400,000 gone: By the end of the day, at least 400,000 people will have died from Covid-19 in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. The U.S. accounts for roughly one-fifth of the global death toll, which is now greater than 2 million, although the country only makes up 4 percent of the world’s population. In The New York Times, Sarah Mervosh, Mike Baker, Patricia Mazzei and Mark Walker retrace the steps that led us here. The reporters interviewed health officials across the country who were often at odds with local leaders, who were more concerned with keeping businesses open than preventing the virus from spreading. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis prohibited cities and counties from enforcing their own mask mandates, curfews and other restrictions, and gave restaurants and bars the green light to operate at full capacity. Even after the White House coronavirus task force privately told states in individualized memos to do more to encourage face masks or limit indoor dining, their advice went unheeded in at least 26 states.

  • Also: Tonight, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will attend a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial to honor the lives lost from Covid-19, with 400 lights, each representing 1,000 lives lost, will be lit, Elinor Aspegren and Adrianna Rodriguez write for USA Today.

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Varied variants: A new strain of coronavirus is circulating in California—different from the more contagious variant originally identified in the United Kingdom, Laura J. Nelson reports for the Los Angeles Times. The strain has been found in a dozen counties including Los Angeles, Orange, San Francisco, and San Diego, and connected to large outbreaks in Santa Clara County. The California Department of Public Health says it doesn’t yet know if the variant is more contagious than other strains of coronavirus or if increased and improved genetic testing is just picking it up more frequently. California is the first state to surpass 3 million cases of coronavirus, well ahead of Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois, which have each surpassed 1 million (Los Angeles County alone has notched more than that). Currently, the Golden State has the second-highest rate of new cases in the country per capita, after Arizona. One shocking detail from Nelson’s report: officials in Los Angeles County have temporarily suspended air quality regulations that limit the number of cremations so that hospitals, funeral homes and crematoriums can deal with the “backlog” of bodies.

Vaccination pays: If you’re a Dollar General employee, that is. The company told employees that they will get four hours of pay in exchange for getting the coronavirus vaccine, Taylor Telford reports for The Washington Post, making it one of the first major retailers to incentivize getting inoculated. The bonus is supposed to compensate employees for the costs they may incur getting the shot. “We do not have an on-site pharmacy and currently do not have systems in place for employees to receive a vaccine at their work site,” the company said. “We do not want our employees to have to choose between receiving a vaccine or coming to work.”

  • Also: Nearly a third of New York nursing home workers have declined to get the vaccine, and in some areas, staffers who have refused the vaccine outnumber those who have been vaccinated, Bryan Pietsch and Jesse McKinley write for The New York Times.

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Drone on: The Federal Aviation Administration has granted American Robotics Inc., a small Massachusetts-based company, permission to operate the first fully automated commercial drone flights in the country, with no piloting or direct observation by human controllers or observers, Andy Pasztor and Katy Stech Ferek report for The Wall Street Journal, provided the drones stick to rural areas and below 400 feet. The first users will be agricultural operations in Kansas, Massachusetts and Nevada. The FAA’s move is a major step toward broader authorization for autonomous drone operation by farmers, utilities, mining companies, and others.

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No driver seat, no problem: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has granted autonomous vehicles exemptions from some safety standards, including passenger crash safety standards in vehicles designed to only transport goods, and the requirement that vehicles must have a defined driver seat with extra protection, Gary Gastelu writes for Fox Business. The Center for Auto Safety criticized the change: “NHTSA’s insistence of enabling the fast deployment of self-driving vehicles by amending rules written for cars with drivers, instead of recognizing the unique characteristics of autonomous technology, may be the fastest way to authorize the deployment of autonomous vehicles but it is not a consumer safety driven approach.” FairWarning recently published a deep dive on NHTSA’s safety-related shortcomings.

  • Also: However, NHTSA informed electric car company Tesla that the touch screens in nearly 160,000 vehicles are potentially defective and a safety hazard, Tom Krisher reports for the Associated Press. Experts say the letter is a precursor to a public hearing and legal action, and indicates the company has resisted a voluntary recall.

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Disinfected drinking water: While it is necessary to clean public drinking water to remove harmful bacteria like E. coli and Legionella, the use of disinfectants inevitably leads to by-products, as the chemical disinfectants react with organic compounds to create potentially toxic contaminants, FairWarning contributor Lynne Peeples reports for Ensia. One group of researchers, for example, has identified a potentially carcinogenic chemical that occurs when chlorine interacts with substances like bisphenol A (BPA) and other plasticizers, sunscreen agents, and antimicrobials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only regulates 11 disinfection by-products, a small fraction of those that exist, and some advocates say it’s not enough, especially as scientists determine if some unregulated by-products may be more harmful than regulated ones.

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Where there’s smoke: The share of fine-particle pollution from car and truck exhaust declined between 2006 and 2018, while pollution from wildfire smoke roughly doubled, according to research by Stanford University and UC San Diego, Tony Barboza reports for the Los Angeles Times. It’s a sign that climate change is now one of the leading causes for decreased air quality and increased health risks in the Western United States. Nationwide, wildfires are responsible for producing a quarter of the fine-particle pollutants known as PM2.5.

  • Also: Stanford University researchers have calculated that climate change is responsible for a third of the costs incurred by flood damage over the past three decades, or a whopping $75 billion, The Washington Post reports. The study only looked at flooding from excess rainfall; flooding as a result of sea level rise was not considered.

FairWarning contributor Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.

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