White House to Investigate Brain Injuries Within C.I.A.

WASHINGTON — Mysterious episodes that caused brain injuries in spies, diplomats, soldiers and other U.S. personnel overseas starting five years ago now number more than 130 people, far more than previously known, according to current and former officials.

The number of cases within the C.I.A., the State Department, the Defense Department and elsewhere spurred broad concern in the Biden administration. The initial publicly confirmed cases were concentrated in China and Cuba and numbered about 60, not including a group of injured C.I.A. officers whose total is not public.

The new total adds cases from Europe and elsewhere in Asia and reflects efforts by the administration to more thoroughly review other incidents amid concern over a spate of them in recent months.

Since December, at least three C.I.A. officers have reported serious health effects from episodes overseas. One occurred within the past two weeks, and all have required the officers to undergo outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or other facilities.

a report released in December, the National Academy of Sciences said a microwave weapon probably caused the injuries. Some officials believe a microwave or directed-energy device is the most likely cause.

The severity of the brain injuries has ranged widely. But some victims have chronic, potentially irreversible symptoms and pain, suggesting potentially permanent brain injury. Physicians at Walter Reed have warned government officials that some victims are at risk for suicide.

one in 2020 that affected a National Security Council official near the Ellipse south of the White House and another in 2019 involving a woman walking her dog in Northern Virginia, have no known connection to an earlier overseas event. While many officials expressed skepticism that Russia or another power would conduct an attack in the United States, agencies are investigating.

Congress has demanded more from the C.I.A. In a closed-door meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, senators accused the C.I.A. of doing too little to investigate the mysterious episodes and until recently showing skepticism about them, according to people briefed on the meeting.

During the Trump administration, some in the agency said there was little intelligence showing a foreign power was responsible and argued that it made little sense analytically for Russia or another foreign intelligence service to make unprovoked attacks on Americans. Others doubted the cause of the brain injuries.

The new C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, has tried to move aggressively to improve the agency’s response, current and former officials said. Mr. Burns has met with victims, visited doctors who have treated injured agency officers and briefed lawmakers.

He has also assigned his deputy, David Cohen, to oversee the investigation and the health care response. Mr. Cohen will meet monthly with victims and will lead regular briefings for Congress. The agency has also doubled the number of medical personnel conducting treatment and managing cases of injured officers.

In addition, the chief medical officer, who had been criticized by some former officers as too skeptical of the incidents and dismissive of some symptoms, announced his retirement. He was replaced with another doctor seen inside the C.I.A. as more focused on patient care.

another cohort of C.I.A. officers traveling in a variety of countries, including Russia, had said they were the likely victims of attacks and reported similar symptoms.

Lawmakers and the Trump administration’s National Security Council grew increasingly frustrated last year with State Department’s and the C.I.A.’s handling of the incidents.

Robert C. O’Brien, President Donald J. Trump’s last national security adviser, and Matthew Pottinger, his deputy, had already begun working in early 2020 to redouble efforts by their aides to understand the mysterious episodes and to get the Pentagon more involved.

But their staff members ran into frustration getting the C.I.A., the State Department and other agencies to share details about injured personnel, in part because of federal protections on health data. White House officials thought the investigation, in which the C.I.A. had been the lead agency, had run into a dead end.

The frustration culminated in a tense conversation Mr. Pottinger had with Vaughn Bishop, then the deputy C.I.A. director, and other officials in November. Mr. Pottinger urged the intelligence community to do more to cooperate with the Pentagon and other agencies. The next month, the National Security Council convened a deputy-level meeting across agencies to again push for further action and a broader investigation.

Mr. Pottinger declined to comment.

The Biden administration has tried to further improve coordination, including directing agencies to each name a coordinator to work on both identifying the cause of the episodes and improving health care for the injured personnel. Even some Democrats who have been briefed on the incidents called on the administration to be more aggressive.

“I don’t believe that we as a government, in general, have acted quickly enough,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and former Marine who heads the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations. “We really need to fully understand where this is coming from, what the targeting methods are and what we can do to stop them.”

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Mysterious Ailments Are Said to Be More Widespread Among U.S. Personnel

WASHINGTON — Mysterious episodes that caused brain injuries in spies, diplomats, soldiers and other U.S. personnel overseas starting five years ago now number more than 130 people, far more than previously known, according to current and former officials.

The number of cases within the C.I.A., the State Department, the Defense Department and elsewhere spurred broad concern in the Biden administration. The initial publicly confirmed cases were concentrated in China and Cuba and numbered about 60, not including a group of injured C.I.A. officers whose total is not public.

The new total adds cases from Europe and elsewhere in Asia and reflects efforts by the administration to more thoroughly review other incidents amid concern over a spate of them in recent months.

Since December, at least three C.I.A. officers have reported serious health effects from episodes overseas. One occurred within the past two weeks, and all have required the officers to undergo outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or other facilities.

a report released in December, the National Academy of Sciences said a microwave weapon probably caused the injuries. Some officials believe a microwave or directed-energy device is the most likely cause.

The severity of the brain injuries has ranged widely. But some victims have chronic, potentially irreversible symptoms and pain, suggesting potentially permanent brain injury. Physicians at Walter Reed have warned government officials that some victims are at risk for suicide.

one in 2020 that affected a National Security Council official near the Ellipse south of the White House and another in 2019 involving a woman walking her dog in Northern Virginia, have no known connection to an earlier overseas event. While many officials expressed skepticism that Russia or another power would conduct an attack in the United States, agencies are investigating.

Congress has demanded more from the C.I.A. In a closed-door meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, senators accused the C.I.A. of doing too little to investigate the mysterious episodes and until recently showing skepticism about them, according to people briefed on the meeting.

During the Trump administration, some in the agency said there was little intelligence showing a foreign power was responsible and argued that it made little sense analytically for Russia or another foreign intelligence service to make unprovoked attacks on Americans. Others doubted the cause of the brain injuries.

The new C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, has tried to move aggressively to improve the agency’s response, current and former officials said. Mr. Burns has met with victims, visited doctors who have treated injured agency officers and briefed lawmakers.

He has also assigned his deputy, David Cohen, to oversee the investigation and the health care response. Mr. Cohen will meet monthly with victims and will lead regular briefings for Congress. The agency has also doubled the number of medical personnel conducting treatment and managing cases of injured officers.

In addition, the chief medical officer, who had been criticized by some former officers as too skeptical of the incidents and dismissive of some symptoms, announced his retirement. He was replaced with another doctor seen inside the C.I.A. as more focused on patient care.

another cohort of C.I.A. officers traveling in a variety of countries, including Russia, had said they were the likely victims of attacks and reported similar symptoms.

Lawmakers and the Trump administration’s National Security Council grew increasingly frustrated last year with State Department’s and the C.I.A.’s handling of the incidents.

Robert C. O’Brien, President Donald J. Trump’s last national security adviser, and Matthew Pottinger, his deputy, had already begun working in early 2020 to redouble efforts by their aides to understand the mysterious episodes and to get the Pentagon more involved.

But their staff members ran into frustration getting the C.I.A., the State Department and other agencies to share details about injured personnel, in part because of federal protections on health data. White House officials thought the investigation, in which the C.I.A. had been the lead agency, had run into a dead end.

The frustration culminated in a tense conversation Mr. Pottinger had with Vaughn Bishop, then the deputy C.I.A. director, and other officials in November. Mr. Pottinger urged the intelligence community to do more to cooperate with the Pentagon and other agencies. The next month, the National Security Council convened a deputy-level meeting across agencies to again push for further action and a broader investigation.

Mr. Pottinger declined to comment.

The Biden administration has tried to further improve coordination, including directing agencies to each name a coordinator to work on both identifying the cause of the episodes and improving health care for the injured personnel. Even some Democrats who have been briefed on the incidents called on the administration to be more aggressive.

“I don’t believe that we as a government, in general, have acted quickly enough,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and former Marine who heads the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations. “We really need to fully understand where this is coming from, what the targeting methods are and what we can do to stop them.”

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Chandro Tomar, Who Shot Her Way Through a Glass Ceiling, Dies

NEW DELHI — Chandro Tomar first picked up a gun when she was around 68.

Until then, she had led a quiet life in Johri, a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most conservative regions in India. She spent her days on household chores — milking cows, cutting the grass, grinding wheat and mopping the floors of the large home she shared with her extended family.

But a trip to a local shooting range with her granddaughter Shefali, who was 12 at the time, changed everything. She discovered that she had a gift for shooting. A coach at the range encouraged her to practice, and she returned to the range each week with Shefali, under the guise of chaperoning her.

The two took turns firing the air pistol. Mrs. Tomar trained each night after her family had gone to sleep, holding up heavy jugs so she could keep her arm steady. A few months after she first picked up a gun, she competed in a regional championship and won a silver medal. (Shefali won a gold medal at the same tournament.) Her family found out about her achievement only when a local newspaper published an article about her.

“My husband and his brothers were very angry,” Mrs. Tomar recalled in a recent interview. “They said, ‘What will people think? An old lady of your age going out to shoot guns? You should be looking after your grandchildren.’”

“I listened to them quietly,” she said, “but I decided to keep going no matter what.”

Mrs. Tomar, usually wearing a long skirt, blouse and head scarf, continued to compete well into her 80s in shooting contests, often against men with military backgrounds. She eventually won more than 25 medals.

Mrs. Tomar, who was born in 1931, died on April 30 at a hospital in the town of Meerut, near her village, said Sumit Rathi, her granddaughter Shefali’s husband. She had been hospitalized for a gastrointestinal disorder and then suffered a brain hemorrhage, he said.

Along with Shefali, she is survived by two sons, Vinod and Omveer; three daughters, Savita, Kaushal and Dharambiri; nine other grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her husband, Bhawar Singh Tomar, died before her.

Mr. Tomar never saw his wife compete, and he and his brothers eventually began ignoring her new interest. “That was fine with me,” she said.

Mrs. Tomar was proudest of her work as a coach and mentor to hundreds of young women around the country. She persuaded families in Johri to send their young daughters to shooting ranges to learn the sport, often going door to door to talk to reluctant parents.

Today, her area of western Uttar Pradesh has dozens of shooting clubs, and hundreds of children take the sport seriously. For many of them, it’s a ticket to a better life and a job with the Indian Army or security forces. All of her grandchildren have competed at the national level, although only Shefali still does.

Chandro Malik was born into a large farming family, the only daughter among five siblings. She never went to school. She married Mr. Tomar at 15 and spent the next 50 years raising her family.

Her defiance of patriarchal and social norms and her determination to keep trying new things inspired countless people in her village and beyond. She was known fondly in India as “Shooter Dadi” (“Shooter Grandma”). In her later years, she traveled across the country to speak about female empowerment, until the pandemic forced her to stay home.

Her children and grandchildren fulfilled one of her dreams by building an indoor shooting range, for underprivileged children, in a section of their home. It opened last month.

“Dadi was happiest when she was teaching a new generation and firing at targets,” Mr. Rathi said, “and we plan to continue her life’s mission.”

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India’s Covid Patients Suffer a Fungal Threat: Mucormycosis

NEW DELHI — Doctors in India are concerned about an increasing number of potentially fatal fungal infections affecting either people who have Covid-19 or those who have recently recovered from the disease.

The condition, known as mucormycosis, has a high mortality rate and was present in India before the pandemic. It is caused by a mold that thrives in wet environments and can attack through the respiratory tract, potentially eroding facial structures and harming the brain.

The condition is relatively rare, but doctors and medical experts say it seems to be infecting some Covid patients whose weakened immune systems and underlying conditions, particularly diabetes, leave them vulnerable.

Some experts attribute the fungal infections to an increased use of steroids to treat hospitalized patients. Another factor could be that, with hospitals overwhelmed in this second wave of the pandemic, many families are self-medicating and applying oxygen therapy at home without the proper hygiene, experts say.

according to the 2019 International Diabetes Foundation Atlas.

Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, who leads the Public Health Foundation of India, said a large number of the recent reported mucormycosis cases are of hospitalized coronavirus patients who have been discharged after their recovery.

“You are using steroids to reduce the hyperimmune response, which is there in Covid,” Dr. Reddy said. “But you are reducing the resistance to other infections.”

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These Neanderthals Weren’t Cannibals, So Who Ate Them? Stone Age Hyenas.

ROME — When a Neanderthal skull was discovered in a cave on the property of a beachfront hotel south of Rome in 1939, it prompted a theory, since debunked, that Neanderthals had engaged in ritual cannibalism, extracting the brains of their victims to eat.

Now, a find at the same site, made public on Saturday, appears to have confirmed the true culprit: Stone Age hyenas.

New excavations at the site in the coastal town of San Felice Circeo have uncovered fossil remains of nine more Neanderthals of varying sex and age along with the bones of long-extinct hyenas, elephants, rhinoceroses and even the Urus, or Aurochs, the now-extinct ancestor of domestic cattle.

Experts say the findings, at the Guattari Cave, will offer fresh insight on the culinary peculiarities of the Neanderthal diet and much more.

Neanderthal skulls ever found. The skull had a large hole in the temple, and its fame may have been fueled by the thesis put forth by Alberto Carlo Blanc, the paleontologist who first studied it, that the Neanderthals had engaged in ritual cannibalism.

In the latest excavations, led by a multidisciplinary team that has been working since October 2019, researchers found hundreds of animal bones with signs they had been gnawed on by hyenas — the Stone Age ancestors to today’s carnivores — who used the cave as a sort of pantry, said Mario Rolfo, who teaches prehistoric archaeology at the University of Rome at Tor Vergata.

It appears that the hyenas also had a taste for Neanderthals, and one skull found at the site had a hole similar to the one found in the 1939 cranium. That find definitively put to rest Blanc’s theory of cannibalism and cult rituals.

“Reality is more banal,” Professor Rolfo said, adding that “hyenas like munching on bones” and probably opened a cavity in the skull to get to the brain.

It is unclear whether the Neanderthals were killed by the hyenas or the hyenas snacked on Neanderthals after they died from other causes.

“What it does mean is that there were many Neanderthals in the area,” Professor Rolfo said.

Neanderthals flourished in Europe for about 260,000 years, until roughly 40,000 years ago, though the dating is subject to much scholarly debate. Their bones have been found at sites across Europe and western Asia, from Spain to Siberia. But “finding so many in one site is very rare,” said Francesco Di Mario, the Culture Ministry archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

The recovery of new fossil remains, along with the 1939 findings, makes the cave “one of the most important Paleolithic sites in Europe and the world,” he said.

Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, called the finds an “extraordinary discovery” that enriches research on Neanderthals.

The site was particularly well preserved because a prehistoric landslide had closed the entrance to the cave. So when workers at the Guattari Hotel stumbled on it eight decades ago, “they found a situation that had been frozen in time, mummified to 50,000 years ago,” Professor Rolfo said.

The cave was studied until the early 1950s, but was not excavated again — and studied more comprehensively — until the last 20 months. That work has involved areas of the cave that were previously unexplored, including one cavity that regularly floods in the winter months.

The team of archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists and paleontologists also worked on the anterior area of the cave, unearthing burned bones, carved stones, and bones with cut marks, indicating that they had been hunted.

“We found rich traces of Neanderthal life there,” Professor Rolfo said.

Angelo Guattari, whose father owned the hotel in 1939 and was among the first to see the earlier Neanderthal skull, said that over time the cave had been mostly forgotten, unfortunately. Now, as the delegate for cultural heritage for the town of San Felice Circeo, he hopes the discoveries will lead the site to be opened to tourists.

The mayor, Giuseppe Schiboni, has applied for European Union funding to develop the town’s archaeological and anthropological pull. The hotel that the Guattari family once owned — since renamed “Neanderthal Hotel” — is up for sale. Mr. Schiboni said that he would love to buy it and install a European center on Neanderthal studies.

Once the site opens, possibly as soon as this year, visitors will be presented with a 10-minute virtual-reality video “and be catapulted into the cave” in its prehistoric guise, to help them better understand their surroundings, said Mr. Di Mario, who is coordinating the on-site research.

Neanderthals, said Mr. Rubini, the anthropologist, “were the uncontested lords of Eurasia for about 250,000 years.”

Whether humans will match that is an open question, he said.

“We don’t know if we will be — we’re still relatively young.”

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Helen Murray Free Dies at 98; Chemist Developed Diabetes Test

Helen Murray Free, a chemist who ushered in a revolution in diagnostic testing when she co-developed the dip-and-read diabetes test, a paper strip that detected glucose in urine, died on Saturday at a hospice facility in Elkhart, Ind. She was 98.

The cause was complications of a stroke, her son Eric said.

Before the invention of the dip-and-read test in 1956, technicians added chemicals to urine and then heated the mixture over a Bunsen burner. The test was inconvenient, and, because it could not distinguish glucose from other sugars, results were not very precise.

Working with her husband, who was also a chemist, Ms. Free figured out how to impregnate strips of filter paper with chemicals that turned blue when glucose was present. The test made it easier for clinicians to diagnose diabetes and cleared the way for home test kits, which enabled patients to monitor glucose on their own.

People with diabetes now use blood sugar meters to monitor their glucose levels, but the dip-and-read tests are ubiquitous in clinical laboratories worldwide.

commemorative booklet produced by the American Chemical Society in 2010.

She received her bachelor’s degree in 1944 and went to work for Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, first in quality control and then in the biochemistry division, which worked on diagnostic tests and was led by her future husband, Alfred Free. They married in 1947.

He provided the ideas; she was the technician “who had the advantage of picking his brain 24 hours a day,” Ms. Free recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2011. They soon set their sights on developing a more convenient glucose test “so no one would have to wash out test tubes and mess around with droppers,” she said. When her husband suggested chemically treated paper strips, “it was like a light bulb went off,” she said.

American Chemical Society in 1993. In 2009, she was awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama, and in 2011 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., for her role in developing the dip-and-read test.

Alfred Free died in 2000. In addition to her son Eric, Ms. Free is survived by two other sons, Kurt and Jake; three daughters, Bonnie Grisz, Nina Lovejoy and Penny Moloney; a stepson, Charles; two stepdaughters, Barbara Free and Jane Linderman; 17 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Miles Laboratories followed the introduction of the dip-and-read glucose test with a host of other tests designed to detect proteins, blood and other indicators of metabolic, kidney and liver disorders. “They sure went hog wild on diagnostics, and that’s all Al’s fault,” Ms. Free said in the commemorative booklet. “He was the one who pushed diagnostics.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Several years after the introduction of the dip-and-read test, Miles moved Ms. Free to another division, citing an anti-nepotism policy. But two years later, after a change in management, she was transferred back to her husband’s division.

“They realized that breaking up a team like this was interfering with productivity in the lab,” Ms. Free said.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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Many Families Torn Apart at the Southern Border Face a Long and Uncertain Wait

HUEHUETENANGO, Guatemala — In a small village in the Guatemalan highlands, a father smiled into the tiny screen of a cellphone and held up a soccer jersey for the camera, pointing to the name emblazoned on the back: Adelso.

In Boca Raton, Fla., on the other end of the video chat, his son — Adelso — started to cry.

“I’ll send it to you,” the father, David, said during the call in March. “You need to be strong. We’re going to hug and talk together again. Everything’s going to be fine.”

migrant children who are in the United States but separated from their parents, according to lawyers working on the issue. There are at least another 445 who were taken from parents who have not been located.

The separated families received a jolt of hope in early February when President Biden signed an executive order to reunify the migrant families by bringing the deported parents into the United States.

This week, as migrant apprehensions at the southwest border approach a near 20-year high, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would bring a handful of separated parents to the U.S. in the coming days. The process of reunifying them all could take months or years, and questions remain about what benefits will be offered to each of those families.

Adelso has lived the last three years with his aunt, Teresa Quiñónez, in Boca Raton, Fla., where she works as a real estate agent. She had come to the United States herself at 17, without her parents.

a 2020 investigation by Physicians for Human Rights, many children separated from a parent at the border exhibited symptoms and behavior consistent with trauma: post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. In some cases, the trauma stemmed partly from experiences in the child’s home country, but researchers found it was likely linked to the separation itself.

Dr. Falcón-Banchs currently treats eight children between the ages of 6 and 16 who were separated from a parent in 2017 and 2018. Five of those children received a diagnosis of PTSD, anxiety and-or depression. Adelso is faring better and has shown resilience and coping skills, she said.

In one case, a boy from Honduras who is now 13 suffered severe anxiety and PTSD after being separated from his mother for several months and placed in foster care. Being reunited with her didn’t improve his condition right away, Falcón-Banchs said.

“When his mom first took him to school in the U.S., his brain responded in such a way that he began screaming and panicking and wanted to leave,” she said. “When he was separated, he was told that he was ‘lost in the system’ and wouldn’t be able to be reunited with his mom. So he was just crying, perhaps because of that association.”

the Trump administration did not track after separation.

And many families whose whereabouts were known have since moved or changed phone numbers, compounding the challenge of possible reunification.

Further complicating the task is that most migrants come from Central America, and three countries there — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have experienced lockdowns during the pandemic, as well as widespread internal displacement from two hurricanes, Eta and Iota.

“We must find every last family and will not stop until we do,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney for immigrant rights at the A.C.L.U.

But the process has been “extremely difficult and slow,” he said, adding that “many of the parents can only be found through on-the-ground searches.”

During a visit to a small Guatemalan town, a Times reporter learned of three parents who said they were forcibly separated from their children by U.S. border officials in 2018 and then deported. Two had already made the perilous return trip to the U.S., spending $15,000 on a journey to reunite with their children in Florida.

“They returned for the kids, because they were left alone there,” said Eusevia Quiñónez, whose husband, Juan Bernardo, left with his older brother for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 8. “Thank God, they arrived OK.”

Another father, Melvin Jacinto, was contacted by KIND, a children’s defense group, more than a year ago, but he doubts they will be able to help him. He again wants to try to enter the United States to reunite with his son, Rosendo, in Minneapolis and to find work to support his family. He said talking on the phone with his son, who turned 18 last month and from whom he has been separated for three years, is emotionally difficult for him. He can’t help but cry.

“It’s like I’m traumatized or something,” Mr. Jacinto said. “I’m not good. I don’t sleep, not at all.”

Psychologists working with separated families say that family reunification is just one step in the healing process, and that the parents have as much need for mental health counseling as the children. Many parents blame themselves for the separation, and after reunification the children, too, often blame the parents.

David, who has suffered from stress-induced gastritis and other health complications since the separation, said he had also considered hiring a smuggler to get back to the U.S. to reunite with Adelso.

“I need to see my son,” he said. “And he needs me.”

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Faith, Freedom, Fear: Rural America’s Covid Vaccine Skeptics

So which trusted person will speak for the vaccine? Eva Fields?

She is a nurse-practitioner who treated one of the first local patients to die from Covid. Greeneville-raised, she has 24 relatives who had the virus.

When she asks patients if they will get vaccinated, about half reply, “No and I’m not going to.” Assuming she’ll be angry, they add, “I’m so sorry if that upsets you!”

Miss Fields responds, “That’s OK, honey. I’m not planning to, either.”

Her gut tells her to believe a video someone sent her from a far-right misinformation group, in which a ranter said studies showed that vaccines caused plaque in the brain.

Like others here, she is suspicious of Bill Gates’s involvement in vaccine development. One evening at supper, Dr. Theo Hensley, a vaccine proponent in her office, retorted: “I don’t know Bill Gates but I do know that Dolly Parton gave a million bucks.” (Ms. Parton is northeast Tennessee’s favorite daughter.)

“Well, she’s probably OK,” Miss Fields allowed.

“When someone pushes something really hard, I sit back, because I don’t like people telling me, ‘This is what you need to do,’ ” Miss Fields said. Echoing many others, she added, “I need to do my own research.”

For now, she neither urges nor discourages patients to get the vaccine.

The day the Fletchers, the retired couple, spoke about the vaccine with their family physician, Dr. Daniel Lewis, was the one-year anniversary of the day he was put on a ventilator with a severe case of Covid.

Dr. Lewis, 43, remained hospitalized for over a month. He was so gravely ill that he recorded farewell messages for his five children.

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The Robot Surgeon Will See You Now

Sitting on a stool several feet from a long-armed robot, Dr. Danyal Fer wrapped his fingers around two metal handles near his chest.

As he moved the handles — up and down, left and right — the robot mimicked each small motion with its own two arms. Then, when he pinched his thumb and forefinger together, one of the robot’s tiny claws did much the same. This is how surgeons like Dr. Fer have long used robots when operating on patients. They can remove a prostate from a patient while sitting at a computer console across the room.

But after this brief demonstration, Dr. Fer and his fellow researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, showed how they hope to advance the state of the art. Dr. Fer let go of the handles, and a new kind of computer software took over. As he and the other researchers looked on, the robot started to move entirely on its own.

With one claw, the machine lifted a tiny plastic ring from an equally tiny peg on the table, passed the ring from one claw to the other, moved it across the table and gingerly hooked it onto a new peg. Then the robot did the same with several more rings, completing the task as quickly as it had when guided by Dr. Fer.

how surgeons learn to operate robots like the one in Berkeley. Now, an automated robot performing the test can match or even exceed a human in dexterity, precision and speed, according to a new research paper from the Berkeley team.

The project is a part of a much wider effort to bring artificial intelligence into the operating room. Using many of the same technologies that underpin self-driving cars, autonomous drones and warehouse robots, researchers are working to automate surgical robots too. These methods are still a long way from everyday use, but progress is accelerating.

where there is room for improvement — by automating particular phases of surgery.

significantly improved the power of computer vision, which could allow robots to perform surgical tasks on their own, without such markers.

The change is driven by what are called neural networks, mathematical systems that can learn skills by analyzing vast amounts of data. By analyzing thousands of cat photos, for instance, a neural network can learn to recognize a cat. In much the same way, a neural network can learn from images captured by surgical robots.

inserting a needle for a cancer biopsy or burning into the brain to remove a tumor.

“It is like a car where the lane-following is autonomous but you still control the gas and the brake,” said Greg Fischer, one of the Worcester researchers.

Many obstacles lie ahead, scientists note. Moving plastic pegs is one thing; cutting, moving and suturing flesh is another. “What happens when the camera angle changes?” said Ann Majewicz Fey, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin. “What happens when smoke gets in the way?”

For the foreseeable future, automation will be something that works alongside surgeons rather than replaces them. But even that could have profound effects, Dr. Fer said. For instance, doctors could perform surgery across distances far greater than the width of the operating room — from miles or more away, perhaps, helping wounded soldiers on distant battlefields.

The signal lag is too great to make that possible currently. But if a robot could handle at least some of the tasks on its own, long-distance surgery could become viable, Dr. Fer said: “You could send a high-level plan and then the robot could carry it out.”

The same technology would be essential to remote surgery across even longer distances. “When we start operating on people on the moon,” he said, “surgeons will need entirely new tools.”

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