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Nebraska Restores its Covid Dashboard After a Rise in New Cases

Tracking community transmission is at the heart of efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, scientists say, and in most states the daily dashboards showing new cases have been a critical tool for public health officials trying to track the trajectory of the virus, which has killed 700,000 Americans.

Yet for three crucial months this summer, Nebraska did not report any county-level information to the public. State officials stopped sharing counts of new coronavirus cases by county with the public on June 30, just as the Delta variant began surging in the United States.

That was by design. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who opposes both mask and vaccine mandates, allowed his emergency order to expire in June, and the state’s unusually strict privacy laws were reinstated, which he said prohibited the continued release of the data.

At the time, the number of new cases in Nebraska had reached a low in the state, and Test Nebraska, which gave free virus tests to hundreds of thousands of residents, ended its operations shortly after the emergency ended.

The virus continued to spread in the state, however, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. Hospitalizations increased tenfold from the end of June through mid-September. New cases rose sharply in August. Deaths increased as well.

On Sept. 20, after coronavirus hospitalizations surpassed 10 percent of the state’s capacity of staffed hospital beds, Mr. Ricketts announced that county-level case data would once again be made public on a new “hospital capacity” state dashboard.

But he said the data will disappear again if the number drops below 10 percent on a 7-day rolling average. And the state is still not reporting county-level deaths.

Public health experts in Nebraska were dismayed all summer about the decision to delete the dashboard, and state legislators wrote a letter requesting that it be restored.

A handful of the state’s 93 counties continued to provide daily data on their websites throughout the pandemic because they have more than 20,000 residents.

That meant that the only real-time data on the virus across the state that doctors like Dr. David Brett-Major, an infectious disease specialist, had during July and August was watching sick people stream into the emergency department of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

“If the tests are only happening when the cases are more severe, then you’re not getting a broad look,” he said in a recent interview.

Susan Bockrath, the executive director of the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors, said her group brought up the missing dashboard repeatedly with state officials, pointing out it was also a necessary tool in the campaign against pandemic misinformation.

The dashboard was removed just as Stephanie Summers, board of education president in David City, was trying to determine the best policy for students and families in her rural community one hour west of Omaha. Mr. Ricketts has told Nebraskans to get vaccinated, but declined to require masks, despite pleas from some public health officials.

“The state cannot insist on an individual’s freedom to choose to wear, or not wear, a mask, or whether or not to get vaccinated, and then also withhold the data needed for citizens to make informed decisions,” she said, adding that she fully agreed with state leaders in emphasizing those individual freedoms.

While the dashboard has mostly been restored, some doctors doubt the current testing system is capturing the reality on the ground. Two dozen doctors sent a letter in early September to Mr. Ricketts asking for the return of Test Nebraska.

“Our access to testing is so bad right now, and the turnaround so bad, that these numbers are probably vast underestimates, and not accurate just because there is not enough testing,” said Dr. Bob Rauner, chief medical officer of OneHealth Nebraska, a group of 65 locally owned medical clinics across the state.

The governor and his aides have defended their decision to stop the flow of data on privacy grounds, saying publishing county-level data could violate the state’s version of HIPAA, which prevents the release of patients’ personal health information without their consent.

Experts say privacy becomes a concern in releasing data from counties with only a handful of cases, and for that reason, states generally suppress information in jurisdictions with fewer than five cases or deaths.

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El Chapo’s Wife Sentenced to 3 Years in Prison

Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of the notorious Mexican drug lord best known as El Chapo, was sentenced on Tuesday to three years in prison on charges of helping run her husband’s multibillion-dollar criminal empire and playing a role in his escape from custody after he was captured in 2014.

Ms. Coronel, a former beauty queen who married El Chapo — whose real name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera — in 2007, on her 18th birthday, was arrested at Dulles International Airport, near Washington, in February, two years after her husband was convicted at a trial in New York City and sentenced to life in prison.

She had been in the cross-hairs of U.S. authorities for months. She ultimately pleaded guilty in June to helping Mr. Guzmán smuggle drugs across the U.S. border and make his dramatic flight from a high-security Mexican prison, an operation that involved a self-powered rail cart, a watch outfitted with a GPS device and a mile-long tunnel dug into the shower of his cell.

A dual U.S.-Mexican citizen, Ms. Coronel has, like her husband, long been a figure of public fascination, a role that she has often stoked by her lavish lifestyle and her laissez-faire attitude toward paparazzi. At her sentencing hearing in Federal District Court in Washington, she expressed “true regrets” for her crimes and begged Judge Rudolph Contreras to ignore the fact that she was the wife of an infamous drug lord.

“Perhaps because of this, there is reason for you to be harder on me,” Ms. Coronel said. “But I pray that you do not do that.”

While it is unusual for law enforcement to go after the spouses of drug-world figures, prosecutors at Mr. Guzmán’s trial offered substantial evidence that Ms. Coronel, while still in her 20s, was deeply enmeshed in her husband’s criminal business.

They introduced BlackBerry messages, for instance, that made clear that she had helped Mr. Guzmán conduct his illicit operations, sometimes alongside her own father, Inés Coronel Barreras, who was one of her husband’s top lieutenants and was taken into custody in 2013 in Mexico.

Other messages indicated that Ms. Coronel was intimately involved not only in Mr. Guzmán’s famous 2015 tunnel escape from Altiplano prison in Toluca, Mexico, but also in helping him to evade capture by American and Mexican authorities after a botched raid in 2012 in the Mexican resort town Cabo San Lucas.

At Mr. Guzmán’s trial, his onetime chief of staff, Dámaso López Núñez, told the jury that Ms. Coronel had sought to help her husband escape from prison yet again after he was recaptured in 2016 and returned to Altiplano. According to Mr. López, Ms. Coronel hatched a plot to bribe Mexico’s top prison official, but Mr. Guzmán was extradited to the United States to stand trial before the plan could be carried out.

As part of her plea deal with the government, Ms. Coronel agreed to turn over about $1.5 million in illicit proceeds from her husband’s illegal operations. While she admitted to helping him move at least 450 kilograms of cocaine, 90 kilograms of heroin and nearly 90,000 kilograms of marijuana into the United States over the years, she still received a relatively light sentence in part because her role in smuggling even that amount of drugs made her a “minimal participant” in a much larger criminal enterprise, according to her plea deal.

“The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss or other type of manager,” Anthony J. Nardozzi, a federal prosecutor, told the court. “Rather she was a cog in a very large wheel of a criminal organization.”

In the wake of Ms. Coronel’s arrest, there was widespread speculation that she — like so many of Mr. Guzmán’s former allies — had decided to cooperate with U.S. authorities against other members of the organization he once led, the Sinaloa drug cartel. But in court papers filed this month, prosecutors said she had helped the government only in the prosecution of her own case.

Ms. Coronel’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, called the allegations that she had cooperated with the government “garbage,” adding that they had put his client’s life in danger. “I don’t know if she can ever go back to her home in Mexico,” Mr. Lichtman said.

The Sinaloa cartel remains one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal mafias, even in Mr. Guzmán’s absence. It is said to be run by an uneasy alliance of his sons, one of his brothers and his longtime partner, Ismael Zambada García, all of whom have been indicted in the United States.

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U.S. Removes Colombia’s FARC Rebel Group From Terrorist List

WASHINGTON — The State Department removed the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia from its list of foreign terrorist organizations on Tuesday, as many of the group’s former commanders have turned to conventional politics after a decades-long conflict.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the group, known as FARC, had “formally dissolved and disarmed” and “no longer exists as a unified organization that engages in terrorism or terrorist activity or has the capability or intent to do so.”

The move, which drew criticism from several prominent Republicans, is a sign of the Biden administration’s support for a fragile peace deal that the Colombian government signed with the FARC in November 2016. The agreement officially ended a five-decade conflict in which the U.S. military backed the government against a left-wing fueled insurgency that was funded by the drug trade. The fighting left more than 220,000 people dead.

Colombia had urged Washington for years to remove the FARC from its official list of terrorist groups, and Mr. Blinken said in his statement that the shift would allow the United States to “better support implementation of the 2016 accord, including by working with demobilized combatants.” Many of the FARC’s former top military commanders are now prominent politicians.

Under the deal, more than 13,000 FARC rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for more government investment in neglected rural areas. But implementation of the accord has been shaky. Government aid has been slow to materialize in remote areas, and pockets of armed rebels carry on their fight.

After a helicopter carrying Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, was attacked in July, the government arrested 10 former FARC rebels and charged them with attempted assassination and a car bombing at a military base.

Mr. Blinken said two rebel groups formed by former FARC commanders who refused to demobilize were designated terrorist organizations. Segunda Marquetalia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army, or FARC-EP, are responsible for armed attacks, assassinations and hostage-takings, he said.

The United States also designated several leaders of the two groups as terrorists.

Some Republicans have criticized the Biden administration’s decision to remove the FARC’s terrorist group designation. After the planned action was first reported last week by The Wall Street Journal, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Mike McCaul of Texas, called the move “an exercise in appeasement.”

FARC members “have not exercised remorse or acts of contrition for their ongoing narco-terrorism against innocent Colombians & Americans,” Mr. McCaul wrote on Twitter.

“President Biden’s decision to remove the FARC from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations will embolden terrorist groups throughout Latin America, empower narco-traffickers and pave the way for Castro-chavismo in Colombia,” Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, said in a statement.

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Barbados Drops the Queen and Becomes a Republic

In the early hours of Tuesday, at a ceremony attended by hundreds of masked officials, a prince and at least one pop star, the Caribbean island of Barbados became a republic, cutting ties with Queen Elizabeth II and casting off the last major vestige of its colonial past.

The nation swore in its first president, Sandra Mason, a former governor general who had been appointed by the queen. A 21-gun salute rang out as the national anthem played. The red, yellow and navy blue royal flag was lowered — exactly 55 years after the country gained independence from Britain.

“Today, debate and discourse have become action,” Ms. Mason, 72, told the onlookers gathered in the capital, Bridgetown. “Today, we set our compass to a new direction.”

Ms. Mason received a majority vote in Parliament in October to take on the role. In a speech afterward, Prime Minister Mia Mottley said: “We believe that the time has come for us to claim our full destiny. It is a woman of the soil to whom this honor is being given.”

The island nation, a democracy of about 300,000 people, announced in September that it would remove Queen Elizabeth as head of state, the latest Caribbean island to do so. It joined Guyana, which gained independence in 1966 and became a republic in 1970; Trinidad and Tobago, which became independent in 1962 and a republic in 1976; and Dominica, which gained full independence as a republic in 1978.

Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are among the nations that still call the queen their head of state. Barbados will remain part of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 54 countries with roots in the British Empire.

On Tuesday, thousands celebrated across Barbados as nearly 400 years of British rule ended.

In the audience to witness the uncoupling in Bridgetown was a representative of Britain: Prince Charles, Elizabeth’s eldest son and heir. He received the Order of Freedom of Barbados.

In a speech, Charles delivered a message from his mother, conveying the “warmest good wishes.” He also congratulated Barbadians and said, “From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.”

“Tonight you write the next chapter of your nation’s story,” he added. “You are the guardians of your heritage.”

Also among the crowd was the global pop star Rihanna. During the ceremony, the singer, who was born Robyn Rihanna Fenty in Barbados, was declared a national hero.

She received the honor, Prime Minister Mottley said, for commanding “the imagination of the world” with her excellence, creativity, discipline and, “above all else, her extraordinary commitment to the land of her birth.”

“May you continue to shine like a diamond,” Ms. Mottley added.

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