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COVID-19 Doesn’t Discriminate — Neither Should Congress’ Response

ACLU News -

Congress’ third bill addressing the impacts of COVID-19, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), was a necessary attempt to respond to this public health crisis but its exclusion of immigrant communities is downright racist and xenophobic. Immigrants were cut out of provisions to ensure COVID-19 testing and care as well as economic relief, undermining our collective safety and economic future. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, Congress’ response shouldn’t either. It’s essential that another bill — one that encompasses everyone — be introduced and passed as soon as possible. 

There are three major ways in which immigrants were left behind in the CARES Act: testing and care, cash rebates, and unemployment insurance. If recent weeks have highlighted anything, it is just how interdependent our health is to confronting a virus that does not discriminate. Our country’s ability to contain this pandemic and the sustainability of our future depends on Congress closing the gaps created by the relief bills. Immigrants are serving so many vital roles at the frontlines of our recovery from COVID-19, including the 1.7 million immigrant medical and health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients and the 27,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients working as doctors, nurses, and paramedics. It is both irresponsible and morally unforgivable to pass relief bills that fail to recognize that every person’s health and financial stability are critical.

In its next bill, Congress must ensure that everyone who needs it receives testing and treatment. This should not even be up for debate. Yet, the second COVID-19 relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Families First Act), left out tens of millions of people — including DACA recipients, TPS holders, certain survivors of crimes (U visa holders), undocumented people, and many green card holders. This bill included money to support testing for those who are uninsured and not covered by Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Affordable Care Act marketplace, or any other individual or group health plan but kept in place immigrant eligibility restrictions.

The Families First Act should have made COVID-19-related services available under emergency Medicaid, so that it did not include the same immigrant eligibility restrictions as non-emergency Medicaid. It should also have ensured these services would not be counted against a person for public charge purposes, which are effectively wealth tests on people seeking admission as lawful permanent residents or on an immigrant visa.

Unfortunately, both the Families First Act and CARES Act failed to address these gaps, leaving out tens of millions of people from testing and treatment. Some states, like New York, are including COVID-19 testing, evaluation, and treatment as a part of emergency Medicaid coverage. Community health centers may also help fill this gap. But, they may not be able to and shouldn’t have to — the federal response must be as holistic as possible in developing a national policy.

Second, Congress must include all immigrant workers and tax filers in the tax rebate so that people can receive vital cash assistance. In the CARES Act, Congress funded cash rebates for recent tax filers based upon their taxpayer identification numbers, but limited this to those using Social Security numbers (SSNs). However, many people file their tax returns using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Under the bill, if ITIN users file jointly with a spouse or child with a SSN, everyone in the household will be denied access to the cash assistance. While Congress did create an exception to allow military families to be able to use an ITIN number, this narrow exception only demonstrates that members of Congress understood that they created this cruel carve out and still deliberately chose to leave out millions. As a result, many immigrant workers are put in an increasingly difficult position, cut out of cash assistance and risking their health for essential work without even having access to testing and care.

Third, the bill must provide unemployment insurance for as many people as possible  during this crisis. Under federal law, individuals must be work authorized both for the period of time for which they are claiming unemployment insurance and at the time of filing their claim. However, many immigrant workers awaiting adjudication of immigration benefits or at risk of the looming threat of a loss of status may experience a lapse in their work authorization — perhaps due to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office closures during this crisis. Congress should ensure an automatic extension of work permits for individuals with DACA or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and nonimmigrant visas for the same duration of time as a regular renewal of that work permit, i.e. a two-year extension for DACA recipients. Exacerbating financial hardship will likely make it impossible for these workers and community members to survive and harm our short and long-term recovery efforts.

Congress can and must take up another relief bill to address these significant gaps in order to ensure the well-being of people, families, and communities across the country, and for the future of our nation. And they need to do it now.

Resources:

  • There may be other options for testing and care. While many immigrants have been left out of the relief packages thus far, there are some options available for immigrants to get tested and treated for COVID-19. Community health centers provide healthcare to all patients regardless of immigration status typically at a reduced cost or free of charge. Find the closest health center to you at: https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/. Call the community health center prior to going in person to ensure they are providing COVID-19 testing and care.
  • Testing and care will not impact immigration benefits. USCIS recently posted an alert notifying the public that it will not consider testing, treatment, or preventive care related to COVID-19 of noncitizens as a public charge, so such assistance should not impact their Lawful Permanent Residency or visa applications.
  • Immigration enforcement should not take place at or near health care facilities.  On its “Guidance on COVID-19” website, ICE has stated, “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.” ICE will not carry out enforcement operations “at or near health care facilities such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” per the agency’s previously issued sensitive locations memo and reiterated public statement on March 18, 2020. As always, it’s important to know your rights. Learn more about your rights here.

America Is On Lockdown—Except in the South

Mother Jones Magazine -

Based on cellphone location data, the New York Times was able to draw a map of where and when people started complying with coronavirus stay-at-home orders. The answer is infuriating:

The map doesn’t look this way because people in the South are idiots. It’s almost certainly because they’re conservative and they watch a lot of Fox News. They also listen to President Trump. And Rush Limbaugh. And what they heard was that the coronavirus was “just a bad cold.” That “within a couple of days it’s going to be down to close to zero.” That the hysteria was nothing but a “new hoax” from Democrats who want to bring down the president.

For weeks that’s what they heard. And they believed it. And so they resisted taking it seriously. That’s starting to shift now that Trump and the conservative noise machine have changed their tune, but it’s several weeks too late. What a shameful performance.

WSJ: US Coronavirus Test Is Only 60-70% Accurate

Mother Jones Magazine -

Say what?

Health experts say they now believe nearly one in three patients who are infected are nevertheless getting a negative test result. They caution that only limited data is available, and their estimates are based on their own experience in the absence of hard science.

That picture is troubling, many doctors say, as it casts doubt on the reliability of a wave of new tests developed by manufacturers, lab companies and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these are operating with minimal regulatory oversight and little time to do robust studies amid a desperate call for wider testing.

WTF is going on? Our test is still inaccurate. The WHO test is apparently very accurate, but it’s available only to low-income countries. The Chinese test is questionable. The German test is . . . who knows?

This is insane. How long will it take the richest country in the world to develop a coronavirus test that’s (a) accurate and (b) can be produced in the millions?

And what’s up with the WHO test, anyway? Maybe they focus on providing test kits to poor countries, but that doesn’t mean they can’t give rich countries the specifications for their test and then let them manufacture it. Why not do that?

Every time this comes up, it seems like “we’re really close” and there’s no need for the WHO test. How about if this time we just go ahead and set up a track to manufacture it? Worst case, we don’t need it and it’s a tiny bit of wasted effort. Best case, it saves our skins. That’s a pretty easy tradeoff.

You Don’t Need to Believe China About China’s Coronavirus Success

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

 

Accusing China of deception provides a ready excuse for the Trump administration’s failures: “The reality is that we could have been better off if China had been more forthcoming,” says Vice President Mike Pence (Bloomberg, 4/1/20).

Bloomberg News (4/1/20) reported that anonymous US officials say that a secret US intelligence report says that China’s statistics on the coronavirus outbreak are “fake”:

China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths it’s suffered from the disease, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House, according to three US officials.

The officials asked not to be identified because the report is secret, and they declined to detail its contents. But the thrust, they said, is that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete. Two of the officials said the report concludes that China’s numbers are fake.

Neither the Chinese government nor US intelligence agencies are particularly trustworthy sources. So if they disagree about whether China’s figures on its Covid-19 outbreak are accurate, as Bloomberg reported, is there any way to tell who’s telling the truth?

Well, you could look at the report from the World Health Organization (2/28/20), which sent a team of international observers to China from February 16–24 as the outbreak was still ongoing, talking to hundreds of Chinese doctors and other frontline health workers in hospitals, clinics and laboratories. As Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Canadian doctor and former WHO assistant director general who co-led the team, said in a press conference (2/24/20) presenting the team’s findings:

I know there’ve been challenges with statistics that come out of China sometimes with the changing numbers. And [what] we have to do is look very carefully at different sources of information to say with confidence that this is actually declining. And when you get out into the field, there is a lot of compelling data and observations to support this decline….

I know people look at the numbers and ask what is really happening. And we do as well. I work for the WHO. Yes. But I have 12 people with me who work for the best institutions, researches and public health institutions around the world. They want to be convinced. And very rapidly, multiple sources of data pointed to the same thing: This is falling and it’s falling because of the actions that are being taken.

A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2/24/20) compares the response to SARS with the much quicker Chinese reaction to Covid-19.

Or you could look to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which has published many reports on the Chinese outbreak of Covid-19, including “Characteristics of and Important Lessons From the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) Outbreak in China” (2/24/20), which noted that “the Chinese government has improved its epidemic response capacity” since the 2002–03 SARS outbreak, when 88 days passed from the first case of SARS emerging to China notifying WHO of the epidemic, at which point there were 300 cases and five deaths. With Covid-19, by contrast, there were only 23 days between the onset of symptoms in the first case and China’s warning to WHO on December 31, 2019, when there had been just 27 cases and no deaths.

Or you could look at similar reports in other leading medical journals, like “Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia” (New England Journal of Medicine, 3/26/20) or “Estimates of the Severity of Coronavirus Disease 2019: A Model-Based Analysis” (Lancet, 3/30/20). If any of the thousands of researchers who have been scouring Chinese coronavirus statistics in search of patterns that could help defeat the pandemic elsewhere have detected signs of “fake” numbers, Bloomberg doesn’t seem to know about it.

The reality is that it’s very hard to hide an epidemic. Stopping a virus requires identifying and isolating cases of infection, and if you pretend to have done so when you really haven’t, the uncaught cases will grow exponentially. Maintaining a hidden set of real statistics and another set for show would require the secret collusion of China’s 2 million doctors and 3 million nurses—the kind of improbable cooperation that gives conspiracy theories a bad name.

China is slowly and carefully returning to a semblance of normalcy (Science, 3/29/20).  If China is merely pretending to have the coronavirus under control, the pathogen will rapidly surge as people resume interacting with their communities. Once international travel is restored, it will be quite obvious which countries do and don’t have effective management of Covid-19.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (Bloomberg, 4/2/20): “These slanders, smears and blame games cannot make up for the lost time, but will only cost more lost time and lives.”

Until then, news outlets can serve the public by quoting health experts on the reliability of health statistics, rather than politicians. In a follow-up piece, Bloomberg (4/2/20) quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (“Some US officials just want to shift the blame,” she said, plausibly enough) and Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. The only expert quoted was Deborah Birx, “the US State Department immunologist advising the White House on its response to the outbreak,” who said, “The medical community…interpreted the Chinese data as: This was serious, but smaller than anyone expected.”

That’s not how the Chinese data was interpreted by the WHO mission. As Aylward said at the press conference:

There is no question that China’s bold approach to the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of what was a rapidly escalating and continues to be deadly epidemic…. that’s what happens when you have an aggressive action that changes the shape that you would expect from an infectious disease outbreak. This is extremely important for China, but it’s extremely important for the rest of the world, where this virus you’ve seen in the last few days is taking advantage to explode.

Featured image: Total confirmed cases of Covid-19 by nation (with China highlighted), from Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

 

 

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: April 1 Update

Mother Jones Magazine -

Here’s the coronavirus growth rate through April 1. First, though, some good news:

It looks very much like Italy has just about hit its peak, which means that its daily death rate should start declining soon. And the bad news? The rest of us aren’t close. We still have weeks to go before we peak and start to decline.

One thing to note: with the exception of Spain and Britain, it’s now looking as if every country is at least slightly below the Italian trendline. It’s hard to know if this means we’ll have fewer deaths than Italy or if we’ve just flattened the curve a bit and spread things out. We’ll have to wait and see.

How to read the charts: Let’s use France as an example. For them, Day 0 was March 5, when they surpassed one death per 10 million by recording their sixth death. They are currently at Day 27; total deaths are at 673x their initial level; and they have recorded a total of 60.3 deaths per million so far. As the chart shows, this is below where Italy was on their Day 27.

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.

2020 NLG Leonard I. Weinglass Memorial Fellowship

National Lawyer's Guild -

NLG Leonard I. Weinglass Memorial Fellowship
2020 Announcement and Application Instructions

Leonard I. Weinglass (1933-2011) was a criminal defense attorney and constitutional law advocate. Over the course of his career, he represented political activists, government opponents, and criminal defendants— including Angela Davis, the Cuban Five, the Chicago Seven, the Pentagon Papers, and the death row appeals of Mumia Abu-Jamal—in a half century of politically significant cases. He was a longtime Guild member and served as Chair of the NLG International Committee.

Thanks to a generous bequest from the Weinglass estate, the NLG Foundation has established a fellowship for recent law graduates. Each year, one fellow will receive a stipend to work for the NLG on a specific civil rights or civil liberties project. Previous fellows have developed projects to assist with parole and sponsorship for LGBTQ+ migrants, reunite American citizen-children with undocumented parents who have been deported to their country of origin, support community bond funds, and fight a new maximum security prison planned for construction on a former coal mining site.


Eligibility

The Weinglass Fellowship is open to all NLG members who have graduated from law school in the past five years. Applicants must be current in their NLG dues.* Applicants must develop a project with the sponsorship of an NLG entity, which includes NLG Chapters/RegionsCommittees, Projects,** and the NLG National Office. The sponsoring entity agrees to collaborate with the fellow to create a project and to offer (or assist to help locate) a working space for the Fellow over the course of their project.

Award
One Fellow will be chosen annually and receive a $4,250 award to work on a 10-week project that is in line with the mission of the NLG and the career of Leonard Weinglass. The Fellow will also receive free registration for one year to the NLG Law for the People Convention, and will be highlighted on the Guild website, social media sites, and Guild Notes.

Application
To apply for the NLG Leonard I. Weinglass Memorial Fellowship, email the following materials to Director of Research and Education Traci Yoder at traci@nlg.org by Monday May 18, 2020:

  • Cover letter describing your previous experience and reasons you are applying
  • Current resume (no more than 3 pages)
  • Essay between 1,000-1,500 words describing your proposed project
  • Contact information for two references
  • Letter from the NLG entity who will be sponsoring your project

Selection and Notification
The Fellowship winner will be chosen by a committee composed of NLG Foundation Board members, NLG National Executive Committee members, and representatives from the NLG National Office. The committee will review the applications with an eye toward projects that meet the fellowship criteria, address a relevant and timely issue, and further the NLG’s mission of people’s lawyering and placing human rights over property interests. The fellowship recipient will be notified in early June.

*To join or renew, go to nlg.org/join. If you are unsure of your membership status, please email NLG Director of Membership Lisa Drapkin at membership@nlg.org.

**NLG Projects include the National Police Accountability Project, the National Immigration Project, and the Sugar Law Center.

"There Aren't Enough Tests": As Pandemic Intensifies, Global South Prepares for the Worst

Democracy Now! -

After devastating China, Europe and the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is now intensifying across the Global South. The United Nations warns the pandemic is poised to destroy fragile economies in poor nations, decimating food security, education and human rights. We speak with Yanis Ben Amor, assistant professor of global health and microbiological sciences at Columbia University and executive director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute.

"Social Distancing Is a Privilege": Pandemic Highlights India's Class Divide as 1.3 Billion Lock Down

Democracy Now! -

In India, 1.3 billion people have been locked down for more than a week to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The country reports nearly 2,000 cases and at least 50 deaths. Millions living in poverty and migrant workers were stranded far from home when the lockdown was announced, and some have reportedly died making the perilous journey home. More than 80% of India’s workforce is informal, with most living off daily wages often less than $2 or $3 a day — wages they cannot earn under the present curfew — and more than 4 million Indians are homeless. We speak with Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, a contributing global opinions writer for The Washington Post. Her recent piece in Foreign Policy is headlined “Social Distancing Is a Privilege.”

As U.S. Reels from COVID-19, Trump Backs Gilead's Exclusive Patent on Treatment & Suspends EPA Rules

Democracy Now! -

As the United States leads the world in coronavirus cases, the nation’s healthcare system is already stretched to capacity and protective gear in short supply. President Trump and his health advisors say more than 100,000 Americans could die from the coronavirus in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, millions of people have lost their jobs, and a record 6.6 million unemployment claims were filed this week, on top of last week’s 3.3 million claims. For more on the economic impacts of the coronavirus, and how Trump has responded to the pandemic by rewarding pharmaceutical corporations like Gilead Sciences and indefinitely suspending environmental regulations, we speak with Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

Headlines for April 2, 2020

Democracy Now! -

Inside the Fight to Save November’s Elections

Mother Jones Magazine -

As officials in multiple states have postponed primary elections in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, and with some experts predicting a resurgence of the virus this fall, there have been widespread discussions about preserving the November elections while protecting public health.

The wider adoption of vote-by-mail systems, where every registered voter is automatically mailed a blank ballot, has been pushed as a fair response to a pandemic that has both disrupted and homebound millions of people.

But there are challenges, chief among them, dwindling time. For a dose of reality, I caught up with Amber McReynolds, CEO of Vote at Home, a nonprofit organization focused on promoting vote-by-mail and no-excuse absentee voting systems. McReynolds, who was the director of elections for the City and County of Denver under the transition to Colorado’s mail system, explained how states trying to quickly make the same pivot should consider centralizing efforts, how a crush of postal votes could stress counting, and why President Trump’s critique of the practice rings hollow.

While the push for increased vote-by-mail elections has been going on for a long time, it’s really having a moment now.

The pandemic and this public health crisis has exposed the real vulnerabilities that exist in the in-person voting structure that many states still rely on. There are states that still require an excuse to get an absentee ballot, there are states that haven’t adjusted their voting laws around mail ballot voting for decades. States that have moved in the direction where there’s a lot more [vote-by-mail] availability are more resilient in a time like we are in right now.

You were part of Colorado’s transition to all-mail elections in 2013. Can you talk a little about that, and how long it took to work through that process?

I was director of elections in the city and county of Denver from 2011 until 2018. By 2012, the majority of Coloradans were requesting their ballot by mail, and we had our highest numbers that we’d ever had in the presidential election that year.

Right after that we started to talk about comprehensive reform that included same-day registration, but it also included mailing a ballot to every single elector, preserving in-person options at vote centers, creating 24-hour drop boxes for every Coloradan if they didn’t want to mail it back, post-election auditing, and also automatic registration. It was sort of the first time in history that all those things had been packaged, and Colorado catapulted to being a top state for turnout, a top state for security, a top state for access. All of it was premised on that legislation we passed.

There are a lot of moving parts to the reforms you just described. How long did all of that take to implement and get right?

Up to that point, Colorado had no-excuse absentee voting and a lot of voters signing up for that. And then we were also allowed, starting in 2008, to conduct some of our elections, like primaries and school board elections, all by mail. So, in that five-year window we were able to conduct some elections that way. But our legislation in 2013 passed in May, and then our first statewide election on that new model where we were mailing a ballot to everyone was in November. So it was actually that kind of short window there where we implemented this new system with vote centers on Election Day. Ballots went out about four months after we passed that legislation.

And that’s a key point, right? Colorado had some of this already, a willing legislature, and other pieces more or less in place. Other states may not be that far along. How would they get there by November?

This time calls for extraordinary creativity. One advantage is that a lot of western states have not only implemented this model, but they’ve perfected a lot of things about it. And that took time—building procedures, processes, systems, technology to support it. So a lot of that work has been done and figured out. Hawaii just passed their legislation in 2019 and they’re already doing a presidential primary all by mail and then they’re gearing up for this year. So that was within the last year and they didn’t have a ton of vote-by-mail prior to passing their law in 2019. They’re leveraging what’s been developed that they can rely on. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel necessarily. But what we have to do is adopt those best practices in states that haven’t had historically a ton of vote-by-mail. It’s possible, but it’s a big shift.

Louisiana’s secretary of state’s recently told me that they didn’t feel comfortable switching to vote by mail for their delayed primary, let alone November, and didn’t want Louisiana voters to be a guinea pig for something their office had no expertise in. What would you say to to Louisiana?

Louisiana is a good example of a state that could have a statewide system. They’re very top down, so they could really adopt a plan that includes a regionalized or centralized operation for outbound and inbound mail ballots. Instead of spreading that around all the townships in the wards, they would actually get a vendor to mail out all the ballots statewide. All the envelopes would be the same, the instructions would be the same. With prepaid postage, it would come back into a central facility, run by the state or maybe in conjunction with multiple counties.

I think we have to be creative to get scaled up in this amount of time, so that’s a kind of emergency situation concept. 

Where do you see this being a bigger challenge ahead of November?

Pennsylvania and Michigan. Both of them just passed no-excuse absentee voting. Both states don’t have a ton of infrastructure at the local level. They also have outdated laws that don’t allow any sort of processing and scanning of absentee ballots prior to election day. They really don’t have very good systems in place for this. And I think they’re both positioned to actually have a more centralized model to alleviate the stress off the counties. Again, it could be the counties collectively running this type of operation, but it also would involve statewide coordination.

Pennsylvania was already worried about the crush of mail ballots this fall, even without a pandemic. Do you see them getting to a place where they can do it smoothly by November?

I think that they really should consider kind of a regionalized, or centralized type of operation, mainly because the numbers are going to go up, they aren’t prepared to deal with that kind of quantity.

Wisconsin right now is a good example. They’re backlogged, they’re not caught up with all their absentee requests that have been flooding the offices, and that could happen in Michigan and Pennsylvania. And Michigan saw a little of it in their recent primary, but that could happen if they stick with an application process instead of going to the full vote-by-mail type of program where they would automatically mail ballots to every voter.

Do you feel like there’s enough equipment and enough vendors and enough money behind this to get this to where we need to be by November?

It’s gonna take quick and swift decision making. To me, the biggest problems are the lag and boldness of decisions and then also government bureaucracy. We’ve talked with the biggest providers of these ballot sorters. They had seven orders placed last week, they had another 10 orders this week.

I have concerns about scaling up at all the local levels, because they don’t have enough time to get these large sorters out in all of those locations. But if states go with what I’ve suggested, yes, there’s plenty of time.

Realistically, how much time do states have to make decisions on this?

There’s a little bit of wiggle room depending on when decisions are made, but we’re within a few weeks of it being too late. We put out the April 15 timeframe, because I have spoken to various vendors about timelines, equipment, ordering—all those things. I would encourage the rest of the country that hasn’t talked to their vendors yet to have that conversation today. Start putting a plan together not only as the individual county, but as a state. Those conversations and those ordering needs to start now. Decisions need to happen now. 

As this conversation has ramped up over the last month, we’ve seen lots of accusations that the Democrats are trying to federalize elections. The president said that Democrats want to cheat and that Republicans will never be elected again if you did some of these things. How do you get over that hurdle in states where political cooperation is not the norm?

First and foremost, the president and his wife requested an absentee ballot in Florida for their recent primary. So clearly, he is comfortable with the absentee voting process. Second, it’d be interesting to know how many of the folks in Congress actually vote by absentee ballots in their elections. My guess is the number is pretty high.

Third, this is not partisan. This type of reform benefits voters across the political spectrum. It doesn’t benefit one side or the other in a more obvious way. It benefits voters broadly. Election administration and policy has to be about who votes, not who wins. When we hear, for instance, the president or others indicate that there’s somehow going to be a different outcome if more people vote, I think completely demonstrates why they make certain decisions around policy that hurt the American people. If we aren’t for the American people and for voters voting, then I don’t know what we’re here for, especially if we’re in politics. I don’t see why there would be anything other than unanimous agreement that every American should be able to vote in an accessible, fair, and secure way. And that’s what this reform is about and we need to make sure that especially in a pandemic, and in this crisis, Americans have access to their democracy and their democracy is sound.

What would you say to people who say that election considerations have nothing to do with the coronavirus response?

That’s ridiculous. The coronavirus response has seeped into every single aspect of our lives. Given that we’ve had governors canceling and postponing elections, it’s obvious that the coronavirus is impacting elections. Those politicians are clearly not reading or not seeing what’s happening on the ground. We see that just with the cancellations and with poll workers coming down with coronavirus that were exposed to thousands of people in Florida. We’re going to continue to see poll workers test positive in various states that have just had primaries, including Illinois, likely including some of the primaries that were even earlier in March.

As we’ve already seen in Wisconsin, there’s more than 100 jurisdictions that have no poll workers for their April 7 election, they’ve all dropped out, and they’re not going to show up. That’s going to continue. In the summer when everyone thinks this might be tamped down, we’re going to continue to see less people being willing to go and volunteer or sign up for those jobs because they’re exposed to so many people in a small space in one day. The coronavirus has already infiltrated the election system and had a negative impact.

Anything else you want to add?

This is an unprecedented situation and it requires extraordinary creativity, just like we’re seeing in hospitals and governor’s offices and emergency response teams and nurses. 

Moving the November election is not an option. Moving all of these primaries has demonstrated the lack of resiliency in many state systems. The only primaries that have continued without being disrupted are those that are being conducted by mail ballots. Washington and Colorado right now lead the country in turnout, and Colorado’s primary was March 3rd and Washington’s was March 10, in the middle of a huge crisis developing in Washington.

This is not just about upcoming primaries. There are decisions that need to be made about November right now. And given what we’re seeing in terms of the data and how the how the the virus might resurface, even if we are able to mitigate some of it over the summer, it might resurface in the fall. We have to be prepared. We have to make sure our election system is resilient and voters can vote not only now, but in November.

Learning From Home Is Hard Enough. Try Doing It Where Wifi Is Illegal.

Mother Jones Magazine -

Some of the slowest internet in the country can be found in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. That’s because of the telescope at the Green Bank Observatory, nestled into the rolling Alleghenies right below the state’s eastern panhandle. Wifi, cell phones, radio, and even microwaves are prohibited within a 10-square-mile radius of the telescope, which is deep inside of a rectangular 13,000-square-mile piece of land known as the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), which was established in 1958 to protect the Green Bank telescope and another one in Sugar Grove, West Virginia, from interference.

If she wanted, Grace Beverage, 15, could blame the telescope for her recent F in honors science. She and her twin sister, Melinda, live in the town of Green Bank, inside the Quiet Zone. Since Pocahontas County High School was closed on March 13 in response to the coronavirus crisis, all of their classes have moved online. With their old-school hardwired connection, which relies on their telephone landline and which is slower than cable or fiber-optic internet, they struggle to keep up. Grace learned about convection currents, built an earth science device, and recorded the weather at her house for five days straight. But she couldn’t turn in her completed assignment because there were multiple pages to it, and the connection repeatedly timed out. She received a zero, and the straight-A student watched her grade tank.

Since you are reading this, you are probably among the approximately 85 percent of American adults with access to high-speed internet, able to download, stream, tweet, and access emails without thinking much about it. Now imagine what it’s like when you’re traveling through a tunnel; or trying to stream the Super Bowl at the same time as everyone else; or standing in that random dead zone in your neighborhood. Or when you are at a picturesque lake house and the internet seems to operate according its own circadian rhythms. That’s what online life is like all the time for the other 15 percent of Americans for whom internet access is not a given, either because it costs too much or the technical infrastructure does not exist. Fifteen percent of the students in Pocahontas County have no internet access; 30 percent have no devices that connect to the internet. For those who do have internet at home, the connections are agonizingly slow.

The coronavirus has revealed the level to which American society relies on the internet in general, but especially in a time of crisis. Internet bandwidth usage is up, on average, by about 40 percent since the COVID-19 closures. Within a matter of weeks, nearly every educational institution in the country, from elementary schools to graduate programs, shut down their campuses and moved online in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic. Teachers are encouraged to keep instruction going by using a patchwork of distance-learning technologies, a task further complicated by the widespread closure of the public libraries that schools and local governments typically rely on to bridge the divide between digital haves and have-nots. It has been an arduous process for teachers and students everywhere. But in the shadow of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, that midcentury monument to scientific progress, it is all but impossible.

“I’m so scared that we’re not preparing out students for a technological age here,” said Samara Mann, who teaches English at Pocahontas County High School. “I read wonderful articles about what other teachers are doing online, and I think, that’s wonderful for you because you can get your students online.”

 

 

Pocahontas County is the most sparsely populated county east of the Mississippi River. It’s rural and mountainous, with the gentle Greenbrier River cutting through it north to south. Mann lives next to the Monongahela National Forest, where 8,000 acres of hardwood forest and spruce trees stretch uninterrupted over hills and hollows. At night, she sees a sky full of stars. The nearest Walmart is 45 minutes away.

The economy in Pocahontas County relied on a thriving commercial timber industry for most of the 20th century, but the Great West Virginia Flood of 1985 did catastrophic damage from which the timber industry never recovered. Now, a little over 17 percent of the county lives below the poverty level. The population is slowly shrinking and getting older. One in four jobs is generated by the tourists who come through to hike and camp in the forest, ski at Snowshoe Mountain, and, of course, visit the gigantic telescope at the Green Bank Observatory.

The telescope is quite a sight. Taller than the Statue of Liberty, it’s the largest steerable radio telescope on the planet, almost 17 million pounds of criss-crossing white aluminum beams looming over the rural landscape. It looks like a Cubist deconstruction of the Eiffel Tower, or a robot scorpion. When most people think of telescopes, they think of optical telescopes, which are for seeing far away. This telescope is a radio telescope. It is for hearing far away.

May 19, 2006; Green Bank, WV, USA; The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The GBT is the largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world. May 13, 2006 (Credit Image: © Jim West/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Jim West/ZUMA

In 1955, in the first furlong of the United States’ space race with the Soviet Union, the National Science Foundation decided to invest in radio astronomy as a scientific discipline. A committee unanimously chose Green Bank as the site for a new National Radio Astronomy Observatory specifically because its geography so naturally sheltered the town from radio interference. In a 1956 history of the Green Bank Observatory, Richard Emberson wrote that among sites under consideration, Green Bank stood out because it had by far the least amount of radio connectivity:

“The radio-interference measurements showed that the Green Bank site was in a class by itself…. The steering committee unanimously recommended the selection of the Green Bank site for the proposed observatory.”

One of the earliest advocates for the Green Bank telescope was Vannevar Bush, a philosopher scientist. This was the same guy who in 1945 wrote a visionary essay for the Atlantic called “As We May Think,” which imagined the internet 44 years before it existed. “Consider a future device,” he wrote, “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged, intimate supplement to his memory.” That the telescope he championed would impede the supplement he envisioned is an irony some locals might appreciate, if only they could get the Atlantic’s website to load.

Since breaking ground on the Green Bank Observatory in 1957, scientists have made mind-blowing discoveries in this “valley of telescopes.” They’ve used their high-powered receivers to find molecules in deep space and detect black holes and show that gravity in other galaxies are made up of dark matter. But making these discoveries requires picking up on teeny tiny wavelengths. A quasar is a star so bright that it eclipses galaxies, with such a concentration of energy that it could contain a black hole. But the typical quasar gives off a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt per square meter. That’s why radio telescopes require a massive dish, like the 2.3-acre reflecting area on the Green Bank telescope, to hear this cosmic static. These radio telescopes need to be powerful enough to detect the energy of a snowflake hitting the ground. And that’s why residents in Green Bank are not supposed to have cellphones.

These radio telescopes need to be powerful enough to detect the energy of a snowflake hitting the ground. And that’s why residents in Green Bank are not supposed to have cellphones.

The very qualities that made the mountainous half of Pocahontas County ideal for a super-sensitive radio telescope also make it difficult for the students living there to access modern technology and get online. “When I announce that we have to do any internet-related something, you see kids, in multiple rows, shaking their heads,” Mann said. “And then multiple kids speak up at the same time saying, ‘That is not going to work for me. My internet is not going to reliably do anything.’”

 

 

On March 13, all the normal routines of Pocahontas County High School disintegrated into complete chaos.

The day before, a Thursday, the principal had alerted 31 teachers by email that they should probably prepare for early closures the following week. As it turned out, the governor closed schools the following day, meaning the teachers had less than 24 hours to figure out how to improvise a new distance-learning program and send 299 children home with three weeks of lesson plans. On top of it all, Friday was the day that grades were due for the previous quarter.

Samara Mann likes to over-prepare. She woke up at 5:30 a.m. that Friday, her mind racing with ideas for lesson plans. She could assign book reports. True Grit for the first-years, Animal Farm for the seniors. She grabbed a protein bar, filled her travel cup with Earl Grey tea, and drove 10 minutes to Pocahontas County High School. When she pulled into the parking lot, it was empty except for the lone driver’s ed car. She had never been at school so early before. She poured her tea into a mug and made a beeline for the main office so she could commandeer the fast copier before anyone else started using it, because, as she said, “I just knew the crazy was going to hit.”

The traffic jams at the copy machines got bad that day as the faculty furiously printed and copied and stapled together paper packets for their students to take home. Sending or receiving assignments over the internet would be difficult given the huge disparities in access and the overburdened sole carrier. To make matters worse, the wifi went down at school. No one knew how long school would be closed. As news trickled in, the principal made announcements over the intercom.

The night before, Ruth Bland, director of the Pocahontas County Board of Education, had an emergency situation on her hands. The Pocahontas County High School girls basketball team had miraculously qualified for the state basketball tournament; they were on their way to Charleston to compete against schools many times larger. A spirit bus packed full of fans and fellow students was on its way with them.

Bland wears many hats, including director of school transportation and the county’s technology coordinator. First, she radioed the driver to stop and return the kids to school, which was complicated because the bus was in an area with no cell service. After getting the caravan to Charleston turned around, she had to call the principals of all five county schools and mobilize a countywide K–12 distance-learning program in under 24 hours. “We’re building the airplane as it’s being flown,” Bland said. “We’re teaching the teachers the technology now, and they’re teaching the parents.”

“We’re building the airplane as it’s being flown.”

After lesson plans were copied, teachers cobbled together an ad hoc communications network out of various platforms available to them—Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, private Facebook groups—to reach students. Parents were forced to use technologies they’d never touched and had to learn multiple systems if their kids attended different schools. For months, Bland had been nagging teachers and parents to update their computers and learn how to use these applications. Now she was having a major “I-told-you-so” moment, though she sympathizes with the struggles of teachers, parents, and students. And then there’s the problem no one has control over—“The fact that we have unreliable internet makes it very, very difficult,” Bland said.

“Our children really need to understand the technology because they’re stepping into a technologically equipped world, and we need to teach them that,” she continued. “But it’s not just a disservice to the children. It’s a disservice to our self-employed people that have cottage industries here in Pocahontas County, it’s a disservice to law enforcement, it’s a disservice to our [Emergency Medical Services].”

Schools across West Virginia have been closed now for nearly three weeks. Closures have been extended to April 30. Many students finished the last lessons in their packets on Friday, but they weren’t able to turn them in. School administrators decided not to collect the packets for fear of transmitting the coronavirus through the paper. Since the shutdown, the slow internet in rural West Virginia has gotten a lot slower. Everyone is using it at the same time, straining the limited bandwidth, which means that students are spending a lot more time sitting in front of the computers, watching progress bars and spinning wheels, telling them that their data is buffering, or their assignment is loading—and they have to wait. Mann has students in tears, calling her to say that their 10-page research papers didn’t save because it took the internet too long to sync on Microsoft Teams.

 

 

With a $13 million operating budget, Pocahontas County schools are cash-strapped and don’t have the money to implement the one-to-one initiative—one technological device per child—that is Ruth Bland’s long-term goal. There are more immediate needs, in any case. Because so many students were on free or reduced-cost lunch, the school system qualified for the Community Eligibility Provision; the county provides free breakfasts and lunches for all students at each of its schools, five days a week.

During the shutdown, Bland has been working overtime with the county’s service staff to distribute 5,960 meals to its students, each breakfast and lunch separately packaged with labels and heating instructions. They have to start working at 6 a.m. to be ready for distribution at 10 a.m. Bland said that if this didn’t happen, many kids would go hungry. Some students pick up multiple bags for their families at home.

Pocahontas County schools depend on federal funding from the USDA Forest Service as part of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which is a bill that provides funds to states and counties with designated national forests that prohibit people from building, thereby shrinking the potential tax base. The idea is that this funding helps counties recoup some of those lost taxes to use for things like schools. But that funding has decreased significantly over the past 20 years. There are regular fights in Congress to cut this funding, and it’s once again under threat.

“If you were in a populated area and you lost that funding, it would be like cutting off their little toe,” Bland told me. “With us, it’s like cutting off our leg.”

 

 

For teenagers in Pocahontas County, this waiting has taken on the form of the Google dinosaur that pops up and says, “Unable to connect to the internet.”

Grace and her twin sister, Melinda, have started waking up at 2 a.m. to turn in their homework. They’re hoping that the internet will be faster in the middle of the night, when no one else is using it. Grace is tired of watching the progress bar load to 75 percent—before her assignment fails to send and the waiting starts all over. Melinda is bored with hanging around the house all day. She wants to get back to school, where she had planned to try out for the softball team, and looked forward to analyzing music lyrics in English class with Samara Mann every Tuesday.

“When I try to type on a Word document, I have to refresh so many times,” said Kelly Pyne, 18, a senior in Mann’s college English class. “I tried submitting a scholarship, and it said ‘still pending’ for an hour or so.”

Pyne has a full schedule of schoolwork, including two AP classes. Sometimes her internet crashes while she’s trying to submit assignments. Sometimes her applications tell her that the file she’s trying to send is too large. Sometimes her browser tells her the page won’t load. Plus, she’s still working as a cashier at the Route 39 gas station, where she and her co-workers have started carrying around a bucket of bleach and bleaching everything down. Under quarantine, Pyne is busier than ever. The slow internet makes it harder to check the many items off her to-do list.

Pyne doesn’t see her offline upbringing as a net negative. She’s glad that she learned how to navigate life without the internet. She sees a lot of tourists pass through the gas station where she works, on their way to Snowshoe Mountain or the Monongahela National Forest or the Green Bank Observatory, helplessly trying to figure out directions because they are so reliant on their cellphones’ GPS.

 

 

The McClintic Public Library sits on a little bit of a hill. Clusters of daffodils are blooming in the parking lot, their sunny yellow faces drooping against black pavement. The library closed its doors to the public on March 17. But even though the doors are locked, there are always a few cars posted up in the parking lot these days. That’s because people have been coming here to connect to the library’s wifi.

In 2019, there were 3,800 public wifi logins and 8,700 public computer uses at the five branches of the Pocahontas County libraries. The library system has 5,460 library card holders, which is significant for a county of around 8,400 people. The public computers at the five branches are normally in constant use, and wifi is available at four of them. (Only the Green Bank branch, which is inside the NRQZ, has no wifi.)

“If you were in a populated area and you lost that funding, it would be like cutting off their little toe. With us, it’s like cutting off our leg.”

As soon as the libraries closed, Cree Lahti, director of the Pocahontas County libraries, got to work trying to figure out how to keep providing access to the internet. They branches opened up their wifi and made it accessible from the parking lot. Sitting in some of the parked cars are students accessing the wifi and turning in assignments.

At first Lahti and her staff taped six tickets with wifi passwords on the front and side doors of McClintic Public Library. With so many people taking the tickets, it became clear the system was unsustainable. So Lahti called the folks at the West Virginia Library Commission, and they remotely opened up access so that logging onto the Pocahontas County Libraries’ wifi no longer required a password. Now, anyone can come and access it at any time.

For people living in areas with spotty internet connections, the mass migration online has left them behind. This is more common in rural areas, though it’s not exclusively a rural problem. According to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of eighth graders in rural areas do not use internet at home to do their homework on a daily basis. Twenty-four percent of lower-income teens don’t have the resources to use the internet at home, which goes up to 25 percent for Black teens. About 12 percent of teens surveyed use public internet to do their homework. That number jumps to 21 percent for teens in low-income families.

In many communities public libraries are the only place with free, reliable access to the internet and computers. But now, like schools, public libraries are closed to patrons. They’ve been deemed nonessential businesses in West Virginia and around the country, which means that for students who need to do a lot more online right now, accessing the internet is even harder. The digital divide is not a new problem; the coronavirus has simply exacerbated the consequences. Huge chunks of the population now live in something like a quiet zone.

Bland remains optimistic that Pocahontas County will get through this pandemic intact. So far there are no cases of COVID-19 in the county, and its chances of keeping the coronavirus out are helped by the fact that everyone lives so far apart. Many families have their own vegetable gardens and livestock.

Bland has started leaving eggs from her 30 chickens on a table outside her house with a little bag in which neighbors can leave money, because eggs in the grocery store have been hard to come by. Derek Trull, a middle school science teacher at Green Bank Elementary–Middle School, has been staying up late at night, sewing face masks according to CDC specifications and dropping them off at the Pocahontas County Memorial Hospital.

But with the lack of internet access jeopardizing the long-term viability of their slapdash distance-learning program, the residents of Pocahontas County are confronting the limitations of their own resourcefulness. After the internet fiasco of the first two weeks, teachers have cut back the workload by more than half. Students are required to send in only two assignments per week instead of five.

Mann has been seeing other people using Zoom to keep their work meetings and classrooms going. She wants to use Zoom, but she’s afraid to try it because it will probably be an irritation for everybody involved, with people’s faces freezing and their voices lagging way behind. She might give it a shot. She’s hoping that this crisis, as bad as it has been, will be a wakeup call for state legislators to invest in the internet.

“As a teacher this is heartbreaking, disenchanting. You want to reach all the kids. They all deserve the same opportunities,” she said. “If we had had the internet infrastructure for this, this could’ve been an amazing learning opportunity. For everybody.” 

 

Why Are We Transferring Potentially Sick Inmates Across the Country Without Testing Them First?

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Ray Coleman Jr., a federal prison officer, grew uneasy as he entered the hospital in Tallahassee, Florida, last weekend to pick up an inmate recovering from strep throat. The hospital housed multiple patients with COVID-19. Coleman was tasked with escorting the man back to the prison complex, where the disease, if it entered, could quickly spread among the hundreds of high-risk people incarcerated there—and ultimately boomerang back into the community.

In the surrounding city, officials ordered people to stay inside, avoid gatherings, and forgo appointments. But movement in and out of the prison continued: Newly convicted people arrived to start their sentences; some inmates returned from court hearings in other towns where they were appealing their cases; some transferred in from prisons around the country. “Everyone else is stuck at home,” says Coleman, referring to the shelter-in-place orders. “So why are we moving inmates?”

“Everyone else is stuck at home. So why are we moving inmates?”

The country’s 122 federal prison facilities, like state prisons and jails, are now in the thick of the coronavirus crisis. At least 57 federal inmates and 37 prison staffers have tested positive; at least three of these inmates have died. And a shortage of testing makes these numbers unreliable: Many more undiagnosed prisoners sit in isolation or quarantine with symptoms of COVID-19. On Tuesday, the Bureau of Prisons announced that for 14 days, even healthy inmates will be required to spend most of the day in their housing units. But Coleman and other prison staffers around the country—all speaking in their capacity as members of their union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals—say the lockdown will do little to stop the virus as long as the agency continues to move inmates in and out of prisons and transfer them between facilities, especially given that inmates don’t get tested for the virus before they are moved.

Public health experts have warned for weeks that once coronavirus gets inside these lockups, it will spread at rates far faster than it’s spreading among the general population. Already, that’s happening at jails in New York and Chicago. With this in mind, federal prison unions and members of Congress have been urging the Bureau of Prisons to stop moving so many inmates. 

The bureau’s official stance is that, while it has reduced transfers by about 80 percent compared to last year, multiple federal laws, including the Bail Reform Act, require it to continue moving inmates. On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Rep. Fred Keller introduced legislation to give the bureau more power to keep them in place. “While…the rest of the country is working together to stop the spread of this virus by altering and pausing our livelihoods, the Bureau of Prisons must do its part and stop moving potentially sick inmates around the country,” Keller said in a statement. But Congress is not scheduled to reconvene until April 20, so it could take weeks to pass the bill.

At least 57 federal inmates and 37 prison staffers have tested positive.

Which leaves prison staffers who represent their unions raising the alarm. “There’s a lot of anxiety and fear among the staff about what’s going on,” says Ronald Morris, president of the local union at the correctional complex in Oakdale, Louisiana, which has seen the biggest outbreak of any federal prison, including the three deaths. At least 11 inmates at the complex have tested positive, and another 68 were in quarantine for symptoms earlier this week, says Morris; 20 staffers had either tested positive or were waiting for the results of their tests, while the prison continues to admit in new inmates. “We’ve got to lessen this curve,” says Steve Markle, another leader of the national union who works at the federal correctional complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, which specializes in housing inmates with serious preexisting medical conditions. “I have employees who just had transplants, who have lupus, who are just finishing up chemotherapy for cancer,” says Coleman. “I just feel like everyone needs to sit in place where they’re at right now.”

That’s not to say federal prisons aren’t being careful about who comes in and out. Correctional officers and other staffers must have their temperatures checked before they’re allowed into work. And when new inmates arrive, they are quarantined for two weeks. At some complexes, they’re kept in a designated housing unit with other sick or quarantined prisoners, each with their own cell and bathroom.

Prison staffers in the union question the effectiveness of these quarantines, even in complexes with individual cells and toilets. Prisoners still need to leave them to shower. The cells have space under the door to allow food to be slipped in. And if the ventilation system is poor, people still share the same air. On top of that, new inmates arrive regularly, and the two-week quarantine clock does not restart for those already inside. “It’s a way to say we’re doing something, but it’s not really effective,” says Coleman. Even the lockdown may do little to stop infections, he says, because many prisoners live in crowded dorms with beds just a couple of feet apart.

Making matters worse, federal prisons—like hospitals and other institutions around the country—are dealing with a severe shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment. Prisons often ban hand sanitizer because it contains alcohol. As agency-owned buses filled with inmates shuttle from complex to complex, union members at the Tallahassee prison recently asked their warden to give the driver some sanitary wipes, to scrub the seats in between the standard weekly cleanings.

And a lack of COVID-19 tests makes it impossible to measure the scope of the problem. The national union reports that some prison complexes housing several thousand inmates received only around five tests. “A lot of places aren’t even going to test because they only have a handful of tests. They are just assuming and not actually testing,” says Brandy Moore, secretary treasurer of the national union.

“They only have a handful of tests. They are just assuming and not actually testing.”

The Bureau of Prisons’ coronavirus response plan says the agency is working to “significantly decrease” the movement of inmates, but a spokesperson said it is required to accept newly sentenced people into its custody, and to make transfers to ensure prisoners are housed in suitable conditions with appropriate medical care. The spokesperson added that the agency provides masks and other protective equipment in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And inmates undergo a medical screening before moving in or out of a facility. Staffers check them for symptoms like a fever, cough, and trouble breathing. But they usually aren’t tested for coronavirus, even though not everyone who catches it experiences symptoms. It “is clear that BOP can no longer guarantee transferred inmates are free of COVID-19,” Rep. Keller wrote in a letter to the bureau’s director before introducing the bill.

Stopping all inmate movement likely wouldn’t be feasible; prisoners still need to be transported to hospitals for emergency medical procedures, for example. But union members argue that routine checkups outside the facility could be postponed or handled by medical officers inside the prison, and court hearings could be conducted via video conferencing—something the Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said the agency was now pushing for. Prisons could also delay accepting newly convicted inmates by allowing them to remain at home for more time after their sentencing. And the bureau could postpone inmate transfers between facilities, they argue. “We just don’t feel the bureau is taking this seriously enough,” says Markle.

When Coleman returned from the Florida hospital last weekend, he brought the inmate with strep throat to the medical staff at the prison for a screening. The health care workers cleared the man and returned him to the general population.

A Payday Loan Chain Is Defying State Shutdowns to Collect Debts in a Pandemic

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In response to the coronavirus pandemic, more than 20 states so far have shuttered nonessential businesses—and, like clockwork, an increasingly unlikely parade of corporations is claiming to be essential. The latest is Cash Store, a “payday loan alternative” chain that has classified its more than 100 locations in Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin as essential businesses. All four states have issued shelter-in-place orders—but at Cash Store, life goes on.

Some states’ essential business lists, like Illinois’, do include “banks and financial institutions.” But payday loan shops aren’t considered financial institutions—in fact, at least one circuit court has specifically held that they’re not. Still, Cash Store has declared that it’s staying open as an essential financial service, meaning all of its storefronts are staffed and open regular hours—including for borrowers who want to “invest funds for both long and short periods” or “transfer financial risks between customers.”

Payday lenders are notorious for finding customers in tough spots and leaving them in worse ones. Rollovers, deceptive ads, and unrealistic repayment schedules push desperate borrowers into debt traps, where many pay thousands of dollars in interest on a few hundred in loans—and still wind up in bankruptcy. Borrowers take out new loans so they don’t default on old ones; according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, paying off an average payday loan “requires about one-third of an average borrower’s paycheck, not leaving enough money to cover everyday living expenses without borrowing again.” They’re likely to borrow for critical needs: California’s Medicaid expansion cut payday loans by more than 10 percent, a 2017 Health Affairs study found. And payday loan “alternatives,” like car title loans, often end in repossession.

But it’s an incredibly lucrative industry: Short-term borrowers—i.e., broke people with bad credit—paid more than $60 billion in fees and interest in 2015. Things got worse with Donald Trump’s rollback of Obama-era consumer protections, along with his gutting of the one federal agency built to fight predatory lending.

Cash Store is the retail face of Texas-based Cottonwood Financial, a major player in retail lending that spent more than $50 million on advertising in the 2000s alone. Cottonwood CEO and President Trevor Ahlberg (also an enthusiastic big-game hunter, according to a detailed investigation by the Texas Observer) has donated more than $1 million to conservative causes, and thousands to Trump-supporting PACs—and he’s far from alone in the industry. As early as 2013, Texans for Public Justice found that Ahlberg was “by far, the most politically active payday lender,” according to D Magazine.

Cottonwood’s Better Business Bureau page is a litany of complaints (and often form-letter responses) from consumers who claim they were asked to pay the same debt, or parts of it, multiple times; that Cash Store made unauthorized direct withdrawals from their checking accounts; and, from one employee identifying as a benefits specialist, that Cash Store said it wouldn’t add her young child to her employer health insurance without a court order. (Cottonwood replied, acknowledging that it had eventually added the kid.) In its own backyard of Texas, Cash Store’s practices appear to work around local laws that limit loan amounts and installments, the Observer reported

It’s not immediately clear why Cash Store would keep hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores open. Many payday lenders offer online cash advances, including through apps you can access by phone. Some claim to remotely deposit your funds in minutes. And if you want to give Cash Store your money from home, no problem: You can make a loan payment by phone, by mail, or electronically, per its coronavirus webpage. But need to borrow some cash? You’ll have to head in. Unlike some competitors, Cash Store will only take money remotely, not hand it out, despite the evidence that small cash loans can be approved remotely. That means thousands of workers are coming in to hundreds of stores, helping Cottonwood collect debts—at the cost of exposure to COVID-19.

Cash Store’s website claims that it has “implemented additional cleaning and disinfecting protocols” and sent its stores “extra cleaning supplies to increase health safety.” Their blog features multiple COVID-related posts: “We decided to fact-check some of the top coronavirus-related stories, to help you see past the stigma and get to the point!” one says. Another offers laid-off job seekers a list of companies now hiring, from CVS to Papa John’s—after all, you can’t get a payday loan with no payday. With 5 million or more jobs on the chopping block in March alone, Americans will need money in the months ahead. But the typical requirement for a payday loan is a regular income stream, and sweeping job losses could mean trouble for payday lenders.

If Cash Store risks losing business, why stay fully open? One clue: Americans hold about $10 billion in outstanding payday loans. Many borrowers default on high-interest loans, and shops like Cash Store work that into their model; Cottonwood Financial sells its unpaid debt to collectors for pennies on the dollar. But third-party debt collectors are about to get more business than they can handle, most of it better than payday loans—so ultra-high-interest lenders had better collect what they can, while they can. “At this point, we are a glorified collection agency,” one cash advance lender wrote on Facebook. On social media, small lenders are racing to collect from individuals and small businesses, swapping stories about funders who won’t help them lend more, but who still expect their money.

Unlike small-fry independent lenders, Cottonwood isn’t beholden to anyone. The firm bills itself as “one of the largest privately held” retail lenders in the country; it’s cash-rich, boasts zero debt, and risks much less by closing some or all of its 300-plus stores. Even if they were laid off, front-line workers at Cash Store could collect expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act; instead, they’re risking COVID-19 for the sake of Cottonwood’s investments. (Cottonwood didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Other types of lenders are offering breaks on the high interest and short deadlines of most cash advances. U.S. Bank has cut rates on its short-term cash loans, which it touts as a payday loan alternative. Barclays is waiving fees on (usually expensive) credit-card cash advances. Cash Store, meanwhile, is offering borrowers hit by the tidal wave of shutdowns and layoffs a chance to…borrow again. A web FAQ for the business says you can score a “cash back refinance” on your payday loan “alternative”—but that you “still need to visit your local Cash Store in order to complete the loan agreement.” Luckily, if you’ve already paid off a Cash Store loan, you’re preapproved for another.

In fact, the nation’s five biggest banking and finance regulators have unanimously pushed banks and credit unions to offer serious payday loan alternatives during the coronavirus crisis—cheaper alternatives, not equally pricey loans in a slick wrapper. Even borrowing with your credit card, if you have one, could cost less in interest and won’t force you into a store.

Cash Store isn’t the only shop staying open in the dubious guise of an essential service. GameStopGuitar Center, and Hobby Lobby have also informed Americans that we can’t live without them. Joann Fabrics and Crafts, borrowing from Thoreau, initially defied state orders to shut down, although it’s now giving away make-your-own-mask kits for Good Samaritan seamsters. And some have tried to make an extra buck in the crisis: The hardware chain Menards was ordered last week to quit jacking up prices on cleaning supplies and masks. States have seen a rash of price-gouging complaints, and the cost of protective gear has soared among online retailers.

Do you have other examples of companies refusing to shut down despite better judgment, cutting corners on safety, or just plain profiteering? Help Mother Jones track corporate cash grabs during the pandemic with an email to scoop@motherjones.com. If you can, include photos, links, or documentation.

The Mental Health Effects of Coronavirus Are a “Slow-Motion Disaster”

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This story is from Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C.

In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey cut through Texas and other southern states, its catastrophic floods affecting millions of Americans. Within a month, Hurricane Irma swept through Florida, and then Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

The federal Disaster Distress Helpline saw a surge in calls and texts for help that September. Nothing since has topped that—until now.

The helpline, 800-985-5990, run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the nonprofit Vibrant Emotional Health, answered roughly 7,000 calls and received 19,000 text messages in March, a more than eight-fold increase from February. That far outstrips the number of texts and calls in August and September 2017 combined, according to data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hotlines in the US are seeing a spike in activity that might be unprecedented. That’s because the situation is, too.

“This feels different, and it is,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine. “This is an invisible threat: We don’t know who is infected, and anyone could infect us. This is an ambiguous threat: We don’t know how bad it will get … we don’t know how long it will last. And this is a global threat: No community is safe.”

Dozens of studies link psychological burdens with isolation and crises, including epidemics. In one study of Hong Kong’s 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, nearly half of surveyed residents said the experience weighed on their mental health. Sixteen percent showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, six months after the outbreak ended.

Sarah Lowe, a psychologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, calls the coronavirus a “slow-motion disaster” with potentially widespread and persistent mental-health fallout. Lowe, who studies the effects of disasters, said she worries that some people will be disproportionately affected, particularly medical workers, the sick, those with pre-existing mental illness and anyone facing economic challenges.

“We know from previous disasters that long-term financial strain tends to be associated with depression and PTSD,” she said.

“People with mental illness require a great support system.”

Like the federal hotline, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ HelpLine is seeing a surge in calls. Before COVID-19, the illness the novel coronavirus causes, 150 calls would be a big day, said Dawn Brown, the HelpLine director. Now it’s surpassing that number daily.

“It’s continuing to go up,” she said, adding that nearly half the callers at some point mention the virus.

Callers to NAMI’s line, 800-950-6264, are sharing feelings of anxiety and depression as well as asking for advice about how to continue mental-health treatment and get medicine refilled during stay-at-home orders.

“People with mental illness require a great support system,” Brown said. “They don’t do well with uncertainty and ambiguity, which this has certainly caused. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, something else happens, whether it be a shelter-in-place order or more news coverage talking about death and shortages.”

In New York City, which has the most confirmed cases in the country, NAMI’s local affiliate is seeing jumps in calls to its own helpline, 212-684-3264. Call volume in the past few weeks has gone up roughly 60 percent, said Matt Kudish, the group’s executive director.

And the number of people taking a free screening test for anxiety offered online by the advocacy organization Mental Health America is up more than 20 percent from mid-February through mid-March, compared with the early part of the year. That’s the COVID-19 effect, said Paul Gionfriddo, the group’s president and CEO.

He’s worried the country may be under-reacting to the mental-health toll. “And it’s only going to get worse as we have to bring widespread grieving into the equation as more people die,” he said. “Because people will be grieving alone.”

Some federal and state health authorities are rushing to maintain psychological support. The US Department of Health and Human Services has expanded access to teletherapy, including for Medicare, and some states are waiving telemedicine restrictions for Medicaid. The US Drug Enforcement Administration is now allowing doctors to prescribe medications virtually without having to first meet a patient face-to-face.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline, 844-863-9314, and said 6,000 mental-health professionals have volunteered to help.

What officials say in this fraught period also can help, or harm, mental health.

“Not every message from public health leaders will be comforting,” said Brian Hepburn, who leads the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. But consistent messaging will build trust, he said, and as a result “you are going to see a decrease in fear, in those spikes.”

The first uptick in calls to the Disaster Distress Helpline happened on March 16, the same day President Donald Trump announced recommendations such as closing schools and avoiding gathering in groups of more than 10 people. Six days earlier, he assured Americans that the administration’s response was “really working out” and downplayed the threat by saying deaths were minuscule compared with the flu.

Lowe said she was upset to see the president’s March 20 press conference, in which he criticized a reporter who asked, “What do you say to Americans who are scared?” Trump rebuffed the question, calling the reporter “terrible.”

“I found that invalidating of people’s fears and worry,” Lowe said. “People are afraid. Denying that will only make those feelings intensify.”

Two hotlines that aren’t seeing increased calls: the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Administrators at both are keeping a close watch for changes.

“Because we expect that people are spending more time at home, possibly not leaving the home for work each day, for example, we know survivors are spending more time in closer proximity to their abusers,” said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the domestic violence hotline.

Helplines and crisis hotlines are only an initial support system for people in emotional distress. Gionfriddo, of Mental Health America, is urging people — and elected officials — not to assume the anxiety and other corrosive effects will disappear on their own when the pandemic is over. The amounts of mental-health funding in Congress’ coronavirus package, he said, “are rounding errors,” money that in his view will not be enough to address the surge in needs.

“If we make them an afterthought—if we don’t address them aggressively—they’ll still be there,” he said.

Dean Russell is a reporting fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Funding for CJI is provided by the school’s Investigative Reporting Resource and the Energy Foundation. Jamie Smith Hopkins is a reporter and editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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