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News brief: COVID testing, omicron disruptions, stranded migrants

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This year's holiday checklist should probably include an extra item for people traveling or seeing family, and that's getting a COVID test.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

But lines are long, and shelves are bare of the at-home tests. Yesterday, President Biden announced more measures to make free at-home rapid tests available in the wake of the omicron variant sweeping across the country. What does that mean for current shortages and holiday travel?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Yuki Noguchi has been looking into this. Yuki, at-home testing is so widely available and nearly free in places such as Europe. Why not here?

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Well, the short answer is we focused more on vaccine developments and treatments and less on testing. So the government was late in authorizing at-home tests to be sold here. You know, recently more companies got the green light to do so. But then those test makers have to set up factories to make them, so there is this kind of lag. And they are coming to market, but it's been slow. Another problem, though, is that - the rapid shifting demand for these tests. Right? The demand spikes during these surges, but then falls off a cliff when COVID cases are down. And that makes it extremely hard for test makers to plan. So Abbott, one of the earliest test-makers authorized to sell here, actually shut down its rapid test factory last summer, only to have to rush to set it up again when there was a surge in delta cases.

MARTINEZ: So would the Biden administration's moves yesterday, that were announced yesterday, maybe change that?

NOGUCHI: Public health advocates have long argued the federal government should have been playing a much bigger role getting these tests made and distributed. And as a big player, they can negotiate lower prices on huge numbers of tests, and that's exactly what you need. Pia MacDonald is an epidemiologist with RTI International, a nonprofit research group.

PIA MACDONALD: Schools, workplaces, travel - all of that requires very inexpensive, easy-to-distribute, easy-to-do tests. And we're just not there yet.

NOGUCHI: So the U.S. wants to change that. President Biden said next month a website will start distributing half a billion tests to households that request them. And you know, frankly, the sooner the better because time is of the essence. You know, other states have already tried this approach - New Hampshire, Ohio, Massachusetts among them. They run out sometimes within hours. So while half a billion sounds like a lot of tests, it's less than two per American.

MARTINEZ: And I drove through a few stores yesterday, Yuki, and I couldn't find any tests in any store anywhere. So until those at-home tests become more widely available, what would the alternatives be?

NOGUCHI: Yeah. There are these PCR tests. These are the tests that are processed in labs, and they're more accurate. And now there are some mail-in and rapid versions of these tests. But these are also much more expensive and can take up to three days to get results. So given how quickly this new omicron variant spreads, you know, that's a huge downside. So basically, each type of test has their pros and cons, and experts say we just need to test smarter, as in use the right test for the right situation. So if you're sick and you need to confirm a COVID diagnosis to figure out what course of treatment you need, you need one of these lab tests. But if you're not symptomatic and you just need to know whether it's safe to visit grandma today, ideally what you need is one of these at-home tests.

MARTINEZ: Now, I also hear about long lines at those sites that do the PCR tests. I mean, is there a shortage of those as well?

NOGUCHI: You know, that was an issue last year. There were shortages of plastic pipettes and chemicals to do the tests. But today the primary shortage seems to be the manpower issue - so, you know, staffing. And you know, that could be a big reason why you're seeing some of those backups today.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Thanks a lot.

NOGUCHI: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: The National Hockey League is expected to withdraw from the Beijing Olympics and is putting a temporary pause on all games mid-season.

BLOCK: The league hopes to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among players and staff and plans to pick back up after the Christmas break.

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BO HORVAT: It is disappointing a little bit. But again, you know, we can't let this hinder us at all. And it does give us some - a little bit of time to get guys back in the lineup and get us healthy again.

BLOCK: That's Bo Horvat with the Vancouver Canucks. He says his team will use the time to practice since most of their players tested negative. But more than 15% of the players in the league are currently in COVID protocol.

MARTINEZ: Greg Wyshynski covers the NHL for espn.com. Greg, what is the NHL hoping to accomplish with this pause?

GREG WYSHYNSKI: Well, like Bo said, first to allow teams time to get their players back from the COVID protocols, which can keep symptomatic players in isolation for 10 days at a minimum. But the league also wants to see if the changes it made recently to its own COVID protocols make a difference - going back to daily testing, wearing masks at all times inside club facilities and during travel, going back to virtual meetings - essentially, the protocols they had during their 56-game season last year, which was played during the pandemic. So these protocols will continue until January 7, and then they'll be re-evaluated.

MARTINEZ: What are the chances it extends, this pause extends a little bit longer than anyone wants it to?

WYSHYNSKI: The NHL executives I've spoken to this week don't anticipate the pause will extend past the 26. In fact, the league has 14 games scheduled for Monday, December 27, all of them still on the schedule. I think they want to get back, and they want to see if these new protocols make a difference. Also, keep in mind that one of the league's biggest revenue-generating events, the outdoor Winter Classic, is scheduled for January 1 in Minnesota. And obviously, they want to do what they can to keep that game still on.

MARTINEZ: That's always such a great game to watch on TV. I know it's probably great to be there. But yeah, I hope that game somehow makes it on the schedule.

Now, the NHL and the players' union, have reportedly agreed to not let their players participate in the Beijing Olympics in February. A decision on that is expected to come today. Greg, what's the thinking behind that decision?

WYSHYNSKI: Well, after opting out of the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, the NHL and its players collectively bargained to have them play in 2022 and 2026 in the Olympics. But the NHL reserved the right to pull out of the Beijing Games if there was a material change to its schedule due to COVID postponements. Now, the league has postponed over 50 games, which was enough for them to say there's - the schedule has materially changed and that it needed the three-week Olympic break to start rescheduling games.

Now, this might actually come as a relief to some of the players who were concerned about the COVID protocols in Beijing, some of which could have kept them in quarantine for three to five weeks if they tested positive with symptoms. And if they did test positive in Beijing, they caught COVID there, they would not have been paid for any time that they missed in the National Hockey League. So this might have been doing them a favor in some cases.

MARTINEZ: Greg, I realize that what I'm about to say doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but my basketball and football fantasy teams are suffering right now with all of these players in COVID protocols. So should we expect other leagues to also hit that pause button?

WYSHYNSKI: Hey, hockey, too, man - there's people I've never even heard of playing in the NHL right now.

I highly doubt it. In fact, the NFL is going in the opposite direction. They've ended weekly testing for asymptomatic vaccinated players in favor of strategic and targeted testing, and they're attempting to determine when players can return to the lineup by measuring how contagious they are, rather than whether they're still testing positive for COVID. So while the NHL seems to be clamping down - and believe me, there are players in the league that want them to stop testing asymptomatic players - the NFL is going in the opposite direction at the moment.

MARTINEZ: Greg Wyshynski covers the NHL for ESPN. Greg, thanks.

WYSHYNSKI: Thanks for having me.

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MARTINEZ: Hundreds of migrants remain trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland.

BLOCK: They're pawns in a political standoff that continues to play out between Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and the European Union.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Charles Maynes is in Minsk, Belarus, and met some of these migrants. Charles, what did the migrants tell you about why they were there?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, A. You know, these are people, first of all, primarily from the Middle East who, over the fall, started to hear on social media and through word of mouth that they could get visas to Belarus and, from there, make their way to the EU. In particular, many say they want to get to Germany. And so many pay these large sums of money, some around $4,000 per person, only when they found themselves at Poland's border, Polish border guards forcibly turned them back. Now, everyone I spoke to had these harrowing experiences they told about in the Jungle. That's the nickname they give the swampy forest in the border zone, where migrants have been trying to find ways to sneak into the EU. And among them was Zainda Metad from Baghdad, Iraq, who told me she spent four days hungry in the forest before her health gave out.

ZAINDA METAD: And I go to the Jungle, and I felt (ph) I can't go to the Germany. And I came here.

MAYNES: Now, there were several thousand people here initially, but many have gone home. Metad says the ones who have left had the means to do so, but she has nowhere to go.

MARTINEZ: So what are the conditions like there now?

MAYNES: Well, some 700 people remain in this big warehouse. Here's a little bit of tape from inside to give you a sense of it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: There were a lot of families with children. Most of these people come from Iraq, in particular Kurdistan. Others are from war-torn Syria. Some are fleeing poverty on the African continent. As to conditions, they're primitive but certainly safer in this warehouse than outside. People sleep on makeshift beds, mattresses on the floor or on wooden pallets. But most basic washing and cooking takes place outside. Not everyone has proper winter gear. In fact, a lot of people seem to be sick and coughing, which, of course, is concern for obvious reasons given the pandemic. But it's not nearly as crowded as it once was. You know, my sense was that, fundamentally, people were grateful to be out of the cold, but not happy with where they are, which is stuck and under guard by Belarusian troops.

MARTINEZ: What does Belarus say about the migrants?

MAYNES: Well, Lukashenko visited the warehouse a few weeks ago and insisted these people are still free to try and make their way to Europe, although I was told several times that some migrants have been forcibly deported by Belarusian authorities. In the meantime, the tactic seems to be showing the press how well Belarus is treating these people. The day I showed up, they were constructing a makeshift school for children. Volunteers are doing their best, as well. For example, the Red Cross in Belarus is giving out free meals, but it's just once a day, and they're awfully lean. It's just a bowl of porridge. Meanwhile, a mobile food truck is available for those who still have any cash to spend.

MARTINEZ: I mean, at the end of the day, I mean, what do migrants hope will happen here?

MAYNES: Well, you know, it's strange. They're under a news blackout because - I kept hearing this constantly from everyone. There's no way to charge their phones - or almost no way. And so they can't read news or keep in touch with friends and family. And the result is that rumors fly. In fact, the biggest one is that the EU or Germany will suddenly let them all in on Christmas Day on December 25. You know, that seems probably unlikely. The Polish authorities are adamant they will hold the line on immigration, and they're refusing to process asylum-seekers. And the EU has backed them up on that. But if nothing changes soon for these migrants, I had several people tell me that they're ready to go back to the Jungle, in other words, back into the forest to find a way across the border. And that's despite freezing temperatures and the fact that at least a dozen people have already died trying to make that journey.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Belarus. Thanks a lot, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.