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News Brief: Booster Shots, Haitian Migrants, U.N. Famine Warning

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The FDA isn't ready to approve extra vaccine for everyone, but it is ready to issue an emergency use authorization for seniors.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The instructions here are pretty specific. The agency authorized a third dose for people 65 and older and certain older people if they received the Pfizer vaccine. Other people with other vaccines are not included, at least for now. In a statement, the agency says the situation is dynamic and evolving, with new information available every day.

MARTIN: All right. Well, today we've got NPR's Allison Aubrey with us to give us more details. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So Steve mentioned the big criteria - right? - 65 and older. Who else can get this booster shot?

AUBREY: Sure. The authorization covers anyone 18 and up who's at high risk of severe COVID due to underlying disease, for instance, also, people 18 and older who's living situation puts them at higher risk - so people in homeless shelters, prisons, for example, also people whose jobs increase their risk of getting exposed. That's first responders, health care workers, as well as teachers, day care staff and grocery workers.

MARTIN: OK. So when - when can those folks get this booster?

AUBREY: You know, many hospitals and pharmacies have been anticipating this and are ready. Remember people who are immune-compromised have already been eligible for boosters. And vaccination sites are still up and running giving people first and second doses. So the infrastructure's there. People will be eligible for boosters beginning six months after their second dose. Now, a CDC advisory committee will meet later today, weigh in on these specific recommendations. And if the CDC signs off, the rollout can happen pretty quickly.

MARTIN: All right. So the FDA has authorized the Pfizer booster. But - big question - what about the folks, myself included, who got the Moderna or...

AUBREY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The Johnson & Johnson shot?

AUBREY: Well, right. So the authorization covers the Pfizer booster, and this goes to people who are fully vaccinated with the same vaccine. So people who got the other vaccines may just have to wait until the FDA reviews the data. Now, Moderna has an application in for its booster. J&J is also set to pursue a booster, and there's a lot of talk right now about whether it's OK to mix and match the vaccines, and there are studies happening now to try to determine the efficacy and safety of interchanging the vaccines, but there's just no data yet. Now, some of the CDC advisers say this is likely to cause confusion, having only one booster authorized. Molly Howell oversees immunizations in North Dakota. She says in many facilities, it's obviously difficult 'cause some people get Pfizer, some people get Moderna. Wouldn't it be easier if they could be interchangeable?

MOLLY HOWELL: You know, if one brand isn't available, you can use the opposite brand. I think that would be very helpful, especially when we're talking about vaccinating in a long-term care setting.

AUBREY: So we could hear more about this issue from the panel today.

MARTIN: But it's - there are serious consequences of this, right? The whole reason for the conversation around boosters is to protect people's immunity, immunity that could be waning after, you know, so many months. So just explain again, why not open boosters up for everyone?

AUBREY: You know, there are several reasons that have been stated. Last week, FDA advisers concluded there isn't enough data to determine that the benefits outweigh the risks for everyone. I mean, some pointed to the risk of myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, which is a rare side effect, usually among younger men. Several of the CDC panel members yesterday say the goal of vaccination is to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, not to try to prevent every mild infection. So if younger people are still very well protected against serious illness, does everyone really need a booster? That was the conversation. Now, advisers wrestled with these questions. But as more data emerged, the new data could justify boosters for all, and the guidance could change. So it's a very dynamic or fluid situation.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Allison Aubrey. We appreciate you. Thank you.

AUBREY: All right. Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Some of the thousands of Haitian migrants who were camped near the Texas border town of Del Rio are being released into the U.S.

INSKEEP: Yeah, they're being told they have 60 days to appear in an immigration office. Other migrants are being flown back to Haiti by U.S. Border Control or turning back across the border to Mexico. Their makeshift camp, which just a week ago numbered well over 10,000 people under a bridge, has been reduced to about half that.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn is with us now from Piedras Negras across the Texas border in Mexico. Carrie - so - I mean, how does the U.S. government determine who gets to stay in the U.S. and who is forced to leave? You were in Del Rio yesterday, right?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Yes. We do not know exactly how that determination's being made. The Department of Homeland Security is not answering that question. But it appears that families with children are the ones being allowed into the country. We met a very relieved 29-year-old man, Jean Baptiste, on the U.S. side in Del Rio as he was boarding a bus heading for Houston with his wife and 3-year-old-daughter. Let's hear him.

JEAN BAPTISTE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He's talking to me in Spanish. You can hear that. And he says he was very stressed out living in the huge encampment and so worried that he was going to be deported back to Haiti. He left in 2017. He says he's headed to an uncle in the U.S.

MARTIN: So estimates of the number of Haitians in Del Rio have been as high as 14,000. I mean, do we have any sense of how and why they all made this move to the border seemingly so fast?

KAHN: Yeah, I don't have a very complete answer for you. But it is really quite stunning, a logistical feat that all these migrants, mostly Haitians who were in southern Mexico and even further south, suddenly descended on this tiny border crossing in Del Rio. I can say many were communicating and are communicating through social media on how to get to the border, but that doesn't explain how more than 10,000 migrants move through Mexico so quickly within days en masse.

MARTIN: What are Haitians telling you about the why - why they came now?

KAHN: Right. And now is the question. I asked Jean Baptiste, the Haitian with the small child and his wife heading to Houston, that exact question. He said he was in Chile for the past four years and was barely eking out a living. His goal all along since leaving Haiti was to get to the U.S., and he had heard about Del Rio and decided to come. So I asked him, what is he telling his friends now making their way north to the U.S.? Here's what he said.

BAPTISTE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He said, you just - he's telling them to give it a try, just to come. It'll cost a lot of money, but come and give it a shot. And I met another Haitian, 34-year-old Robinson Canone, at the Greyhound bus stop. It's at a Del Rio gas station. He was headed for San Antonio. He was a lot more coy about why and how he got to Del Rio. He, too, had been living in Chile since 2019, and he said he traveled through 10 countries to get here. He was with two small children and his wife, and he did not want to say why or who was helping him get all the way to Texas.

MARTIN: Right. Just in a couple seconds, what's the Mexican government doing right now in this crisis?

KAHN: Sure. The Mexican immigration officials have begun removing people from the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Acuna. That's across the river from Del Rio. There were predawn raids on hotels and a park in the town, and authorities are flying and bussing migrants out of the town and even flying back to southern Mexico or expelling them to Guatemala.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting from the Mexican side of the border near Del Rio. Thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. We go next to Ethiopia, where people in the northern region of Tigray are victims twice over, once because of the civil war there and now because of the ensuing famine.

INSKEEP: Let's go through some of the background here. The war is between Ethiopia's government and rebel fighters. For about three decades, these rebels were a dominant force in Ethiopian politics. Then, a new president took office in 2018, and things changed. He started to strip that group of its power and influence, and the rebels retreated to their stronghold in Tigray, which is when the war broke out. Like every war, people are caught in the middle. The U.N. accuses the Ethiopian leaders of choking off the region from medical supplies and fuel and food, and The Associated Press has now obtained internal documents and witness accounts that confirm people there are dying of starvation.

MARTIN: The AP's East Africa reporter, Cara Anna, joins us now from Nairobi in the neighboring country of Kenya. Cara, thank you so much for being with us. Can you describe just what you're seeing? What are the living conditions right now in Tigray?

CARA ANNA: Hi. Good morning. Thank you for this. That's a challenging question because, at the moment, the Tigray region is under a blackout. It's a de facto humanitarian blockade according to the United Nations. But it's also incredibly difficult to watch and to see just what's happening on the ground. There is no phone service, no internet, very little transport. And so what we have been doing - journalists are reporting from afar, really. We are trying to speak to people who have recently traveled to the region - people have very limited internet access - and who have been, despite, you know, the fear of government retaliation, despite the fear of perhaps losing their humanitarian access, they have spoken with us. And they have described increasingly grim conditions in recent weeks where people, yes, have begun starving to death because there's essentially no food aid entering the region anymore. There's no fuel entering the region. That's the case for, I think, more than a month now - and also medical supplies. So people who have been weakened - and this is a region of, like, 6 million people.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ANNA: People who have been weakened by the war - months of war, almost a year of it - are not getting what they need to continue going on, and they're dying.

MARTIN: Cara, what are these internal documents, witness accounts? I mean, is this just more of what you just described? What's in those accounts?

ANNA: Sure, sure. One aid group shared with us some internal documents that showed that in more than 20 districts where they operate in the Tigray region, people are starving to death. We also spoke with someone else who witnessed a child and the child's mother, both severely malnourished, dying last week. And the newborn baby weighed 1.7 pounds. We also spoke with a hospital director - a former hospital director who is now outside the region but is in touch with colleagues, who sent us some very striking photographs of children who are severely malnourished.

MARTIN: And again, no international aid can get in, and journalists are forced to report abroad on this worsening crisis. Cara Anna, reporting from neighboring Nairobi, Kenya. We appreciate you.

ANNA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.