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News brief: Children's vaccines; Colombia's new president; Jan. 6 hearings continue

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Colombia has elected a new president.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Gustavo Petro won last night. He is a former mayor of the gigantic city of Bogota. He has a colorful past. In his youth, he joined a guerrilla movement and was imprisoned for a time. Now he's considered Colombia's first leftist to be elected president.

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PRESIDENT-ELECT GUSTAVO PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: He declared a new history for Colombia last night.

FADEL: But is Petro up to the challenge? Reporter Manuel Rueda joins us now from Bogota. Good morning.

MANUEL RUEDA: Good morning.

FADEL: So a narrow victory after a closely fought race. You were at Petro headquarters last night, right? What was it like?

RUEDA: Well, it was a pretty electric atmosphere. You know, you had the sense that it was something quite historic.

FADEL: Yeah.

RUEDA: It was a basketball arena that's also used for concerts, and there were, like, 8,000 people there making a lot of noise.

FADEL: And what can we expect from a Petro presidency? There are enormous expectations for this new leader of a country that's facing a lot of challenges, right?

RUEDA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Petro's campaign was focused on mentioning the social and economic inequalities and talking about how, you know, to decrease those. And basically, the heart of his campaign is to get the government, the state more involved in issues like solving unemployment, education, health problems. And he's kind of like a Roosevelt from the 1930s - wants, like, a New Deal for Colombia.

FADEL: Now, the night also brought another moment of history. Colombia has its first Black vice president, Francia Marquez. Tell us more about who she is.

RUEDA: Well, she's a very interesting character because what she says is that she joined politics to save her life, to save her community. She comes from a very small place in the western mountains of Colombia and, basically, started out as an activist against illegal gold mining. So she represents not just Afro Colombian population but the social community leaders in rural areas of Colombia who work in very dangerous conditions and often face death threats.

FADEL: Now, this election is another blow to establishment politics, not just in Colombia but in the region, right?

RUEDA: Yeah, absolutely. What you're seeing, you know, since the pandemic began across different countries of Latin America is that the opposition candidates are winning. The outsiders are winning. In some cases, it's leftist parties, like what happened in Peru and Chile last year. But for example, in Ecuador, it was a conservative politician who was from the opposition who won the election. So it's very hard in the current circumstances for incumbents to stay in power.

FADEL: And how is the victory being seen in the region?

RUEDA: Well, for some countries, it means something - (inaudible). For example, Colombia will probably reestablish relations with Venezuela. For the United States, it's going to be a challenge because Petro, as a senator, has been very critical of U.S. drug policy in the hemisphere, of the so-called war on drugs. So that relation is going to have more friction now, especially when it comes to anti-narcotics policies.

FADEL: Thank you very much. That's reporter Manuel Rueda in Bogota.

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FADEL: For some parents, the long wait is over.

INSKEEP: Because COVID vaccines are becoming available for babies and toddlers and preschoolers. The CDC approved this over the weekend. About one-third of parents of kids this age say they're eager to get the shots - one-third. Pediatricians and clinics across the country are preparing to administer them.

FADEL: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to discuss. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Allison, you've been talking to pediatricians around the country. What are they saying?

AUBREY: Well, there are now 20 million young children who are newly eligible. These are babies 6 months and up. And pediatricians tell me they've been anticipating this. Shipments of the lower-dose vaccine made specifically for this age group have already begun. I spoke to a pediatrician in Cincinnati, Nicole Baldwin. She told me they're ready to go. They plan to have clinics during regular office hours so parents who want to can bring in their children just for the COVID shot.

NICOLE BALDWIN: What I anticipate is that in the beginning, there is going to be a mad rush. There are going to be a lot of parents that have been waiting, and they're going to come in right off the bat. And then I think it's going to dwindle pretty quickly.

AUBREY: Many pediatricians plan to offer COVID vaccines when children come in for well visits. And the top reason pediatricians hear among hesitant parents is, does my child really need this? They say COVID is mild in kids, which most of the time is true, but the CDC points out more than 400 children under 5 have died from COVID, and it's unpredictable.

FADEL: Is there a downside to waiting for hesitant parents rather than getting children vaccinated right away?

AUBREY: You know, it's going to take a while to get full protection from these vaccines. For the Pfizer vaccine, kids will be getting three shots that are spaced out. The first two shots are three weeks apart, then a third shot is eight weeks later. I spoke to Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the Biden administration's COVID response coordinator. He says vaccinating this age group will take time, but there is an advantage to doing it as soon as possible.

ASHISH JHA: I am very sympathetic to parents who want a little more time. But the bottom line is there's a very contagious variant out there. There's a lot of infections. And we're, like, 2 to 3 months away from school beginning again. Given how much time it takes to build up immunity, that's not that far away.

AUBREY: Now, the shots are going to be given in lots of places. In addition to pediatricians' offices, vaccines are also being shipped to community health centers, to children's hospitals, to some pharmacies. For instance, CVS plans to administer vaccines to children 18 months and older at its MinuteClinic locations.

FADEL: And since there are two vaccines authorized, Moderna and Pfizer, will parents have a choice?

AUBREY: Some pediatricians tell me that for now, they're only offering one or the other, just to, you know, simplify administration. So parents should not be surprised if they don't have a choice, at least not in their pediatrician's office. But bottom line, the FDA has determined that both are safe and effective. And for parents who are thinking they want their child to get Moderna just because it's only two shots compared to the three for Pfizer, they should know that is likely to change eventually. Kids who get Moderna will likely be boosted with another dose as well.

FADEL: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks.

AUBREY: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: OK. Can you support fair elections overseas while undermining democracy in your own country?

FADEL: One of Donald Trump's biggest defenders and one of the House January 6 committee's biggest critics is Congresswoman Elise Stefanik from upstate New York.

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ELISE STEFANIK: This is not a serious investigation; this is a partisan political witch hunt.

FADEL: But her defense of Trump includes spreading false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, and that's complicated things for a congressionally funded organization she works with to promote democracy abroad. Joining us now is Zach Hirsh of North Country Public Radio. Welcome.

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: Hello.

FADEL: So tell us more about Stefanik's work promoting democracy abroad.

HIRSCH: Stefanik spent a lot of her career working with groups that support free and fair elections abroad. Right now she's on the board of directors at the National Endowment for Democracy. That group embodies all the values the United States traditionally stands for. Congress appropriates the money, and the endowment writes grants to help activists and civil society groups in countries with autocratic leaders. After Stefanik was chosen for the board, her politics changed, and now some people who work at the endowment are telling me there's this person undermining their mission and harming their work from the inside.

FADEL: Because of what she's been saying about the January 6 attack on the Capitol?

HIRSCH: Yeah, that's right. This is a pro-democracy group, and Stefanik questioned the legitimacy of a U.S. presidential election. She spread a ton of misinformation about 2020. Here she is speaking two days before the U.S. Capitol riot.

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STEFANIK: Tens of millions of Americans are rightly concerned that the 2020 election featured unprecedented voting irregularities, unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges ignoring state election laws and a fundamental lack of ballot integrity and ballot security.

FADEL: And we should say that statement and everything she just said, that's false.

HIRSCH: Right. Both Republican and Democratic officials never found any evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities. But Stefanik amplified this stuff, and on January 6, she voted against certifying Biden's win in Pennsylvania. At the National Endowment for Democracy, a lot of people on staff were livid. One staffer said the endowment's values were, quote, "totally undermined and mocked" by their own board member. Some started calling for her to be removed from the organization.

FADEL: So, in their view, undermining democracy in the U.S. while promoting it abroad. How has the endowment responded?

HIRSCH: They had internal meetings which got really heated, and they put out a statement about January 6 saying the endowment is, quote, "appalled by the violent and seditious assault" on the Capitol, but they decided not to remove Stefanik. The leadership declined to comment on this story, but I did speak with staff members who were there for those meetings after January 6. They didn't want to give their names because they weren't authorized to speak to the media and could lose their jobs for doing so. But they were told the endowment is bipartisan, and it cannot get dragged into domestic politics.

Their funding has come under threat in the past, most recently during the Trump administration. But they've had consistent backing from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and they want to keep it that way. The staffers were also told that Stefanik supports their work abroad, that she's an ally for them, which raises interesting questions, right? How can you be pro-democracy overseas and take pretty brazen, anti-democratic actions here at home? And, you know, I reached out to Elise Stefanik. She did not respond. But in the past, she's said that she supports the endowment's work.

FADEL: You can hear more of Zach Hirsch's reporting, including more of what endowment staffers told him directly. That's coming up on NPR's MORNING EDITION and at npr.org. Thank you, Zach.

HIRSCH: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.