AP News in Brief at 6:03 a.m. EST | Health and Fitness

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New turning point? More countries easing COVID restrictions

GENEVA (AP) — Late-night disco partying. Elbow-to-elbow seating in movie theaters. Mask-free bearing of faces in public, especially in Europe and North America: Bit by bit, many countries that have been hard-hit by the coronavirus are opening up and easing their tough, and often unpopular, restrictive measures aimed to fight COVID-19 even as the omicron variant — deemed less severe — has caused cases to skyrocket.

The early moves to relax such restrictions evoke a new turning point in a nearly two-year pandemic that has been full of them.

Omicron, the Geneva-based World Health Organization says, has fueled more cases — 90 million — in the world over the last 10 weeks than during all of 2020, the outbreak’s first full year. WHO acknowledges some countries can judiciously consider easing the rules if they boast high immunity rates, strong health care systems and favorable epidemiological curves.

Omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, according to studies. Omicron spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus.

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But the U.N. health agency, ever leery about how a virus still spreading widely might evolve, warned about underestimating omicron.

Putin accuses US, allies of ignoring Russian security needs

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday accused the U.S. and its allies of ignoring Russia’s top security demands but said Moscow is willing to talk more to ease tensions over Ukraine.

The comments were his first on the standoff in more than a month and suggested a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine may not be imminent and that at least one more round of diplomacy is likely.

Yet the two sides remain unyielding in their main positions, and there was little apparent hope for concessions. Russia is expected to respond soon to a U.S. proposal for negotiations on lesser Russian demands after which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will speak.

Lavrov and Blinken spoke Tuesday and reiterated positions put forward by Putin and President Joe Biden. The White House said Biden and Putin could also speak once the U.S. receives Russia’s response.

In remarks to reporters at a Moscow news conference with the visiting leader of NATO ally Hungary, Putin said the Kremlin is still studying the U.S. and NATO’s response to the Russian security demands received last week. But he said it was clear that the West has ignored Russian demands that NATO not expand to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations, refrain from deploying offensive weapons near Russia and roll back its deployments to Eastern Europe.

As Russia tensions boil, US farmer remains jailed in Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Kurt Groszhans set out from North Dakota for Ukraine in 2017, he was eager to connect with his family’s ancestral homeland and to farm the rich, black soil for which the country is known.

But his farming venture with a law professor who’s now a high-ranking Ukrainian government official soon collapsed in acrimony and accusations, culminating in his arrest last November on charges of plotting to assassinate his former business partner. His family and supporters say the accusations are bogus and designed to silence Groszhan’s claims of corruption in Ukraine, a country pulled between Russian and Western interests and straining to shed its reputation for graft and cronyism.

The case is unfolding as Ukraine braces for a potential Russian invasion and as the U.S. has ordered the families of American personnel at the U.S. Embassy there to evacuate,. The upheaval has Groszhan’s family afraid that the North Dakota farmer could be left behind, with the U.S. government preoccupied with broader concerns of possible military action and geopolitical chaos.

“We’re terrified for my brother’s well-being right now, especially everything that you’re hearing in the news with the Russian troops on the border,” his sister, Kristi Magnusson, said in an interview with The Associated Press. With fears an invasion could force the evacuation of U.S. diplomatic staff, she called on the Biden administration and the State Department to “use their leverage” to get him home.

“If the embassy is not there to check on him and make sure that he’s doing OK, we don’t know what will happen,” she added.

For Taiwan’s Olympics team, everything is in a name

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — For Taiwan, every appearance on the global stage is fraught with politics — and even more so when that stage is China.

The four Taiwanese athletes competing in Beijing for the Winter Olympics, which open Friday, can’t use Taiwan’s flag. They have long competed under a name — Chinese Taipei — that is rarely used and was forced on the team by a geopolitical divide that predates the Cold War.

Maggie Lee, a 19-year-old slalom skier, found herself giving people an impromptu lesson in the name as she traveled across Europe for training and competitions ahead of the Olympics.

“When I’m meeting people, I’ll tell them I’m from Taiwan, because if you tell people you’re from Chinese Taipei, nobody knows where you’re from, you can’t find it on Google,” she said.

Taiwan is an island of 24 million people off China’s east coast. It functions as a country with its own government and military. But China claims Taiwan as its territory, and only 14 countries recognize Taiwan as a nation. Most of the world, including the United States, have official ties with China instead.

ABC suspends Whoopi Goldberg over Holocaust race remarks

NEW YORK (AP) — Whoopi Goldberg was suspended for two weeks Tuesday as co-host of “The View” because of what the head of ABC News called her “wrong and hurtful comments” about Jews and the Holocaust.

“While Whoopi has apologized, I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments. The entire ABC News organization stands in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities,” ABC News President Kim Godwin said in a statement.

The suspension came a day after Goldberg’s comment during a discussion on “The View” that race was not a factor in the Holocaust. Goldberg apologized hours later and again on Tuesday’s morning episode, but the original remark drew condemnation from several prominent Jewish leaders.

“My words upset so many people, which was never my intention,” she said Tuesday morning. “I understand why now and for that I am deeply, deeply grateful because the information I got was really helpful and helped me understand some different things.”

Goldberg made her original comments during a discussion on the show Monday about a Tennessee school board’s banning of “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Nazi death camps during World War II. She said the Holocaust was “not about race … it’s about man’s inhumanity to other man.”

Biden aims to reduce cancer deaths by 50% over next 25 years

President Joe Biden is committing to reduce the cancer death rate by 50% — a new goal for the “moonshot” initiative against the disease that was announced in 2016 when he was vice president.

Biden has set a 25-year timeline for achieving that goal, part of his broader effort to end cancer as we know it, according to senior administration officials who previewed Wednesday’s announcement on the condition of anonymity.

The issue is deeply personal for Biden: He lost his eldest son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.

The pain experienced by the president is shared by many Americans. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 1,918,030 new cancer cases and 609,360 cancer deaths this year. What Biden is aiming to do is essentially save more than 300,000 lives annually from the disease, something the administration believes is possible because the age-adjusted death rate has already fallen by roughly 25% over the past two decades.

Biden was scheduled to give remarks Wednesday from the East Room of the White House, along with his wife, Jill, and Vice President Kamala Harris. Also scheduled to attend the speech: members of Congress and the administration and about 100 members of the cancer community including patients, survivors, caregivers, families, advocacy groups and research organizations.

Trump’s heir? Some supporters eye DeSantis as alternative

CONROE, Texas (AP) — There was something different next to the “TRUMP WON!” T-shirts, the “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats and the “LET’S GO BRANDON” flags for sale at former President Donald Trump’s recent Texas rally: a collection of “DeSantis 2024” bumper stickers.

Nikki Rye, who lives in Florida and has been selling Trump gear at his events since 2015, said the merchandise hyping her state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, “is a very, very sought-after item.” Beyond the stickers, a life-size cutout of DeSantis stood at one side of her shop, with Trump flanking the other.

As Trump aims for a political comeback, the DeSantis memorabilia signaled a shift emerging among the MAGA faithful. While the vast majority of the more than two dozen people interviewed at his rally at a Texas fairground cheered the prospect of another Trump White House bid, some began to concede that there might be better options.

And for anyone toying with a Trump alternative, DeSantis topped the list.

They were people like Kim Mitchell, 62, who lives in Canyon Lake, Texas, and was overjoyed to be seeing Trump in person. She and her husband have been longtime supporters; a Trump flag hangs proudly in his automotive garage. And if Trump goes through with another run, they both say they’ll support him.

Flights canceled as wide swath of US braces for winter storm

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Airlines canceled hundreds of flights, governors urged residents to stay off roads and schools closed campuses as a huge swath of the U.S. braced for a major winter storm that was set to put millions of Americans in the path of heavy snow and freezing rain.

The approaching blast of frigid weather, which was expected to begin arriving Tuesday night, put a long stretch of states from New Mexico to Vermont under winter storm warnings and watches. More than a foot of snow was possible in Michigan, on the heels of a vicious nor’easter last weekend that brought blizzard conditions to many parts of the East Coast.

“It will be a very messy system and will make travel very difficult,” said Marty Rausch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland.

The projected footprint of the storm extended as far south as Texas, where nearly a year after a catastrophic freeze buckled the state’s power grid in one of the worst blackouts in U.S. history, Gov. Greg Abbott defended the state’s readiness. The forecast does not call for the same prolonged and frigid temperatures as the February 2021 storm and the National Weather Service said the approaching system would, generally, not be as bad this time for Texas.

“No one can guarantee that there won’t be any” outages caused by demand on the power grid, Abbott said Tuesday. “But what we will work to achieve, and what we’re prepared to achieve is that power is going to stay on across the entire state.”

Punxsutawney Phil prepares to make Groundhog Day prediction

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (AP) — It’s Groundhog Day and people are waiting to learn whether a furry critter in a western Pennsylvania town will predict an early spring or six more weeks of winter.

People will gather Wednesday at Gobbler’s Knob as members of Punxsutawney Phil’s “inner circle” summon him from his tree stump at dawn to learn if he has seen his shadow. According to folklore, there will be six more weeks of winter if he sees his shadow. If he doesn’t, spring comes early.

The event took place virtually last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, depriving the community, which is about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northeast of Pittsburgh, of a boost from tourists.

It was streamed live and seen by more than 15,000 viewers worldwide at one point. About 150 cardboard cutouts of fans were there to “watch.”

Officials are hoping the usual crowd of between 10,000 to 15,000 visitors will return in person this year to spend money on lodging, food, beverages and souvenirs.

AP PHOTOS: Life in the ‘bubble’ at the Beijing Olympics

BEIJING (AP) — From the moment participants at the Beijing Olympics step off the plane, they enter the “bubble” — a system of strict containment measures that aims to keep the coronavirus at bay for the duration of the Games.

It all starts at the airport, where workers in full-body white suits lead athletes, their coaches and others through entry procedures, including the first of daily COVID-19 tests. Participants are only allowed to shuttle between Olympic venues and their accommodation, all on specially reserved buses. Everywhere workers spray disinfectant, while bubble residents track their temperature, stay alert for any symptoms and repeatedly test for the virus.

The goal? To keep those attending the Games completely separate from the wider Chinese population, all while keeping infections to a minimum inside the bubble.

At each hotel and venue, fences mark off a perimeter beyond which those inside the bubble cannot stray. Those inside peer out at a city they cannot visit. Those outside peer into an event they will experience only on television.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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