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News brief: Bronx fire, record COVID-19 cases, U.S.-Russia talks on Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A fire at a New York City apartment complex killed at least 19 people on Sunday, including nine children.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Officials call it one of the worst fires in the city's history. More than 200 firefighters responded to the call. A 19-story building in the Bronx was ablaze. Here's New York Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro yesterday.

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DANIEL NIGRO: This fire began in an apartment that spans two floors on the second and third floor of the building. It started in a malfunctioning electric space heater.

MARTIN: For more, we've got Jake Offenhartz on the line from member station WNYC, who's been covering this. Jake, good morning. Thanks for being here.

JAKE OFFENHARTZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So as we noted, officials there in the city say this was the deadliest fire in more than three decades. Why? What made it so bad?

OFFENHARTZ: I think a lot of people are trying to figure this out right now. We do know that it was a fireproof building, but the door to the apartment that caught fire and the door to a hallway were also open. And that allowed smoke to travel through almost the entire 19 floors of the building. And people I spoke to said that they were OK if they stayed in their apartments and barricaded their doors. But many residents tried to evacuate. Some of them died in the hallways that were filled with smoke. One resident I spoke to, Ken Otisi, described a wall of smoke when he opened his apartment door.

KEN OTISI: It was pitch-black, thick, chalky smoke, the type of smoke that you can't breathe. There was one point I did kind of break down. I thought I was going to die. But I tried to stay as calm as possible.

OFFENHARTZ: Otisi waited inside his apartment for hours, he said. And when he was eventually able to leave, he told me that he saw multiple people and pets unconscious in the building's hallway.

MARTIN: Oh, my. So this was an older building, right? It was built in 1972 and doesn't, I assume, have some of the safeguards that newer buildings have. What can you tell us about that?

OFFENHARTZ: Yeah. So this is an affordable housing complex built for low- to moderate-income tenants with state money in the 1970s. And like many high rises that were built at the time, there were no fire escapes. Residents rely on hallways in the building. We're also told that there weren't sprinklers in the building. At the time it was built, there weren't local laws requiring sprinklers in residential buildings. And we know that the building has some outstanding violations for things like rodents and a broken elevator. Residents said that there were fire alarms that were frequently ringing in the building and that were often ignored. So officials said that these are all things they're looking into when they're conducting a full investigation into whether the building was following all fire safety laws.

MARTIN: What have you learned about the people who live there?

OFFENHARTZ: Yeah, we're still waiting on some details there, but we do know that there was a large population of immigrants from West Africa, a West African Muslim community in the building, including some of the victims. I spoke to a member of the Islamic Cultural Center of the Bronx, Bakary Camara. He described a close-knit community that had developed around this building specifically.

BAKARY CAMARA: We are devastated. As a people of faith, we leave everything in the hand of Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala. However, you know, we need help. Some people live in this building for 40 years, and now they are uprooted.

OFFENHARTZ: Many of these survivors are in shock. I spoke to a group of women who immigrated from Guinea. One had glass in her hand from punching out a window. The Red Cross is providing emergency shelter for those who need it. And the city says it will find long-term housing if residents can't return to their apartments.

MARTIN: WNYC's Jake Offenhartz. Jake, thanks.

OFFENHARTZ: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Omicron has ushered in a record-shattering number of new coronavirus cases, averaging about 700,000 a day.

MARTINEZ: And the number of people being hospitalized across the country, including young children, is hitting new highs, too. Yet doctors say this surge is different. Many vaccinated people are testing positive but are either asymptomatic or not getting seriously ill thanks to the protection of the vaccines.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey is here. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So hospitalizations have shot up by a lot over the last week. Who's most at risk here?

AUBREY: Yeah, hospital admissions are near or at record pandemic highs in some states. Nationwide, about 18,000 people are being admitted a day. That's a 50% increase over last week. And the people who are most at risk are those who are not vaccinated. The CDC says unvaccinated people are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized. I spoke to Dr. Lance Becker. He's head of emergency medicine at Northwell Health in New York. He says they see many unvaccinated patients who are very ill.

LANCE BECKER: It is very upsetting to see a person who's made a decision, and now that person pays such a price for it. And we've had people who are dying and had family members say, well, maybe you could vaccinate them right now. And, you know, and they're, like, literally losing their blood pressure and dying in front of your eyes. And you just want to cry. You just want to cry.

AUBREY: You can hear that in his voice, Rachel. He says because so many of these deaths are preventable, it's just tough for health care workers to be going through this again.

MARTIN: And they themselves are exposed, right?

AUBREY: Yeah, that's right. Every hospital administrator I've spoken with paints the same picture. Lots of health care workers have tested positive, and then they can't come to work for five days or so. Now, because most health care workers are vaccinated and many are boosted, they're not getting as sick. But with people out, it creates staffing challenges. Large hospital systems like Northwell are able to move people around, managed pretty well. But a bunch of urgent care centers in New York and New Jersey have had to close just due to a lack of staff amid this surge.

MARTIN: Allison, is the U.S. near the peak? Please say yes.

AUBREY: You know, officials in New York say the state may be nearing its peak. Numbers have flattened over the last few days. But remember, this was the first area to see the surge. Nationwide, the CDC director said on Friday, we have not yet reached the peak. On Friday, 830,000 people tested positive, according to the agency. And that doesn't even include those who only used a rapid at-home test. I spoke to Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota about what we can expect.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Four weeks ago, I put out a prediction at that time that we would be literally in a viral blizzard for the next eight weeks or more. And I'm sticking with that. I think another four weeks, and we're going to see case numbers peaking and coming down quite rapidly.

AUBREY: You know, several models suggest a similar quick rise and fall. That's what's been seen in South Africa and in parts of the U.K., which has typically been about three weeks ahead of the U.S. during the pandemic. There's some initial indications there that the number of new cases may have peaked.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

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MARTIN: OK, imagine looking over your country's border and seeing a hundred thousand Russian troops, sort of an unsettling view. But that is the situation in Ukraine right now.

MARTINEZ: And with that, talks between the U.S. and Russia are underway in Geneva. Vladimir Putin's clear threat of attack on Ukraine is a big focus. Russia has said it will not make concessions under pressure and indicated talks might actually end early. The U.S. has said no breakthroughs are expected.

MARTIN: Nothing like low expectations.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: We've got NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre with us. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So set the stage for what's going to happen this week in Geneva.

MYRE: Well, this is really a big week for diplomacy in Geneva and elsewhere in Europe. The U.S., led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is meeting with the Russians today in Geneva. And then on Wednesday and Thursday, the U.S. and its European allies together will be meeting with the Russians. It's a genuinely tense moment, and the sides are very far apart. As you've noted, prospects are pretty pessimistic. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he really didn't expect any breakthrough when Russia is taking such an aggressive posture. Here he is Sunday, speaking on ABC this week.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: To make actual progress, it's very hard to see that happening when there's an ongoing escalation, when Russia has a gun to the head of Ukraine.

MYRE: And so this Russian buildup with tanks, armored vehicles and artillery and the snow and the mud of western Russia could be preparation for a major attack. Or it could be brinksmanship by Russian leader Vladimir Putin just trying to win diplomatic concessions. We should remember Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula back in 2014. Those troops are there to this day. And Russia is also supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, so this threat has to be taken seriously. That's certainly what Ukraine is doing.

MARTIN: You mentioned maybe Putin wants easing of sanctions. But say more. Even though it's hard to get in his head, what more could Putin be agitating for with all this?

MYRE: Well, you know, he's always pretty unpredictable. So in the short term, we don't really know what he might do here. But in the long term, the picture is pretty clear. He thinks Ukraine is really part of Russia's sphere of influence, and he sees it drifting away, becoming more aligned with the West. He wrote a long essay last year saying Russia and Ukraine are really just one country. And, you know, that has been true at times in their thousand-year history. But Ukraine has its own culture, language, identity. And it's now been independent for 30 years. And Putin's big fear is Ukraine becomes a close partner or member of NATO. And more broadly, he wants NATO to pull back from Eastern Europe. And yet his actions are really achieving exactly the opposite. He's turning Ukrainians away from Russia.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, we just marked 30 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And Russia has now deployed troops to Kazakhstan? Is that right? Is this an effort to expand his power around those former Soviet republics?

MYRE: So in Kazakhstan, we've seen these large-scale, bloody protests against an authoritarian government for the past week, and Russia has sent troops in to help. Now, about 2,500 - not a huge force. But this is just one of several of the former Soviet republics where we have seen unrest in recent years. And if we step back and consider the big picture, Putin is often seen as a skillful operator who outmaneuvers his rivals. But he's now been in power for more than 20 years. And his closest allies in the former Soviet republics have these autocratic governments that are shaky and subject to unrest. So if you're in the Kremlin looking out, the region is looking pretty unsettled.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.