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News brief: Mariupol hospital, election officials quit, kids' vaccinations lag

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Overnight, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned a Russian strike on a maternity and children's hospital in the southern port city of Mariupol.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He called it a war crime, an attempted genocide. Video of that hospital shows a burned-out courtyard and what appears to be a massive bomb crater. Burned-out windows line the walls of the yellow buildings, and images from inside show only wreckage. For the record, a Russian government spokesperson says the whole incident is fake.

FADEL: We're going to NPR's Eric Westervelt. He's here in western Ukraine with me. And a warning - what you're about to hear is disturbing. Good morning, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Morning, Leila.

FADEL: Eric, these images out of Mariupol are just devastating. What's the latest on the Russian attack on this maternity and children's hospital?

WESTERVELT: Well, you're right. There are truly some brutal and, frankly, difficult-to-watch videos and photos coming out of this of pregnant women being wounded and being carried by stretchers across, really, this devastated landscape. There are several enormous bomb craters. Some look to be two stories deep.

FADEL: Wow.

WESTERVELT: There are fears, you know, people could be buried in the dirt and rubble, including some children. The surrounding buildings, you know, are burning and partially crumbling. There are burnt, you know, sort of matchstick-like stalks where trees once stood. It's just devastating. And inside the hospital - or, really, what's left of it, I should say - you can see in the videos and photos, you know, bloody mattresses, blood on the floors, on changing tables. It's just awful, awful to see.

FADEL: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: In all, the Ukrainian government says at least three people, including a child, were killed. At least 17 others were wounded, including some pregnant women. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke about it overnight. He switched to Russian, importantly, and he seemed to be speaking directly to the Russian people.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) What kind of country is this? How can the Russian Federation be afraid of a children's hospital, of a building of mothers, and then destroys that?

WESTERVELT: The president also urged the West to impose even tougher economic sanctions. And he again asked for a no-fly zone, but that idea has been soundly rejected by NATO, which says that could easily widen this war.

FADEL: So despite what you describe, despite these images, Russia again denied targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. The Kremlin called the hospital attack report fake news and said the area had long ago been taken over by Ukrainian military troops.

WESTERVELT: Right. And the Ukrainian government says, look; the idea that this was a fighting position and a military post is simply absurd. You know, in recent days, a blood collection center and a large regular hospital there were also hit by the Russians, and big civilian targets have been regularly hit and shelled in many other cities in the east.

FADEL: Eric, we're two weeks into Russia's invasion, and Mariupol is one of several cities under an intense siege. Citizens, for days, have been trying to evacuate out. What more do we know about the situation today?

WESTERVELT: We've talked to some local residents there. I mean, they continue to paint, you know, an increasingly dire picture - you know, no water, electricity or fuel, food running low. Some people are, you know, melting snow for drinking water. And this morning there are also some ghastly images of residents on the outskirts of Mariupol wrapping dead bodies in these plastic bags.

FADEL: Yeah, I saw those.

WESTERVELT: They look sort of like big, black contractor bags. They're also wrapping dead bodies in carpets and dumping them into newly dug trenches. These are effectively mass graves, you know? It's just not safe for people to do any kind of proper burial. So locals are seen wearing gloves and masks and crouching, you know, as they do this because of the risk of Russian fire. And the government says about 1,200 civilians have died in this 10-day siege there.

FADEL: And people want to get out, and again today Ukraine will try to open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee. As we've seen, though, those corridors end up getting shelled. What's the latest on those?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, briefly - most days these corridors have failed. They're going to try again today. Some citizens have gotten out, including in the city of Sumy, in the northeast. And we'll see how it goes today.

FADEL: NPR's Eric Westervelt in western Ukraine. Thank you for your time.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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FADEL: How much of a toll are political attacks taking on the people who make sure our elections are free and fair?

INSKEEP: Attacks on democracy and on the voting system in the United States have become more common since the 2020 election, and a new survey asks what the professionals think, people who are responsible for voting in America.

FADEL: NPR's Miles Parks is with us. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what is this new data?

PARKS: So this is really one of the first attempts at quantifying the experience of the people sort of on the front line of democracy, the county election officials who actually make voting happen. The Brennan Center for Justice commissioned a poll of about 600 of these officials from across the country, and the biggest takeaway here is that the 2020 election has taken a real toll on these people to the point that 1 in 5 say it's unlikely that they'll even be in their job come the 2024 presidential race. I talked to Larry Norden, who's the senior director of elections and government at the Brennan Center.

LARRY NORDEN: There's a crisis in election administration, and I think the poll shows me that election officials see it, too. They're concerned, and they're not getting the support that they need.

PARKS: This is something we have heard over and over again anecdotally over the last year and a half, but this is some of the first data we have to actually back it up.

FADEL: Former President Trump and many high-profile Republicans have continued making false claims about the 2020 election. Is that pushing these people out?

PARKS: It seems to be playing a big role. You know, the poll found that of the people who say they're planning to leave the profession in the next couple of years, the two biggest reasons were, No. 1, politicians lying about the security of America's voting system and then, No. 2, that the job is way too stressful, which probably ties back a little bit to point No. 1.

FADEL: Right.

PARKS: So we also know that the increased polarization around voting has led to a big increase in threats of violence against election officials. I talked to Natalie Adona, who helps run elections in Nevada County, Calif. She told me she's constantly scared for her colleagues that somebody's going to get hurt one day.

NATALIE ADONA: I had to shut down our office lobby to in-person walk-ups because we had an incident where a door got slammed into one of my staff members. I now have a restraining order against that person.

PARKS: Almost a fifth of voting officials who were polled say they've been threatened because of their job.

FADEL: Wow. So what happens if all of these voting officials leave their jobs?

PARKS: Well, to be clear, some of these departures are expected every couple of years in elections. You know, in Adona's case, for instance, her boss is retiring, and she's running to replace him. But there also is this widespread fear that because of the threats and pressure, this newfound pressure on election officials, it's going to be harder to retain talent and recruit talent for these jobs, which could mean an influx of people who want these jobs specifically to influence them for partisan gain. You know, former President Trump has said outright he wants his supporters to be in charge of counting votes. And about half of the local election officials in this poll said they're worried that some incoming election officials may believe Trump's election lies.

FADEL: How does that get fixed?

PARKS: Well, election officials in this poll said two things. They want social media companies to do more to fight misinformation, and they want more money from the federal government to support them - cybersecurity, physical security - to make their jobs more sustainable.

FADEL: NPR's Miles Parks. Thank you.

PARKS: Thank you.

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FADEL: Some parents of very young children are frustrated.

INSKEEP: ...Because daycare centers and schools around the country are lifting their mask mandates, and the youngest kids, the ones under 5, still are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been looking into this. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So, Rob, we know most kids who are at least 5 and eligible for a vaccine haven't been vaccinated. So is there really a big demand from parents with the littlest kids?

STEIN: You know, you're absolutely right. Only about a quarter of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 are fully vaccinated, even though they've been eligible for months now. So it is unclear how big a demand there will be for the youngest kids. That said, there are clearly lots of parents out there who are super anxious to get their little kids vaccinated, like Shanti Geiser. She's 25 and has two young sons. The whole family's still holed up in their house in Seattle, isolated from the world.

SHANTI GEISER: We're just really scared. We're really scared that COVID is a risk to them. So it's just been really hard. It's extremely brutal.

STEIN: Now, you know, in most young kids, COVID-19 tends to be mild, but they still can get sick, end up in intensive care and even die. So, you know, for parents like Geiser, it's been agonizing. It's taking so long, and especially now, so many people are walking around unmasked.

FADEL: Why is it taking so long?

STEIN: Well, you know, some experts say that a big mistake happened early on, when the pediatric studies didn't start soon enough or big enough to quickly demonstrate that the vaccine is safe and effective for young kids. Others say, you know, they had to start with adults and carefully work their way down. One big issue has been finding the right dose. Kids aren't just little adults, so, you know, coming up with the right dose can be tricky. You need to find that sweet spot that stimulates the immune system response strongly enough without producing too many side effects. I talked about this with Dr. Buddy Creech at Vanderbilt. He's helping test Moderna's vaccine for kids, which is 1/4 of the adult dose.

BUDDY CREECH: We're trying to find that Goldilocks dose where it's both safe and effective.

STEIN: The good news is, so far, it looks like the lower-dose vaccines are very safe for kids. But you might remember - Pfizer's initial results indicated their pediatric vaccine, which is 1/10 the adult dose, seemed like it might protect babies 6 months to 24 months but not kids ages 2, 3 and 4. So they started giving all the kids a third dose to see if that might do the trick.

FADEL: And did it do the trick?

STEIN: Well, you know, everybody's on the edge of their seat waiting to find out. You know, Pfizer's results are expected in April. Moderna's could come as soon as the end of this month. If things look good, the FDA and CDC could sign off pretty quickly. Here's Dr. Sean O'Leary, a University of Colorado pediatrician.

SEAN O'LEARY: It's understandable that parents want a vaccine for these kids, absolutely. You know, they're the last age group that's not protected. But it's also important that the vaccine go through the process of getting fully reviewed and approved by the FDA.

STEIN: So a vaccine for young kids could finally be coming soon. But remember - this is likely to be a three-dose vaccine, with each dose spaced weeks or even possibly months apart. So it could take a while for all those little kids to get fully vaccinated, assuming enough parents can be convinced to get it.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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