Mother Jones Magazine

We Don’t Know Yet Which Country Has Done the Best Job Fighting COVID-19

From the AP:

South Korea’s capital closed down more than 2,100 bars and other nightspots Saturday because of a new cluster of coronavirus infections, Germany scrambled to contain fresh outbreaks at slaughterhouses, and Italian authorities worried that people were getting too friendly at cocktail hour during the country’s first weekend of eased restrictions. The new outbreaks — and the fears of a second wave of contagion — underscored the dangers authorities face as they try to reopen their economies.

Like all of you, I’ve seen a lot of scorekeeping over the past couple of months. South Korea had the best response! Sweden is paying the price for its easygoing ways! We should do whatever Germany is doing!

I’ve done some of this myself, and it’s certainly worthwhile to try to figure out best practices and emulate them if possible. But keep in mind that it’s still early days in a pandemic that will most likely last a year or two. By the end of 2020 it’s possible that we’ll have a whole new idea of which countries have done the best and which haven’t.

For Sweden in particular I’d keep my powder dry for the moment. Remember, their light lockdown rules weren’t put in place because authorities thought they’d be more effective than a tight lockdown. They acknowledged that their death toll might be high at first. But their goal was to find the right sweet spot: a set of rules tight enough to keep the virus under control but loose enough that people could comply with them over the long term. It will be a long time before we know for sure if this worked.

Donald Trump Is Going to Hate SNL’s Season Finale

Even in an episode produced in isolation, Saturday Night Live’s season finale opener delivered. The cast joined a virtual commencement ceremony in which Donald Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, is the only speaker that was available to the class of high school seniors.

“I asked you to vote today on who should be the keynote speaker,” Kate McKinnon’s Principal O’Grady tells the class, via Zoom. “Unfortunately, Barack and Michelle Obama said ‘no,’ as did your next five choices,” which included Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose, the murder hornets, Liberty Mutual’s LiMu Emu, “that dude from 90-Day Fiance who looked like a hedgehog,” and the Elon Musk/Grimes baby. “So I moved on to your eighth choice, receiving one vote, President Donald Trump.”

Baldwin’s Trump congratulates the class of “COVID-19,” and jumps into a lecture in which he claims he’s been treated “even worse than they treated Lincoln,” praises his online college for ranking “number one craziest scam” by US News, and sips from a Clorox bleach container, which he refers to as “invincibility juice.”

He leaves the students with an inspirational quote: “Reach for the stars because if you’re a star, they’ll let you do it.”

Watch the full sketch below. 

Welcome to Virtual High School Graduation. #SNLAtHome pic.twitter.com/rPrATQeMQ1

— Saturday Night Live – SNL (@nbcsnl) May 10, 2020

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: May 9 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through May 9. Nothing special to report, though it looks like countries have a hard time keeping lockdowns in place all the way to the bottom of the curve. That’s no surprise, I suppose, but it means that the path from, say, 4 deaths per million to 1 death per million might be a long one. In the United States, we’ve been plateaued at 5.5 for eight days now. Will we decline any further before the numbers explode again in late May?

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is here.

Mother’s Day Celebrations That Defy Distance and Meet the Moment

For the millions of mothers working front-line jobs and the millions more incarcerated across America right now—80 percent of women in jail are mothers—spending Mother’s Day at a distance is a test of stamina. But also of solidarity. Just ask the 8-year-old and 10-year-old in Wisconsin who created an online newspaper with their mother called the Quarantine Times to celebrate families everywhere; the mother and daughter graduating together in North Carolina this week; the doulas and midwives organizing for change at the National Black Doulas Association; the 150 hospital workers getting a musical surprise in the Bronx for Mother’s Day; and the inspiring Colorlines writer Rosana Cruz, who envisions “what a Mother’s Day steeped in racial and gender justice” can look like.

However you view the day, it’s grounded in searches for change, traceable to anti-war activist Anna Jarvis, blues singer Bessie Smith, voting-rights pioneer Julia Ward Howe, and billions of women throughout history. The cards came later. Consumerism came later. Tweetable feasts, later. Overpriced gadgets that break in a week, later. The origins run deeper, so let us know how motherhood inspires you beyond Mother’s Day at recharge@motherjones.com. We’ll highlight some of your stories on our new daily Recharge blog.

This Is What Scientific Fieldwork Is Like During the Time of COVID-19

This piece was originally published in Atlas Obscura and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

If May 2020 was like any other spring, Daniel Bolnick, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut, would be wrapping up a semester of teaching and preparing to head into the field. He and as many as two-dozen collaborators would be fanning out to sites in Alaska and Canada’s Vancouver Island, where they would traverse lush forests with snow-capped mountains in the distance, and splosh into lakes and streams.

By day, they would wade into the cold water to study threespine stickleback—metallic little fish that measure approximately two inches long and weigh a little more than a penny—and investigate ecology, evolution, and immunology, focusing on, among other things, the comparatively enormous parasites that hunker down inside the fish. (Picture a translucent gummy worm about half the mass of the unfortunate stickleback itself. Or wince at the thought of a 150-pound human wandering around with a 75-pound worm wriggling inside them.)

At night, the whole team would crash in a cozy cabin, with people sleeping wherever they could find room—on the couch, on the porch, in hammocks in the nearby woods. “In a normal year, it’s fun and entertaining, and people get along well, so it works,” Bolnick says. “But cramming 10 people into a 600-square-foot cabin would not be a good idea right now, to say the least.”

In May 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, nothing is normal—including seasonal fieldwork. Bolnick and his team, like many researchers around the world, are scrambling to figure out how to make it happen in the era of social distancing.

Bolnick’s ears perked up about COVID-19 back in January; by February, he was convinced that the field season was in trouble. In March he took to Twitter to put out a call for other researchers in the same position—and for people who already lived in the areas where he was looking to do fieldwork, and might be able to help.

A stickleback and its terribly large worm.
Daniel Bolnick

For Carolyn McKinnon, the request came at just the right time. Before the outbreak, she had been working as an educator at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island, taking students—ranging from kindergarteners to university groups—out to the beach or for rides on a boat, and teaching them about the ocean. The gig dried up in mid-March, she says, when many Canadian public schools went remote.

McKinnon was able to hang on to a job for a few more weeks, working on lesson plans and other tasks, before she was laid off at the end of March. Fortuitously, she says, “my friend is on science Twitter a lot, and knew that I was looking for work, because my summer job wasn’t looking like it was going to go through.” That friend came across Bolnick’s call. McKinnon got in touch with her résumé, then Bolnick enlisted her to go out and collect stickleback, euthanize them in accordance with animal-use protocols (which often include administering an overdose of an analgesic), and store their bodies in a freezer.

“Cramming 10 people into a 600-square-foot cabin would not be a good idea right now, to say the least.”

The call came at the right time for Diana Rennison too. An assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of California San Diego, Rennison also studies stickleback—and was lamenting a similarly scuttled research trip to Vancouver. Rennison is Canadian, and the postdoc on the project is a German citizen. Neither of them has a U.S. green card; both are on temporary work permits. A few months ago, as travel bans came into effect, the researchers began to worry that they would have trouble hopscotching the borders. “We realized we were going to have to throw in the towel at the end of February or first week in March,” Rennison says.

When she saw Bolnick’s call, she thought maybe they could team up. “By chance, he and I were both planning to collect [stickleback] from largely the same set of lakes,” Rennison says. “So if we weren’t in this situation, we would have sent independent field teams to these lakes, and now are sharing a lot of the same samples.” Now they’re co-hiring a small field crew—including McKinnon—to work at the same sites and tackle projects for both of their labs.

Bolnick’s crew typically works around Roberts Lake, near the Campbell River area on Vancouver Island.
Daniel Bolnick

The field season should be kicking off this month, but it hasn’t been seamless so far. Even though they were able to hire McKinnon and a few others who can set out traps and, say, distinguish a stickleback from a salmon, there have been several other logistical hurdles to clear. They had to update their permits, and in addition to the sites Bolnick and Rennison planned to sample in the Campbell River area—a four-hour drive from where McKinnon is, along a slow, winding road pocked with potholes—the researchers are keen to secure approval to sample stickleback close to Bamfield, on the southern side of the island, where McKinnon has already been living.

Before sampling some of the sites near Bamfield, McKinnon is waiting for permission from the Huu-ay-aht First Nation, which must sign off before she can collect on any lakes in the group’s treaty territory. Storing the collected specimens will require a bit of creativity too. Rennison’s in-laws happen to live on Vancouver Island, and she plans to stow her samples in a freezer in their garage until she can drive up from California and retrieve them.

Many isolated communities around the world are bristling at newcomers who are fleeing cities, which tend to have dense clusters of disease, and McKinnon thinks researchers who are doing fieldwork in remote areas have an obligation to mitigate the risk they’re adding to the mix, and ask themselves whether their particular projects really need to happen right now.

“It’s a lot of stress that’s pushing you to go out into the field,” she says. “But I do think taking a minute to really think about the impact your research could have on the community you’re going to is important. If you can find a workaround like Dan has, where he’s already hiring people living and working near the communities he needs samples from, that seems like a better option.”

It’s part of the appeal of doing fieldwork near Bamfield too—she wouldn’t be traveling into the community from somewhere else, which may have a higher rate of COVID-19. “I think I’ll get approval to do lakes around Bamfield because that will just be me,” she says. “I don’t think I pose much of a COVID risk to the community.”

“Taking a minute to really think about the impact your research could have on the community you’re going to is important.”

For scientists there are financial considerations, which often dovetail with a desire not to raise specimens whose lives would be wasted. Bolnick’s team has spent upwards of $50,000 breeding and caring for fish that can be released only on Vancouver Island in a narrow window this year; take them through another generation, and the genetic components of the experiment unravel. “Either we use them in the next month,” Bolnick says, “or we don’t use them at all.”

There are professional worries too. Graduate students and postdocs who aren’t able to get into the field might have incomplete data sets, which could endanger publication prospects or blunt their chances in an already fierce job market. One of the Vancouver Island projects is run by a postdoc gearing up to find a job. “Having him potentially lose an experiment he’s spent two years building up is quite sobering,” Bolnick says.

And then there are almost-too-good-to-be-true opportunities that researchers can’t bear to squander. On the Kenai Peninsula, in Alaska, for instance, Bolnick’s team is in the middle of an experiment that he says “could never be restarted.” The researchers recently had the chance to introduce stickleback to a “tabula rasa environment”—nine lakes where the Alaska Department of Fish and Game used the chemical rotenone to evict northern pike, an introduced species, by wiping them out. (Other species were collateral damage.) As far as natural laboratories go, it would be hard to ask for a better setup.

“We’re not going to have nine lakes at our disposal to repopulate ever again,” Bolnick says. The first-generation piscine residents will breed this year. “Every summer that we miss sampling, we’re missing a generation.”

For the Vancouver Island fieldwork, the plan is to dampen the risks of COVID-19 transmission by encouraging the crew to practice social distancing as much as possible—from the rest of the community, and from each other. Members of the field crew are being asked to self-isolate for two weeks before they come in contact with one another, Rennison says; Bolnick says that they’ll travel from site to site in separate cars. Some may visit different lakes on different days.

But total solitude isn’t ideal either, he adds, because a lot can go wrong in the woods. Someone on Bolnick’s team once tumbled over a root and broke an arm; another punctured a foot on a stick. “Accidents happen, and no one wants to be heading to the hospital in this era,” he says. An extra set of eyes might be welcome.

But out at the wonderfully lonely field sites—thickly fringed with forests and tousled by breezes—Bolnick expects it will be easy to stay fairly far apart. The wide-open water, he says, “is about as safe a spot as can be.”

California Is Sending Every Voter a Ballot This Fall. The Rest of the Country Is Running Out of Time.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom notched a major victory for the ongoing push for increased mail voting Friday when he ordered that all of the state’s 20.6 million voters be mailed a ballot for the November elections, citing the need to balance public health concerns and the massive desire to vote this fall.

“There’s a lot of excitement around this November’s election in terms of making sure that you can conduct yourself in a safe way, and make sure your health is protected,” Newsom said Friday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Newsom’s mandate lands amidst a major political fight over increased mail voting across the country as a means to allow people to cast ballots without having to risk gathering in long lines and small spaces to vote in person, and get poll workers sick, especially after 16 states had to delay or cancel elections in the wake of the pandemic.

The poster case for potential problems was the April 7 election in Wisconsin, which included the national Democratic primary and a contentious state supreme court race. The state’s Democratic governor tried to delay the election and allow for increased applications for mail ballots but was successfully blocked by state Republicans and the state supreme court. Public health officials in Wisconsin say there isn’t enough testing and contact tracing data to know whether the election led to a spike in coronavirus cases but, according to state data, 67 people who tested positive for the virus after the election said they had been at the polls, according to the Associated Press.

In Florida, another state that pushed forward with its primary election in March amidst coronavirus concerns, at least two poll workers later tested positive for the virus. But, again, the data available is insufficient to ascertain whether they got sick because of the election itself or contracted it somewhere else.

For months, congressional Democrats—led by Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota—have pushed legislation to mandate all states offer no excuse mail voting for eligible voters. Local officials around the country have also called for increased access for mail voting, but have also asked for funding assistance to make the change.

Republicans have pushed back, led by President Trump who extolled Republicans to “fight very hard” against mail voting, inaccurately claiming that the practice “doesn’t work out well for Republicans” and saying the practice lends itself to voter fraud. In a Saturday tweet claiming that all elections in California are “rigged,” Trump noted that Democrats “fought like crazy to get all mail in only ballots, and succeeded.”

Democrats managed to get $400 million in election funding for states in the ongoing coronavirus relief packages, but have so far been unable to get Republicans to support vote by mail requirements, even as recent polling data suggests that a majority of Americans are concerned about voting during the pandemic and overwhelmingly support allowing those who want to the option of voting by mail.

Five states currently do elections primarily via mail ballot: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Nearly two dozen additional states allow for primarily-mail elections for specific elections, such as school board contests, or in places where the population is small and dispersed widely, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Every state allows for some form of voting by mail—typically known as absentee voting—but 16 states require an “excuse” to vote by mail such as jury duty or being out of state during the election. Several states have temporarily waived the excuse requirement but, as it stands, voters in the remaining states will still largely have to go vote in person in the fall, precisely when public health experts fear a resurgence of coronavirus could make the situation just as dangerous as it was this spring.

Proactively sending mail ballots to voters, even if they hadn’t applied, has been tried in other places. Adrian Fontes, the chief election official in Maricopa County, Arizona—one of the largest voting jurisdictions in the country—sought to mail all registered Democrats a ballot ahead of the state’s March presidential preference election only to be blocked by a local court. Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Secretary of State and a Democrat, subsequently asked the state legislature to allow for primarily-mail elections in the fall but was denied. Even though the request came from the state’s bipartisan group of local election officials, Hobbs told Mother Jones the effort was blocked due to partisan Republican opposition. “We can’t just act like everything’s normal when it comes to elections,” said last month.

Hobbs said that after the defeat in the state legislature, local officials were considering mailing applications to all registered voters. That tactic was employed by several local jurisdictions in Wisconsin ahead of the April 7 election there, boosting turnout while keeping voters and election workers safe.

More recently, two major cities in Wisconsin, Racine and Milwaukee, each decided to take a similar route and send registered voters mail ballot applications.

In California, Newsom’s mandate will take some work. Elections are already complicated, and ramping up to primarily-mail elections is even more complicated and, at best, takes months of lead time and coordination between vendors, local election officials, and state officials, not to mention sustained public education efforts. California, though, is better poised than other states to pull this off because 14 of the state’s 58 counties already mail ballots to every registered voter, the Times noted.

Still, there are concerns. In Los Angeles alone, 2 million voters will now become mail voters, according to the plan. Kim Alexander, the president of the California Voter Foundation, told the Times that elections were already “unfunded mandates” and that “this is going to be an even bigger expense for counties.”

While mailing in ballots should be easier for most Californians, there are plenty of groups who would struggle with reductions to in-person voting: disabled voters who need assistance or special equipment to mark their ballot, young people and some minority voters who tend to have more transitory addresses. The Times reported that Newsom’s plan doesn’t have specific rules for counties to operate in-person voting locations, but Joseph Holland, registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County and president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials, told the paper that counties need flexibility to deal with public health concerns as they exist in the fall, and that there will be in-person voting options. Newsom also said that he envisions “the appropriate number of physical sites” for voting in the fall. 

Antigen Testing Is Here. But There’s a Catch.

A couple of weeks ago Deborah Birx delivered a confusing Sunday morning answer to Chuck Todd about COVID-19 testing. She seemed to say that we were two or three weeks away from a big breakthrough in PCR testing, the current gold standard. But she also said that we had to have a breakthrough in antigen testing, and lots of companies were working on that. So . . . maybe she was actually referring to a breakthrough in antigen testing? Maybe. In any case, it looks like we’re getting it:

The Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency-use authorization to Quidel Corp. for the first antigen test for the Covid-19 virus—a step that could escalate the nation’s ability to test for the disease. It is believed to be generally faster, cheaper and easier to manufacture than most current diagnostics.

….San Diego-based Quidel, which specializes in tests for flu, strep and other infectious diseases, already has placed about 36,000 test-analyzer instruments around the U.S. in places like hospital labs, emergency departments and doctors’ offices. “We are ramping up manufacturing to go from 200,000 tests next week (week of May 11) to more than a million a week within several weeks,” said Douglas Bryant, Quidel’s chief executive.

A million tests a week is still a small fraction of what we need, but if we can ramp up to a million, we can ramp up to ten million. And antigen testing is faster and more convenient than PCR testing: it still requires a nasal swab, but results are returned in less than 30 minutes and don’t require any special expertise to interpret.

So: good news, right? Not so fast. The Quidel test, it turns out, is only about 85-90 percent accurate, and that’s mostly because it returns a lot of false negatives. This means that if you test negative—as the vast majority of people do—you need to follow up with a traditional PCR test to be sure. It’s still a useful test, but until it gets better it’s not all that useful.

Bioluminescence!

Here’s something interesting. Maybe. I’ve been hearing for weeks about the bioluminescence event on the Southern California coastline, but I haven’t taken the time to go check it out. Apparently it’s not going away, though, so last night I headed out to Laguna Beach to see if I could take some pictures of it. First off, here’s Laguna Beach all by itself:

This was taken with a 2-second shutter speed, which gives it kind of a cool impressionist effect.

But now for the bioluminescence. I don’t know if this was because the blue glow was weak last night or if this is always the way it is, but it turns out you can’t really see it with the naked eye. It showed up fine in my camera viewfinder, but my eyes saw nothing but whitecaps. The other interesting thing is that the blue glow showed up only briefly and in individual spots. Small waves produced nothing. Only the bigger waves churned up enough algae to produce spots of bioluminescence. For example:

You can see five individual spots here. This was taken with a ½-second shutter speed, which might explain the large number of spots. More typical is this one:

May 9, 2020 — Laguna Beach, California

This one has a nice long stretch of bioluminescence plus one more bright spot near the middle. It was taken with a 1-second shutter speed. In the end, that ended up being the best compromise exposure time.

As it turns out, the blue glow comes and goes pretty quickly, so the only way to get a picture is to snap the shutter the instant it appears. Most of the time even that’s not fast enough. You just have to take a picture of every wave and then pick out the ones that have plenty of blue. In the end I took 65 pictures before I was told to move along.

He Didn’t File Charges in the Arbery Case. But He Spent Years Accusing a Black Grandma of Voter Fraud.

Olivia Pearson knows what it’s like to be caught up in the criminal justice system in southern Georgia. In 2016, a local district attorney’s office indicted Pearson, a Black grandmother and civil rights activist, on felony voter fraud charges and threatened her with years in prison after she helped a first-time voter who didn’t know how to use an electronic voting machine.

The district attorney who pursued her case was none other than George E. Barnhill—a guy in the news this week for having failed to prosecute the men who killed jogger Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man.

“For the district attorney’s office to not charge these gentlemen, I couldn’t believe that,” Pearson told me this week from her home in Douglas, before pausing a moment: “Then again, I could believe it.”

In late February, Arbery was jogging down a shaded residential road in Satilla Shores, Georgia, when two white men in a truck pulled over in front of him and shot him. When a video of the killing went viral on Tuesday, the case sparked national outrage—especially after it came to light that Barnhill sat on the evidence for weeks without pressing charges. In a memo to police, Barnhill concluded that the men had acted in self-defense and did not violate any laws because they believed Arbery fit the description of a burglar. 

Joe Biden said Arbery was “essentially lynched before our very own eyes.”

On Thursday, after former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams described the killing as “murder” and former Vice President Joe Biden said Arbery was “essentially lynched before our very own eyes,” the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested the two men. Gregory McMichael and his son Travis are now charged with murder and aggravated assault. On Friday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, previously worked with Barnhill’s son, a prosecutor in the Brunswick DA’s office, to bring a criminal case against Arbery at some point before McMichael retired last year.

Barnhill recused himself from the case of Arbery’s killing because of this conflict of interest. But his reluctance to press charges has kept his name in the spotlight. “I can’t answer what another agency did or didn’t see,” Vic Reynolds, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said in reference to Barnhill’s office during a press conference. “But I can tell you that…probable cause [for an arrest] was clear to our agents pretty quickly.”

For Pearson, hearing Barnhill’s name in the news again brought the memories of her own case flooding back. In 2012, Pearson was a longtime city commissioner who often ferried people in Douglas to the polls. On the first day of early voting that year, during a visit to the local elections office, a 21-year-old Black woman named Diewanna Robinson asked Pearson for assistance with the electronic voting machine. Pearson says she told Robinson where to insert her card into the machine, and instructed her to follow the prompts. Pearson then walked away before Robinson began filling out her ballot.

Pearson didn’t think much of the encounter—but it would come back to haunt her. Four years later, after a voter fraud investigation by the secretary of state’s office, Barnhill’s office decided to have Pearson arrested for the incident. When Pearson assisted Robinson, poll workers had asked her to sign a form allowing her to help someone struggling with the machines; she did so, not realizing that by adding her signature, she was agreeing to help only those who were disabled or illiterate. (Robinson was neither.) The district attorney’s office charged Pearson with felony voter fraud and threatened her with 15 years in prison. The day she was indicted, “I was just devastated,” she told me over the phone this week.

Barnhill’s office brought Pearson to trial for alleged voter fraud twice, before she was ultimately acquitted.

Though Georgia has a reputation for passing strict voter rules, it was highly unusual for a prosecutor’s office to pursue charges for such minor violations, as Josie Duffy Rice pointed out in an op-ed for the New York Times. From 2014 to mid-2017, the state investigated about 154 instances of alleged voter fraud, and just 10 were referred to a prosecutor, according to BuzzFeed, which brought national attention to Pearson’s case in 2016. Most of those cases were dismissed or closed without a ruling. But Barnhill’s office brought Pearson to trial not once but twice, before she was acquitted.

Pearson’s lawyers accused the district attorney’s office of taking Pearson to court to intimidate Black voters. The office also brought voter fraud charges against at least three other community members around the same time. Pearson believed prosecutors targeted her because of her political activism: She was the first Black woman elected to the city commission in 1999. Her mother was a top official with the local NAACP and helped sue the city in the 1970s to gain better political representation for Black residents. One of Barnhill’s deputies, prosecutor Ian Sansot, who oversaw the litigation against Pearson, denied any improper motive in the case, and argued he was just following the law and doing his job. At trial, he appeared to mock Pearson’s concerns about racial bias, according to BuzzFeed: “Isn’t it true that you think everyone who disagrees with you on this matter is a racist hater?” he asked. “No, sir,” she replied. But she added that she did believe race played a role in the decision to charge her.

“What hurts the most is: Douglas is home. I’ve worked in this community trying to do good for people all my life.”

Though Pearson was ultimately acquitted, the litigation took a toll on her health. She says she fell into a depression that she has struggled to emerge from. She ran for city commissioner again in 2019, and won, but she remains disheartened at how the city responded to her attempts to help Black voters all those years ago. “What hurts the most is: Douglas is home. I’ve worked in this community trying to do good for people all my life,” she tells me. “Achieving justice in south Georgia is a very difficult task when you’ve got people in the district attorney’s office like these people we got.”

On Saturday, Pearson will go to a protest in Arbery’s honor, a four-mile run in Waycross, the town where the district attorney is based. Because of a hip replacement, Pearson, 58, plans to drive the four miles in her charcoal-gray car, with a sign hanging outside that says, “I Run With Maud.”

“It’s so sad that we’re in the 21st century and we’re still going through this kind of stuff,” she told me over the phone, breaking into tears. “I mean, you would think things would get better. It seems like they’re getting worse.”

Driving vs. Flying in the COVID-19 Era

I’m not just a former management dweeb, I’m also a general purpose dweeb. So naturally I was interested when this question was posed last night on Twitter: which is safer, driving from San Francisco to San Diego or taking a plane?

The driving part was pretty easy. DOT estimates 150 fatal crashes per billion miles driven. It’s about a thousand miles round trip between San Francisco and San Diego, so that means the chance of dying is about 0.015 percent. Roughly 15 in a hundred thousand.

The flying part is trickier: you need to know both the odds of getting infected with coronavirus and the odds of dying from it. The latter is fairly easy. Assuming a normal, healthy, middle-aged adult, the case fatality rate is about 0.2 percent or so.

The odds of being infected in the first place, however, is hard to get a handle on. I read one paper that outlined an absurdly complicated model of virus transmission in airports and airplanes, but the authors were mostly interested in showing off their new algorithm and how it reduced compute time by 59x on a supercomputer. They never actually put a number to anything. However, WHO says that traveling by plane is pretty safe, and given how sparsely filled planes are these days, I can believe it. So let’s be very liberal and figure the odds at 1 percent for the round trip. I don’t think anyone can complain that I’m lowballing this. With these two numbers in hand, the chance of dying is 0.002 percent. Roughly 2 in a hundred thousand.

So flying wins pretty easily. Aside from the usefulness of knowing this, it’s a good demonstration of how the availability heuristic frames our estimates of danger. Getting killed in a car crash is something we live with all the time, so we tend to discount it. Conversely, COVID-19 is brand new and we’re all scared of it, so we tend to overestimate it. But driving is still pretty dangerous!

Yet Another Aide in the Trump Orbit Tests Positive for COVID-19

A personal assistant to Ivanka Trump tested positive for COVID-19, CNN reported Friday, the third revelation this week of a White House staffer having tested positive.

On Thursday news broke that one of President Trump’s personal valets had tested positive, and then on Friday Trump announced that Katie Miller—press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence and the wife of Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller—had also tested positive.

Ivanka Trump’s personal assistant has been teleworking and not around her in several weeks, a source told CNN.

Trump has repeatedly downplayed the importance of testing, even as he was reportedly angry about his valet’s diagnosis and as the president has said White House staff will now be tested daily

After Trump’s valet tested positive he said the situation “shows you the fallacy—what I’ve been saying, testing is not a perfect art. No matter what you do, testing is not a perfect art.” The New York Times notes that neither Trump nor Pence regularly wears a mask, and neither do most of their aides. As part of her job, Miller regularly interacts with senior White House officials and members of the press. The day before her diagnosis became public a photo showed her talking with reporters without a mask.

Trump aides told the Times the president doesn’t need to wear a mask because he’s regularly tested, but “privately they acknowledge that he has expressed concern that it would make him look bad.”

A BCG Chart Can Tell You What’s Safe and What’s Not

What’s dangerous and what isn’t? Erin Bromage, a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, has a pretty useful roundup here. The main lesson is: it’s all about Volume x Time. That is, it’s dangerous to be in places with a large volume of viral particles and it’s also dangerous to be in places that might have low volumes but require you to stay a long time. As a former management dweeb, I immediately had to put this into BCG chart form:

Supermarkets, Bromage says, are generally fairly low in viral particles; aren’t very crowded; and generally require only 30-60 minutes of your time. They’re pretty safe. Conversely, a public toilet requires only a few minutes of your time but is shockingly high in viral particles if an infected person has been in it recently.

Indoor workplaces mostly have fairly modest volumes of viral particles, with obvious exceptions like meatpacking plants. However, you’re there eight hours a day. If anyone is infected, there’s a decent chance you will be too. And then there are restaurants, which can have quite high viral loads and often take 2-3 hours of your time.

Anyway, read the whole thing. “The main sources for infection,” Bromage says, “are home, workplace, public transport, social gatherings, and restaurants. This accounts for 90% of all transmission events.” The rest of the piece is pretty helpful too.

In Leaked Audio, Barack Obama Warns That Donald Trump Is Corrupting the “Rule of Law”

Former President Barack Obama said Friday that the Department of Justice’s decision to drop charges against former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn means that the “basic understanding of rule of law is at risk.”

The comments were made in a private web chat conversation with members of the Obama Alumni Association, a recording of which was obtained by Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff, who wrote about the comments late Friday.

Obama, who had once fired Flynn as his director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for being “chaotic [and] insubordinate,” Isikoff notes, said on the recording that the news about Flynn’s case had been “somewhat downplayed” but was incredibly worrying.

“And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free,” Obama said. “That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic—not just institutional norms—but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places.”

Isikoff notes that Obama misstated Flynn’s charge: He had pled guilty to lying to FBI investigators, not perjury. Flynn’s guilty plea came in late 2017 after he lied to FBI agents about whether he’d talked with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition period in January 2017. As reported by Mother Jones‘ Dan Friedman, in November 2017 Flynn pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about the conversations with Kislyak, while also admitting that he had lied to the FBI about efforts to influence foreign diplomats during a December 2016 UN resolution on condemning Israeli settlement construction. Misrepresenting the truth was a regular habit of Flynn’s. He also admitted lying to the Justice Department in a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing by claiming he was not aware that he was lobbying for Turkey. And he’d lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the call with Kislyak, which Trump acknowledged.

During his sentencing hearing on December 18, 2018, Emmet Sullivan, the federal judge during sentencing, told Flynn that he “arguably … sold [his] country out,” and added that he wasn’t going to hide his “disgust [and] disdain for this criminal offense.” Flynn repeatedly declined to withdraw his guilty plea, and told the judge he didn’t think he’d been set up to lie to the FBI.

Trump has repeatedly said Flynn was treated unfairly by the FBI, and Attorney General William Barr had tasked federal prosecutors with reviewing the case as part of his sustained scrutiny of convictions related to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump associates and the Russian interference efforts in the 2016 US elections. Barr has already forced prosecutors to reduce a sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, causing several federal prosecutors from the case to withdraw in protest. Barr had also previously caused prosecutors in the Flynn case to lower a sentencing recommendation. When the Justice Department moved to drop his case this week, it said in a filing that FBI agents had no valid reason to have questioned Flynn at the time he lied, and therefore couldn’t prove that a crime occurred.

Obama pointed to the Flynn case Friday—and the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—as why November’s election is particularly important.

“So I am hoping that all of you feel the same sense of urgency that I do,” Obama said. “Whenever I campaign, I’ve always said, ‘Ah, this is the most important election.’ Especially obviously when I was on the ballot, that always feels like it’s the most important election. This one—I’m not on the ballot—but I am pretty darn invested. We got to make this happen.”

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: May 8 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through May 8. Spain, France, and Italy show slight worrisome signs of flattening out now that they’re getting close to zero. But it may be nothing. Sweden’s data is a weirdo mess. There’s no telling what’s going on there. And the United States continues to decline slightly. Enjoy it while you can.

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is here.

Yeah, I Take Donald Trump’s Pandemic Idiocy Personally. Here’s Why.

Hey look: a new paper using a large sample size that estimates the hazard ratios for all the various pre-existing conditions that affect COVID-19 survival. Let’s see how I stack up:

Hmmm. Multiply all this together and it looks like my chance of dying if I get infected is 108 percent of the baseline, whatever that is. I don’t think the paper tells us. Still, this sounds bad!

But I suppose it’s not kosher to just multiply all the hazard ratios together. There’s probably either some fancy function for doing it, or else you just go with your highest hazard ratio and all the others contribute only a little. Still, I’ve nibbled around the edges of the internet for numbers that seem reliable (not easy), and my best guess is that if I get infected I have about a 10 percent chance of dying. This is consistent with the hazard ratio chart if the baseline level of death for hospitalized patients is 1 percent.

Anyway, just in case you think I’m taking Donald Trump’s idiocy with this stuff a little personally, you’re right. There are a lot of people for whom this is no game, and I’m one of them.

Here’s What Disaster Might Look Like

I guess this post is meant to put down a marker of some kind. Those of us who think it’s disastrous to ease up on social distancing this early are working from a mental model that looks like this:

  • We started serious countermeasures in mid-March, and deaths peaked about three weeks later. Then we started slowly declining.
  • A few days ago some states started to ease up on countermeasures. This will not have a noticeable effect immediately.
  • Starting in late May the death toll will start to increase. At first it will be lost in the noise, but by early June it will be obvious that lifting countermeasures was a mistake.
  • At that point we’ll panic and put the countermeasures back in place, but it will be too late. For the next two or three weeks we’ll be climbing up a brand new bell curve, which will peak in mid-June.
  • If we stay serious about countermeasures, it will then start to decline. But because it’s now at a much higher level, it won’t get down to (near) zero until the start of August.

The chart below is a rough, stylized version of this projection. It’s based on the CDC’s prediction of 3,000 deaths per day by early June, with deaths continuing to increase from there:

This is very approximate, but the important part is that COVID-19 deaths will continue to plateau for another couple of weeks or so. Only after that will they start to seriously climb.

If this is what happens, it means that six weeks of lockdown have been wasted. By late May it will be obvious that we have to do it all over again, and this time the lockdowns will need to be universal and they’ll probably have to last at least two months. Maybe longer. (The decline I show in my chart is just a guess. It could easily be until September or later before we finally get close to zero.)

If the alarmists are wrong, our daily death toll will continue to decline steadily, and we’ll be ready for phase two by mid-June. I doubt this is what will happen, and anyway, phase two is aggressive test-and-trace. We’re not ready for that now, and we won’t be ready by mid-June either, since no one in the federal government seems to care about it. In other words, it’s probably bad news no matter what happens. But it’s way worse news if the CDC/alarmist projection turns out to be right.

A Nearby Fracking Site Has These Retirees Sheltering in Place and Scared for Their Lives

This piece was originally published in Grist and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

On a spring weekend morning a few weeks ago, Judy Kelly stepped outside of her house in Broomfield, Colorado, to grab the newspaper when her nose perked up. It smelled like something was burning.

Kelly, who’s 73, lives in an upscale, 55-and-up retirement community called Anthem Ranch, which sits below the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The 1,300-home development is manicured and quiet, with green lawns and landscaped roads that flower out into smaller cul-de-sacs. Its active residents enjoy their own private fitness center, pool, movie theater, and more than 90 clubs that meet in a central community center. But about a quarter of a mile away from the southern border of this retirement dreamland sits a circle of fortress-like walls that enclose the Livingston fracking site, which contains 18 wells owned by Extraction Oil and Gas.

Kelly is among more than 200 Broomfield residents who have submitted complaints to the city since November, reporting chemical smells and symptoms like headaches, burning eyes, and nosebleeds that they believe are caused by oil and gas activity in the area.

An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.

When she notified the city about the smell that morning, she was told that a city inspector had been on the site already and nothing was wrong. But Kelly was on high alert. Just a few days earlier, Extraction had begun “flowback,” a part of the fracking process that is associated with some of the highest emission rates of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene. Even under normal circumstances, flowback scared Kelly, who had followed the devastation in neighboring Weld County when one of Extraction’s wells exploded during the process in 2017, causing a major fire and injuring a worker. Kelly and her husband, who has pulmonary interstitial fibrosis, a lung disease, had planned on leaving town to stay with their son when flowback at Livingston began.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. On March 25, when Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order to stop the coronavirus’s spread, Kelly and her neighbors were suddenly trapped, trying to avoid one health hazard while worrying about being exposed to another. After all, fracking remained a “critical” business, according to the state.

“Where am I going to go?” Kelly asked. “I can’t go to a hotel. I can’t risk that with my husband. I have nowhere to go now.”

Judy Kelly and her husband wear masks near the fracking site next to their home in Broomfield, Colorado.
Judy Kelly

Kelly’s dilemma is not unique. Across the country, millions of people live within half a mile of fracking sites and other oil and gas activity and are exposed to a slew of toxic chemicals in their day-to-day lives. Researchers have found that those living close to fracking are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses—the very underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the most severe outcomes from COVID-19. While many residents may have found ways to seek respite from these toxic emissions during normal times—whether it was working or going to school elsewhere, or simply moving in with friends and family during the most intense periods of activity—those options went out the window when state governors began announcing stay-at-home orders.

For its part, Extraction says that Anthem Ranch residents have nothing to worry about. The company did not respond to Grist’s detailed list of questions, but in legal filings and public testimony it has stated that the new technology it uses for flowback has been shown to keep emissions far below the levels associated with traditional techniques. In a complaint filed in a Colorado court, the company’s lawyers said that the “anxiety and stress” experienced by Broomfield residents was “self-induced.”

Broomfield vs. Extraction

The unsettling bind that the stay-at-home order put many residents in was not lost on Laurie Anderson, a Broomfield city councilwoman who lives just half a mile from the fracking site in another neighborhood called Anthem Highlands. The night Governor Polis’ order came down, a special meeting of the city council was scheduled to discuss the potential dangers of work continuing at the Livingston site during the pandemic. The council decided to draft a proposal ordering Extraction to postpone flowback—a process where the chemical-laden water used to fracture open the shale flows back to the surface and must be collected, treated, and disposed of—until the stay-at-home order was lifted.

“The thought was to protect these residents, to delay flowback, understanding that it has to happen because they’ve already fracked these wells,” said Anderson, who is also an organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, a national advocacy group that fights polluters. “It was only going to delay them for a couple weeks.”

Of particular concern was Anthem Ranch, where the median age is 70 years old. The city’s public health staff drafted up an order and included data showing that people over 65 are more susceptible to COVID-19 complications, that the top symptom reported by older Broomfield residents in the city’s oil and gas complaint system was “anxiety/stress,” and that stress and anxiety are linked to poor health outcomes in general.

Anthem Ranch is an upscale retirement community in Broomfield, Colorado. The 1300-home development sits about a quarter-mile from a fracking site.
Judy Kelly

But two days later, before the council could discuss the draft proposal, Extraction headed them off at the pass. The company secured a temporary restraining order from the Seventeenth Judicial District Court in Colorado, which prohibited the city from halting or delaying its operations. According to court documents, Extraction alleged that the city was acting in bad faith, trying to “shut down Extraction’s operations not because they pose any real health risk, but because they are unpopular.” Then, on March 30, the company filed an official complaint with the district court against the city, seeking damages for a breach of contract.

It’s true that this was far from the first time Broomfield had tried to interfere with Extraction’s … extraction. The city has battled the company at every stage of the drilling process in response to complaints from residents about odors, health symptoms, and noise.

An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.

Several times the city has contacted the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), a state regulatory body, to address those complaints. According to Megan Castle, a COGCC spokesperson, the agency intervened once in response to a noise issue and a second time to request the company swap drilling fluids which were causing odor complaints. Castle said the agency has conducted additional noise monitoring and did not find that the site was out of compliance with state regulations.

Andrew Bare, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said that the nature of some of the complaints—such as odors that would likely have dissipated by the time inspectors reached the site—made taking action against Extraction “difficult.” Bare said that the agency sent a mobile air monitoring lab to the site in response to residents’ concerns and that the lab will remain near the Livingston site for at least another two weeks.

 

In legal documents, Extraction claims it has gone above and beyond the best management practices required by its operating agreement with the city, including investing more than $250 million on a “Next Generation Flowback” system to reduce emissions during the two to three months flowback is expected to last. At the public meeting last month, representatives from the company explained to the council that instead of storing and processing the flowback fluid on site, the company would ship it via pipeline to a facility in Weld County. They asserted that the design eliminates “99.9 percent of emissions” and significantly reduces the duration of the flowback phase. Later at the meeting, Barbara Ganong, a petroleum engineer who was hired by the city as a consultant, asserted that Extraction’s decision to pipe fracking fluids offsite represented a “paradigm shift.”

Air quality experts hired by the city gave a presentation showing that without this new closed system, emissions during flowback could have been 31 times higher than during fracking. Still, when they measured emissions during flowback at another Extraction well in a less populated part of town, they said emissions were still double those during fracking, even with the new system.

Broomfield residents pack the overflow space during a 2017 public hearing asking for a temporary moratorium on fracking.
Laurie Anderson

Broomfield residents interviewed by Grist were not reassured by Extraction’s new technology. Kelly said the company told Broomfield that it was using the latest technology in every step of the process so far, but that the city has nevertheless had to step in multiple times after residents complained of noise and health symptoms.

“They’ve done nothing to make me feel like I can trust them and trust what they say,” said Elizabeth Lario, who lives with her husband and daughter in the Wildgrass neighborhood a little less than a mile south of the Livingston site. Lario said she and her family have experienced migraines, nose bleeds, stress and anxiety, and throat irritation since drilling began last summer.

Broomfield fought the company’s restraining order, and on April 6, the same judge who originally issued the temporary order agreed to dissolve it. He found that it was granted too soon, considering the city had not even officially taken action to delay or halt Extraction’s operations yet. But the judge also issued a warning: If Broomfield exercised its regulatory powers in a way that was “arbitrary and capricious and not rationally related to combating the spread of COVID-19,” it would be back where it started, facing more legal action from Extraction.

 

The judge’s warning created a new problem for Broomfield: The city’s order was designed to protect public health, but it had nothing to do with preventing the spread of the virus.

Two days after the judge dissolved the restraining order, the city council finally put its public health order to a vote, but by that point, it had become harder to justify. Anderson and other city council members tried to rewrite the order in a way that didn’t flout the judge’s ruling. If they did, they thought Extraction was likely to take them to court again and the restraining order might be reinstated.

“I kept thinking we’ll find a way forward,” said Anderson. “But sometime between that Tuesday and Wednesday it became clear that there just wasn’t a way forward that wouldn’t result in a legal battle.”

Ultimately, Anderson and the majority of the council voted the public health order down 9 to 1.

It was a devastating blow for Kelly and some other residents. As a member of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a nonprofit representing community groups and residents affected by fracking, Kelly has been at the forefront of the battle with Extraction, and in the past, the city has taken bold action to protect residents. While her home is about a mile from the Livingston site, she said she’s most worried about some of her neighbors who are as close as a quarter-mile from the site.

“People that I’ve gotten to know over the last … almost seven years, who I really care about, are very close to it,” she said. “And it scares me to death.”

Broomfield residents have complained about noise, odors, and health symptoms they say are linked to Extraction’s fracking site. The company says it’s keeping emissions low.
Laurie Anderson ‘Why didn’t you protect us?’

Leading up to that final vote, the city council was flooded with emails begging them to forge ahead with the public health order. After it decided to drop the issue, community members were on edge. Kelly said she understands why the city did what it did. But others are incredibly frustrated with the outcome. “I get so many calls from people that say, ‘why didn’t you protect us?'” she said. “They’re so concerned about their health that they would have rather seen us in court.”

One concern is what residents will do in case there is an emergency, like a major emissions release or an explosion like the one in Weld County. The Broomfield police department has told families that live within a half-mile of the site to keep a bag packed in case an evacuation is necessary. But Elizabeth Lario is not sure where her family would go. Under normal circumstances, the city’s emergency shelter is its recreation center, but as long as social distancing is necessary, that no longer feels like a safe option. “The evacuation plan is to wait and hear what the evacuation plan is,” Lario said.

On April 13, the Broomfield Office of Emergency Management held a telephone town hall to present evacuation instructions. Residents told Grist that instructions on where they should go were not very clear, and that the evacuation plan was fluid depending on the scale of emergency and the status of the pandemic. “It was a plan left in chaos, in my opinion, that fortunately hasn’t had to be used,” said Anderson.

City and County of Broomfield, Colorado

The Broomfield police department told Grist that it uses a cell phone alert system for emergency notification. An “Emergency Management Update” powerpoint created by the department instructs residents to “follow the instructions you receive” and monitor the situation on the city’s social media accounts. In the case of an evacuation, it says to go to the home of a family member or friend—and to go to the recreation center only if needed. The department advises that residents who do elect to evacuate to the recreation center remain in their cars “if quarantined/isolated.”

Not all of Broomfield’s citizens are worried about the fracking site. In fact, some actively opposed the city’s idea to delay Extraction’s work. Anderson said there had been pressure from residents who felt that the city was already wasting too many public dollars on its clashes with the company, and worried that another lawsuit could bankrupt the city. A former council member accused the city of conducting a witch hunt.

 

Broomfield has indeed spent a significant amount of money on oil and gas oversight, including hiring additional personnel, outside counsel, and consultants. It has also deployed systems to monitor air quality and noise. The Broomfield Enterprise, a local newspaper, reported that the city spent $1.8 million in 2018, $1.5 million in 2019, and is expected to spend $3.1 million this year just on oil and gas-related personnel and programs. The city has approved approximately $1.5 million for air quality monitoring contracts in 2020 alone.

Broomfield’s air monitoring system is impressive, given that it’s a city of only about 70,000 people. The city currently has 11 new sensors set up to monitor emissions, as well as two mobile air quality laboratories and a mobile “plume tracker”—a Chevy Tahoe equipped to measure real-time methane concentrations in the air—from Colorado State University that will be deployed periodically. The city’s sensors do not measure the specific amount of benzene and other harmful compounds in the air, but they set off “triggers” to take an air sample any time they register a spike in emissions.

Anderson hopes that collecting this data will give the town a clearer picture of the public health risks fracking poses to residential communities. She said that part of the reason the town’s order was abandoned was due to a lack of data showing that flowback would put residents at greater risk. Now they are collecting that data—but by the time any potential harms come into focus, it will be too late. Residents will have been exposed.

“This community feels like guinea pigs, and I’m right there with them,” she said. “We’re doing things that we don’t have the data to show that it’s safe.”

Quote of the Day: Maybe Testing Isn’t So Great After All

One of Mike Pence’s aides tested positive for coronavirus today. President Trump says this is why tests are a bad idea:

This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great. The tests are perfect, but something can happen between the test where it’s good and then something happens and all of a sudden— She was tested very recently and tested negative and today I guess for some reason she tested positive.

Trump has said before that he’s not crazy about tests because all they do is make him look bad. Now he’s going further: he seems unsure the tests are even measuring something real. They’re negative one day and then positive the next. Why? “For some reason.”

I wonder how far down this rabbit hole he’s gone? Does Trump even believe the pandemic is real? He can’t see it, after all. Does he figure that if everyone would just stop reporting the numbers then everything would be OK? Or maybe he’s taking a purely transactional view: testing is fine in the abstract, but not so good when it tags someone close by who might be used to humiliate him. There’s no telling. But whatever it is, it’s pretty obvious that the stress of dealing with COVID-19 is accelerating whatever mental deterioration he was undergoing already.

Trump: Katie, she tested very good for a long period of time and then all of the sudden today she tested positive… This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great pic.twitter.com/iM9Xo3jddU

— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) May 8, 2020

Trump Says There’s Plenty of PPE. So Why Did This Union for Nurses Have to Find Its Own?

On Wednesday, President Trump held an event at the White House to salute nurses. But the gathering turned awkward when Sophia Adams, a nurse who heads the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, said that the supply of personal protective equipment for nurses during the coronavirus pandemic had been “sporadic.” Trump took issue with her statement and insisted, “I have heard we have a tremendous supply to almost all places.” But Trump was wrong—and one union that represents a large chunk of the nation’s nurses recently had to spend millions of dollars and navigate the chaotic supply-chain world to procure millions of pieces of PPE for its members. This episode shows, yet again, how the Trump administration has not adequately assisted the nation’s front-line health care workers.

In late March, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was on a call with the heads of about 40 of her union’s locals that represent health care workers. Approximately 200,000 of the AFT’s 1.7 million members are health care workers, most of them nurses. This slice also includes physicians, technicians, and maintenance workers in medical facilities. On the call, these local leaders described how they and their members were coping with the coronavirus crisis. “It was one horror story after another about the lack of PPE and the working conditions,” Weingarten recalls. The level of fear—fear for their own lives and the well-being of their family members—was shocking for Weingarten: “These are people who are normally used to situations where they can risk their health.”

“It was one horror story after another about the lack of PPE and the working conditions.”

Following the call, Weingarten realized it was not enough for the union to organize petitions, mount protests, and hold media events to demand PPE for its members. “I said, we have to try to figure out how to procure this stuff….People are scared shitless.”

But Weingarten had no clue how to procure medical equipment. She did, however, have contacts. She knew people at Empire Global Ventures, a business development firm with experience in China, where much of the world’s PPE is manufactured. (The firm’s website boasts it “supports its clients entering China by introducing them to influential Chinese business partners, providing access to non-public Chinese deal flow, managing the Chinese governmental registration and permitting process, and supplying privileged sector-specific research on the Chinese market.”) Empire Global found for the AFT an established importer-exporter to help acquire the equipment. 

What the union was looking for were face shields, surgical masks, and N95 masks. Even with help from the importer-exporter, it encountered many of the usual difficulties when seeking PPE in China. Union officials at one point believed they had a shipment of N95 masks on the way, but then they discovered the goods were likely counterfeit. “There were a lot of rabbit holes,” Weingarten says. “A couple of times, I thought this was never going to happen.”

Eventually, the importer-exporter was able to strike a deal with Chinese manufacturers to produce 50,000 face shields and more than 1 million surgical masks. “We had to pay the manufacturers before they would manufacture these supplies,” Weingarten says, noting that her union was only able to pull off these deals because it had enlisted reliable middle men who knew the ropes in China. “There were a lot of twists and turns. It sometimes costs more to have the supplies trucked from the factory to the airport than to airship it to the United States. You have to have someone escort the material through customs,” she explains. Despite the hurdles, it mostly worked out, and shipments of the face shields and surgical masks have started.

But the AFT could not swing a deal in China for the high-priority N95 masks, so the union turned to 3M. But here it also needed assistance. “If we had just called 3M and said we’d like to make an order…it was impenetrable,” Weingarten says. “But our brokers were able to do it.” 3M agreed to designate the AFT an allowable buyer—the union had to sign a letter noting it would not resell the N95 masks—and cut a deal to sell it 455,000 N95 masks. About half were to come from the United States and the rest from Sweden, where the company has several facilities. The price was $3 per unit for a line of N95 masks that had been discontinued and between $6 and $7 each for current versions. Weingarten expects to receive these shipments in the coming days.

At first, Weingarten planned to spend about $1 million in total on PPE, but that was not enough. The union ended up shelling out about $3 million. 

It plans to distribute the supplies to health care providers in New York, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, and possibly other states—that is, if none of the shipments are swiped by the US government. The Federal Emergency and Management Agency has been confiscating some PPE shipments coming into the United States. But Weingarten figures that if she publicizes the AFT’s plans, the feds will be less likely to intervene. 

“There were a lot of rabbit holes. A couple of times, I thought this was never going to happen.”

The AFT considers this project a success for the union and its members. But how much of a dent does it make, given the tremendous need for PPE? “The Trump administration,” remarks Weingarten, “says that 3.5 billion respirator masks will be needed in this pandemic. But only 11.7 million have been distributed. That’s less than one-third of 1 percent. So what we’re distributing is a good percent of that. But it’s a drop in the bucket. The federal government has to do its job.”

Weingarten notes that her experience as a PPE procurer reinforces her dismay at the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic: “What the hell has the federal government been doing? How dare they not do what’s needed. It’s the entity in the best position to manage the supply chain for tests, swabs, ventilators, and PPE. And this is where they fall flat. Every time I hear Donald Trump say there are more tests and more PPE than ever, I think about my members and how it has been hard to get these things.”

And there’s another thing Weingarten is angry about. After Congress passed the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, Education Secretary Betsy Devos warned states not to give funds they receive from this measure to teachers unions. “We try to step up,” Weingarten complains, “and they say we are barring you.”

Weingarten doesn’t yet know if the union will continue to pursue additional PPE for its members. It depends on what its budget will allow. “Trump,” she adds, “has failed to do his job and protect the health and safety of the people who are protecting us….I didn’t know how to be a supply clerk either. But I got on the phone and figured it out, and I’m not the federal government. We are spending money for what employers, states, and the federal government should be paying for.”

White People Are Demanding Their Lives Back In States Where Black People Are Losing Theirs

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has insisted on reopening the state’s economy even in the face of a spike in confirmed COVID cases, not to mention criticism from President Donald Trump, later reversed. Kemp took a sweeping approach to loosening shelter-in-place restrictions starting April 24 by letting nonessential businesses open up. On Tamron Hall’s TV show that day, Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, criticized Kemp’s reopening effort as one “driven purely by economics.”

Three days later, as the nation was fixated on small but raucous right-wing protests defying shelter-in-place orders, a group of protesters in Atlanta, organized by the Georgia Coalition 2 Save Lives, rode in cars and a dozen hearses from a funeral home to the state Capitol and held a mock funeral. The coalition, made up of lawyers, faith leaders, and civil rights groups, wanted to draw attention to what public health experts see as a likely consequence of moving too quickly: a deadly surge in COVID cases.

When Hall asked whether Bottoms was “surprised by those who have decided it is worth the risk to reopen,” the mayor told the talk show host: “It is so surprising to me that people have such a disregard for the science and the data, especially when you look at the African American community, where there is a barbershop and hair salon on every single corner.”

Bottoms was evoking one of the central juxtapositions of the pandemic in the United States: White people are demanding their lives back while Black people are losing theirs altogether. According to a recent poll by Civis Analytics, just under 70 percent of Americans who oppose lockdowns are white workers who have not lost a job in the pandemic. The New York Times recently characterized the question of reopening as a dilemma between “job or health,” but the pairing begs the question at either end: Whose jobs? Whose health?

In fact, a closer look at the data suggests the dubious freedom to work and shop in a plague is being won in places where Black people are most vulnerable. Of the 15 states with the widest disparities between the Black share of the population and the Black share of COVID deaths, nine have reopened or are reopening soon: Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Of those, seven are run by Republican governors. Just one state with a Republican governor, Maryland, has refused to reopen.

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By now the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus on Black people have been well-documented. Recently, in a snapshot of 14 states, the CDC found that Black people accounted for 18 percent of the sample’s population but 33 percent of hospitalizations for COVID-19. In Georgia, where 34 percent of people are Black, the CDC found that Black people made up 83 percent of hospitalizations for COVID-19. State data shows that they also account for half the deaths, though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that Georgia might be undercounting its deaths

The reopenings are proceeding on top of these asymmetries. (For this analysis, we used data collected from The COVID Racial Data Tracker, as well as from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) In Missouri, where Black people account for 12 percent of the state’s population but 39 percent of COVID fatalities, Republican Gov. Mike Parsons let the stay-at-home order expire this week. He visited businesses that reopened without a mask, saying simply that he “chose not to” wear one.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey transitioned to a “safer at home'” model that allowed, in the first phase, beaches and some businesses with capacity restrictions to reopen. At the same time, some sheriffs in Alabama refused to enforce the stay-at-home order in a state where Black folks account for 27 percent of the state’s population and 46 percent of COVID fatalities.

In South Carolina, where Black people also account for 27 percent of the population but 48 percent of COVID deaths, Gov. Henry McMaster insisted on rolling back restrictions on businesses, noting that the goal “was to cause the most damage possible to the virus while doing the least possible damage…to our businesses.”

In Mississippi, where Black people account for 38 percent of the population but 54 percent of COVID deaths, Gov. Tate Reeves limited reopenings to retail stores but held off on letting more businesses open after the state saw its highest single-day spike in COVID infections and deaths last Friday. (In Louisiana, where Black people account for 32 percent of the population but 58 percent of COVID deaths, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards extended the stay-at-home order until mid-May while Republican state lawmakers have tried to force a more piecemeal reopening approach for each parish.)

In nine reopening states, “freedom” is being built on the back of Black vulnerability. On Tuesday, President Trump, touring a Honeywell mask manufacturing facility in Arizona without a mask, acknowledged that some people would be hurt by the unfreezing of their state economies. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump said. “But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.” Whether Trump knows or cares, there is no great mystery who those “some people” will be. As the president continued his tour, fate seemed to acknowledge the shrugging ghoulishness of his comment. From somewhere in the plant, speakers bellowed the gravelly sounds of “Live and Let Die.”

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