautionary measures against the virus than before the omicron surge, according to an AP-NORC poll this week. But many people, fatigued by crisis, are returning to some level of normality with hopes that vaccinations or prior infections will protect them.  Omicron symptoms are often milder, and some infected people show none, researchers agree. But like the …