Omicron confirmed in man who attended NYC anime convention

NEW YORK (AP) — Health officials say the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been found in a Minnesota man who attended an anime convention in New York City in November. Officials said Thursday that the man tested positive after returning home and that his symptoms have subsided. Officials in New York say they are working to trace attendees at the convention held Nov. 19-21 at the Javits Convention Center. Vaccinations were required for the event. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul says there are no confirmed omicron cases among state residents. Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious and whether it can thwart vaccines.


Israel halts controversial tech to track omicron variant

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel says it’s halting the use of a controversial phone tracking technology to trace possible cases of the new coronavirus variant. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said Thursday that emergency measures authorizing “cellular monitoring” to locate people infected by the omicron variant, and those who might have been in contact with those cases, expires at midnight. The decision to reverse course on the Shin Bet internal security agency’s tracking came after the Cabinet approved the practice under an emergency measure on Tuesday. A government ombudsman had spoken out against implementing the technology, arguing that it was ineffective. 


Live updates: Spain IDs variant case not tied to S. Africa

Spanish health authorities have confirmed the first case of the omicron coronavirus strain without any established link to southern Africa. Secretary of State for Health Silvia Calzón says that of the five confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Spain there was one case identified on Thursday in a person who had not travelled to South Africa nor had any links to people who had made such a trip. Spain’s ban on flights connecting air routes from South Africa and six neighboring countries started on Thursday for fears of the new strain identified by South African authorities.


Biden launching winter COVID-19 booster, testing campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is kicking off a more urgent campaign for Americans to get COVID-19 booster shots. Biden on Thursday is unveiling a winter plan to combat the coronavirus and its omicron variant with enhanced availability of shots and vaccines but without major new restrictions. Biden is set to require private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and to tighten testing requirements for people entering the U.S. regardless of their vaccination status. Biden’s administration says it’s making 50 million COVID-19 tests free for older people and other vulnerable groups for pickup at senior centers and community sites.


Lawmakers reach deal on spending bill, but hurdles remain

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders reached agreement on a spending bill that would keep the government running through mid-February. But a temporary federal shutdown is still possible this weekend because some Republican senators are objecting to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The House is expected to take up the legislation later Thursday. The Senate also would have to act before a midnight Friday deadline to avoid a weekend shutdown. The agreement would keep spending at current levels to Feb. 18. The White House is urging quick passage. But conservative Republicans opposed to President Joe Biden’s vaccine rules want Congress to take a hard stand even if that means a brief shutdown. 


With Roe in question, justices dig into private debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — After hours of public arguments, the Supreme Court’s justices will now embark on a private debate over what to do about possibly drastic abortion limits for pregnant women in the U.S. The justices will talk it over this week and hold a preliminary vote. But no final ruling is expected for months, probably next June. On Wednesday, the court’s six conservative justices indicated they will uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. And they also indicated they may go even further to overturn the nationwide Roe v. Wade right that has existed for nearly 50 years. Even upholding the restrictive Mississippi law would undermine Roe, with a number of other Republican-led states sure to follow.


Scientists use stem cells to create models of pre-embryos

Scientists are using human stem cells to create a structure that mimics a pre-embryo and can serve as a research alternative to a real one. They’re called “blastoids.” Researchers say they provide an efficient, ethical way to study human development and pursue biomedical discoveries in fertility and contraception. The latest effort was detailed Thursday in the journal Nature. The structures aren’t embryos, but scientists nevertheless didn’t let them grow past two weeks in deference to longstanding ethical guidelines. Nicolas Rivron of the Austrian Academy of Sciences is one of the authors of the study. He says blastoids would complement human embryos used in research.


Wildfire burns into central Montana town, destroys houses

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A late-season wildfire pushed by strong winds has ripped through a tiny central Montana farming town, burning several homes and grain elevators that had stood for more than a century. Fergus County officials were assessing the damage in Denton on Thursday while crews continued to fight the fire. No one was hurt. About 300 residents were evacuated early Wednesday afternoon when a fire that had started in a nearby county the night before pushed across the drought-stricken agricultural land. The evacuation order was expected to be lifted at noon Thursday. Officials say 25 structures, including bridges, were lost.


Spacewalking astronauts replace antenna after debris scare

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Spacewalking astronauts have replaced a broken antenna outside the International Space Station after getting NASA’s all-clear for orbiting debris. Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron completed the job Thursday. They were supposed to do it Tuesday, but NASA delayed their spacewalk because of potentially threatening space junk. NASA later determined the astronauts were safe to go out, despite a slightly increased risk of a punctured suit from satellite wreckage. Russia destroyed an old satellite in a missile test two weeks ago, sending pieces everywhere. NASA isn’t saying whether the object of concern  was from that event.


Starbucks fights expanding unionization effort at its stores

Starbucks is fighting an expanded effort to unionize its stores. The effort comes even as a union vote proceeds at three of the coffee chain’s locations in Buffalo, New York. Union organizers from three additional Buffalo-area stores appeared before the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday, asking to hold union votes at each of their stores. The workers are seeking representation by Workers United. They want more say in pay and how stores are run. Seattle-based Starbucks has never had unionized U.S. employees in its 50-year history, and says its stores function better when it works directly with employees.

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