Virtual ‘You’ Can Now Attend Meetings with Virtual ‘Them’

After almost a year of staring at each other’s living rooms or other spaces in virtual meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic, members of a Swiss startup have come up with a new idea: sending holographic emissaries to a virtual meeting space. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

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Jordan Among First to Vaccinate UN-Registered Refugees it Hosts 

Jordan has become one of the world’s first countries to start coronavirus vaccinations for United Nations-registered refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency and the royal palace. As part of the kingdom’s national vaccination drive that began last week, anyone living there, including refugees and asylum seekers, is entitled to receive the shot free of charge. Jordan hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from the region’s conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. 
Some 80% of refugees sheltering from neighboring conflicts live in Jordan’s urban areas and will be vaccinated in these local health clinics. The U.N. refugee agency says it is working closely with Jordan’s Ministry of Health to administer the vaccination to those housed in the Zaatari and Azraq camps for Syrian refugees.   Last Thursday, 43 Iraqis and Syrians were the first batch of refugees vaccinated in the northern towns of Irbid and Mafraq near the border with Syria, UNHRC Jordan spokesman Francesco Burt told VOA.             “But there are many more who have signed up,” he said. “There’s a government portal where everybody needs to register. So far, about 250,000 people have signed up, including refugees. That really depends on the availability of doses that the Jordanian government has available. They have about 3 million doses so far. So, they plan to cover about 25 percent of the population in the next months.”     The UNHCR says Jordan has included refugees in its national response plan since the beginning of the pandemic. Dominik Bartsch, the agency’s representative to Jordan, said that “reducing the spread of COVID-19 now necessitates that the most vulnerable people in our society and around the world can access vaccines, no matter where they come from.”    Burt says the pandemic has greatly impacted refugee resettlements to other countries in the West.         “That’s part of the problem with COVID and travel restrictions. But we have seen some resuming. It really depends on the countries’ regulations and that changes so fast. They discover new strains of the virus so that’s very much dependent on that. But some refugees have departed in the past months; not many. It all depends on the vaccination rollout and regulations in the coming months,” he said.  The UNHCR says the number of refugees with the infection in Jordan has remained low at 1.6 percent compared with 3 percent among the general population.  But poverty rates among the refugees have spiked by 18 percent since the outbreak last March. Both the Jordanian government and the U.N. say they need additional funding to aid more than 1.5 million refugees hosted in the country. The UNHCR Jordan is appealing for $370 million to help the refugees.      

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Los Angeles First US County to Reach 1 Million COVID Cases

John Hopkins University reported early Sunday there are 94.5 million global COVID-19 cases. The United States leads the world in the number of cases with 23.7 million infections, followed by India with 10.5 million and Brazil with 8.4 million.Los Angeles County in California has become the first U.S. county to record 1 million COVID-19 cases. The news of the number of infections is compounded by the confirmation of the appearance in the county of the highly contagious British variant of the coronavirus.Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, said in a statement, “The presence of the U.K. variant in Los Angeles County is troubling, as our health care system is already severely strained with more than 7,500 people currently hospitalized.” She added that Los Angeles is also experiencing “hospitalizations and deaths, five-times what we experienced over the summer.”Norway is investigating the deaths of more than 25 elderly people who died after receiving Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The Norwegian Medicines Agency said the affected people already had “serious basic disorders.”In southwestern England, people 80 and older have been able to get their vaccination shots to the sound of live organ music in the 800-year-old Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral’s music director chose the works of Bach and Handel to help people relax as they waited.The Australian Open will go ahead as planned, despite the discovery of three coronavirus cases that have put 47 players into quarantine for two weeks, the tennis tournament’s director, Craig Tiley, said Saturday.Australia’s international borders are closed, but there are exceptions.For the international tennis tournament, players and their coaches flew into the country on 17 charter flights from seven nations. Each of the estimated 1,200 players, coaches, staff members and officials was required to receive a negative coronavirus test before they boarded the planes, which were kept at 25% capacity.However, two positive cases were detected in people who arrived on a flight from Los Angeles and a third case arrived on a flight from Abu Dhabi. Sylvain Bruneau, who coaches Canadian star Bianca Andreescu, said he tested positive after arriving from Abu Dhabi, but the rest of his team has tested negative.Since the pandemic began, Australia has recorded nearly 29,000 cases and just over 900 deaths, according to Hopkins. Just over 800 of those cases occurred in Victoria state during a second wave of the virus. Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, is where the Australian Open is played.Tournament organizers had hoped that charter flights, early arrivals and frequent testing would allow the Open to be played without a hitch.

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China Builds Hospital After Surge in ‘Harder to Handle’ Virus Cases

China on Saturday finished building a 1,500-room hospital for COVID-19 patients to fight a surge in infections the government said are harder to contain and that it blamed on infected people or goods from abroad.The hospital is one of six with a total of 6,500 rooms being built in Nangong, south of Beijing in Hebei province, the official Xinhua News Agency said.About 650 people are being treated in Nangong and the Hebei provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, Xinhua said. A 3,000-room hospital is under construction in Shijiazhuang.Virus clusters also have been found in Beijing and the provinces of Heilongjiang and Liaoning in the northeast and Sichuan in the southwest.The latest infections spread unusually fast, the National Health Commission said.”It is harder to handle,” a commission statement said. “Community transmission already has happened when the epidemic is found, so it is difficult to prevent.”The commission blamed the latest cases on people or goods arriving from abroad. It blamed “abnormal management” and “inadequate protection of workers” involved in imports but gave no details.”They are all imported from abroad. It was caused by entry personnel or contaminated cold chain imported goods,” said the statement.The Chinese government has suggested the disease might have originated abroad and publicized what it says is the discovery of the virus on imported food, mostly frozen fish, though foreign scientists are skeptical.Also Saturday, the city government of Beijing said travelers arriving in the Chinese capital from abroad would be required to undergo an additional week of “medical monitoring” after a 14-day quarantine but gave no details.Nationwide, the Health Commission reported 130 new confirmed cases in the 24 hours through midnight Friday. It said 90 of those were in Hebei.On Saturday, the Hebei government reported 32 additional cases since midnight, the Shanghai news outlet The Paper reported.In Shijiazhuang, authorities have finished construction of 1,000 rooms of the planned hospital, state TV said Saturday. Xinhua said all the facilities are to be completed within a week.A similar program of rapid hospital construction was launched by the ruling Communist Party at the start of the outbreak last year in the central China city of Wuhan.More than 10 million people in Shijiazhuang underwent virus tests by late Friday, Xinhua said, citing a deputy mayor, Meng Xianghong. It said 247 locally transmitted cases were found.Meanwhile, researchers sent by the World Health Organization were in Wuhan preparing to investigate the origins of the virus. The team, which arrived Thursday, was under a two-week quarantine but was scheduled to talk with Chinese experts by video link.The team’s arrival was held up for months by diplomatic wrangling that prompted a rare public complaint by the head of the WHO.That delay, and the secretive ruling party’s orders to scientists not to talk publicly about the disease, have raised questions about whether Beijing might try to block discoveries that would hurt its self-proclaimed status as a leader in the anti-virus battle.

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Despite Planning, Australian Open Players Test Positive

The Australian Open will go ahead as planned, despite the discovery of three coronavirus cases that have put 47 players into quarantine for two weeks, the tennis tournament’s director, Craig Tiley, said Saturday.Australia’s international borders are closed, but there are exceptions.For the international tennis tournament, players and their coaches flew into the country on 17 charter flights from seven nations. All of the estimated 1,200 players, coaches, staff members and officials were required to receive negative coronavirus tests before boarding their planes, which were kept at 25% capacity.However, two positive cases were detected on a flight from Los Angeles and a third case was found on a flight from Abu Dhabi. Sylvain Bruneau, who coaches Canadian star Bianca Andreescu, said he tested positive after arriving from Abu Dhabi, but the rest of his team has tested negative.Since the pandemic began, Australia has recorded nearly 29,000 cases and just more than 900 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center. Just over 800 of those cases occurred in Victoria state during a second wave of the virus. Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, is where the Australian Open is played.Tournament organizers had hoped that charter flights, early arrivals and frequent testing would allow the Open to be played without a hitch.A health worker receives COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Kolkata, India, Jan. 16, 2021. India started inoculating health workers Saturday in what is likely the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination campaign.Also Saturday, India began its COVID-19 vaccine campaign. Frontline workers were slated to receive the first inoculations.The campaign began after Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a nationally televised speech. India, with 10.5 million cases, is second only to the U.S. in case numbers. It has suffered 152,000 deaths, behind the U.S. and Brazil, according to Johns Hopkins.”We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive, and it shows the world our capability,” Modi said.2 million markCOVID-19 deaths worldwide exceeded 2 million Friday, according to Johns Hopkins, a year after the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China.“Behind this terrible number are names and faces, the smile that will now only be a memory, the seat forever empty at the dinner table, the room that echoes with the silence of a loved one,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters Friday.FILE – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres talks with reporters in Berlin, Germany, Dec. 17, 2020.Guterres also said the death toll “has been made worse by the absence of a global coordinated effort” and added that “science has succeeded, but solidarity has failed.”The United States remains at the top of the COVID case list with the most cases and deaths. Johns Hopkins reported more than 23 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with a death toll rapidly approaching 400,000.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that a newly detected and highly contagious variant of the coronavirus might become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.The variant, first detected in Britain, threatens to exacerbate the coronavirus crisis in the U.S., where daily infection and hospitalization records are commonplace.The CDC said the variant apparently does not cause more severe illness but is more contagious than the current dominant strain.Oregon caseLater Friday, the Oregon Health Authority reported that an individual with “no known travel history” had tested positive for the British variant.“As we learn more about this case and the individual who tested positive for this strain, OHA continues to promote effective public health measures, including wearing masks, maintaining 6 feet of physical distance, staying home, washing your hands and avoiding gatherings and travel,” the agency said in a statement.Also Friday, some U.S. governors accused the Trump administration of deceiving states about the amount of COVID-19 vaccine they could expect to receive. Government officials said states were misguided in their expectations of vaccine amounts.FILE – Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a news conference on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Jan. 12, 2021, in Washington.U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told NBC News on Friday that the U.S. did not have a reserve stockpile of COVID vaccines as many had believed. However, he said he was confident that there would be enough vaccine produced to provide a second dose for people.As of Friday, the U.S. government said it had distributed over 31 million doses of the vaccine. The CDC said about 12.3 million doses had been administered.Earlier on Friday, Pfizer announced there would be a temporary impact on shipments of its vaccine to European countries in late January to early February caused by changes to its manufacturing processes to boost output.The health ministers of six EU countries — Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — said the Pfizer situation was “unacceptable.””Not only does it impact the planned vaccination schedules, it also decreases the credibility of the vaccination process,” they said in a letter to the EU Commission about the vaccine delays.In Brazil, the country’s air force flew emergency oxygen supplies Friday to the jungle state of Amazonas, which is facing a surge in the virus. Health authorities in the state said oxygen supplies had run out at some hospitals because of the high numbers of patients.

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NASA’s Boeing Moon Rocket Ground Test Is Cut Short

All four engines of the core stage of NASA’s deep space exploration rocket built by Boeing were ignited for the first time Saturday, but only briefly.Mounted in a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Space Launch System’s (SLS) 212-foot-tall core stage roared to life at 4:27 p.m. local time (2227 GMT) for just more than a minute — well short of the roughly four minutes engineers needed to stay on track for the rocket’s first launch this November.The engine test, the last leg of NASA’s nearly yearlong “Green Run” test campaign, was a vital step for the space agency and its top SLS contractor Boeing before a debut unmanned launch later this year under NASA’s Artemis program, the Trump administration’s push to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2024.It was unclear whether Boeing and NASA would have to repeat the test, a prospect that could push the debut launch into 2022.To simulate internal conditions of a real liftoff, the rocket’s four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines ignited for roughly 1 minute and 15 seconds, generating 1.6 million pounds of thrust and consuming 700,000 gallons of propellants on NASA’s largest test stand, a massive facility towering 35 stories tall.The expendable super heavy-lift SLS is three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion over budget. Critics have long argued for NASA to retire the rocket’s shuttle-era core technologies, which have launch costs of $1 billion or more per mission, in favor of newer commercial alternatives that promise lower costs.By comparison, it costs as little as $90 million to fly the massive but less powerful Falcon Heavy rocket designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and some $350 million per launch for United Launch Alliance’s legacy Delta IV Heavy.While newer, more reusable rockets from both companies — SpaceX’s Starship and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan — promise heavier lift capacity than the Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy potentially at lower cost, SLS backers argue it would take two or more launches on those rockets to launch what the SLS could carry in a single mission.Reuters reported in October that President-elect Joe Biden’s space advisers aim to delay Trump’s 2024 goal, casting fresh doubts on the long-term fate of SLS just as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin scramble to bring rival new heavy-lift capacity to market.NASA and Boeing engineers have stayed on a 10-month schedule for the Green Run “despite having significant adversity this year,” Boeing’s SLS manager John Shannon told reporters this week, citing five tropical storms and a hurricane that hit Stennis, as well as a three-month closure after some engineers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.

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