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Woman charged in abduction of boy from Giles County church
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PEARISBURG — Two-year-old Noah Gabriel Trout seemed lost — snatched from the nursery of a Ripplemead church — then a day later was found, the Giles County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday.

The happy outcome of the search for the toddler, who Virginia State Police said Sunday was thought to be in extreme danger, came after an array of local, state and federal agencies joined forces. Investigators identified a possible suspect and officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Virginia State Police swooped in on an Alleghany County location to recover Noah and arrest a Clifton Forge woman, Sheriff Morgan Millirons said.

Noah seemed fine after his 25-hour disappearance, Millirons said, though more tests will be done at a hospital.

Nancy Renee Fridley, 44, was charged with abduction and felony child endangerment. Millirons did not take questions about what link she may have had to the boy, but said investigators have yet to establish a possible motive.

It was not immediately apparent when Fridley would make a first appearance in Giles courts.

Noah’s disappearance became a public matter Sunday afternoon as Virginia issued an AMBER Alert asking the public for any help finding the 2-foot-9-inch, 33-pound youngster.

Noah had vanished at noon from Riverview Baptist Church, located in the 200 block of Big Stony Creek Road. He was thought to have been taken away in a dark-colored SUV or van.

In a photo that state police released, the possible abductor walks toward an exit door with Noah following. The suspect wears a blue jacket and blue jeans, black tennis shoes, a black or dark blue knit cap, glasses, and a medical-style face mask. Noah, his blond hair buzzed short on the sides, wears an orange jacket.

What happened next wasn’t described at the two news conferences held Monday by the sheriff’s office. Millirons said he knew that the community wanted answers but asked that people be patient as an investigation continues.

The sheriff gave a capsule description of Fridley’s arrest, saying the FBI and state police teams began watching an Alleghany County location, spotted a child that matched Noah’s description and moved in.

On Monday afternoon, before Noah’s rescue was announced, people came and went from Riverview Baptist Church. The church has several buildings and operates a number of ministries including the Jefferson Christian Academy and a daycare.

A man in the parking lot said a reporter was not welcome. Pastor Mike Mitchener did not return a phone message asking for comment, but did post a statement on the church’s website Monday afternoon calling the previous 24 hours “a nightmare for our entire church family.”

Writing that prayers were answered with Noah’s safe return, Mitchener thanked law enforcement and said Riverview was working to make its facilities safer.

“We hope that this criminal act on our campus allows other churches to evaluate their own childcare safety procedures,” Mitchener wrote.

The pastor listed transparency and accountability as essential parts of a successful ministry but said that there would be no further statement for now on Noah’s case because the church did not want to interfere with the ongoing investigation.

Stanley Meador, special agent in charge of the Richmond FBI Field Office, spoke briefly, thanking the agencies and officers assisting as well as those who sent tips and information.

“Because of you, Noah gets to rest peacefully tonight, under the watchful eye of his parents,” Meador said.

Millirons and Meador thanked a number of agencies for assisting in the search, including the Pearisburg Police Department, U.S. Marshal’s Service, Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, and the state police.

Roanoke City Public Schools to upgrade technical education, relocate offices to newspaper building

Roanoke City Public Schools announced a major project Monday to include establishment of a career and technical education center on the campus of William Fleming High School.

In addition, school officials said they plan to buy The Roanoke Times building downtown to use as a new central office. The current central administration offices will become the Booker T. Washington Center for Community Empowerment & Education, a newly released written plan says.

Setting up the three new facilities will cost an estimated $15 million, officials said.

The new technical training center responds to a concern that students would benefit from greater access to quality technical training, which goes by the acronym CTE in school circles. Right now, the city school system operates a tech ed center only at Patrick Henry High School.

This is Superintendent Verletta White’s first large initiative outside of addressing the pandemic since she was hired a year ago and is termed “Equity in Action.” Equity is a buzzword for a sustained focus on students’ diverse needs.

“We currently have a unique opportunity to increase equity in the delivery of high quality instruction, particularly in CTE, and enhance the division’s accessibility and support for the community, at large,” according to project documents.

A 12-page description, whose full title is “Equity in Action — Destination 2030,” was made public Monday. A tagline underneath reads “achieving equity in RCPS via excellence, engagement & empowerment.”

White recalled that detailed work on the plan for new facilities began after the newspaper building at 201 Campbell Ave. S.W. went on the market in January. The school division has a signed option to purchase the building, but would require approval of the Roanoke City Council to close the purchase. Berkshire Hathaway sold The Roanoke Times to Lee Enterprises in March 2020 but retained ownership of the real estate. The newspaper offices will relocate later this year, according to Lee Enterprises Regional President Samuel Worthington.

On Tuesday afternoon, the council authorized its city manager to enter into an agreement with the owner of the newspaper building to buy the building. A closing date was not immediately announced.

Key parts of the three-year project include:

Purchase of The Roanoke Times building and parking lot downtown for nearly $5.9 million. After renovation estimated to cost $4 million, it would house school system central offices and open for that purpose in mid-2022. This move is expected to reduce the system’s use of leased space. The school division is not purchasing the former press building located along Salem Avenue and across Second Street from the main newspaper offices.

Establish the Booker T. Washington Center for Community Empowerment & Education in the current central office, 40 Douglass Ave., formerly Booker T. Washington Junior High School. It would open in January 2024 and include a welcome center, community resource center, a “makerspace” for hands-on learning, computer laboratory, tutoring, adult education programs and event space for gatherings such as job fairs. Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins said the facility will function as a community center open to all whether a student or parent or not. It is near Gainsboro Road and Orange Avenue.

Repurpose facilities at the former William Ruffner Middle School on the William Fleming campus, which is closed to students but houses non-student functions, as a tech education center. Courses there are expected to include automotive technology, carpentry, cosmetology, criminal justice, health and nursing, landscaping, sports medicine and welding. Renovations will cost $5.5 million, while staffing is expected to cost $2.8 million annually. It would open in fall 2023.

Photos: From Roanoke schools' "Equity in Action Program" announcement

Dems seek to rein in cost of medicines

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s call for authorizing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices has energized Democrats on a politically popular idea they’ve been pushing for nearly 20 years only to encounter frustration.

But they still lack a clear path to enact legislation. That’s because a small number of Democrats remain uneasy over government price curbs on pharmaceutical companies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will need every Democratic vote in a narrowly divided Congress. Otherwise Democrats may have to settle for a compromise that stops short of their goal. Or they could take the issue into the 2022 midterm elections.

“There is a path,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., one of Pelosi’s lieutenants. “But there’s also a challenge, and the challenge is we’ve got razor-thin margins.”

“This is not a done deal,” continued Welch. “We’ve got a president and a speaker, but ‘pharma’ is very powerful.” Pharma is a nickname for the industry and for its main lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA.

The industry thwarted President Donald Trump’s multi-pronged efforts to constrain its pricing power. Even though Trump came into office accusing drugmakers of “getting away with murder” and vowing he’d put a stop to it, the companies emerged from his term with just a few nicks and cuts.

The industry lobbying group PhRMA is considered one of the most skilled operators in Washington. Its mission: to preserve a clause in the 2003 law that created Medicare’s pharmacy benefit barring the government from interfering in price negotiations among drugmakers and insurers. That was enacted before $1,000 pills became old hat.

PhRMA CEO Stephen Ubl served notice after Biden’s speech to Congress last week that the industry stands ready to defend its prerogative. “Giving the government the power to arbitrarily determine the price of medicines is not the right approach,” he said in a statement arguing that it would stifle innovation. Such measured language belies the group’s clout. It’s usually among the top five spenders on Washington lobbying and networks with allied groups in the states.

“I don’t think anybody is fully prepared for the onslaught we expect from PhRMA,” said Margarida Jorge, campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now, a coalition backing Medicare negotiations. “We are going to see a much bigger stepped-up game.”

Pelosi put Medicare negotiations back in play with the reintroduction of an ambitious bill she powered through the House in 2019. Medicare would use an average of lower prices in other economically advanced countries to negotiate on top drugs. Companies that refused to deal would be hit with a steep tax. Drugmakers who hike prices above the rate of inflation would owe rebates to Medicare. Hundreds of billions of dollars potentially saved through the legislation would be plowed back into other health care programs. Private insurers covering working-age people would be able to secure Medicare’s lower prices.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Biden invited lawmakers to imagine the possibilities. “The money we save, which is billions of dollars, can go to strengthening the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicare benefits without costing taxpayers an additional penny,” the president said. “It is within our power to do it. Let’s do it now. We’ve talked about it long enough.”

But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is urging Biden to lower his sights a bit. Grassley opposes negotiating authority for Medicare but supports requiring drugmakers to pay rebates for price hikes above the inflation rate — a potential compromise. “I hope the president reconsiders the liberal pipe dream in favor of the big bipartisan win,” said Grassley.

Polls have consistently shown strong public support for authorizing Medicare to negotiate. “This is very high among the concerns of voters, and also heavily promised by Biden in the campaign,” said policy expert John Rother, a longtime advocate of drug price curbs. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the issue.

One option for Pelosi and Schumer would be to splice the Medicare legislation into a mammoth bill delivering Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” promises on social programs and infrastructure. Such a vehicle would seem to offer the greatest chance to pass drug pricing curbs. But the political dynamics are different in each chamber. What might work in the House may get nowhere in the Senate.

With its 50-50 split, the Senate is looking like the choke point. The overwhelming majority of Democrats are in favor of Medicare negotiations, but a few are undeclared.

Among them is Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, whose office says he believes “any drug pricing bill must deliver real savings for consumers at the pharmacy counter, not just achieve savings to the government or overall system.”

“It’s going to be a heavy lift,” said policy expert Rother. “But I don’t think you know for sure until you try it.”

Official: FDA to OK vaccine for 12-year-olds

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 and older by next week, according to a federal official and a person familiar with the process, setting up shots for many before the beginning of the next school year.

The announcement is set to come barely a month after the company found that its shot, which is already authorized for those ages 16 and older, also provided protection for the younger group.

The federal official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the FDA’s action, said the agency was expected to expand its emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine by early next week, and perhaps even sooner. The person familiar with the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, confirmed the timeline and added that it is expected that the FDA will approve Pfizer’s use by even younger children sometime this fall.

The FDA action will be followed by a meeting of a federal vaccine advisory committee to discuss whether to recommend the shot for 12- to 15-year-olds. Shots could begin after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopts the committee’s recommendation. Those steps could be completed in a matter of days.

The New York Times first reported on the expected timing for the authorization.

Meanwhile, air travel in the U.S. hit its highest mark since COVID-19 took hold more than 13 months ago, while European Union officials are proposing to ease restrictions on visitors to the continent as the vaccine sends new cases and deaths tumbling in more affluent countries.

The improving picture in many places contrasts with the worsening disaster in India.

In the U.S., the average number of new cases per day fell below 50,000 for the first time since October. And nearly 1.67 million people were screened at U.S. airport checkpoints on Sunday, according to the Transportation Security Administration, the highest number since mid-March of last year.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation giving him sweeping powers to invalidate local emergency measures put in place during the outbreak. While the law doesn’t go into effect until July, the Republican governor said he will issue an executive order to more quickly get rid of local mask mandates.

“I think this creates a structure that’s going to be a little bit more respectful, I think, of people’s businesses, jobs, schools and personal freedom,” he said.

Las Vegas is bustling again after casino capacity limits were raised Saturday to 80% and person-to-person distancing was dropped to 3 feet. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City’s subways will begin running all night again and capacity restrictions on most businesses will end statewide in mid-May.

And Los Angeles County reported no coronavirus deaths on Sunday and Monday, some of which may be attributable to a lag in reporting but was nevertheless a hopeful sign that could move the county to allow an increase in capacity at events and venues, and indoor-service at bars.

EU officials also announced a proposal Monday to relax restrictions on travel to the 27-nation bloc this summer, though the final decision is up to its member countries.

“Time to revive EU tourism industry and for cross-border friendships to rekindle — safely,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “We propose to welcome again vaccinated visitors and those from countries with a good health situation.”

In Greece, restaurants and cafes reopened their terraces on Monday after six months of shutdown, with customers flocking to soak up the sunshine. In France, high schools reopened and a ban on domestic travel was lifted.

The once hard-hit Czech Republic, where cases are now declining, announced it will allow people to remove face coverings at all outdoor spaces starting next Monday if they keep their distance from others.

But with more-contagious variants taking hold, efforts are underway to boost vaccination efforts, which have begun to lag. The average number of doses given per day fell 27% from a high of 3.26 million on April 11 to 2.37 million last Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Detroit, teams from the city’s health department have knocked on nearly 5,000 doors since the weekend to persuade people to get immunized. And Massachusetts’ governor announced plans to close four of seven mass vaccination sites by the end of June in favor of a more targeted approach.

“My plea to everyone: Get vaccinated now, please,” President Joe Biden said in Norfolk, Virginia. He stressed that he has worked hard to make sure there are more than 600 million doses of vaccine — enough for all Americans to get both doses.

“We’re going to increase that number across the board as well so we can also be helping other nations once we take care of all Americans,” the president said.

Brazil, once the epicenter of the pandemic, has been overtaken by a surge in India that has overrun crematoriums and made it clear the p andemic is far from over.

As the U.S. and other countries rushed in aid, India reported nearly 370,000 new cases and more than 3,400 deaths Monday — numbers that experts believe are vast undercounts because of a widespread lack of testing and incomplete reporting.

In Germany, Bavarian officials canceled Oktoberfest for a second year in a row because of the safety risks. The beer-drinking festivities typically attract about 6 million visitors from around the world.

And in Italy, medical experts and politicians expressed concern about a possible spike in infections after tens of thousands of jubilant soccer fans converged on Milan’s main square Sunday to celebrate Inter Milan’s league title.