Today’s Headlines: Worry, and some hope, with Omicron

Hello, this is Amy Hubbard, it’s Friday, Dec. 17, and before diving into the top headlines, I’d like to take a quick science-nerd detour. My colleague Lila Seidman wrote about a fish — globular, with razor-sharp teeth, and a stalk protruding from its head — that washed ashore off Encinitas. The Pacific footballfish is one of three that have washed up in the state in the last year. Why? It’s a scientific mystery at the moment.

Lila’s story spurred me to hunt for a photo of the strangest fish I thought I’d ever seen, years ago. I was surprised to learn the barreleye fish also was recently spotted in the wild, a rare occurrence. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute shared a photo of the fish seen on an early-December dive. What’s so memorable? It appears to have a see-through head. MBARI says the “transparent shield” covers its eyes (the glowing green orbs). What seem to be eyes are actually olfactory organs. More fun fish info here.

A barreleye fish was observed during a dive by MBARI with the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Dec. 1.

(© 2021 MBARI)

Now for today’s top headlines:

TOP STORIES

Omicron could be milder. It could also contribute to packed hospitals

With Omicron, scientists have braced for yet another nasty surprise from a virus that has killed more than 5.3 million and sickened hundreds of millions more. But as they sort through preliminary data on Omicron, they’re considering the unexpected possibility that, with Omicron, the coronavirus may have taken a turn for the milder.

Still, hospitalizations have jumped in California. And the rapid spread of the variant, along with Delta, has prompted officials to warn that hospitals could become easily overwhelmed. This winter, hospitals across the nation are coping with a significant shortage of staff — as a number of employees left the industry, exhausted by the pandemic — as well as healthcare needs that were put on hold earlier in the pandemic.

More top coronavirus headlines

  • A government advisory panel voted unanimously to recommend Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot for all American adults because of the risk of rare but serious blood clots.
  • Spiraling infections in Britain driven in part by Omicron rattled many in Europe, fueling a familiar dread that tighter restrictions will scuttle holiday plans again this year.

Stay up to date on variant developments, case counts and vaccine news with Coronavirus Today.

The Democrats’ social spending bill has faltered ahead of a year-end deadline

Democrats’ hopes of pushing their social spending and climate bill through the Senate by Christmas are faltering amid intraparty division, a potentially significant setback for President Biden’s top legislative priority.

Missing the self-imposed deadline isn’t fatal for Biden’s agenda. But the prospect of ending the year with no Senate vote underscores the deep division between centrist Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and most other Senate Democrats, who are aligned to pass the bill as it stands.

California lawmakers prepare to protect abortion access, starting with eliminating co-pays

Ignited by threats to abortion rights across the country, California lawmakers are preparing countermeasures to expand access for those who live both in and out of the state, focusing first on resurrecting a bill that would eliminate costly co-pays for services.

The added urgency for abortion access legislation comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers overturning Roe vs. Wade. The California legislation was shelved earlier this year after it passed the Senate and stalled in an Assembly committee, but supporters said the bill was expected to be revived next month and could be quickly moved through the Legislature and placed on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

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Residents’ taps run dry amid a frenzy of well drilling by California farmers

In the verdant San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation’s most productive farming regions, domestic wells are drying up at an alarming pace as a frenzy of new well construction and heavy agricultural pumping sends the underground water supply to new lows during one of the most severe droughts on record.

The Los Angeles Times analyzed state groundwater data from the valley and found that 2021 was on track to see the most agricultural wells drilled since the last drought ended.

A man stands in a yellow field among rows of small green trees

A view of a pistachio orchard at Setton Farms in Terra Bella, Calif., where the groundwater supply is increasingly strained.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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CALIFORNIA

A second majority-Latino district for L.A. County. A citizens redistricting commission approved a map for the county Board of Supervisors that creates the district while maintaining a concentration of Black voters in South L.A. and grouping more Asian American voters together.

A sheen reported off Huntington Beach is oil, officials say. The sheen, which was first reported about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday near Bolsa Chica State Beach, is roughly the size of a football field. The source of the oil slick has not been confirmed.

A judge’s ruling limits what prosecutors can share about the Torrance police scandal. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued an order this week slowing the process by which prosecutors can disclose evidence of racist text messages and images sent by Torrance police officers.

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NATION-WORLD

The last hostage missionaries have been freed in Haiti, police say. The group was kidnapped by the 400 Mawozo gang on Oct. 16. There were five children in the group of 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian, including an 8-month-old.

It’s the clash of the kitchens. There’s a multimillion-dollar battle brewing over the way Americans cook, one that pits the fossil fuel industry against a California-led movement aimed at turning off the natural gas spigots to slow climate change.

Their families fled Vietnam. Now they’re helping Afghan refugees in America. The grassroots Viets for Afghans was founded by Vietnamese refugees and the children of refugees after the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15. Members say they want to pay forward the support their families once received.

HOLLYWOOD AND THE ARTS

Santa Fe law enforcement obtained a search warrant for the contents of Alec Baldwin’s iPhone. The warrant will allow investigators to seize Baldwin’s phone and download information related to the fatal shooting on the set of the low-budget western movie “Rust.”

“Station Eleven,” like the Shakespeare that sustains it, is something of a miracle. Times television critic Robert Lloyd writes that HBO’s new show is a flawed but engrossing work whose narrative imperfections are masked by the considerable craft of its execution.

Bruce Springsteen has sold his music catalog to Sony in a record-breaking $500-million deal. The Boss’ holiday payday, which was first reported in Billboard, is the largest in a string of deals since 2019 that has seen classics of American music sold to major music houses.

“Sex and the City” star Chris Noth says sexual assault allegations are “categorically false.” But the fallout has been swift. Stationary-bike company Peloton has pulled a new viral ad starring the actor.

BUSINESS

Don’t fall for a romance scam. We outline red flags that signal a probable con artist, including: They fall in love after just knowing you briefly. They claim their jobs keep them distant — really distant. And they agree to meet in person but never actually do.

In Southern California, a slight slowdown in the housing market still means record prices. Home prices jumped nearly 16% in November from a year earlier as the region’s six-county median sales price reached an all-time high of $693,500.

L.A. hotel bookings have reached pre-pandemic levels as tourists return. Bookings returned to 100% of their pre-pandemic levels in October and November 2019, considerably above the national average, as many innkeepers scrambled to keep up their standards amid staffing challenges and supply chain issues.

SPORTS

Chargers kicking themselves, but not field goals, in overtime loss to Chiefs. After falling behind in the final three minutes of regulation, the Chiefs rallied to win 34-28 in overtime when tight end Travis Kelce divided and conquered a scrambling defense.

The Rams’ COVID-19 outbreak continues. Nine more players — for a total Thursday of 25 — were added to the NFL reserve/COVID-19 list, which could affect the status of Sunday’s scheduled game against the Seattle Seahawks at SoFi Stadium.

The Lakers’ starting backcourt is also out. Russell Westbrook and Avery Bradley entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols, according to the team’s Thursday injury report. That brings the total to five Lakers in the protocols.

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OPINION

OK! It’s time to take UFOs seriously. In setting up a government office to study unexplained aerial objects, Congress has legitimized the long-ridiculed topic of UAPs. It must ensure that the office receives adequate funding and make clear that the office should be led by a civilian director with the expertise to tackle these issues and cut through the Pentagon’s red tape, writes Dillon Guthrie.

2021 was the year of losing friends. Columnist Gustavo Arellano writes that he bragged to the unbelieving wokesters in his life about his friendships with people like Frank: “Frank was everything I was not. White. Middle-aged. A father. Rich. Republican. We somehow still hit it off.” They shared vibrant — but never toxic — debates. 2021 destroyed that. But it’s time to set things to rights.

YOUR WEEKEND

Try one of these five recipes for a holiday roast. Whether you want to set it and forget it or gussy it up, whether you want pork or duck, any of these magnificent roasts will please the eye and the palate at your holiday table. And yes they include Turducken — a turkey stuffed with a duck that is stuffed with a chicken (all boned, of course).

Watch some of The Times’ best videos of 2021. Topics include Fernandomania, Paralympian Jamal Hill’s great hope, and folks who were robbed, long-term, of their sense of smell by COVID. (If cooking a holiday roast, take a moment to breathe in those aromas and be grateful for your olfactory sense.)

Go skiing or snowboarding where the snow’s waist-deep. A recent visitor attested to heaps of snow at Mammoth Mountain. More snow next week could benefit Southern California resorts. We look at how to hit the slopes safely. With COVID numbers rising after Thanksgiving get-togethers and because of the Omicron variant, skiers and boarders should check with their resorts to see if any rules have changed: Know before you go!

The rising sun highlights snow, and a chair on a ski lift.

A ski lift at Mammoth Mountain.

(Peter Morning / MMSA)

WHAT OUR EDITORS ARE READING

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

These 193 stories show the reality of climate change in every country in the world. Fires. Hurricanes. Ice loss. Climate refugees. From New York Times Opinion, this beautiful, and tragic, package of articles unfolds interactively.

New research shows how rising temperatures have irreversibly altered both the Arctic and Antarctic, destabilizing the Earth’s poles. With more on climate change, the Washington Post reports: “Aerial surveys document how warmer conditions have allowed beavers to invade the Arctic tundra, flooding the landscape with their dams. Large commercial ships are increasingly infiltrating formerly frozen areas, disturbing wildlife and generating disastrous amounts of trash. In many Alaska Native communities, climate impacts compounded the hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to food shortages among people who have lived off this land for thousands of years.”

Today marks 10 years since Kim Jong Un took power. “The chubby-cheeked 27-year-old trudged alongside his father’s hearse that snowy, overcast day 10 years ago, gazing downward and away from the gaggle of cameras trained on him.” The Times’ Victoria Kim sizes up the leader who swiftly solidified his rule and his country, whose economy is in tatters with people facing starvation. The Associated Press looks at key moments, including December 2013: Kim’s powerful uncle and former mentor is executed in “the highest-profile such move of Kim’s rule.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES

A headline from the Dec. 17, 1903, Los Angeles Times.

One hundred and eighteen years ago today, Wilbur Wright spent one second shy of a full minute airborne in his and brother Orville’s flying machine. He traveled 852 feet. According to the Library of Congress, the brothers became “the first people to demonstrate sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine under the complete control of the pilot.”

The Times headline pictured above, on Page 12, accompanied an article that related: “A successful trial of a flying machine has been made near Kittyhawk, N.C., by Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, O. The machine flew … then gracefully descended to earth at the spot selected by the navigator. The machine has no balloon attachment, but gets its force from propellors worked by a small engine.”

We appreciate that you took the time to read Today’s Headlines! Comments or ideas? Feel free to drop us a note at [email protected] — Amy Hubbard and Laura Blasey

Eleanore Beatty

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