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COVID-19 vaccinations up 14% in past week, White House says

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- COVID-19 vaccinations rose 14% over the past week, White House officials said Friday, as the more contagious delta variant is quickly spreading in under-vaccinated areas.

"In the past 7 days 2.15M reported newly vaccinated, vs. 1.88M the 7 days prior (+14%)," Cyrus Shahpar, the White House COVID-19 data director, said on Twitter Friday.

"The delta variant is highly contagious and circulating across the US," he added. "Get vaccinated!"

The delta variant now makes up over 80% of cases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday, up from 50% at the beginning of July.

It's unclear at the moment whether the increase in vaccinations is a blip or a trend. An ABC News analysis of CDC data shows that, as of Thursday, the number of COVID-19 vaccinations had plateaued at about 530,000 total shots administered per day. Over the last week, on average, 297,202 people initiated vaccination per day -- 9.6% higher than the previous seven days.

On average, 236,791 adults initiated vaccination each day in the last seven days -- 7.4% higher than the previous seven days, the analysis found. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, that number rose nearly 20%.

The five states that currently have the highest COVID-19 case rates are seeing their vaccination numbers increase, according to the White House. Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada are seeing a higher rate of people getting their first shots compared to the national average, Jeff Zients, the White House coordinator on COVID-19, told reporters Thursday.

"This is a very positive trend," he added.

Visits to the website from users in Alabama -- the least-vaccinated state -- have gone up three times in the last two weeks, according to epidemiologist and ABC News contributor Dr. John Brownstein. Meanwhile, people in Louisiana and Missouri have doubled visits to the site, he found, suggesting people there are seeking information on where to get a shot.

On Friday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey called on people to get vaccinated, as the daily average of new COVID-19 cases has tripled over the last two weeks in the state.

"Let's get it done, and we know what it takes to get it done -- get a shot in your arm," she said during a press briefing. "I've done it, it's safe, it's effective, data proves that it works, it doesn't cost anything, it saves lives."

Just under 34% of the state's population is fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

"Folks are supposed to have common sense," Ivey said. "But it's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It's the unvaccinated folks that let us down."

Louisiana's health department issued new COVID-19 guidance Friday, recommending mask-wearing indoors regardless of vaccination status "in light of Louisiana's troubling COVID-19 trends in cases and hospitalizations," Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Twitter.

"Louisiana is undeniably in a fourth surge of COVID," the governor said during a press briefing Friday afternoon, as the state reported 3,127 new cases. The state's average daily cases per 100,000 residents has increased 208% over the past 14 days.

"Louisiana now has the highest growth rate in cases per capita in the United States of America. I want to let that sink in," Bel Edwards said, attributing that to widespread transmission of the delta variant and the "very low percentage of people who have been vaccinated."

About 48% of residents ages 12 and up have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the governor.

"That number is far below where we need to be to have the protection that we need in order to slow the spread and move toward ending the pandemic," he said.

One encouraging sign, and one the governor noted he hopes continues, is that vaccinations have been on the rise over the past two weeks, state officials said, going from an average of 2,000 vaccine initiations per day to about 5,000 per day.

"This surge is on us," Bel Edwards said. "How bad it gets, how long it stays bad, how many people ultimately die -- on us."

ABC News' Cheyenne Haslett, Sasha Pezenik and Jason Volack contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Maryland wildlife refuge fights to protect American history from climate change

Robert A. Reeder/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

(CAMBRIDGE, Md.) -- While extreme heat waves, wildfires and devastating flooding bring attention to the impacts of climate change, some parts of the country are fighting more pernicious effects that threaten both protected ecosystems and important landmarks of American history.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland in the outer banks of Maryland established in 1933 as a protected area for bald eagles, osprey and several species of migratory birds. The government officials working to protect it say they can see the impacts of climate change in the refuge every day. As the ocean continues to warm and sea levels rise, the water is turning marshes into lakes and allowing invasive species to take over the ecosystem.

But the pressure to protect Blackwater is about more than just the plants and animals that live there. It also has deep roots in American history. Harriet Tubman is connected to multiple sites in the area, including the town where she was born, the general store where she was hit in the head after refusing to stop an enslaved boy from escaping and multiple locations she used when leading slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

"These are the very forests. If Harriet Tubman were here today, none of this landscape would have looked different to her at all," said Deanna Mitchell, the superintendent of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Historical Park.

Those forests are now also feeling the impact of climate change. The trees can't survive the saltwater intruding on the marsh, and more and more forests are dying, turning into what U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Matt Whitbeck calls "ghost forests."

"For many people, many visitors, if they come to the refuge, they go around our wildlife drive and they look to the south and they see this big body of open water. And it's beautiful. You know, we have pelicans out there, we get tundra swans out there in the winter, the sunsets, and it's just lovely," he said.

"But once you understand the factors that cause this big expanse of open water, it's a little alarming. So when the refuge was established in 1933, that was all the vast expanse of tidal marsh. So we had black rails, we had nesting black ducks. We had all of this habitat that has since been lost to open water."

Whitbeck said 5,000 acres of tidal marsh at Blackwater have been converted into open water since the refuge was created, and encroaching saltwater has killed acres of forests and made irreversible changes for native species. The Fish and Wildlife Service expects sea levels around Blackwater will be 3.4 feet higher in 2100 than they are now, meaning most of the marshlands visible now will all be underwater.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has worked to restore marsh areas and is researching ways to manage the ecosystem, but Whitbeck said they won't be able to stop all of the changes they're seeing in the marsh as sea levels continue to rise and the saltwater makes it harder for native species to survive.

Just in the last year, a team of archeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation announced they discovered the site of a cabin belonging to Harriet Tubman's father, Ben Ross, where Tubman lived as a child and worked with him as an adult.

The agency recently purchased the 2,600-acre property where they found the site, because they were concerned it could be completely flooded before they were able to find and preserve what remained of the property.

"Sea level rise was already beginning to take away that particular site and that history. So if we had waited, if we hadn't been able to begin this, even a couple of years, we might never have found it. So we found it just in time in a surprise area, in an area that was definitely being impacted by sea level rise," said Marcia Pradines, the head of restoration efforts for wildlife refuges around the Chesapeake Bay.

Pradines and other federal officials are charged with making difficult decisions about how to prioritize the fight against climate change in protected wildlife refuges, including sometimes accepting that not every impact of climate change can be stopped or that they have to adapt their approach to determine what parts of the ecosystem will be able to survive. The federal government has adopted new guidance called Resist, Accept, Direct, acknowledging that they can no longer protect the country's natural resources from every impact of climate change.

"I am very confident that at the end of my lifetime, Dorchester County will continue to be one of the largest expanses of tidal marsh in the Chesapeake Bay," Whitbeck said.

"The trick is what kind of marsh will it be, and what plants and animals will live in that marsh? And that's what we're still sorting out."

While federal and state officials work to balance the current impacts of climate change with the parts of Blackwater they can protect, they say they are focused on preserving the history for generations to come.

"The reality is we are dealing with climate change, and we are seeing the impacts of sea level rise to some degree," Mitchell said.

"So I would say probably by the end of the century, things will start to change in here, you know, pretty much. But while we can do it and while we have the ability, we need to try and do as much as we can to protect what we can for as long as we can."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Paralyzed man uses exoskeleton suit to get down on knee to propose to girlfriend

Courtesy of Chris Velazquez

(NEW YORK) -- Josh Smith, a quadriplegic, has been unable to walk or perform most activities after an accident seven years ago.

So when Smith proposed to his girlfriend, Grace on bended knee, it was a big surprise for his friends and family.

Smith was able to do so using an exoskeleton suit.

"I had this huge idea, and I didn't know if it was even possible because I don't think I've ever seen anybody do it before," Smith said. "So, I reached out to my therapists and told them I wanted to try to get down on one knee to propose, and I was hoping that we could use the exoskeleton to help with that."

After he was given the green light, Smith got to work. But just like the last few years of his life, he knew it wouldn't be easy.

A life-changing injury

In August of 2014, Smith was visiting some friends in Virginia Beach when he dove into a wave head first, slamming into a sandbar. He was instantly paralyzed from the chest down.

"I was floating there face down and couldn't move anything, but my eyes were open," Smith said. "It took me a little bit to realize that I couldn't move at all and then once I came to, I thought I was going to drown there."

"It was really scary," he added. "Luckily, my friends dragged me out onto the beach and waited for the paramedics to get there."

At 23 years old, Smith said he realized he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The weeks following the accident were tough for Smith. He spent up to four months at the Shepherd Center, a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation center in Atlanta, where he worked with therapists to help him adjust to his wheelchair. Shortly after, he returned to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, where he continued life, but forced to look through a new lens.

"Life as Josh knew it had changed in one horrific instant," his mother , Caroline Smith said. "With his level of injury, living independently is very hard to achieve, but we worked together as a team to help him reach that goal."

In under a year, Smith was making stride. He could drive an accessible van, work full-time, participate in adaptive sports and even invent products and tools for those, like himself, with limited motor functions. A little over two years after his injury, Smith lived in an accessible home he custom built for his needs, his mother said.

"It was kind of just my own drive that really pushed me forward to get independent and learn new things," Smith said. "Help from my parents definitely makes things easier too."

Although Smith said his life improving, there was one aspect of his life that he knew might not ever be the same again -- dating.

"My self-confidence kind of went down the drain a little bit," he said. "I didn't really think anybody would want to date me, let alone marry me."

Meeting "the one"

In February 2020, that notion changed when Smith connected with a woman named Grace Thompson on a dating app and realized they had a lot in common. Both Richmond natives, they discovered they attended the same church.

"The pandemic played a huge role in how serious we became because we went on the perfect amount of dates to where we both felt safe and comfortable not being in public anymore," Thompson, 26, said. "We were pretty lucky in the timing of it all. It was a lot of game nights with another couple that we got close with during quarantine. We liked to cook dinners together and play games, and it was kind of nice to because, you know, we were still getting to know each other. We had a lot of great conversations and went out to parks a lot. He's the only guy I've ever dated who I really work out with -- which most people would be surprised at because he's in a wheelchair -- but he's more active than most people I know."

After being in a relationship for over a year, Smith said he knew Thompson was meant to be in his life forever. He planned a proposal which would include the use of the exoskeleton suit -- made up of motorized leg braces -- allowing him to get down on one knee and pop the question.

"I went to the hospital and met with a therapist twice to sort of work through the kinks and discuss how we were going to do it," he said.

After sending Thompson off with her best friend to get a manicure, Smith made the final arrangements, waiting on the deck of his home in position while friends and family waited inside.

"It was just the easiest place for the therapist to set up the exoskeleton and things were just in a much more controlled environment," he said. "It was a little bit less stressful."

The proposal

Thompson said she was completely shocked to see Smith down on one knee after she took off her blindfold.

"I just kind of froze, staring at him and I felt like I couldn't move," she said. "Then my family and his family started pouring out and I was like, 'Oh! It was very overwhelming but in a good way."

"It was really cool that he was able to get on one knee, she added. "But to see him stand up -- I've never seen him stand before, so that was really great and it was really strange to, like, have him hug me standing up! I wish we could do that more!"

Thompson said that meeting one another was meant to be, fueling her ambition to go to nursing school to help those who, like Smith, really needed it.

"There really is someone out there for everybody," Thompson said. "And I think on my end of things, and from what I've learned, is to just try to be more patient and learn how and when to help him and know when he wants to do things on his own."

The couple said they plan marry in October of next year and look forward to traveling more in the coming months.

"Everyone deserves love," Smith said. "Sometimes you don't know how it will come but it will always come when you're least expecting it."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Former salesman pleads guilty to role in doping racehorses

Marilyn Nieves/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- A former sales representative for a Kentucky company that marketed a performance-enhancing drug used with racehorses pleaded guilty Friday to a criminal charge stemming from what federal prosecutors in New York called a "widespread, corrupt" doping scheme.

Michael Kegley conspired with trainers, veterinarians and others to make misbranded drugs, secretly administer them to racehorses and cheat bettors in the $100 billion global racehorse industry, prosecutors said.

According to the indictment, Kegley marketed SGF-1000, the same adulterated and misbranded performance-enhancing drug that Maximum Security was given when he briefly placed first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified for interference.

The feds intercepted calls during which Kegley acknowledged he did not know the precise contents of SGF-1000, the indictment said. Kegley also was overheard explaining that trainers could be charged with felonies in the U.S. for doping horses.

"We can even put on the box, you know, 'dietary supplement for equine,'" the indictment quoted Kegley as saying. "That way it's not, no one even has to question, if it's FDA approved or not."

Kegley pleaded guilty to drug adulteration and misbranding of drugs. He faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison and agreed to forfeit more than $3 million.

SGF-1000 was not approved, was mislabeled and distributed without a valid prescription, said Sarah Mortazavi, an assistant U.S. attorney.

"I knew that there was no medical description for those products," Kegley said at a plea hearing on Friday, adding that he "knew that the product was not manufactured in an FDA facility or approved by the FDA."

"Did you know that the trainers intended to use these products on thoroughbred racehorses?" asked Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil.

"Yes, your honor," Kegley replied.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Sleep-away camp COVID-19 outbreak sickens 31


(COLUMBIA COUNTY, N.Y.) -- Dozens of children tested positive for COVID-19 at an upstate New York summer camp, health officials confirmed to ABC News on Thursday.

The site of the outbreak was Camp Pontiac, a 550-person sleep-away camp located in Columbia County, about 2 1/2 hours north of New York City. Thirty-one children ages of 7 to 11 contracted the virus, according to Jack Mabb, the county health director.

The sickened children, younger than 12, weren't eligible to be vaccinated. About half of campers are 12 or older, according to Mabb, and all but four of them had been vaccinated.

The 275-person staff at the camp had a similarly high vaccination rate, with only three unvaccinated staffers. The sick campers were sent home to isolate, as were 130 other campers who were considered close contacts of those who tested positive.

"None were seriously ill when they left, but we can't know if they become more ill at home," Mabb told ABC News.

Community spread is currently low in Columbia County, according to Mabb. While staffers from the camp are permitted to go into Columbia County and have done so, there's no evidence so far that the outbreak is affecting the wider community.

"This morning, we have only one positive and she was not associated with the camp," Mabb said.

Camp Pontiac sent a letter to families following the outbreak, noting that the camp had "decided to test all unvaccinated campers even though the CDC and the Department of Health do not require that we do so."

"We consider the health and welfare of our camp community our number one priority," the letter said. "Every camper of course is welcome back after the quarantine period ends and we will happily return or rebate pro rata tuition."

New York's vaccination rate is slightly higher than the national average. As of Thursday, 62% of residents had received at least one dose, and 56% were fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, 56% of Americans have gotten at least one shot, and 49% are fully vaccinated.

ABC News' Will McDuffie and Esther Castillejo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich settle in NY over sexual harassment, discrimination


(NEW YORK) -- Chef Mario Batali and his former partner Joe Bastianich violated state and city human rights laws with a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination at restaurants they owned, the New York attorney general said Friday announcing a settlement.

The company, formerly known as the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, agreed to pay $600,000 to at least 20 former employees who were sexually harassed while they worked at the famed restaurants Babbo, Lupa or Del Posto.

"Celebrity and fame does not absolve someone from following the law. Sexual harassment is unacceptable for anyone, anywhere -- no matter how powerful the perpetrator," said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a statement. "Batali and Bastianich permitted an intolerable work environment and allowed shameful behavior that is inappropriate in any setting."

This agreement comes after a four-year investigation, the attorney general's office said, looking at allegations between 2016 and 2019 that included unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate touching and sexually explicit comments from managers and coworkers, in addition to forcible groping, hugging and kissing by male colleagues.

The investigation also included accusations of sexual harassment by Batali of servers.

The investigation also looked into instances of discrimination, as female employees said chefs and managers supported male employees and made misogynistic comments, including commenting on women employees' appearances.

The agreement includes $600,000 going to at least 20 former employees. It also includes revising training at B&B restaurants to be more comprehensive and encourage "a safe, healthy work environment," the attorney general's office said.

Batali has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women. In 2019, he "fully divested" from the restaurants that made him famous. Before that, he had apologized and stepped away from day-to-day business responsibilities.

In 2019, he pleaded not guilty to an indecent assault and battery charge stemming from an alleged 2017 incident with a woman in a Boston restaurant.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Martin Luther King Jr., the KKK, and more may soon be cut from Texas education requirements

Sean Hannon/iStock

(AUSTIN, Texas) -- Some lessons on the civil rights movement, white supremacy, the women's suffrage movement and Martin Luther King Jr. may soon be cut from Texas' public education requirements, according to legislation being considered in the state -- one of several bills targeting critical race theory around the country.

The Texas Senate has passed Senate Bill 3 in a continued effort to proscribe education on racial inequality in K-12 education. It removes several Texas Education Code lesson requirements that were proposed by Democrats in prior education legislation to be implemented in the upcoming school year. It also stipulates that lessons cannot teach that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex" or make students "feel discomfort, guilt, [or] anguish" about privilege or systemic racism.

The concept critical race theory, an academic discipline that analyzes how racism is perpetuated in U.S. laws and policies, has become a lightning rod for conservatives around the country amid the racial reckoning spurred by George Floyd's death.

At least 26 other states have introduced or implemented similar legislation on race education by Republican lawmakers, echoing concerns about racial division.

Opponents say that children should not be made to feel responsible for past injustices based solely on the color of their skin or be forced to accept the idea that the United States and its institutions are not only structured racially but perpetuate that racism.

Some teachers interviewed by ABC News have said critical race theory isn't being taught in grades K-12 and instead is reserved for academic institutions. Some Texas educators told ABC they believe the fight against "critical race theory" is a veiled attempt to turn back the clock on racial equality.

What's in the bill

The new legislation, SB3, would remove several staples of U.S. history education from state requirements, according to Ovidia Molina, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

The state currently requires teaching "the history of white supremacy," "the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong; the Chicano movement; women's suffrage and equal rights; the civil rights movement" and more.

However, SB3 would cut those requirements -- a move that some teachers say signals a growing effort to remove specific lessons from classrooms.

"Specifically editing out that you can't teach that white supremacy is morally wrong -- that is deeply concerning," said Jennifer Lee, a teacher in Killeen, Texas. "I think the angle here is just … preserving the ideals behind white supremacy."

Though the new legislation doesn't necessarily ban these lessons from being taught, removing them from the list of requirements means they may come under scrutiny due to the vague, anti-critical race theory language of this bill.

Gov. Greg Abbott already signed anti-critical race theory into law in June with HB3979 -- stating that teachers are banned from linking systemic racism to the "authentic founding principles of the United States." But teachers and advocates say it is so vague that it could infringe on their ability to have truthful dialogue about history and racism with their students.

SB3 was added to the state legislature's special session after Abbott signed HB3979 into law, saying "more must be done" on critical race theory in schools.

And SB3 has been called troubling by education groups including the National Education Association for its potential to censor teachers and students in the classroom.

'Provide guardrails' against 'animosity'

Defenders of the bill, including Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes who sponsored the bill, say that some lessons on racial inequality blame white students for systemic racism and creates tension between students of different backgrounds.

"This bill is meant only to provide guardrails against imposing division and animosity on our students," Hughes said before the July 16 Senate vote. "Since [critical race theory] is so prevalent in higher education and since we see it popping up in public schools, that's why it needs to be addressed."

Other proponents of anti-critical race theory bills, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have said that some lessons on race could lead to the "indoctrination" of public school students toward progressive political leanings.

Ovidia Molina, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said that students have so much to gain from education about America's racial history, including those that would be erased by this new legislation.

"We want to keep honesty in education," Molina said. "We want to make sure that we teach our students the truth, the whole truth, the good, the bad, the failures, the successes."

Molina said teachers have spoken up at hearings and called their local legislators to denounce the new legislation -- but said lawmakers are not listening.

"They don't know what's happening in our public schools," Molina said. "We still want to celebrate women's suffrage, we still want to celebrate the Chicano movement, we still want to celebrate people of color, so that our students see themselves in the history and so they see themselves in the future."

The Texas Education Agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Molina said that Texas districts have yet to announce what punishment for teaching these subjects might look like for teachers.

Concerning shift toward 'patriotic' education

Some teachers told ABC they are worried about retaliation, termination, or other forms of punishment. But others are more concerned about what this shift toward more "patriotic" education means for their students.

"One of the first things Hitler did was start to reform education and impact the way that history is taught. One of the first things Mussolini did was go through and incorporate patriotic education," Lee said. "Education has always been that first line of defense in preserving a certain way of thinking."

Former President Donald Trump, among several other conservatives, have become proponents of "patriotic" education in response to critical race theory and The New York Times' 1619 project -- which dissects the founding of the United States of America and its legacy of slavery. Trump's proposed "1776 commission" aims to envision U.S. history in a positive light, instead of through a condemnatory, racial lens.

San Antonio teacher Christopher Green said he believes that lessons on race, inequality and oppression are vital to helping children navigate the world and understand our society.

"Rather than adding a more diverse perspective to the teaching of history, it's eliminating things that really need to be in there to understand the full picture of the American story," Green said.

The bill will now be headed to the state House, but it will likely be stalled due to protests from Texas Democratic representatives. They have fled the state in protest of new voting restrictions, meaning there won't be enough members to conduct business according to House rules.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Morgan Wallen speaks to 'GMA' about being filmed using racial slur

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Morgan Wallen is speaking out to address using a racial slur in a video that was leaked in February and the fallout that ensued.

In an exclusive interview with Good Morning America co-host Michael Strahan that aired Friday, the country singer, 28, reflected on using the vulgar language in the footage released by TMZ on Feb. 2.

He also opened up about what he says his understanding of the word was at the time the video was taken, what he has done since the footage was released and what he is planning to do in the future after the scandal.

When Strahan asked Wallen to take him back to the night the footage was captured, Wallen said he had been partying with some of his longtime friends the weekend the footage was taken and "it just happened."

"I was around some of my friends, and we just ... we say dumb stuff together," Wallen said on GMA. "And it was -- in our minds, it's playful ... that sounds ignorant, but it -- that's really where it came from ... and it's wrong."

Wallen claimed that he did not say the racial slur "frequently" in the past -- but admitted that when he previously did, he used it around that "certain group of friends" of his.

In the particular clip taken in January, Wallen said he "didn't mean it any, in any derogatory manner at all."

"It's one of my best friends -- he was, we were all clearly drunk -- I was askin' his girlfriend to take care of him because he was drunk and he was leavin,'" Wallen reflected on the night the video was taken.

He explained that he is "not sure" what made him feel he could use the racial slur and chalked it up to his lack of knowledge. "I think I was just ignorant about it," he said. "I don't think I sat down and was, like, 'Hey, is this right or is this wrong?'"

Following the video's release, the chart-topping singer was promptly dropped by his record label and talent agency, disqualified from eligibility at multiple prestigious country music award shows and his music was removed from multiple radio companies' stations.

"My manager called me probably two hours before the video came out," Wallen reflected. "He was, like, 'Are you sittin' down?' And no one's ever called me and said that before."

"I went to one of my friends [who] has a house out in the middle of nowhere," he continued, adding that he was "just sittin' in that house, tryin' to figure out what it is I'm supposed to do."

Along with repercussions that he faced from his own representation, many artists in the country music industry, including Maren Morris, Mickey Guyton and more, used their platforms to condemn his actions and call out the history of racism in the industry.

Wallen issued his first apology shortly after the video was released.

"I'm embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back," he said in a statement obtained by GMA at the time. "There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better."

He later released a five-minute video in which he implored his fan base to stop defending him, acknowledged that he "let so many people down" and spoke about the changes he was planning to make in his life.

"My words matter. A word can truly hurt a person and at my core, it's not what I'm OK with," he said in the video. "This week I heard firsthand some personal stories from Black people that honestly shook me. And I know what I'm going through this week doesn't even compare to some of the trials I heard about from them."

He added these conversations helped him gain a "clearer understanding of the weight" of his words.

Wallen told Strahan that one of the first organizations he spoke with was the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC), an advocacy organization that was created to fight for fair treatment of Black artists and address racism in the music industry.

The country singer claimed he also spoke to record executive Kevin Liles, Eric Hutcherson, executive vice president and chief people and inclusion officer at Universal Music Group and gospel singer BeBe Winans.

"I've heard some stories in the initial conversations that I had after that -- just how some people are, you know, treated even still today, and I'm just, like, I haven't seen that with my eyes -- that pain or that insignificant feeling or whatever it is that it makes you feel," Wallen said on GMA.

When asked by Strahan if he understood why the slur "makes Black people so upset," Wallen acknowledged his ignorance.

"I don't know how to put myself in their shoes because I'm not" he began, "But I do understand, especially when I say I'm using it playfully or whatever, ignorantly, I understand that that must sound, you know, like, 'He doesn't -- he doesn't understand.'"

In his February apology video, Wallen admitted he had "many more things to learn" but affirmed that he knew he did not want to further "add to any division."

He also stated that the video footage was taken while he was on "hour 72 of a 72-hour bender" and he was intending to focus on his sobriety moving forward.

During his GMA interview, the singer revealed he checked himself into a rehab facility following the scandal.

"For 30 days, I spent some time out in San Diego, California -- you know, just tryin' to figure it out ... why am I acting this way? Do I have an alcohol problem? Do I have a deeper issue?" he shared.

Despite widespread backlash from institutions -- and many of his peers -- in the music industry, the singer continued to prevail on the charts long after the February scandal.

His second studio album, Dangerous: The Double Album, spent 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and is still No. 1 on Billboard's top country albums chart after 24 weeks in the spot. His album sales also increased dramatically in the days after the footage of the racial slur was released.

"Before this incident my album was already doing well," Wallen said. "It was already being well-received by critics and by fans. Me and my team noticed that whenever this whole incident happened that there was a spike in my sales. So we tried to calculate what the number of -- how much it actually spiked from this incident."

"We got to a number somewhere around $500,000, and we decided to donate that money to some organizations -- BMAC being the first one," he continued.

When asked about people questioning his motivations for choosing to speak out now, Wallen admitted he understands the skepticism.

"I'm not ever gonna make, you know, everyone happy," he said. "I can only come tell my truth, and -- and that's all I know to do."

As for whether or not the country music industry has a race problem? Wallen shared, "it would seem that way, yeah," before adding, "I haven't really sat and thought about that."

ABC News has reached out to BMAC but has not heard back.

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Ohio man charged with hate crime related to alleged plot to commit mass shooting of women


(WASHINGTON) -- An Ohio man who is a self-proclaimed "incel" was charged by a grand jury for an alleged plot to conduct a mass shooting on a number of female university students, the Department of Justice announced on Wednesday.

Tres Genco, 21, is charged with one count of attempting to commit a hate crime, which is punishable by up to life in prison because it involved an alleged intent to kill. He is also charged with one count of illegally possessing a machine gun, which is punishable by up to 10 years, the DOJ said in a statement.

According to the indictment, on Jan. 15, 2020, Genco allegedly conducted surveillance at an Ohio university and searched online topics, including "how to plan a shooting crime" and "when does preparing for a crime become an attempt."

Genco identified himself online as an "incel" or "involuntary celibate" and had active online profiles that supported the incel movement -- a community predominantly of men who harbor anger toward women and "seek to commit violence in support of their belief that women unjustly deny them sexual or romantic attention to which they believe they are entitled," said the DOJ statement.

Genco also allegedly stated in a written manifesto that he would "slaughter" women "out of hatred, jealousy and revenge."

As part of their investigation into the alleged plot, law enforcement agents reportedly discovered a note that they say was written by Genco indicating his hope to "aim big" and kill up to 3,000 people, according to the DOJ statement. The note also allegedly indicated his intention to attend military training, which investigators found he completed in December 2019.

In March 2020, local police officers reported finding among other items, a firearm with a bump stock attached, several loaded magazines, body armor and boxes of ammunition in the trunk of Genco's vehicle, the DOJ statement said.

Hidden inside a heating vent in Genco's bedroom, police said they also found an unmarked semi-automatic pistol.

Genco's detention hearing is scheduled for Friday in the Southern District of Ohio.

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Bootleg Fire now 3rd largest wildfire in Oregon state history

Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — The Bootleg Fire is now the third-largest fire in Oregon state history as firefighters try to limit its spread amid extremely dry conditions.

The blaze had grown to nearly 400,000 acres in southern Oregon by Thursday morning and remained just 38% contained.

While the wildfire is affecting mostly rural areas, it has climbed to the top three fires to engulf the state, according to records dating back to 1900. The Long Draw Fire in 2012 scorched 557,028 acres, while the Biscuit Fire in 2002 burned 500,000 acres.

In comparison, the Beachie Creek Fire that destroyed more than 1,200 structures in northern Oregon in 2020 burned through 193,573 acres.

This year's dry season, exacerbated by the megadrought and climate change, has created tinderbox conditions in the West.

Nearly 90 large wildfires are burning in 13 states, with more than 2.5 million acres burned so far this year.

Thousands of homes are threatened and have been evacuated in Oregon due to the Bootleg Fire.

Evacuations have also been ordered near Lake Tahoe due to the Tamarack Fire, which had burned through more than 50,000 acres by Wednesday morning and was 4% contained.

The Dixie Fire in Butte County, California, had scorched nearly 104,000 acres by Thursday and was 17% contained.

Air quality alerts were issued earlier in the week on the East Coast due to the large amounts of smoke being emitted from the fires.

The possibility for new fires to spark remained high on Thursday. Red flag warnings have been issued in parts of Montana and Idaho due to gusty winds and low humidity, while dry thunderstorms caused by the heat of the Bootleg Fire could bring lightning strikes to the drought-ridden region.

Currently, more than 46% of the contiguous U.S. is in a moderate or worse drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and some of the regions that need rain the most are not forecast to receive any major precipitation that could alleviate the fires.

Rain is not expected for California and the Pacific Northwest. However, parts of the Southwest are seeing some relief due to monsoon storms.

ABC News' Matthew Fuhrman, Melissa Griffin and Bonnie Mclean contributed to this report.

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5-year-old dies of stroke after contracting multiple infections including COVID-19, family says


(CALHOUN, Ga.) -- A Georgia family is mourning the loss of their 5-year-old son who they say died after contracting COVID-19.

Wyatt Gibson, 5, died on July 16 after suffering a stroke, according to a statement written by his grandmother, Andrea Mitchell, and shared with ABC News.

Mitchell described Wyatt, of Calhoun, Georgia, as a "typical healthy, happy boy" who became sick last week with what the family originally thought was food poisoning.

After two days of symptoms, including vomiting, no appetite and lethargy, Wyatt's parents took him to a local hospital. He was then transferred to a children's hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was diagnosed with strep and staph infections and COVID-19, according to Mitchell. Viral respiratory infection, such as COVID-19, can pre-dispose a person to secondary bacterial infections such as bacterial pneumonia or meningitis.

Days later, Wyatt suffered a stroke and died, according to Mitchell. It is unclear which infection caused the stroke. The official cause of death is unknown and hospital officials declined to comment citing federal privacy laws.

"All we know is a bright light has left. He left rainbows everywhere for us to see. We'll be constantly reminded, saddened, then maybe in time, make peace with it," she wrote. "For there was so much life in this 5-year-old boy. So much joy. So maybe it's not the quantity of life that we will miss. But the quality of life. That was pure bliss."

Wyatt's father, Wes Gibson, was also diagnosed with COVID-19 at the same time as his son, according to Mitchell. It is unclear whether any of Wyatt's family members were fully vaccinated.

Gibson, a local law enforcement officer, and his wife Alexis, who also share a daughter, declined to be interviewed.

The number of young children diagnosed with COVID-19 is also increasing. There were more than 23,000 new pediatric cases diagnosed in the U.S. last week, twice as many as the end of June, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Children under the age of 12 are currently not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Public health experts have stressed the importance of parents and caregivers being fully vaccinated to help protect those who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

People who are fully vaccinated, a term used to describe a person two weeks after their last shot, are still considered safe from serious illness or death, even if they are exposed to the delta variant, which is quickly becoming the dominant variant spread in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 99.5% of hospitalizations are people who weren't immunized.

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10 injured in explosion at Dippin' Dots factory


(PADUCAH, Ky.) -- Ten people have been injured in an explosion at a Kentucky Dippin' Dots factory.

The explosion took place Wednesday at a Dippin' Dots-owned facility on Industrial Drive in Paducah. The site is not where the ice cream is made, but where ingredients for a third-party company are produced, officials said.

A truck was unloading liquid nitrogen when the eruption took place, but it's unclear exactly what caused the explosion, Paducah police spokeswoman Robin Newberry said to local ABC Kentucky affiliate WPSD Wednesday.

The 10 injured people were taken to two local hospitals, Newberry said.

Dippin' Dots, which is headquartered in Paducah, told ABC News: "This is a terrible accident ... At this moment, our focus is on the well-being of our fellow employees who were injured."

The company said they're working with authorities for a complete investigation into the incident.

Dippin' Dots CEO Scott Fischer also released a statement to ABC News: "My heart is with our employees, especially those injured in this afternoon's terrible incident. I care deeply for our employees -- they are family to me. Please join me in praying for our employees."

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Supreme Court excessive force ruling could be 'a big deal,' lawyer says


(NEW YORK) -- The Supreme Court last month remanded a lower court's ruling that police officers who used excessive force on a 27-year-old man who died in their custody were protected because they didn't know their actions were unconstitutional.

And it's a decision that could have lasting effects, according to legal experts including Jon Taylor, an attorney who represented the family of that man, Nicholas Gilbert.

"The Supreme Court has summarily vacated a pro-officer decision by a lower court in an excessive force case," Taylor told ABC News. "So this is a big deal, not only because of what the Supreme Court said but also because of what it will be for the record going forward."

Steve Art, an attorney who submitted a brief on behalf of the ACLU for the case, shared Taylor's sentiments.

"It's extremely rare for the Supreme Court to summarily reverse a decision finding that police did not use excessive force," Art told ABC News. "The Supreme Court is sending a clear signal to lower courts that they cannot reflexively decide cases for police officers when they use brutal tactics on restrained citizens."

Gilbert died in a St. Louis Police Department holding cell in December 2015 after six officers restrained him for 15 minutes, handcuffed him and placed him in shackles, and forced him face down on the ground. Police at the time said they believed Gilbert to be suicidal and said they acted to prevent him from taking his own life. The officers were never criminally charged.

Gilbert's parents, Bryan Gilbert and Jody Lombardo, sued the officers after his death, and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them.

The officers pushed to receive qualified immunity -- meaning they'd be shielded from personal liability unless proven to have violated clearly established constitutional rights -- when confronted with the lawsuit in 2016, and in 2019, that immunity was granted by a federal judge in the 8th Circuit Court who did acknowledge that excessive force had been used.

But the Supreme Court on June 28 remanded the case back to the lower court, ruling that the 8th Circuit Court did not clearly define whether "prone restraint" was constitutional.

"The Eighth Circuit didn't get to the qualified immunity question because it didn't find a constitutional violation in the first place," Elizabeth Beske, a law professor at American University, told ABC News. "By sending the case back, the Supreme Court is signaling to the Eighth Circuit that excessive force cases require a hard look at specific facts and circumstances and can't be dismissed lightly."

Part of the ruling stated: "It is unclear whether the court thought the use of a prone restraint -- no matter the kind, intensity, duration or surrounding circumstances is per se constitutional so long as an individual appears to resist officers' efforts to subdue him."

But the Supreme Court's decision was not unanimous -- conservative justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Alito wrote the dissent, which included: "We have two respective options: deny review of the fact-bound question that the case presents or grant the petition, have the case briefed and argued, roll up our sleeves and decide the real issue. I favor the latter course, but what we should not do is take the easy out that the court has chosen."

"That Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett signed on to this opinion sends a powerful message that this Court is paying attention and will not brook casual treatment of these serious social issues," Beske added.

This decision could have a lasting impact and set a precedent for future cases involving excessive force, Taylor, the lawyer for Gilbert's family, explained.

"I think the Court recognizes this political moment, in particular, that there is heightened attention being paid to these kinds of issues," Taylor added. "I think that partially explains why the Supreme Court didn't let this go."

Art, who submitted the brief for the ACLU, added: "We expect that the Lombardo case will result in juries hearing more cases brought by the loved ones of those killed and hurt by police, rather than those cases being decided by judges before trial."

This is not the first time the 8th Circuit has weighed in on an excessive force case. It also had jurisdiction over cases involving Michael Brown and George Floyd, who each were killed by police after being arrested for misdemeanors -- Brown in 2014 and Floyd in 2020. In 2017, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld, in a 2-1 decision, a lower court ruling that Ferguson, Missouri, police were not entitled to qualified immunity from a lawsuit by Dorian Johnson, who was stopped along with Brown.

"The Court's efforts in this area are likely responsive to the ongoing racial justice movement and to political pressure on the Supreme Court itself. Calls to 'pack' the court will grow if it is widely perceived that the conservative Court is significantly out-of-step with public opinion," Beske said.

Gilbert at the time was homeless and under the influence of methamphetamines when he was arrested for a nonviolent misdemeanor, police said. After Gilbert died, officers said they believed he was experiencing a "mental health crisis" when he was in his cell, prompting officers to engage and restrain him.

Taylor said Gilbert "was lifting his chest in an attempt to breathe and saying it hurts, asking them to stop, and then he died. An autopsy found the cause of death to be asphyxiation induced by forcible restraint."

While race-related issues perhaps have been more widely documented in cases where police have been accused of using excessive force, another major factor is mental illness. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, persons with an untreated metal illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.

The Department of Justice has warned about these risk factors in the past, and law enforcement agencies across the country have been asked to train police on how to properly handle potential mental illness episodes. Officers have been cautioned that persons suffering such an episode, or who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, are at a particular risk of dying by asphyxiation when held face down because it restricts their breathing.

In a statement provided to ABC News, Gilbert's mother said her son was "kind and loving" and "the type of young man who gives the shirt off his back. He was bubbly and happy all the time. He was a happy young man and he had plans in life."

"I want my son to finally have his day in court in front of a jury," she added. "I want my son's case to be an example -- something that changes the way police treat people."

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Northeast Florida hospitals returning to COVID-19 peak amid delta surge


(JACKSONVILLE, Fla.) -- Hospital officials in Northeast Florida are urging people to get vaccinated as the number of COVID-19 patients is approaching or exceeding levels they saw during the worst of the pandemic amid "rampant" spread of the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.

UF Health Jacksonville, in Florida's most populous city, has seen an "exponential" rise in the number of COVID-19 patients admitted in recent weeks, Chad Neilsen, director of infection prevention at the hospital, told ABC News.

The previous record for the highest number of daily COVID-19 patients across its two campuses -- 125 -- was set in January; the hospital surpassed that three days ago, Neilsen said, and is currently at 136, with about 40 people in the intensive care unit.

Last week, there were 75 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, 45 the prior week and 20 the week before that, according to Dr. Leon Haley Jr., CEO of UF Health Jacksonville.

"We knew it was most likely due to the delta variant taking a bigger footprint here in the Northeast Florida region because it was so rapid of an increase," Nielsen said. "Everybody in town is suffering the same fate we are."

At the Mayo Clinic's Jacksonville hospital, there has been a "significant" increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past three weeks, "approaching our previous peak numbers," Dr. Ken Thielen, CEO of Mayo Clinic in Florida, said during a COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and other local health care leaders.

"This represents a five-fold increase in COVID hospitalizations, and follows many weeks when we only had a handful of hospitalized COVID patients," Thielen said.

There are other similarities among the area's hospitals -- the COVID-19 patients they are admitting are largely unvaccinated, and they are younger than what they've previously seen during the pandemic.

Among UF Health Jacksonville's COVID-19 patients, 90% are unvaccinated, and nearly 70% range in age from 40 to 69, Neilsen said. Prior to this surge, 75% of the COVID-19 patients were ages 60 and up, he said.

"We're definitely seeing a shift into a younger demographic of people," he said.

According to Tom VanOsdol, president and CEO of Ascension Florida and Gulf Coast, which operates a hospital in Jacksonville, over 96% of its COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

"Our median age of our hospitalized patients is 49 -- it was in the mid-60s in prior waves of this pandemic," VanOsdol said during Wednesday's press briefing. "So it's a younger demographic who are not getting vaccinated that unfortunately are contracting COVID, and these cases are requiring hospitalization for treatment."

At Baptist Health in Jacksonville, the COVID-19 patients are "younger, sicker and getting sicker quicker," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Timothy Groover said during the briefing.

In the past month, 44% of COVID-19 patients at the hospital were in their 40s or younger, and "most were previously healthy," he said.

As the delta variant has quickly become the dominant variant spreading in the United States, Florida is one of four states reporting the highest weekly COVID-19 case rates per capita, with over 200 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Monday, the seven-day average of new cases went up 107.48% in Duval County, where Jacksonville sits, according to the CDC.

At the same time, fewer than half of the state's residents are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Rates are lagging in Duval County, where 41% of residents are fully vaccinated.

"Vaccines are stagnant here in Northeast Florida, and the delta variant is just running rampant amongst the unvaccinated folks," Neilsen said.

Neilson attributes the latest surge in part to delta's rise coinciding with Fourth of July gatherings, but said it's hard to predict where hospitalizations might be heading "because it spreads so quickly."

Hospitals in the region are worried about staff burnout and shortages as the pandemic wears on and unvaccinated staff are exposed in the community and also get sick.

"We're facing a real staffing crisis if this continues," Nielsen said.

The area health care leaders offered a plea for people to get vaccinated if they haven't already, and to continue mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.

Curry also urged residents to get vaccinated -- but stopped short of issuing any restrictions.

"The path to moving beyond the surge and preventing future ones is increasing our percentage of vaccinations," he said during Wednesday's briefing. "The math is clear -- vaccines work. Restrictions to our economy and personal freedoms are not the answer. The answer is getting vaccinated."

"Hospitals are full and busy because of unvaccinated people, so the solution here is to get the vaccine," he added.

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14-year-old girl drowns at Ohio water park


(MIDDLETOWN, Ohio) -- A 14-year-old girl died Tuesday evening after she was pulled from the water at an Ohio theme park, officials said.

Police were called to the Land of Illusion Aqua Adventure Park in Middletown after the teen went under water and did not surface, the Butler County Sheriff's Office said.

The sheriff's office said in a press release that the girl went under at about 5 p.m. and she wasn't located until a half hour later.

The victim was identified by authorities as Mykiara Jones.

Mykiara was airlifted to Dayton Children's Hospital, where she later died, police and other officials said.

"This is a tragedy no parent should have to endure," Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said in a statement. "These are the calls first responders dread and have difficulty dealing with. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family."

An investigation is ongoing.

In a statement released on its Facebook page, Land of Illusion's owners said it closed down the water park and is cooperating with investigators to determine what happened.

"We ask that you join us in sending thoughts and prayers and our deepest condolences to our guest's family and friends, as well as to the team members and guests who were onsite last evening during this tragedy," the owners said.

The Middletown School District put out a statement alerting the community about Mykiara's death.

Superintendent Marlon Styles said Mykiara was going to be a freshman at Middletown High School in the fall and the teen's mother worked in the school system.

"We will be wrapping our arms around her during this extremely difficult time," Styles said of Mykiara's mother.

The school provided students, faculty and other members with information on counseling services.

"We extend our deepest sympathy and prayers to the family, friends, and teachers of Mykiara. We pray the family finds peace and comfort during this difficult time," Styles said.

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