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Morning News Brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Haitian authorities say two of the men arrested in connection with the assassination of President Jovenel Moise are American citizens.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Haiti's police chief says they've detained 17 suspects so far and that three other suspects were killed by the police and eight others are on the run.

FADEL: For the latest, we've got NPR's Jason Beaubien. He's covered Haiti extensively. Hey, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what more do we know about the two men Haitian authorities say are American and about their alleged involvement in the assassination?

BEAUBIEN: We don't know a lot about them. But two of them are believed to be Haitian Americans. One of them is 35; the other is 55. That's what officials out of Haiti are telling us. Both of them supposedly are residents of Florida. Canada's foreign ministry yesterday said that the younger one worked briefly at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince as a reserve bodyguard briefly. The other 15 suspects, they're all from Colombia. And Colombian police and military officials - yesterday, they said that they are soldiers. They said 26 Colombian former soldiers are involved in this, including the ones...

FADEL: Wow.

BEAUBIEN: ...That are still on the run. And making this even a bit more complicated, 11 of the Colombians, they were arrested inside the grounds of the Taiwanese Embassy yesterday. Taiwan has confirmed that. It is still unclear exactly who orchestrated this whole thing, but it's getting more complicated by the day.

FADEL: Wow. Has the U.S. said anything about the allegation that American citizens are involved?

BEAUBIEN: So the State Department has confirmed that it is aware that Haitian Americans are in custody, but they won't say anything more than that, confirm their identities or anything like that. But the U.S. State Department has said that they're aware that two Americans are being held.

FADEL: Do we know anything more about what exactly happened at the president's residence during the attack?

BEAUBIEN: You know, some video footage has come out, and it shows a very well-orchestrated attack. You see these pickup trucks driving up to the residence. You see people in clear military formation. They're clearly people who understand military tactics. You've had people who've gone in and actually start some of the investigations. They said that they found cartridges from large gauge weapons inside. What is interesting is that you're not hearing about any of President Moise's security guards being arrested, being injured. The first lady was also shot. She's been airlifted to Florida for treatment - but does not appear that there was much resistance at all inside the president's residence to these attackers who came in and, from what we are hearing, shot the president multiple times and then were all able to flee and later be arrested outside.

FADEL: Now, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph declared a state of siege for a two-week period, basically martial law. What's the current situation on the ground?

BEAUBIEN: It sounds like things are starting to come back to normal a little bit. You know, people are starting to get out. Things had been really dead right afterwards. Like, people were staying in their homes just listening to the radio. But what is really interesting is now another rival to Joseph has come forward, Ariel Henry. He was supposedly supposed to replace Joseph this week as prime minister. He's now stepping forward and saying that he is the rightful prime minister and not Joseph. This is making things even more complicated in what is already, you know, an incredibly difficult situation in Port-au-Prince.

FADEL: NPR's Jason Beaubien, thanks.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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FADEL: In the U.S., new COVID hot spots are popping up, and those are directly linked to dangerously low vaccination rates.

KING: Yeah, that's according to an analysis that NPR did with Johns Hopkins. You'll remember that earlier this week, we learned the delta variant, which is very contagious, is now the dominant strain in this country. And in some places, it accounts for more than 80% of new infections.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to tell us more about it. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So everything looked like it was going so well in the U.S. cases - deaths, hospitalizations all going down. What's happening?

STEIN: Well, you know, the vaccination campaign pretty much stalled, unfortunately, as the country reopened, and the delta variant became dominant. So all that progress the country was making basically hit a wall. And infections may have even started rising again nationally. And if you drill down to a state level, you could really see what's going on. In the past week, the number of people catching the virus has been climbing again in about half of states. You know, we've heard a lot about Missouri, but also in places like Texas, Illinois, Arkansas, the Carolinas. I talked about this with Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins.

JENNIFER NUZZO: It's an early trend, and so my hope is that it won't last. But unfortunately, looking at what's happening in individual states, I do worry that we will continue to see national numbers increase.

STEIN: In fact, the number of people getting so sick they're ending up in the hospital is up again in at least nine states.

FADEL: Now, you've also been drilling down even more and looking at this on the county level, right?

STEIN: Right, right. And the - you know, the CDC lists hot spots by county, but that fluctuates a lot with cases up one week and then down the next. So NPR and Johns Hopkins decided to take a look at what's been happening over a longer period, over a month. And when you do that, you can really see the places that look like they're in trouble, where it isn't just a blip. In most of those counties, it's a sustained increase. Newton County, Mo., has a 182% increase, for example. Ottawa County in Oklahoma has seen infections soar 828% And Jennifer Nuzzo says those hot spot counties are everywhere.

NUZZO: Also, the counties are in states that are also reporting state-level increases. But not all are. In fact, we are seeing counties in states that we haven't really been worrying much about - California and Washington state, for instance.

FADEL: So what's going on in these counties?

STEIN: Well, you know, not enough people are vaccinated. Our analysis illustrates that pretty dramatically. Almost all the counties experiencing sustained outbreak - 92% - have vaccination rates below the national average. Ottawa County in Oklahoma is only vaccinated 23%; Newton County, Mo., only 16%. And even states that have high vaccination rates are seeing outbreaks in counties that haven't vaccinated enough people.

NUZZO: It raises the prospect that we could see case increases elsewhere in these states, but potentially also in other states that haven't yet seen case increases. One of the things that we keep forgetting about this pandemic is that something that happens in one state is not isolated from something that will happen in another state. And so as long as we see case increases in any part of the country, it remains a national crisis.

STEIN: So Nuzzo hopes these new hot spots will be kind of a wake-up call for everyone who hasn't gotten vaccinated to finally roll up their sleeves. If infections keep climbing through the summer, that would put us in a bad place in the fall when people will be heading back indoors because of the cold weather.

FADEL: So before we let you go, there's also some news about a possible Pfizer vaccine booster. Right?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The company says a third shot of its vaccine boosts the immune system pretty substantially and plans to ask the FDA for authorization for that soon. The company says that should help increase protection against the delta variant. But the company's also developing an updated version of its vaccine specifically targeting the delta. But you know, the CDC and the FDA are stressing that no one needs a booster, at least at the moment, that is.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet.

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FADEL: President Biden is defending his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan even as the security situation there deteriorates.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The question is, how much of a threat to the United States of America and to our allies is whatever results in terms of a government?

KING: There he was speaking yesterday, insisting he will stick to his plan to end this country's longest war. He also said the U.S. mission there did not fail and that the Afghan government is capable of holding off the Taliban.

FADEL: For more on that, we're joined by NPR's Diaa Hadid, who covers Afghanistan. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So Diaa, what's the reaction been like in Afghanistan to Biden's remarks?

HADID: Well, government officials have declined to comment, which says a lot. But other Afghans say they expected something like this. And they find it, frankly, upsetting. Listen here to Abdullah Hasrat (ph). He's a civil servant but speaks as an Afghan citizen. And he says Biden is abandoning Afghans just as the war is escalating.

ABDULLAH HASRAT: The Taliban, who are against democracy, who are killing Afghans and (unintelligible), who are against woman right are gaining territory in Afghanistan. In the midst of that, America is leaving.

FADEL: Now, Biden also talked about how Afghan leaders were divided and how they needed to come together. How did Afghans see that?

HADID: Here, Afghans I've spoken to say Biden has a point. This is a political elite that is so divided that for a while in Kabul, there were two rival presidents, Ashraf Ghani and his main opponent. Now analysts like Enayat Najafizada, who runs a think tank, is worried that political elites might just cut deals with the Taliban. And he says if the country's lost, it won't be on the battlefield but because of those elites.

ENAYAT NAJAFIZADA: It has led to the situation that we are today. If political Kabul do not collapse, the Afghan soldiers will not be defeated on the battlefield. So there is a fear of a collapse politically here in Kabul.

HADID: But analysts say it's also important to remember how American administrations also badly weakened the Afghan government. And they did that by making a deal with the Taliban to withdraw that excluded the Afghan government. And after that deal, they conveyed that it was based on conditions, including peace talks with the Afghans. But then the Biden administration simply withdrew unconditionally. And if I could add here, Leila, that helped collapse morale among Afghan forces. And it greenlit the Taliban surge that we're seeing today.

FADEL: You know, we heard Biden say it's highly unlikely that the Taliban will take over. What's the latest on the ground there with the Taliban?

HADID: Well, events are moving really fast. Overnight, the Taliban seized the most important border crossing with Iran. It's called Islam Qala. Their spokesman even released a video of them overrunning the crossing, and you can hear them firing in celebration.

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UNIDENTIFIED TALIBAN MEMBERS: (Cheering). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.