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News Brief: New Mask Guidance, Middle East Violence, Afghans See U.S. Visas

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. After days of airstrikes, Israel has called up more troops and launched its heaviest assault yet along the Gaza border.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. And it's doing this as, it says, Gaza militants have fired more than 1,800 rockets into Israel. Seven people have been killed, including a young child and a teenager. The losses, though, are much higher on the Palestinian side, where officials there say at least 119 people have died, 31 children among them.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin has been following this story. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: I know this is a fluid situation. Just give us the latest, if you would.

ESTRIN: There have been some more waves of rockets into Israel. Two women running for bomb shelters fell and died from their fall. And Israel launched, as you said, its biggest assault yet on Gaza. The army says 160 aircraft plus artillery units pummeled an underground tunnel network it says Hamas uses to avoid being hit by Israel. This attack was in a crowded civilian area, the city of Beit Hanoun. Israel also used artillery fire, which can be less precise and can be harder to avoid casualties. And unlike other strikes where Israel has called residents in Gaza, warned them to leave, the Israeli army spokesman tells us there were no phone calls to civilians with this operation. Residents in that area said there were sounds of firing for a few hours before, so many people did flee before this huge offensive began. They were just carrying blankets and food.

I am not in Gaza. Israel has closed the border crossing. Reporters cannot enter Gaza. But I have been speaking with my Palestinian colleague there who spoke to a resident who was in that area last night. He said he was terrified. He said the sky turned bloody red, the streets were ripped up, ambulances couldn't enter, many injuries and some dead.

KING: OK. And now we know that Israeli reserve troops have been called up. Do you - do people there think this is preparation for a ground invasion?

ESTRIN: Unclear if a ground invasion is in the works, but since the beginning of fighting, I can say that there are efforts at mediation. The U.N. intelligence, Egyptian intelligence have been working to achieve a cease-fire; Qatar and the U.S. involved. It appears the U.S. blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution on the fighting. It seems the U.S. wants to do quiet mediation. We don't know how long this could last. It may not last for weeks. I spoke to one Israeli researcher on military strategy estimating the fighting could just take another few days. It's been very intense so far, more intense of an Israeli operation than the last one in 2014.

KING: OK, and lastly, we have heard a lot about mob violence inside Israel. You've brought us some reporting on this...

ESTRIN: Right.

KING: ...Between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Is that still happening? Is - are things under control?

ESTRIN: I wouldn't say things are under control. We're still seeing mobs on the streets, arab citizens reportedly throwing stones on some roads, reports of Arab and Jewish violence and vandalism to stores. The city of Lod's still under a state of emergency and a nighttime curfew, which groups of Jewish citizens ignored last night. We've heard some settlers from the occupied West Bank have come to cities where there have been street violence. And I've spoken to Muslims who have not wanted to be identified, taken down their Ramadan decorations from their homes, afraid to leave their homes. It's just really painful to see this kind of violence between neighbors. We haven't seen anything like that in a couple decades.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thank you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

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KING: For 119 million or so fully vaccinated Americans, here's the guidance - no more masks mostly.

MARTIN: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has decided that the COVID-19 vaccines used here in the U.S. are so effective, people who are fully vaccinated don't need to worry about masks or social distancing even. President Biden hailed Thursday's announcements as a milestone in the return to normal.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If you're fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you've earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world - greeting others with a smile (laughter) with a smile. So it's a good day for the country.

MARTIN: But the new guidelines raise a whole lot of questions.

KING: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris is here to answer some of them. Good morning, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: This sounds like a momentous change in public policy. Is it?

HARRIS: Yes. Well, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky started out her announcement yesterday painting it with a very broad brush. Here's what she said.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing.

HARRIS: But then came the caveats. It doesn't apply to people on public transit or airplanes, and it doesn't apply in health care settings. She also said it will be up to local officials about how the guidelines are carried out in schools, stores and other local settings. And, you know, that could be a formula for confusion.

KING: Let me ask you about one scenario that is relevant to my interests and I imagine millions of other people's. Let's say that a grocery store says if you are fully vaccinated, you can come on in, you don't need to wear a mask. Is the store then going to ask me and others to prove that we've gotten the vaccine?

HARRIS: Well, that is a concern for sure. The CDC's point is that vaccines are so effective at protecting the people who are fully vaccinated that they shouldn't worry about the vaccination status of those around them. People who aren't vaccinated are mostly a risk to themselves. But, you know, that's not always the case. Dr. Leana Wen at the George Washington University lays out this scenario.

LEANA WEN: I have two little kids who cannot yet be vaccinated. What do I do when I go to the grocery store and I see people around me who aren't wearing masks? Are we actually - do we know that these individuals actually got vaccinated?

HARRIS: And some unions are also not happy about how this could play out and whether the policy could raise a risk for workers.

KING: And vaccines we know are not 100% effective. So there would still be some risk.

HARRIS: That's true, although the CDC says the risk is small. Occasionally, a vaccinated person does get infected with the coronavirus, but the risk of serious illness in that circumstance is extremely low. And the CDC says vaccinated people who get infected are really very unlikely to spread the disease.

KING: OK. So this was huge news coming after so many months. I'm wondering, what are the kinds of reactions you're hearing?

HARRIS: Well, there's certainly a range of views. Some scientists have said that the CDC made a mistake in not easing mask restrictions earlier for people who are vaccinated and worried that people would decide that there's no point in getting a shot if it means that they can't take off their masks. On the other hand, Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington says the public health message about vaccination shouldn't be about whether or not you need to wear a mask but that vaccines can prevent a deadly disease.

ALI MOKDAD: People who are not wearing their mask are the same people who are refusing the vaccine. So this policy is not going to help us to increase the vaccination out there or addressing hesitancy.

HARRIS: And here, he's looking through the lens of public health where the goal should be to stop the pandemic as quickly as possible. The new CDC guidance is really more about advice to individuals. Of course, the CDC also continues to encourage everyone who is eligible for a shot to get one. But yesterday's announcement could also send an unintended signal that the pandemic is now essentially over. That's, alas, not quite true.

KING: Alas, it isn't. NPR's Richard Harris. Thanks, Richard.

HARRIS: Anytime.

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KING: The Kandahar Airfield used to be a major base for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: And now the U.S. has handed that base over to Afghan security forces. American troops are packing up. They're leaving Afghanistan, and they're expected to be entirely out by September at the latest. But what about the thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. over the years? Many of them face death threats from the Taliban for cooperating with foreign forces, and they are trying desperately to get out of the country. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley says they will not be forgotten.

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MARK MILLEY: The intent within State Department and elite is to make sure that it's a really a moral imperative that we take care of those that have worked closely with us if their lives are in danger, et cetera.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following this story. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: I want to ask you about numbers. How many Afghan people worked for the U.S. and are now hoping for visas to this country?

BOWMAN: Well, around 17,000 or so are in the process and thousands more if you consider they'd bring family members along. And, Noel, this is all part of a special visa program set up about a dozen years ago. And over the years, about 18,000 visas have been issued. And we're talking mostly interpreters who work for the U.S. military. Now, it's supposed to take nine months for processing the visa, but it's taken a lot longer, as long as three years, because you have to submit your packet, has to get approved by the embassy. Then it goes to U.S. Customs and immigration. And then finally, you have to get interviewed.

KING: You would imagine, though, there would be some sense of urgency about this. If the promise was nine months, but that is extended to three years or can be extended to three years, what's behind that? Why does it take so long?

BOWMAN: Well, it's the increased volume, the lack of staff to process these visa requests, and that's led to delays. The State Department inspector general said that in a report last year. So the State Department has sent more staff to Kabul to process these requests and more staff in D.C. to help as well. Now, members of Congress, advocacy groups like No One Left Behind, retired generals, including David Petraeus, are pressing for the Biden administration to do even more. And they tell stories of Afghans who already have been killed by the Taliban because they worked for the Americans. And officials this week told lawmakers they're working with the National Security Council at the White House on this issue and holding multiple meetings each week. And here's another thing, Noel - may have to devote more money and increase the allotments of these visas to move all of this forward.

KING: OK, so nearly 17,000 Afghans wanting visas and then we have to take into account their family members and the U.S. is withdrawing. Talk about the timeframe in which all of this might be processed.

BOWMAN: Well, it's uncertain. You know, people I talk with in Kabul are really worried about the security situation and what happens if it deteriorates even further, if more U.S. embassy staff leaves. Now, General Milley said he would caution those who believe the security situation could quickly fall apart. And he said, listen, it's really too early to sound the alarm and just get people out right now. He pointed to the significant size of the Afghan military and police, some 300,000. He said, listen, it's still a cohesive organization. So he's not really all that worried right yet.

KING: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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