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News Brief: Idaho's COVID Surge, Taliban Government, Decriminalizing Abortion


Surging numbers of COVID cases involving mostly unvaccinated people are crowding hospitals and overwhelming their resources.


Yeah. In northern Idaho, things have gotten so bad that hospitals are rationing care for all patients.

MARTIN: Nate Hegyi with the Mountain West News Bureau joins us now from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Nate, thanks for being here.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I was just in Idaho, actually, a couple of weeks ago visiting my family, and it was like being in a parallel universe. I mean, no one was wearing masks. No one was keeping distance. You wouldn't have known there was a pandemic going on. All the while, the cases were rising to this critical point?

HEGYI: Yeah, it's been building for a long time. Idaho's famously skeptical of COVID, and only about half of all eligible residents have gotten vaccinated. Meanwhile, cases have been really ramping up since early August. I mean, almost all of them are from the delta variant, and now hospitalizations for COVID are at an all-time high. Robert Scoggins is head physician at Kootenai Health here in Coeur d'Alene, one of the biggest hospitals in north Idaho. And he's struck by just how many young, unvaccinated people are getting seriously sick from delta and even dying.

ROBERT SCOGGINS: They're what I would consider healthy. They're normal, everyday north Idaho people. Honestly, we've had patients with really no significant medical past history who have died from this delta variant.

MARTIN: Wow. That's different than what we've heard of, you know, initial COVID deaths for people who were really compromised to begin with. Explain, Nate, what this - crisis standards of care - this is what hospitals in northern Idaho have declared. What does that mean? How big of a deal is it?

HEGYI: These are guidelines for doctors in overburdened hospitals. They essentially help them decide who gets immediate treatment and who has to wait. We've seen hospitals in other states do this a handful of times during the pandemic, so it's rare, but not unprecedented. And this declaration is for 10 hospitals in mostly rural north Idaho. And officials here say they don't know how long it'll have to last. And this isn't just bad news for unvaccinated people; it also means everyone else needs to take extra precautions to not wind up in a hospital. Here's Elke Shaw-Tulloch of the state Division of Public Health.

ELKE SHAW-TULLOCH: Be cautious about driving and bike riding and all the things that might cause a significant event where you need to go in for care. Of course, all this comes with the caveat, if you need care, please seek it. But do your best to avoid going into the emergency room.

HEGYI: Hospitals are already having to transform hallways, classrooms and conference rooms into COVID wards.

MARTIN: Does this mean people are actually being turned away from emergency rooms right now?

HEGYI: Well, Scoggins, the doctor from that fairly big hospital here, which has about 300 beds, says, so far, they've been able to give critical emergency care to people who need it. But they aren't doing urgent or elective surgeries. And the real worry is for COVID patients who arrive at these smaller rural hospitals that don't have access to top-tier care. I mean, normally, these patients are transferred to a bigger hospital.

MARTIN: Right.

HEGYI: But those hospitals are rapidly losing space, which means transfers further out of state or having to wait longer for intensive care.

MARTIN: Any more resources being pumped into these hospitals to help?

HEGYI: Yeah. There's a 20-person response team from the Department of Defense that's setting up now. That's in addition to 150 National Guard troops and a couple hundred federal contractors who were called in recently. But the state says that's just not enough to cover the current surge.


HEGYI: And they expect things are going to get worse before they get better, especially because school just started.

MARTIN: Right.

HEGYI: Much of the rest of Idaho isn't far behind, and many hospitals, including the state's largest in Boise and other cities, could see this crisis declaration extended to them if things don't turn around.


HEGYI: Vaccination rates are low, and mask mandates have been protested at every step during the pandemic.

MARTIN: Nate Hegyi from the Mountain West News Bureau. We appreciate it.

HEGYI: Thank you.


MARTIN: The Taliban have now declared that Afghanistan is an Islamic emirate.

KING: And they announced a new government yesterday. Now, of the Cabinet positions they've announced so far, all are filled by Taliban members and their allies.

MARTIN: Joining us now from Kabul, TRT World reporter Ali Mustafa. We're noting here TRT is funded by the Turkish government. Ali, thanks for being here. Can you just start off by telling us more about the people the Taliban have selected to run the country right now?

ALI MUSTAFA: Well, the Taliban have certainly played it safe when it comes to announcing a Cabinet in the government. These are mostly individuals that were loyal to the Taliban founder Mullah Omar, including the man named as the head of the Cabinet, Mullah Hassan Akhund. He is from Kandahar, so is his deputy, Mullah Baradar, who was essentially the sweetheart of the West, trying to finalize that Doha agreement, which he signed with Mike Pompeo. But the decisions and the names reveal that the Taliban had a face for the West with Mullah Baradar, Abbas Stanikzai and the people that were actually running the show who have now come forward.

MARTIN: I mean, we also just should note Sirajuddin Haqqani is going to be the interior minister. He's on the FBI's most wanted list, right?

MUSTAFA: Absolutely. I have been meeting his brother, younger brother, Anas Haqqani. Keep in mind - Sirajuddin Haqqani lost four brothers, three in U.S. drone strikes, one in an American attack. He's the son of the Taliban co-founder Jalaluddin Haqqani. The FBI - he's also on the FBI's most wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head. So among the ranks, he's known as khalifa, meaning leader. And he's quite a significant character with a strong following, especially when it comes to the the Paktia orbit of things, not Kandahar.

MARTIN: Do the Taliban even acknowledge that they made these promises to form a more inclusive government? Because this doesn't feel like that.

MUSTAFA: They have been very, very careful to highlight that this is an interim setup, that this is a work in progress. And it alludes to the pressure that they had both internally within their ranks to stay true to their ideology and externally to be more inclusive of characters like Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and so on, so forth, even give women possibility of a chance of a seat. But if they did that, they would alienate the ranks within. So they've played it safe. They've announced an interim set-up and stacked it with loyalists.

MARTIN: So as we've been reporting, Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. They need international aid. The Taliban is going to need legitimacy and cooperation from the international community to keep getting that aid. Is this new government, though, filled with Taliban loyalists going to make that more difficult?

MUSTAFA: It might make it difficult. But surprisingly, the value of the Afghani currency is recovering today, when a couple of weeks ago, about three weeks ago, it reached 91 Afghanis to a dollar. Today it's at 81 to the dollar, and that's perplexing people - maybe some stability, maybe some other sources of income that aren't on the books. But the Taliban leadership has been meeting with officials from the United Nations. They had a meeting with the ICRC, the Red Cross. They are open to humanitarian aid. They want their funds unfrozen. But I think with the announcement of this government, they're not too hopeful that they will be unfrozen, the 10 billion odd dollars foreign exchange reserves in - outside the country.

So a lot of these questions, they'll be eyeing China and Qatar to bail them out lump sum if that money isn't released. And they'll be hoping that China can provide that relief.

MARTIN: Ali Mustafa with TRT World in Kabul. Thank you.



MARTIN: We're going to move on to Mexico, where the Supreme Court there has effectively decriminalized abortion.

KING: Right. The judges said it's unconstitutional to imprison women who have abortions or to penalize people who help them. Now, this ruling, of course, sharply contrasts with a new law across the border in Texas that effectively bans abortions after six weeks.

MARTIN: We've got Mary Beth Sheridan with us. She's a correspondent with The Washington Post, and she joins us from Mexico City. Mary Beth, thanks for being here.

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: It's a significant move in a country with one of the world's largest Catholic populations to do this. But it's only one law in one Mexican state. So how is this likely to influence Mexico as a whole, if at all?

SHERIDAN: Right, yes. It's expected to have very broad consequences. The way the Mexican law works is the Supreme Court has 11 members. If at least eight of them agree on an opinion, then that ruling applies throughout the country. So, in other words, federal judges and local judges throughout Mexico would be bound by the same ruling that comes from this case, which did apply to the state of Coahuila.

MARTIN: So what happens now to women who were criminally charged or imprisoned for getting an abortion?

SHERIDAN: Right. So people actually have different opinions about exactly how that will work out. I think the broad acknowledgement is that women who were jailed or men who were jailed for helping them to get an abortion will be able to get out of jail. There's some question about whether it will happen immediately. The government in Coahuila state, which was directly addressed in this case, they've said they (unintelligible) anybody who was jailed for an abortion charge to be freed pretty much immediately and that this would be retroactive. Others have suggested that in some places, women or other people in jail might need to go through a procedure of appealing. But given the ruling, the expectation is they will all be freed.

MARTIN: How did this come about? I mean, was this the result of years of work by women's rights organizations?

SHERIDAN: You know, this is really coming at a pretty remarkable moment in Mexico. Women's organizations, for years, have been pressing for more rights, both in the political sphere and, you know, there's been big demonstrations against violence against women. And so what you're really seeing is some remarkable results of that effort for years. For example, the new session of Congress just opened that (ph) attacked women. You have a constitutional amendment that is aimed at giving - providing gender equality in coming years in senior decision-making positions in government. So the declaration from the court does reflect both the efforts of women's organizations to try to have more legal abortion rights and also efforts to sort of reframe the abortion issue as one in which, you know, many of the women who get abortions in Mexico are seen as poor or young teenagers. And it's been framed very much as a social issue, which is a pretty (ph) different way from the way the Catholic Church has traditionally presented it. So that argument that this is, you know, there's already a very large number of illegal abortions that occur in Mexico, often with bad results to the health of women, that kind of framing has become more dominant and, frankly, you know, persuaded a lot more Mexicans that this would be acceptable.

MARTIN: In just a couple seconds, has the church responded? Just quickly.

SHERIDAN: They wrote an editorial in one of the Catholic publications urging the judges not to take this decision because of fear, you know, that the arguments were going to be happening. But so far, there's been a fairly muted response from the church.

MARTIN: OK. We'll have to leave it there. Mary Beth Sheridan with The Washington Post in Mexico City. We appreciate your reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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