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News Brief: Mideast Violence, CDC Mask Revision, Poll On Race, Police

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just over a week ago, the Middle East was growing tense, but few people could have expected the war that is now underway.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hamas continues firing rockets out of Gaza. Israel says its airstrikes on Gaza will continue for some time. Many of those strikes have hit populated areas of Gaza, destroying buildings and infrastructure. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CBS that's where the rocket launchers are.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: If Hamas would simply move these rockets out of civilian areas, if they moved their command posts out of these homes and offices, then there wouldn't be any problem.

MARTIN: Palestinian officials say many of the 197 dead are children. Eight dead in Israel include a 5-year-old boy. Numbers like that form the backdrop for a statement by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

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LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We need to do everything we can to move closer to a day when both Israeli and Palestinian children wake up every morning without fearing for their lives.

INSKEEP: Let's go now to NPR's Daniel Estrin, who is in Jerusalem. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How widespread is the destruction in Gaza?

ESTRIN: Well, these Israeli attacks happened overnight, and every night seems to be more intense than the one before. Just this past night, Israel says scores of warplanes again attacked another part of what Israel calls the underground metro. That is what they call underground tunnels they say Hamas has dug under Gaza to move its fighters and rockets from one place to another. It says it bombed about nine miles of those tunnels overnight. We don't have any word of casualties from that. But these strikes have been keeping Palestinians up all night terrified. I just got off the phone with a 65-year-old woman, Kefaya Abujiab (ph). Let's listen.

KEFAYA ABUJIAB: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She says, "we didn't sleep at night at all. We felt like - I felt like my heart stopped." And she is one of the tens of thousands of Palestinians not only facing fear but facing short water supply. She says she fills up her buckets to use water to bathe and clean when she does get water. She has just a few hours of electricity a day. And that's - that was just last night. The biggest, deadliest Israeli strike so far in this fighting was Sunday. Several multistory residential homes collapsed. Forty-two people, including very young children, were killed.

INSKEEP: Well, has Israel provided evidence to justify one particular strike over the weekend, Daniel? I'm talking about the destruction of a large building that housed The Associated Press Gaza bureau.

ESTRIN: That's right. That building completely collapsed in the Israeli strike. Israel says Hamas military intelligence was using the building as well and that destroying the building had crippled Hamas' command and control capabilities. Israel has not published evidence of that. And although Israel warned the building an hour before - there were no casualties, people escaped - we don't know why Israel didn't tell The Associated Press that there allegedly was Hamas in the building before.

INSKEEP: And I guess the AP is saying we saw no sign of this. And Al Jazeera, which also had offices in the building, are saying we saw no sign of this and now the building is destroyed. How long does Israel plan to continue its campaign?

ESTRIN: We don't know. It seems like it's a matter of days and not weeks. After the bombing of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera building and several families killed in the last few days, it seems that there is more international pressure to reach a cease-fire. The U.S. is involved, Qatar, Egyptians. And the E.U. has called for a meeting of foreign ministers tomorrow. The expectation is that they're going to say no more. We could see this wrapping up soon.

INSKEEP: Does either combatant side want to end it right now?

ESTRIN: It doesn't appear so. Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, says it would take - Israel would take as long as it needs. And Hamas says its resistance will continue.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks for the update.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin.

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INSKEEP: OK. About 123 million people in the United States are now fully vaccinated. Millions of other people have the first of two shots.

MARTIN: Over the weekend, a whole lot of Americans started to bare their faces. The CDC issued its recommendation that vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most settings. There are some exceptions, as we're about to hear. The agency is facing criticism over all this. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky explaining and defending the decision on NBC.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Right now, the data, the science, shows us that it is safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks. I as the CDC director promised the American people I would convey that science to you when we knew it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to discuss all this. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Kind of a startling change over the weekend where I was. I think I saw not universal faces, people are still wearing a lot of masks, but a lot more faces.

AUBREY: It does feel like such an abrupt change. I mean, when I grab my keys, my cellphone, I just grab a mask, too, when I'm about to leave. It's habit now. But many retailers are dropping their masking requirements following the CDC announcement. That includes Walmart, Costco, Starbucks. Yesterday, CDC Director Walensky, as we just heard, was pressed about the new recommendation. But you know what? She also cautioned that masks will be with us for a while. Even among vaccinated people, masking is still recommended in certain settings, including on public transportation and in schools. Here she is on NBC again.

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WALENSKY: This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science driven, individual assessment of your risk. And now we all need to work together. And CDC is hard at work now saying what does this mean for schools, for travel, for camps, for businesses?

AUBREY: So she's definitely saying that there's more updated guidance to come. And given that it's hard to know who is or who is not vaccinated, the new recommendations really just depend on the honor system. Walensky asked people to be honest with themselves because people who are not vaccinated are putting themselves at risk.

INSKEEP: Yeah, people are going to have to be thoughtful here. That's what this is essentially saying. And just to underline this, again, vaccinated people should still be using masks in certain crowded settings and unvaccinated people should be using them even more. Is everyone confident that people will follow that honor system?

AUBREY: You know, I think there are definitely critics. The head of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents about 1.3 million front-line retail and grocery store workers, say they don't want to be policing the situation. And they say the CDC should have waited to relax masking until more people are vaccinated. There are similar concerns among nurses. The leaders of National Nurses United, which is the largest union of registered nurses in the U.S., say the new policy could threaten the lives of patients, nurses and other front-line workers.

INSKEEP: We keep also getting these kinds of unsettling bits of news. I was in a conversation last week about the easing of the pandemic and somebody said, yeah, what about the New York Yankees?

AUBREY: You know, no doubt this can be unsettling, but breakthrough infections are pretty uncommon, especially ones that lead to serious illness. In the case of the Yankees, they'd received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This vaccine was shown in a clinical trial to be about 85% effective against severe illness from COVID. I spoke to virologist Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan about this.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Overall, I think that breakthrough infections are really something that we would expect because no vaccine is 100% effective. But if they're not getting sick because of those breakthrough infections and the vast majority of those Yankees players were asymptomatic, they're not transmitting it to others, it's really much less of a concern.

AUBREY: And, Steve, the CDC has been tracking breakthrough infections as well as variants of concern.

INSKEEP: OK, Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

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INSKEEP: This may come as no surprise, but it's valuable to hear it documented. Americans have very different views when it comes to policing, depending in many cases on their race.

MARTIN: A new poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist details just how differently Americans see policing. The findings come as we approach the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis. Former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of Floyd's murder.

INSKEEP: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are some of the findings here?

MONTANARO: Well, there were big gaps, as usual, by political leaning but on race as well, which we looked into. And let's take whether people had personally experienced discrimination or feel they've been treated unfairly because of their race. Just 15% of whites said this had happened to them, but 61% of Black Americans said it had; of Latinos, it was 39%. When it came to police, whites, Latinos and Republicans had far more confidence than Black Americans in their ability to gain the trust of residents in their communities. And on whether police treat African Americans more harshly than whites, just a quarter of whites thought so but most Black Americans did.

INSKEEP: Interesting that Latinos lined up there more with whites than with Black Americans on that question. What did people say about the Derek Chauvin verdict, the former officer convicted of killing George Floyd?

MONTANARO: Yeah, we had broad agreement here. Three-quarters of respondents agreed with the guilty verdict. But we do see a bit of a partisan gap. About half of Republicans and Trump supporters think it was either the wrong decision or they aren't sure. Remember, though, this was a unanimous jury decision. Floyd's killing has sparked calls for police reform. This survey finds broad support for the need to reform police use of force policies, for example. Again, though, sharp divide along party lines - Democrats and independents said the policy should be reformed; just a third of Republicans thought so, too. One policy area, though, where there was near universal support was for wearing police body cameras.

INSKEEP: Which is understandable given that video has played such a role in so many of these cases.

MONTANARO: Right. And they may have different reasons for that. It was almost - it was about 9 in 10 that agreed.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's an interesting question. People may feel it protects the officer in some cases. Is there anything that you would find optimistic in these findings?

MONTANARO: There was some hope for optimism that people seem to have. Most said they believe for future generations that race relations will be better than they are now, which is different than people sometimes feel about the economy and whether the American dream is achievable, for example. And fewer people than we've seen in the last six years are saying that race relations in the country had gotten worse in the past year. Of course, there's a lot of politics wrapped up in that. For a lot of people who like Joe Biden, just that switch from Trump to Biden made a big difference for a lot of people. And speaking of Biden, a slim majority approved of how he's handling race relations. That's about where his overall job rating is, though he certainly has lots of challenges on this, especially as he tries to press ahead for a deal on police reform.

INSKEEP: I want to check in on his overall approval rating since we have a few seconds, Domenico. I gather that Donald Trump, for almost all of his presidency, was about 40% approval, low 50s disapproval. It's kind of flipped with Joe Biden, is that right?

MONTANARO: Yeah. We've seen him really win over independents to be pretty steadily above 50%. Now, he's got a lot of challenges ahead when it comes to some of these issues that are non-COVID related. But when it comes to COVID people, two-thirds think he's doing a pretty good job.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. And you can find more on this poll and Domenico's full story at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.