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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In Florida, almost a third of the state's 67 counties have ordered either mandatory or recommended voluntary evacuations as the state braces for a major hurricane.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, I'm looking at the website here of the National Hurricane Center, which says Idalia is expected to rapidly intensify into an extremely dangerous major hurricane before coming ashore Wednesday north of Tampa Bay. This is the first storm to hit Florida this hurricane season, and it approaches about a year after Hurricane Ian struck the Gulf Coast.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from St. Petersburg. Greg, first off, where's Idalia? How's it looking?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Idalia is moving north through the Gulf of Mexico. This is - storm is on a path that's headed toward Florida's Big Bend area, it appears. That's the place on the Gulf Coast where the peninsula meets the panhandle. It's a relatively undeveloped part of the state. And that track, of course, may change somewhat as we go forward. But whatever happens, the storm's likely to have a big impact on areas far from where it makes landfall. The storm surge in that Big Bend area may be as high as 12 feet. The National Hurricane Center says tropical storm force winds extend 150 miles from the center of the storm, and a hurricane warning is in effect for hundreds of miles of Florida's Gulf Coast from Tampa Bay nearly to Panama City. So people have today to make final preparations before the expected landfall tomorrow.

MARTÍNEZ: If it does wind up hitting north of Tampa, is that a relief for people near there?

ALLEN: Well, still a lot of concern here about storm surge. The National Hurricane Center says its storm surge is likely to be 4 to 7 feet here. And that's worrisome because Tampa Bay area is so low and so prone to flooding the area around it. It's also a time of year when tides are especially high, and some streets here have already seen flooding from high tides. Florida's director of emergency management, Kevin Guthrie, has been trying to get the word out to communities like Tampa that may be south of where Idalia makes landfall. He's warning that with the rain and the storm surge, there's going to be significant flooding, and high winds are likely to cause power outages.

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KEVIN GUTHRIE: You're going to be in the right front portion of that hurricane. That's what they call the dirty side of the storm. You're going to experience problems. You're going to experience power outages. So please be prepared for those power outages.

MARTÍNEZ: For the last several weeks, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been spending a lot of time in another state, Iowa, which he hopes will help him in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Clearly, he's back in Florida now.

ALLEN: Yes, he's here, and he's held a series of news conferences yesterday, updating Floridians on the storm, giving them information on how to prepare. We'll likely hear a bunch of those today. Again, this is something that DeSantis has done well and which helped him politically in Florida. Yesterday, he was asked if his rivalry, even antagonism, with President Biden might affect their ability to work together in responding to the storm. Here's what DeSantis said.

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RON DESANTIS: When you have situations like this, you've got to put the interests of the people first. I mean, you know, there's time and a place to have political season, but then there's a time and a place to say that this is something that's life threatening.

ALLEN: The White House says the two men talked yesterday. Biden told DeSantis that he's approving Florida's request for a federal disaster declaration.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So after Idalia makes landfall, what other parts of Florida and maybe parts of the Southeastern United States could be affected?

ALLEN: Well, Idalia is likely to bring lots of rain, as much as 12 inches, they're saying, in some areas. That would be in parts of north Florida, Georgia and into the Carolinas as it goes forward. In Ian and past hurricanes, we've seen substantial flooding days after the storm makes landfall as rivers crest. And officials are warning that several rivers in north Florida may flood after Idalia makes landfall.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Greg Allen in St. Petersburg. Greg, try to stay dry.

ALLEN: Will do.

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MARTÍNEZ: The U.S. is experiencing a late summer wave of COVID cases.

INSKEEP: Hospitalizations have jumped more than 21% compared to the prior week. Some hospitals and schools have reinstated mask requirements or at least actively encouraged people to wear them again.

MARTÍNEZ: Here with an update is NPR's Maria Godoy. Maria, when did people start to notice that the number of COVID cases was climbing?

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Well, I got my first inkling that COVID cases were on the rise a couple of weeks ago when my social media feed was suddenly full of people posting photos of their positive tests again. And while most people aren't getting really sick, hospitalizations have been going up. I spoke with Dr. Carlos del Rio. He's an infectious disease doctor at Emory School of Medicine. He says most of the people getting sick enough to end up in the hospital are older folks.

CARLOS DEL RIO: I think what we're seeing is people over the age of 85, so it's significant waning of immunity and lack of uptake of boosting in those older populations. And I think that's what driving the hospitalizations, right?

GODOY: Del Rio notes that protection from vaccination wanes faster in older people, and only about 40% of Americans age 65 and up got a first booster to begin with, and fewer got the second booster.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so if older people are most at risk, why are schools suggesting that kids wear masks again?

GODOY: It's to try to stop the spread. For example, a school district in Alabama is encouraging masks just to be cautious because Alabama has seen nearly a 300% increase in hospitalizations since early July. And no one wants schools shutting down because students and teachers are sick. Now, I should note that while hospitalizations are rising, they are still relatively low.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. And there's a new variant that the CDC is worried about. What can you tell us about that?

GODOY: Yeah, it's called BA.2.86. It's been detected in a handful of countries recently, including the U.S. I spoke with Katelyn Jetelina. She's an epidemiologist who consults with the CDC, and she says it's quite different from other circulating strains. It's got 35 mutations to its spike protein, which is what you might think of as the key that the virus uses to enter our cells. Here's what she said.

KATELYN JETELINA: It's actually shown a pretty insane amount of change all at once. And so this is as big of an evolutionary jump as the Wuhan strain to omicron, for example. So it's a big change.

GODOY: So now, of course, the big question is, will this new variant cause a big surge in cases like omicron did? And it's hard to say because we have a lot less surveillance now than we did in the past. But we do have a lot more immunity in the population than we did back when omicron hit.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Maria, I keep hearing about a new booster shot on the way. When will that be ready?

GODOY: Yeah. So the FDA and CDC are expected to clear the new booster in the coming weeks. Scientists are evaluating right now how well it will work against this new variant. Biden administration officials told reporters they expect it will bolster protection against severe disease. But we don't know yet how well it will protect against infection. Oh, and if you're wondering when to get boosted, for most people, experts say it makes sense to wait a bit for the new booster. But if you're at high risk of severe disease and you haven't been boosted in a long time and you're going to be traveling or in a crowded indoor setting, then you might want to talk to your doctor about whether to boost now.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's health correspondent Maria Godoy. Thanks, Maria.

GODOY: My pleasure.

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MARTÍNEZ: In Uganda, a 20-year-old man has become the first person to be charged for so-called aggravated homosexuality. That's an offense that carries the death penalty under some of the most punitive anti-gay legislation in the world.

INSKEEP: Same-sex relations have been illegal in the East African country for a long time. And then this year the parliament passed legislation that included the death penalty for so-called aggravated homosexuality, as A said. That is defined as same-sex relations with someone who is HIV-positive or a child, an elderly person or a disabled person.

MARTÍNEZ: Our Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us now from Lagos. Before we talk about this particular case, how is this legislation - how did it come about in the first place, and what does it include?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Well, in May, President Yoweri Museveni, he passed an extreme new bill which included up to 20 years in prison for so-called promotion of LGBTQ+ people, so really coming down on advocates and even journalists in Uganda, who are having to be careful about how they cover this because they fear being seen to promote it. And it's important to stress that an important driver of this bill is not just - it's not really mainstream society in Uganda, but activism by local conservative groups like the church. And they are backed by external actors, including U.S. evangelical and right-wing groups.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. The man we talked about earlier, what do we know about his case?

AKINWOTU: Well, we know he is a 20-year-old man who's been arrested. We managed to get in touch with his lawyer, Justine Balya, and she said he's the first person to be charged for aggravated homosexuality. She told us he's being charged for having, quote, "sexual contact with someone with a disability of the same sex." We don't know what the disability is or really much else about the case until more details emerge in court. You know, Uganda hasn't executed someone for decades, but if he's convicted, it's going to put that recent precedent to the test. And this is what she had to say.

JUSTINE BALYA: For me, the real problem isn't so much that the penalty is scary, that it's death. It's just what the death penalty means for procedure. He's going to have to remain in prison custody regardless of his innocence, just because of that charge on that file.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. The World Bank, Emmanuel, says they're going to stop offering loans to Uganda, and the U.S. has imposed travel bans on some officials. But what's likely to be the impact of some of these actions?

AKINWOTU: Well, Mr. Museveni has said it's hypocritical, as other countries receive aid that have similar laws. You know, the challenge with international pressure to bills like this is a few things. You know, it creates a backlash because African countries - like, in this case Uganda - they react to being pressured by Western countries and Western institutions. And also another factor is it inadvertently reinforces this common conspiracy theory that gay and queer identity is foreign and imported and doesn't have a precedent in African culture, which isn't true.

You know, in Uganda today, this case isn't on the front pages. It's not a major talking point around the country. But of course, to gay and queer people, to advocates, to people who care about their well-being, this is a major moment and an incredibly disturbing one. And it's one where the Ugandan government are essentially showing that - and Ugandan authorities are showing that this law is not just talking. It's one that's going to have a material effect on sexual minorities in Uganda.

MARTÍNEZ: That's our NPR Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu. Thanks a lot.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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