Early wallop of snow causing pandemic-related woes in Northeastern U.S.

A major snowstorm rolled into the U.S. Northeast on Wednesday at a key moment in the coronavirus pandemic: days after the start of the U.S. vaccination campaign and in the thick of a virus surge that has throngs of people seeking tests every day.

Snow was falling from northern Virginia to points north of New York City by late afternoon. The storm was poised to drop more than 60 centimetres of snow in some places by Thursday. And the pandemic added new complexities to officials’ preparations — deciding whether to close testing sites, figuring out how to handle plowing amid outdoor dining platforms in New York City streets, redefining school snow days to mean another day of learning from home, and more.

“Our theme today ought to be, ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s another,’ ” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said as he gave residents storm guidance that’s new this year: mask up if you help your neighbours shovel.

Officials said they didn’t expect the winter blast to disrupt vaccine distribution, which began Monday for front-line health-care workers, the first group of Americans to get the shots. The first three million shots are being strictly limited to those workers and nursing home residents.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday that the government is tracking the vaccine shipments precisely, has staffers already in place to receive them and believes the companies transporting the doses can navigate the storm.

“This is FedEx, this is UPS express shipping. They know how to deal with snow and bad weather. But we are on it and following it,” he told Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends.

A front loader works at a large pile of road salt, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Chelsea, Mass., as preparation continues for a winter storm expected to dump a foot or more of snow throughout the Northeast. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

‘Overabundance of hazards’

With 35 vaccine deliveries to New Jersey hospitals expected over the next day or two, Murphy said his administration was focused on making sure they continued, including by exempting vaccine delivery trucks from a storm-related prohibition on commercial traffic on some highways.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state’s first-round vaccine shipment had already been distributed to some 90 hospitals, with the next delivery not due until roughly Tuesday, well after the storm.

The National Weather Service said the storm was “set to bring an overabundance of hazards from the mid-Atlantic to the Northeast,” including freezing rain and ice in the mid-Atlantic, heavy snow in the New York City area and southern New England, strong winds and coastal flooding, and possibly even severe thunderstorms and some tornadoes in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

In Virginia, the combination of snow, sleet and freezing rain knocked out power to several thousand homes and businesses by Wednesday afternoon. The state police said that as of 3 p.m. ET, troopers had responded to approximately 200 crashes, including a wreck on Interstate 81 that killed a North Carolina man.

A man shovels snow on the Villanova University campus during a winter storm, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Villanova, Pa. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

‘Take this seriously,’ NYC mayor warns

The heaviest snowfall was expected in central Pennsylvania, where forecasters in the state capital of Harrisburg said a six-decade-old record for a December snowfall could potentially be broken.

But some areas from West Virginia to Maine could get 30 centimetres of snow — for some, that’s more than they saw all last winter. In New York City, officials braced for the biggest storm in about three years.

“Take this seriously,” Mayor Bill de Blasio warned residents.

In addition to the usual rolling out of plows and salt spreaders, the nation’s most populous city was adding some pandemic-era preparations to its list, such as closing city-run testing sites Wednesday afternoon and suspending outdoor dining in the sometimes elaborate spaces that now occupy parking spaces outside some restaurants.

Restaurants weren’t being required to break down their wooden enclosures and other structures for outdoor dining, currently the only form of restaurant table service allowed in the city, but they were told to secure outdoor furniture, remove heaters and take other steps to make way for plows.

The city’s snow-removal chief, acting sanitation commissioner Ed Grayson, said the agency had been planning and training since summer to manoeuvre around the structures.

Cars move along the roads as snow starts to fall Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

De Blasio also announced that Thursday would be a snow day — 2020-style — for the nation’s largest school district. School buildings will be closed, but students will be expected to go to class online (many would anyway, as middle and high schools are currently all online, and many families have chosen remote learning).

“I know we all grew up with the excitement of snow days, but this year is different,” the mayor tweeted.

Rhode Island, meanwhile, closed state-run coronavirus testing sites for Thursday.

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DNA test confirms pup found in north-eastern Victoria is second purebred alpine dingo

In what is being described as “an absolute miracle”, a second purebred alpine dingo pup — a threatened species — has been found by chance and rescued in north-eastern Victoria.

A year after the discovery of Wandi, who was found crying in a backyard near Bright after possibly being dropped from an eagle’s talons, the latest pup has been found almost 400 kilometres away.

In June, a cattle farmer near Jamieson, 190 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, discovered what he initially thought was a koala huddled in the middle of a dirt track.

But as he and his son edged closer, they realised the tiny ball of fluff was a very young, abandoned pup.

The family handed the pup — named Sooty because of his unusual dark colouring and in honour of the year of Victoria’s most destructive bushfires — to the Australian Dingo Foundation (ADF).

Sanctuary Supervisor Kevin Newman said the abandoned pup was only about five or six weeks old when he was found.

DNA testing has confirmed Sooty is a pure alpine dingo.(Image supplied: Australian Dingo Foundation)

Dr Kylie Cairns, a molecular biologist the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, tested the pup’s DNA and confirmed it was a purebred alpine dingo.

“He shows no evidence of domestic dog ancestry and he is a further reminder that wild dingoes do persist in Victoria,” Dr Cairns said.

She said it was important to understand that dingoes were a native species and were vital to the function of a healthy natural ecosystem as the apex predator.

Australian Dingo Foundation founder and director Lyn Watson said Sooty was found in an area where dingoes were actively baited, trapped and shot.

She said it was likely that Sooty was orphaned and left to starve because his parents had been culled.

Two dingoes pull at either side of a piece of tree bark.
It is hoped Wandi and Hermione will one day have pups of their own.(Image supplied: Australian Dingo Foundation)

“For 10 years Victorians have been misled to believe that alpine dingoes have virtually disappeared from the Victorian landscape,” she said.

Sooty will now join Wandi and other purebred dingoes at the Australian Dingo Foundation’s Dingo Discovery Centre and Research Sanctuary in Toolern Vale, 40 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.

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