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News brief: Texas synagogue standoff, COVID surge, Boris Johnson woes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why did a gunman attack a Texas synagogue over the weekend?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The man took hostages at the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. He pretended to look for shelter. He got past security and walked in during Sabbath services. After 10 hours, police moved in. They rescued the rabbi and three members of the organization while the gunman died. His name was Malik Faisal Akram.

INSKEEP: Miranda Suarez of member station KERA is covering this story. Good morning.

MIRANDA SUAREZ, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What questions are investigators asking here?

SUAREZ: Yeah, we don't know a lot more than we do know right now. We don't know why Akram chose to target a suburban synagogue in Dallas-Forth Worth. The FBI's Matt DeSarno says that they're investigating his motive right now.

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MATT DESARNO: We do believe from our engagement with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue. And it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.

SUAREZ: So we do know that Akram was 44 years old and was a British citizen and that this investigation is going to be global. Local police in the U.K. have confirmed that they've arrested and are questioning two teenagers in relation to this case.

INSKEEP: Well, let's focus on the one thing that is known. The gunman kept mentioning a woman by the name of Aafia Siddiqui. Who is she?

SUAREZ: Yeah. So in this live stream that caught the first part of the hostage situation, you could hear the suspect in the background demanding Siddiqui's release. Aafia Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison in Fort Worth. That's pretty much right next door to Colleyville, where this hostage situation happened. And Siddiqui was convicted after shooting at U.S. officials in Afghanistan. The Justice Department suspected her of ties to al-Qaida. The U.S. government considers her a terrorist. And I should note that Siddiqui's lawyer told CNN that Siddiqui herself had no involvement in this hostage situation.

INSKEEP: But she was imprisoned nearby, near the place where this gunman chose a synagogue to take down and take hostages and possibly try to pry her out in some fashion. So that's what's known about this attack. Let's put it in context. How does it fit with the broader pattern of attacks on Jews in recent years in the United States?

SUAREZ: Yeah, this has been a especially scary time for many American Jews, I think. You know, the Anti-Defamation League tracks hate incidents against Jews, whether it be violence or threats or, you know, graffiti. And in the past few years, they've seen historic levels of reports of these antisemitic incidents. The deadliest antisemitic attack in American history happened in 2018. That was the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people. On Saturday during the hostage situation, I talked to Holly Huffnagle, who leads the American Jewish Committee's response to antisemitism in the U.S. She says even though we don't know the suspect's motive right now, it's still really important to note that this happened at a synagogue.

HOLLY HUFFNAGLE: It wasn't a government office. It wasn't another house of worship by a different faith community. It was targeting Jews.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about how people respond to that. The very rabbi who was held hostage over the weekend has now been encouraging all Jewish congregations, religious groups and schools to participate in active shooter drills and security courses, which is sad even to say out loud but seems obvious the reason why. Is this something a lot of congregations have already had to do?

SUAREZ: Yes, absolutely. So the American Jewish Committee did a survey in 2020 that showed after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, 56% of respondents said the Jewish institutions that they're a part of have beefed up security, so this is something we're seeing everywhere.

INSKEEP: Miranda Suarez of KERA in Dallas, thanks so much.

SUAREZ: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: One downside of the omicron surge was that it struck with incredible speed.

MARTINEZ: Soon, though, we get the upside. It may be fading quickly, as well. Case numbers have begun crashing in some cities. That doesn't mean, though, that we're done. Much of the country is on a bit later timeline. Coronavirus cases are still near pandemic highs, and all the cases of recent weeks have increased the number of deaths. This version of the virus is less deadly, especially if you're vaccinated, but can still kill.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us most Mondays to talk about the pandemic. Hey there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess this is a matter of place by place. Where are cases dropping?

AUBREY: You know, new cases have been declining for several days in New York and Massachusetts, several other Northeastern states. This is also the case in Maryland and the District of Columbia. All of these places, remember, were among the first to see the surge. I'd also point to Ohio, a state that had seen a 150% increase in hospitalizations compared to last winter's surge. Now that has begun to flatten. Cleveland Clinic tells me they're seeing fewer admissions. So this direction is encouraging, and overall cases are less severe. But I spoke to a critical care doctor, Abhijit Duggal at Cleveland Clinic, who is still treating some of the sickest of the sick, including unvaccinated and immunocompromised people.

ABHIJIT DUGGAL: You feel for them and their families. You want to make sure you do everything to to help them. But sometimes, the things that we do in the ICU are just temporizing measures. And sometimes, it is too late.

AUBREY: Deaths are not nearly as high as they were last January, Steve. But amid this surge, they are rising to about 1,800 deaths per day.

INSKEEP: Well, you said deaths are up, which is a reminder. This is a less serious strain, but it can still be very serious for some people.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, though, amid this omicron surge, cases have not been as severe on balance, there've just been so many more of them, Steve. And there are still lots of people who are not vaccinated and people who have compromised immune systems. I spoke to Dr. Emily Landon. She's an infectious disease doctor at the University of Chicago. She says it would be helpful if they had more access to more of the new therapies, such as monoclonal antibodies, right now.

EMILY LANDON: We are - have our hands tied a little bit in medical care. We can't rescue people as well as we could when we had delta because we don't have as many monoclonal antibodies. We are out of the sotrovimab, the one monoclonal antibody that works for omicron. We're completely out of it and have been for a couple of days. And we don't know when we're getting another shipment at our hospital. And the same is true at many other hospitals.

AUBREY: In addition, the new antivirals are in very short supply, Steve. These are pills that are taken in the first few days of an infection to help keep people out of the hospital.

INSKEEP: When do cases nationally peak?

AUBREY: You know, some models predict the peak will come later this week. Here's Ali Mokdad of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

ALI MOKDAD: Our projections for the peak are around the 19, January 19 at 1.2 million reported cases a day. Hospitalization will peak a little bit later around January 25. Our projections for the long-term projections - cases will keep coming down. Deaths will come down.

AUBREY: The virus won't disappear, of course. Eventually, the majority of the country will likely be infected, including many people in the next six to eight weeks. So there could be a long tail to this surge. But the idea is that these cases will become more manageable and less disruptive as more people have immunity.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks, as always.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dominated his party for two years.

MARTINEZ: But he's losing public support because of a different sort of party - the outdoor events he attended during a time of the most severe COVID restrictions. Images surfaced of Johnson attending the events when they were banned. And his effort to pass them off as work events seems to have not worked.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is outside 10 Downing Street in London. Hey there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What were these events?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there were - there - actually, I've lost count of them. There are many, many of them. Some were indoors. Some - many were indoors. Some were outdoors. And what he has said is he thinks of these - these were work events for staffers at Number 10 Downing Street, but certainly one included wine and cheese in the garden behind Number 10, not far from where I'm standing. He was photographed at one of these events. Two others, which he didn't attend, came, actually, on the eve of the funeral for Prince Philip, the queen's husband. This was a time when the country was in mourning. And people reportedly brought in wine in a suitcase. And so just the whole image of when the country was in mourning and also when the queen was sitting alone at the funeral for her husband - the idea that people were partying at Number 10 has really rubbed people here the wrong way.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and I've read other accounts of people in Britain in this time saying, I buried my mother alone.

LANGFITT: Yes.

INSKEEP: There was no one. And these people are out partying.

LANGFITT: Yes.

INSKEEP: But the question here for the guy who is in charge is, how many people in his own political party want him out?

LANGFITT: So far, publicly, very few, only about six. And one of them is a guy named Andrew Bridgen. He's a Conservative Party member of Parliament from northeast of Birmingham. He said in one day, he received more than 300 emails from people who want Johnson to go. And this is what he said to Britain's Sky News.

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ANDREW BRIDGEN: Not just one mistake by Boris Johnson and those at Number 10. It's a pattern of behavior. And the pattern of behavior indicates to me that they think that they can do what they want, and the rest of us have got to do as we're told.

LANGFITT: And I think that's really, Steve, what's so galling to many people here in the country, the idea that there are two rules, two sets of rules.

INSKEEP: I'm interested that Boris Johnson obviously attended these events in front of many other people back in 2020. There were photographs back in 2020. Why are we learning about them now?

LANGFITT: Yeah. So this part's fascinating, Steve. Over the past several weeks, somebody or a number of people with intimate knowledge of what goes on in Number 10. have been slowly leaking these. Every few days, we see them in the newspapers. Even as Johnson tried to claim that there were no rules broken, politically, it's been devastating. There's another new allegation again this morning. And the widespread suspicion is that this is a pretty clever leak campaign to drive him out of office.

INSKEEP: But let's talk about the difficulty of that in Britain. Of course, it's not like the president of the United States. He's not serving for an absolute set term.

LANGFITT: Not at all.

INSKEEP: He can be knocked down. But what would it take to knock him out?

LANGFITT: That's a great question. So the way it works here is there have to be 54 letters from party members of his in Parliament. And they write demanding a no-confidence vote to trigger a leadership contest. Now, this is all private, so we don't know how many are out there. But there's a sense maybe half or so. Also, we're waiting on an internal investigation into these gatherings. So it may be at least two or three more weeks till we have a clear sense of how he's going to - whether he can survive this. But in general, there's a sense that Johnson is now pretty much damaged goods. And if there's no dramatic turnaround, hard to see him leading the party into another election in 2024.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks for the view from No. 10. Really appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.