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News brief: tornado destruction, coronavirus roundup, Vicente Fernández

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse now of one community in a region devastated by tornadoes.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tornadoes swept across multiple states over the weekend, including Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. Kentucky suffered the most, with dozens of people reported dead.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann has been reporting from Dawson Springs, Ky., one of the communities affected. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What kind of community is it?

MANN: This is a town of about 2,500 people, Steve. And I have to say, it was just devastating to be there yesterday. I just want to describe this one moment. I was in a field that stretched as far as I could see, and it was just scoured rubble. And spread throughout were people just going through the debris trying to find anything that they could salvage under this blue sky, a cold wind blowing. It was just the harshest landscape. And it turns out, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear - his family comes from Dawson Springs. He spoke emotionally about this yesterday. And he also said, you know, this has happened across Kentucky, just a terrible loss of homes and lives. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY BESHEAR: We're going to have over a thousand homes that are just gone - gone. And that assessment is going to take some time. But we - I don't think we'll have seen damage at this scale ever.

MANN: And it's just not clear yet, Steve, how many people died in this storm.

INSKEEP: Now, who are some of the voices you heard as you walked through that field where a town had been with the people standing amid the rubble?

MANN: Yeah. I trekked up from that spot to a neighborhood where I found families also digging through rubble of their homes. And that's when I met Becky Jackson, who's 50 years old, and she was actually in her mobile home Friday night when the tornado hit.

BECKY JACKSON: It just blew me backward. And luckily, I come out without a scratch. I'm just sore.

MANN: And it really did seem miraculous to be standing there with her, her front yard choked with debris, some of it blown from miles away. And her trailer was just a twist of razor-sharp metal.

JACKSON: It's completely destroyed. I have nothing. My trailer's gone. My vehicle's gone. We have nothing.

MANN: I also stopped in at the First Baptist Church, where the pastor, Trent Keeton, had just wrapped up a prayer vigil.

TRENT KEETON: We were actually just counting, and we come up with at least 14 members that completely lost everything. In the midst of that conversation, somebody was asking - well, what about this person, that person? We've not been able to contact. So I know for a fact that we lost one church member.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to voices from Dawson Springs, Ky., where our colleague Brian Mann reported over the weekend. And Brian, I want to pull back the lens just a little bit because we do have a storm system that seems to have caused devastation in multiple states. And one of the other locations just in Kentucky was Mayfield. That's where people were working in a candle factory the night of the storm. Why were they still working even after the tornado warnings went around?

MANN: Yeah, that's a really good question, and we don't know yet. A company spokesman is saying there are confirmed eight people dead at that site. Another eight people, roughly, may be missing. It does appear that these factory crews were working flat-out to produce candles for the holiday season. This is also a factory, we've learned, that had numerous alleged safety violations in the past. But why workers were still on site and why the tornado shelter there didn't protect many of them, that's still unclear.

INSKEEP: As you were moving around the region, did you see signs that people were getting help?

MANN: It is still a big need here. A lot of folks, tens of thousands of homes still without electricity - in many areas, it's hard to find clean water and food. So even for people who didn't lose their homes, Steve, getting back to normal's going to take time.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. Some Americans are having trouble absorbing this news, but coronavirus cases are surging again.

MARTIN: Right. The U.S. is nearing 800,000 coronavirus-related deaths. The delta variant, obviously, is circulating still. Hospital admissions have increased about 23% over the last two weeks, rising sharply in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region in particular. And as scientists learn more about the threat of the new variant, omicron - right? - there's debate over whether to change the definition of fully vaccinated to include a booster shot.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey is here. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How quickly, as far as you can tell, is the new variant spreading in the United States?

AUBREY: Well, it's taken less than two weeks since the first omicron infection was detected here to find it in 25 states. Early data suggest omicron is at least twice as infectious as delta. And if you look at the U.K., cases are doubling every two to three days. Now, I spoke to Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington. He says if you look at this quick spread, it's a warning signal of what we could see in the U.S.

ALI MOKDAD: Everything the U.K. has been through, we have seen it here three weeks later. So we need to be very careful and take it seriously. Even if the new variant is less severe, the fact that it's going to infect more people, we're going to overwhelm our hospitals in winter in the United States.

AUBREY: Now, he's concerned that's what could happen here. Remember, right now, delta is still circulating with about 120,000 new cases a day. Some states, including Pennsylvania, Maine, already have hospitals stretched thin.

INSKEEP: So in response to this, I've noticed health officials have effectively been saying all those precautions we've been telling you to take, please really do them now or continue doing them - vaccinations, masks, distancing, that sort of thing. Are Americans becoming more cautious again?

AUBREY: No. I mean, New York brought back its mask mandate, and other places may follow suit. But without mandates, new survey data suggests many people, Steve, are just kind of done. I mean, the risk does not seem to be resonating. I spoke to David Lazer of Northeastern University. He's co-director of the COVID States Project.

DAVID LAZER: We do seem to have what may be a perfect storm this winter. We still have these very infectious versions of COVID floating around, but we're not really seeing in our data a hint of a spike in mask-wearing or avoidance of crowded places. Behaviors are still very relaxed.

AUBREY: He says there are some regional differences. In Utah, for instance, about 35% of people say they're masking. In Maryland, it's a little more than 60%. There are generational difference, too. Older people are more likely to take precautions to wear masks than younger people, and partisan differences continue.

INSKEEP: How are people responding to the continued advice to get vaccinated if they haven't already and get booster shots?

AUBREY: The administration has pointed to a high number of vaccinations, about 12 million shots over the last week or so. Dr. Fauci says booster shots are even more important now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: The somewhat encouraging news is that preliminary data show that when you get a booster, it raises the level of protection high enough that it then does do well against the omicron.

AUBREY: Now, people are still considered fully vaccinated after getting their first two shots or the single J&J shot. But Dr. Fauci says they will continue to evaluate this, Steve.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much, as always.

AUBREY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Millions of people across Latin America and the United States are remembering Vicente Fernandez.

MARTIN: The Mexican musician died on Sunday. He was considered the last living legend of the Mexican ranchera. That's a style deeply rooted in the values and traditions of rural Mexico. He was beloved by millions, not only in Mexico, but across Latin America and here in the U.S.

INSKEEP: NPR's Adrian Florido is here. Adrian, good morning.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: This seems to me to be a figure who was massively known in some communities, maybe not a familiar name at all in some others. Who was he?

FLORIDO: Well, Vicente Fernandez spent six decades singing Mexico's most popular songs on film and on stage. He sold 50 million albums. He won three Grammys. And he and his music were really synonymous with Mexico itself. And he was beloved for a lot of reasons, including his beautiful voice. Listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELLA")

VICENTE FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Pretty good, right?

INSKEEP: Mmm.

FLORIDO: Fernandez was known as the king of the ranchera, these songs about patriotism, honor, love and, most of all, heartbreak, the sorts of things that Mexicans love to sing about.

INSKEEP: Which makes someone symbolically important, someone that people would relate to or identify with.

FLORIDO: You know, he was a man who rose from poverty to become Mexico's biggest star. And yet he always maintained this affinity with the country's, you know, rural and poor and working-class people. He was also the symbol of the Mexican macho, very much a product of Mexico's patriarchal culture and society. And yet he wasn't your typical stoic macho man. His songs, especially his songs about heartbreak, they were often so, so vulnerable. Listen to how Leila Cobo from Billboard magazine described him to me.

LEILA COBO: He would sing these songs with so much pathos and so much emotion, and grown men would cry. And he would cry. Perhaps because he was such a macho man, you know, he could cry. And I think that made him all the more (laughter) iconic and legendary.

FLORIDO: Just hours after his death yesterday, Steve, his body had already been brought to this huge stadium in his home state of Jalisco. Ten thousand people streamed in in just the first few hours for a chance to say goodbye.

INSKEEP: Adrian, we've been talking about Mexico's greatest star, but I want to remember that a lot of Latin America is here, is part of the United States. And you're in Los Angeles, which has the largest Mexican American community in this country. How are people responding where you are?

FLORIDO: Well, Fernandez's death wasn't a surprise. He was 81. He'd been in the hospital for a few months after falling and hurting his spine. But for a lot of people, it still felt horribly painful, like losing the family patriarch. I was sitting in traffic last night, and every Spanish radio station was airing tributes. His songs were blaring out of the cars next to me. And on Univision's TV newscast last night, one of Fernandez's doctors cried as he described going back to the hospital where he'd been treating the singer, putting on some of his music and weeping, not just because his patient had died, but because that patient had also been his idol since childhood.

INSKEEP: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Adrian Florido. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.