Lacking Counselors, US Schools Turn to Booming Business of Online Therapy

Trouble with playground bullies started for Maria Ishoo’s daughter in elementary school. Girls ganged up, calling her “fat” and “ugly.” Boys tripped and pushed her. The California mother watched her typically bubbly second-grader retreat into her bedroom and spend afternoons curled up in bed.

For Valerie Aguirre’s daughter in Hawaii, a spate of middle school “friend drama” escalated into violence and online bullying that left the 12-year-old feeling disconnected and lonely.

Both children received help through telehealth therapy, a service that schools around the country are offering in response to soaring mental health struggles among American youth.

Now at least 16 of the 20 largest U.S. public school districts are offering online therapy sessions to reach millions of students, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. In those districts alone, schools have signed provider contracts worth more than $70 million.

The growth reflects a booming new business born from America’s youth mental health crisis, which has proven so lucrative that venture capitalists are funding a new crop of school teletherapy companies. Some experts raise concerns about the quality of care offered by fast-growing tech companies.

As schools cope with shortages of in-person practitioners, however, educators say teletherapy works for many kids, and it’s meeting a massive need. For rural schools and lower-income students in particular, it has made therapy easier to access. Schools let students connect with online counselors during the school day or after hours from home.

“This is how we can prevent people from falling through the cracks,” said Ishoo, a mother of two in Lancaster, California.

Ishoo recalls standing at her second-grader’s bedroom door last year and wishing she could get through to her. “What’s wrong?” the mother would ask. The response made her heart heavy: “It’s NOTHING, Mom.”

Last spring, her school district launched a teletherapy program and she signed up her daughter. During a month of weekly sessions, the girl logged in from her bedroom and opened up to a therapist who gave her coping tools and breathing techniques to reduce anxiety. The therapist told her daughter: You are in charge of your own emotions. Don’t give anyone else that control.

“She learned that it’s OK to ask for help, and sometimes everyone needs some extra help,” Ishoo said.

The 13,000-student school system, like so many others, has counselors and psychologists on staff, but not enough to meet the need, said Trish Wilson, the Lancaster district’s coordinator of counselors.

Therapists in the area have full caseloads, making it impossible to refer students for immediate care, she said. But students can schedule a virtual session within days.

“Our preference is to provide our students in-person therapy. Obviously, that’s not always possible,” said Wilson, whose district has referred more than 325 students to over 800 sessions since launching the online therapy program.

Students and their parents said in interviews they turned to teletherapy after struggling with feelings of sadness, loneliness, academic stress and anxiety. For many, the transition back to in-person school after distance learning was traumatic. Friendships had fractured, social skills deteriorated and tempers flared more easily.

Schools are footing the bill, many of them using federal pandemic relief money as experts have warned of alarming rates of youth depression, anxiety and suicide. Many school districts are signing contracts with private companies. Others are working with local health care providers, nonprofits or state programs.

Mental health experts welcome the extra support but caution about potential pitfalls. For one, it’s getting harder to hire school counselors and psychologists, and competition with telehealth providers isn’t helping.

“We have 44 counselor vacancies, and telehealth definitely impacts our ability to fill them,” said Doreen Hogans, supervisor of school counseling in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Hogans estimates 20% of school counselors who left have taken teletherapy jobs, which offer more flexible hours.

The rapid growth of the companies raises questions about the qualifications of the therapists, their experience with children and privacy protocols, said Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, executive director of Counseling in Schools, a nonprofit that helps schools bolster traditional, in-person mental health services.

“As we give these young people access to telehealth, I want to hear how all these other bases are covered,” he said.

One of the biggest providers, San Francisco-based Hazel Health, started with telemedicine health services in schools in 2016 and expanded to mental health in May 2021, CEO Josh Golomb said. It now employs more than 300 clinicians providing teletherapy in over 150 school districts in 15 states.

The rapid expansions mean millions of dollars in revenue for Hazel. This year, the company signed a $24 million contract with Los Angeles County to offer teletherapy services to 1.3 million students for two years.

Other clients include Hawaii, which is paying Hazel nearly $4 million over three years to work with its public schools, and Clark County schools in the Las Vegas area, which have allocated $3.25 million for Hazel-provided teletherapy. The districts of Miami-Dade, Prince George’s and Houston schools also have partnered with Hazel.

Despite the giant contracts, Golomb said Hazel is focused on ensuring child welfare outweighs the bottom line.

“We have the ethos of a nonprofit company but we’re using a private-sector mechanism to reach as many kids as we can,” Golomb said. Hazel raised $51.5 million in venture capital funding in 2022 that fueled its expansion. “Do we have any concerns about any compromise in quality? The resounding answer is no.”

Other providers are getting into the space. In November, New York City launched a free telehealth therapy service for teens to help eliminate barriers to access, said Ashwin Vasan, the city’s health commissioner. New York is paying the startup TalkSpace $26 million over three years for a service allowing teens aged 13 to 17 to download an app and connect with licensed therapists by phone, video or text.

Unlike other cities, New York is offering the service to all teens, whether enrolled in private, public or home schools, or not in school at all.

“I truly hope this normalizes and democratizes access to mental health care for our young people,” Vasan said.

Many of Hawaii’s referrals come from schools in rural or remote areas. Student clients have increased sharply in Maui since the deadly August wildfires, said Fern Yoshida, who oversees teletherapy for the state education department. So far this fall, students have logged 2,047 teletherapy visits, a three-fold increase from the same period last year.

One of them was Valerie Aguirre’s daughter, whose fallout with two friends turned physical last year in sixth grade, when one of the girls slapped her daughter in the face. Aguirre suggested her daughter try teletherapy. After two months of online therapy, “she felt better,” Aguirre said, with a realization that everyone makes mistakes and friendships can be mended.

In California, Ishoo says her daughter, now in third grade, is relaying wisdom to her sister, who started kindergarten this year.

“She walks her little sister to class and tells her everything will be OK. She’s a different person. She’s older and wiser. She reassures her sister,” Ishoo said. “I heard her say, ‘If kids are being mean to you, just ignore them.'”

Queen Latifah, Billy Crystal, Dionne Warwick Among 2023 Kennedy Center Honorees

The newest group of Kennedy Center honorees, including comedian Billy Crystal and actor Queen Latifah, are being feted Sunday night at a star-studded event marking their lifetime achievement in arts and entertainment.

Opera singer Renee Fleming, music star Barry Gibb and prolific hitmaker Dionne Warwick also are being honored at the black-tie gala. Each will receive personalized tributes that typically include appearances and performances that are kept secret from the honorees themselves.

In announcing the recipients earlier this year, the Kennedy Center’s president, Deborah F. Rutter, called this year’s group of inductees “an extraordinary mix of individuals who have redefined their art forms.”

Crystal, 75, came to national prominence in the 1970s playing Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters on American network television, on the sitcom “Soap.” He went on to a brief but memorable one-year stint on “Saturday Night Live” before starring in a string of movies, including hits such as “When Harry Met Sally…” “The Princess Bride” and “City Slickers.”

Crystal, who also received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy in 2007, joins an elite group of comedians cited for both: David Letterman, Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett and Neil Simon. Bill Cosby received both honors, but they were rescinded in 2018 following his sexual assault conviction, which later was overturned.

Warwick, 82, shot to stardom in the 1960s as the muse for the superstar songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Her discography includes a multidecade string of hits, both with and without Bacharach, that includes “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”

Fleming, 64, is one of the leading sopranos of her era, with a string of accolades that includes a National Medal of Arts bestowed by President Barack Obama, a Cross of the Order of Merit from the German government and honorary membership in England’s Royal Academy of Music.

Gibb, 76, achieved global fame as part of one of the most successful bands in the history of modern music, the Bee Gees. Along with his late brothers Robin and Maurice, the trio launched a nearly unmatched string of hits that defined a generation of music.

Latifah, 53, has been a star since age 19 when her debut album and hit single “Ladies First” made her the first female crossover rap star. She has gone on to a diverse career that has included seven studio albums, starring roles in multiple television shows and movies and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her role in the movie musical “Chicago.”

Fleming and Latifah, real name Dana Owens, also share an obscure bit of Kennedy Center Honors historical trivia. They both performed at the 2014 Super Bowl. Fleming sang the national anthem while Latifah performed “America the Beautiful.”

Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ Tops Box Office With $21 Million Debut

Beyoncé ruled the box office this weekend. Her concert picture, “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” opened in first place with $21 million in North American ticket sales, according to estimates from AMC Theatres Sunday.

The post-Thanksgiving, early December box office is notoriously slow, but “Renaissance” defied the odds. Not accounting for inflation, it’s the first time a film has opened over $20 million on this weekend in 20 years (since “The Last Samurai”).

Beyoncé wrote, directed and produced “Renaissance,” which is focused on the tour for her Grammy-winning album. It debuted in 2,539 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, as well as 94 international territories, where it earned $6.4 million from 2,621 theaters.

“On behalf of AMC Theaters Distribution and the entire theatrical industry, we thank Beyoncé for bringing this incredible film directly to her fans,” said Elizabeth Frank, AMC Theaters executive vice president of worldwide programming, in a statement. “To see it resonate with fans and with film critics on a weekend that many in the industry typically neglect is a testament to her immense talent, not just as a performer, but as a producer and director.”

Despite several other new releases including “Godzilla Minus One,” the Hindi-language “Animal,” Angel Studios’ sci-fi thriller “The Shift,” and Lionsgate’s John Woo-directed revenge pic “Silent Night,” it was a slow weekend overall. Films in the top 10 are expected to gross only $85 million in total. But it was in this traditional “lull” that AMC Theaters found a good opportunity for “Renaissance” to shine.

“They chose a great weekend,” said Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore. “There was competition, but it was from very different kinds of movies.”

Though “Renaissance” did not come close to matching the $92.8 million debut of “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” in October, it’s still a very good start for a concert film. No one expected “Renaissance” to match “The Eras Tour,” which is wrapping up its theatrical run soon with over $250 million globally. Prior to Swift, the biggest concert film debuts (titles held by Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber for their 2008 and 2011 films) had not surpassed the unadjusted sum of $32 million.

The 39-city, 56-show “Renaissance” tour, which kicked off in Stockholm, Sweden in May and ended in Kansas City, Missouri in the fall, made over $500 million and attracted over 2.7 million concertgoers. Swift’s ongoing “Eras Tour,” with 151 dates, is expected to gross some $1.4 billion.

Both Beyoncé and Swift chose to partner with AMC Theaters to distribute their films, as opposed to a traditional studio. Both superstars have been supportive of one another, making splashy appearances at the other’s premieres. Both had previously released films on Netflix (“Miss Americana” and “Homecoming”). And both are reported to be receiving at least 50% of ticket sales.

Movie tickets to the show were more expensive than average, around $23.32 versus Swift’s $20.78, according to data firm EntTelligence.

Critics and audiences gave “Renaissance” glowing reviews – it’s sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and got a coveted A+ CinemaScore from opening weekend audiences who were polled. EntTelligence also estimates that the audience, around 900,000 strong, skewed a little older than Swift’s.

“To have two concert films topping the chart in a single year is pretty unprecedented,” Dergarabedian said. But to compare them too closely would be a mistake.

“Taylor Swift was a total outlier and the result of a very specific set of circumstances,” he said. “These two films are similar in genre only.”

Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” fell to second place in its third weekend with an estimated $14.5 million. The prequel has now earned over $121 million domestically.

“Godzilla Minus One” took third place on the North American charts with $11 million from 2,308 locations — the biggest opening for a foreign film in the U.S. this year. The well-reviewed Japanese blockbuster distributed by Toho International cost only $15 million to produce and has already earned $23 million in Japan.

“This year, we made a concentrated effort to answer the demand of the marketplace and make Godzilla globally accessible across many different platforms,” said Koji Ueda, President of Toho Global, in a statement.

“Trolls Band Together” landed in fourth place in its third weekend with $7.6 million, bringing its domestic total to $74.8 million.

Fifth place went to Disney’s “Wish,” which fell 62% from its underwhelming first weekend, with $7.4 million from 3,900 locations. Globally, it’s now made $81.6 million.

The studio’s other major film in theaters, “The Marvels” is winding down in its fourth weekend with a disastrous global tally of $197 million against the reported $300 million it cost to make and market the superhero film.

In its second weekend, Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” earned an estimated $7.1 million from 3,500 locations. Produced by Apple Original Films and distributed by Sony Pictures, the film starring Joaquin Phoenix has now made $45.7 million domestically against a $200 million budget.

Things should pick up in the final weeks of 2023, with films like “Wonka” and “The Color Purple” yet to come. The industry is looking at a $9 billion year — still trailing the $11 billion pre-pandemic norm, but a marked improvement from the last few years. And there are still many solid options for moviegoers, as the industry’s awards season gets into full swing.

“We had a slow Thanksgiving and we’re having a pretty slow weekend this weekend, but it’s a great weekend to be a moviegoer in terms of the breadth and depth of the movies out there,” Dergarabedian said.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” $21 million.

  2. “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,” $14.5 million.

  3. “Godzilla Minus One,” $11 million.

  4. “Trolls Band Together,” $7.6 million.

  5. “Wish,” $7.4 million.

  6. “Napoleon,” $7.1 million.

  7. “Animal,” $6.1 million.

  8. “The Shift,” $4.4 million.

  9. “Silent Night,” $3 million.

  10. “Thanksgiving,” $2.6 million.

Kiss Say Farewell to Live Touring, Become First US Band To Go Virtual and Become Digital Avatars 

On Saturday night, Kiss closed out the final performance of their “The End of the Road” farewell tour at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden.  

But as dedicated fans surely know — they were never going to call it quits. Not really.  

During their encore, the band’s current lineup — founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons as well as guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer — left the stage to reveal digital avatars of themselves. After the transformation, the virtual Kiss launched into a performance of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.”  

The cutting-edge technology was used to tease a new chapter of the rock band: after 50 years of Kiss, the band is now interested in a kind of digital immortality.  

The avatars were created by George Lucas’ special-effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, in partnership with Pophouse Entertainment Group, the latter of which was co-founded by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus. The two companies recently teamed up for the “ABBA Voyage” show in London, in which fans could attend a full concert by the Swedish band — as performed by their digital avatars.  

Per Sundin, CEO of Pophouse Entertainment, says this new technology allows Kiss to continue their legacy for “eternity.” He says the band wasn’t on stage during virtual performance because “that’s the key thing,” of the future-seeking technology. “Kiss could have a concert in three cities in the same night across three different continents. That’s what you could do with this.”  

In order to create their digital avatars, who are depicted as a kind of superhero version of the band, Kiss performed in motion capture suits.  

Experimentation with this kind of technology has become increasingly common in certain sections of the music industry. In October K-pop star Mark Tuan partnered with Soul Machines to create an autonomously automated “digital twin” called “Digital Mark.” In doing so, Tuan became the first celebrity to attach their likeness to OpenAI’s GPT integration, artificial intelligence technology that allows fans to engage in one-on-one conversations with Tuan’s avatar.  

Aespa, the K-pop girl group, frequently perform alongside their digital avatars — the quartet is meant to be viewed as an octet with digital twins. Another girl group, Eternity, is made up entirely of virtual characters — no humans necessary.  

“What we’ve accomplished has been amazing, but it’s not enough. The band deserves to live on because the band is bigger than we are,” Kiss frontman Paul Stanley said in a roundtable interview. “It’s exciting for us to go the next step and see Kiss immortalized.”  

“We can be forever young and forever iconic by taking us to places we’ve never dreamed of before,” Kiss bassist Gene Simmons added. “The technology is going to make Paul jump higher than he’s ever done before.”  

And for those who couldn’t make the Madison Square Garden show — stay tuned, because a Kiss avatar concert may very well be on the way. 

Maghreb Farmers Embrace Drones to Fight Climate Change

A drone buzzed back and forth above rows of verdant orange trees planted near Nabeul, eastern Tunisia.

The black unmanned aircraft, equipped with a multi-lens camera and sensors, has been enlisted by Tunisian farmers to help adapt to years of drought and erratic weather patterns caused by climate change.

“The seasons are not like they were before where we knew exactly what to do,” said farmer Yassine Gargouri, noting temperatures now can begin to climb as early as May while in August there have been unusual summer rains.

He hired start-up RoboCare to scan the trees from the air and assess their hydration levels, soil quality and overall health — to prevent irreversible damage.

The technology “provides us with information on how much water each plant needs, no more, no less,” he said.

The use of modern technologies in agriculture is globally on the rise, including in North Africa where countries rank among the world’s 33 most water-stressed, according to the World Resources Institute.

RoboCare, employing about 10 people, is the only company in Tunisia, according to its 35-year-old founder Imen Hbiri, to use drones to help farmers combat the impacts of climate change and reduce costs, crop losses and water consumption.

“Resorting to modern technologies in the sector of agriculture has become inevitable,” Hbiri told AFP while monitoring the drone’s path on her computer screen.

‘Challenge of tomorrow’

The daughter of farmers, the entrepreneur knows well the limits of existing farming methods.

Now, in just a few clicks, she can access scans that detect signs of illness or malnourishment before they are visible to the naked eye.

On the screen, fields appear in RGB (red, green, blue) imagery — the greener the plants, the healthier.

Farmers can then use medicine-filled sprinklers mounted to the drones to target the sickly plants with more precision and consequently less expense.

“By relying on this technology, we can save water consumption by up to 30 percent and reduce about 20 percent of the cost of fertilizers and medicine, while raising crop production by 30 percent,” Hbiri explained.

Gargouri, who spends about 80 percent of his budget on fertilizers and other remedies, says this technology is the future.

“We must adapt to these upheavals,” Gargouri added. “It’s the challenge of tomorrow.”

Tunisia is currently experiencing its eighth year of drought (four of which were consecutive) in recent years, according to its agriculture ministry.

The country’s dams, which are the primary source for drinking water and irrigating crops, are currently only filled to about 22 percent capacity.

And about 20 dams — mostly located in the south — have gone completely out of service.

In neighboring countries, water scarcity is also a major issue.

Licensing hurdles

Morocco — where agriculture accounts for 13 percent of the gross domestic product, 14 percent of exports and 33 percent of jobs — also suffered its worst drought in four decades in 2022.

Only about three percent of nearly two million Moroccan farmers use new technologies in their fields, Loubna El Mansouri, director of the digital center at Morocco’s agriculture ministry, told AFP.

A study they conducted found that using drones to water crops could use “less than 20 liters of water to irrigate one hectare compared to nearly 300 liters” used with traditional methods, Mansouri added.

Similarly, Algeria’s agriculture ministry said it was using drones and satellite imagery for mapping “to optimize the use of agricultural land by evaluating its characteristics and suitability for production”, local media reported.

For the use of these technologies to become widespread, however, Hbiri says the law needs to be changed in Tunisia and awareness raised.

Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia ban the use of unmanned drones without a permit, which in the case of commercial uses can take months to be issued.

Hbiri hopes authorities will help start-ups reach more farmers as she estimates “only 10 percent of farmers in Tunisia depend on this type of technology.”

“We want to focus our work on the use of technology and not spend time and effort on administrative issues and moving between departments and banks, which is slowing our progress,” she said.

US Ill-Prepared to House Growing Number of Older People, Study Says

Michael Genaldi’s road to homelessness began early this year when a car slammed into the rear of his motorcycle, crushed three of his ribs, and left him in a coma for over a month.

The 58-year-old lost his job as a machine operator, then his home, and he was living in his truck when he was diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer. Too young to get Social Security, Genaldi now lives temporarily in a shelter for people 55 and older in Phoenix while he navigates the process of qualifying for disability payments.

As its population ages, the United States is ill-prepared to adequately house and care for the growing number of older people, concludes a new report being released Thursday by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Without enough government help, “many older adults will have to forgo needed care or rely on family and friends for assistance,” warned Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the center’s Housing an Aging Society Program. Many, like Genaldi, will become homeless.

Molinsky said more governmental assistance could better help the upsurge of older Americans who are baby boomers born after World War II.

The report says that in 2021, federal housing assistance like Section 8 or Section 202 — which provides housing with supportive services such as cleaning, cooking and transportation for older people — was only sufficient for a little more than a third of the 5.9 million renters ages 62 and over who were eligible.

Creative ideas are especially needed now to house people with fixed or dwindling incomes and with insufficient savings, the report says. Think house or apartment sharing to cut back on costs rather than living alone, in accessory dwelling units or ADUs known as casitas, granny flats and in-law units. There are also cohousing communities where individual homes — sometimes even tiny homes — are arranged around a building with a communal space such as a dining room.

Over the next decade, the U.S. population over the age of 75 will increase by 45%, growing from 17 million to nearly 25 million. And many of those people are expected to struggle financially. The report notes that in 2021, nearly 11.2 million older adults were “cost burdened,” which means they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Some of the highest cost-burden rates for renters 65 and older were in Sunbelt areas traditionally popular for retirement: Las Vegas; San Diego; Raleigh, North Carolina; Miami and Daytona Beach, Florida.

Like renters, many older homeowners also struggle to keep a roof over their head.

The report says that mortgage debt among older adults is rising, with the median mortgage debt for homeowners 65 to 79 shooting up over 400% from $21,000 in 1989 to $110,000 in 2022 as people increasingly need to access cash for basic needs and care.

Many older adults also find it challenging to obtain the additional services they need as they age, with the costs of long-term care averaging over $100 a day.

The report says the households of older people of color are far more likely to be cost burdened than older white households, especially Black and Latino households. Older people who live alone are also more likely to be cost burdened than married or partnered couples: 47% versus 21% of couples.

In Phoenix, Angelita Saldaña, 56, became homeless after her marriage fell apart. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Saldaña initially lived in her truck with her pet dog Gaspar, but they now live at the 60-bed shelter where Genaldi stays with his pet dog Chico.

Saldaña said her $941 monthly disability check isn’t enough to pay for even a studio apartment in the area, where average rents start at around $1,200. A caseworker is trying to help her find something she can afford.

In the meantime, she has a motel room to herself with a private bathroom.

“Here, I can sleep good,” she said, unlike the months she spent at the state’s largest shelter in downtown Phoenix, which has 10 times as many beds.

Lisa Glow, the CEO for Central Arizona Shelter Services, which operates both facilities, said older people do much better in a shelter designed with their needs in mind — including more space, limited stairs and wider doorways for wheelchairs.

Glow spoke of an 82-year-old man with dementia who struggled to sleep on a bunk bed at the downtown shelter before he was transferred. Staff members tracked down his family and got him transferred to a skilled nursing facility for more personalized care.

“The downtown shelter is not a good place for an aging adult with chronic conditions,” said Glow. “We see a lot of people there in their 70s and 80s.”

“I’ve been shocked to see so many seniors on the street,” she added. “People with wheelchairs. People with walkers.”

Flu on Rise, RSV Infections May Be Peaking, US Says

Flu is picking up steam while RSV lung infections that can hit kids and older people hard may be peaking, U.S. health officials said Friday.

COVID-19, though, continues to cause the most hospitalizations and deaths among respiratory illnesses — about 15,000 hospitalizations and about 1,000 deaths every week, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency is also looking into reports of pneumonia outbreaks in children in two states, but Cohen said “there is no evidence” that they are due to anything unusual.

As for the flu season, seven states were reporting high levels of flu-like illnesses in early November. In a new CDC report Friday, the agency said the tally was up to 11 states — mostly in the South and Southwest.

In the last month, RSV infections rose sharply in some parts of the country, nearly filling hospital emergency departments in Georgia, Texas and some other states. But “we think we’re near the peak of RSV season or will be in the next week or so,” Cohen said.

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus is a common cause of mild coldlike symptoms but it can be dangerous for infants and older people.

Cohen was asked about pneumonia cases in children reported in Massachusetts and in Warren County, Ohio, near Cincinnati. There are a number of possible causes of the lung infection, and it can be a complication of COVID-19, flu, or RSV.

In Ohio, health officials have reported 145 cases since August and most of the children recovered at home. The illnesses were caused by a variety of common viruses and bacteria, officials said.

Massachusetts health officials said there’s been a modest increase in pneumonia in kids but that it is appropriate for the season.

China recently had a surge in respiratory illnesses which health officials there attributed to the flu and other customary causes.

Known Pathogens Cause Rise in China’s Respiratory Illness, Official Says

China’s surge in respiratory illness is caused by known pathogens and there is no sign of new infectious diseases, a health official said Saturday as the country faces its first full winter since lifting its strict COVID-19 restrictions.

The spike in illness in the country where COVID emerged in late 2019 attracted the spotlight when the World Health Organization sought information last week, citing a report of clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children.

Chinese authorities will open more pediatric outpatient clinics, seek to ensure more elderly people and children receive flu vaccines and encourage people to wear masks and wash their hands, Mi Feng, an official with China’s National Health Commission, told a press conference.

Doctors in China and experts abroad have not expressed alarm about China’s outbreaks, given that many other countries saw similar increases in respiratory diseases after easing pandemic measures, which China did at the end of last year.

On Friday, five Republican senators led by Marco Rubio asked President Joe Biden’s administration to ban travel between the United States and China after a spike in Chinese respiratory illness cases.

A Biden administration official said the United States was closely monitoring the uptick in respiratory illnesses in China, but added, “We are seeing seasonal trends. Nothing is appearing out of the ordinary. … At this time, there is no indication that there is a link between the people who are seeking care in U.S. emergency departments and the outbreak of respiratory illness in China.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, acting director of the WHO’s department of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention, said earlier this week the increase appeared to be driven by a rise in the number of children contracting pathogens that they had avoided during two years of COVID-19 restrictions.

The spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said in response to the Rubio letter, “The relevant claims are purely ill-intentioned fabrications. China firmly opposes them.”

Rubio’s letter was also signed by Senators J.D. Vance, Rick Scott, Tommy Tuberville and Mike Braun. 

Breaches by Iran-Affiliated Hackers Span US States, Federal Agencies Say

A small western Pennsylvania water authority was just one of many organizations breached in the United States by Iran-affiliated hackers who targeted a specific industrial control device because it is Israeli-made, U.S. and Israeli authorities say.

“The victims span multiple U.S. states,” the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, known as CISA, as well as Israel’s National Cyber Directorate said in an advisory emailed to The Associated Press late Friday.

They did not say how many organizations were hacked or otherwise describe them.

Matthew Mottes, the chairman of the Municipal Water Authority of Aliquippa, which discovered it had been hacked on Nov. 25, said Thursday that federal officials had told him the same group also breached four other utilities and an aquarium.

Cybersecurity experts say that while there is no evidence of Iranian involvement in the Oct. 7 attack into Israel by Hamas that triggered the war in Gaza, they expected state-backed Iranian hackers and pro-Palestinian hacktivists to step up cyberattacks on Israeli and its allies in its aftermath. And that has happened.

The multiagency advisory explained what CISA had not when it confirmed the Pennsylvania hack Wednesday — that other industries outside water and water-treatment facilities use the same equipment — Vision Series programmable logic controllers made by Unitronics — and were also potentially vulnerable.

Those industries include “energy, food and beverage manufacturing and healthcare,” the advisory says. The devices regulate processes including pressure, temperature and fluid flow.

The Aliquippa hack promoted workers to temporarily halt pumping in a remote station that regulates water pressure for two nearby towns, leading crews to switch to manual operation. The hackers left a digital calling card on the compromised device saying all Israeli-made equipment is “a legal target.”

The multiagency advisory said it was not known if the hackers had tried to penetrate deeper into breached networks.

The advisory says the hackers, who call themselves “Cyber Av3ngers,” are affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the U.S. designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2019.

The group targeted the Unitronics devices at least since Nov. 22, it said.

An online search Saturday with the Shodan service identified more than 200 such internet-connected devices in the U.S. and more than 1,700 globally.

The advisory notes that Unitronics devices ship with a default password, a practice experts discourage as it makes them more vulnerable to hacking. Best practices call for devices to require a unique password to be created out of the box. It says the hackers likely accessed affected devices by “exploiting cybersecurity weaknesses, including poor password security and exposure to the internet.”

In response to the Aliquippa hack, three Pennsylvania congressmen asked the U.S. Justice Department in a letter to investigate. Americans must know their drinking water and other basic infrastructure is safe from “nation-state adversaries and terrorist organizations,” U.S. Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio said.

Cyber Av3ngers claimed in an Oct. 30 social media post to have hacked 10 water treatment stations in Israel, though it is not clear if they shut down any equipment.

Unitronics has not responded to the AP queries about the hacks.

The attack came less than a month after a federal appeals court decision prompted the EPA to rescind a rule that would have obliged U.S public water systems to include cybersecurity testing in their regular federally mandated audits. The rollback was triggered by a federal appeals court decision in a case brought by Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa, and joined by a water utility trade group.

The Biden administration has been trying to shore up cybersecurity of critical infrastructure — more than 80% of which is privately owned — and has imposed regulations on sectors including electric utilities, gas pipelines and nuclear facilities. But many experts complain that too many vital industries are permitted to self-regulate.

US Issues New Rule on Methane Emissions

The Biden administration on Saturday issued a final rule aimed at reducing methane emissions, targeting the U.S. oil and natural gas industry for its role in global warming, as President Joe Biden seeks to advance his climate legacy.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the rule will sharply reduce methane and other harmful air pollutants generated by the oil and gas industry, promote use of cutting-edge methane detection technologies and deliver significant public health benefits in the form of reduced hospital visits, lost school days and even deaths. Air pollution from oil and gas operations can cause cancer, harm the nervous and respiratory systems and contribute to birth defects.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan and White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi announced the final rule at the U.N. climate conference in the United Arab Emirates. Separately, the president of the climate summit announced Saturday that 50 oil companies, representing nearly half of global production, have pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions and end routine flaring in their operations by 2030.

Oil and gas operations are the largest industrial source of methane, the main component in natural gas and far more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term. It is responsible for about one-third of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Sharp cuts in methane emissions are a global priority to slow the rate of climate change and are a major topic at the conference, known as COP28.

Smaller wells included

The methane rule finalizes a proposal Biden made at a UN climate conference in Scotland in 2021 and expanded a year later at a climate conference in Egypt. It targets emissions from existing oil and gas wells nationwide, rather than focusing only on new wells, as previous EPA regulations have done. It also regulates smaller wells that will be required to find and plug methane leaks. Such wells currently are subject to an initial inspection but are rarely checked again for leaks.

Studies have found that smaller wells produce 6% of the nation’s oil and gas but account for up to half the methane emissions from well sites.

The plan also will phase in a requirement for energy companies to eliminate routine flaring of natural gas that is produced by new oil wells.

The new methane rule will help ensure that the United States meets a goal set by more than 100 nations to cut methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030, Regan said.

The new rule will be coordinated with a methane fee approved in the 2022 climate law. The fee, set to take effect next year, will charge energy producers that exceed a certain level of methane emissions as much as $1,500 per metric ton of methane. The plan marks the first time the U.S. government has directly imposed a fee, or tax, on greenhouse gas emissions.

The law allows exemptions for companies that comply with the EPA’s standards or fall below a certain emissions threshold. It also includes $1.5 billon in grants and other spending to help companies and local communities improve monitoring and data collection and find and repair natural gas leaks.

Reaction positive

Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, called the new rule a victory for public health.

“EPA heeded the urgent guidance of health experts across the country and finalized a strong methane rule that, when fully implemented, will significantly reduce hazardous air pollutants and climate-warming methane pollution from the oil and gas industry,” he said in a statement.

Methane has been shown to leak into the atmosphere during every stage of oil and gas production, Wimmer said, and “people who live near oil and gas wells are especially vulnerable to these exposure risks. This rule [is] vital to advancing environmental justice commitments.”

David Doniger, a climate expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called methane a “super-polluter.” He said in an interview that the Biden plan “takes a very solid whack at climate pollution. I wish this had happened 10 years ago, but I’m really happy it’s happening now.”

The oil industry has generally welcomed direct federal regulation of methane emissions, preferring a single national standard to a hodgepodge of state rules. Even so, energy companies have asked the EPA to exempt hundreds of thousands of the nation’s smallest wells from the pending methane rules.

US VP Harris Announces $3 Billion Pledge to Green Climate Fund

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced Saturday in Dubai at the U.N. COP28 Climate Conference that the United States is pledging $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund — the world’s largest climate fund — created to help developing countries handle climate change.

“Around the world, there are those who seek to slow or stop our progress. Leaders who deny climate science, delay climate action and spread misinformation,” the vice president said.

The multibillion-dollar pledge to the climate fund, however, first must be approved by the U.S. Congress, which is divided on the contribution.

Also Saturday, the U.S. made a commitment to phase out all the country’s coal-fired power plants when it joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Coal is the single largest contributor to the climate crisis, according to the alliance.

Sharp differences were laid bare Friday at COP28 regarding the future use of fossil fuels.

One day after COP28 president, United Arab Emirates’ Sultan al-Jaber — also the head of the UAE state oil company — opened the meeting with a call to not eliminate but phase down the use of fossil fuels, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the opposite.

Addressing the delegates, Guterres said, “We cannot save a burning planet with a fire hose of fossil fuel,” and he called for the acceleration of “a just and equitable transition to renewable energy.”

The U.N. chief was referring to the 2015 Paris Climate agreement, which calls for efforts to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, saying the only way that goal can be reached is if the world stops burning “all fossil fuels. Not reduce. Not abate.”

The disagreements over fossil fuel use prompted a prominent member of the COP28 advisory board to offer her resignation Friday.

Reuters news service reported that former Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine resigned in a letter to the COP28’s president, al-Jaber, saying reports alleging the UAE planned to use the conference to discuss possible fossil fuel and other commercial deals were “deeply disappointing” and threatened to undermine the credibility of the multilateral negotiation process.

Reuters reported the letter went on to say the actions undermine the COP presidency and the process as a whole.

Earlier this week, the BBC, working with the Center for Climate Reporting, reported that leaked briefing documents revealed plans for UAE officials to discuss fossil fuel deals with 15 nations. Al-Jaber strongly denied the report.

Also Friday, Britain’s King Charles III addressed the conference, saying that the world was “dreadfully off track” on its climate goals and that he “prays with all his heart” the conference will be another critical turning point toward genuine transformational action.

In his remarks Friday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II linked climate change with the crisis in Gaza, saying they cannot talk about climate change “in isolation from the humanitarian tragedies unfolding around us.” He said thousands have been killed, injured or displaced in a region on the front lines of climate change, which, he said, magnifies the devastation.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his remarks, linked climate change to the global food crisis, citing statistics showing the global demand for food is estimated to increase by 50% by the year 2050, while the climate crisis is expected to reduce crop yields by as much as 30% over that same period.

During its opening day Thursday, conferees did agree to a new $420 million fund to help poorer, vulnerable nations cope with the cost of disasters caused by climate change, such as droughts, floods and rising sea levels.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry called the agreement “a great way to start” the conference.

The day one deal could pave the way for further agreements at COP28.

“COP” stands for “Conference of the Parties” to the original U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. There are currently 198 parties to the convention.

The current COP runs through December 12.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Golden Mole Presumed Extinct Found Again in South Africa

Researchers in South Africa say they have rediscovered a species of mole with an iridescent golden coat and the ability to almost “swim” through sand dunes after it hadn’t been seen for more than 80 years and was thought to be extinct.

The De Winton’s golden mole — a small, blind burrower with “super-hearing powers” that eats insects — was found to be still alive on a beach in Port Nolloth on the west coast of South Africa by a team of researchers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the University of Pretoria.

It had been lost to science since 1936, the researchers said.

With the help of a sniffer dog, the team found traces of tunnels and discovered a golden mole in 2021. But because there are 21 species of golden moles and some look very similar, the team needed more to be certain that it was a De Winton’s.

They took environmental DNA samples — the DNA animals leave behind in skin cells, hair and bodily excretions — but had to wait until 2022 before a De Winton’s DNA sample from decades ago was made available by a South African museum to compare. The DNA sequences were a match.

The team’s research and findings were peer reviewed and published last week.

“We had high hopes, but we also had our hopes crushed by a few people,” one of the researchers, Samantha Mynhardt, told The Associated Press. “One De Winton’s expert told us, ‘You’re not going to find that mole. It’s extinct.'”

The process took three years from the researchers’ first trip to the west coast of South Africa to start searching for the mole, which was known to rarely leave signs of its tunnels and almost “swim” under the sand dunes, the researchers said. Golden moles are native to sub-Saharan Africa and the De Winton’s had only ever been found in the Port Nolloth area.

Two De Winton’s golden moles have now been confirmed and photographed in Port Nolloth, Mynhardt said, while the research team has found signs of other populations in the area since 2021.

“It was a very exciting project with many challenges,” said Esther Matthew, senior field officer with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. “Luckily we had a fantastic team full of enthusiasm and innovative ideas, which is exactly what you need when you have to survey up to 18 kilometers of dune habitat in a day.”

The De Winton’s golden mole was on a “most wanted lost species” list compiled by the Re:wild conservation group.

Others on the list that have been rediscovered include a salamander that was found in Guatemala in 2017, 42 years after its last sighting, and an elephant shrew called the Somali sengi seen in Djibouti in 2019, its first recorded sighting since 1968.

Rules Would Bar EV Tax Credits if Batteries, Minerals Linked to China

The U.S. proposed new guidelines Friday spelling out which electric vehicles will be eligible for tax credits, ruling out those that contain batteries or minerals sourced from China and other nations that have fallen out of favor with the U.S.

The restrictions dictate which clean energy vehicles will qualify for a subsidy of up to $7,500 under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a federal law promoting sustainable, domestic energy production.

Only about 20 out of the more than 100 electric vehicles on the U.S. market qualify for a tax credit as it is. That number may be further reduced when this regulation goes into effect.

If a clean energy battery went through an assembly line owned by any “foreign entity of concern,” the car it will go into would be immediately disqualified from earning its owner any tax breaks from the U.S. government, starting in 2024.

The new rules target firms incorporated or headquartered in China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, among others, as well as companies where 25% or more of the equity interest or board seats are controlled by those countries.

From 2025 onward, electric vehicles made with critical minerals, such as lithium, nickel and cobalt, mined or processed by any “foreign entity of concern” will also be ineligible for subsidies.

The rules will be open to public feedback from automotive leaders for several weeks and are subject to change depending on industry recommendations.

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse. 

 US Agency Predicts Strong Geomagnetic Storm on Saturday

The U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a warning for a strong geomagnetic storm Saturday, saying power and communications systems could be affected in the Northern Hemisphere after a significant solar flare was observed on the sun. 

In a statement on its website, the agency said G3, or strong geomagnetic storm conditions, were observed from 0900 to 1200 UTC Friday.  

A geometric storm, the agency says, is “a stronger disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field, often varying in intensity over the course of some hours.” 

The agency said the increase in geomagnetic activity was primarily caused by a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun associated with a moderate solar flare observed Tuesday, which joined several other lesser CMEs that were already headed toward Earth. 

CMEs are powerful eruptions on the sun’s surface that send tons of superheated gas and radiation into space. 

These often head toward Earth, and while harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans, if the flare is strong enough, it can disturb the layer in the atmosphere where GPS and other communication signals travel. 

The agency said it has alerted infrastructure operators, such as power companies, to take precautions to mitigate any possible effects. 

The strong geomagnetic storm warning is valid through late Friday, with G1, or minor geomagnetic storms expected through Saturday.  

The effect from the geomagnetic storm most noticeable to the general public could be the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights. 

The Washington Post said Friday that colorful auroras were reported at least as far south as the southwestern state of Arizona in the United States, with vibrant displays reported at higher latitudes.  

Reports of auroras from Australia were posted on social media as well. 

On World AIDS Day, Biden Vows to Stop Spread of HIV Worldwide by 2030

Friday is the 35th annual World AIDS Day, a time to remember the estimated 40.4 million lives lost to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, since the epidemic began in 1981.

Worldwide, more than 39 million people live with HIV, upwards of 1 million Americans among them.

In a statement Friday, President Joe Biden said that America is “within striking distance of eliminating HIV-transmission.” Biden vowed that his focus is ensuring that by 2030, the immunodeficiency virus will no longer be a public health threat worldwide.

Biden said he plans to extend the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief, or PEPFAR, for five more years.

The White House says PEPFAR, a bipartisan initiative launched two decades ago under then-President George W. Bush, has saved more than 25 million lives in 50 plus countries and prevented millions of HIV transmissions by providing access to lifesaving treatment and testing, according to the White House.

Among Biden’s goals is to stop the anti-gay stigma surrounding AIDS, which is more prevalent among gay men than the general population. “This year,” Biden said, “my Administration also ended the disgraceful practice of banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood.”

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a press release Friday that PEPFAR is also investing in strategies that partner countries are taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Ebola, cholera, H1N1 influenza, mpox and tuberculosis, with the goal of stifling future pandemics. 

Tattoo Campaign Seeks to Help Displaced in Myanmar

A new campaign for Myanmar led by the son of imprisoned democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Kim Aris, is using tattoos as a publicity tool to raise humanitarian aid for the millions displaced following the 2021 military coup.

People in Myanmar’s diaspora are getting tattoos of a Burmese water dragon as a symbol of solidarity with the ongoing resistance movement inside Myanmar. And they are sharing pictures and videos of their tattoos and the associated live fundraising events on social media to create a buzz around the symbolic tattoo, and drive participants to its GoFundMe page.

A military junta overturned Myanmar’s election in February 2021 and arrested the leaders of the democratically elected government, including longtime democracy activist Suu Kyi. Thousands have been killed in the ensuing violence.

Aris, who himself just got a tattoo of the Burmese water dragon and shared a video of the procedure on the campaign’s Facebook page, told VOA that the dragon motif is a traditional symbol from Burmese culture and was inspired by the tattoo worn by famous Burmese kickboxer Too Too, who lost his life in prison along with many other political prisoners arrested during anti-coup protests.

“He represents a great deal of what has happened to many people in Burma,” Aris told VOA. “His body was never returned to his family, and it’s said he was tortured before he died. This has happened to many people in Burma.

“My mother has spoken often about freedom — freedom from fear — and the fact that nobody will be free until everybody is free,” Aris said. “There’s a long way to go until that happens, but I hope it can be sooner rather than later, and that this campaign can help it happen.”

The campaign, called “Freedom Tattoo for Burma Aid,” has taken off internationally since its launch October 30.

According to Aris, it has raised nearly $126,000 in donations from around the world, including donations from the United Kingdom, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States. Those who do not get the dragon tattoo are urged by campaign organizers to make donations through their GoFundMe page. From there, the funds are distributed to charities inside the country.

“We’re working with trusted charities who are actually on the ground in Burma, who can get the aid to where it’s needed. We can’t name them as it makes their work very difficult,” Aris told VOA.

Organizers of a November 22 campaign event in Thailand shut it down early, citing in a statement “unforeseen circumstances involving pressure from the Myanmar military on Thai authorities.”

Aris expressed his disappointment in the shutdown. “It’s very sad to hear about the Thais stopping an event like this, which is purely for humanitarian aid,” he said.

Aris said he recognizes that a major challenge of his campaign is getting international attention.

“It’s very hard to get the attention of the international media at present,” he said. “The way things are in the world, Burma gets pushed further and further back.”

Despite the challenges, Aris said he still has hope that his campaign can bring more awareness of what is happening in Myanmar to the wider world.

“I thought a tattoo would be something interesting,” he said.

“It’s not like someone going for a marathon or a walk, it’s something different. I thought it might get a bit more attention outside the Burmese community.”