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White House acknowledges mysterious health attacks occurred in US, reviewing intel on incidents

The mysterious health incidents that have affected dozens of U.S. personnel around the globe have also occurred within the United States, the White House confirmed for the first time on Friday.

The source of the illnesses, known as "Havana syndrome" after the first cluster of cases at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, is still unknown. But there is growing pressure from Congress to figure out what has affected so many U.S. diplomats, spies and other officials -- and who or what is behind it.

"At this point, at this moment, we don't know the cause of these incidents, which are both limited in nature and the vast majority of which have been reported overseas," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, acknowledging the newly reported cases in the U.S.

The Biden administration has launched a review of U.S. intelligence to determine if there are other previously unreported cases and if there is a "broader pattern," a National Security Council spokesperson confirmed to ABC News.

Last month, U.S. defense officials briefed lawmakers on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees on several previously unreported incidents of U.S. personnel falling sick after alleged exposures, congressional sources confirmed to ABC News.

Dozens of Americans have been diagnosed with a range of symptoms, including traumatic brain injuries, with several describing bizarre experiences like strange noises and sensations. The U.S. government has acknowledged cases in Cuba, China, Uzbekistan and Russia -- but there are media reports of other countries now, too.

The U.S. flag flies next to security guarding the U.S. embassy in Havana, Jan. 12, 2021.

The issue has vexed U.S. officials since 2016, when the first cases were reported at the embassy in Havana. While there's still no definitive answer, the National Academies of Science in December issued a report, commissioned by the State Department, that concluded the most likely source is "directed, pulsed radio frequency energy."

Among the possible new cases are also reportedly at least two incidents in the Washington area, according to GQ magazine, CNN and others. ABC News has not independently verified those reports.

"This pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing," the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia and Marco Rubio of Florida, warned in a statement last week.

While Warner and Rubio praised President Joe Biden's CIA director, Bill Burns, for his "renewed focus on these attacks," other lawmakers have become publicly exasperated with the executive branch's response.

During a Senate hearing last week, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., criticized the U.S. intelligence community's "clamp down on information that's available to Congress, that's available to the public."

That, in turn, has led to a growing number of reports of alleged incidents without clarity about whether or not they're related to what's happened to U.S. personnel in Cuba, Shaheen said.

"It's not clear whether the information we're getting is correct or incorrect," she told Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. "The horse is out of the barn on this. The information is already out there, and I think it behooves us all to try to make sure that the information that gets out is accurate and that people understand what's happening."

The exterior of the White House in Washington, is pictured here in this undated photo.

Beyond Cuba, the State Department has previously acknowledged incidents in China, Uzbekistan and one redacted country in an internal report that was declassified and released in February. That unknown country is likely Russia, where a former CIA official said he was attacked.

That official, Marc Polymeropoulos, told ABC News in March that he's now receiving treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center for a traumatic brain injury as well.

But after reports of possible incidents in Syria, the head of U.S. Central Command said he had no evidence that was true.

"I have found no evidence of those attacks" in CENTCOM's region, which includes Syria, Gen. Frank McKenzie, CENTCOM commander, told a Senate panel in April. During the same hearing, Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, added he's "not seen that phenomenon in Africa" either.

One law enforcement source dismissed speculation about one incident in the Washington area, telling ABC News, "There is no credible evidence to support this."

Biden's National Security Council is now conducting "a full review of intelligence reporting to ascertain whether there may be previously unreported incidents that fit a broader pattern," a spokesperson confirmed to ABC News Friday.

While the Trump administration initially said affected personnel had suffered "health attacks," the spokesperson added that whether the incidents are an attack and whether they're the work of a foreign actor are still under "active inquiry."

ABC News' Mike Levine, Trish Turner and Benjamin Siegel contributed to this report.

Source: White House acknowledges mysterious health attacks occurred in US, reviewing intel on incidents

I survived brain surgery--and the American health care system

a close up of Karen Finney looking at the camera © Ralph Alswange Karen Finney

"You have a brain mass" is not what I expected to hear from the orthopedic doctor I've seen for 10 years. My appointment was supposed to be about shoulder pain that had flared up last fall, from a car accident years ago.

Sure, I'd had increasingly painful headaches radiating from the lower left side of my head, and trouble swallowing a couple of times, but like a lot of people, especially during the pandemic, I'd put off going to the doctor, assuming it was just the stress of Covid life and endless zoom calls.

But there it was on the scans, a tumor pressing on my brain stem. I needed surgery. A brain tumor. Surgery. In the middle of a pandemic.

This was not in my plan. It was December 2020, I was doing polling work ahead of the Georgia special election, looking forward to celebrating the new administration, thinking about next steps in my career, my work at CNN, maybe a vacation.

As I absorbed the gravity of my diagnosis, my mind shifted into overdrive trying to think through what I needed to do next. First, find someone to take care of my dog. Then, find a neurosurgeon, schedule doctors' appointments, tests, hire a lawyer to update my will and get my affairs in order. How long should I put my mail on hold? I thought about what could go wrong during surgery. What if I'm not "me" on the other side? All while also trying to wrap my mind around being unconscious in a room full of strangers with my brain exposed like in an episode of "Grey's Anatomy."

I was overwhelmed. So I did something contrary to the norms of Washington DC's political culture: I prayed for the strength to be vulnerable.

As a Black woman I know personally and professionally how vulnerability can be seen as weakness, how it can fuel stereotypes and be weaponized, especially in our current media environment. As a political consultant and communications strategist, I've spent time with clients helping them figure out how to effectively handle and communicate around vulnerabilities, real and perceived. As a commentator, I know how to analyze them.

Brain surgery was completely new territory. I quickly came to realize I would not be able to prepare for, survive and recover from brain surgery without being willing to be vulnerable, to lean on friends, family and my faith. To accept that I couldn't control the situation, only how I responded to it. Nor could I face the whirlwind of scary information, uncomfortable emotions and uncertainty while flying solo. One of my heroes, researcher and author Brené Brown, has defined vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. If that doesn't describe trying to survive brain surgery then I don't know what does.

Telling my friends both ahead of surgery and even now, with surgery behind me, is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I have worried about worrying people or placing a huge additional burden on them in the middle of a pandemic that had already taken such a toll.

I've worried about my situation revealing to them their own vulnerability-- and the frustrating limitations on what they could physically do to help, especially during Covid. I finally shared the news with a small group of friends, family and colleagues and prayed that the people whom I didn't have a chance to tell directly would understand. It was like an emotional "trust fall."

It turned out that my "village" sprang into action, and I will forever be grateful from the bottom of my heart. They created a web of support and were willing to sit with me in the discomfort of not knowing how surgery would turn out. They created a rotating schedule to drive me to doctor's appointments and tests before the surgery and in the first month I was out of the hospital. They prayed with and for me, and helped me navigate all sorts of life logistics.

A mentor of mine joined me as a second set of ears for many virtual doctor appointments as I dealt with complicated conversations about different surgical options and made decisions about the best course of action. A former boss jumped in to offer help and support.

Two incredible friends who'd been through brain surgery generously gave me advice, connecting me with critical resources both before and after the surgery. Because my operation came before the big vaccine rollout, I "podded up" with a family I'm close to. They partially put their lives on hold, took me and my dog Mabel into their home and literally nursed me back to health for over a month after the surgery. They helped me ask a lot of questions.

When I was in the hospital and couldn't effectively advocate for myself, they politely badgered doctors and nurses on my behalf. They made sure the hospital staff knew that people were watching to make sure I got the care I needed. They and so many dear friends are still with me now on this healing journey.

I am so grateful to the neurosurgery team at the Johns Hopkins Hospital that removed my tumor and continues to help me heal, to my otolaryngologist, the nurses and specialists who took care of me and especially the clinical technicians who changed my sheets, helped keep me clean, got me up and walking around and checked my vital signs every four hours like clockwork.

It was a complicated surgery and while it was largely a success there have been complications. Critical nerves that control the complexities of swallowing and my left vocal cord had to be moved out of the way to remove the tumor. As a result, for about two weeks after the surgery I couldn't even swallow a sip of water. I couldn't eat. It was hard to talk.

After 10 days in the hospital, being able to leave meant having a procedure to insert a feeding tube. Within a week of leaving the hospital I started out-patient therapy where I re-learned how to swallow, eat and began to strengthen my voice. My speech pathologist is a warrior who has helped me come a long way over the last eight weeks.

Even for someone like me, with good health insurance, surviving the health care system has been incredibly challenging. Just as we need to expand quality, affordable, accessible care, we also have got to put the "care" back into our health care system.

That is not to say that the people in the system -- doctors, nurses, clinical technicians, people in different departments who schedule appointments, surgeries and procedures, residents, janitorial services staff, MRI technicians--or insurance claims staff who decide whether or not to approve a procedure or claim -- don't care. They absolutely do. But as currently configured, multiple factors can make it unnecessarily hard for those people to deliver the care they want to provide or that patients truly need.

The health care system can also be overly-complicated, redundant and at times unaccountable. An over-scheduled doctor who is five minutes late for rounds -- the daily time allotted to visit patients recovering in the hospital - may then only have two minutes to answer a patient's question until the next day again on rounds. A lack of coordination of care between departments can send a patient running around days before surgery to find a place that can perform specific pre-surgical tests in time to get it to the doctors and make sure it is also covered by insurance. The examples are endless.

As a patient with a support group, even with all the help, expertise and resources at my disposal, engaging with the health care system has and continues to be frustrating -- and at times de-humanizing.

After almost 12 weeks, with surgery behind me, some friends and colleagues thought I should wait to return to the airwaves and to other public speaking until my voice had fully healed. Truthfully, it's unclear when that will be. And I'm trying to have the courage to show what healing looks and sounds like while I'm still in the middle of it, fighting for what my life will be like, now that I'm on the other side of brain tumor surgery.

I was grateful to join "The Lead with Jake Tapper" last Friday. It was fun to talk politics instead of practicing diaphragmatic breathing and phonation. A friend from the other side of the aisle sent me a note afterwards to say he'd thought I hadn't missed a beat in my analysis, even before hearing I'd had brain surgery. I'm doing great, getting stronger every day as I continue to heal. The tumor was benign, but I'll still need an annual brain scan.

The scar on the back left side of my head and neck from the incision is fading and my hair is slowly growing back. I'm getting used to my new, "smoky" voice.

I am deeply grateful to be able to write this piece and share my story. I am deeply grateful to my friends, family, colleagues and my CNN family for the ongoing support, prayers, help and love throughout this journey. I quite literally would not be here without them.

My message is this. No matter the challenge, find your village -- the people who care about you will be glad to be asked to help. Let them see your vulnerability. Let them hold it with you. Let them speak for you when you can't do it for yourself. On the journey you will discover a depth of connection and friendship that is the most powerful medicine of all.

Source: I survived brain surgery--and the American health care system

After another leak, EPA probes whether St. Croix refinery poses ‘an imminent risk to people’s health’

Residents across the island — some living as far as 10 miles away from Limetree Bay Refining’s operations on the south shore — began reporting feeling nauseous and ill on Wednesday after gaseous fumes were released from one of its oil refining units. The odor persisted through Friday.

Two primary schools and a technical educational center closed on Thursday, along with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and remained shut Friday. Local officials said in a statement the bureau stayed closed because its employees “are affected by the strong, unpleasant gas like odor, in the atmosphere around the BMV.”

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“EPA takes very seriously the reports from today and in recent weeks of children, families, and individuals becoming sickened by emissions around the Limetree Bay facility,” the agency said in a statement. “If EPA makes a determination that the facility’s operations present an imminent risk to people’s health, consistent with its legal authorities, it will take appropriate action to safeguard public safety.”

Limetree Bay and territory officials gave shifting accounts of what might have transpired over the course of the week.

The company, which has had two accidents since restarting operations Feb. 1, confirmed in a statement that it had “become aware of an odor affecting areas west of the facility,” adding that maintenance work on a “coker unit,” which processes oil at a high heat level, “has resulted in light hydrocarbon odors.”

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“We will continue to monitor the situation, but there is the potential for additional odors while maintenance continues,” the firm said. “We apologize for any impact this may have caused the community.”

On Thursday, when residents contacted Limetree Bay about the fumes, it posted on Facebook that nothing was amiss.

“Limetree Bay has received several community complaints of a strong odor,” it said. “Our preliminary investigations have revealed that units are operating normally and there is no activity that would result in an odor.”

In a phone briefing with reporters Friday, U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan (D) and his deputies said they were conducting air monitoring “to find out what is causing this stench.”

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“I just want to show the public that we’re doing everything to keep the people safe,” Bryan said. “We’ve not ruled out anything. We are looking under every stone to make sure we have the information needed.”

Jean-Pierre Oriol, U.S. Virgin Islands planning and natural resources commissioner, told reporters that after inspecting the plant his office did not believe the refinery was the cause of the persistent odor, but then added, “It hasn’t been ruled out.”

Roughly 100 residents have notified local authorities about the gaseous odor, according to Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Daryl Jaschen.

Jelani Ritter, a local blogger who lives 10 miles away from the plant on the island’s west end, said in an email that he was awakened at dawn Thursday by a smell that “was most unbearable.”

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“The lack of accountability from Limetree is disheartening, as many individuals reported becoming nauseous, while throbbing headaches have become the norm,” Ritter said.

Jennifer Valiulis, who heads the St. Croix Environmental Association, said in an email that her office has been deluged with calls from residents concerned about the impact of the plant’s operations. In February, an upset at the refinery showered oil on people’s homes, gardens and drinking-water supplies more than two miles away, and last month sulfuric gases escaped from the plant.

“The fumes are inescapable in the areas downwind from the refinery, even with closed doors and windows, and I’m hearing desperation from people who don’t know what to do and frustration at the lack of answers or relief,” she said.

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Some, like Ritter, are questioning their support for the plant. The refinery, which used to operate under the name Hovensa before shutting down nearly a decade ago and changing ownership, is a major employer and source of revenue for the territory.

“It is time that our local government applies pressure in its attempts to hold Limetree Bay Terminals responsible, through the enforcement of fines and citations for their continuous contamination of the environment, and the health impacts these mishaps have and continue to have on the citizens of St. Croix,” he said.

On Wednesday the company agreed to start operating five sulfur-dioxide monitoring stations that the previous owner shut down when it shuttered, after the EPA notified Limetree that failing to run the monitors amounted to a legal violation.

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The EPA, which sent a team of experts to St. Croix on April 30 to investigate the refinery’s operations along with territory officials, said it will “be bringing monitoring equipment to St. Croix in the coming days, along with personnel to operate the monitors.” Agency officials said they will measure air concentrations of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email that it was significant that the agency said it was looking into whether the plant posed “an imminent risk to people’s health,” because it alluded to the EPA’s enforcement authority under the Clean Air Act, “which allows the agency to swoop in with special powers when it concludes there is an immediate health threat.”

“This is a shot across Limetree’s bow,” he said, because if that determination is made, the “EPA could go to federal district court to ‘immediately restrain’ the source to stop the responsible emissions.”

Source: After another leak, EPA probes whether St. Croix refinery poses ‘an imminent risk to people’s health’

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