AP News in Brief at 6:04 p.m. EDT

| September 22, 2020 3:12 PM

'Unfathomable': US death toll from coronavirus hits 200,000

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 Tuesday, by far the highest in the world, hitting the once-unimaginable threshold six weeks before an election that is certain to be a referendum in part on President Donald Trump's handling of the crisis.

“It is completely unfathomable that we’ve reached this point,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University public health researcher, eight months after the scourge first reached the world’s richest nation, with its state-of-the-art laboratories, top-flight scientists and stockpiles of medical supplies.

The number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 67 days. It is roughly equal to the population of Salt Lake City or Huntsville, Alabama.

And it is still climbing. Deaths are running at close to 770 a day on average, and a widely cited model from the University of Washington predicts the U.S. toll will double to 400,000 by the end of the year as schools and colleges reopen and cold weather sets in. A vaccine is unlikely to become widely available until 2021.

“The idea of 200,000 deaths is really very sobering, in some respects stunning,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said on CNN.

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Senate GOP lines up with Trump to quickly fill court seat

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans swiftly fell in line Tuesday behind President Donald Trump’s rush to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, all but ensuring a divisive confirmation vote within weeks despite Democrats’ objections it’s too close to the Nov. 3 election.

Trump, who has yet to announce his nominee, said that will come Saturday and he's confident his choice will be confirmed.

“I guess we have all the votes we’re going to need,” Trump told WJBX FOX 2 in Detroit. “I think it’s going to happen.”

Trump and conservatives are insisting on a vote before Election Day, and Republicans control the Senate, 53-47, with a simple majority needed for confirmation. The one remaining possible Republican holdout, Mitt Romney of Utah, said Tuesday he supports taking a vote.

Still, with early presidential voting already underway in several states, all sides are girding for a wrenching Senate battle over health care, abortion access and other big cases before the court and sure to further split the torn nation.

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Kentucky city prepares for Breonna Taylor announcement

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Officials in Kentucky’s largest city were preparing Tuesday for more protests and possible unrest as the public nervously awaits the state attorney general’s announcement about whether he will charge officers in Breonna Taylor’s shooting death.

With timing of the announcement still uncertain, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer declared a state of emergency due to the potential for civil unrest, hours after police said they would restrict access in the city's downtown area. The mayor and police said they were trying to plan ahead of time to protect both demonstrators and the people who live and work there.

But some involved in protests seeking justice for Taylor questioned why the police were going to such “overkill” lengths when the city has been the site of peaceful protests for months.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron has declined to set a deadline for his decision. Earlier this month, he remarked that “an investigation, if done properly, cannot follow a certain timeline.”

Interim Police Chief Robert Schroeder said officials from Cameron’s office have promised to try to give authorities a heads-up.

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Iran strikes defiant tone at UN under crushing US sanctions

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Grappling with a weakened economy and the Middle East's worst coronavirus outbreak, Iran's president delivered a defiant and fiery speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly as he insisted it would be the United States that surrenders to Iran's resilience.

Hassan Rouhani spoke in a prerecorded speech to the virtual summit just days after Iran’s currency plunged to its lowest levels ever against the U.S. dollar due to crippling U.S. sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. The accord had been signed by the Obama administration. The sanctions effectively bar Iran from selling its oil globally.

“The United States can impose neither negotiations nor war on us,” Rouhani said, adding: “Life is hard under sanctions. However, harder is life without independence.”

Rouhani compared his country’s plight with that of George Floyd, the Black American man who died in May after a white police officer in Minneapolis pinned him to the ground by pressing a knee into his neck. Floyd's death set off nationwide protests in support of Black lives.

Calling it “reminiscent of our own experience,” Rouhani said: “We instantly recognize the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations.”

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As US struggles, Africa's COVID-19 response is praised

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — At a lecture to peers this month, John Nkengasong showed images that once dogged Africa, with a magazine cover declaring it “The Hopeless Continent." Then he quoted Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah: “It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity.”

The coronavirus pandemic has fractured global relationships. But as director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nkengasong has helped to steer Africa’s 54 countries into an alliance praised as responding better than some richer countries, including the United States.

While the U.S. surpassed 200,000 COVID-19 deaths and the world approaches 1 million, Africa's surge has been leveling off. Its 1.4 million confirmed cases are far from the horrors predicted. Antibody testing is expected to show many more infections, but most cases are asymptomatic. Just over 34,000 deaths are confirmed on the continent of 1.3 billion people.

Experts caution that data collection in many African countries is incomplete, and Nkengasong warned against complacency, saying a single case can spark a new surge.

“Africa is doing a lot of things right the rest of the world isn’t,” said Gayle Smith, a former administrator with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She's watched in astonishment as Washington looks inward instead of leading the world. But Africa “is a great story and one that needs to be told.”

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State auditor: UC wrongly admitted well-connected students

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The University of California “inappropriately admitted" at least 64 wealthy, mostly white students over the past six years as “favors to donors, family, and friends," according to an audit released Tuesday that found hundreds more questionable cases of students accepted to the top UC schools.

Among them were a student whose family was friends with a member of the Board of Regents, the child of a major donor and an applicant who babysat for a colleague of a former admissions director, according to the report from the California State Auditor.

“This is a significant problem that the university needs to deal with,” State Auditor Elaine Howle said in a telephone interview. “Let's hope this isn't occurring across the country, or at other universities in California. But it is very concerning."

The audit examined admissions policies and practices over the six academic years from 2013-2014 to 2018-2019 at four of the UC's nine campuses — UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara.

Auditors found that at least 22 applicants were falsely designated as student-athlete recruits “because of donations from or as favors to well-connected families." These students “had little or no athletic skills," Howle said.

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What a gift: Russia offers UN staff free virus vaccines

MOSCOW (AP) — What do you do when Vladimir Putin offers you Russia’s new coronavirus vaccine, for free?

United Nations staff in New York and around the world are now facing that choice, after the Russian president offered Tuesday to provide them the Sputnik-V vaccine in a speech to this year’s General Assembly marking the body’s 75th birthday.

Only results from small early studies on the Russian vaccine have been published, raising concerns among some scientists that it isn’t ready yet for widespread use — and prompting worldwide memes about potential bizarre side effects.

“Any one of us could face this dangerous virus. The virus has not spared the staff of the United Nations, its headquarters and regional entities,” Putin said in a prerecorded speech from Moscow.

The coronavirus pandemic means this year’s General Assembly is a work-from-home production, for the first time in its history.

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Few resources, old-growth forest allowed for fire's growth

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A lack of firefighting resources in the hours after it was sparked allowed a fast-moving wildfire to make an unprecedented run through Southern California mountains and eventually find fuel in old-growth trees to become one of Los Angeles County's largest fires ever, an official said Tuesday.

The Bobcat Fire has burned for more than two weeks and was still threatening more than 1,000 homes after scorching its way through brush and timber down into the Mojave Desert. It's one of dozens of other major blazes across the West.

“This is a stubborn fire,” Angeles National Forest spokesman Andrew Mitchell said. Only about 100 firefighters were initially dispatched on Sept. 6 when the Bobcat Fire broke out and swiftly grew to about 200 acres (81 hectares), he said.

“To put that into perspective, normally for a fire that size we'd have at least double or triple that number of firefighters,” Mitchell said. At the time, many Southern California ground crews and a fleet of retardant- and water-dropping aircraft were assigned to multiple record-breaking blazes in the northern part of the state.

By the time staffing was ramped up, flames had found their way deep into inaccessible forest. Embers floated across mountain ridges, igniting towering trees and creating an expanding wall of fire.

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Beta weakens to tropical depression, stalls over Texas coast

HOUSTON (AP) — Beta weakened to a tropical depression Tuesday as it parked itself over the Texas coast, raising concerns of extensive flooding in Houston and areas farther inland.

Beta, which made landfall late Monday as a tropical storm just north of Port O’Connor, is the first storm named for a Greek letter to make landfall in the continental United States. Forecasters ran out of traditional storm names last week, forcing the use of the Greek alphabet for only the second time since the 1950s.

By Tuesday afternoon, Beta was 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Port O’Connor, Texas, with maximum sustained winds of 30 mph (48 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. The storm was moving east-northeast at 5 mph (8 kilometers) and was expected to crawl inland along the coast over Texas through Wednesday.

The National Hurricane Center said parts of the Houston area had seen up to 14 inches (36 centimeters) of rain by Tuesday afternoon. One area in Brazoria County, located south of Houston along the coast, got nearly 18 inches (46 centimeters) of rain in the last two days.

Street flooding was reported in parts of the Houston area. Fire Chief Samuel Peña said first responders had done nearly 100 water rescues on city roadways since Monday evening.

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Vanessa Bryant sues LA sheriff over helicopter crash photos

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Vanessa Bryant, the widow of basketball star Kobe Bryant, has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County sheriff claiming deputies shared unauthorized photos of the crash that killed her husband, their 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

After the Jan. 26 crash, reports surfaced that graphic photos of the victims were being shared. Vanessa Bryant was “shocked and devastated” by the reports, the lawsuit states.

The suit seeks damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“This lawsuit is about accountability and about preventing this disgraceful behavior from happening to other families in the future who have suffered loss,” Vanessa Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, said in a statement. “The department formally refused Mrs. Bryant’s requests for information saying it was ‘unable to assist’ with any inquiry and had no legal obligation to do so. It’s now for a court to tell the department what its obligations are.”

The victims died when the helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles, during cloudy weather. They were traveling to a youth basketball tournament at Bryant’s sports facility in Thousand Oaks. The National Transportation Safety Board has not concluded what caused the crash on the outskirts of Los Angeles County but said there was no sign of mechanical failure in the Sikorsky S-76. helicopter.