Mother Jones Magazine

Trump: We Only Look Bad Because We Do So Much Testing

Even for Donald Trump, this is deranged:

Trump on coronavirus cases: “When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing we would have very few cases.”

— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) May 14, 2020

President Trump complains that people demand more COVID-19 testing and then “don’t give you credit” when it happens. “What we want is to get rid of this thing.”

He adds: “We have more cases than anybody in the world. But why? Because we do more testing.”

— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) May 14, 2020

If we did less testing, fewer people would be sick. Is everyone clear on that?

House Democrats: ICE’s Failure to Take Coronavirus Seriously Is Killing People

On April 17, acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matthew Albence told members of the House Oversight Committee that none of the people in ICE detention vulnerable to COVID-19 could be safely released. One week later, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía, a medically vulnerable detainee falsely accused of domestic violence by ICE, arrived at the California hospital where he’d die from complications of the new coronavirus.

On Thursday, Democrats on the oversight committee wrote to Albence and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for the third time in three months about the danger posed by ICE detention during a pandemic. Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and civil rights subcommittee chair Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) stressed that those risks are no longer abstractions:

ICE has failed to take this crisis seriously, and three people—that Congress and the American people know about—have now died. At each step of the way, the agency has waited rather than acted, prioritizing continued detention of thousands of non-violent detainees regardless of the life-and-death consequences for immigrants, employees, contractors, or their families. One federal judge has ruled that ICE’s “systemwide inaction” has “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing” of ICE detainees. 

On Thursday morning, I reported on a fourth death that appears linked to ICE’s refusal to release people from detention. On Sunday, Óscar López Acosta, a 42-year-old Honduran man with diabetes, died of complications from the new coronavirus. López developed his first symptoms days after being released from an ICE jail plagued by the new coronavirus. ICE released López without testing him.

The two representatives added that ICE has misled their committee and the public about the coronavirus crisis in detention centers. ICE also hasn’t answered basic questions from the committee, such as how many people still in custody are vulnerable to the virus, they wrote. Raskin and Maloney are demanding that information along with all documents related to Escobar’s death.

As of Wednesday, 943 of the 1,788 people tested in ICE custody had COVID-19. The letter states that ICE now has a higher infection rate higher than any state:

At a rate of 3,177 people per 100,000, it is 78% higher than New York State’s—the epicenter of the virus in the U.S.—which has an infection rate of 1,786 per 100,000.29

The true number of infections is likely far higher. Only 1,788 detainees have been tested, meaning that a staggering 53% of those tested are positive. According to CDC, only 18% of Americans who have been tested were positive.30 

“ICE has maintained that detention in its facilities is not punitive,” Maloney and Raskin wrote, “but the agency effectively sentenced Mr. Mejia to death when it opposed his release.”

Read the full letter below: 

 

  

 

Lunchtime Photo

This is a little girl at the Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá trying to attract a pigeon. Unfortunately, the pigeons have so many options that it’s hard to get them interested.

August 4, 2019 — Bogotá, Colombia

Fed Report: COVID-19 Hits the Poor Hardest

The Fed released its annual report on the economic well-being of US households today, most of which uses data from 2019. However, they also included a bit of data from 2020 reflecting the COVID-19 economy. They report that 13 percent of adults lost their job, but the pain was very definitely not shared equally:

These job losses were most severe among workers with lower incomes. Thirty-nine percent of people working in February with a household income below $40,000 reported a job loss in March.

Unsurprisingly, this is partly because those with lower incomes are unable to work remotely. “Sixty-three percent of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree worked entirely from home. Among workers with a high school degree or less, 20 percent worked entirely from home, as did 27 percent of workers who have completed some college or an associate degree.”

Amid Insider Trading Probe, Burr Steps Down as Intelligence Chair

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is stepping down as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee after federal agents served a search warrant on him Wednesday as part of an investigation into whether he used inside information on the coronavirus epidemic when he decided to unload stock ahead of a market crash.

“The work the Intelligence Committee and its members do is too important to risk hindering in any way,” Burr said in a statement Thursday. “I believe this step is necessary to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is expected committee’s temporary chairman while the investigation into Burr plays out. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) has more seniority on the committee, but is likely to chose to instead remain chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday night that federal agents had executed a warrant to seize Burr’s cell phone as part of an investigation into whether Burr violated a law preventing members of Congress from trading on insider information they receive from their official work. Agents previously used a warrant to obtain information from Burr‘s iCloud account from Apple, the paper reported.

Burr sold off between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stock after he and other senators received coronavirus briefings from US public health officials, ProPublica has reported. The sales allowed him to avoid losing money when the stock market subsequently crashed due to the pandemic.

Burr has claimed he traded only on the basis of public information. He has also asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his stock trades.

Other senators, including Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), also sold off stock after receiving Senate briefings on the virus.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she answered questions from the FBI about her husband’s stock trades. Unlike Burr, Feinstein has said she had no personal involvement in the trades.

Under Senate rules I report my husband's financial transactions. I have no input into his decisions. My husband in January and February sold shares of a cancer therapy company. This company is unrelated to any work on the coronavirus and the sale was unrelated to the situation.

— Senator Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) March 20, 2020

To get warrants, federal agents had to show they had probable cause to believe Burr broke the law. To investigate a sitting US senator, they also needed approval from Attorney General William Barr or other senior DOJ officials.

Burr’s decision to step down from the intelligence committee comes as the panel prepares to release the final installment of a series of reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Last month, the committee released a report affirming the assessment of intelligence agencies that Russia’s goal was to help elect President Donald Trump, a conclusion that Trump still disputes. Although the committee’s investigation under Burr has been far less aggressive than Democrats would like, Burr’s refusal to end it completely has made him a frequent target of criticism from Trump allies.

This article has been updated.

Whistleblower Rick Bright Details Failure to Act on Mask Shortages

The Department of Health and Human Services ignored repeated warnings from the nation’s largest mask manufacturer in late January that the supply of personal protective equipment was inadequate for the coronavirus crisis, Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told Congress Thursday.

“I’ll never forget the emails I received from Mike Bowen,” who runs Prestige Ameritech, the top surgical mask supplier in the country, Bright said, “indicating that our mask supply, our N-95 respirator supply was completely decimated. And he said, ‘We’re in deep shit. The world is.'”

Bright’s whistleblower complaint includes more details about his email conversations with Bowen. According to the complaint, Bowen sounded the alarm about impending mask shortages on January 21 and offered to produce additional N-95 respirators “with government help.”

When Bowen testified later Thursday, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) produced a January 31 email in which Bowen said that he would sell masks to the US government “if and only if the VA and DoD become my customers after this thing is over.” Bowen told Walden that he specified that condition because it would take him three or four months to ramp up production, and he didn’t want to hire and train employees only to fire them when the government no longer needed masks to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

On January 23, Bright suggested at a meeting with HHS officials that the coronavirus might already be in the United States and requested additional funds for his agency to combat the threat posed by the emerging disease, the report alleges. That same day, an HHS spokesperson said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had determined that the coronavirus posed a low threat to the US public.

HHS official Bryan Shuy “later told Dr. Bright that his request for urgent funding at the meeting on January 23[rd] set off ‘quite a shit storm’ after the meeting,” according to the complaint. “Mr. Shuy further relayed to Dr. Bright he had offended HHS leadership by pushing for urgent funding…According to Mr. Shuy, HHS leadership believed that BARDA already had a sizable budget, albeit nothing specifically for COVID-19, and that he should not have asked for additional resources to address the virus.”

In additional emails on January 23, 24, and 25, Bowen continued to warn Bright and Dr. Laura Wolf, another HHS official, of the impending mask shortages. Bright’s efforts to amplify Bowen’s warnings continued to fall on deaf ears, according to Bright’s complaint.

“From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers,” Bright said in his testimony. “We were not taking action. We were already behind the ball.”

Watch Bright’s congressional testimony below:

Dr. Rick Bright on the moment he realized the US was headed toward a crisis: “We’re in deep shit. The world is. We need to act,” Bright says a mask supplier told him in an email.

"From that moment I knew that we were going to have a crisis." pic.twitter.com/20wyAx1ZoV

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) May 14, 2020

This story has been updated to include details from Bowen’s testimony.

20,000 Kids Have Learned Hip-Hop From One Revolutionary Network. Today’s Plague Won’t Stop It Either.

Turning a pandemic into an opportunity for educational and artistic empowerment is what Khafre Jay lives for, and his celebrated Hip Hop for Change network isn’t about to let today’s crisis (just the latest) short-circuit its mission. Before this pandemic, his grassroots group worked in schools and on the ground, teaching more than 20,000 kids the hopeful messages and inspiring beats of hip-hop as a human rights movement.

Plague be damned, Jay is finding fresh ways to adapt: hosting a weekly Zoom for kids and teachers, sharing grant applications with unemployed artists, producing homemade hip-hop videos, and keeping people alive—HipHopForChange.org has a directory of resources for kids to get food, rent, utilities, and health care. “We’re always thinking of how to take care of our staff, our people, our folks,” he tells me, including an emergency fundraiser for artist-educators who’ve lost their jobs. 

His group just scored two grants from the California Arts Council, one to provide free programming to all public libraries in Oakland and the other for an environmental justice summit. “We’re bringing environmental and hip-hop people together who don’t normally get to rock out. It’s amazing to think that we’ve taught more than 22,000 kids. When you create hip-hop curriculum, kids are gonna ask you for it! These kids are starving for any kind of culturally relevant pedagogy. They want enrichment.”

Hip Hop for Change also hosts women’s empowerment summits, after-school classes, and mentor workshops. But the funding isn’t stable. “We’re investing in a nonviolent movement of resilience. I want to get people trained up like Medgar Evers trained up his folks, to expand where kids don’t have stable access to hip-hop expression, to further babies knowing they’re beautiful.”

Let Jay know you hear him, check out HipHopForChange.org, and let me know how you think hip-hop can rally kids today at recharge@motherjones.com.

If a Pandemic Can’t Force San Francisco to Reckon With Homelessness, Nothing Can

The tents started popping up soon after the shelter-in-place order came down, in mid-March. By early May, some 90 of them were clustered in Civic Center Plaza, with more joining each day—a sprawling encampment of people without housing, little nylon domes dotting the square like a low satire of the ornate gold-leaf dome of San Francisco City Hall in the near distance. 

In the tree-lined open space, things have settled into something of a routine over the past few weeks. Vans from various nonprofits roll up and dole out hand sanitizer, masks, bagged lunches, and bottled water. Cops attempt to enforce social distancing, on at least one occasion reportedly instructing people to stay in their tents after a 10 p.m. “curfew.” (There is no such city curfew; a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department said the cops were there to “reduce crime and remind the public about sheltering in place and social-distancing requirements.”)  

Sarah Wasson, a 35-year-old who lives in a tent with her husband, noted that it’s hard not to spread germs when you don’t have access to bathrooms or showers. “They say we’re more at risk of spreading it to everybody else because we’re not clean like everybody else, but we can’t be,” she said when I visited the encampment at the end of April. “We don’t have a choice.”

Just this week, to help people like Wasson, the city unveiled a “safe sleeping village” in the plaza: Inside a fenced-off area, 50 tents sit in squares spray-painted on the ground like a checkerboard. Residents now have access to bathrooms, three meals a day, and 24/7 security. But there are far more people in the plaza than there are tent spots in the village. Asked what would happen to them, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing spokesperson Emily Cohen said, “We continue to seek more stable housing solutions and, when possible, to guide people experiencing homelessness to safer and less concentrated locations.”

In recent weeks, San Francisco has made national news as a glimmering case study in flattening the curve. Since Bay Area counties became the first in the nation to order residents to stay inside, the city has mercifully avoided the devastation that the coronavirus has wrought in other urban areas. The city’s ICUs have plenty of space. Of nearly 900,000 residents, just 2,000 have tested positive for the virus.

The glaring exception to all the good news is the homeless population, which has grown significantly over the course of the spring. The encampment in front of City Hall is one of several such sites that have sprung up across the city. As homeless shelters have emptied to comply with social-distancing measures, between 500 and 1,000 additional people have spilled into the streets, experts estimate, joining the roughly 5,000 who were already there. The number of tents in the Tenderloin, the 49 blocks that make up the city’s most impoverished neighborhood, has tripled since January. Last week, Tenderloin residents, including the Hastings College of the Law, sued the city for the neighborhood’s “deplorable” conditions: “What has long been suffered in the Tenderloin has become insufferable,” read the complaint.

There has not yet been widespread coronavirus testing of the homeless in San Francisco, but the data that does exist is eye-popping: A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team responding to a coronavirus cluster at San Francisco’s largest shelter, MSC South, in April tested all 143 residents; 66 percent tested positive. The shelter promptly evacuated, with the residents moving into hotel rooms to self-isolate.

A socially distanced line for breakfast at Glide, a nonprofit in the Tenderloin.
Julia Lurie

Homelessness has long been San Francisco’s glaring exception. As of 2015, the city had a higher rate of unsheltered residents than any other major city in the country. In the Civic Center Plaza today, there’s a sense of history repeating itself: In the late 1980s, Mayor Art Agnos could watch from his balcony at City Hall as a sort of makeshift city took shape in the same plaza. Then, as now, a natural disaster intensified a pre-existing crisis. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake forced people out of crumbling single-room occupancy hotels. They flocked to Camp Agnos, as it was known. The mayor refused to evict them until he had a place to send them, prompting the city to acquire its first two homeless shelters. As the fates would have it, one of those new shelters was MSC South.

With tents multiplying in the streets and the city government bitterly divided over what to do about it, San Francisco is facing the same old problems today, but dramatically heightened. “It’s what I went through, only multiplied by a thousand times,” Agnos told me. “Because, rather than just 3, 400 people, centralized, they’re all over the city. They’re all over the Bay Area.” 

Dr. Margot Kushel, who heads the University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, described San Francisco’s pre-outbreak scenario as a “tinderbox.” Throw in a highly infectious disease, she said, “and you have the makings of a catastrophe.”

San Francisco’s successes thus far in combating the coronavirus look a lot more fragile from among the tents at Civic Center Plaza. An outbreak within the city’s substantial unhoused population could spread rapidly beyond it, to the people who in normal times are cosseted from the human consequences of the Bay Area’s housing squeeze.

“We are essentially fighting a plague while exempting tens of thousands of our residents from the protections that the rest of us have,” Supervisor Matt Haney, who oversees the Tenderloin, told me. “If you’re concerned about how long this is going to go, if you’re concerned about how much this is going to cost, if you’re concerned about whether or not the sacrifices that you are making and your family are making are going to be worth it, you should also be concerned about homeless people.”

But in a pandemic, there is no denying that the well-being of those with shelter and the well-being of those without it are inextricably tied together. 

Since Agnos’ tenure, the politics of housing in San Francisco have been characterized by a refusal to face homelessness head-on, as a matter of structural inequities with structural remedies. But in a pandemic, there is no denying that the well-being of those with shelter and the well-being of those without it are inextricably tied together. 

When I spoke with Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, I asked if this coronavirus could, at last, force a reckoning with homelessness. “If this moment doesn’t,” she said, “I’m not sure what would.”

On March 17, the day that Bay Area counties ground to a halt, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting. Dr. Tomás Aragón, the city’s lead health officer, admitted that he was losing sleep over the possibility of a massive outbreak among the thousands of people living on the streets or in group housing, like shelters or SROs, where residents are lodged in close quarters. “Hours matter: This virus, the way that it moves, is explosive,” he said. “I think we can have an explosion just in those populations.”

Soon after, the city ordered shelters to stop taking new reservations. The decision was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the interim director of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “That immediately spilled people out into the streets.” The shelters typically hold about 3,000 people, a large portion of whom are same-day walk-ins. Today, the city’s shelters are between 5 and 40 percent full.

While virtually everyone agreed that shelters weren’t safe, city leaders were—and continue to be—deeply divided about what to do next.

On one side are the city’s left-wing supervisors, who insist on placing people without housing into San Francisco’s thousands of empty hotel rooms. As the supervisors explain it, this is a no-brainer: Hotels are desperate for business. Unhoused people are desperate for shelter. The city could get a large portion of the costs covered by Project Roomkey, a statewide initiative using FEMA and state funding to secure “isolation rooms” in hotels and motels for vulnerable populations. “We have the hotel rooms, we have the money, and we have the staffing,” said one supervisor, Hillary Ronen, at a press conference in early April, just after the first resident of a homeless shelter had tested positive for the coronavirus. “Why aren’t we doing this?” 

Mayor London Breed is the hero of the national narrative of San Francisco’s pandemic response. The city’s supervisors tell a different story.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

On the other side is the city’s executive branch, led by Mayor London Breed, the hero in the national narrative of San Francisco’s pandemic response. Breed maintains that it is not realistic to expect to solve in a matter of weeks a homelessness crisis that has been decades in the making: “I know that people are asking, ‘Well, why don’t we just open the doors and let everyone who is homeless get access to a hotel room?’” Breed said in early April. “I wish it were that easy to help people.”

Breed’s team agreed to acquire some hotel rooms but for a limited population—namely, homeless people who had tested positive, and people in homeless shelters or on the streets who are elderly or sick. But a number of obstacles prevent them from housing all the city’s 8,000 homeless people, they say. First, there’s the matter of the budget: Trent Rhorer, the executive director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency, said last month that “it would not be fiscally prudent” for the city to rent thousands of hotel rooms for “a population that does not require an urgent COVID health quarantine or isolation intervention.” Then there was the concern that isolating people with severe mental illness and addiction problems into hotels would be dangerous—particularly since people are far more likely to die of overdoses when they’re using drugs alone.

Cities across the country are facing similar debates, and a number of states have rolled out initiatives to put the homeless in hotels with the help of funding from FEMA. A team of academic researchers recently estimated that the nation would need 400,000 additional shelter beds to manage the pandemic among the homeless, who are twice as likely to need hospitalization and two to three times more likely to die from the coronavirus. Housing advocacy organizations put the price tag of these efforts at roughly $15 billion. In the most recent stimulus package, Congress allocated $4 billion in emergency grants for the homeless; just $1 billion has been released so far. 

The rift in San Francisco follows the same contours of the debate the city has been having for decades, only this time the stakes seem clearer. Homelessness in the city, and in America more broadly, took root in the 1970s and 1980s, brought on by a deadly mix of declining wages, deinstitutionalization, and cuts to welfare and affordable housing. In the ’90s, San Francisco was on the “cutting edge of solutions for homelessness,” said Kushel.

Under Agnos, it was one of the first cities to introduce a “Housing First” program—as it later became known—that provided permanent housing to the homeless with virtually no strings attached; the idea is that it’s impossible to get a job or tackle substance abuse if you don’t have a roof over your head. Agnos was voted out of office shortly after his proposed shelters opened, but the model expanded nationally. The program was rigorously studied, and the positive effects were incontrovertible. “We know what to do,” said Kushel. “Housing is the answer. Some people need just housing, some people with support. Some people need a lot of support, some people need a little support. It’s not rocket science.” 

But since the ’90s, housing costs in the city have shot through the roof, and residents have been internally displaced into homelessness. Successive mayors, faced with dwindling federal funding and steady political pressure to tackle the homelessness problem, promoted occasionally divergent grand plans. Frank Jordan, a former police chief, instructed cops to arrest the homeless. Willie Brown added to the city’s affordable housing stock before declaring homelessness to be a problem “that may not be solvable.” Gavin Newsom, as a supervisor, catapulted himself into the running for the city’s mayoralty with the passage of his “Care Not Cash” measure; the program took away cash assistance to the homeless and used it on services and housing instead. Last fall, voters approved a ballot measure supported by Breed that authorized the city to borrow $600 million for the construction of affordable housing.

But there have been no broad-based investments in affordable housing commensurate with the scale of the problem. Kushel was quick to point out that there are bigger culprits beyond City Hall. “This has been a crisis made from federal disinvestment from affordable housing,” she said. “Mayors always get blamed the most, then maybe governors, and the feds are usually left off the hook.” Still, local politicos have cited the same alibis for inertia that have been offered in recent weeks in the hotel debate: that people don’t want to be housed, that they are too sick to be housed, that they need to earn their way into housing, that they come to San Francisco from elsewhere and thus shouldn’t be housed—all of which Kushel described as “totally not true.” 

Tenderloin district in San Francisco.
Mark Leong/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund/Redux

Over the years, the homeless population in San Francisco became older, frailer, and more geographically concentrated. Today, more than a third of people in San Francisco without housing are over the age of 50, and nearly half live in a single district, consisting of the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods. African Americans make up five percent of the city’s population but more than a third of its homeless population.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that pre-existing civic inequalities have been mapped onto the city’s coronavirus outcomes: A few weeks ago, a team of researchers tested 3,000 residents of the Mission, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood that has gentrified at warp speed over the past decade. Of those who tested positive, 89 percent came from households with an annual income of less than $50,000, 95 percent were Latinx, and zero percent were white.

As of Wednesday, homeless people have moved into 1,100 rooms in small, budget hotels and motels acquired by the city. Most of the occupants came from homeless shelters; 115 adults have been relocated from the streets into hotel rooms. There, they have three meals a day delivered to their rooms—eating in a communal cafeteria isn’t an option given social-distancing measures. For those dealing with addiction, medications like methadone, are provided. 

The hotels are staffed by local nonprofit employees and disaster workers, some of whom are city employees furloughed from their usual jobs—like librarians, airport analysts, or coat checkers at the museums. “People from up, down, all around are raising their hands” said Stewart-Kahn, “and stepping into work with something that probably makes them quite nervous.”

Michael Lambert, the city librarian, typically oversees San Francisco’s dozens of library branches; now he works from 3 to 11 pm, Tuesday through Saturday, at a city-contracted hotel. With a colleague from the library, he serves dinner to guests in their rooms. “The guests are very grateful for the service,” he wrote in an email. “This is some of the most rewarding and humbling work I have ever performed in my career.”

“One of the things that the administration fears is that this could work. That the sky doesn’t fall. That lots of homeless people are homeless not because of such severe mental illness, but because they can’t afford housing in the Bay Area.”

Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit that employs formerly incarcerated people, currently staffs three hotels, as well as the newly-formed safe sleeping village. “We’re like the concierge: We try to act like we’re real hotel staff—the same ones you would get at a four-star,” said CEO Lena Miller. Robert Cedillio, 54, spent three decades years in prison before getting out two years ago. Now, he supervises staff at a hotel. “I make sure that the guests wear their masks, wear their gloves,” he said. “We give them their [meals]. We hand out laundry bags for their personal laundry. We clean up around here. Whatever needs to be done, we’re there to assist.”

All of this comes at a price. The hotel initiative will cost the city an estimated $105 million over three months, estimated Cohen, the homelessness department spokesperson. FEMA reimbursements could cover as much as half of the costs. But in the meantime, the city’s economy is hobbled by the coronavirus, facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion over the next two years. 

Depending on if you ask Breed’s advisers or the supervisors, the pace of converting hotel rooms into shelter is either turbo-charged or glacial. 

“It’s the hardest thing the city’s ever done, and we’ve done it faster than at least every county in California and possibly every city in the country,” said Stewart-Kahn. With each hotel placement comes a series of critical questions, she explained: “If they can’t self-care, how do we get the additional staff? How do we feed people three times a day? Does each space have Narcan? How do we transport people when you can’t put more than one person on a bus?”

The supervisors, meanwhile, say that Breed and her team have been dragging their feet, wasting precious time. “They’re hoping that if they move slowly enough on this, the need for these rooms will go away at some point,” said Supervisor Dean Preston. In this version of events, grassroots efforts have had to fill in critical gaps in the absence of aggressive action from the city government. Preston’s team raised more than $80,000 on GoFundMe to transfer 39 shelter residents to a vacant motel. Haney also secured funding, from the United Methodist Church, to rent rooms at a hotel; in early April, 22 shelter residents piled moving carts with their belongings and rolled them down the street to their temporary new home.

In mid-April, the dispute in the city government came to a head when the supervisors unanimously passed emergency legislation mandating that the city procure 8,250 hotel rooms for homeless people and frontline safety and healthcare workers. Breed refused to sign the legislation. In a lengthy Medium post, she explained, “I will not support a law requiring us to open thousands of rooms before we can do so safely.” Last week, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, backed by the ACLU, threatened to sue the city if Breed didn’t follow the supervisors’ order. Breed responded, “We’re not housekeepers, we’re not babysitters, but we’re being treated that way.”

It’s possible that both glosses on the hotel initiative, “the city is moving as fast as possible” and “the city is too slow,” are true: San Francisco is taking unprecedented action, and the help can’t come fast enough. What’s certain is that, to the average person living on the streets, getting into a hotel will remain virtually impossible unless more rooms are acquired and staffed.

“We feel super vulnerable, and we keep hearing all these places for people to stay,” said Jessica Dutton, who lives in a tent in the center of the city. “We’re pretty much ‘nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.’”

In late April, I shadowed employees at Glide, one of the city’s biggest nonprofit social service providers for homeless people. The Glide employees and clients I spoke with had the air of people hunkering down for the long haul. As one man lamented as he waited in line for a meal, “I picked a bad time to be homeless.” 

Before the outbreak, the organization’s drop-in center, in the heart of the Tenderloin, helped clients fill out applications for transitional housing and get shelter reservations. Now, employees give out hygiene kits from a table on the sidewalk during the day, and blankets starting at 4 p.m. “Every interaction now is just, ‘Take this and go,’” said Glide case manager DeMarco McCall.

“I picked a bad time to be homeless.” 

With libraries, restaurants, and drop-in centers closed, there’s nowhere to charge phones and use the internet, which is particularly problematic when access to social services requires people to hop on the phone or online. When I asked Michael Kenney, a man who recently had to leave a shelter, if he was considering cashing a stimulus check, he said, “I don’t know—how would I find out about that?” He has no phone and he lost his ID, which means he has no access to food stamps. “I can’t contact my family back east because I don’t have their phone numbers and I don’t have any way to go online,” he told me, clutching a new green tent he’d picked up from Glide. “I’m basically SOL. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Glide normally operates a busy soup kitchen that relies on volunteers. Now, with the volunteer operation shut down, the organization offers shelf-stable meals from Gate Gourmet—yes, the airline food company. Each week since the shelter-in-place order, Glide has distributed more than 10,000 of the bagged meals, which are funded by a national volunteer-driven initiative called Project Isaiah. “This windfall has saved us,” said Glide’s director of meals George Gundry. When I visited, the line for breakfast meandered around three of the four sides of the block.

Glide’s outreach has changed, too: What was once a van offering mobile needle exchange and infectious disease testing services to homeless encampments across the city has transitioned into offering the essentials. Under overpasses and outside abandoned warehouses, case manager Felanie Castro doles out food, water, hygiene kits, and face masks. She gives clean needles to the injection drug users, and two-person tents to those with no shelter. (Between stops, she explained her name: After 22 years in prison, she underwent a gender transition. When deciding on a new name, she thought, “You know what, I’m going to reclaim that shit.”)

Glide outreach team Felanie Castro (right) and Ali Lazarus distribute food.
 Mark Leong/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund/Redux

The hand sanitizer that Castro gives out comes from University of California, Berkeley, where student scientists have made full-time jobs of producing hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer each week for the needy. Abrar Abidi, a second-year microbiology PhD student at the center of the effort, said that 10 labs at the university are participating in the effort, which involves acquiring the ingredients, making the sanitizer, and organizing its distribution. “We’ve been very reluctant to let this be reduced to a cute story of a few young people who just want to help out the community or something,” he said. “Because most of us take quite a tragic view of what’s happening: that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, something like this is the only resource that many of the poorest people have.”

What’s often left out of the debate about the hotel rooms in San Francisco is any consideration of what happens after the pandemic has passed. Could a policy built on the fly in an emergency become a permanent feature of social provision? 

“That’s the elephant in the room,” said Preston, the supervisor. “I think one of the things that the administration fears is that this could work. That the sky doesn’t fall. That lots of homeless people are homeless not because of such severe mental illness, but because they can’t afford housing in the Bay Area.”

It would be a bleak victory, in a way, for Agnos’ original vision: Housing First, at long last. The former mayor for his part was careful not to take sides in the fight over hotel rooms. But he said he hoped the pandemic would spur “new ideas that we haven’t thought of in the 35-, 40-year history of homelessness,” recalling how the city acquired its first shelters in the aftermath the earthquake.

There’s some evidence that such a process is underway. The city is securing hotel rooms with an eye toward the long term, said Stewart-Kahn. The goal is to lease or purchase the rooms and add them to the city’s permanent supportive housing stock when this is all over. This would be no small feat: With the addition of the 2,700 rooms that the city has acquired during the coronavirus outbreak (most of them are still being prepared for move-in), the city’s permanent supportive housing stock would increase by nearly 40 percent. But there have been no long-term leases or purchases made to date. “Any philanthropist or financier or smart person who wants to come help with that, we are working on a daily basis [to] raise the funds to own these in a long-term way,” said Stewart-Kahn.

When I asked Kushel what she thought would happen, she laid out two scenarios. The “big, big, big nightmare scenario,” is that the city and state governments will run out of money, the federal government won’t fill in the needed gaps, and residents will be evicted as soon as the eviction moratorium, implemented by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March, is lifted. Residents who were hanging on by a thread won’t be able to pay their back rent, higher-income people will move in, “and we will lose what little affordable housing we have,” she posited.

Kushel’s dream scenario, meanwhile, would involve a dramatic increase in federal funding for affordable housing and rental assistance. “My optimistic scenario is people will finally realize what we’ve been saying all along,” she said. “There’s no way to have a healthy society when you have this many people living without housing.”

Top photo: Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty

The Two-Earner Family Is In Decline

Here’s an interesting chart that has nothing whatsoever to do with COVID-19:

The peak of the two-earner family came in the late 1990s and has been declining ever since. Interestingly, it’s been replaced about equally between husband-only and wife-only earners. I would love to see this chart broken out by income level.

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: May 13 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through May 13. Germany and Switzerland are down to 1 new death per million and France is down to 2 new deaths per million. Now comes the next step: can they implement test-and-trace effectively enough to keep the daily death toll this low even as they ease up on social distancing restrictions? I imagine it will be several weeks before we know for sure.

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

How to Take Back a Congressional District During a Pandemic

Like Merrick Garland, who then-president Barack Obama nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, Pat Timmons-Goodson was the perfect appointee for the judicial position she did not receive. Her familiarity with North Carolina’s courts went back to 1981 when she began her three-decade legal career as an assistant district attorney in Cumberland County, home to Fort Bragg and Pope Field. Before being nominated in 2016 to be a district judge on the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Timmons-Goodson was a justice on the state’s supreme court and head of the US Commission on Civil Rights. 

As with the US Supreme Court, federal judges must be confirmed by Congress, which Republicans controlled at the time of the nomination. And, as with their approach to the nomination of Merrick Garland, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) wasn’t about to play a part in broadening Democratic control of the courts by conducting confirmation hearings for the nominees. So she waited out the final year of the Obama presidency in purgatory, until Donald Trump’s inauguration, when her nomination expired.

Now, Timmons-Goodson hopes to move from the judicial to the legislative branch of government by running for North Carolina’s 8th congressional district this November. She hopes to dislodge Richard Hudson (R-NC), a moderate Republican who’s comfortably held the seat since his victory in 2012. In the years leading up to Hudson’s tenure, the seat was held be two officials dogged by scandal. Democrat Larry Kissell, who won the seat in 2008 with the support of labor unions, lost their backing when he voted against a healthcare reform bill in 2010—ultimately causing them to run an independent candidate against him. More recently, Robin Hayes, a Republican who held the seat before Kissell, resigned as head of the state’s Republican party after a corruption indictment in April 2019.

In September 2019 the district changed when a panel of three judges ruled that partisan gerrymandering had to stop, and the congressional map was redrawn. The result was that the less conservative Cumberland County—where Timmons-Goodson spent much of her childhood and cut her teeth as a young attorney after graduating from Duke University School of Law—was folded into the newly created district. 

Timmons-Goodson announced her candidacy in December, but three months later the novel coronavirus epidemic made traditional campaigning impossible. Mother Jones caught up with her to talk about her shift into politics, how to campaign when there’s an epidemic, and how COVID-19 has made the issues already facing the 8th district more visible than ever. As she wrote in a recent op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer, “I reminded my mother that many have said, ‘When America catches a cold, African Americans catch pneumonia.’ COVID-19 has shown that saying still holds true.”

How has this pandemic altered the day-to-day operations of your campaign?

The manner in which we go about campaigning has changed, but the goal hasn’t. The goal has always been and will continue to be communicating with our voters and our supporters, and listening to what’s on their mind, and for us to communicate what our priorities are and how we would plan to serve them in Washington. Back in the good old days, you would go out to an event and physically be present in the same room with someone, where you can slap your supporter or friend on the back, shake their hand, kiss their baby. We’re unable to do that. But the goal is the same. So we’re now on the telephone, or we’re on Zoom. I’ve tried to set up a location that, when I’m there, my mind is in the work mode, but still haven’t quite achieved that yet. Maybe the dining room today if the Zoom meeting is a little more formal. If I’m just talking and working with staff, I may be in the guest room in a real comfortable chair with my my feet up.

In your op-ed you write about how Black and brown lives are disproportionately affected by this pandemic. With Black people comprising nearly a quarter of the population in your district, how has this crisis played out locally?

I hear that parents who [usually] work outside of the home and are no longer working have their children at home, and they understand just how huge a role the school day has played, not only in the lives of children by educating them, but also supervising and feeding them. They’re seeing how that food bill increases mightily with the children being home. We are seeing more food shortages, and we see more folks calling for help.

I’m sad to say that I’ve had a number of friends lose their spouses. A few of the losses have been directly related to the virus, but the virus has affected the way that everyone is able to grieve and say goodbye to their loved ones. For example, two of my friends have lost husbands, and they were military veterans. They’re not having the kind of funeral services that they would have had. So they’re delaying the memorial service or a goodbye that would be more in keeping with the way families grieve. At Fort Bragg, if the person is going to be buried at the cemetery, the family can’t come. The military honors that wouldn’t normally go with the funeral are not taking place. I’m hearing that the virus is affecting us in ways that we never would have imagined at all. All of the ways are heart-wrenching.

How would you describe the 8th District and the region around it to someone who’s never been there before?

In my mind, it’s so like the south. There is a warmth there. There is a “wholiness,” if there is such a word. There is a reliance on relationships and on people and on families. In this part of North Carolina and in this part of the country, you don’t have to be related by blood to be considered family and to be treated as family.

It’s mostly suburban, demographically diverse, made up mostly of military and working middle-class communities. Many of those communities have been hit hard by the closing of textile mills. At one time, Cabarrus County was the home of Cannon Mills, which was the largest producer of textiles in the world, before manufacturing went out of the country. Working middle class communities trying to support their families.

I know you were a child in this part of North Carolina. How has the area changed?

In the eastern part there’s Fort Bragg, and Pope Air Force Base, so you have a strong military presence that plays a large role in the economy. As you move further west, you get into counties and areas that are not as heavily populated. Small towns, small communities that, like other places in this nation, have really taken a hit. Much of the manufacturing is long gone, and it’s not going to return unless there is a real concerted effort to bring it back. We’ve got to find a way to have some kind of economic engine to support them or else they literally are going to wither up and die. As I’ve looked at the discussions about the shortages of certain garments and personal protective equipment, I was like, “Daggonit, that could have been manufactured right here in our district.”

What are the biggest policy changes that are needed here right now?

I’m going to lead with healthcare, because I was talking about health care before the pandemic. And that’s at the heart of everything. You can’t work very well, you can’t get an education, you can’t function if your health is impaired or if you’re not healthy. This country is just too rich for folks to be denied something so basic. For me, it’s just unconscionable that we would have citizens that do not have proper healthcare.

“For me, it’s just unconscionable that we would have citizens that do not have proper healthcare.”

I’m the product of a military family. My father was a sergeant in the United States Army. That’s how it is that we came to settle in Fayetteville. Dad medically retired from the army. I’d been getting government healthcare the whole time I was raised, because that’s what was provided for our military servicemen and women. And it worked, so that’s where I began my frame of reference.

At what point did you become politically conscious?

I would say fairly early on. I’m the oldest of six. I was always around adults and always given a good bit of responsibility. My ears would always pick up when grown people were talking. I would hear family members and friends talking about having a situation where they were unsure just what to do. And eventually somebody would say, “You need to talk to a lawyer.”

I got in my young head that that’s the folks who can get things done. I wanted to be like that. I’ve grown to understand that there are a lot of professions that help people, but I identified the legal profession early on, as a preteen. And in the mid-60s, when I saw what was going on, I thought, that I wanted to be a part of it.

You have had a long, illustrious career in civic service. Having spent that career in North Carolina, I wonder if you’ve ever worked with Reverend William Barber, and what that was like?

My path did not cross with him until I was in the judiciary of North Carolina on the Court of Appeals. North Carolina elects all of their judges. That’s when I met Reverend Barber. And as our campaign went around the state, I worshipped at his church. I was involved with the NAACP, attending meetings, and he was the president at that time, of the state NAACP, so I’ve interacted with him over the years. For me, he represents an individual that, while working as hard as humanly possible for a cause and a people—the poor, the disenfranchised, the vulnerable—he’s still managed to keep his focus on the individual. So it’s about helping the masses, but at the same time it’s about the individual. He’s an incredible human being.

You’ve worked on the US Commission on Civil Rights since since 2014. Why would you shift from that form of advocacy work to running for office?

I realized shortly after joining the commission that it didn’t matter how great the policy was, or how much the change was needed. It didn’t matter how many people would be favorably impacted by a particular policy. Unless you had a legislator that would file the legislation, nurture it, move it along, it did not happen. That’s when I realized that I needed to do more. Our citizens can only select their leaders from those that offer themselves, so I said, “Well. I’ll offer myself and we’ll see what they say.”

What’s a past experience, perhaps an unexpected one, that’s helped prepare you to run for this office?

I think that it would be seeking a judicial appointment that I did not receive. I received a call afterwards from a judge who I really admired, and he said, “Pat, I understand you didn’t get that appointment. I hope that you will not stop. Just because things don’t come when we want them or the way that we want them does not mean that they will not come. This time can be used by you to even better prepare yourself for further service. And so you just hang in there.” I have always appreciated that. You just keep on working at it, and things will work out.

The district lines were redrawn in a way that has brought some benefit to the Democrats. But it still leans Republican. What are the greatest challenges here to winning?

The greatest challenge to winning will be having the means of communicating who I am and my message. I believe that the people of this district want something to be done, and that something may vary depending upon who is answering the question. But I believe that they are sick and tired—Republicans and Democrats—of the gridlock that is in Washington. Doggone it, do something! You can’t do something if you are so deeply entrenched in your thinking that you’re unwilling to listen to the other side. The status quo is not going to change unless there is some meeting of the minds, some willingness to give up a little something in order to get something.

I am still very much a judge in terms of my personality and my way of thinking. I look at both sides of the issue, I can’t help it. But I’m gonna listen to what you have to say, and I hope you’ll listen to what I have to say. If you will truly listen, if I will truly listen, I believe that we’ll be able to find some common ground somewhere so that we will move away from the status quo.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

The Non-Paranoid Person’s Guide to Viruses Escaping From Labs

Few people in the United States had heard of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)—the high-security biolab in Wuhan, China, that does cutting-edge research on coronaviruses—until mid-April, when the Trump administration began to imply that it might be the source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. So far the only evidence supporting this idea is the coincidence of COVID-19 breaking out in the same city as the institute, but that’s been enough to feed conspiracy theories for months. Such theories were relegated to the right-wing fringe—even before Rush Limbaugh complained on an April 16 broadcast that “you are a kook if you think that this virus happened in a lab!”—until the administration, feeling the heat for its own inept response, began to embrace them.

The groundwork to do so was laid when two cables from officials at the US Embassy in Beijing were leaked to the Washington Post. The cables had been sent to Washington in 2018 after the officials had visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology—the first lab in China with a Biosafety Level 4 rating, meaning it has the security for working with the world’s most dangerous pathogens—and been told of safety concerns there. “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” one of the cables said, urging the government to send additional support to the lab and stressing how important the WIV’s work was for “future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

Yes, the next pandemic could start from a lab in China. But it could just as easily come from our own backyard.

The second leak was more pointed. Fox News, citing unnamed insiders, reported “increasing confidence” that the outbreak had come from the lab. Asked about the report at his briefing, President Trump responded, “More and more, we’re hearing the story.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later pressed the case on The Hugh Hewitt Show, saying, “We know that the first sightings of this occurred within miles of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We know the history of the facility—the first BSL-4 lab where there’s high-end virus research being conducted took place at that site. We know that the Chinese Communist Party, when it began to evaluate what to do inside of Wuhan, considered whether the WIV was, in fact, the place where this came from. And most importantly, we know they’ve not permitted the world’s scientists to go into that laboratory to evaluate what took place there.”

The motivation to blame China—to point the finger at foreign sloppiness as the true cause of the pandemic—seems clear. In recent weeks, the administration’s argument that it had little advance warning about the coming virus has crumbled. New reports keep making it clear how early and often they were warned, including a claim by ABC News that the first alarms started ringing way back in November, when US intelligence picked up on the outbreak through intercepted communications in China and flagged it as potentially “cataclysmic.” Hence the desperation to shift attention from its own deer-in-the-headlights ineptitude and make China the enemy.

But the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to cast blame on the WIV are misguided. If anything, a lab connection would increase American culpability because the work being done at the lab was part of an international project launched in the United States—until now: Shortly after Trump embraced the lab-escape theory, in late April, the administration cut funding to EcoHealth Alliance, which helped fund the WIV lab.

The leaked cables show just how close the relationship is between the WIV and the United States. There’s no sign that the institute reached out to Beijing for extra help back in 2018; instead, it reached out to Washington. But the institute was rebuffed. As the Post reported, “No extra assistance to the labs was provided.”

In the unlikely event that the virus is proven to have a lab connection, that failure to provide more experienced staff may look like an epic blunder by the Trump administration. “The cables raise really serious red flags and it would stand to reason that anybody that received these cables would take steps to figure out whether there was fire underneath the smoke,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy recently told the Post. “But we still have more questions than we have answers about the origin of this virus.”

It’s doubtful we’ll ever pinpoint COVID-19’s origins. Despite many experts’ skepticism, no one I talked to said they could confidently rule out the possibility that it accidentally escaped from a lab that was studying it. But it could also have been carried to Wuhan by anyone who was infected elsewhere, or by an animal that served as an intermediate host. As we’ve seen in the United States, most people infected with SARS-CoV-2 never even know it. Tracing a disease like that back to Patient Zero may be impossible.

Yet it may turn out for the best that the WIV is now in the news. Most people don’t realize how heroic some of its work was or how important to heading off the next pandemic. They also haven’t grasped the danger posed by the work being done at high-security biolabs around the world. Yes, the next pandemic could start from a lab in China. But it could just as easily come from our own backyard.

In recent decades, more diseases have been jumping from animals to humans, a phenomenon called zoonotic spillover. Experts blame our increasing incursions into the natural world. As we convert forests to farms and hunt wild animals, we give viruses new opportunities for spillover.

The earliest cases in Hubei Province can be traced to mid-November, weeks before the outbreak at the market. The market was just an amplifier, Mardi Gras in miniature.

A major effort to detect and prevent such spillovers began after SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) appeared in southern China in November 2002, infecting a number of people who had connections to a “wet market” where wildlife was sold. SARS eventually killed 774 people around the world by destroying lung cells and triggering severe pneumonia. SARS killed 10 percent of its victims, an extremely high rate, but it wasn’t tremendously contagious, and the world was able to corral it by July 2003.

Virologists soon identified a new coronavirus as the cause of SARS. It resembled other viruses found in bats, which were suspected to be the original hosts. Bats are the natural carriers for many of the world’s worst infectious diseases, including MERS and Ebola, though in bats these viruses rarely cause problems. Bats have hyperactive immune systems that make things difficult for viruses. In most mammals, including us, such aggressive immune responses would trigger lethal inflammation (such as the cytokine storms that kill some COVID-19 patients), but bats also have unique repair mechanisms in their cells that constantly clean up the inflammation. The repair mechanisms are there to fix the wear and tear caused by bats’ intense metabolisms—their hearts can beat a thousand times a minute during flight—but they also allow bats to rev their immune systems 24/7 without destroying themselves. Any battle-hardened viruses that can eke out an existence in such an unfriendly environment can be devastating if they cross over into mammals with weaker defenses, much like an invasive species dropped into a virgin environment.

In 2004, according to Scientific American, a team from the WIV led by virologist Shi Zhengli began visiting caves in southern China, hoping to find the cause of SARS. They captured bats and took blood, saliva, and fecal samples, and tested the samples for viruses back in Wuhan. In 2009, the lab began working with PREDICT, a new program established at USAID to train and fund scientists to test “high-risk” areas for new viruses. By identifying unknown viruses before they spilled over into humans—to “find them before they find us,” as Shi put it—researchers hoped to establish an early-warning system. PREDICT worked in dozens of countries, but the WIV was one of its linchpins, and Shi Zhengli became famous as China’s “Bat Woman.”

In 2013, the WIV discovered SARS-CoV, the cause of SARS, in a cave in Yunnan Province. Shi’s team found that the bats of southern China were full of viruses, especially coronaviruses. Over 10 years, her team collected more than 10,000 samples from bats in the region and discovered hundreds of new coronaviruses, including some with the ability to infect humans. Many bats harbored multiple viruses, and there were alarming signs that the viruses were recombining with each other—swapping chunks of genetic code as they replicated, producing novel viruses with new abilities. “It is highly likely that future SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China,” Shi and her colleagues wrote in a 2019 paper that now seems chillingly prescient. “Therefore, the investigation of bat coronaviruses becomes an urgent issue for the detection of early warning signs.”

SARS and SADS—a related virus that killed 25,000 piglets in 2017—both erupted in southern China, where the most concerning lineage of coronaviruses had been found and where future outbreaks were expected. When authorities alerted Shi on December 30 that a pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan was being caused by a mysterious new coronavirus, she was surprised. “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China,” she told Scientific American. Wuhan is a skyscraper-filled metropolis of 11 million people hundreds of miles from the bat-friendly caves of southern China. Shi asked herself, “Could they have come from our lab?”

Shi described the next few weeks as the most stressful of her life. She frantically searched her lab’s records, looking for signs of an accident or inappropriate disposal, only relaxing once the genetic code of the new virus was sequenced and didn’t match the coronaviruses in her lab. “That really took a load off my mind,” she said. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

Shi’s lab shouldn’t be completely cleared of possible blame until an independent body can review the lab’s records, which the Chinese government shows no signs of releasing. There’s also the possibility that the source of contamination could have been a CDC-run BSL-2 lab in Wuhan, which has reportedly worked with bat coronaviruses and is remarkably close to the city’s wet market.

One expert estimated that somewhere in the United States, “a breach of containment happens about twice weekly.” Some have involved deadly agents including anthrax, avian flu, and Ebola.

In any case, while Shi’s comments were meant to be reassuring, they actually implied something unsettling. Most of us mistakenly believe that the risk of a biolab-based pandemic is infinitesimal. But clearly Shi didn’t rule out an accidental escape from her lab. And, it turns out, she’s not alone. As much as biosecurity experts worry about nature as the source of the next pandemic, they also have grave concerns about labs.

The first big cluster of COVID-19 cases was found in December in people who had connections to Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The market reportedly sold live wild animals. Since the original SARS was likely carried by civets in a “wet market” in southern China, it seemed like a potential culprit, and the Chinese government pushed that narrative. The market was closed on January 1, and the area was scrubbed clean. “The origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market,” Gao Fu, the director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, announced in January.

Media outlets worldwide ran with the wet-market theory. Yet even in January, it was clear that the chances the coronavirus first spilled over in the market were vanishingly small. There’s no evidence it sold live pangolins, another animal thought to be intermediate carriers of bar-borne coronaviruses, but at least one stall may have sold civets. Despite extensive testing of the animals and animal parts that were being sold  in the market, none ever tested positive for the virus, according to China’s CDC. The only positive samples were “environmental” and may have been from the sewage.

More importantly, the timing was wrong. According to Chinese government data analyzed by the South China Morning Post, the earliest cases in Hubei Province can be traced to mid-November, weeks before the outbreak at the market. “The virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace,” Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University and a fierce critic of the lab-escape theory, told Science in late January. The market was just an amplifier, Mardi Gras in miniature.

Which left no firm explanation for how a virus that had originated in bats in remote caves in southern China had suddenly appeared in downtown Wuhan. Even the most common theories—that it had jumped from the bat to a person or another animal that served as an intermediate host as it traveled to Wuhan—would require a remarkable confluence of events. No wonder then that to some it was like a black hole suddenly opening in the Swiss countryside outside the CERN particle-collider.

It was all perfect fodder for conspiracy-minded bigots like Rush Limbaugh, who didn’t understand the science and immediately spun dark bioweapon fictions about the “ChiCom” government, which were rightly condemned by experts in the field (and which he’s since retracted). SARS-CoV-2’s genome showed no signs of being anything but natural, and five of the world’s top scientists criticized the lab-escape hypothesis in the pages of Nature Medicine. “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” they wrote.

But questions remained about whether a bat-cave researcher might have unwittingly carried the natural virus back to Wuhan, or become infected in the lab. Unfortunately, such territory had already been made toxic by the Limbaughs of the world. One of the few scientists to speculate publicly was the well-known Rutgers microbiologist Richard Ebright. “The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 entered humans as a direct result of the activities of PREDICT—during field collection of bats and bat excreta, or during laboratory characterization of bats, bat excreta, or bat viruses—cannot be excluded and cannot be dismissed,” he told me, comparing the idea of actively seeking new viruses in remote places and bringing them back to labs (in densely populated areas) to “looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.”

Ebright’s focus on lab escapes has made him something of a pariah, especially among experts who don’t like to rile the public. But he isn’t alone in legitimizing these concerns. “It’s important to be upfront that we do not have sufficient evidence to exclude entirely the possibility that it escaped from a research lab,” the respected University of Washington biologist Carl Bergstrom wrote on Twitter. Though he called a natural zoonotic spillover “far more plausible,” he cautioned: “Whatever the origin of #SARSCoV2 may have been, going forward we need to carefully assess and manage the risk associated with a range of activities.”

Jonna Mazet, the director of PREDICT, made the case for the WIV’s safety practices, pointing out all the reasons why an accident involving researchers from the WIV was incredibly unlikely. “I’m a scientist,” Mazet said. “I would never say a lab accident was not possible. I’m just saying it’s a lot less likely than a lot of other explanations.” Researchers in the field wear full Tyvek suits and masks, and freeze samples in liquid nitrogen. In the lab, they break viruses into pieces before studying it and do all their work inside biosafety cabinets designed to prevent any escapes. For all those reasons, most mainstream scientists doubt the lab connection. “We have not found evidence to support any theory that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 among humans occurred in a laboratory either intentionally or by accident,” Daniel Lucey recently wrote on the blog of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

So far, in fact, there is no hard evidence supporting any theory that explains how SARS-CoV-2 wound up in Wuhan. It’s all speculation.

The modern era of pathogen releases can be said to have begun in 1973 in England, when a lab assistant working with smallpox infected herself and spread it to three others, two of whom died. Four years later, smallpox was almost officially eradicated from the wild, yet the following year a medical photographer at Birmingham Medical School mysteriously died of the disease. It turned out that researchers in another part of the building were experimenting with smallpox, and the virus most likely reached the photographer through the ventilation system.

The National Academy of Sciences pegged the chance of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, a catastrophe for animal agriculture, at 70 percent over the 50-year lifespan of a high-security lab currently being completed in Kansas. 

There’s already been one lab-caused mini-pandemic, in 1977, when a strain of influenza erupted in China and swept the globe. (Luckily, it was a mild one.) Flu strains are famous for constantly mutating, but this one was nearly identical to one last seen in the 1950s, meaning it had been held somewhere in suspended animation. Suspicion fell on the Soviet Union’s robust bioweapons program, but researchers concluded the pathogen had more likely been released during a vaccine trial gone wrong. Nobody fessed up.

The Soviets got their moment in 1979, when a cloud of anthrax spores escaped a secret bioweapons lab when an air filter wasn’t properly replaced after maintenance. The spores killed at least 66 people in the adjacent town of Sverdlovsk. The Soviets aggressively denied it, but American intelligence was suspicious. The incident was only confirmed in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when President Boris Yeltsin invited an independent team of scientists to investigate.

Defenders of biolabs like to point out that safety precautions have been drastically improved since the 1970s, which is certainly true, yet the 21st century has seen a surge of incidents, possibly because of the explosion of Biosafety Level 3 and 4 labs. BSL-3 labs handle highly infectious and lethal pathogens like anthrax, West Nile virus, avian flu, SARS, and MERS. BSL-4 labs handle the baddest of the baddies, for which there are no current countermeasures, such as Ebola and smallpox. In 2001, the United States had five BSL-4 labs. Then, after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, the era of bioterror research began. There are now at least nine in the United States, and more than 50 around the world, including seven still planned or under construction. There are many more BSL-3 labs—200 registered in the United States alone.

The best protocols in the world can’t eliminate human error, which is the cause of most accidents in high containment biolabs. Official incident reports read like something from the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in The Simpsons. A wrench got caught in the lid of a centrifuge and kicked over a tray of pathogens. An animal cage containing bedding potentially contaminated with novel SARS coronavirus got knocked over by a freezer door and spilled its contents onto the floor. Liquids aerosolize. Lab mosquitoes can escape. Lab rats bite. Lab technicians attempting to inject lab animals accidentally hit their own fingers. Often, as the Laboratory-Acquired Infection Database reveals, there’s no smoking gun explaining how the researcher got infected. Nature finds a way.

This happens even in well-run labs. The National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases estimates that, at their labs, a lab-acquired infection will occur once for every 600,000 hours of work. That’s really low, and if there were just a few scientists working with these pathogens, the odds of an accident would also stay low. And with hundred, maybe even thousands of such labs proliferating around the world, even low-probability events can become relatively common.

Using 2010 data from the CDC, one expert estimated that somewhere in the United States, “a breach of containment happens about twice weekly.” Some have involved deadly agents including anthrax, avian flu, and Ebola. Most incidents are minor, but not all. Take two examples at lower-risk labs: In 2009, a researcher at the University of Chicago died after being infected by a weakened strain of plague. In 2012, a postdoc at San Francisco’s VA Medical Center came down with meningitis from his lab. While having dinner with friends, he began to feel dizzy. The next day, he was covered in a rash and was taken to the hospital, where he died.

An investigation by USA Today, published in 2015, found that more than 100 high-security labs in the United States had suffered “the most egregious safety or security breaches.” The pressurized “space suits” worn by researchers ruptured 37 times in American BSL-4 labs from  2013 to 2014. Rats were found making nests out of biohazard bags and used lab supplies outside a UCLA lab. A Texas A&M University researcher stuck himself with a needle while handling a mouse carrying Lyme disease bacteria, then a week later (while still taking a round of antibiotics to deal with the first incident) was bitten by another mouse carrying the same bacteria. On multiple occasions, mice carrying either SARS or H1N1 flu escaped from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers.

One common cause of accidents involves working with live agents that are supposed to be dead. BSL-4 labs often kill deadly pathogens with radiation so they can be sent to less secure labs for research, but sometimes the kill is incomplete, and other times containers of live pathogens are simply used by mistake.

That looked like the case in 2014, when the CDC sent the wrong batch of Ebola samples from a BSL-4 lab to a less secure one that was expecting dead Ebola. (In a stroke of luck, those were inactive as well.) And it was the case at the US Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, which unknowingly shipped (via commercial carriers) live anthrax spores to nearly 200 labs around the world over a twelve-year period. Miraculously, no one died.

That was not the case, of course, for the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, in Fort Detrick, Maryland, which employed Bruce Ivins, the disgruntled scientist suspected of instigating the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people. The institute also had its research suspended in 2009 after the discovery of pathogens in storage for which there were no records. (A researcher at the time reassured the New York Times that while the institute’s record keeping wasn’t perfect, it was better than that of universities working with similar pathogens.)

These problems are not just in the past, either. The National Academy of Sciences pegged the chance of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, a catastrophe for animal agriculture, at 70 percent over the 50-year lifespan of the 580,000-square-foot National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, currently being completed on the edge of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. “When some horrific Level 4 pathogen escapes a Manhattan bio lab, all the heartland will weep with remorse,” one rancher wrote to the Topeka Capital Journal. Despite strong local resistance, the project is on track to start opening as soon as next year.

Outside the United States, data is scarce, but the anecdotes don’t inspire restful sleep. In 2004, a scientist at Russia’s secretive State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, also known as VECTOR—an important part of the Soviet Union’s bioweapons program and one of two facilities where smallpox is currently stored—accidentally lanced herself with a needle containing Ebola and died. (VECTOR also suffered a major unexplained explosion last year.) In 2014, 2,349 vials containing SARS samples went awol from Paris’ Pasteur Institute.

China has also had its problems. Late last year, almost 200 researchers at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute in northwest China tested positive for antibodies of the bacteria that causes a flu-like disease called brucellosis. That was after the nearby Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant used expired sanitizer while making its brucella vaccine, which allowed the bacteria to escape through waste fumes and travel downwind to the veterinary institute.

The original SARS has not reemerged from the wild since 2003, but it has actually escaped from three different labs, one in Taiwan, one in Singapore, and one at China’s National Institute of Virology in Beijing, where two researchers were infected. The researchers mistakenly believed they were handling a version of the virus that had been inactivated. One researcher at the NIV passed the infection to her mother, who eventually died, as well as a nurse, who passed the disease to five other people.

As dangerous as it is to culture deadly natural pathogens, the most troubling research involves engineering pathogens to be even deadlier. Concerns over this so-called “gain-of-function” research flared up in 2011, when two different teams showed how an extremely deadly strain of avian influenza, which kills approximately 60 percent of its victims but is not easily transmissible between humans, could be mutated to make it extremely infectious through the air.

The scientists argued that such experiments allow us to learn how viruses might evolve to be more infectious or lethal, and many others agreed. Gain-of-function studies help “to inform the influenza vaccine strategy for pandemic preparedness, from selection of candidate vaccine viruses and development of high-yield seeds to manufacture of safe vaccines for the global community,” 23 scientists wrote in a guest editorial in mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

But others believed the risks dwarfed the benefits. The biosecurity expert Lynn Klotz, together with science journalist Edward J. Sylvester,  surveyed the CDC’s lab accident data and conservatively estimated the chance of a pandemic pathogen escaping a lab at just 0.3 percent per year, meaning there would be an 80 percent chance of an escape from a single lab over 536 years of work. Perhaps that would be acceptable, but they quickly counted 42 labs known to be working with live SARS, influenza, or smallpox, which translated to an 80 percent chance of an escape every 12.8 years. And that was in 2012, when such work was far less commonplace than it is now. The two later estimated the likelihood of an escaped virus seeding “the very pandemic the researchers claim they are trying to prevent…as high as 27%, a risk too dangerous to live with.” They wrote, “There is a substantial probability that a pandemic with over 100-million fatalities could be seeded from an undetected lab-acquired infection (LAI), if a single infected lab worker spreads infection as he moves about in the community.”

Ron Fouchier, the scientist doing the gain-of-function research, argued that such estimates don’t take into account the specifics of his highly secure lab. When those were factored in, he said, the chance of a lab-acquired infection dropped to less than one every million years, a number that researchers including Klotz had trouble taking seriously. Fouchier concluded, “Since natural influenza pandemics have occurred on average every 30 years over the last century, the probability that the next pandemic will emerge in nature is orders of magnitude larger than emergence from a laboratory.”

At the time Fouchier’s lab was one of only two doing this work. Now there are more. One experiment was conducted at the University of North Carolina in 2015. Working with researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, bioengineers added a new spike protein to a wild coronavirus that gave it the ability to infect human cells—eerily foreshadowing COVID-19. The argument for it was that doing so would help us learn how to treat a novel SARS-like coronavirus, but many watchdogs objected, including Richard Ebright. “The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk,” he told Nature at the time.

“This research is so potentially harmful, and offers such little benefit to society, that I fear that NIH is endangering the trust that Congress places in it.”

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2014, the bioweapon historian Martin Furmanski argued strongly that our safety precautions have not been commensurate with the risk. “It is hardly reassuring that, despite stepwise technical improvements in containment facilities and increased policy demands for rigorous biosecurity procedures in the handling of dangerous pathogens, potentially high consequence breaches of biocontainment occur nearly daily: In 2010, 244 unintended releases of bioweapon candidate ‘select agents’ were reported. Looking at the problem pragmatically, the question is not if such escapes will result in a major civilian outbreak, but rather what the pathogen will be and how such an escape may be contained, if indeed it can be contained at all.”

So how do we make our labs safer? In 2014, the Obama White House took a first step, announcing a pause on gain-of-function research until the merits could be fully debated.

But in 2017, under Trump, the NIH lifted the pause, essentially agreeing with Ron Fouchier, and the work—including that which it helped fund in Wuhan—eventually went on. “GOF research is important in helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health,” announced Francis Collins, the NIH director. Some scientists strenuously objected, such as Johns Hopkins’ Steven Salzberg, who wrote, “I can’t allow this to go unchallenged. This research is so potentially harmful, and offers such little benefit to society, that I fear that NIH is endangering the trust that Congress places in it.”

Megan Palmer, a biotechnology and security expert at Stanford University, told me she is also deeply concerned by some of the research done in high-security biolabs, but that evaluating the dangers can be difficult. “The problem is that in most cases, we don’t actually know how risky or beneficial the research will be.” To get a better handle on the science, she says, “We need much more sophisticated systems for understanding and managing risk. We should be collecting incidents and analyzing them, and then sharing that information and trying to draw lessons for improvement.”

Ironically, the beginnings of such a system were supposed to have been part of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Biodefense Strategy. The strategy also called for coordinating with international partners to reduce the risk of future pandemics or bioterror attacks. But after announcing the plan, the administration let it drop. “The funding has not materialized,” Palmer says of Trump’s biosecurity research plans. “We say these things are important, and then we don’t follow through.”

The administration’s move to axe this research does not make the world any safer, and neither does continuing to scapegoat Chinese researchers. “We can’t be assigning blame prematurely,” says Palmer, who sees a lab escape as the less likely hypothesis. “We need to do the research to really figure out how this may have originated and, to prevent future threats, our focus needs to go beyond just this particular incident.”

As we’ve seen, pathogens do not stay put. Preventing the next pandemic will require extraordinary foresight and international collaboration—the exact opposite of the Trump administration’s approach so far. There are no other options. We are all stuck on one big cruise ship, and no one’s getting off any time soon.

The Bailout is Working—for the Rich

This story was published originally by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Ten weeks into the worst crisis in 90 years, the government’s effort to save the economy has been both a spectacular success and a catastrophic failure.

The clearest illustration of that came on Friday, when the government reported that 20.5 million people lost their jobs in April. It marked a period of unfathomable pain across the country not seen since the Great Depression. Also on Friday, the stock market rallied.

The S&P 500 is now up 30% from its lows in mid-March and back to where it was last October, when the outlook for 2020 corporate earnings looked sunshiny. Companies have sold record amounts of debt in recent weeks for investment-grade companies. Junk bonds, historically dodgy during an economic swoon, have roared back.

If you’re looking for investors’ verdict on who has won the bailout, consider these returns: Shares of Apollo Group, the giant private equity firm, have soared 80% from their lows. The stock of Blackstone, another private equity behemoth, has risen 50%.

The reason: Asset holders like Apollo and Blackstone—disproportionately the wealthiest and most influential—have been insured by the world’s most powerful central bank. This largess is boundless and without conditions. “Even if a second wave of outbreaks were to occur,” JPMorgan economists wrote in a celebratory note on Friday, “the Fed has explicitly indicated that there is no dollar limit and no danger of running out of ammunition.”

Many aspects of the coronavirus bailout that assist individuals or small businesses, meanwhile, are short-term or contingent. Aid to small businesses comes with conditions on what they can do with the money. The sums allocated by the CARES Act for stimulus and expanded unemployment insurance are vast by historical standards. But the relief they provide didn’t prevent tens of millions from losing their jobs. The assistance runs out in weeks, and the jobless live at the mercy of a divided Congress, which will decide whether that help gets extended and, if so, for how long.

It’s a bailout of capital. “If the theory is: Let’s make sure companies are solvent and the workers will be OK, that theory could work. But it’s a trickle-down theory,” said Lev Menand, a former New York Fed economist who now teaches at Columbia Law School.

We do know one thing, he said: “It worked for asset holders.”

The Fed’s efforts, universally praised for their boldness and speed, have come in two stages. First, in February and March, the central bank shored up capital market “liquidity,” which marks how willing investors are to buy and sell. The central bank role is to be a “lender of last resort,” working through banks so they can get money to companies and people.

That expanded in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. The Federal Reserve, historically viewed as reserved Brahmins who controlled the money supply, stepped into a new job: “the dealer of last resort,” in the words of economist Perry Mehrling. The Fed bought assets and it bailed out the shadow banking system. “Shadow banking” takes many forms and can mean many things, but generally it describes activities that look like classic banking—taking in deposits and lending out that money—that are undertaken by, for example, a private-equity fund or another institution outside the traditional system of federally insured deposits.

The beneficiaries of this Federal Reserve help in 2008 were money market funds, and short-term lending markets for corporations and financial institutions such as the commercial paper and repurchase agreement markets—all of which had seized up and stopped functioning. Then this year, the Fed came to the rescue of these markets again, doing “such a great job with this that everyone has forgotten this has happened,” Menand said.

Those Fed moves were necessary. But they should not be consigned to the memory hole.

Everyone learned in 2008 that those corners of the markets were vulnerable, but the lessons didn’t stick, apparently. The government tried to install new rules governing different pockets of these markets in piecemeal fashion; financial interests bitterly opposed much of that new regulation. And now, just a short 12 years later, the Fed had to step in to protect these markets and interests once again.

The second stage of the Fed’s extraordinary rescue goes beyond liquidity. It has said it will buy assets it has never bought before. For almost 100 years, the Fed purchased only government bonds. Now it has announced a wide variety of programs to buy various forms of corporate and other debt, either by direct lending, by buying bonds, or buying loans.

The mere announcement that the Fed would do this had an immediate effect, spurring the boom in corporate borrowing.

The Fed didn’t stop with the most solid, safest corporate stalwarts. In early April, it also announced something unprecedented. The central bank said it would buy junk bonds, debt issued by fragile companies, many of which already have crushing debt loads. Sure enough, junk bonds roared back and their cousins, leveraged loans, revived.

In doing so, the Fed backstopped the riskiest markets in the world. The most dangerous investments in the world, it should go without saying, are not owned by middle- and working-class Americans, to whom every politician pledges fealty. No, they are owned by the most risk-seeking investors in the world, the ones that need the highest returns: private equity firms and hedge funds.

But wait, there’s more. The riskiest markets only got more so during the long boom era of the last decade. In the past several years, regulators — especially the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen—repeatedly worried that companies had too much debt. They were concerned how lenders had raced to ease conditions, or covenants, on their loans to elbow out their competitors to fork over money, just as they had in the run-up to 2008. At a moment of record profits, the ratio of corporate debt to earnings steadily rose, while corporate stock buybacks hit records. Those cautions were treated like a parental exhortation to their kids to get off TikTok and brush their teeth.

Yet after all that worry, the Fed then stepped in to save the wealthiest speculators. The mere word that the Fed will make some purchases in this market has swelled these investors’ net worth. Meanwhile, images of mile-long food lines have become common.

In some ways, it’s unfair to blame the Fed. The speed of its actions and its ability to deploy groundbreaking new approaches mask the paucity of its tools. It must work through the capital markets. And only through credit, at that. The Fed has no ability to help regular people directly. “It’s really ill-suited to get money to where it’s most needed and on terms that are the most appropriate,” said Kate Judge, a Columbia law professor and expert in the Federal Reserve.

The House and Senate have much greater powers, the power of the purse and of legislation. Congress could have passed laws that directed help in different ways. Europe has essentially nationalized payrolls, a much more direct form of aid to people who have lost the ability to work. But Congress has been reluctant to use sufficient fiscal measures going back to the 2008 rescue.

What happens if the economy doesn’t come back soon? The Fed’s saddle-ʼem-with-more-debt approach is premised on a sharp and rapid recovery. The virus burns itself out, people go back to work, they buy and sell, and everything snaps back. Companies pay back their loans, and all is forgiven and forgotten.

If the health crisis does not pass quickly, or if the economy does not roar back, the Fed’s actions might prove inadequate. But investors shouldn’t be too worried. They have been taught they can count on the government.

A Honduran Man Has Died of COVID-19 After Leaving an ICE Jail Plagued by the Virus

On April 23, the staff of the Morrow County Jail in Gilead, Ohio, told immigration detainees that a feverish man they’d been sharing a crowded dorm with had tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement abruptly released one of the men who’d potentially been exposed without testing him: Óscar López Acosta, a 42-year-old Honduran man with diabetes who’d spent 18 months in government custody.

On May 3, López tested positive for COVID-19 after an ambulance took him from his home to the Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton. The next day, ICE confirmed that 47 people in its custody at Morrow County had tested positive. The jail was only holding 51 immigration detainees at the time. It was exactly what experts had warned would happen if ICE didn’t use its power to release people: Nearly everyone had become infected after sharing a dorm in which social distancing was impossible.

On Sunday, López died from complications from the coronavirus after being released from the hospital, the local coroner’s officer confirmed. Last week, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía became the first person to die in ICE custody after contracting COVID-19. Ohio attorneys, immigrant advocates, and López’s widow, Lourdes Mejía Flores, believe López is the second to die after being infected in ICE custody. “This infection is on ICE’s hands,” said Elizabeth Bonham, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. 

Mejía, Lopez’s wife, told me her husband had almost no appetite when he arrived home in Dayton, which is not a major coronavirus hot spot. Aside from two quick trips to a store, he stayed inside, his widow said. But his symptoms continued to get worse. His body ached and he was vomiting the week he got back. “I can’t handle it,” he said soon before calling an ambulance later that week. “I’m dying.” López then spent nearly a week in the hospital before dying two days after being released, said Mejía, who noted that she started feeling feverish on Tuesday.

Karen Bradley, whose immigration law firm represented López, said an ICE official called her on Tuesday morning to discuss López’s case. She responded that López was dead. When she told the official that López got COVID-19 at the jail, he replied “yeah” and didn’t refute her claim, according to Bradley. (When I called him, the official declined to speak with me.)

It will likely be impossible to know for sure whether López contracted the virus in detention. ICE spokesperson Khaalid Walls told me that López was not tested before ICE released him. Through April 24, Walls added, no asymptomatic detainees at Morrow County were tested.

Courtesy of Lourdes Mejía Flores

López was originally from San Francisco de La Paz, a small municipality about 100 miles northeast of Tegucigalpa, Mejía said. They had three children: an 18-year old boy and a 2-year-old girl who live with Mejía in Ohio, along with an 8-year-old daughter in Honduras. “He was a very responsible person,” Mejía said in tears. “He was very caring. He was always attentive.” 

López was deported in 2009 and again in 2012 before returning to the United States soon after. In October 2018, a few days after his daughter’s first birthday, his teenage son got into a car accident. López went to help him. The police called ICE, who detained López. He was quickly transferred to Justice Department custody to await trial for reentering the county without authorization.

Normally, someone in López’s position would plead guilty, Cheryll Bennett, the federal public defender who represented him, said. But Bennett said he chose to stand trial to delay being sent back to Honduras, where relatives had been killed and he wouldn’t have access to quality medical care for his diabetes. During his January 2019 trial, she added that López went into diabetic shock after the jail where he was being held forgot to give him his insulin injection.

In May 2019, López was transferred back to ICE custody after being sentenced to time served by a federal judge. From there, he was held in Ohio immigration detention centers as he applied for protection from persecution in Honduras. Bradley, the immigration attorney, explained that three of López’s nephews were killed by a gang in Honduras in 2010. In October, he lost his case and subsequently appealed the decision.

Anna Babel, a professor of Hispanic linguistics at Ohio State University, started visiting López late last year as a volunteer. She documented much of what López told her in emails to immigrant advocate Danya Contractor, who helped set up a fund to raise money for López’s family. In February, López told Babel that a man in his unit punched him in the chest when López went to use the bathroom during the night. He said that criminal inmates stashed marijuana in a bathroom light fixture and used electrical wires to light it. (The sheriff’s office announced last month that it was investigating three suspected overdoses that occurred within the jail; Sheriff John Hinton did not reply to an interview request.)

A doctor told López he had a cracked rib but that the injury might have occurred a few years before, Babel wrote in an email. López believed that was absurd because he’d never been hit in the chest before then. She could still see the swelling when she visited a week after the incident. 

Babel and López kept in touch by phone after ICE cut off social visitation in March in response to the pandemic. She remembered him as a sweet and mild-mannered man, as well as a devout Christian. Even before COVID-19, López told Babel he feared he would die in ICE custody. “I think it was very hard for him to aguantar, to survive those conditions,” she said. 

On March 16, ICE informed López that he would not be released while his immigration appeal was pending. About a month later, two people were transferred into the general population at Morrow County from another Ohio jail without first being quarantined, according to a lawsuit filed on April 24 by the ACLU of Ohio. While it’s unclear how the virus entered the jail, one of the transferred men was the first person to test positive. He spent about 10 days in the shared dorm before being removed, the lawsuit states. Sheriff Hinton has admitted that detainees and staff weren’t wearing masks until the first person tested positive.

The jail’s publicly available booking records show that ICE transferred five people to Morrow County on April 21, after the first signs of infection. Boubou Sow, a pseudonym chosen by a Mauritanian asylum seeker, said he and others asked guards to stop bringing new people in only to be threatened with solitary confinement. Sow said in a call from the jail last week that people got sick one by one, but that guards didn’t believe them at first. “We knew from the beginning that if one of us got it,” Sow said, “we all would because it’s just one big room with recycled air.” One of the men booked-in on April 21 was hospitalized with COVID-19 last week before being sent back to the jail, Contractor, the immigrant advocate, confirmed after calling a local hospital.

Others were released without being tested, Sow said. “We don’t even know if they got it,” he added about the people in López’s position. “They walked out of here without being tested.” 

When Babel picked López up at the jail on April 24, she said he seemed in good health. As they drove to his home wearing masks, he told Babel he planned to bring his daughter from Honduras and get back to work. López usually worked construction during the summer and at a chicken farm in the winter. “I think it’s just really ironic that if he had been on the outside we would have been calling him an essential worker and a hero,” Babel said.

On Saturday, one day before he died, López texted Babel to say that he had been released from the hospital. Babel told him she was sorry for the nightmare he’d been through. “Sí, pero ya pasó,” López replied. Yes, but it’s over

“I’m not a doctor. I can’t say what he died of.” Babel said. “But his wife said to me—and I agree with her—that ultimately what killed him was those 18 months in detention.”

FBI Seizes Phone of Senator Suspected of Insider Trading

Sen. Richard Burr, suspected of insider trading based on coronavirus briefings he got as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had his cell phone seized today:

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, turned over his phone to agents after they served a search warrant on the lawmaker at his residence in the Washington area, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a law enforcement action.

….To obtain a search warrant, federal agents and prosecutors must persuade a judge they have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The law enforcement official said the Justice Department is examining Burr’s communications with his broker. Such a warrant being served on a sitting U.S. senator would require approval from the highest ranks of the Justice Department and is a step that would not be taken lightly.

It is a sign of the times that this has prompted a surprising amount of suspicion:

A lot more is needed to develop the record, but I do think this is a moment to be seriously on guard for DOJ being used to carry out political retribution. Serving a warrant on a senator is a very significant and rapid escalation and Trump has long had an axe to grind with Burr. https://t.co/mGravZJyoq

— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) May 14, 2020

Stay tuned.

The Feds Just Executed a Search Warrant on Sen. Richard Burr, According to the LA Times

Holy guacamole:

Federal agents seized a cellphone belonging to a prominent Republican senator on Wednesday night as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into controversial stock trades he made as the coronavirus first struck the U.S., a law enforcement official said.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, turned over his phone to agents after they served a search warrant on the lawmaker at his residence in the Washington area, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a law enforcement action.

The seizure represents a significant escalation in the investigation into whether Burr violated a law preventing members of Congress from trading on insider information they have gleaned from their official work.

I personally have a hard time keeping all the news in my brain and this sounds like in this moment something I read about a lifetime ago. But in truth it was quite recent.

The feds executing a warrant at the house of a sitting senator is big time.

Burr spokeswoman Cailtin Carroll declined to comment on the news.

Read the whole thing at the LATimes. Tomorrow you’ll be reading about it in many more places.

“Obamagate” Is Trump’s Latest Lie to Smear Joe Biden

The Trump White House has released a list of officials in President Barack Obama’s administration who “may have received” access to National Security Agency reports from electronic surveillance in which Michael Flynn, who later became Trump’s national security adviser, was identified by name. NSA electronic surveillance of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak had picked up secret conversations he had with Flynn in which Flynn attempted to influence Russia’s reaction to sanctions just imposed by Obama in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

The list, declassified at the request of acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, was made public Wednesday by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). It includes a note explaining that is not a list of people who asked that Flynn’s name be unredacted, or “unmasked,” in a report in which the identify of an American citizen would normally be hidden.” “Each individual was an authorized recipient of the original report,” it says, while noting it is not clear who actually saw the “unmasked information.”

The note explains that 16 Obama officials requested “unmaskings for different NSA intelligence reports for select identified principals.” The report doesn’t include who those 16 people were, but does name 39 officials who then may or may not have seen the report that included Flynn’s identity. That list included FBI Director James Comey, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and Vice President Joe Biden. A memo to Grenell, signed by National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone, says each named person was “an authorized recipient” of the information and that the unmasking was approved through the agency’s normal protocol. Translation: Officials with regular access to classified information were authorized to hear about Flynn’s suspect activities.

But the list has already been seized on by promoters of President’s Trump “Obamagate” claim. This is a false claim that Obama was involved during the presidential transition in an effort to unfairly smear Flynn. Flynn pleaded guilty in late 2017 to lying to FBI agents about his conversations with Kislyak. But after public attacks on the case by Trump, the Justice Department, at the behest of Attorney General William Barr, is trying to drop the case. And Trump boosters are already misrepresenting the new information to bolster their phony claim.

“List of Officials Who Sought to ‘Unmask’ Flynn Released: Biden Comey, Obama Chief of Staff Among Them,” a Fox News headline says, falsely. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) quickly misrepresented the list to smear Biden in a tweet.

Declassified documents reveal V.P. Biden ordered the unmasking of General Flynn’s private conversation.
Anyone think that Biden might have abused his power to go after a political opponent…

— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 13, 2020

While Biden was on the authorized list of people who may have seen Flynn’s name, so far there is no evidence that Biden personally ordered Flynn’s “unmasking.” But even if he did, it would hardly controversial that Biden and other officials would ask to review reports referencing an American involved in clandestine high level contacts with foreign governments. 

Flynn was no innocent actor as this was all unfolding. As the Justice Department noted in a court filing last week seeking to drop charges against him, the FBI investigated Flynn in 2016 due to suspicions that he was a Russian asset. In early 2017, the FBI was ready to drop that investigation, but agents continued investigating him after they learned he may have broken a law against private citizens interfering in foreign policy through his conversations with Kislyak, and other foreign officials.

It’s safe to say no past incoming National Security advisers had the sort of red flags that Flynn did. In 2016, he had also secretly agreed to lobby for Turkey, even while he advised Trump. He also admitted lying to DOJ about this as part of his guilty plea. (He was also involved with a complicated plan through which a group of former military officials hoped to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.) Flynn had potentially compromising ties to foreign states including Turkey as well as Russia. That may explain why the Obama officials given access to information by NSA on Flynn included the US Ambassadors to Turkey and to Russia.

Lunchtime Photo

This is a valley lupine—or at least, that’s what we call it around here. There are lots of kinds of lupines, and I gather that they have different common names in different places. They’re also a little hard to distinguish for an amateur like me. But I’m pretty sure that if you’re in Southern California, a valley lupine is indeed what this is.

March 29, 2019 — Orange County, California

CEOs Say America Is Running Out of Meat—While Shipping Ever More Pork Overseas

Back in March, the coronavirus started triggering infection hotspots in and around meatpacking plants, sickening and killing workers. As local public health authorities pushed giant meat conglomerates to close infected facilities, industry executives warned that doing so was “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” as Kenneth M. Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, declared in a April 12 press release.

Two weeks later, after similar laments from an executive at rival meat conglomerate Tyson, President Donald Trump rushed to the industry’s defense and signed an executive order declaring that the US Department of Agriculture “shall take all appropriate action” to “ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations.”

But even as these executives insisted that closing plants would imperil the US food supply, they were busily exporting loads of meat to China, a new Reuters investigation shows: 

While pork supplies tightened as the number of pigs slaughtered each day plunged by about 40 percent since mid-March, shipments of American pork to China more than quadrupled over the same period, according to US Department of Agriculture data

Smithfield led the pack in shipping meat to China, Reuters reports. Tyson wasn’t far behind. In an April 27 full page ad in the Washington Post and other newspapers, John Tyson, the company’s billionaire chairman, warned of “limited supply of our products available in grocery stores” because plant closures were “breaking” the food-supply chain. Just a week later, on May 4, Tyson president Dean Banks told investors on an earnings call that exports to China “were up significantly” during in 2020, adding that “we expect strong demand to continue as China recovers from this COVID-19 lock-down.” 

Consumers can expect to find 30 percent less meat in US supermarkets, and pay 20 percent more for it.

Overall, Reuters reporters found, US companies have exported more than a million tons of pork—about a third of total production—so far in 2020. March and April figures for chicken exports haven’t been released yet, but Chinese demand for it could be strong, too. “Beijing lifted a nearly five-year ban on US chicken imports in November and also waived retaliatory tariffs on meat shipments to help boost supplies,” Reuters adds. By the end of this month, US consumers can expect to find 30 percent less meat in supermarkets, and pay 20 percent more for it, the news service reports, citing a projection from the agricultural lender CoBank. 

So why would these companies be shunting pork by the hundreds of thousands of tons abroad when US supermarkets are undergoing shortages? Logistics may be partially responsible. Reuters notes that last year, Smithfield reconfigured its massive plant in Smithfield, Virginia, to devote much of its output to supplying hog carcasses to the China market. The company says it now plans to redirect some of its Virginia plant’s production towards bacon, ham, and chops for consumers at home, but such tweaks take time.  

Pork goes to the highest bidder.

But the main driver is likely something else: Over the past year, a deadly, highly contagious disease called African swine fever—thankfully, harmless to humans—has swept through China’s hog farms, killing at least half of its herd, carnage equal to about one in four pigs on the planet. The collapse of domestic hog production caused pork prices to spike in China, meaning the Chinese will pay way more than what we do. Pork goes to the highest bidder.

That’s how capitalism works. But meat company execs should be more up front. When they demand the government to allow them to run their plants, it’s not to prevent domestic meat shortages. They’re doing so to maximize their profits.

In the meantime, an Associated Press data analysis found, the 15 US counties with the highest per-capita infection rates between April 28 and May 5 “all are homes to meatpacking and poultry-processing plants or state prisons.”

Stacey Abrams on Trump: “We Should Be Frightened, but We Should Also Be Fighting.”

The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, sparked a national panic attack on Tuesday when he suggested to Time that he had personal insight into whether or not the 2020 election would take place, leaving room for some doubt. “It’s not my decision to make, so I’m not sure I can commit one way or the other,” he said about holding the November poll.” But right now, that’s the plan.”  The elections are run by the states; the president can’t change when they happen. But Kushner’s quote was worrying enough for those who are already vexed about the executive branch using the coronavirus crisis to further impede the right to vote (or, in the worst-case scenario, cancel elections outright). And the comment was so brazen that Kushner himself experienced a rare jolt of self-awareness: He issued a new statement to NBC on Wednesday conceding, “I have not been involved in, nor am I aware of, any discussions about trying to change the date of the presidential election.”

It may have simply been a piece of Kushner puffery, the latest in a long career of self-regard (recently he described the administration’s coronavirus response as “great success story”), but the collective freak-out points to very real concerns over threats to the 2020 vote, as the president ramps up campaign rhetoric against vote-by-mail, and his party attempts to stymie participation in the states.

Recently, our senior reporter Ari Berman sat down (via Zoom, of course) with Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor of Georgia, to rank some of the biggest impediments to voting right now across the country, and to discuss how the pandemic is being weaponized against participation, especially amongst voters of color. In a wide-ranging chat, which you can hear on this week’s episode of the Mother Jones Podcast, Abrams talks about launching her voting rights initiative, Fair Fight, after her narrow 2018 loss to now-Gov. Brian Kemp; ongoing threats to the 2020 census; Kemp’s response to COVID-19; and the dangerous attempt to suppress voters during the Wisconsin primary in April. “That was a tragedy and a travesty that should not be repeated in a democratized, industrialized nation,” Abrams tells Berman. “We were able to vote during the Civil War, we were able to vote during the Spanish flu of 1918, there is no excuse for not holding our elections in 2020.”

You can listen to the full show, read an edited transcript, or watch the full livestream of this discussion below.

Ari Berman: Stacey, thank you so much for joining me. How are you doing?

Stacey Abrams: I’m doing well, thank you. I’m ensconced in my dining room in Atlanta, Georgia, and doing my best to socially distance and stay sheltering in place until it truly is safe to go back out.

How prepared do you think the US is right now to hold a presidential election in a pandemic?

The United States has the capacity to hold an election in a pandemic. What we lack is the will and the investment. South Korea, on April 15th, held their national election. They held the single highest turnout election since the 1990s, and they did it safely. Every state in America has the capacity for vote-by-mail. Every state has the ability for in-person early voting and in-person voting on the day of the election. We simply have to make it safer. But any argument that we don’t have the capacity is wrong. We were able to vote during the Civil War. We were able to vote during the 1918 Spanish flu. There is no excuse for not holding our elections in 2020.

“We were able to vote during the 1918 Spanish flu. There is no excuse for not holding our elections in 2020.”

How prepared do you think states like Georgia are to vote by mail? Only six percent of Georgians, for example, voted by mail in 2018.

While only six percent may have used it, we saw a dramatic increase. In fact, we saw the largest increase among African-Americans. My campaign in 2018 sent out 1.6 million vote-by-mail applications. We followed it up with encouragement, but also education.

There’s been a lack of trust in vote-by-mail, particularly from communities of color, because most the rejection rate for communities of color is much higher than for the white communities. In Georgia, we had a specific incident with the current governor, then Secretary of State, who arrested and jailed 12 people for using absentee ballots properly. They lost their jobs. They lost their reputations. And not a single person was convicted. But that created a dampening effect on the use of absentee ballots. 

I wanted to ask you about Wisconsin. Republicans refused to postpone [the 2020 primaries]. They refused to mail ballots to every registered voter. And thousands of people were forced to choose between their health and their ballot. When you saw all that, when you saw the long lines of voters wearing masks, what was your take away?

We knew there was going to be something catastrophic that would happen in 2020 to elections. I had no idea it would be a pandemic, but we knew that it would happen. Voter suppression is systemic. It’s built into the process. What we have to learn from Wisconsin is that we have the capacity to still make it work if we start early enough. What happened in Wisconsin was that the decisions were made in a matter of weeks. We now have months to prepare. But we have to remember that for those thousands of people who stood in line, for those who had masks or didn’t, and for the poll workers who didn’t have adequate equipment, 52 people have already been confirmed with COVID-19. That should not happen. 

There are already people who don’t have the I.D.’s required to vote. There are already people that have been purged from the voting rolls, and already people that are forced to wait in long lines or whose polling places have been closed. How concerned are you that coronavirus is going to add an additional major layer of voter suppression onto the voter suppression that we’re already seeing?

What COVID-19 has done is reveal what has been a systemic challenge for most of the 21st century. But now that more and more people are seeing how the systems actually work, they’re understanding. The reality is those things existed in 2019, 2016, 2012, 2008. The difference is, because of COVID-19, people are seeing it in real time and they’re understanding its impact.

I do not welcome a pandemic. But I think what has happened is that people see what’s what’s going on. Luckily, there has been bipartisan support of vote-by-mail, of safer voting, of better instruction. That bipartisanship has to win out, because we cannot allow a conservative minority of thought to limit access to democracy and one of the most pivotal elections in our lifetimes.

“What COVID-19 has done is reveal what has been a systemic challenge for most of the 21st century.”

I want to ask you about Georgia. When you see Brian Kemp rushing to reopen the state, when you see him say that he didn’t know that coronavirus cases could be asymptomatic, do you just think, I should’ve had this job instead?

I think that the voters of Georgia were robbed of their opportunity to make an informed decision. I believe that voter suppression stole the voices of thousands of Georgians. If I were the governor, I would have followed the facts and the science. I would have known early that asymptomatic people can carry the disease. I wouldn’t have led Georgia to be one of the last states to shut down, and we certainly wouldn’t have been one of the first to reopen. Since the reopening of the state, we’ve seen our COVID rate skyrocket by 40 percent. We still are one of the slowest in testing. There is a contact tracing program that’s getting up and running, but it’s woefully behind where it should be. And so, yes, this is a perfect example of why I believe voting matters and having the right to choose your leaders matters. People may have decided not to pick me anyway, but because of voter suppression, we will never know what the choice of the people would have been.

You mentioned the voter suppression in Georgia, and there was a lot of it. There were 214 polling places closed. There were 53,000 voter registrations put on hold before the election, 80 percent from voters of color. There were 1.5 million people purged from the voting rolls. There were four hour lines in black neighborhoods. How concerned are you that in 2020 there could be a situation like in Georgia where there’s a very close disputed election and it could go to the Supreme Court? Am I being too outlandish in raising that with you or is that a real possibility now?

I believe what we saw happen in Wisconsin legitimates any degree of concern about how the Supreme Court is going to handle questions of elections. If you look at what happened in North Dakota in 2016, when they refused to enjoin the disenfranchisement of thousands of Native Americans who could not possibly meet the standards. What we saw happen with Wisconsin, that has created a through-line of deep concern. And let’s not forget what happened in 2000. We know that the Supreme Court has not proven themselves to be good actors in this.

Another thing that has been derailed by coronavirus is the 2020 census, which I know you’re doing a lot of work on. What do we need to do to get the census back on track? And how concerned are you about what’s happened to it?

I am deeply concerned about the census. The Census Bureau has done as much as it can. But we’ve got some major challenges. We know that in rural communities, 6.2 million people have not received the hand-delivered census packets that they need. That includes most of our Native American families. We know that they’ve delayed the counting of nontraditional folks, meaning those who are homeless, those who are living on college campuses, who are living in nursing homes. Those counts have been delayed until June. There might be thousands of college students who go uncounted. And the last major concern I have is that, because we don’t have folks in the field knocking on doors, getting the response rates up, the Census Bureau is going to use a statistical process called “imputation.” That means that they’re going to look at neighborhoods where people didn’t respond, and based on the demographic data of that neighborhood, they’re going to impute who else lives there. Which means minority communities that are already undercounted risk being statistically erased from the narrative of America because we don’t have the ability to go out and knock.

“Minority communities that are already undercounted risk being statistically erased from the narrative of America.”

Another big issue right now is what’s happening to the postal service. I’m sure you saw the Washington Post article that Trump is going to name the chief fundraiser for the Republican convention to be postmaster general. What’s your concern about what’s happened to the post office?

The post office is a vital utility in our nation for many communities, especially rural communities. It is their pharmacy. It’s the only way they get their medication. In the moment of COVID-19, it’s the way people get their food. This attempt to not only privatize but politicize the post office is very dangerous and it’s directly connected to vote by mail. We know that vote-by-mail is absolutely essential to certain communities, and we know that if it is expanded, it will likely increase participation in our election. This is a rancorous, terrible decision that is grounded in his deepest incompetence, but also his meanness. We should be frightened, but we should also be fighting.

The news is so bleak right now and we’ve touched on some pretty heavy topics. What are you hopeful about? What what keeps you going and optimistic at this time?

I know what we’re capable of as a country. I’m the daughter of two civil rights activists who were activists as teenagers. My dad was arrested when he was 14, registering black people to vote in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We teased him that my mom was doing the same work, she was just smart enough not to get caught. They raised us to believe that we have a responsibility. But more importantly, that we have opportunity and possibility. My great grandmother, her grandparents were slaves. Her parents were sharecroppers. In 2018, I became the first black woman nominated to be governor of a major party in American history. I don’t have the luxury of bleakness because I’m a shining example of what is possible. But my responsibility is not to rest on either the successes or the challenges that I face, but to do the work necessary to make the next generation even more hopeful about what’s to come.

Watch the full live-streamed conversation below:

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