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News brief: omicron variant, border policy, Alec Baldwin interview

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

More cases of the omicron variant are being identified in the U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, that's right. Cases have now been identified in Colorado, Minnesota, New York and Hawaii. You'll remember that California identified its first case earlier this week.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Allison Aubrey is following this one. Allison, at this point, can we say this variant is moving pretty quickly?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yeah, we're certainly learning about a lot more cases. In the Minnesota case reported yesterday, a man traveled to New York City for a convention where a vaccination requirement was in place. The man was fully vaccinated. He tested positive on November 24. He experienced mild symptoms, which have resolved, so he's better. I spoke to Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency. The first U.S. case was identified in California earlier this week.

MARK GHALY: The common thread between both the case here in California and the case in Minnesota is fully vaccinated people who became infected but had mild symptoms and are recovering. And so to me, one of the most important take-homes is increasing evidence that the vaccines protect against severe disease and that people should get vaccinated and boosted as soon as they're eligible.

AUBREY: And among the latest reports, A, we've learned of five cases in the New York City area. At least one was connected to travel from South Africa. The case in Hawaii was not connected to travel.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned the Minnesota man infected with omicron had attended a conference in New York City. Is there concern that we could see more cases linked to that conference?

AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people were gathered indoors for the anime convention at the Javits Center. On Twitter, New York City officials are urging people who attended the anime conference to get tested. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the convention had mandated all attendees to be vaccinated and also required masks. He said local officials are working with convention organizers and the CDC to track this. They're also trying to contact trace the other cases that have been identified, including the ones in Queens and Brooklyn. De Blasio said at this point, people should assume that there are more cases in the city.

MARTINEZ: We're watching out for omicron. President Biden announced some new measures aimed at boosting detection and prevention this winter. What's he calling for?

AUBREY: Well, one announcement was aimed at making over-the-counter rapid COVID tests more affordable. The tests are pretty expensive - about $12 a test on average. So for a family of four, about 50 bucks to test everyone just once. So the president announced yesterday that private health insurance plans will soon reimburse people who buy them. Here's the president.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The actions I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind and should unite us in the fight against COVID-19.

AUBREY: He also announced stricter COVID testing rules for people flying into the United States from other countries.

MARTINEZ: What do public health and infectious disease experts make of this plan?

AUBREY: You know, many say the administration could go further given the potential threat. Dr. Zeke Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania says to encourage vaccination more, he'd like to see stronger rules for travel - airline travel within the United States.

ZEKE EMANUEL: One requirement that could be very effective is requiring Americans who are going to fly domestically to get vaccinated.

AUBREY: Or require negative test results. Now, it is possible that the threat of omicron is motivating some people to get vaccinated or boosted. Yesterday, 2.2 million doses were administered. That was the highest single-day total in nearly seven months.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you.

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KING: A border policy created during the Trump administration will restart as soon as Monday.

MARTINEZ: The so-called Remain in Mexico policy forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico before their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration tried to end the policy.

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JEN PSAKI: Deeply flawed. That's why we stopped enrolling individuals in the program on day one and subsequently issued a memorandum in June terminating the program.

MARTINEZ: But a federal court ordered the administration to revive it earlier this year, and now the United States and Mexico have reached a deal to do just that.

KING: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He's been following this one. Good morning, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So, no surprise, the Biden administration does not like this policy. Did they have any say in it being brought back?

ROSE: Well, Biden administration officials insist that they're doing this under duress, as you heard. I mean, they continue to argue that Remain in Mexico was a flawed policy. But a federal judge ordered them to restart it anyway, so administration officials say they're just following that order in good faith. However, immigration advocates are not totally convinced. I mean, there are some who think the administration really wants to deter migrants from seeking asylum at the border for political reasons and that they're using this judge's order as cover to do that.

KING: Could you remind us of the origins of Remain in Mexico?

ROSE: Sure. The policy began under former President Trump. About 70,000 migrants were returned to Mexico under this policy. Many of them lived in makeshift tent camps or in dangerous border towns where they were targets for kidnapping and violence. President Biden tried to end the program, but the states of Texas and Missouri went to court. They argued that the administration had ended the policy unlawfully. And they also argue that was one reason why border arrests rose this year to historic levels. A federal judge, who was appointed by the way by President Trump, agreed and ordered the Biden administration to restart the program. So for months now, the U.S. and Mexico have been negotiating over how to do that with what they call key changes to address humanitarian concerns.

KING: What kind of changes?

ROSE: Well, so the new version of Remain in Mexico will expand the number of "vulnerable migrants," quote-unquote, who will be excluded from the program. Migrants in the program are supposed to have better access to lawyers and more security in Mexico. And they'll also be offered the COVID-19 vaccine if they want it.

KING: I remember covering Remain in Mexico, and it did feel very unsafe. I wonder at this point, with those changes, do immigrant advocates say this will get better?

ROSE: No, in a word. I mean, I talked to Eleanor Acer at Human Rights First, which is the nonprofit that documented more than 1,500 violent attacks on migrants in Remain in Mexico. Here's some of what she said.

ELEANOR ACER: The program is designed to return people to a place where their lives are in danger, to prevent them from having meaningful access to counsel, and no amount of lip service to legal representation and due process can erase that reality.

ROSE: You know, advocates are also unhappy with another change this time around. All migrants from the Western Hemisphere are included in the Remain in Mexico policy. Originally, Mexico only agreed to take back Spanish-speaking migrants. But now that is expanding to include Haitians and Brazilians, you know. And to immigrant advocates, this is another sign that this is really all about deterrence, no matter how the administration wants to frame it.

KING: OK. NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: Hey, you're welcome.

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KING: Alec Baldwin says he, quote, "didn't pull the trigger" in his first interview about the fatal accident on the set of the movie "Rust."

MARTINEZ: Baldwin told George Stephanopoulos on ABC. He was rehearsing camera angles when a gun went off and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in October and injured director Joel Souza.

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ALEC BALDWIN: I was told I was handed an empty gun. There were cosmetic rounds - nothing with a charge at all, a flash round, nothing. She goes down. I thought to myself, did she faint?

MARTINEZ: He says it didn't occur to him until 45 minutes later that there could have been a live round in the gun.

KING: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans was watching that interview. Good morning, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: How is it possible that Alec Baldwin didn't pull a trigger but a woman ended up dead of a gunshot?

DEGGANS: Well, Baldwin said he was doing what was called a marking rehearsal - manipulating the gun at the cinematographer's direction so she could see what the scene would look like in a monitor. And as part of the rehearsal, he says he pulled back the hammer on the gun and released it, and that's when the gun went off. Let's listen to another clip.

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BALDWIN: Now, in this scene, I'm going to cock the gun. And I said, do you want to see that? And she said, yes. So I take the gun, and I start to cock the gun. I'm not going to pull the trigger. I said, do you see that? She goes, well, just cheat it down and tilt it down a little bit like that. And I cocked the gun. I go, can you see that? Can you see that? Can you see that? And she says - and then I let go of the hammer of the gun and the gun goes off.

DEGGANS: Now, hopefully, investigators can determine what happened with the gun, particularly whether it could have fired without pulling the trigger, as Baldwin insists happened.

KING: Did he level blame at anyone in this interview?

DEGGANS: Well, not exactly. In fact, Baldwin walked a fine line between implying that other people didn't do their jobs while making it plain that he feels he wasn't at fault, but also saying that he doesn't want anyone else to suffer and not specifically indicating who may have made a mistake. Now, he did note, as had been reported earlier, that assistant director Dave Halls handed him the prop weapon and said it was a cold gun, meaning it wasn't dangerous. And when George Stephanopoulos pointed out that some people have said a gun should never be pointed at anyone ever on a set, Baldwin noted that the cinematographer was instructing him to aim the gun, and he trusted that the people in charge of the prop weapons knew their jobs, including the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed. Now, Baldwin focused the discussion on one question - where did the live round come from? Just this week, the Santa Fe Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant in a local prop supplier to compare the rounds there to the ones that were found on the set. So authorities may learn a bit more about the answer to that question soon.

KING: OK. How did Alec Baldwin come across in this interview?

DEGGANS: I think he came across pretty well. I mean, we're not used to seeing celebrities speak out so freely at this point in a hugely public controversy. There have already been two lawsuits filed. And as Baldwin noted, police haven't submitted a final report to the district attorney's office. But Baldwin said he wanted to speak out now because he wanted to combat a number of misconceptions. And he addressed a lot of criticisms and questions. Law enforcement and prosecutors haven't pressed any charges yet, and they've said this is going to be a long process. But I think Alec Baldwin gave a masterclass on how to get in front of the news without creating more problems for himself.

KING: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you, Eric.

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