Texas Isn’t Crazy for Lifting Its Mask Mandate

Caution tape promotes social distancing at a bar as the state of Texas prepares to lift its mask mandate and reopen businesses to full capacity in Houston, Texas, March 9, 2021. (Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters)

Today, Texans are no longer under a statewide mandate to wear masks in public, and businesses in the state can operate at 100 percent capacity. President Biden contends that this is “neanderthal thinking,” and many media voices consider it the most reckless decision since the state of Georgia allegedly began a formal experiment in human sacrifice in April 2020. But the data simply don’t support the argument that the Lone Star State is making a dramatic change from masking conditions a week ago, or that it is making a dramatically different move on permitted business capacity, or that states that didn’t enact mask mandates performed the worst during this pandemic.

No, Texans Aren’t Crazy, or ‘Neanderthal’
Two months before yesterday was Tuesday, January 12. On that day, the state of Texas reported 27,147 new cases of COVID-19 and 305 new deaths from the pandemic. (All numbers from Worldometers.)

Six weeks before yesterday was Tuesday, January 26. On that day, Texas reported 22,796 new cases of COVID-19 and 332 new deaths from the pandemic.

One month before yesterday was Tuesday, February 9. On that day, Texas reported 13,282 new cases of COVID-19 and 303 new deaths from the pandemic.

Two weeks before yesterday was Tuesday, February 23, Texas reported 10,090 new cases of COVID-19 and 258 new deaths from the virus.

Yesterday was Tuesday, March 9. The state of Texas reported 5,119 new cases of COVID-19, and 168 new deaths from the virus.

It’s not quite a straight or smooth line, but you can see a steady decline in cases, followed by a similar decline in deaths. This doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. But it does suggest that the worst is over. Hospitals across the state now report a significant amount of unused capacity. “State health officials in Texas reported to the federal government that 75 percent of inpatient beds and 80 percent of ICU beds in hospitals across the state were still occupied as of March 6. Around 9 percent of beds statewide were filled by COVID-19 patients, they reported.” (Unused hospital beds are good for emergencies, but not good for the long-term financial health of the hospital.)

Texas ranks second in the country in the number of vaccine shots administered, with nearly 7.3 million, but it also ranks second in the number of shots received from manufacturers, because doses are allocated to states by population size. As of this morning, the state has used 75 percent of its delivered supply, which is not an impressive percentage. (It is worth keeping in mind that as more doses get delivered, every state’s percentage-used figure is declining a bit; North Dakota and Minnesota lead the country at 87 percent.) Fifteen percent of Texans have received one shot, and 8.2 percent are fully vaccinated. (We used to use the term “received both shots,” but now the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is rolling out.) Obviously, getting hit with a terrible winter storm and experiencing widespread power outages does not help a state accelerate its vaccination program.

This week, another million doses have arrived or are scheduled to arrive in Texas. A week ago, Texas made all school and child-care workers eligible for the vaccine.

The more rural, sparsely populated counties in Texas have a higher percentage of their residents vaccinated — in part because they’re sparsely populated and it’s easier to vaccinate a few thousand people than tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. In Presidio County, on the U.S.-Mexican border, 20 percent of the estimated population has been fully vaccinated. In Jeff Davis County, just north of there, 26 percent of the estimated population has been fully vaccinated.

Some polling points to a bit of vaccine hesitation among Texans, although that appears to be dropping. Interest in getting the vaccine appears to be high and broad: “Thousands of people waited in line for multiple hours at the drive-thru vaccine site at the Harvey Convention Center in Tyler on Tuesday.

All Governor Greg Abbott changed today is to remove the state requirement that people wear masks, allowed businesses and institutions to set their own rules, and removed the capacity restrictions on businesses. (The previous capacity restriction on businesses was 75 percent, which went into effect in mid-October. If you want to give Abbott grief, do so for increasing the capacity restriction right as the weather got cooler and people started spending more time indoors.)

Public life in Texas may not look all that different after the governor’s executive order goes into effect today. H-E-B and other major grocery-store chains say they will still require masks in their stores, as will Costco, Fresh Plus, Sprouts, Target, and Walmart. Many restaurants will still require staff and patrons to wear them when not eating. The city of Austin is still requiring them, and many school districts are keeping mask requirements in place as well.

Keep in mind what Abbott said when he announced he was repealing the executive orders:

With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus. We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent. Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed. Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year. Instead, it is a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others. With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.

Here’s how President Biden characterized Abbott’s decision: “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters.”

Of course, “Everything is fine, take off your mask,” isn’t what Abbott said at all.

And while Texas is ahead of the curve when it comes to reopening, it’s not that far ahead of other southern and Western states.

Louisiana also has its capacity for businesses at 75 percent, including shopping malls and movie theaters, with no occupancy limits on houses of worship, and 50 percent occupancy for casinos — with 75 percent capacity for gaming positions. Kentucky increased its capacity limit to 60 percent for bars and restaurants, fitness centers, movie theaters, offices, retailers, and more. North Carolina now allows up to 250 people at 50 percent capacity in most business establishments. Virginia now allows gyms to operate at 75 percent capacity. This week, Nevada will allow just about all establishments, including casinos, to increase from 35 percent to 50 percent capacity. New Mexico uses a complicated color-coded system that is dependent upon county numbers over a two-week period, but some counties are at a level where restaurants can operate at 75 percent capacity for indoor dining.

But chances are you haven’t heard about any of those changes, because those states have Democratic governors, and for far too many people, every decision by a Democratic governor is good and every decision by a Republican governor is bad. Thus, you don’t hear any Democrats in Washington grumbling that Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Nevada, or New Mexico is exhibiting “Neanderthal thinking.”

As for the mask orders, 15 states never enacted a mask order during this pandemic. Among the states that never enacted a mask order, the one with the worst COVID death rate per million residents is Mississippi, which ranks fifth out of the 50 states and District of Columbia, with Arizona right behind it. But quite a few states without mask mandates ended up in the lower half of COVID fatalities, adjusted for population. Florida ranks 27th — and remember, the Sunshine State has a disproportionately high share of the nation’s senior citizens, who are most vulnerable to the virus —  Missouri ranks 29th, Montana ranks 33rd, Wyoming ranks 35th, Oklahoma ranks 36th, Nebraska ranks 40th, Idaho ranks 42nd, and Alaska ranks 49th.

ADDENDUM: Scott Mason has launched a new Jets news site, PlayLikeaJet.com, where the football and Jets fans among you can read my thoughts on the future of the franchise and the likely change of quarterback.

. . . Yesterday’s edition of The Editors features an opening discussion about the British Royal Family that I . . . honestly could barely bring myself to join with any enthusiasm. As far as I’m concerned, we fought a revolution so that we wouldn’t have to care about the British royal family.

Health Care

Good News about the Pfizer Vaccine

A medical staff member receives the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Fla., December 15, 2020. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

On the menu today: some really good news about the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine against the Brazilian, U.K., and South African variants; a reminder that the more partisan a claim about the pandemic was, the less likely it was to be accurate; and the Lincoln Project tries to pull a Northam.

In Your Face, Variants!

In the tug of war between pandemic optimism and pandemic pessimism, one of the recurring arguments from the side of pessimism is that the virus is always mutating, mutated versions have in some cases become more contagious and more virulent, and our vaccines either may not work as effectively or, God forbid, may not work at all.

One lab experiment offers evidence that variants can slow the antibodies generated by the Pfizer vaccine, but they can’t stop it:

The Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE showed a high ability to neutralize coronavirus strains first detected in Brazil, the U.K. and South Africa, according to a new study.

In lab experiments, the shot demonstrated “roughly equivalent” levels of neutralizing activity against the Brazil and U.K. strains compared with a version of the virus from early last year. It also showed “robust but lower” activity against the South Africa variant, according to a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine.

While the research needs to be validated with real-world data, it offers another reason for optimism that the Covid vaccines are generally performing well against variants of the virus.

The letter states, “All the serum samples efficiently neutralized USA-WA1/2020 and all the viruses with variant spikes.

And even if a variant comes along that proves immune to the current vaccines, development of a new vaccine or booster will not be starting from scratch:

How worried should we be about the variants? They pose a challenge, but, compared to the original vaccine-development effort, it’s small. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have said that they can develop booster shots within six weeks that work against these variants; Moderna has already started working on one that targets the South African version. From a scientific perspective, developing variant-specific vaccines is a straightforward proposition—one simply swaps the new genomic material for the old. Testing, manufacturing, and distribution could still take months. But the F.D.A. has released guidance designed to streamline the approval process for coronavirus boosters, indicating that it will review them using roughly the same approach it employs for annual flu shots. This means that the new vaccines will likely be tested in small trials of several hundred people, as opposed to the larger randomized trials that were needed for initial approval of the vaccines. Instead of following trial subjects for months to see if they develop covid-19, researchers will be able to use a blood test to determine if they are mounting an adequate immune response to the variant. The U.S. regulatory apparatus is evolving with the virus.

That’s from a New Yorker article by Dhruv Khullar which not only illuminates the nature of the fight against the variants, but also offers a realistic argument that the virus will, in the long run, lose more and more of its battles against the human immune system.

Like all viruses, sars-CoV-2 will continue to evolve. But McLellan believes that it has a limited number of moves available. “There’s just not a lot of space for the spike to continue to change in ways that allow it to evade antibodies but still bind to its receptor,” he said. “Substitutions that allow the virus to resist antibodies will probably also decrease its affinity for ace-2”—the receptor that the virus uses to enter cells. Recently, researchers have mapped the universe of useful mutations available to the spike’s receptor-binding area. They’ve found that most of the changes that would weaken the binding ability of our antibodies occur at just a few sites; the E484K substitution seems to be the most important. “The fact that different variants have independently hit on the same mutations suggests we’re already seeing the limits of where the virus can go,” McLellan told me. “It has a finite number of options.”

Over time, sars-CoV-2 is likely to become less lethal, not more. When people are exposed to a virus, they often develop “cross-reactive” immunity that protects them against future infection, not just for that virus, but also for related strains; with time, the virus also exhausts the mutational possibilities that might allow it to infect cells while eluding the immune system’s memory.

That description of a virus mutating to less and less virulent versions reminded me of a passage near the end of John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History:

The 1918 pandemic reached an extreme of virulence unknown in any other widespread influenza outbreak in history.

But the 1918 virus, like all influenza viruses, like all viruses that form mutant swarms, mutated rapidly. There is a mathematical concept called “reversion to the mean”; this states simply that an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event. This is not a law, only a probability. The 1918 virus stood at an extreme; any mutations were more likely to make it less lethal than more lethal. In general, that is what happened. So just as it seemed that the virus would bring civilization to its knees, would do what the plagues of the Middle Ages had done, would remake the world, the virus mutated toward its mean, toward the behavior of most influenza viruses. As time went on, it became less lethal.

Get vaccinated when you’re able, and don’t be like the mayor of Detroit, getting picky about which vaccine you receive. Any vaccine will give you some enhanced protection against the virus, while not having a vaccine means you’re rolling the dice on your own immune system. Given a choice, you’d rather wear a bulletproof vest, right?

Learning a Lesson Requires Correct Information

My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru has a typically excellent column about what we’ve learned, roughly one year into the pandemic:

The more partisan the narrative, the worse it has fared. Liberals have spent much of the pandemic fretting about red-state irresponsibility. But the four states with the highest percentage of Covid deaths all vote consistently for Democratic presidential candidates. Florida, though a consistent target of progressive criticism, has a death rate well below the national average. Some conservatives, for their part, predicted that we’d stop hearing about the pandemic as soon as the election was over. Instead, the deadliest weeks came after it, and both politicians and the press kept talking about it.

I try not to push the “The national mainstream media does a terrible job and gets far too many things wrong” button too often, but it is hard to overstate just how important it was, during this national crisis and particularly in its earliest moments, to present accurate information clearly. If there was ever a time to put aside the hot takes, knee-jerk narratives, partisan axes to grind, instinctive spin, and rock-em-sock-em-robot dueling-pundit habits and just tell people what they need to know, this was it.

For example, if the media airbrushes a Michael Avenatti type into a noble crusader for truth and justice, that’s bad. But it’s not necessarily life-and-death bad.

You know what’s life-and-death bad?

January 23, 2020, Vox: “The evidence on travel bans for diseases like coronavirus is clear: They don’t work.”

January 26, 2020, Vox: “There are now five confirmed US coronavirus cases. Experts say it’s no cause for alarm.”

January 28, 2020, BuzzFeed: “Don’t Worry About the Coronavirus. Worry About the Flu.”

January 31, 2020, the Washington Post: “The flu poses the bigger and more pressing peril; a handful of cases of the new respiratory illness have been reported in the United States, none of them fatal or apparently even life-threatening.”

February 5, 2020, the New York Times: “Who Says It’s Not Safe to Travel to China?”

February 7, 2020, Time magazine: “‘It’s just amazing how quickly word about this [coronavirus] has spread, the intensity of the coverage,’ says Steven Miller, a professor at the Rutgers School of Journalism and Media Studies. ‘It seems to me that the coronavirus is being covered in more sensationalistic terms than Ebola in 2018.’”

February 29, 2020, Forbes magazine: “No, You DO NOT Need Face Masks For Coronavirus—They Might Increase Your Infection Risk.”

March 4, 2020, Time magazine: “Health Experts Are Telling Healthy People Not to Wear Face Masks for Coronavirus. So Why Are So Many Doing It?”

Keep in mind, by February 5, 2020, Chinese state-run media were showing those videos of vehicles spraying the empty streets of Wuhan with massive clouds of disinfectant. By February 10, 2020, the Chinese government put its two biggest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, on partial lockdown — check points to measure people’s body temperatures, compulsory mask-wearing, travel restrictions, a requirement that all visitors check with medical authorities upon arrival. No country does that for “just the flu.” Don’t watch what authoritarian foreign governments say, watch what they do.

The realization that we were confronting a contagious virus that could kill you — that SARS-CoV2 wasn’t like SARS-CoV1, or MERS, or Zika, or H1N1, and instead was more like something out of Contagion — should have been a signal that it was time for the grown-ups to act. And while the world of American journalism had plenty of examples of terrific, fact-based COVID journalism that was neither fearmongering nor Pollyannaish, far too many institutions succumbed to the temptations of clickbait, conventional wisdom, groupthink, and other bad habits.

ADDENDUM: Did you notice that, much like Andrew Cuomo, the disgraced Lincoln Project is “pulling a Northam” and just plowing full speed ahead, hoping everyone forgets about its scandals? The New York Times today reports:

The behind-the-scenes moves by the four original founders showed that whatever their political goals, they were also privately taking steps to make money from the earliest stages, and wanted to limit the number of people who would share in the spoils. Over time, the Lincoln Project directed about $27 million — nearly a third of its total fund-raising — to Mr. Galen’s consulting firm, from which the four men were paid, according to people familiar with the arrangement.

George Conway and Mike Murphy have called for the Lincoln Project to disband. Murphy concluded, “all credibility is gone.” Conway called for a full accounting of the group’s finances and concluded, “there’s simply too much money that hasn’t been accounted for, and, I fear, never will be.


The Media’s Miserable Record on Getting It Right

( roibu/Getty Images)

About a month ago, news consumers were belatedly informed that New York governor Andrew Cuomo was not a pandemic hero, the Lincoln Project was not filled with noble Republican idealists who were effectively persuading conservatives to stop supporting Donald Trump, and progressive policies were not helping the least fortunate in California. This week, the media belatedly recognize that the evidence for soaring hate crimes against Asian Americans is much less reliable than initially reported, that the survey data reveal that liberal perceptions of police shootings are wildly at odds with the verifiable facts, and that recent headlines exaggerated the conclusions of a CDC report on government mask mandates.

Some days I feel as if I might as well rename this newsletter, “Here’s what the data actually say . . .”

A Lot of What the Media Told You Was Wrong, Part One

The New York Times, February 27: “Hate crimes involving Asian-American victims soared in New York City last year. Officials are grappling with the problem even as new incidents occur.”

PBS: “How to address the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes.

USA Today: “Hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise.

CNN: “Attacks against Asian Americans are on the rise.

Jay Caspian Kang, writing in the New York Times op-ed page, Sunday:

There are claims of a huge national spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, but they largely rely on self-reported data from organizations like Stop AAPI Hate that popped up after the start of the pandemic. These resources are valuable, but they also use as their comparison point spotty and famously unreliable official hate crime statistics from law enforcement. If we cannot really tell how many hate crimes took place before, can we really argue that there has been a surge?

There have also been reports that suggest that these attacks be placed within the context of rising crime nationwide, especially in large cities. What initially appears to be a crime wave targeting Asians might just be a few data points in a more raceless story.

There have also been condemnations of Donald Trump and how his repeated use of the phrase “China virus” to describe the coronavirus and his invocation of white supremacy might be responsible. But how does that explain the attacks by Black people? Were they also acting as Mr. Trump’s white supremacist henchmen? Do we really believe that there is some coordinated plan by Black people to brutalize Asian-Americans?

It is also worth noting that a report that generated the frightening headline, “Hate Crimes Targeting Asian Americans Spiked by 150% in Major US Cities” showed wildly different circumstances in different cities. The report identified 122 incidents of anti-Asian-American hate crimes in 16 of the country’s most populous cities in 2020. Almost a quarter of them, 28, occurred in New York City. The top four cities — New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Seattle — were the location for 57 percent of all cases in the study. In Cincinnati, the number of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans increased from zero in 2019 to one in 2020, and San Diego had the same figures. Chicago stayed level with two each year. Denver and Houston increased from zero to three. Washington, D.C., declined from six to three.

Every crime is worthy of investigation and prosecution, and even one case of someone being targeted for a crime because of their race, religion, or heritage is one too many. But in this situation, it appears that the existing spotty statistics are being shoehorned into place to support a narrative of a worsening crisis. The headline “Hate Crimes Targeting Asian Americans Spike in a Few US Cities, Rare in Others” wouldn’t attract quite so much attention.

Of course, the only way society can investigate and prosecute hate crimes is with an effective police force, and there’s not exactly a broad political consensus in support of the police now, is there?

A Lot of What the Media Told You Was Wrong, Part Two

That deep political division about the quality of American policing stems from wildly disparate beliefs about what the police do.

The Civil Unrest and Presidential Election Study (CUPES) survey, completed last month, asked 980 adults two questions. The first was, “If you had to guess, how many unarmed Black men were killed by police in 2019?” Options ranged from “about 10” to “more than 10,000” The second question was “If you had to guess, in 2019 what percentage of people killed by police were Black?” Respondents could choose any number from 0 to 100.

According to the Washington Post database, regarded by Nature magazine as the “most complete database” of its kind, 13 unarmed black men were fatally shot by police in 2019. According to a second database called “Mapping Police Violence,” compiled by data scientists and activists, 27 unarmed black men were killed by police (by any means) in 2019.

The CUPES survey found that “over half (53.5 percent) of those reporting ‘very liberal’ political views estimated that 1,000 or more unarmed black men were killed,” and 26.6 percent of those identifying as “liberal” believed it was “about 1,000.” Fourteen percent of those identifying as “very liberal” believed “about 10,000” unarmed black men were killed, and almost 8 percent of those identifying as “very liberal” believed that more black men were killed by police in 2019.

The study noted that, according to peer-reviewed research, 26.7 percent of the victims of police-shooting fatalities between 2015 and 2020, were black. Another source, BBC News’s “Reality Check Team,” reported that in 2019 specifically, 23.4 percent of the victims of police-shooting fatalities were black.

The second question found similar results. “Those who reported being ‘liberal’ or ‘very liberal’ were particularly inaccurate” in their guesses of what percentage of people killed by police were black, “estimating the proportion to be 56 percent and 60 percent, respectively.”

If you walked around believing that 1,000 or 10,000 or even more unarmed black men were killed by police each year, with minimal if any consequences, you would probably distrust the police and want to see them abolished or defunded or, at minimum, torn down and rebuilt from the ground up with a completely different culture.

A Lot of What the Media Told You Was Wrong, Part Three

Before we go any further, I’m pro-wearing masks. I don’t think they provide perfect protection. I think KN95s are more effective than cloth masks, and cloth masks are better than nothing. I think wearing your mask on your chin is ridiculous. And while we’re still collecting data, the evidence we have is that full vaccination makes people much less likely to spread the virus — so there is little reason for groups of vaccinated people to wear masks around one another. And if you’re going to go into a restaurant, it’s best to try to maintain that six-foot distance between you and members of your household and everyone else, particularly when unmasked and eating.

You probably saw the headline, “CDC study finds in-person dining bans and wearing masks make a difference.

The CDC compared county-level data on mask mandates and restaurant re-openings with county-level changes in COVID-19 case- and death-growth rates relative to the mandate-implementation and reopening dates. When you dig deep into the actual CDC report, you find:

During March 1–December 31, 2020, state-issued mask mandates applied in 2,313 (73.6 percent) of the 3,142 U.S. counties. Mask mandates were associated with a 0.5 percentage point decrease (p = 0.02) in daily COVID-19 case growth rates 1–20 days after implementation and decreases of 1.1, 1.5, 1.7, and 1.8 percentage points 21–40, 41–60, 61–80, and 81–100 days, respectively, after implementation (p<0.01 for all) (Table 1) (Figure). Mask mandates were associated with a 0.7 percentage point decrease (p = 0.03) in daily COVID-19 death growth rates 1–20 days after implementation and decreases of 1.0, 1.4, 1.6, and 1.9 percentage points 21–40, 41–60, 61–80, and 81–100 days, respectively, after implementation (p<0.01 for all).

Notice the decrease was in the case- and death-growth rate, not the number of overall cases or deaths. And the difference in that rate of growth of both cases and deaths added up to less than 2 percent over a three-month period. That’s not nothing; we obviously want to prevent every death that we can. But that’s also not a particularly dramatic difference.

A mask mandate may mitigate the death toll in a state, but not by much. The state that ranks the worst in COVID deaths per million residents is New Jersey, with 2,654, as of this writing. New Jersey was the first state to require masks at all businesses starting April 10, 2020, and outdoors in circumstances where social distancing is not possible since July 8, 2020. More than 90 percent of the state’s 23,557 deaths occurred since the former mandate was implemented.

The second state to enact a mask order was New York, which enacted a mask requirement April 15, 2020, and that state ranks second worst in COVID deaths per million residents, at 2,497. The states that rank at the bottom in deaths per million residents are Hawaii (mask requirement), Vermont (mask requirement), and Alaska (no mask requirement).

ADDENDUM: For all of my Czech-speaking readers, I did a wide-ranging interview with Michael Durčák in FinMag magazine. (Google Translate will give you the gist.)

. . . Joe Manchin, February 2: “What I have told everybody, I made it very clear, from the President of the United States to all of my colleagues, we’re gonna make this work in a bipartisan way. My friends on the other side are going to have input, and we are going to do something we agree on. . . . It has to make sense, and if it’s out of the realm of what makes sense, of what we’ve worked on together, we’ve built too much trust up to allow this to fall apart. So they can count on me to make sure I do everything to make sure this is done bipartisan.”

On Saturday, Manchin joined 49 other Democrats and no Republicans to pass the Biden administration’s COVID-relief bill. As I put it on February 24, “Joe Manchin is an old-school Democrat who likes to spend money” — which means he’s not who you want as your last line of defense against a big spending bill.

Manchin, who swore he would never eliminate the filibuster, also now says he wants to make the filibuster more “painful” to use.


We’re Nearing a Serious Immigration Crisis

Migrants from Central America walk across the Paso del Norte international border bridge to continue their asylum request in the U.S., in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 26, 2021. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Earlier this week, I noted that 40 days of a Biden presidency had taught us that the new administration wasn’t as centrist as advertised, but that it was offset by the new president and his team being less competent than advertised. As the first week of March ends, Democrats at all levels are learning that governing is harder and more complicated than campaigning. Biden is stumbling into another major crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing our southern border, Andrew Cuomo covered up nursing-home deaths while writing a book about how well he was managing the pandemic, and some of those allegedly “Neanderthal” pandemic decisions by Texas and Mississippi are cropping up in deep blue Connecticut.

ICE: We Expect Border Crossing by Unaccompanied Minors to Be the Highest in 20 Years

Who could have possibly foreseen that electing a Democratic president who promised to repeal and undo Trump’s immigration policies would lead to a rush of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the southern border?

U.S. Border Patrol agents caught more than 4,500 migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday, according to government figures shared with Reuters, a big single-day tally that comes amid growing fears that illegal entries could soar in the coming weeks.

The figure is comparable to the daily average of arrests in May 2019, the peak of a major border surge that former President Donald Trump used to justify his broad immigration crackdown. In January 2021, Border Patrol caught about 2,400 migrants a day at the southwest border.

“We are weeks, maybe even days, away from a crisis on the southern border,” Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose Texas district abuts Mexico, said in a statement on Thursday. “Our country is currently unprepared to handle a surge in migrants in the middle of the pandemic.”

Are migrants more likely to be infected with and carrying SARS-CoV-2 than those living in America? Quite a few migrants get stuck in close quarters during their journey northward. We know some asylum seekers do test positive and are urged to quarantine and socially distance, but then they’re released and free to travel as they please.

Wait, though, there’s more: ICE says this year’s surge is going to make the ones in the Obama years look small by comparison, and your tax dollars will be used to put migrant families in hotels.

Russell Hott, a senior official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, notified staff of the rapid-processing plan in an email Thursday that said arrivals by unaccompanied minors and families this year “are expected to be the highest numbers observed in over 20 years.”

If U.S. border officials continue to take in more than 500 family members per day, the change in use to the family detention centers “may not be sufficient to keep pace with apprehensions,” Hott warned in his email, which was reviewed by The Post.

Individuals who cannot be housed in one of the rapid-processing centers may need to be placed in hotels, Hott wrote. MVM, an ICE contractor, will help transport the families to hotels if there is no longer capacity at the rapid-processing centers, he said, adding that the company plans to use hotels in McAllen, Tex., El Paso and Phoenix.

Some might have believed that the departure of Donald Trump from elected office, and the emergence of other issues such as the pandemic, would make the issues of illegal immigration and border security fade into the background. But situations such as the one developing in our border states make that scenario particularly unlikely.

Andrew Cuomo Tried to Hide 15,000 COVID Deaths in Nursing Homes

Remember how during the Trump years, whenever the president would do something scandalous or outrageous or controversial, Democrats would say, “Can you imagine how Republicans would react if Obama had done this?” About four times out of five, it was a fair complaint. That fifth time, though, Obama had done something similar — put border-crossing kids in cages, tried to make nice with Vladimir Putin, skipped briefings, played golf a lot, etc. — and the speaker had just forgotten about it.

It’s time to start using the phrase, “Can you imagine how Democrats would react if Trump had done this?” or “Remember when Trump did this?” Because Trump did argue that the death toll from coronavirus was overstated, and he did dispute official government statistics that there was no reasonable reason to dispute.

By comparison, Andrew Cuomo and his team merely altered official government statistics on the coronavirus-death toll to hide deaths:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top advisers successfully pushed state health officials to strip a public report of data showing that more nursing-home residents had died of Covid-19 than the administration had acknowledged, according to people with knowledge of the report’s production.

The July report, which examined the factors that led to the spread of the virus in nursing homes, focused only on residents who died inside long-term-care facilities, leaving out those who had died in hospitals after becoming sick in nursing homes. As a result, the report said 6,432 nursing-home residents had died—a significant undercount of the death toll attributed to the state’s most vulnerable population, the people said. The initial version of the report said nearly 10,000 nursing-home residents had died in New York by July last year, one of the people said.

The changes Mr. Cuomo’s aides and health officials made to the nursing-home report, which haven’t been previously disclosed, reveal that the state possessed a fuller accounting of out-of-facility nursing-home deaths as early as the summer. The Health Department resisted calls by state and federal lawmakers, media outlets and others to release the data for another eight months.

State officials now say more than 15,000 residents of nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities were confirmed or presumed to have died from Covid-19 since March of last year—counting both those who died in long-term-care facilities and those who died later in hospitals. That figure is about 50 percent higher than earlier official death tolls.

Then there’s this detail:

The extraordinary intervention, which came just as Mr. Cuomo was starting to write a book on his pandemic achievements, was the earliest act yet known in what critics have called a months-long effort by the governor and his aides to obscure the full scope of nursing home deaths.

Cuomo had invented his own storyline, featuring himself as the heroic governor, and the team running CNN’s prime-time programming was only too happy to cooperate. He and his team couldn’t let the world know just how damaging his decisions on nursing homes had been; his book would be a laughingstock, and he would be seen as delusional.

Cuomo’s American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic, debuted at number seven on the New York Times combined print and e-book nonfiction-bestseller list. (Then again, Cuomo’s book probably should have been measured against other works of fiction, shouldn’t it?)

One other detail of how book publishing, even for a book that generates zero public interest, can be wildly lucrative for certain politicians: “As of Oct. 9 of this year, “All Things Possible” [published in 2014] had sold a total of 3,800 copies total, according to NPD BookScan. Cuomo’s tax records showed he was paid an advance of $783,000 by publisher Harper Collins for that book, which worked out to about $206 per book sold.”

Is Opening Up Everything but Keeping Mask Mandates Not ‘Neanderthal Thinking’?

Hey, remember when President Biden contended Texas and Mississippi were acting like “Neanderthals” for relaxing restrictions and rescinding mask mandates . . . Wednesday?

Does it all just come down to masks? Because the deep-blue state of Connecticut just made almost all of the same changes but kept the state’s mask mandate in place.

Yesterday, Connecticut governor Ned Lamont went almost as far as Texas did — declaring that starting March 19, the state will have no more capacity restrictions for restaurants, retail stores, libraries, gyms and fitness centers, museums and aquariums, offices and workplaces, and houses of worship. Connecticut residents and visitors can now gather in groups of up to 25 indoors, 100 outdoors at private residences, and 100 indoors and 200 outdoors at commercial venues. Starting March 29, preschool classes can have 20 people, up from the current 16. Less than a month from now, Connecticut outdoor amusement parks can open, outdoor event venues can increase to 50 percent capacity, capped at 10,000 people, and indoor stadiums can open at 10 percent capacity.

Will any Democratic officials denounce Connecticut as reckless? Connecticut’s number of active cases declined from 183,000 to 170,000; Texas — a much a bigger and more populous state — saw its active cases decline from 410,000 to 171,000. Where Connecticut can really brag is that their daily test-positivity rate is down to 1.8 percent; Texas’ molecular tests are at 8.29 percent, and the Antigen tests are at 2.67 percent — but both of those rates are down significantly from the beginning of the year.

ADDENDUM: Allahpundit is right: “Of course [people are] going to chance it and reward themselves for their decision to get immunized by enjoying certain activities again. If you tell them that the only activity they can conscientiously engage in is small social gatherings with other immunized people — which is what, it seems, the CDC is poised to do — then you’re begging them to ignore you.”

Health Care

Why Is the CDC Delaying Its Vaccine Guidelines?

A nurse injects a boost dose during a coronavirus community vaccination event in Martinsburg, W.Va., February 25, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: The CDC delays the release of its guidelines for vaccinated Americans, raising tough questions about what’s triggering its hesitation; the evidence that vaccination helps cut down on transmission a lot; and why far too many journalists have impeded a serious discussion about the trade-offs involved in quarantine restrictions. Oh, and the joys of Amazon reader reviews.

Is the CDC Afraid to Tell Americans that Vaccinated People Can Socialize Normally?

What is up with this?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will not be releasing its guidance for vaccinated Americans on Thursday as originally planned, according to two senior administration officials with knowledge of the situation.

After a series of meetings and calls with senior officials on the White House’s Covid-19 task force and the Department of Health and Human Services over the last two days, the CDC was told to “hold off on releasing” the recommendations, one of those sources said. The reason is still unclear but one senior administration official said the guidelines were still being finalized . . .

There is no evidence to suggest that the Biden White House is trying to suppress the CDC guidelines or override the judgement of CDC scientists.

Okay, we’ll take them on their word on that. But does it seem a little ridiculous for the CDC to not have guidelines for vaccinated Americans, eleven weeks into vaccinations? More than 80 million shots have been jabbed into arms, 8 percent of U.S. adults have both shots, and another 8 percent have one shot. We’re finally averaging more than 2 million shots per day. A lot of people out there really want to know how much they can go back to normal, fellas!

The description of the dispute sounds like another case of scientists and health experts seeing good news in the data but being afraid of what the general public will do if it hears good news:

The CDC’s guidelines for vaccinated people, as described to POLITICO earlier this week, were supposed to say that those who had received a full course of vaccine could socialize with other vaccinated people in small groups in the home without masks. But the guidelines said that vaccinated individuals should continue to adhere to mask and social distancing guidance in public.

Is the CDC afraid of how the public will react to the guidelines? You may recall that Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted in December that he had slowly and steadily changed his assessments about herd immunity, based upon what he thought the public could handle hearing.

In the pandemic’s early days, Dr. Fauci tended to cite the same 60 to 70 percent estimate that most experts did. About a month ago, he began saying “70, 75 percent” in television interviews. And last week, in an interview with CNBC News, he said “75, 80, 85 percent” and “75 to 80-plus percent.

In a telephone interview the next day, Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. He is doing so, he said, partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.

Hard as it may be to hear, he said, he believes that it may take close to 90 percent immunity to bring the virus to a halt — almost as much as is needed to stop a measles outbreak.

“When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” Dr. Fauci said. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.

“We need to have some humility here,” he added. “We really don’t know what the real number is. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.”

(Irony alert: Fauci made those comment in an interview with Donald McNeil Jr., who is now considered by the New York Times newsroom to be the most dangerous man in the world and one of history’s greatest monsters.)

This came after public-health experts initially insisted masks didn’t work because they didn’t want to see a rush on masks. It is really hard to tell people to “trust the science” when the top scientists admit their public statements aren’t fully honest because they don’t think the public can handle the whole truth, or they think people will behave recklessly if they hear news that is too bad or too good.

The publicly available data we have suggest that the vaccines not only make you unlikely to need hospitalization or to succumb to the virus, but also makes you much less likely to transmit it others.

The American Association of Medical Colleges recently spotlighted the assessment of Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine and associate division chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco:

First, when the vaccines were studied in macaque monkeys (during preclinical testing), they did eliminate asymptomatic infection — researchers swabbed the vaccinated macaques’ noses and found little or no virus. Second, the types of antibodies that are stimulated by most systemic vaccines (IgG and IgA) do tend to block viral infection in the nose (and no viral load in the nose most likely translates to no transmission). Finally, when monoclonal antibodies are given to COVID-19 patients, those antibodies reduce the viral load throughout the respiratory tract, including the nose.

The most convincing evidence, though, is just starting to emerge among real-world data. In Israel, where more than 90% of those age 60 and over have been vaccinated, “cases have plummeted in this population,” Gandhi notes. “Not just hospitalizations, which we expected, but cases [asymptomatic infection] as well.” Moreover, data from vaccinated health care workers recently published in the Lancet and preprint servers show reduced rates of asymptomatic infection and low viral loads in the nose when swabbing after vaccination.

“I think that in a few months, we are going to be able to say with certainty that these vaccines not only protect you, they also protect those around you,” Ranney says.

The link above goes to a study published in The Lancet examining the results of vaccination efforts at Sheba Medical Centre, Israel’s largest hospital. A separate Israeli study of vaccinations run by Maccabi Healthcare Services concluded, “the viral load is reduced 4-fold for infections occurring 12-28 days after the first dose of vaccine. These reduced viral loads hint to lower infectiousness, further contributing to vaccine impact on virus spread.”

Now, notice that these studies aren’t saying that the vaccinated have no viral load, no infectiousness, and no risk of getting infected asymptomatically and inadvertently spreading the virus to others.

But as far as vaccines go, we’ve won the lottery. Our society can function easily, and with minimal or no restrictions, if SARS-CoV-2 no longer gets severe enough to require hospitalization, can’t kill you, and spreads at just a quarter of the rate that it currently does. (We should probably keep that frequent hand-washing habit and ubiquitous hand-sanitizer stations.)

This suggests that we can largely go back to “normal life” once we’re fully vaccinated. “Fully vaccinated” is considered two weeks after the second Pfizer and Moderna shots. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine builds up your system’s ability to fight off the virus gradually — with some effectiveness after two weeks and close to full effectiveness after a month.

There is one compelling and one not-so-compelling argument against telling Americans (and the world) that they can go back to normal once they’re fully vaccinated. First, we want to avoid becoming a two-tiered society where the fully vaccinated can enjoy rights and privileges that those still waiting for vaccination cannot. You can imagine what would happen if authorities announced that church services, hockey and basketball games, or concerts could be enjoyed unmasked by the vaccinated but not the vaccinated. We don’t want store employees, ushers, cops, or anyone else demanding to see people’s vaccination cards. Under this thinking, businesses and localities should require masks for the vaccinated in public for a brief period in the name of social equality. But this approach will only make sense while there is a shortage of vaccines. The moment there’s enough for everyone and those who are unvaccinated are unvaccinated by choice, the masks are coming off and you’re on your own, anti-vaxxers.

The not-so-compelling argument is that a lot of pandemic restrictions have turned into a partisan football, and the CDC doesn’t want to offer any assessment that might contradict President Biden’s assertion that Texas and Mississippi’s decision to end mask mandates this week represents “Neanderthal thinking.”

Every restriction enacted since the start of the pandemic represents a sacrifice with real consequences. That’s somebody’s job you’re eliminating, somebody’s business you’re pushing to bankruptcy, somebody’s much-needed human contact you’re denying them, somebody’s education you’re setting back significantly. Quarantine restrictions that made sense in March 2020 will not necessarily be justifiable in March 2021. And we’ve seen so many examples of elected officials breaking their own restrictions, that it’s clear some of the people enacting these rules haven’t really thought through how they’ve impeded and harmed the lives of those living under them — or maybe they just don’t care.

Every one of these restrictions represents a trade-off between a public-health benefit and an economic, social, psychological, and in some cases, public-health cost. It would be nice to have a grown-up conversation about these trade-offs, instead of having our national discussion dominated by axe-grinding journalists characterizing every decision taken by a Republican governor as “an experiment in human sacrifice.” (Ten months after that infamous headline, Georgia ranks sixth in total cases, eighth in total deaths, 19th in cases per million residents, and 20th in deaths per million residents.)

Maybe Texas’s recent mask decision will be come to be widely seen as inexplicably reckless. But as I noted yesterday, the Lone Star State has gone a long way toward vaccinating the most vulnerable — so at minimum, we shouldn’t see a surge of deaths in the coming weeks. (And Texas is right in the middle of the pack in cases and deaths per million residents, ranking 24th in both.)

But few things in this pandemic have been easily predictable. That assessment could turn out to be wrong.

Yesterday, according to Worldometers, Texas had 7,620 new cases and 266 new deaths — down from more than 20,000 new cases per day and more than 400 new deaths per day in January. Let’s check back in two weeks and a month and see what those numbers are.

ADDENDUM: I’m never quite sure how to respond to a book review such as this one: “I bought this book without expecting it to be very good but really enjoyed it.” Uh . . . thanks? Maybe it’s safe to raise your expectations of me now?

Meanwhile, another reader panned Hunting Four Horsemen, concluding, “When the two main characters change due to emotional impact from, not the actually contracting of the COVID . . . you lost me.

Uh . . . he read far enough to learn about the two major supporting characters who died from the virus in between books, right? One protagonist’s brother having lingering health issues, the isolated elderly parents, the old neighborhoods that have permanently changed? None of that seems like it could leave lingering emotional and psychological issues in the characters?


A Chinese Court Ruling Tests American Wokeness

A Chinese student who lodged a suit over school textbooks describing homosexuality as a mental disorder shows a textbook she refers to before going to the court in Beijing, China September 12, 2016. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

On the menu today: A Chinese court upholds a ruling permitting a textbook description of homosexuality as “a psychological disorder,” which will probably demonstrate that American wokeness ends at the water’s edge; Neera Tanden’s nomination is kaput, quietly spotlighting that the Biden administration doesn’t know how to court a Republican senator — or just doesn’t want to; and Texas ends its pandemic restrictions.

We’re about to See a Clear Lesson of Chinese Power in American Culture

This particular news development is going to greatly illuminate who holds the real power in American culture:

A Chinese court has upheld a ruling that a textbook description of homosexuality as “a psychological disorder” was not a factual error but merely an “academic view”.

The Chinese LGBT community, and the 24-year-old woman who filed the lawsuit, have expressed disappointment at the decision, handed down last week by the Suqian Intermediate People’s Court in the eastern province of Jiangsu.

. . . The 2013 edition of Mental Health Education for College Students, published by Jinan University Press, listed homosexuality under “common psychosexual disorders” — along with cross-dressing and fetishism. It stated that homosexuality “was believed to be a disruption of love and sex or perversion of the sex partner”.

The textbook is used by a number of Chinese universities and Xixi was concerned that it was perpetuating the belief that being gay was wrong.

Late last year, the Suyu District People’s Court in Suqian ruled in favour of the publishing house, saying that the opposing views of Xixi and the publisher were due to differences in opinion rather than a factual error.

In November, Xixi, now a social worker in Hong Kong, appealed against the ruling, but it wasn’t enough to sway the appeal court, which last week handed down its decision to uphold the previous judgment.

Your move, Disney. And you too, National Basketball Association. Nike. Apple. All kinds of big American and multinational corporations take pride in their equal treatment of gay and lesbian employees. They would never accept a subsidiary, partner, or perhaps even customers who contended that homosexuality was a “common psychosexual disorder” or who labeled gay and lesbian relationships as a “perversion of the sex partner.” They would never meekly acquiesce if the American legal system determined that homosexual relationships were a potential problem of mental health.

Surely, these companies and celebrities and political leaders will speak up about this ruling from the Chinese judiciary system, right? Surely, the equal treatment and acceptance of gays and lesbians is not a value that these companies and leaders are willing to negotiate or compromise upon, just to maintain access to a foreign export market, right? Surely, the Biden administration will be registering its displeasure with this ruling in a public manner, right?

We certainly wouldn’t see America’s political, legal, and cultural elites just avert their eyes from this news, because they don’t want to get into an uncomfortable disagreement with a prickly authoritarian regime that can influence their profits for decades to come.

We’ve seen Americans get righteously upset about the treatment of gays and lesbians in other countries. Even Republicans who aren’t always outspoken or consistent supporters of gay rights find state-sponsored abuse of gays and lesbians abhorrent; back in 2019, the Trump administration launched a global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of nations where it’s still illegal to be gay. Even those who hold a Biblically based perspective that homosexuality is morally wrong can see the dangers of authoritarian police states turning relationships into criminal acts.

In China, homosexuality was legalized in 1997. But while the Chinese government no longer criminalizes homosexuality, it isn’t really willing to stand up for them against traditionalist-minded citizens, either. Back in 2013, only 21 percent of Chinese respondents to a Pew poll agreed that “society should accept homosexuality.” (In 2020, 72 percent of Americans felt the same.)

To the extent that we see any American leaders addressing this Chinese court decision, I suspect they will echo former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has lamented that trying to change deeply held values in a society such as China’s is just too difficult, and a distraction from the proper role and purpose of the country:

In countries outside the United States where Starbucks does business, I do not believe the company is in a position to proactively effect social and political change to the degree we might in the United States, where being an American company gives us the theoretical license to try. We do not have such expansive license in other countries. We can, however, exercise our values by how we conduct business, and share those values with leaders in other lands to show you can be profitable and morally centered at the same time.

In the United States, Starbucks sees itself as a powerful positive force for change on a wide variety of issues, even at the risk of seeming controversial or divisive or alienating a portion of its customers. But over in China, it’s just a coffee company.

Wait, Wasn’t Working across the Aisle with Senators Supposed to Be Biden’s Strength?

Neera Tanden’s nomination to run the Office of Management and Budget is kaput.

Way back on November 30, I wrote that:

If Biden had wanted to make Tanden a White House staffer — in a job that doesn’t require Senate confirmation — he could easily have done that. But he didn’t. She’s a glaringly terrible pick from a team that [at that point] hasn’t had any other glaringly terrible picks. In fact, she’s so bad . . . you have to wonder if she really could be the designated “sacrifice to the nomination gods,” as Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff joked.

The Tanden nomination always seemed to be a ham-handed way of making sure that what is left of the Hillary Clinton wing of the party — which isn’t much anymore — would stay happy with a Biden presidency.

I also wrote yesterday, “when the complete history of the Biden administration is written, the nomination of Neera Tanden to be director of the Office of Management and Budget will be a minor detail. If her nomination fails, the White House will just find a like-minded nominee who doesn’t have Tanden’s personal HR issues.

But there is another dynamic at work here, which is that if you’re the Biden administration, and getting your agenda passed would be much easier with the support of Alaska Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, you can only antagonize her on policy for so long before you lose her as a potential ally. Since taking office, Biden has barred all drilling in the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and suspended oil and gas leasing across millions of acres of federal lands and waters in the state. Murkowski contends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in a “bad faith permitting process” with an Alaska Native Village Corporation that wanted to conduct a seismic survey on its own land. Alaska’s Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, claimed that he wanted to work with Biden on renewable-energy projects, but the administration wouldn’t listen. Experts on Alaska’s economy point out that the state can’t generate new-energy jobs fast enough to replace the old-energy jobs that the new federal regulations will destroy. And Murkowski was one of those ten Republican senators who offered a smaller, bipartisan COVID-relief package which the Biden administration rejected.

Biden can please environmentalists, or he can get support from Murkowski when he needs it. But he can’t have both.

Vaccinations Are Going Well, Texas — Now Don’t Get Cocky

Some folks I respect a great deal reacted with horror to the news that the state of Texas is fully reopening from its coronavirus-pandemic restrictions.

If I lived in Texas and were unvaccinated, I wouldn’t want to go back to full pre-pandemic life habits quite yet. If you can avoid getting this virus before you’re vaccinated, you’ll want to take that option. But we probably shouldn’t see a surge in ICU patients or deaths in the Lone Star State in the coming weeks, because vast swaths of the most vulnerable are, by and large, already vaccinated. In the 581 skilled-nursing facilities that partnered with CVS for vaccinations, 100 percent of both doses have been administered. In the 1,431 assisted-living and long-term-care facilities that partnered with CVS, 100 percent of the first dose and 76 percent of the second dose are already in arms. For Walgreens, it’s a similar story: Of the 484 skilled-nursing facilities that partnered with Walgreens, 100 percent of both doses have been administered. In the 1,431 assisted-living and long-term-care facilities that partnered with CVS, 100 percent of the first dose and 89 percent of the second dose are in arms.

And remember, one shot of Pfizer has more than half the effectiveness of the two-dose regime.

Overall in Texas, almost 6 million doses have been administered, 13 percent of the population has received at least one shot, and 6.8 percent has received both shots. We may see an increase in cases in the coming weeks, which is not good. But if those cases are among younger and healthier Texans, the consequences in terms of hospitalizations and deaths should be much less severe than in earlier waves.

ADDENDUM: On The Editors podcast yesterday, we discussed the allegations being leveled at Governor Cuomo, Trump’s CPAC speech, and the uproar over some of Dr. Seuss’s books.

White House

Forty Days of Biden: Not so Centrist, Not so Competent

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., February 27, 2021. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

On the menu today: We’re past the 40-day mark of the Biden presidency, and already some things are clear. First, as many of us warned, Biden really isn’t much of a “centrist,” despite what much of the media claimed throughout 2019 and 2020. Second, he and his team are not exactly the wise, experienced, old Washington hands that they like to think of themselves as — remember that passing a COVID-relief bill was supposed to be the easy part of their agenda. Finally, Biden isn’t exactly moving with great speed to fill up the lower ranks of the executive branch.

Team Biden: Farther to the Left, and Less Competent, Than Promised

Six weeks into the Biden administration, the bad news is that Joe Biden and his team are way farther to the left than the candidate promised on the campaign trail in 2020. But this is somewhat offset by the fact that he and his team are much less competent than promised.

Let’s just quickly review impeachment, which ended two weeks ago and already feels as if it’s ancient history. The Biden team didn’t really want the Senate to take the time to deal with a doomed effort, but also didn’t want to take the heat that publicly discouraging the Senate from holding a trial would bring. The trial went forward, it didn’t eat up a ton of the Senate’s time, and in the end, not much changed; Trump got his “acquitted again” headline. Maybe holding the Senate trial exacerbated the infighting in the GOP a bit, but a lot of that infighting was baked in the cake already.

Biden’s impending signature legislative accomplishment — a massive COVID-relief package — is likely to come to fruition, but in a way that leaves few factions all that satisfied. Ten Senate Republicans came to Biden with a smaller bill that would have gotten significant bipartisan support, but the president and his team turned them down. It’s now doubtful that the bill that ultimately passes will get any Republican support in either chamber. The relief bill will need to be passed through reconciliation, requiring just 50 votes. But raising the minimum wage nationally to $15 per hour can’t be included in a budget bill passed through reconciliation, and the final version is likely to include other compromises as well. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin is pushing to reduce the $350 billion in aid to state and local governments — and as we’ve seen, in a 50–50 Senate, what Manchin wants, Manchin usually gets.

Twelve years ago, the newly elected President Obama signed his stimulus into law on February 17, 2009. We haven’t even gotten to the conference committee for differing House and Senate versions of the COVID-relief bill yet, although Democrats seem confident they can get a bill to Biden’s desk by March 14, when certain jobless benefits expire.

But keep in mind, this relief bill was supposed to be the easy and bipartisan part of the Biden agenda. On paper, everybody in Congress wants to do something to help the economy, and almost everybody on Capitol Hill likes spending money. If it’s proving slow and difficult to pass even a watered-down version of Democrats’ original vision for this package, just imagine what, say, immigration reform will look like.

Biden’s senior adviser, Cedric Richmond, says the White House is “going to start acting now” on reparations. A White House that can’t build a working consensus on spending money when Democrats narrowly control both houses of Congress is not going to build a consensus for much more sweeping and controversial proposals.

On foreign policy, Biden proudly announced that “America is back!” but what that means in practice is that our president doesn’t tweet angrily about allied leaders anymore.

Biden’s attempt to finesse Saudi policy, backtracking on his campaign promises, is landing with a thud. He wanted to restart the Iran deal, but the Iranians are, for now, rejecting it. A recent headline from the European edition of Politico reads: “Europe gives Biden a one-finger salute,” pointing to the EU’s expansion of investment in China and its decision to move full speed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, as well as the soft-to-nonexistent European response to the Kremlin’s arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

Allied leaders might be glad that Biden isn’t Trump, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily more likely to cooperate with this administration.

When the complete history of the Biden administration is written, the nomination of Neera Tanden to be director of the Office of Management and Budget will be a minor detail. If her nomination fails, the White House will just find a like-minded nominee who doesn’t have Tanden’s personal HR issues. And the Senate’s confirmation of Biden’s cabinet is moving slowly but largely smoothly, with eleven of 23 cabinet officials confirmed so far.

But a fairer question, more than 40 days into Biden’s administration, is whether Biden and his team are moving fast enough to fill out all of those lesser-known administration positions. For example, Biden hasn’t nominated a director of the Food and Drug Administration yet, which seems a little odd, considering how central the FDA is to the approval of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 right now and in the coming year.

There are about 1,250 positions in the executive branch that require Senate confirmation; Biden has picked 58 nominees so far. Almost no positions below secretary have been filled in any department or agency. There are a few holdovers from the Trump administration here and there.

Donald Trump was astonishingly lax when it came to staffing the executive branch; in September 2020, nearly four years into his presidency, the White House had not nominated anyone to 135 of 757 key positions requiring Senate confirmation. Yes, Biden has been in office for six weeks, but he won the election four months ago. And we know the Senate-confirmation process doesn’t move quickly, so if Biden wants his own people in there, he needs to formally submit their nominations to the Senate sooner rather than later.

Yes, you can argue that Biden will be more comfortable with the acting directors and career bureaucrats than Trump was, to which I’d reply that presidents should and do tend to prefer to have their own guys in there, enacting their vision. Then again, maybe there isn’t much to the Biden vision beyond a reversion to the Obama-era status quo.

Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas claims he’s trying to deal with the “dismantlement of the system and the time that it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration hasn’t yet nominated anyone to be Mayorkas’ deputy secretary, nor named a nominee for director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This pandemic-centered administration hasn’t named anyone to be the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of health affairs or the Department of Veterans Affairs’ undersecretary for health. It has named nominees for just four of the top 18 spots in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Biden has not yet nominated a solicitor general, a director of the Census Bureau (at a time when the pandemic has delayed the bureau’s work), a director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a director of the National Counterterrorism Center, an NASA Administrator, a DEA administrator, an ATF director, a U.S. Marshals director, a director of White House Office of Drug Control Policy, a director of the National Park Service, a director of the Bureau of Land Management, a chairman of the International Trade Commission, a president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank, a chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, an administrator at the General Services Administration, a U.S. executive director of the International Monetary Fund, a director of the Peace Corps, or chairs of the National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biden has not nominated a director of the Office of Government Ethics; please save all your jokes to the end.

The Biden administration hasn’t nominated anyone to be an ambassador to another country yet. In most cases, that’s fine, and the U.S. can function adequately with Trump holdovers or deputy chiefs of mission. But certain roles — such as the ambassadors to China and Russia — do carry some pretty important foreign-policy duties. Biden’s got to make some big choices on Afghanistan soon, but he doesn’t even have a named nominee to fill that ambassadorial post yet.

There are vacancies on the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Farm Credit Administration, the National Mediation Board, and the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

All of these unfilled vacancies aren’t a crisis, but it is already March. Nominating somebody is the part of the confirmation process that the White House controls; you can’t blame the Senate for moving slowly on a nominee that isn’t named.

Then again, maybe Joe Biden looks out the window of the White House every morning and feels pretty good. Lots of people thought he would never get here. The vaccination effort appears to be on pace again. He can get a lot of credit for just releasing a two-minute video that supports the unionization of workers at Amazon without actually saying the name of the company.

When a presidential candidate defines his mission in vague, intangible terms such as fighting “a battle for the soul of America,” it frees him from the burden of achieving specific, tangible goals such as passing certain legislation or achieving certain diplomatic breakthroughs. Throughout 2020, I wrote that Biden was running on the not-so-unspoken pledge to simply not be Donald Trump. Well, mission accomplished.

ADDENDUM: You know Andrew Cuomo’s Democratic rivals smell blood in the water when Bill de Blasio is going after the governor like he’s a groundhog.

Editor’s note: This piece originally stated that the COVID-relief bill contains $350 million in aid to state governments; it contains $350 billion. 

Politics & Policy

The ‘Right People’ in Government Won’t Save Us

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo arrives to a vaccination site in Brooklyn, N.Y., February 22, 2021. (Seth Wenig/Reuters)

On the menu today: As Andrew Cuomo admits to “unwanted flirtation” and various media institutions begin to realize that Cuomo’s record on the pandemic isn’t as great as the hype suggested — and that the story in most European countries is the same — Ross Douthat contends that this reflects the media yearning for a heroic figure who “Got the Pandemic Right.” I would point out that it reflects a separate, broader belief: that when a crisis hits, the “right people” in government will save us. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that state policy decisions really altered the outcomes of the pandemic as much as everyone hoped.

The Need to Believe in Government

Ross Douthat’s whole Sunday column is good, but I feel like there’s still a little meat left on the bone in the final paragraphs:

. . . the press was not wrong to desire heroic leaders or institutions that Got the Pandemic Right. The attempt to wish those leaders and institutions into being is a media failure, but the fact that the media looked for them is not.

Our society’s sickness may be particularly acute in Trump worship, but the affliction is more general. The stink of failure hangs over the liberal and cosmopolitan as well the populist and provincial, the “Cuomosexual” parts of the media as well the conservative. And as we hopefully approach the end of this particular emergency, it’s not only Trump’s enablers but a much wider range of leaders and authorities who should feel shame at the stark and shocking number of the dead.

Why did the media feel such an intense need to find and celebrate “heroic leaders or institutions that Got the Pandemic Right”?

Was it just because they hated Trump and needed a contrast for Goofus-and-Gallant stories of good and wise Democratic leaders and bad and reckless Republican leaders? Was it that from the beginning, they envisioned a tale of Trump bumbling his way through the pandemic, followed by a Democratic president who swooped in and fixed it?

Or did the glowing coverage of Cuomo (and Gretchen Whitmer, and Phil Murphy, and Gavin Newsom) demonstrate that a lot of people need to believe that the right leaders in government can fix giant and unexpected problems such as a novel virus that triggered a global pandemic? That they’re so unnerved by the unknown that they gravitate to a voice that sounds certain and confident, even if that voice is as flawed and befuddled as the rest of us?

The moment people realized they were dealing with something new and frightening in the pandemic in early 2020, they hungered for leadership. Some people turned to Anthony Fauci with a reverence sometimes bordering on religious. Those who were convinced that it couldn’t be that bad, and that everyone was overhyping the threat, turned to the likes of Alex Berenson. Everybody wanted to find their expert who really understood everything that was going on and knew what to do and had all the answers.

Over the past year, I’ve been pretty darn critical of elected leaders at a bunch of levels — former President Trump, Bill de Blasio, Cuomo, Whitmer, and all the idiot governors and mayors who broke their own quarantine rules. I’ve pointed out that the media don’t just overpraise Democratic governors; they overpraise the wrong ones. There is a lot to criticize in the federal-, state-, and local-government responses to the pandemic.

But a lot of evidence also suggests that a nation’s or state’s success in preventing coronavirus deaths had a lot to do with geography, population density, poverty, mass-transit usage, preexisting health problems, and other factors that government really can’t control. Policy choices probably have some effect, but most likely less effect than impassioned supporters and critics think. If sweeping lockdowns worked as well as their supporters believed, shouldn’t California be doing much better at preventing cases and deaths? By one measure, the state with the fewest COVID-19 restrictions was Oklahoma. The state ranks eighth in the country in cases per million residents and 36th in the country in deaths per million residents. That same study ranked California the most heavily restricted state in the country; the Golden State is ranked 26th in the country in cases per million residents and 30th in deaths per million residents.

A few weeks ago, The Economist pointed out that despite dramatically different policies, California and Texas are generating similar results:

Despite their contrasting approaches, the results have not been as different as expected. Texas has a higher death rate per person — only Arizona and South Carolina have fared worse, according to the CDC. But the gap is not as great as you might expect: Texas has had 127 deaths per 100,000 compared with 104 per 100,000 in California. “People in California are frustrated because they feel like they are experiencing the worst of both worlds,” says Ken Miller of Claremont McKenna college and author of the book “Texas vs California”. They have endured never-ending lockdowns, and yet deaths are currently higher than ever. Meanwhile, in Texas, the economic benefits of a more libertarian approach are hard to discern. The unemployment rate in both states is higher than the national average.

(The Economist is being a little cute with the numbers there. The most recent national unemployment rate is 6.3 percent, the most recent Texas unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, and the most recent California unemployment rate is 9 percent — and it increased nine-tenths of one percentage point in December. Texas’s unemployment rate is closer to the national average than California’s rate is to Texas’s rate.)

If you really want to terrify a political junkie or health-policy wonk, tell them that all of the policy decisions they’ve been arguing about for the past year didn’t matter that much, and government-imposed quarantine restrictions only had a modest effect on the pandemic’s outcomes.

By the time most policymakers got their heads around what the country was facing, the virus had already spread pretty far and wide. I went back and checked; one year ago Saturday, Japan announced it was closing schools for a month, Hong Kong closed schools for two months, and Saudi Arabia halted travel to Mecca. No government makes decisions like that unless it’s convinced it is facing an epic crisis with few precedents.

Looking back, the denial and naïveté in the U.S. in January and February 2020 were tragically laughable — exacerbated by a president who kept insisting “We have it totally under control” and by a national media eager to argue that the flu was more dangerous, and who also worried that the “Wuhan flu” was xenophobia. The biggest public-health threat in a century was bearing down on us, and plenty of big names on both sides of the aisle were eager to play the role of the mayor of Amity Island.

By January 16, 2020, COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Thailand and Japan, the virus was spreading from any number of the numerous flights out of Wuhan, and the limited window to stop a worldwide pandemic had closed. Direct flights from Wuhan to the United States did not stop until January 23. From December until the ban on incoming flights from Wuhan, 27 of those direct flights went to San Francisco and 23 to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

If you look at the countries with the fewest deaths per million citizens — or at least those among them whose publicly disclosed figures are reasonably trustworthy — it becomes clear that the best way to protect against the virus is to be an island and to greatly restrict who can enter your country. Taiwan has four-tenths of one for every million people. Fiji has two. New Zealand has five. (China would have us believe they have just three deaths for every million people.)

As of this writing, the U.S. ranks tenth worst in the world with 1,579 deaths per million people, behind Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, the United Kingdom, and a few others. (It is worth noting that places that had a bad outbreak and have a tiny population, such as Gibraltar and San Marino, can end up topping the list by this measurement.)

The quarantine methods that worked for small island nations just wouldn’t work for the United States, which has two relatively open borders, many port cities with huge amounts of international trade and shipping, and lots of international air travel — to say nothing of a population that is used to moving freely and enormous amounts of goods that need to be shipped around the country.

Once the pandemic hit, the way to keep your population safest was to keep them at home, and not coming within six feet of any other people, indefinitely. If we were all programmable and obedient robots, that plan would have worked. But we’re human beings who need to connect with others — socially, emotionally, economically. The best answer for human beings was probably to figure out how to interact and connect in ways that minimized the risk of transmission — wear masks, be outdoors, make sure there’s lots of air circulation. But that’s a messy, imprecise, imperfect answer, and our culture can’t handle nuance anymore.

When people are facing something that frightens them, they want a leader, and they may not-so-secretly want a savior figure. Think of all of those prayer candles featuring political figures. A lot of politicians sell themselves to the public as savior figures anyway. (“I alone can fix it.”)

Life throws a lot of problems at us that we have no real control over — earthquakes, hurricanes, heat waves, viruses — and those are the natural disasters; we’re not even getting into manmade disasters such as terrorist attacks, wars, waves of refugees, hackers, the violence of transnational criminal organizations, human trafficking, etc. We establish government to protect our rights and to give us some tools for collective action against problems too big for any one person to fix. You might be a genius or fabulously wealthy or immensely talented, but when a hurricane levels your community, you’re going to need some help from FEMA and the National Guard and the Red Cross.

But there are significant limits to the effectiveness of government, at all levels. And while government can often mitigate the damage of those terrible events in some ways, it can rarely prevent them. We still live in a fallen world, and every once in a while, something terrible is going to come our way — and all of our expertise, all of our riches, all of our tools and technology will not be able to insulate us from hardship and pain.

Particularly for people who think about (and write about) politics a lot, there is an intense belief that every disaster that befalls us must be, on some level, a policy failure. We can improve our construction codes, but an intense enough earthquake or hurricane or flood is still going to do a lot of damage. We can try to avoid war, but sometimes somebody’s going to fly airplanes into our skyscrapers and start one with us. We can be the country best prepared for a pandemic — but if a new virus is contagious enough and gets into our population undetected, we’re going to be playing catch-up until a sufficient number of people are vaccinated.

A lot of people act as if they believe, “If we just elect the right people, then bad things won’t happen in our lives.” And if bad things are happening in our lives, it must be because we elected the wrong people. The other party doesn’t just disagree with us on the right ideas; it prevents the utopia that our guys could easily enact if its guys would just get out of the way.

The Biden administration had a vision of a smooth rollout of rapidly expanding vaccinations, and then a really bad gust of winter weather over most of the country loused that up. (The good news is the last three days have been terrific, with more than 2 million people vaccinated each day.) The old saying, “no plan survives contact with the enemy” applies to all government plans, as well.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it Friday, a bit of optimism from me, allegedly a notorious doomsayer regarding the pandemic: Slowly, bit by bit, normal life is returning.

(With 525,000 Americans dead from this pandemic, am I still a doomsayer? Are any of those guys who said “herd immunity is just around the corner” all summer and autumn long lining up to offer public apologies yet?)


Biden (Kinda) Punishes the Saudi Regime

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, January 5, 2021. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: Joe Biden rebukes the Saudi regime, but it’s a much gentler pushback than he promised on the campaign trail more than a year ago; the Senate parliamentarian tosses out the $15 per hour federal minimum wage from the relief bill; congressional Democrats start complaining about unelected officials making rules; and a long, long-delayed return of the pop-culture podcast.

Joe Biden Sort of, Kind of Punishes the Saudi Prince

Every problem facing the American government looks easier from the perspective of the presidential campaign trail. Recent history is full of presidential candidates who pledged bold foreign-policy moves, and then once they stepped into the Oval Office and received the full briefings on the likely consequences of their actions, either quietly walked away from their promises or watered them down considerably.

Bill Clinton pledged to get tough on China over human rights, both Clinton and George W. Bush kept promising to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and Barack Obama pledged to recognize the Armenian Genocide — even if it antagonized the Turks. Donald Trump promised to end the “forever wars,” and he came pretty close — the U.S. was down to about 5,900 troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria by the end of his presidency — but it turns out complete withdrawals can have bad consequences for American interests. Hey, who knew, right?

In the November 2019 Democratic presidential-primary debate, Joe Biden made it sound as if it was time to completely upend the existing U.S.-Saudi relationship:

Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There’s very little social redeeming value of the — in the present government in Saudi Arabia.

And I would also, as pointed out, I would end — end subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children, and they’re murdering innocent people. And so, they have to be held accountable.

Back in 2018, I wrote in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death that the U.S needed a carefully calibrated response — tough enough that it couldn’t be ignored, not so tough that it would end this alliance of convenience: “We don’t want to blow up the whole relationship; we just need to send a signal that they’ve done something unacceptable, that they need to make restitution and need to resist the temptation to take similar actions in the future.” Keep in mind that at the time, Lindsey Graham was appearing on Fox & Friends contending that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “has got to go,” which seemed like a particularly unrealistic demand. There was also the complicating factor that Khashoggi’s secret ties to the Qatari government made him not quite the crusading, independent journalist that the Washington Post editorial page painted him as. (This doesn’t mean it was okay to murder and dismember him, obviously.)

So far, the Biden administration is ending U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia related to their offensive military operations in Yemen, but not all arms sales, as Biden pledged in that debate. “At the same time Thursday, Biden also reaffirmed that the United States was committed to cooperating in the kingdom’s defense.” And in his recent phone call with the Saudi King, Biden “told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible. The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest.”

Sometime soon, the Biden administration will acknowledge what has become more or less an open secret: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of Khashoggi.

A U.S. intelligence report expected to be declassified as soon as Friday implicates Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in approving the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a person familiar with the findings.

The report builds on classified intelligence from the CIA and other agencies after Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report hasn’t yet been released. It wasn’t immediately clear how much detail the declassified version of the report will provide on Prince Mohammed’s role.

Prince Mohammed has denied any involvement in the killing, while saying he accepts symbolic responsibility as the country’s de facto ruler. Saudi officials have said the murder was carried out by rogue agents who have since been prosecuted.

The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt sees this as the Biden administration doing enough:

The administration appears likely to thread a needle on that question — publicly blaming MBS, as he’s known, but leaving intact the basic U.S. relationship with him and the kingdom he controls. The goal seems to be to recalibrate the relationship without rupturing it. It’s an understandable, pragmatic goal, but it won’t leave anyone happy, on either side.

Separately, the Washington, D.C. City Council may rename the street in front of the Saudi Embassy, on New Hampshire Avenue between Virginia Avenue and F Street in Northwest, as “Jamal Khashoggi Way.”

Still, I can’t help but be frustrated at the wildly oversimplistic and unrealistic way that foreign policy gets discussed in our political debates, particularly presidential debates, and particularly Democratic presidential debates — when it gets discussed at all. During that Democratic debate in November 2019, the candidates competed to see who could sound toughest on Saudi Arabia, as if we had developed this complicated relationship with that regime over 70 years by accident. That evening, Bernie Sanders argued, “We have got to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room under American leadership and say we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts.” Yeah, Bernie, that will straighten it all out. These guys have been fighting a bloody proxy war all over the region over sectarian religious differences, lust for power and regional dominance, and fear of the ruthlessness of the opposition. It’s not two neighbors squabbling over a maple-syrup-orchard boundary.

Maybe Americans have unrealistic expectations about what U.S. foreign policy can achieve, but it’s hard to blame them when so few of their aspiring leaders are willing to contradict those expectations. Presidents keep having to backtrack on their foreign-policy promises because they either didn’t do their homework and understand the consequences of those promises, or they did know them and chose to ignore them during the campaign.

Three Cheers for the Senate Parliamentarian

POOF! Just like that, the Senate parliamentarian makes the $15 per hour federal minimum wage disappear from the COVID-relief bill, concluding that it is not sufficiently connected to the federal budget to be included in a bill that is expected to pass through reconciliation.

But Democrats in both chambers acknowledge that the policy will be stripped out in the final version of the bill — a setback for the left wing of the party, which has pushed for the policy for a decade.

“We are deeply disappointed in this decision,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families. The American people deserve it, and we are committed to making it a reality.”

Biden, who had proposed the wage hike as a key plank of his $1.9 trillion package, said through a spokeswoman that he was also “disappointed in this outcome,” but added that he “respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that our Robert VerBruggen can still find an awful lot of unrelated or unneeded spending in this so-called “COVID-relief bill.” What’s the point of sending schools $130 billion if only 10 percent could be spent this school year?

By the way, take a moment to salute Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough for having the courage to tell progressives they can’t get what they want, and that they can’t just ignore the rules about reconciliation procedure. In a development that will spur many readers to sigh “Oh, brother,” Representative Ilhan Omar is already calling for McDonough to be replaced.

Elsewhere, Representative Ro Khanna writes, “an unelected parliamentarian does not get to deprive 32 million Americans the raise they deserve. This is an advisory, not a ruling. VP Harris needs to disregard and rule a $15 minimum wage in order.”

Wait, I’m pretty sure last month we were all in agreement that we really, really, really didn’t want the vice president ignoring the assessment of other government officials on a matter of law and precedent and just deciding, unilaterally and willy-nilly, to institute the result that she wants.

But I’m glad to see Democrats finally denouncing sweeping rules issued by unelected officials. Buddy, if you’re annoyed about an unelected Senate parliamentarian making a sweeping decision, let me tell you about the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Food and Drug Administration . . .

ADDENDUM: Yes, Mickey and I still record the pop-culture podcast, but it’s been a while — until now! In the latest episode we discuss Disney Plus’s WandaVision, Flora and Ulysses, Gina Carano, cancel culture, The Mandalorian, whether the NFL even has an offseason anymore, Netflix’s The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, and more.

Politics & Policy

CPAC Promises to Turn Into a Trump Rally

Trump-branded hats for sale at the Conservative Political Action Conference annual meeting at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., February 27, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

On the menu today: CPAC returns and promises to be a multi-day Trump rally, looking back at how much spectacularly bad health advice that experts inside and outside government were giving Americans one year ago, and the Chinese government finds a new way to be a pain in American diplomats’ rears.

Is It Time to Rename CPAC ‘TrumpPAC’?

The Conservative Political Action Conference moved to Florida this year because the usual site, the Gaylord Resort in National Harbor, Md., has too many coronavirus restrictions. (You may recall that someone with COVID-19 attended last year’s gathering and spent time with several congressmen.) We’ve already had the now-almost-traditional cancellation of a scheduled speaker because of hideous previous statements. (Boy, who could have figured that a guy calling himself “Young Pharaoh” would hate Jews? That guy better watch himself; we’ve still got nine more plagues to go.) Our Tobias Hoonhout previews the event here.

The event will probably feel like a multi-day Trump rally, although you’re starting to see some grumbling that corporate sponsors can help shape the programming. (Then again, how many big events and conferences feature a speaker criticizing any of the sponsors?)

Judging by poll numbers, the Republican Party is still Donald Trump’s party, and it’s not close.

But that may gradually change as the fights over policy in the Biden era advance. It’s still an open question how — and how much — a Twitter-less Donald Trump will influence the political world while out of office.

And it’s particularly fascinating that the former president has decided to set up the terms of control over the party as a battle between himself and Mitch McConnell. Trump is down in Mar-a-Lago and has been pretty quiet since leaving office. (The website DonaldJTrump.com has issued no new statements since January 13.) Impeachment has come and gone. The discussion about January 6 is now moving on to the establishment of a bipartisan commission to investigate.

McConnell still leads the Republicans in the Senate, and there’s no real noise about any other Republican challenging him for leadership in the chamber. And it remains a 50–50 Senate; if Patrick Leahy or Bernie Sanders slip on some ice, or Joe Manchin gets fed up with his Democratic colleagues, McConnell will become Senate majority leader again.

The focus of the Republican Party in Congress is now entirely upon the actions of the Biden administration: opposing the nominations of Neera Tanden and Xavier Becerra, the administration’s increasing antagonization and alienation of deal-minded Republicans, the blocked deportation moratorium, and trying to knock off or shrink a waste-laden Christmas tree bill that’s being called a “COVID-relief bill.” Congressional Republicans have work to do; they’re not going to wait for instructions from a retired president who’s working from his golf course.

A political movement’s strength is usually measured in elections; unfortunately, 2021 is an off year, and it’s too early to say if we will see any clear Trump vs. McConnell proxy battles. On March 20, Louisiana holds special House elections in the second and fifth congressional districts, and if no one wins a majority of the vote in those races, there will be runoffs on April 24. On April 6, Wisconsin holds elections for the state superintendent of public instruction, several court-of-appeals judges, a circuit-court judge, and a handful of special elections in the state legislature. Virginia and New Jersey will have governor’s races this year, and New York City will have its mayor’s race.

Hey, How about a Bipartisan Commission to Study Bad Virus Advice in Early 2020?

Right now, I think “Covid One Year Ago” might be my favorite Twitter account. No wonder so many Americans tune out health authorities inside and outside of government. You read some of these confident assurances from early-to-mid February 2020 and are thankful the pandemic wasn’t even worse, because health officials did everything short of encouraging us to cough in each other’s faces to demonstrate that they wouldn’t be influenced by xenophobia.

February 5, 2020, Los Angeles Times: “How to prevent coronavirus: Wash your hands and ditch the mask.

February 5, 2020, USA Today: “US surgeon general: Americans should be more concerned about the flu than coronavirus.

February 6, 2020, Bloomberg News: “How to Avoid Coronavirus on Flights: Forget Masks, Says Top Airline Doctor

February 9, 2020, New York City Health commissioner Dave Chokski: “Today our city is celebrating the LunarNewYear parade in Chinatown, a beautiful cultural tradition with a rich history in our city. I want to remind everyone to enjoy the parade and not change any plans due to misinformation spreading about coronavirus.”

February 17, 2020, USA Today: “[Dr. Anthony] Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is ‘just minuscule.’ But he does want them to take precautions against the ‘influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.’”

February 18, 2020, California Healthline: “In the Alhambra Unified School District, where about half of the students identify as Asian, administrators discourage the use of face masks and try to explain to families that they don’t protect from disease, said Toby Gilbert, a spokesperson for the district. That is sound scientific advice.”

February 20, 2020, KERA, the north Texas NPR affiliate: “Experts Say Coronavirus Poses A Low Risk To The U.S. — So Why Are We So Afraid?

On February 22, 2020, ABC News reported, “Health experts warn life-saving coronavirus vaccine still years away.

I suppose that one problem is that certain media institutions will treat just about anyone who wears a white coat or who has the right degree as a “health expert.” Another may be that health officials who work for government are so conditioned to respond to every public-health concern with “there is no need to panic” — really, when is there a need to panic? — and are so used to insisting that everything is under control that they simply couldn’t get their heads around the signs that this was a top-tier emergency and the virus was nowhere near under control.

Meanwhile, this newsletter, back on January 30, 2020:

Right now, things look pretty ominous. The World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus outbreak a global-health emergency. The U.S. is expanding screening at 20 airports. Some Asian countries are seeing a run on medical supplies, including hand sanitizer and masks. Probably the single most frightening aspect is the possibility that either the Chinese government is still guessing at how far the virus has spread, or that they’re not being honest about the risk. Hopefully, this outbreak runs its course with minimal casualties. But many countries may look at this experience and wonder afterwards . . . just how much interaction in trade and travel do we want to have with a secretive, powerful, chronically dishonest authoritarian regime that apparently will regularly face viral outbreaks?

On February 10, 2020, I was writing about the supply-chain issues that could impede our access to medicines we import from China. On February 11, I pointed out that the Chinese government had partially locked down Shanghai and Beijing, and it wouldn’t be doing that if this wasn’t a Grade-A public-health emergency. (Nineteen days previous, this wasn’t yet an international emergency. Now it had become a “very grave threat.” I wanted to trust the experts. But I couldn’t help wondering if they’d soft-pedaled any assessment that could irk the Chinese government.) And by February 24, I pointed out, “There’s one other point to make, about the rumor that the coronavirus is the accidental result of Chinese biological-weapons research. Yes, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory works with dangerous pathogens.”

Apparently, I have a superpower; that superpower is not knowing what questions I’m not supposed to ask, which means I ask them, which means I find different answers than the kinds of experts who are convinced they already know everything.

‘Aren’t You Supposed to Buy Me Dinner First?’

Every once in a while, the symbolism in U.S.-Chinese relations gets a little too heavy-handed:

The Chinese government has promised to stop using anal swabs on American diplomats to test for COVID-19 after Washington complained that the practice was undignified, the U.S. State Department said.

“The State Department never agreed to this kind of testing and protested directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when we learned that some staff were subject to it,” a State Department spokesperson told VICE World News on Wednesday.

The spokesperson said Beijing had assured Washington that the test was given “in error” and that diplomatic personnel were exempt from the test, which was mandatory for incoming travelers in some parts of China.

You’re probably thinking of a lot of off-color comments right now. Trust me, I’ve thought of them, too, but this is a relatively family-friendly newsletter.

We can’t be that surprised. I’m sure the Wuhan labs had a lot of anal swabs left over from all the ones they used to get samples of coronaviruses from bats.

ADDENDUM: Our David Harsanyi asks Representative Eric Swalwell, “given his concern for blunt representation, why he, and not a young woman of South Asian descent, is representing “one of the largest Indian-American districts in U.S.”?

Politics & Policy

Joe Manchin in Command

Sen. Joe Manchin in Washington, D.C., January 19, 2021 (Greg Nash/Reuters)

Thanks to Isaac Schorr for filling in for me yesterday. On the menu today, welcome to the de facto presidency of Joe Manchin; the gang at Politico starts to worry that the Biden presidency is off to a slow start; and in my neck of the woods, public schools take those first little steps toward reopening — with some kindergarteners going to school for the very first time in their lives.

Welcome to the Virtual Joe Manchin Presidency

Earlier this week, Politico offered a curious categorization in one of their headlines: “‘A double standard going on’: Democrats accuse GOP and Manchin of bias on Biden nominations

I suspect we’ll be seeing the “GOP and Manchin” lumped together a lot in the coming months.

The objection from Democratic special-interest organizations is West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin’s opposition to Neera Tanden becoming the next director of the Office of Management and Budget . . . and his declaration that he was undecided on Deb Haaland’s nomination for interior secretary. Oh, and our John McCormack had the scoop that Manchin is still making up his mind about whether or not to vote to confirm Xavier Becerra as secretary of health and human services. Oh, and Manchin’s not sure whether he’ll support Vivek H. Murthy’s nomination to be the next surgeon general.

Maybe Biden should have just run his cabinet choices past Manchin before announcing them.

The West Virginia Democrat isn’t just defecting from the rest of his party on personnel choices. He has assured Mitch McConnell that he won’t vote to eliminate the filibuster for legislation. He’s pushed to shrink the size of stimulus checks in the upcoming coronavirus-relief package, and he’s probably going to end up ensuring that a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour doesn’t end up in the package. Manchin said he’s willing to raise it to $11 in two years. With Manchin chairing the Senate Energy Committee, it is extremely unlikely that he will allow regulations that harm his home state’s coal industry to pass.

Welcome to life with a 50–50 Senate, progressives, where the least liberal Democratic senators and the least conservative Republican senators in the chamber get to decide what gets done. Progressives can be irked, but they should not be surprised if they’ve studied any histor— oh, wait, there’s the problem.

Rallying outside Manchin’s office is not likely to change Manchin’s mind, progressives. He’s 73 years old. He first won a state legislative seat in 1982, and he won his statewide office as secretary of state in 2000. He won the governor’s races in 2004 and 2008 by wide margins, won election to the Senate in 2010, won by a wide margin in 2012, and won by a relatively close margin in 2018. He’s not up for reelection until 2024, when he’ll be 76. Manchin’s predecessor, Robert Byrd, served until he died at age 92. West Virginia doesn’t throw out incumbents very often.

Both progressives and conservatives tend to overestimate Manchin’s deviation from his party because they remember the high-profile examples — such as the Brett Kavanaugh vote.

Take a moment and guess how often Manchin voted with the Trump administration’s position.

Over a four-year span, Manchin voted with Trump just over 50 percent of the time, according to the vote-counters over at FiveThirtyEight — including 60 percent of the time in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, and 32.6 percent of the time in the last two years. By comparison, West Virginia’s Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito, voted with the Trump administration’s position 92.1 percent of the time.

Progressives look at Manchin and his vote for Brett Kavanaugh, his pro-coal, self-described pro-life, mostly pro-gun* views, and conclude they’re dealing with a conservative Republican who just happens to have a “D” after his name.

But if you step back and look at the big picture, Joe Manchin is clearly a Democrat. He’s a big supporter of the Affordable Care Act and wants as many residents of his state to enroll in ACA health-insurance plans as possible. He’s going to support more spending on health care in most forms. Like his predecessor, Manchin will seek to protect and expand the $25 billion in federal spending that goes to 70 federal agencies in West Virginia every year. He’s going to support just about any infrastructure spending bill that comes his way. Manchin wants to protect the coal industry, but he’s also supportive of spending more on green-energy initiatives, too.

Back in 2018, Manchin supported a deal that would have given the Dreamers a path to citizenship in exchange for $25 billion in border-security funding, and opposed President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to justify the diversion of funding to border security. Manchin voted for impeachment both times.

In other words, Joe Manchin is an old-school Democrat who likes to spend money, and those ideas usually unify Democrats of every stripe. He won’t go along with much of the young progressive Democrats’ culture-war stuff — and you could argue that’s a losing sales pitch, even in Democratic Party circles. Variations of the boutique Twitter-left attitude were adopted by everyone from Cory Booker to Kirsten Gillibrand to Julian Castro** to Beto O’Rourke to — ahem — Kamala Harris, and it bombed. (Bernie Sanders is on board for the Democrats’ culture-war stuff, but his brand is a little bit different.)

Anybody wanting to get a proposal through Congress for the next two years should begin by asking themselves, “Would the average West Virginia voter support this idea?”

*Some Second Amendment advocates may question just how reliable an ally Manchin is; you may recall the Toomey-Manchin proposal for expanded background checks for gun sales.

** Hey, remember Julian Castro? Now we see he didn’t get a cabinet gig, ambassadorship, or any other Biden administration post. He says he’s probably not going to run for any office in 2022. He’s mostly doing MSNBC hits. If you come at the king and suggest he’s going senile during a televised primary debate, you had better not miss.

Slow Joe?

Politico’s evening newsletter, written by Sam Stein, formerly of the Huffington Post, laments that Biden is off to a slow start.

. . . just nine Biden cabinet nominees have been confirmed so far (two today!), compared to 14 for Donald Trump at the same point in his presidency and 15 for Barack Obama.

Biden compares poorly by other measures, too. Obama had signed a signature bill into law (the Lilly Ledbetter Act) before February; Biden signed one too, of slightly lesser reach: a waiver to allow his Pentagon chief to serve. Obama’s stimulus package was passed on Feb. 17; Biden’s Covid relief bill is on track to reach his desk by March 14. Obama delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24; Biden is unlikely to deliver one until March. Even Biden’s address before the Munich Security Conference came later than his first Obama era one — Feb. 7 back then, Feb. 19 this year.

My first thought was, “duh, impeachment,” and Stein mentions it a few paragraphs down — but that wasn’t as time-consuming as one might think. The House passed the article before Biden was sworn in, and the Senate trial only took four days, from February 9 to 13.

If members of Congress are grumbling about Biden’s pace, maybe they should look in the mirror. The House has only had eleven days of votes since Biden’s inauguration, and the Senate had its “district work period” last week.

But it’s probably fair to ask whether the Biden administration really needed to come roaring out of the gate, signing a lot of rapidly passed legislation. The single biggest problem facing the country is the pandemic and vaccinations are the solution, so the single most pressing order of business is increasing the rate of vaccinations coast to coast. The rate has generally improved, in fits and starts, despite some bad winter weather disrupting shipments and cancelling appointments (see Monday’s second item). Passing all the big-spending bills in the world won’t do Americans nearly as much as good as getting a complete vaccination into the arm of everyone who wants one.

And the other point is, I suspect the perceived slow pace of a Joe Biden presidency was part of his appeal. His debate answers are meandering, he barely campaigned in person once the pandemic hit . . . this is a deliberately low-energy president. Progressives and media shouldn’t expect him to be Barack Obama 2.0.

Imagine Starting Kindergarten in February

Schools in my neck of the woods are taking those first tentative steps toward reopening:

Masked and socially distanced, pre-K and kindergarten students in Fairfax County were set to begin in-class learning on Tuesday for a first day of school unlike any other.

Fairfax County opted to open back up for its youngest students earlier than most elementary, middle and high school students. More groups of special education students were also set to return Tuesday.

“These kids have never been in school before,” Principal Lauren Badini said. “Having them come in first and giving them the opportunity to feel comfortable then phasing in the next group is part of that measured, strategic plan.”

The classrooms are set to run under a concurrent model: Twelve students will come on Tuesday and Wednesday while another dozen watch from home, then the groups switch for the other two days.

ADDENDUM: In the best news for the Johnson brothers since they hired Robert Saleh, the FDA says the Johnson & Johnson vaccine works well:

The vaccine had a 72 percent overall efficacy rate in the United States and 64 percent in South Africa, where a highly contagious variant emerged in the fall and is now driving most cases . . . the vaccine also showed 86 percent efficacy against severe forms of Covid-19 in the United States, and 82 percent against severe disease in South Africa. That means that a vaccinated person has a far lower risk of being hospitalized or dying from Covid-19.

Politics & Policy

The Revenge of Neera Tanden’s Tweets

Neera Tanden attends a hearing with the Senate Committee on the Budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 10, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Pool via Reuters)

Jim Geraghty’s out today, so the editors sought out the nearest and most available New York Jets fan they could find. No, not new NRO editor Philip Klein, me. A questionable choice to be sure, but bear with me if you will. On the menu today: confirmation hearings and Fauci’s failures.

A Biden Nomination on Life Support

Neera Tanden’s nomination to serve as the director of the Office of Management and Budget appears to be on life support. The odds are stacked against the Clintonista, boss from hell, and president of the Center for American Progress being confirmed by the Senate. Her history of mean tweets — especially those directed at the very senators whose support she needs — is catching up to her. Joe Manchin, Susan Collins, and Mitt Romney have all announced their opposition to Tanden over the last few days. (One of Tanden’s past tweets had labeled Collins as “the worst.”) To become the first OMB director to defend physical abuse by saying without a trace of self-awareness “I didn’t slug him, I pushed him,” she’ll need to not only hold onto Democrats Bernie Sanders (Tanden’s nemesis) and Kyrsten Sinema (a purple-state senator with a history of bucking the party line) but also pick off one of the two Republicans who have yet to announce how they’ll vote: Lisa Murkowski and Shelley Moore Capito. At first glance, Murkowski would appear to be the easier get — she’s more moderate, with a history of crossing party lines — but she’s also up for reelection in 2022 and has lost GOP primary fights before. She might be reluctant to give Democrats this win. White House press secretary Jen Psaki weighed in on the situation on Twitter:

Neera Tanden=accomplished policy expert, would be 1st Asian American woman to lead OMB, has lived experience having benefitted from a number of federal programs as a kid, looking ahead to the committee votes this week and continuing to work toward her confirmation.

Her defenders swiftly alleged a double standard was at play. From Representative Judy Chu (D., Calif.), head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, in Politico:

Her nomination is very significant for us Asian American and Pacific Islanders. I do believe that this double standard has to do with the fact that she would be a pioneer in that position.

So in the end, Neera Tanden really did unite the Democratic Party . . . around identity-driven pseudo arguments that alienate most Americans. Well done, President Biden.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Merrick Garland finally appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and was . . . not great. Unlike Tanden, Garland is seen as a shoo-in for his position. Democrats are all but certain to vote “aye” as a block, and a good number of Republicans might join them in making Garland attorney general. Still, no conservative could have been particularly pleased with Garland’s answer to a question from John Kennedy about biological males’ participation in girls’ sports. Garland dodged at first, claiming that “This is a very difficult societal question you’re asking here.” When Kennedy pressed him, Garland first reiterated that he “think[s] every human being should be treated with dignity and respect,” (who doesn’t?) before adding that “the particular question of how Title IX applies in schools . . . is something that I would have to look at when I have the chance to do that. I’ve not had the chance to consider these kinds of issues in my career so far.” Garland is eminently qualified to lead the Justice Department, and Republicans should thank God every day that Biden didn’t tap New York governor Andrew Cuomo for the job, but they should be under no illusions about the actual nominee: He’ll be a rubber stamp for the Biden administration’s ludicrous social agenda.

Finally, there’s Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services — an agency of special importance during a pandemic. Becerra, a nun-hating, abortion-loving radical with no real experience in health-care policy, is Biden’s worst cabinet choice by far. He has shown not only thinly veiled scorn for half the country, but a willingness to use the levers of power to punish his political opponents. The Editors said it best:

Any Biden nominee to run HHS will share the president’s liberal views on abortion and transgender issues, but Becerra’s record guarantees that he will use HHS’s broad rulemaking authority to aggressively wage a culture war and alienate many Americans. There is nothing Becerra can say at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that can erase that record.

Many of Biden’s other nominees show that the president is more than capable of selecting qualified Cabinet members with bipartisan credibility. Treasury secretary Yellen, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin were each confirmed by overwhelming bipartisan Senate majorities.

It has been befuddling to many of Biden’s friends and foes alike that he chose an unqualified ideologue to run HHS during a pandemic. A majority of the Senate should reject Becerra and give Biden an opportunity to try again.

Fauci’s Doom and Gloom

Moving on to pandemic news, it’s time to state what has become obvious: Dr. Anthony Fauci is a disaster. Americans can and should be grateful to Dr. Fauci for his many years of service and good work rendered over the course of those years. But his continuous doom-and-gloom messaging is a public-health liability at this point. The coronavirus vaccines are here. They’re safe.  They’re more effective than we could have possibly imagined. They not only prevent symptomatic illness, but transmission too. What’s more, the country is distributing the vaccines at an impressive rate; a third of the inoculations administered in the world have happened right here in the United States. And yet, Anthony Fauci is making the rounds on the Sunday shows talking about “approaching a degree of normality” by . . . December? What on earth is Fauci talking about? This disease is not going to be “eradicated.” The objective is to turn the threat it represents into something resembling what the flu does every year, not wipe it off the face of the planet — that’s an impossible task. Americans aren’t going to wait until it’s been accomplished to return to normal life. Many already have! Fauci isn’t just out of touch, he’s understating the value of the vaccines in a way that’s both deceptive and discouraging.

Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

ADDENDUM: Check out David Harsanyi for a fuller picture of how Fauci has fallen short of the god-like powers some have attributed to him.

Health Care

The ‘Human Error’ Theory on COVID Origin Still Very Much Alive

Experts from China and the World Health Organization (WHO) visit the Wuhan Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Hubei province, China, February 23, 2020. (China Daily/via Reuters)

On the menu today: Can you believe we start the week with . . . good news on several fronts? At least one Sunday morning talk show is now taking the lab-leak theory seriously, the country had a pretty good pace of vaccinations last week despite miserable weather, the stockpile of unused vaccines is slowly whittling down, and former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says certain parts of the country have reached not quite herd immunity, but an infection rate that slows down the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Trump’s Deputy National-Security Adviser: Human Error More Likely Than Natural Outbreak

Yesterday President Biden’s National-Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, appeared on Face the Nation and was asked about a fact sheet concerning activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology issued by the State Department in the final weeks of the Trump presidency.

If Sullivan wanted to pour cold water on that fact sheet and dismiss it as the unsupported speculation of the previous administration, he could have done so. He did not, and his wording strikes me as deliberately careful on this topic:

MARGARET BRENNAN: The State Department said back in January that the U.S. has evidence that a COVID-like virus was circulating in Wuhan, China, as far back as autumn of 2019. And the Chinese military was conducting secret experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Do you dispute any of that declassified material?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Look, this is why the WHO investigation has to be left to the scientists and the experts to lay out without any interference by any government because that’s the only way we’re going to know what the origins of this are. I’m not in a position to say how COVID-19 came into this world. All I’m in a position to do is to call upon the WHO to do its job to the fullest extent possible.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you– so you are standing by that declassified report?

JAKE SULLIVAN: No. I’m saying that I am not in a position, nor is the Biden administration in a position to make a determination about precisely where COVID-19 originated. And that’s in part because there has not been sufficient transparency coming from the government of China. And the WHO still has more work to do to get to the bottom of exactly where this virus emerged.

One of the points on that memo was “the U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

Later in the program, Matthew Pottinger, President Trump’s deputy national-security adviser and former Asia Director of the National Security Council, elaborated on his thinking over what the Chinese government was telling the U.S. government:

MATT POTTINGER: Well, U.S. intelligence wasn’t focused on these kinds of questions. They– they were relying on the CDC. The problem was the Chinese Communist Party did not turn to their CDC to deal with this crisis. They turned to their military. And our CDC did not have relations established with the Chinese military. So the director of the Chinese CDC, based on public reporting, didn’t know either. I mean, the Chinese CDC director did not know that this thing was circulating until the last day of December, which is incredible when you think about that. So it looks like the Chinese CDC to some extent was cut out because the Chinese Communist Party turned to its military to try to cover this thing up, to try to contain it until it was too late.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the– the Biden administration and their national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said he has deep concerns about the World Health Organization’s recent report and Chinese interference in it.

MATT POTTINGER: Look, the World Health Organization made all sorts of– of un– untruthful or– or misinformed claims about this virus. So, the WHO has a lot to answer for. When it comes to the– this investigation into the origins, unfortunately, we’re seeing a panel that’s been sent to China that is deeply conflicted. You have people who were hand-selected by the Chinese government. They had a veto over who could come in.

MARGARET BRENNAN: U.S. intelligence has said COVID, according to wide scientific consensus, was not man-made or genetically modified. You are not in any way alleging that it was, are you?

MATT POTTINGER: No. If you weigh the circumstantial evidence, the ledger on the side of an explanation that says that this resulted from some kind of human error, it far outweighs the– the side of the scale that says this was some natural outbreak. We have very strong reason to believe that the Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory, going all the way back to at least 2017. We have good reason to believe that there was an outbreak of flu-like illness among researchers working in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the fall of 2019, but right — immediately before the first documented cases came to light.

I’m so old, I can remember when once-respectable publications such as The New Republic insisted this was all a crazy conspiracy theory, and asserting as fact that the virus started at the Huanan Seafood Market. Now we’ve got the former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations treating the lab-accident theory seriously on a Sunday show, and a Democratic administration’s national-security adviser refusing to rule the possibility out.

Hey, For Bad Winter Weather, This Is a Pretty Good Vaccination Pace

Some good news: Last Tuesday, the Bloomberg chart showed 15.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine either in transit or sitting on shelves somewhere, while the New York Times chart showed 17.2 million.

This morning, both the Bloomberg chart and the New York Times chart show 12.2 million doses either in transit or sitting on shelves somewhere.

Collectively, the 50 states, as well as U.S. territories and federal entities, have whittled away at the unused stockpile, and they did so during a week where frigid temperatures and bad weather disrupted vaccination sessions, delayed shipments, and generally made a mess of things. We’re extremely likely to reach 100 million doses administered within the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency. About 15.7 million doses had been administered on January 20; in the month since Biden took office, 47.3 million doses have been administered.

In my neck of the woods, Fairfax County, Va., has picked up the pace considerably after a slow start. The county has used 94.4 percent of the vaccines they’ve been provided so far and given at least one shot to more than 133,000 people.

And former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said yesterday that while the country isn’t at herd immunity per se, we may be reaching the point where we’re starting to see a slower rate of new infections in certain parts of the country because the virus is finding fewer fresh uninfected or unvaccinated bodies to attack.

I think we’re going to continue to see infection rates decline into the spring and the summer. Right now they’re falling quite dramatically. I think these trends are likely to continue. The new variants do create new risks. I think B.1.1.7 creates some risk that we could see a resurgence of infection in certain parts of the country and higher prevalence overall in the spring and summer than we might have seen without this strain. But it’s not going to be enough to reverse these trends at this point. I think it’s too little, too late in most parts of the country. With rising vaccination rates and also the fact that we’ve infected about a third of the public, that’s enough protective immunity that we’re likely to see these trends continue. The risk is really to the fall. And one last point, if you look at the counties in New York and New Jersey that had greater than forty-five percent seroprevalence, meaning that forty– more than forty-five percent of the population was infected going into the winter, they really didn’t have much of a winter surge. So once you get to about forty percent of the population with some form of protective immunity, you don’t have herd immunity, meaning that this won’t transfer at all. It will continue to transfer, but it will transfer at a much slower rate. And that’s what we have right now around the country.

With the United States either on the cusp of or just beyond 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, we are 175,000 deaths away from equaling the U.S. death toll from the influenza pandemic that lasted from 1918 to 1920. And yet somewhere out there, there’s a handful of folks still screaming that it’s all a hoax, that these are motorcycle accidents being counted as coronavirus deaths, that it’s no worse than the flu, and that the vaccine is the real danger. There’s an excellent chance these people will show up in the comments section on the website version of this newsletter.

ADDENDUM: You will learn more about how the Texas system of generating and producing electricity works, why the system experienced the failures it did, and what can be done about it in the future in Kevin Williamson’s “Ask an Engineer” column than in pages and pages of mainstream media coverage. America, and the world, need more of this and less flood-the-zone coverage of entertaining but relatively inconsequential brouhahas such as Ted Cruz’s travel screw-up. On Friday, our Kyle Smith counted “seven pieces on this in the New York Times, 17 pieces on CNN, and a mind-boggling 27 pieces in the Washington Post.

Health Care

Why Are 6 Million Vaccine Doses Being Held Back?

A Walmart pharmacist draws a dose into a syringe from a Moderna coronavirus vaccine in West Haven, Conn., February 17, 2021. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Ted Cruz screwed up by heading out on a family vacation as the weather in Texas took a severe turn for the worse, but as usual, our ADD media grew obsessed with the gaffe; the top eight items on Memeorandum this morning are all about Cruz and Cancun, and Politico has four items on the Texas senator, although they at least have the good sense to put them in the middle of the page. Arguably the largest logistical effort in the United States since World War Two is going on all around us, with God knows how many lives hanging in the balance, and it just doesn’t interest the national political media nearly as much as the Cruz family’s text messages to friends.

The 6 Million Vaccine Doses Being Held Back Unnecessarily

This newsletter has been (healthily) obsessing over the gap between the number of vaccine doses distributed to states and the number going into arms, observing that the eight-figure separation between those figures cannot be explained by mere snafus in reporting data. Today the numbers on the Bloomberg chart show 14.3 million doses shipped but not administered, while the New York Times numbers show 15.7 million doses — a slight increase from Wednesday’s 15.54 million doses.

This morning, the New York Times offers a bit more of an answer, revealing that indeed, states and a federal program designed to prioritize nursing homes and long-term care facilities have let a significant number of doses collect dust on shelves:

Millions of doses wound up trapped in logistical limbo, either set aside for nursing homes that did not need them or stockpiled while Americans clamored in vain for their first doses. Now a national effort is underway to pry those doses loose — and, with luck, give a significant boost to the national vaccination ramp-up.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pushed the Biden administration to allow him to claw back 100,000 excess doses that were allocated to the federal program for long-term-care facilities. In Michigan, Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the chief medical executive, is raiding nursing home doses that she said had been locked in a “piggy bank” controlled by CVS and Walgreens, the two pharmacy chains in charge of the federal initiative.

And in Virginia, Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, said he has been “wheeling and dealing like on a trading floor” to free up tens of thousands of doses for the general population.

Dr. Avula, a 42-year-old pediatrician and preventive medicine physician, came to the job in early January to find multitudes of Virginians languishing on vaccination waiting lists and less than half of the state’s vaccine allotment actually making it into arms.

. . . Federal officials estimate that as many as six million vaccine doses are still being unnecessarily stowed away. Freeing them up could increase the number of doses used by more than 10 percent — significantly stepping up the pace of the nation’s inoculation program at a time when speed is of the essence to save lives, curb disease and head off more contagious variants of the virus.

Deep in that article, referring to Virginia, “A flood of public requests for data gave the state a chance to create a new incentive not to hoard.”

Governments perform better when the public — often, but not always, represented by the media — ask tough questions, demand to see the data, compare it to the numbers in other places, and call officials and departments out for poor performance. This is the truth, whether the state government is headed by a Democrat or a Republican. Cheerleading media institutions cannot hold the government accountable — and we all know the habits people pick up when they know no one is going to hold them accountable.

It’s good to see a more widespread recognition that the slow pace of administering delivered doses was not just a matter of mundane delays in reporting data. But there are still some odd discrepancies. The Washington Post’s coverage of the nation’s capital expanding the eligibility for the vaccine starting March 1, states

residents who have conditions such as cancer, diabetes or kidney or liver disease can seek a vaccine through their doctor or through the city’s public registration system. Doses remain in short supply, and this new group of patients — representing more than a quarter of adults in the city — will compete for appointments with seniors and an increasingly large pool of eligible essential workers.

But do doses really remain in short supply? The District of Columbia ranks near the bottom in terms of how much of their allocated vaccines have been administered, at 67 percent. Manufacturers delivered the city 193,300 doses and the city’s health institutions have administered 130,437 of them. Where are those other 62,000 doses? What’s the holdup?

Rhode Island is now allowing residents 65 and older to book appointments for vaccine shots at one of two state-run mass clinics. Manufacturers have sent the Nutmeg State 234,500 doses so far, and they’ve administered 159,931 . . . leaving more than 74,000 doses somewhere in the supply chain.

But the state currently ranking dead last in percentage of doses administered is Alabama. That state’s numbers recently improved — “Alabama gave out 149,201 doses of vaccine last week, 35,918 more doses than it gave the week before” — but now bad weather is forcing the cancelation of appointments and delaying shipments. Manufacturers sent Alabama 1,032,175 doses so far, and they’ve administered 672,038 . . . leaving more than 360,000 doses somewhere in the supply chain.

If every state had similar percentages of administered doses, we could accept that these are unavoidable universal problems. But somehow North Dakota — no stranger to bad weather! — has administered 105 percent of their allocated doses by getting more doses out of each vial.

Nonetheless, cold, ice, and snow across much of the country is slowing down the pace of vaccinations a bit. From February 10 to 14, the U.S. recorded at least 1.7 million doses administered a day and hit 2 million per day twice. But Monday, the country only administered 820,000 doses, Tuesday 1.5 million, Wednesday 1.3 million, and yesterday 1.7 million again.

California may be known for good weather, but that doesn’t matter much when the vaccines have to get shipped in from the middle of the country:

Thousands of COVID-19 vaccine appointments scheduled Friday at sites run by the city of Los Angeles will have to be postponed after shipments of doses were delayed by the severe winter weather that’s wreaking havoc across the country.

About 12,500 people will have their appointments delayed, and those affected should be notified by text, email or phone, according to a city statement.

“Severe weather across the country has disrupted travel and shipping nationwide, including delaying the delivery of our vaccines,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “Our city is ready to administer COVID-19 vaccines swiftly, safely and equitably, and as soon as doses arrive in Los Angeles, we will get them into people’s arms immediately.”

City officials said two shipments have been held up because of the inclement weather: 26,000 doses, previously set to arrive Tuesday, are still in Kentucky, and 37,000 more, set to be used next week, are in Tennessee.

There’s a lot of good news on the pandemic front, as Kyle Smith and Isaac Schorr observe.

And as for fears that the vaccines won’t be as effective against the South African variant, Pfizer’s scientists contend a lot of people are inaccurately interpreting “less effective” to mean “not effective.”

A laboratory study released on Wednesday suggested that the “South African” virus variant may reduce protective antibodies elicited by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by two-thirds, but it is not clear how much that reduces the shot’s effectiveness against this version of the pathogen.

Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists and a co-author of the study, said in an interview he believes the current vaccine is highly likely to still protect against the concerning variant first discovered in SA.

“A level of neutralising antibodies that may be on the order of between a third and a half the level of neutralising antibodies you see against the original virus does not mean you have only a third to half of the protection level, you may well have full protection,” he said.

University of Texas Medical Branch professor and study co-author Pei-Yong Shi said he also believes the lessened immune response observed is likely to be significantly above where it needs to be to provide protection.

Pfizer is already at work on developing a booster shot designed to ward off the South African variant.

ADDENDUM: Yesterday, I recalled the not-so-accurate, not-so-insightful mid-1990s comparisons of Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern:


Why We’re Taught to Not Speak Ill of the Dead

Rush Limbaugh speaks at the 2019 Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Fla., December 21, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum

“Of the dead, say nothing but good”

We used to widely honor the instruction to not speak ill of the dead, at least in media and public communications. But in our modern era of social media, the instinct is largely the opposite. When a prominent political figure passes away, those who loathed the figure jump online and instantly proclaim how happy they are that the person has died, how terrible the figure was, how they hope that figure is burning in hell, etc.

You can find a lot of hackneyed columns disputing the old edict to not speak ill of the dead, particularly after the death of a prominent conservative, with all the columnists convinced they’ve discovered the amazing truth that indisputable villains of life die too, and no one would object to speaking ill of Adolf Hitler.

The aphorism dates back to Greece in 600 b.c., and the modern advocates for speaking ill of the dead seem oddly confident that the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare and everyone else before them could not possibly have grasped the moral nuances of this uniquely modern circumstance of a controversial figure dying.

Or they contend that holding one’s tongue about the recently departed represents a compromise of the truth or an instruction to lie. But the aphorism bars one action; it does not compel other actions. It is not an instruction or requirement to praise the dead and certainly not one to bear false witness in praising the departed. Nor does the instruction forbid silence in response to the passing of a life. The American version of the custom really only asks people to refrain from expressing their disdain for the departed in public for a short period of time after the death. No one really cares if you privately get grim satisfaction out of someone departing this earth, and there will be few complaints if you uncork your long-simmering denunciatory diatribe about the departed a month later.

And yet, for many figures obscure and better known, the edict is just too much to ask.

The first argument put forth in defense of holding one’s criticism of the recently departed is that the figure’s loved ones are in mourning. That’s true, but we have no way of knowing if our words will reach the ears or eyes of mourning family or friends, and that cannot be our sole or deciding concern. Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qasem Soleimani, Timothy McVeigh, and Samuel Little had loved ones who mourned their deaths.

I suspect the saying is driven by a sense of universal empathy. The public figures you love and adore will die. The public figures you hate and detest will die. In their final moments, the differences between them will become quite insignificant. Few of us are likely to feel “ready” to die when our time comes. Few of us will believe, in our final days, that we lived with no regrets. In our final moments, we are likely to feel vulnerable, frightened, and perhaps pained. Even the most powerful dictator looks frail and weak and sad on his deathbed. Death humbles us all, and death comes for us all.

We have a hard enough time grappling with our own mortality as is. It gets even tougher when a beloved or iconic figure who seemed likely to be around forever — say, Alex Trebek — shuffles off this mortal coil. Recognizing that the public figures we can’t stand are human beings means recognizing that they are mortal, and that they are as vulnerable to age and cancer or heart disease other health problems as anyone else. That is one more stark reminder that our days are numbered as well. The powerful and wealthy and famous may have the resources and good doctors to delay the grim reaper’s arrival for a bit, but not to deny him.

I liked the observation in this editorial of the U.K.’s Reform magazine, written after Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013:

It seems to me, that if we rail against someone while they live and change our tone when they die, we show respect not for them, but for death.

This powerful and divisive figure, the enemy within, can’t be voted out or overthrown, and even medicine and technology can offer no lasting alternative to its regime. Despite the colossal changes to our moral landscape over the last 50 years, and the death of deference towards traditional authorities and mores, our profound and ancient deference towards death is as alive as ever — presumably because it has as much power over us as it ever did.

The sadness and grief of Rush Limbaugh’s loved ones today is indistinguishable from the sadness and grief of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s loved ones in September or John Lewis’s loved ones or Herman Cain’s loved ones in July. No matter how much we may think that we are different from those we vehemently oppose, they are as human and mortal as we are, and we are all going to end up in the same grave; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Finally, there is the fact that the dead cannot speak for themselves, and castigating the departed will often seem like an unfair attack — and not just immediately after their passing. You may recall that in The Last Dance, the documentary about the glory years of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was consistently portrayed as a bumbling, arrogant, fuming fool. The documentary featured recent interviews with Michael Jordan and almost all of his teammates and coaches . . . but Krause passed away in 2017.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski pointed out that Krause did make a lot of good decisions in the draft and free agency, and observed, “Aside from a token compliment here or there from Kerr or Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, no one is standing up for Krause in the documentary: no family member, no colleague, no one. There is something cheap, unseemly, and quite telling about the inclination to continue bullying a man who isn’t around to defend himself.”

Perhaps we say we should not speak ill of the dead because the finality of death should also mark the end of our disagreement with the departed. If you read this newsletter, there’s a good chance that you vehemently differed with Ginsburg or John Conyers or Ted Kennedy or John Paul Stevens, or any other figure on the left side of the political spectrum who passed away in recent years. But they’ve gone to meet their Creator now; our argument with them is finished. (There would be something absurd about continuing an argument with a dead man; one could envision a Monty Python or Saturday Night Live sketch where a candidate dies during a debate and his opponent absurdly insists that the debate continue, because he thinks he has a better chance of winning now.)

Our deceased political foes can do no more, and they can say no more, so we have no need to say any more, beyond rest in peace.

One last thought: The snarky philosophy students at the video series Wisecrack sometimes discuss Ernest Becker and his work The Denial of Death. Becker contended that just about everything that human beings do is consciously or subconsciously an effort to avoid death. Becker observes that hatred and violence can be a convenient way of suppressing or sublimating the fear of death: “Only scapegoats can relieve one of his own stark death fear: ‘I am threatened with death — let us kill plentifully.’” Being able to inflict death upon other people can give people a sense that they can control death; because they can decide who else lives and dies, they can “decide” that they themselves will never die. This never works, of course, but the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Thankfully, few people turn to homicide to cope with their fear of death. But perhaps a variation of that impulse can be found in the compulsion to feel and express glee in response to the death of an opposing political figure, to treat it as a personal “win.” The hideous and hateful little troll who jumps on social media to celebrate Rush Limbaugh’s passing as a victory is inadvertently revealing the lack of genuine victories and joy in his life. He controls nothing on the grand stage of American politics and can exercise no true influence over the course of events, so he must take the inevitable — the death of an elderly figure revered by the political opposition who was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer — as some sort of shocking and earned triumph, one that allows him to bask in shared glory.

As for Rush himself, you can read tributes from The Editors, Jack Fowler, Dan McLaughlin, Michael Brendan Dougherty, John Fund, Kathryn Jean Lopez, and yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch, podcast Greg and I scrapped our traditional format and just discussed Rush and how he shaped us, modern conservatism, and modern radio. NR has also reposted James Bowman’s 1993 cover story on Rush, declaring him “The Leader of the Opposition.

America has many powerful and famous celebrities with devoted fan bases, but it has very few who more or less single-handedly created the industry that made them famous. The AM-radio dial was utterly transformed, permanently, by Rush Limbaugh; an entire industry and format grew and thrived for decades and shaped our system of politics because of what he started on KFBK in Sacramento, Calif., in 1984. You can argue he is among the top ten or fewer of the most influential Americans of the post–Cold-War era.

I didn’t always agree with everything Rush Limbaugh said, but I didn’t have to. In 2004, Rush reached out and told me was a fan of the Kerry Spot, and I felt like I had walked on the moon. He offered a blurb for Voting to Kill — now available at fine remainder bins everywhere — and had me on his program in 2006 when I was promoting the book and he had absolutely no reason to help out. He was the biggest figure in the conservative movement, but never too big to demonstrate the smallest kindness. He will be sorely missed.

ADDENDUM: One year ago today, Bernie Sanders was leading the Democratic primaries, people wondered how big a deal Michael Bloomberg was going to be in the upcoming debate, and I was warning people that the virus from over in China was a big deal that was much worse than the flu, despite what most mainstream-media institutions were reporting at the time.

For several weeks, we’ve been getting coverage with headlines such as, “The flu is a far bigger threat to most people in the US than the Wuhan coronavirus.” And while that was statistically true enough, the coronavirus was just getting started. Besides that, most Americans know to get their flu shots and those that do get the flu get through it just fine with fluids and bed rest.

This morning, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention offered a new analysis of data:

An analysis of 44,672 coronavirus patients in China whose diagnoses were confirmed by laboratory testing has found that 1,023 had died by Feb. 11. That’s a fatality rate of 2.3 percent. Figures released on a daily basis suggest the rate has further increased in recent days.

That is far higher than the mortality rate of the seasonal flu, with which the new coronavirus has sometimes been compared. In the United States, flu fatality rates hover around 0.1 percent.

Yes, if you live in the United States, you’re much more likely to get “regular” flu, but if you do catch it, the odds of it killing you are 1 in 1,000. If, God forbid, you catch the coronavirus, the chances of it killing you are 23 in 1,000, based upon what we know now.

The current number of total diagnosed cases in the U.S. is 27.9 million; the death toll is now above 490,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. (Worldometers has the U.S. past a half-million deaths now.)

That comes out to a roughly 1.7 percent death rate — obviously much higher among the elderly and immunocompromised, and much lower among younger and healthier people.


The Wuhan Lab-Leak Scenario Is Still Plausible

Outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: NBC reports that U.S. intelligence cannot rule out the lab-leak scenario as the trigger for the coronavirus pandemic, and the evidence is building that the Chinese government is hiding something; President Biden pledges that schools will be close to being open five days a week by the end of April; and Biden is faced with a request for an exorbitant expenditure to help out the highest-educated Americans.

Back to the Wuhan Labs

Late yesterday, NBC News offered this intriguing update on the U.S government’s thinking about the origins of SARS-CoV-2:

A Western intelligence official who has seen classified material told NBC News the U.S. has substantial intelligence that has not been made public about actions the Chinese government took — related to the Wuhan lab and other issues — that were designed to obscure the origins of Covid-19 and conceal its early impact. A former U.S. official who has also seen the intelligence agreed that it was significant, if inconclusive.

Both sources said the material, which they did not detail, did not add up to evidence that a lab accident occurred. But they said it raised enough circumstantial questions that analysts have been unable to rule out the lab scenario. U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment.

The intelligence, which includes documents, paints a picture of a Chinese government initially trying to hide the burgeoning pandemic from the outside world.

Note this detail, way down in the 13th and 14th paragraphs:

Intelligence officials counter that one key lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, removed from public view a database of 22,000 virus samples for security reasons, and has not allowed a detailed look at the lab’s notes or other records.

They say it’s suspicious that the virus outbreak arose in Wuhan, a hub of virus research in China, while the bats that commonly carry coronaviruses are typically found in caves a thousand miles from that city.

I think it is clear that a lot of people in high places would love, or at least prefer to be able to conclude beyond any reasonable doubt that this virus jumped to humans naturally, and that the labs in Wuhan had nothing to with it. And that is still a possible scenario. If biologists can prove, beyond any doubt, that the virus had to pass through an animal such as a pangolin before jumping to humans, it makes the lab-leak scenario much more likely. As far as we know, neither of the two major biological-research labs working on novel coronaviruses found in bats in Wuhan used pangolins in their research. (Then again, no one has found any evidence that pangolins were sold in the Huanan Seafood Market, either.)

In the pangolin scenario, the human villain of this story is animal smugglers, and nobody likes them. The thing is, if you genuinely believed that the killing and consumption of exotic animals in the wet markets was the source of a novel virus that killed thousands of people . . . would you reopen those wet markets in mid-April? Is the Chinese government acting like its wet markets are the most likely source of a deadly pandemic? Or are they acting like someone, at some high level, knows it emerged from someplace else?

Earlier on, that NBC News report states, “scientists say that scenario is unlikely on its face, because animal-to-human transmission of viruses are common, while lab accidents are relatively rare.” If you’ve been reading me for the past year, you know the word “relatively” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. I’ve seen a few people argue that the Chinese government couldn’t successfully cover up something this consequential. That suggests a stunning unfamiliarity with the totalitarian, authoritarian, surveillance-obsessed nature of the modern Chinese government, as well as not-so-distant history.

In 1979, the city of Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union suffered a sudden and mysterious outbreak of anthrax, sickening 94 people and killing at least 64 of them. The Soviets blamed tainted meat.

It wasn’t until thirteen years later — 1992- that President Boris Yeltsin admitted, without going into details, that the anthrax outbreak was the result of military activity at the facility. During those thirteen years, while an intense debate raged within the international scientific and intelligence communities on whether the Russians were telling the truth, the Soviet Union continued its offensive biological warfare program unabated.

Around the time Yeltsin admitted the military facility was responsible for the incident, Russia allowed a team of Western scientists to go to Sverdlovsk to investigate the outbreak. The team visited Sverdlovsk in June 1992 and August 1993 and included Professor Matt Meselson.

Although the KGB had confiscated hospital and other records after the incident, the Western scientists were able to track where all the victims had been at the time of the anthrax release.

Their results showed that on the day of the incident all the victims were clustered along a straight line downwind from the military facility. Livestock in the same area also died of anthrax. After completing their investigation, the team concluded the outbreak was caused by a release of an aerosol of anthrax pathogen at the military facility. But they were unable to determine what caused the release or what specific activities were conducted at the facility.

Notice that detail about the KGB confiscating hospital records.

Recall that Chinese authorities would not turn over the raw personalized health data from 174 of the first COVID-19 cases to the World Health Organization investigators last month. What could be in there that’s so significant that the Chinese government would refuse to turn it over? Whatever it is, it was serious enough to get a public rebuke from the Biden administration. A regime acting guilty doesn’t necessarily mean that it is guilty. But a regime acting guilty doesn’t strengthen the argument that it is innocent, either.

Some people are genuinely insisting that an authoritarian regime could never successfully cover up the accidental release of a biological pathogen upon an unsuspecting civilian population when this precise scenario happened a few decades ago. (Hell, our own government’s record on releasing dangerous pathogens near civilians in the 1950s and 1960s is appalling.)

Biden: Schools Should Be Close to Open Five Days a Week by the End of April

I’m glad that President Biden does not think that a school being open for one day a week counts as a school being “reopened.” I just wish he had made this clear to White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier, instead of throwing her under the bus last night during a live CNN town hall:

COOPER: Well, let me ask you, your administration had set a goal to open the majority of schools in your first 100 days. You’re now saying that means those schools may only be open for at least one day a week —

BIDEN: No, that’s not true. That’s what was reported.

COOPER: Uh-huh.

BIDEN: That’s not true. That was a mistake in the communication. But what I’m talking about is I said opening the majority of schools in K through eighth grade, because they’re the easiest to open, the most needed to be open in terms of the impact on children and families having to stay at home —

COOPER: So when do you think that would be K through eight —


COOPER: — at least five days a week if possible?

BIDEN: I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days.

Hear that, school districts? That’s April 29.

Rarely Do You Hear a Politician Say, ‘I Will Not Make That Happen’

The U.S. Department of Education began a pause on student-loan payments in March 2020. The Department also stopped collections on defaulted loans, and established a zero-percent interest rate. The Trump administration extended that pause twice, and upon taking office, Biden extended the payment pause through September 30, 2021. Biden has proposed the federal government should forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for each borrower, and also proposed to eliminate all the student debt of those who attended public colleges or universities, private historically black college and universities, and undergraduate tuition.

And yet, some Democrats see this as a timid and unsatisfactory half-measure. Last night, a questioner at the CNN town hall pushed Biden to go much further:

JOYCELYN FISH, COMMUNITY THEATER MARKETING DIRECTOR: Student loans are crushing my family, friends and fellow Americans.

BIDEN: Me too.

FISH: The American dream is to succeed.

BIDEN: You think I’m kidding.

FISH: But how can we fulfill that dream, when debt is many people’s only option for a degree? We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed. We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?

BIDEN: I will not make that happen. It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or a public university. It depends on the idea that I say to a community, I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn and schools my children — I went to a great school. I went to a state school. But is that is going to be forgiven, rather than use that money to provide money for early education for young children who are — come from disadvantaged circumstances?

Biden is capable of saying no to the left wing of his party. He just doesn’t exercise those rejection muscles nearly often enough.

ADDENDUM: Joe Biden is the president, but Joe Manchin is the guy who really decides what gets done in Washington:

Manchin has privately informed President Joe Biden that he won’t join any Democratic efforts to force through provisions in his economic rescue package if they are ruled in violation of strict Senate budget restrictions, the latest warning sign for Biden’s push for a hike to the federal minimum wage.

The short version of this: Democrats can avoid a filibuster by passing legislation through reconciliation, but under the Senate’s longstanding “Byrd Rule,” provisions in the bill have to relate to the budget, and the Senate parliamentarian has the final say on what is extraneous. Sixty senators could vote to overrule the parliamentarian, but Manchin is making clear he will oppose that.

In other words, a federally mandated $15 minimum wage isn’t going to happen, unless Manchin changes his mind.

Health Care

The Disappearing Vaccine Doses

A woman receives the second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine in Sarasota, Florida, February 10, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

On the menu today: The problems in the vaccine rollout don’t make sense. We know how many manufacturers are sending to the states, and we know how many vaccines are ending up in arms. And somewhere along the line, a whole bunch of vaccines just . . . seem to disappear.

Is the Issue of Missing Vaccines Just a Matter of States Setting Aside Second Doses?

As of this morning, according to the New York Times, Moderna and Pfizer have shipped more than 70 million doses to the states, and somehow the states have gotten only 52.8 million of those shots into peoples’ arms. The Bloomberg chart has a slightly better figure, showing states have administered 54.6 million doses, out of roughly the same total.

That leaves anywhere from 15.4 to 17.2 million doses either in transit or sitting on shelves somewhere. The country is vaccinating about 1.67 million people per day according to the Times data, 1.69 million per day on the Bloomberg chart.

If Pfizer and Moderna stopped delivering new doses, we could keep vaccinating people at the current rate for nine days using the Bloomberg data, ten days using the Times data.

Why are so many FDA-approved, manufacturer-distributed vaccines sitting in the supply chain instead of getting into peoples’ bloodstreams? Some of the problem might be weather delays, particularly this week across the Midwest. But that doesn’t quite explain the gap between doses distributed and doses administered, which has slowly crept down from about 20 million doses at the start of the month.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is always mutating, and most mutations won’t make that much of a difference in how it works. But mutations that make it more contagious or virulent matter a lot, and we’re detecting more mutations making the virus potentially worse. (This doesn’t necessarily mean the pace of mutation is changing, so much as we’re doing more tests and detecting more mutations. Also, mutations that make the virus less contagious are less likely to get noticed and recorded, because those versions of the virus will spread less.) Some virologists are fuming that society is letting up on its mitigation measures, letting the virus metaphorically get up off the mat after we’ve dealt it some tough punches.

The question is more pressing than ever: Where are those unused vaccine doses, and what is stopping states from getting them into arms quicker? Yesterday brought the news that the Biden administration is offering to set up 100 federally supported vaccination sites by the end of February, but those sites wouldn’t come with any additional doses of the vaccine. States would have to provide the federal sites with doses from their existing supply, and at least for now, states are saying they don’t have the doses to spare.

If the problem facing us genuinely is a lack of people and places to vaccinate, with roughly 15 to 17 million doses sitting on shelves, then federally run vaccination sites would help pick up the pace. But locality after locality and state after state keep describing the same problem. They lack enough doses to meet demand; they don’t lack trained personnel or spaces to conduct vaccinations.

In New Jersey:

Bergen County’s decision to stop sharing its COVID-19 vaccines with municipal health departments is not sitting well in Ridgewood.

The village posted a note on its website on Feb. 7 telling residents they must seek appointments for vaccinations elsewhere. Ridgewood had set up its own vaccination clinic after what Mayor Susan Knudsen called months of planning and a “tremendous” quantity of resources, but the clinic is now unused because the town has no vaccines to give out.

Paramus posted a similar note on its website the same day, letting residents know that the local Health Department would not be receiving any vaccines.

“I’m sure if there was enough to go around, they’d love to give it to the community,” said Mayor Richard LaBarbiera. “We’re more than happy to give them out.”

That article mentions that Bergen County is receiving about 2,000 doses a week. The county has “more than 190,000 older adults.” If they started vaccinating “older adults” in mid-December, at this pace the county will be done vaccinating older adults by October . . . of 2022.

In Montana:

The VA has about 45,000 Montana veterans enrolled in the health care system. It receives 600 vaccines each week, and clinics are scheduled based on when they get doses. The VA calls eligible veterans to sign them up for a slot.

Currently, the VA is only offering vaccines to people 75 and older or with specific medical conditions. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, don’t worry about not getting an appointment. As long as you’re enrolled through the MTVAHCS, you are on the list and will eventually get a call.

We are two months into the vaccination process, and the Veterans Administration still doesn’t have enough doses to prioritize a healthy 74-year-old veteran? For a long while, I was in the “just vaccinate anyone you can, even the pizza guy, because each vaccinated person gets us closer to herd immunity.” I don’t even mind vaccinating prisoners in jails, because the virus spreads quickly in those locations and they don’t have options for social distancing. But some of these cases are ridiculous.

In Michigan:

A large scale COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Grand Rapids is prepared to give shots to tens of thousands of people each day, but current supply is limiting that reality.

In the three weeks since it opened, 13,000 people have received the vaccine there, but clinic operators say it could be vaccinating up to 50,000 people a day (between first and second doses). Last week, there was no available supply at all.

“It’s very frustrating when we have a week like last week where we had no vaccines to give and so we were closed,” said Mark VanDyke of Spectrum Health, who has been running the clinic’s day-to-day operations.

Elsewhere in Michigan:

A significant reduction in Michigan’s Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine allocation forced Beaumont Health was forced to cancel 1,884 second dose appointments scheduled for Feb. 18, the health system said Monday.

The decrease in allotment was unexpected, the health system said Monday, and staff is working to automatically reschedule all canceled appointments to one week later at the same time and on the same day of the week.

In Massachusetts:

After administering 285,000 doses last week, Massachusetts is now ranked third in the country when it comes to shots administered per capita. However, some people say they are feeling frustrated that the state’s plan is not meeting their needs.

According to Bruce Murphy, the Yarmouth Health Director, the Cape has only received 975 doses. Much too few for the 26,000 residents over the age of 75.

Barnstable County has been shuffling their weekly allotment between different towns and Murphy is pushing the state to open a mass vaccination site at Cape Cod Community College. The closest site now is located at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium.

In Alabama:

Mass vaccine sites in eight cities across Alabama combined to give more than 76,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines this week as the state looked to surge its delivery.

But some of those sites may not open at all next week, or will operate at a lower capacity than they did this week.

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Friday that the state doesn’t get allocated enough doses every week to supply those drive-thru clinics at the same rates, and that some of the sites may choose not to run the drive-thru clinics next week.

In Illinois:

Mercyhealth canceled more than 1,000 COVID-19 vaccination appointments Monday after the hospital system said it received zero first-dose vaccines for this week.

Mercyhealth, just like many other hospital systems across the country, request vaccine doses from state health departments and it’s up to those departments to allocate a number of vaccine doses.

According to Mercyhealth, it received zero first-dose vaccines for 605 patients in Winnebago County and 470 patients in Rock County, Wisconsin. As a result, it canceled appointments for patients scheduled to be vaccinated in Rockford and Janesville.

“Hospitals make weekly requests for vaccine, and the state allocates and ships the COVID-19 vaccine,” Mercyhealth said in a news release Monday. “Mercyhealth is hopeful to receive the requested amount, but it may or may not be granted by the state.

Why is the distribution process so opaque? Why are states unable or unwilling to share how many doses they receive from manufacturers each week, and which counties or communities they’re sending them to? Why are state governments this “black box” where manufacturers send in a steady torrent of vaccines, but only a slow trickle comes out?

Judging by this account in the Washington Post, a chunk of those 15.4 million to 17 million doses may be second doses that state authorities have set aside for those who received the first dose:

The federal government sends second doses to states on a schedule based on when first doses go out the door — not when the shots are put into arms. In Maryland’s system, that means second doses can sit unused for two weeks. A slow use of first doses can result in an even larger glut of second doses shipped and waiting to be used.

“A dose sitting on a loading dock is not a second dose by any measure, except the Maryland health secretary is calling it that,” Rosapepe told acting health secretary Dennis Schrader at last week’s hearing. “Hoarding doses for three or four weeks just isn’t good public health policy.”

But Schrader defended the practice, noting each second dose is specifically paired with a first dose: “When we give a first dose to an individual, we feel ethically compelled to make sure that person gets their second dose.”

Schrader said using doses earmarked as second shots to provide people with their first shots could gum up the flow of doses later, potentially creating a shortfall.

In Virginia, [state vaccine coordinator Danny] said the decision to hold first doses in reserve led to a backlog of 360,000 second doses.

Nobody wants someone to get their second dose later than they should. But both the Trump administration and the Biden administration told states they shouldn’t be holding doses in reserve for future use. The Biden administration insists they’ve made states guarantees about how many doses to expect three weeks down the road, which should make holding back doses unnecessary.

The New York Times noticed something we covered back on February 4 — that governors, feeling pressure from the public, are expanding eligibility, but the supply isn’t expanding with it. All that does is allow people to make appointments further in the future. Maybe having a date offers people some peace of mind. But keep in mind, vaccinations started December 15. We’re two months into this process. “We’ll get back to you someday on when we can give you a date for an appointment” is a pretty frustrating answer.

ADDENDUM: The Editors of NR call for the National Guard to leave Capitol Hill:

These troops have done their duty admirably, but it’s time to go home. New security protocols may be necessary at the Capitol — certainly the police should be better prepared for protests that might run out of control — but they should be carefully thought-through and calibrated. And they shouldn’t include a tall razor-wire fence that symbolically separates our elected representatives from the people they serve.

Politics & Policy

Another Impeachment Failure

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) speaks during a news conference with House impeachment managers in Washington, D.C., February 13, 2021. (Al Drago/Reuters)

On the menu today: You can tell it’s a Monday already. Impeachment ends with a whimper, not a bang, as the Senate is gift-wrapped a bombshell witness but bizarrely chooses to skip over her; CDC director Rochelle Walensky changes her recommendations for reopening schools after meeting with teachers; and a teachers’ union representative argues that plummeting test scores are nothing to worry about.

The Failure of Impeachment, Again

At this point, the second impeachment of Donald Trump over his actions leading up to and during the January 6 Capitol Hill riot generated just about the worst possible outcome. The former president is acquitted again, his fans are outraged that he was tried again, and his foes are outraged that he was acquitted again. The capstone to the debacle arrived Saturday with an inexplicable decision by senators to not hear from any witnesses right after a majority voted to hear witnesses, ensuring that the few Republicans who stood up to Trump or voted for witnesses went out on a limb, and will now face the full wrath of Trump and his supporters, for absolutely nothing.

Those of us on the right have grown used to cynically thinking of the Republican Party as uniquely hapless and incompetent. Our friends on the left would dispute the word “uniquely.”

Our Congress responded to an attack upon itself with an alternating delayed and rushed impeachment that ends with the same result as before. Trump comes out of this, if not quite strengthened, in no worse shape than he did before the impeachment trial started. American life has already largely moved on. Senate Democrats wanted to move on to Biden’s agenda, and the new administration certainly prioritized its agenda over holding Trump accountable.

The blame for Trump’s acquittal starts first and foremost with the 43 Senate Republicans who voted that way. Those Republicans either genuinely believe that Trump did nothing that warranted a historic rebuke, or they genuinely believe the Constitution gives the Senate the authority to convict presidents and bar them from future office but not former presidents. (I guess these Republicans believe that in those final days before leaving office, the president has carte blanche.) In the end, it appears far too many Senate Republicans perceived a vote to convict as career suicide, and they were just not willing to lose their offices over this.

Last week I argued that perhaps this would be better settled in a courtroom of the judicial branch. If a prosecutor looks at the evidence and concludes an incitement charge wouldn’t stick, that will settle the matter. If a jury acquits or convicts the president, that will settle the matter.

But multiple times in the past two months Democrats, who viewed opposing Trump something akin to a divinely directed mission over the past five years, made spectacularly wrongheaded or cynical decisions. On January 7, the morning after the attack, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer initially announced that the House would adjourn until Inauguration Day. They did reconvene on January 11, and several House Democrats introduced articles of impeachment that day — but the House spent a day on a resolution calling upon Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment — a move that Pence had already made clear he wasn’t willing to make.

After waiting six days, Democrats concluded “time is of the essence” and skipped over hearings and the committee process and voting upon the article directly. The impeachment article accused Trump of “inciting an insurrection,” which left too much wiggle room, compared to dereliction of duty.

Ten House Republicans voted to impeach, but there’s no indication that Democratic leaders even considered asking them if they wanted to be impeachment managers. (If you want to persuade a Republican lawmaker, you might want a Republican lawmaker to make the argument!) Instead Pelosi picked Eric Swalwell, perceived as an oily partisan hack now notorious for a relationship with a Chinese spy.

Then, during the trial, the House impeachment managers were handed a gift-wrapped bombshell witness, in the form of Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, (R., Wash.):

Herrera Beutler said she was stunned when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told her of a conversation he had with Trump on Jan. 6: “He said to the President, ‘You’ve got to hold them. You need to get on TV right now, you need to get on Twitter, you need to call these people off.’ And he said, the President said, ‘Kevin, they’re not my people.’ ”

She said McCarthy told the President, “Yes they are, they just came through my windows and my staff is running for cover. Yeah, they’re your people. Call them off.”

Trump’s response, as McCarthy told Herrera Beutler, was, “Well I guess these people are just more angry about the election and upset than you are.”

Herrera Beutler said the President’s failure to respond to the Jan. 6 attack was “a dereliction of duty, a violation of his oath of office to protect the Constitution.”

“A president who sees an attack happening like this has an oath by his office to do what he can to stop it, and he didn’t.”

“I just think you have to take your party perspective out of this,” she explained.

Senate Democrats were content with merely inserting her account into the record, instead of calling her or McCarthy as a witness, and letting the whole country hear it from either or both of them, in their own words.

As I’ve argued from the start, if you’re going to hold an impeachment trial, hold an impeachment trial. (Napoleon had some thoughts on this sort of thing.) Either you do it, and go all-out, or you don’t. If you think it’s futile because you’ll never convince 17 GOP senators, then dismiss it and move on. If you think it’s worth doing, then do it right — including hearing from witnesses. Don’t leave stones unturned or witnesses and arguments that could move people unturned.

CDC Director: Yes, I Meant It When I Said Vaccinating Teachers Is Preferred but Not Required

On Friday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky held a conference call, laying out her agency’s guidelines for reopening schools. For the past year, we’ve been repeatedly warned that the worst thing that could happen would be politicians and political-interest groups interfering and contradicting the assessment of public-health experts.

And then Walensky declared:

we have conducted an in-depth review of the available science and evidence base to guide our recommendations, and we have also engaged with many education and public-health partners, to hear firsthand from parents and teachers, directly, about their experiences and concerns. These sessions were so informative, and direct changes to the guidance were made as a result of them.

Wait, I thought the CDC only followed the science? Why are they making changes to guidance after meeting with parents and teachers and “education partners”?

Those CDC guidelines state:

Universal and correct use of masks, that should be required for all students, teachers, and staff. and physical distancing of at least 6 feet between people with cohorting or podding of students to minimize exposure across the school environment.

Back in July 2020, the Newton, Mass., school district was struggling with the familiar issues of reopening schools and how to keep a safe distance between people. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller emailed a Harvard Professor of Medicine and Chief of Infectious Disease to weigh in, asking, “On a policy issue, we are leaning to 6’ of separation in our classrooms rather than the 3’ that DESE/WHO allow. Thoughts?

The reply from Harvard’s chief of infectious disease was clear:

I do think if people are masked it is quite safe and much more practical to be at 3 feet. I think this is very viable for the middle/high schools and even late grade schools and would improve the feasibility. I suspect you may want to be at 6f for some of the very young kids who can’t mask.

She also referred the town leaders to Harvard’s COVID-19 School and Community Resource Library document, which included links to many studies concluding three feet was sufficient in a school environment and declared, “a distance of three feet (torso to torso) is likely low-risk in asymptomatic individuals wearing masks.”

Harvard’s chief of infectious disease in July was . . . Rochelle Walensky, now the director of the CDC.

Why was three feet an acceptable distance for Massachusetts schools last summer, but six feet is the needed distance now across the country?

Once again, we were told that any interference with what the “SCIENCE” said was the worst possible outcome. And now, after meeting teachers, the CDC director is changing her recommendations?

I’m glad that Walensky pushed back a bit at White House press secretary Jen Psaki claim that Walensky’s assessment that teachers did not need to be vaccinated before returning to classroom was merely Walensky speaking in her “personal capacity.” As I noted, when the CDC director speaks at a White House event, she does not issue personal opinions about public health that contradict her agency’s official views. (If she did, that would be quite a story, and call into question whether she should remain as director of the CDC.) Walensky’s assessment is her assessment. There is no other secret different assessment lurking in the back somewhere.

CHUCK TODD: All right, let’s talk about the school guidelines. And there’s some folks that are wondering how much politics may have gotten involved or how much the White House may have gotten involved. Because last week, the White House walked back some comments of yours about teacher vaccinations. And you were saying that they were not necessary in order to open schools. The White House said you were speaking in your personal capacity. Are you speaking here as the head of the CDC or in your personal capacity? And should people see a difference?

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I’m speaking as the head of the CDC. I believe that’s why you have me here today. Our guidance has now been released. It was released on Friday. And it specifically articulates the five key mitigation strategies that we need to keep our schools opened. And other layered mitigation strategies, including teacher vaccination, that are nonessential to get our schools opened but we do recommend.

I just wish Walensky had pushed back a little harder. I guess the lesson is that if somebody on the Biden team disputes CDC recommendations for political reasons, it’s not as bad, somehow.

Over at the Delaware Valley Journal, Davis Giangiulio reports about a teachers’ union head who’s rejecting the CDC assessment and insisting the right measuring stick for determining whether it is safe to teach in a classroom is whether a teacher feels it is safe to teach. Whatever happened to “trust the science”?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reaffirmed that classroom instruction can be done safely, pointing to a study in the Journal of American Medicine. “The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring. There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” It’s a finding reinforced by multiple reports.

[Education Associations of Norristown Area President Lee]Spears remains unmoved.

“There’s a clause in everything issued from the CDC that says basically, ‘where possible,’” Spears said. And even if his union accepted the science, “Until you can take away the stress and concern about becoming ill, it’s tough for teachers and for students to be in the right mindset to learn,” Spears added.

This union head says that even if kids’ test scores drop, they’re learning other things as their absence from school buildings approaches its second year.

“I think there will be different skills that kids are going to learn,” said Spears. “Will it be a year when my students’ test scores go up through the roof? I don’t know. Are there other skills that kids are learning that they’ve probably never had the opportunity to learn before? Absolutely.”

To hell with this guy. If you think learning from a screen for a year or more is just as good, get out of the school system and become a television programmer.

ADDENDUM: A small, but notable bit of good news over the weekend: The Biden administration at least acknowledged that the Chinese government did not cooperate with the World Health Organization’s investigation into the start of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, and declared, “to better understand this pandemic and prepare for the next one, China must make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak.”

We’ll see if there’s any action behind those words. Walter Russell Mead recently summarized the tough foreign-policy lesson of the Obama years that most Democrats would prefer to ignore: “No president in recent decades made as many inspiring speeches about democracy and human rights as President Obama — and yet no administration in recent decades saw authoritarian powers make so many gains.

Politics & Policy

The Icons of the Left Collapse

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appears wearing a face mask at the unveiling for the Mother Cabrini statue in Manhattan, N.Y., October 12, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

On the menu today: You would have to look far and wide to find a person more celebrated by progressives and most of the national media in 2020 than Andrew Cuomo. You would have to look far and wide to find a political group more celebrated by progressives and like-minded media in 2020 than the Lincoln Project. And you would have to look far and wide to find a place more celebrated by progressives and like-minded media in 2020 than California. And in the last 24 hours, all three fell from their high pedestals and landed with a hard “thud.”

New York State Admits Cover-up of Virus Deaths among Nursing-Home Residents

If you have been reading National Review for the past year, you have known that Andrew Cuomo was an egomaniacal, blustering, bullying charlatan who made catastrophic errors in judgment but whose reputation was protected by CNN’s prime-time programming and national media who desperately needed a heroic Democratic figure to contrast against President Trump. Over the past eleven months, you read about various details of the contrast between the grand illusion of Cuomo and reality from David Harsanyi, Pradheep Shanker, Kyle Smith, Kathryn Jean Lopez, Mairead McArdle, Zach Evans, Tobias Hoonhout, Brittany Bernstein, The Editors, a bunch of others I’m forgetting, and, ahem, me, multiple times. I would argue no other national publication did more to showcase how New York State’s government kept failing its citizens, with deadly consequences, during this pandemic.

And now we get the cherry on top, as the New York Post reports that the state government deliberately hid the figures on the number of nursing-home residents killed by the coronavirus, because they didn’t want the U.S. Department of Justice investigating them:

Governor Cuomo’s top aide privately apologized to Democratic lawmakers for withholding the state’s nursing-home death toll from COVID-19 — telling them “we froze” out of fear the true numbers would “be used against us” by federal prosecutors, The Post has learned.

The stunning admission of a cover-up was made by Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa during a video conference call with state Democratic leaders in which she said the Cuomo administration had rebuffed a legislative request for the tally in August because “right around the same time, [then-President Donald Trump] turns this into a giant political football,” according to an audio recording of the two-hour-plus meeting.

“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” DeRosa said. “He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer.”

In addition to attacking Cuomo’s fellow Democratic governors, DeRosa said, Trump “directs the Department of Justice to do an investigation into us.”

“And basically, we froze,” she told the lawmakers on the call.

“Because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we give to you guys, what we start saying, was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.”

DeRosa added: “That played a very large role into this.”

Here’s a crazy thought: Offer accurate and updated numbers to everyone and accept the consequences. There is no “but our political foes will make a big stink about this” exception to public-disclosure laws, particularly over something as important as public-health data.

The Post reported that the state legislators on the call were not impressed with this explanation.

You may recall that last month, the state Department of Health had said 8,711 New Yorkers died in nursing homes, but after Attorney General Letitia James issued a report that estimated the deaths of nursing-home residents in hospitals should be much higher, the state revised their figures to 12,743 — and now it’s up to 13,297; 15,049 when assisted-living/adult-care facilities are factored in.

New York State ranks second in the country in total deaths, fourth in total cases, and second in deaths per million. So far, one out of every 426 New Yorkers who was alive in 2019 has died of the coronavirus. (In the state of Florida, where governor Ron DeSantis is often cited as an example of bad pandemic management, the death toll is one out of every 757 Floridians — and keep in mind, Florida has a lot more seniors than New York State.)

Andrew Cuomo should resign, but he will not. A decent state legislature that stood for accountability would remove Cuomo from office, make an example of him, and roll the dice with lieutenant governor Kathy Hochel.

Others at the Lincoln Project Knew about John Weaver’s Predatory Behavior

Anyone with the Lincoln Project who knew about John Weaver’s predatory behavior, and who averted their eyes and remained silent to ensure the money kept coming in, should never work in politics again.

Last night, Miranda Green of New York magazine unveiled a deep, thorough investigation:

On June 17, a person working at the Lincoln Project sent an email to co-founder [Ron] Steslow that reported ten allegations of Weaver’s harassing men, including at least one employee at the Lincoln Project; three people independently described the contents of the email to Intelligencer and said it warned Weaver could be using his position at the company to make promises of career advancement to prey on young men. The complaint called Weaver’s predatory behavior an immediate threat to the company that, if it became public, could render a death blow to the Lincoln Project’s reputation. As the complaint noted, the Lincoln Project itself was attacking Trump as a sexual predator. Steslow raised the email with his fellow co-founder Galen and corporate counsel Matthew Sanderson, the AP reported. Yet Weaver’s harassment continued. (Weaver did not respond to requests for comment.)

. . . [Steve] Schmidt told Intelligencer: “There is no human being, no person involved with the Lincoln Project who made any type of allegation of any type of inappropriate communication that would have triggered an HR investigation or the hiring of an outside counsel to conduct such an investigation,” he said. “There were zero allegations, complaints, media interrogatories directed to the Lincoln Project with any specificity, at any time about, any misconduct, towards any person.”

It certainly looks as if Steve Schmidt is lying in that full-spectrum, no-wiggle-room denial. The article continues:

Former employees faulted the Lincoln Project for continuing to hire the interns recommended by Weaver after receiving a warning he would dangle job opportunities to potential victims. “It’s just enraging to know that they were enabling and they perpetuated this kind of behavior. And didn’t take action until it just came out,” said one former employee. “There was knowledge of Weaver and his history, and yet there were people directly brought on who were recommended by him, so I still don’t know what to say why that was the case.”

Back during the campaign, it did not take the world’s greatest detective to recognize that Steve Schmidt would say anything if it helped his cause, regardless of the truth. Among his more bonkers claims were his contention that Jonah Goldberg, Noah Rothman, and Matt Lewis were insufficiently opposed to Trump and that the fly on Mike Pence’s head was a sign that he’s the devil.

The world of American politics has a lot of shamelessly dishonest and cynical hacks. What makes the likes of Schmidt and his colleagues stand out is that they are shamelessly dishonest and cynical hacks who somehow managed to convince a whole lot of progressive donors that they were the honest and idealistic ones.

The Golden State Isn’t Supposed to Look Like Tupac’s ‘California Love’ Video

Ezra Klein is not the first New York Times columnist to recognize and lament that California is not living up to the dreams of its progressive voters or lawmakers. Similar arguments have been made by Jill Cowan, Miriam Pawel, and Farhad Manjoo, more than once.

But the subhead on Klein’s column puts it starkly: “If progressivism can’t work there, why should the country believe it can work anywhere else?” The Golden State has either a non-functioning or minimally functioning Republican Party that holds no statewide elected offices, just nine of 40 state senate seats, and just 19 of 80 state house seats. Among the state’s largest cities, only Fresno, Bakersfield, and Anaheim have Republican mayors. Progressive Democrats have no one else to blame.

And Klein cannot ignore that the results suck. The wealthy opt-out of underperforming and currently closed public schools. The state has the highest poverty rate in the nation, once you adjust for cost of living, as well as the highest income inequality. Klein tries to pin the problem on hypocrisy and the “operational conservatism” of some self-described progressive voters:

“If you’re living eight or 10 people to a home, it’s hard to protect yourself from the virus,” Senator Wiener told me. “Yet what we see at times is people with a Bernie Sanders sign and a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in their window, but they’re opposing an affordable housing project or an apartment complex down the street.”

If California progressives see their ideology as a fashion to wear instead of a philosophy and set of principles to live by . . . what does that say about progressivism?

Kevin Williamson rakes Klein over the coals:

Unless Klein intends to argue for some kind of benign dictatorship, he must eventually understand that the troubles he identifies in California are baked into the progressive cake. Create a political power that limits property rights, and that power will be used in the interests of politically powerful people at the expense of less-powerful people as long as there are democratic processes that give them the opportunity. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned the program is. It doesn’t matter what a regulation was meant to do — it matters what it does.

I would just add one point. I’d rather live in a state with two competitive, functional, and rational political parties than a one-party state where my preferred party of Republicans overwhelmingly have all the power. Because in a one-party state, the ruling party gets lazy and corrupt. Sometimes this happens slowly, sometimes this happens quickly. But eventually a “we can do whatever we want, because a big majority will vote for us anyway” mentality takes hold.

A functioning opposition party keeps the ruling party honest, because it means there are consequences for screw-ups, scandals, and getting caught with a hand in the cookie jar. You know what kind of elected official works hard, focuses on constituent service, and keeps his nose clean, literally and figuratively? A guy who won his last race with 51 percent.

What’s the theme that ties together Andrew Cuomo, the Lincoln Project, and California’s governing class? Since 2015 or so, a whole bunch of people who hated Donald Trump — and I am among those who believe the former president earned his animosity and scorn — chose to believe that anyone who stood in opposition to Trump had to be one of the good guys. A huge swath of the media world, elites across American society, and donors large and small, conflated political agreement in opposition to Trump with all other positive virtues. Outspoken opposition to Trump turned into an all-purpose badge of righteousness that many believed would outweigh or outshine any other issues or character flaws.

When a society adopts this kind of mentality, bad people recognize this. They pick up on the fact that certain views or opinions or labels can be used as moral get-out-of-jail-free cards. Why do you think so many self-identified feminist men keep turning out to be creeps when alone with a woman? Why do you think some billionaires describe themselves as socialist? Why do you think self-professed environmentalists keep taking private jets to climate-change conferences? Society has taught them that their viewpoint outweighs their actual behavior, actions, and in some cases, and how they treat other people.

You made this bed, progressives. We tried to hold these guys accountable, but you wouldn’t listen to us. The only way we get better results is if you guys hold your own guys accountable.

ADDENDUM: You must read Ryan Mills’s piece on California parents describing the effects of a nearly year-long school closure upon their children. Sadly, it’s not just California. Hopefully, America’s kids are staying in contact with their friends as the school closures drag on long past any reasonable point. But online learning means kids remain separated from everyone they don’t deliberately reach out to — every non-close-friend classmate, the kids they with play at recess, every adult in the school who isn’t their teacher — everyone they use to socializing with in the course of a school day. And even if a child’s emotional and psychological reaction to this forced isolation doesn’t result in an emergency-room visit, it’s a brutal toll, and one that is, at this point, entirely unnecessary.

Politics & Policy

Impeachment Alternative: Is a Courtroom the Better Venue for Judging Trump?

The Senate votes on the rules to govern the trial as it begins the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on the floor of the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2021. (U.S. Senate TV/Handout via Reuters)

Fine, fine. If the overwhelming majority of the American news media insist that the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump is the biggest event going on in the country right now, we can talk about the trial. But arguing about Donald Trump’s responsibility for the riot on January 6 — spoiler alert, he’s heavily responsible — already feels like debating history. Meanwhile, at least one WHO official is talking up the notion that SARS-CoV-2 originated from someplace outside Wuhan, China, and the Biden administration’s early moves are sending mixed signals to Beijing.

Perhaps a Different Jury Should Judge Trump’s Actions

At some point, the comparison of impeachment to a jury trial in a criminal case obscures or muddles more than it illuminates. In a criminal trial, the defendant doesn’t have the ability to end or influence the political careers of the jurors. The jurors ideally have no connection to the defendant at all; they certainly can’t have a professional connection to the defendant. Criminal trials call plenty of witnesses. The jury is usually sequestered and instructed to avoid media coverage of the case; jurors certainly don’t go out and give comments to the media about how they think the case is going.

If Trump’s actions leading up to and on January 6 were not merely unpresidential or reckless but criminal — and if more than 33 Republicans believe that impeachment and conviction is an inappropriate consequence because he’s no longer in office — then perhaps the better option for accountability is for the feds or the District of Columbia to pursue criminal charges against him for inciting a riot.

District of Columbia law states:

A riot in the District of Columbia is a public disturbance involving an assemblage of 5 or more persons which by tumultuous and violent conduct or the threat thereof creates grave danger of damage or injury to property or persons.

. . . Whoever willfully incites or urges other persons to engage in a riot shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 180 days or a fine of not more than the amount set [elsewhere in the criminal code] or both.

. . . If in the course and as a result of a riot a person suffers serious bodily harm or there is property damage in excess of $5,000, every person who willfully incited or urged others to engage in the riot shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of not more than the amount set forth [elsewhere in the criminal code], or both.

Prosecutors would have a really difficult time securing a conviction, as Jonathan Turley and others argue. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio set a particularly high bar for criminal incitement. Prosecutors would need to prove beyond a doubt that Trump intended to incite the crowd to violence and that illegal activity was imminent and likely. Trump did say, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” That by itself might be enough to create a reasonable doubt.

The U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and the D.C. district attorney both said they would not rule out investigating Trump and filing criminal charges, but didn’t indicate that path was likely.

But if Trump had his day in court — not the Senate — before a jury of his peers, or at least twelve Washington, D.C., jurors who had minimal preexisting opinions about his post-election actions — perhaps that would be the best way to resolve the issue, as the impeachment process is too tied up in partisanship and loyalty to or animosity against Trump.

Keep in mind, Trump is being investigated for criminal activity by the Fulton County district attorney in Georgia, at least two separate investigations by the Manhattan DA, and the state attorney general of New York. A lot of people seem convinced that Trump will be the overwhelmingly dominant force in Republican politics for many years to come. One wonders if that remains the case if Trump becomes a convicted felon.

WHO in China Believes This?

Peter Ben Embarek, member of the WHO’s team in China, is now floating the theory that the virus did not originate in Wuhan in late November or early December of 2019. This is the same guy who yesterday linked to a report in the Beijing-friendly South China Morning Post, called U.S. intelligence “frankly wrong on many aspects,” and then complained that the American government didn’t trust WHO’s judgment enough. Look, pal, if you don’t want to trust the U.S. intelligence community, fine. Just don’t turn around later in the day and tell me to trust the Chinese government’s assessments. We already know Beijing lied about the contagiousness of this virus for weeks!

What’s particularly wild is that Embarek is now sort of disagreeing with the Chinese government, touting a theory that Chinese authorities deem unlikely.

Liang Wannian, head of the Covid-19 expert panel for China’s National Health Commission, said Tuesday that Chinese authorities had tested blood samples for antibodies, and checked medical records from 233 hospitals and clinics, but hadn’t found evidence of the virus spreading around Wuhan before early December 2019.

There had been no unexpected fluctuations in mortality levels from pneumonia or other illness in the preceding months, he said, and sales of cough and cold medicine didn’t provide useful indicators either.

Remember that in June, a research team revealed the results of a study of satellite photographs and “observed a dramatic increase in hospital traffic outside five major Wuhan hospitals beginning late summer and early fall 2019.” That’s intriguing, but we don’t know for certain that those cars parked outside the hospital were necessarily patients or that that the people who were being treated inside were suffering from COVID-19-like symptoms. In fact, the notion SARS-CoV-2 could have been floating around for months and months — at least in this contagious and virulent form — and no doctor treating any of those patients in any of those hospitals noticed that it was a novel virus for months and months feels particularly unlikely. Think about how quickly the doctors in Wuhan warned their colleagues in December.

The one caveat I would make to that point stems from Lee Smith’s excellent essay in Tablet, where he observes that residents of Wuhan held turbulent protests against an incinerator project and air pollution . . . in July 2019. If the air quality in Wuhan has been terrible for years, maybe coughs and lung problems are so commonplace that a novel respiratory virus such as SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t get noticed as quickly as it would elsewhere.

Speaking of China . . .

The “ready from Day One” president is asking the Pentagon to review “the national security aspects of the administration’s China strategy,” and the report should be done by summer. The Biden administration is dropping the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict TikTok and halting the sale of TikTok from a Chinese company to an American one. The Biden administration withdrew a Trump administration rule that would require American schools and universities to disclose partnerships with Confucius Institutes and Classrooms.

And in a recent interview, Biden said of Chinese ruler Xi Jinping, “I’ve said to him all along, that we need not have a conflict.

Biden isn’t completely soft on China. In his call with Xi yesterday, the White House said Biden communicated “his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.” The Biden team is, so far, largely keeping the Trump approach to Taiwan in place. And a few days ago, the Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz aircraft carrier strike groups conducted a military exercise in the South China Sea.

But it looks as if the Biden approach is the carrot and the stick. So what will the Biden team do if and when Beijing takes the carrot and ignores the stick?

ADDENDUM: The good news:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that people who have been vaccinated are no longer required to quarantine after exposure to someone with the coronavirus, as long as they have received both doses of the vaccine and at least two weeks have passed since the second shot.

The bad news: This means that within weeks, if not sooner, we’re going to have a two-tiered society of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, where the vaccinated can live their lives normally and the unvaccinated can’t. And if you thought we were an angry and divided society before, just wait until people who want to get vaccinated and who can’t get one for weeks and months are told they can’t get on flights, gather in groups in arenas and concert halls, go into sections of bars and restaurants, etc., while other people can.

Health Care

‘Speeding Up’ the Vaccine Process Doesn’t Work

Medical workers prepare Moderna’s coronavirus vaccines at a drive-through vaccination site in Robstown, Texas, February 9, 2021. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

On the menu today: why the Biden administration’s recent use of the Defense Production Act for vaccines is less than meets the eye, the WHO investigation in Wuhan can’t tell us anything other than it trusts China’s denials of a lab accident, and South Africa decides to start using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Why We Can’t Just ‘Make More Vaccines Faster’

Between impeachment, the congressional wrangling over the relief package, and the Super Bowl, it was easy to miss the Biden administration’s announcement Friday on deciding to invoke the Defense Production Act — as the Washington Post put it, “to speed vaccinations and production of protective equipment.

“Speed vaccinations” is a generous assessment; it is more like the Defense Production Act is being preemptively invoked to prevent any disruptions early in the supply chain of vaccine production. The DPA will ensure Pfizer has first priority to needed supplies — as well as instructing other companies to manufacture more gloves and coronavirus tests. But the DPA can’t simply be used to make Pfizer or Moderna make more vaccines, or, as some not-well-informed governors such as Minnesota’s Tim Walz contend, force other companies to make the vaccine:

Walz said other governors are wondering if more can be done with facilities used for vaccine development efforts that hit dead ends.

“The question is, ‘why can’t we use their facilities, the Defense Production Act and have every pharmaceutical company producing vaccines and get us 300 million doses by May?’ The White House’ response was ‘We’re exploring everything. Those are possibilities,'” Walz said.

No, they are not. Invoking the Defense Production Act to tell other pharmaceutical companies to make the Pfizer, Moderna, or some other vaccine is like instructing fireworks factories to start manufacturing thermonuclear weapons. Or, if you feel the comparison to nuclear fusion is hyperbole, instructing the Ford Focus plant in Wayne, Ind., to start manufacturing Lamborghinis. You would have to tear out almost all of the existing equipment, retrain the workers, and start over, if not quite from the ground up, then only a bit above it.

A week ago, this newsletter laid out how the equipment used to make the vaccine is custom-made; you can’t just tweak existing equipment or substitute out one part. Recall Derek Lowe’s description in Science Translational Medicine, that each step requires

. . . special-purpose bespoke machines, and if you ask other drug companies if they have one sitting around, the answer will be, “of course not”. This is not anything close to a traditional drug manufacturing process. And this is the single biggest reason why you cannot simply call up those “dozens” of other companies and ask them to shift their existing production over to making the mRNA vaccines. There are not dozens of companies who make DNA templates on the needed scale. There are definitely not dozens of companies who can make enough RNA. But most importantly, I believe that you can count on one hand the number of facilities who can make the critical lipid nanoparticles. That doesn’t mean that you can’t build more of the machines, but I would assume that Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna (and CureVac as well) have largely taken up the production capacity for that sort of expansion as well.

Recall Kevin Williamson’s First Law: “Everything is simple when you don’t know a thing about it.” Here are a trio of experts politely laying out that Walz has no idea what he is talking about:

But the idea that any company, even another pharmaceutical company, can simply start producing the vaccines is easier than it sounds, according to some experts. Barry Bloom, a leading infectious disease expert at Harvard University, said it’s “one of the delusions I think people have.”

“This is a really complicated business that requires highly skilled people that you can’t go by, with a Defense Production Act, to make vaccines tomorrow,” he said.

“This is a really complex business,” Bloom added, in a recent interview.

NYU Langone Health vaccine expert Dr. Arthur Caplan said vaccines are “a pain in the neck” because unlike other pharmaceutical products, they rely on incubating biological ingredients.

“Sometimes what you’re trying to grow in an incubator doesn’t grow well, and you don’t know why. Historically, vaccine rollouts . . . have had some delay because the factory gets in trouble,” Caplan said.

Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Peter Hotez, another top vaccine expert, said the current demand is pushing the limits of manufacturing a brand new technology, messenger RNA, at scale.

“We knew the mRNA vaccines were not going to be the workhorse of this epidemic. It’s a new technology, it doesn’t have that capacity for scale like other technologies do,” Hotez said.

Pfizer does not have any unused production capacity sitting idle. The company is already working 24/7 to make their vaccine:

This is where the frozen mRNA is turned into a vaccine and vials are filled for distribution.

The process happens in Building 41 at Pfizer’s enormous Kalamazoo plant.

The COVID-19 vaccine uses most of the 1 million-square-foot building as it goes from start to finish. Three shifts of 30 to 40 people work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The lines are continuously staffed and didn’t stop for the holidays.

Just to get into the formulation portion of the plant, workers must first change into scrubs, then enter the facility and completely strip, donning an aseptic gown and finally gear that resembles spacesuits.

That’s from a detailed and valuable USA Today feature that explores how the Pfizer vaccine is created, step by step. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the abbreviated version is that at the Pfizer plant in Chesterfield, Mo., plasmids are grown in giant vats, placed into bags, and then frozen. From there the vaccine material is sent to Pfizer’s plant in Andover, Mass., where it is further refined and the lines of DNA are transcribed into messenger RNA. After a lot of quality testing, the purified and refrozen mRNA is put into bags and shipped to Kalamazoo, Mich., where “fragile strands of mRNA are enclosed in tiny balls of fat known as lipid nanoparticles” and the vaccine is put into vials for final shipping.

Pfizer has already figured out how to cut production time from 110 days to 60 days. Each batch can make anywhere from 1 to 3 million doses of vaccine per production run. The vaccines being used last week were started before Halloween.

None of this is simple or easy, and governors running around suggesting that pharmaceutical company production lines for Lipitor, Albuterol, or Prilosec can be quickly or easily retooled to make vaccines is so spectacularly dumb it can cause a headache.

WHO: The Only Scenario We Can Rule Out Is the One That China’s Rulers Deny

To sum up, a WHO team spent four weeks in Wuhan, China, and after their initial investigation, they can tell us absolutely nothing more about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. They’re certain it came from an animal but can’t yet identify which animal. No one has ever found this particular virus in any bats, or in any pangolins, or in any other animals. Other than the theorized original case of the virus jumping from an animal to a human being, the only case of animals catching the virus and spreading it to humans are minks in Denmark, months later.

But the one thing that the WHO team learned on this trip is that they’re certain that this pandemic did not stem from a lab accident from either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both of which were researching coronaviruses in bats.

In fact, the WHO team is now floating the theory that the virus did not originate in China:

Another member of the WHO team, Peter Daszak, went further, telling reporters after the press conference that the focus of the investigation was shifting toward countries—especially in Southeast Asia—that could have been the source of animals or animal products sold in Wuhan’s Huanan Market.

“We’ve done a lot of work in China and if you map that back, it starts to point towards the border and we know there is very little surveillance on the other side in the whole region of Southeast Asia,” he said. “I think our focus needs to shift to those supply chains to the market, supply chains from outside China, even.”

Oh, and they also said “it was also possible that the virus may have been transmitted to humans through imported frozen food, a theory heavily promoted by Beijing.

Hey, FDA Guys, How’s That Johnson & Johnson Evaluation Coming?

Six days ago, Johnson & Johnson submitted its Emergency Use Authorization paperwork for its new vaccine to the FDA. As a layman, I won’t pretend to know what a proper amount of time for a sufficient FDA review is. I have heard experienced doctors and medical researchers argue it can be done in 24 to 48 hours without cutting corners. I am sure there are other doctors and medical researchers who strongly disagree. But I figure there’s “expedited” and then there’s “more-than-3,000-people-are-dying-from-this-virus-a-day expedited.”

It shouldn’t take that much longer, right? One week ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on national television, “We could see literally within a week or so that they wind up getting the kind of emergency use authorization. I don’t want to get ahead of the FDA, but I would not be surprised if this happens within the next week or two.”

The South African government, currently fighting a particularly contagious variant, just decided to give the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to frontline workers, saying it has seen enough from the 44,000-participant study.

Is our FDA going to come to a dramatically different conclusion from the South Africans?

ADDENDUM: The Gallup organization:

As the Biden administration begins to grapple with the COVID-19 situation, two-thirds of Americans say they are not satisfied with the way the vaccination process is going in the U.S. This includes 21 percent who are ‘very dissatisfied.’ At the same time, 34 percent are satisfied, with 4 percent of them ‘very satisfied.’

Health Care

Why Is Tracking the Vaccine So Difficult?

A pharmacist fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in William Reid Apartments in Brooklyn, N.Y., January 23, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/Reuters)

The Senate trial on the second impeachment of Donald Trump begins today, and NR will have a special tracker on the site keeping you updated. You’ll want to check out Zach Evans on the trial rules, Andy McCarthy on why Rand Paul is wrong to call impeachment the “criminalization of speech,” Mairead McArdle on Republicans rallying around Trump, and my observation that if you’re going to have an impeachment trial, have an impeachment trialdon’t rush through it without calling witnesses because you want to move on to other business.

The irony is that the trial, which would ordinarily be huge news, feels like a second-tier concern at the moment. Barring some dramatic turn of events, 17 Republican senators choosing to convict is just about inconceivable. At least for now, Trump’s fate appears to be a resolved issue — particularly when compared to the pandemic-relief bill, woke culture-war fights, and this newsletter’s continuing obsession: the vaccination rollout.

Why Is Tracking the Vaccines So Difficult? Why Are Vaccination Events Getting Canceled?

In a world where Amazon, UPS, and the Postal Service can tell you precisely where your package is, and when all boxes of vaccines are “equipped with a GPS beacon, a temperature monitor and a barcode that’s scanned upon receipt,” it is still baffling that the government — whether it’s Operation Warp Speed, the CDC, the HHS, the White House, the Pentagon, or state and local governments — can’t get a clear sense of where the vaccines are in the distribution chain, how many will arrive at a certain time, how many will be available to be distributed, and how many people to schedule for an appointment.

And yet, more than eight weeks into the vaccination process, certain hospitals and medical centers say they aren’t getting what local governments and counties promised, localities say they aren’t getting what the state promised, and states say they aren’t getting what the federal government promised. Why is this process so hard? Where in the supply chain are the numbers getting lost? If you know that you have 10,000 doses in a shipment rolling off the assembly line in Kalamazoo, Mich., and you’re putting them in a truck headed to Missouri, why is it difficult to track and distribute 10,000 doses in that state?

I didn’t pick that state at random:

St. Louis County officials said on Monday they may have to delay some COVID-19 vaccinations this week after the state told the county it would not send doses as expected.

The state said last week it would send 3,900 doses to St. Louis County this week, county officials said on Monday, and the county announced several mass vaccination sites in preparation. But by Friday, the state told the county it wouldn’t send the vaccine after all, the officials said.

“St. Louis County continues to be uncertain when and whether it will receive vaccine doses,” County Executive Sam Page said in a news release. “This makes it incredibly difficult to plan a distribution network and effectively communicate with those who have signed up and are anxiously awaiting an appointment.”

For the third week in a row, the county has not received any direct shipments of vaccine. When it opened its first mass COVID-19 vaccination site last week, it did so using 3,900 doses that were redistributed from a local hospital.

The county will receive 1,950 doses later this week through another redistribution from area hospitals, officials said, but that’s almost 2,000 fewer doses than expected, and some appointments will likely have to be rescheduled or canceled.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Stephanie Zoller, spokeswoman for the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, which represents area hospitals, said the state announced last week it would send 15,600 doses to the region’s large health systems. But she said she didn’t know if the task force was supposed to redistribute those doses, and it certainly wasn’t clear last week.

How can it be that Saint Louis County in Missouri hasn’t received a shipment in three weeks? That county has almost a million people!

Apparently, everyone who tries to use the Deloitte-designed Vaccine Access Management System (VAMS) hates it. Has anyone tried tracking the shipments using paper and clipboards and cell phones? Why is crappy software preventing shots from getting into arms?

These stories of dysfunction are getting absurd. In a corner of South Carolina, just west of Columbia:

In Saluda, Emmanuel Family Clinic Officer Manager Debra Cleveland said her office has administered one out of 400 doses it has received in the last three weeks.

Cleveland said her first dose is the only dose that’s been administered.

She said VAMS, the federal scheduling program, has crippled her community’s ability to get vaccinated.

“There are a lot of people who do not know how to read, how to write,” she said. “There are people who have other languages, a lot of the people, especially 70 or above, there are people who have no computers, who have never worked on a computer in their life. They have no idea what to do.”

The doses are nearing their expiration of 30 days, so Cleveland and her staff will be instituting a paper-based model on Tuesday, where patients will schedule appointments and fill out questionnaires onsite. Staff will later fill the data into VAMS.

“[It’s] extremely frustrating because of the fact that everybody talks about we’re having such a hard time getting the shots and this stuff, and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not the problem. We have the vaccine. We can’t give the vaccine,” she said. “And they’re like, ‘But you’ve got it? Why not?’ I’m like, ‘That’s the way because that’s the way it’s written up. That’s the way the rules are. You have to go by the rules.’”

From coast to coast, it is not difficult to find planned vaccination events getting canceled or dramatically scaled back because of limited supplies or supplies not appearing when and where they’re supposed to arrive.

Los Angeles:

With COVID-19 vaccine supplies still scarce, Los Angeles County residents can only make appointments to get their second doses at the large county-operated sites for the rest of the week, officials said. Starting Tuesday, only those with proof of getting the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine will be inoculated at the Pomona Fairplex, the Forum, Six Flags Magic Mountain, County Office of Education in Downey, Cal State University Northridge, Balboa Sports Complex and El Sereno.


This week both Montgomery County and Delaware County Departments of Health received only 1,000 first-dose vaccines. That’s compared to a typical shipment of 2,500 doses.

Denver, Colo.:

A COVID-19 vaccination event in Denver was overrun Saturday when Jeffco Public Schools alerted 14,000 employees that 200 extra doses of vaccine were available to those who could get to the National Western Complex within an hour. Hundreds of people rushed to the complex on Humboldt Street to try to get the vaccine around 5 p.m. Saturday. Traffic backed up at the exit and into Interstate 70. Drivers wouldn’t let others merge into the line. Some people leapt from their cars and ran the final stretch to the building. One man arrived in a bathrobe; he hadn’t stopped to put on a shirt.

Plano, Texas:

Days after overbooking forced some people to be turned away at one of Collin County’s largest COVID-19 vaccination sites, things appeared to run more smoothly Monday at John Clark Stadium in Plano. Hundreds of people with appointments to receive the vaccine were turned away on Thursday after Collin County Health Care Services said it overbooked appointments because it saw large numbers of no-shows on daily appointment schedules earlier in the week.

Memphis, Tenn.:

More than 80,000 people in Shelby County have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Now, thousands are on deck to get their second dose and many don’t know when that will be. WMC heard from several people who said they’re set to receive their second dose this week, but there aren’t any appointments left. Only one day and one location is set aside this week for second doses, but appointments are filled, and that’s leaving thousands of people with worries.


On Monday, Alabama makes about 1 million more people eligible to receive the vaccine. That’s people over 65 and teachers and others in 1b, the second wave of the rollout. Yet the state is only getting about 60,000-70,000 first doses per week. At that rate, Alabama would be stuck in this second phase until June.

Down in El Paso, Texas, when people get their first vaccination, they’re given a card that shows a date for the second dose. But apparently that date is a suggestion, not an appointment:

Over 100 people were turned away from the City of El Paso’s George Perry mass coronavirus vaccination site on Monday morning after confusion over their appointment to receive the second dose. People waited for hours in line thinking they had a second appointment although they didn’t. When they were told to leave, many refused to go. Cops were called in to come and disperse the crowd. A police officer at the scene told ABC-7 that the same thing happened the day before.

The great former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb — now appearing on a special edition of The Editors — recently wrote that “especially with improved delivery, at some point, perhaps in April, supply will start exceeding demand. The challenge won’t be how to ration a scarce resource, but how to reach patients reluctant to get vaccinated.” I hope he’s right. That feels a long way off right now. Oregon has just now moved on to octogenarians.

Meanwhile, California recently declared those in the medicinal-cannabis industry are now eligible to be vaccinated alongside health-care workers.

ADDENDUM: As discussed on the Three Martini Lunch podcast yesterday, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently released a report about the Chinese government’s efforts to collect the DNA of American citizens:

For years, the People’s Republic of China has collected large healthcare data sets from the U.S. and nations around the globe, through both legal and illegal means, for purposes only it can control. While no one begrudges a nation conducting research to improve medical treatments, the PRC’s mass collection of DNA at home has helped it carry out human rights abuses against domestic minority groups and support state surveillance. The PRC’s collection of healthcare data from America poses equally serious risks, not only to the privacy of Americans, but also to the economic and national security of the United States.

Read Hunting Four Horsemen while it’s still fiction. And note that everything from pages 65 to 68 about the Chinese government’s secret biological-weapons programs and gene-editing research is nonfiction.

Health Care

The White House Thought It Had a Vaccine Plan

A healthcare worker administers a shot of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination site operated by SOMOS Community Care in Manhattan, N.Y., January 29, 2021. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

On the menu today: Ten emerging — or are they lingering? — problems with the vaccine rollout, a farewell to George Schultz, and 31 NFL teams are looking at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and trying to figure out how they just accomplished what once seemed extremely improbable.

Ten Emerging Problems in the Vaccination Race

You can almost hear the sigh of frustration from the Oval Office: “But I thought we had a plan.”

You may recall the old saying, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” This is the 57th day of vaccinations in the United States — eight weeks, close to two months. The Biden team has been on the job for 20 days.

The good news is the effort to vaccinate Americans is gathering a bit of momentum. According to Bloomberg’s chart, the average is up to 1.46 million shots per day, meaning the “100 million shots in 100 days” threshold set by the Biden administration should be easily cleared.

The bad news is . . . well just about everything else: The pace is still slow, the CDC still can’t track the doses once they get to the states, doses are going to waste, some people who can get appointments aren’t showing up for them, while others can’t get appointments or are told to wait months. The system to get appointments in most states is maddening, with websites crashing, phone lines jammed, and appointments few and far between.

Here’s a rundown of ten problems that have emerged in the past few days.

One: State governments are expanding who is eligible to receive the vaccine, while those on the ground are arguing that their supplies are limited and that vaccinations should be limited to priority groups. Apparently, no one is all that certain that those second doses will be arriving in time after all:

While the state has said anyone 65 and over can get vaccinated, until Friday Southern California’s Riverside County was only serving people 80 and over at the sites it operates. In Los Angeles County, home to 10 million residents, starting next Tuesday the five mass vaccination sites it runs will only give second doses . . . In the San Francisco Bay Area, Napa County stopped giving first doses to preserve its remaining supply for those who are ready for second shots.

Two: People aren’t showing up for their appointments — in some stupefying circumstances, lots of people are bailing.

In New York City, the vaccination effort on Saturday apparently went terribly wrong:

The city’s 15 vaccination hubs were ghost towns last Saturday, and the city Department of Health is refusing to reveal just how bad distribution went.

One DOH staffer stationed at the Hillcrest High School hub in Queens on Jan. 30 said he did nothing all day.

“You cannot imagine how much nothing it was,” he said of the demoralizing day.

He said there were about 70 workers on hand — some earning overtime pay for 12-hour shifts — and about 10 people to vaccinate.

The worker said several appeals were made to DOH officials to be able to vaccinate people without appointments, and they were denied. He said the hubs had about 400 to 700 doses.

“We could have used that day to vaccinate thousands of people … and we just blew it,” he said.

This comes after the city’s hubs were closed for four days in late January after they ran out of vaccines.

Three: Doses are getting wasted.

Yesterday’s New York Times lead editorial began with an anecdote of “Katherine,” a nurse vaccinating nursing-home staff members and residents against the coronavirus, realizing that “roughly 15 to 20 vaccines were being thrown away at the end of each vaccination session. That’s because the number of doses that she and her co-workers had prepared — per the protocol established by Katherine’s manager at CVS, the pharmacy she works for — exceeded the number of people who showed up to be inoculated, often significantly.”

Four: Some vaccination sites are making efforts to ensure doses don’t go to waste, which is good news, but this means luck, and/or the willingness to hang around a vaccination site at the end of the day, is becoming a key factor in who gets vaccinated:

Scheduling issues, according the City of Tucson and Pima County, prevented the TCC from vaccinating the 1,500 people a day it is capable of doing. Only a few hundred law enforcement and educators have signed up there. This caused the county to reach out to qualified organizations in order to send their staff to fill up available slots, the release stated.

At the end of the day, the site has had some leftover doses. To avoid throwing away vaccines, the county ended up vaccinating some people who “had learned from Social Media that they could hang around the TCC late in the day,” according to the release. This has varied from a few dozen people per day to none all.

Five: Big chains such as CVS obviously reach a lot of communities, but not all of them, and independent pharmacies argue they are better-positioned to reach more distant communities.

For example, Goochland Pharmacy, located at Goochland Courthouse, has been receiving 30 to 40 calls a day from its regular customers, but owner Pete Taylor said the health department hasn’t told him when his store will receive vaccine to administer in an area that does not include CVS stores.

“People want to know when they can get it,” Taylor said. “All we can do is refer them to the health department.”

VDH spokeswoman Cheryle Rodriguez said CVS’ locations give it “the greatest ability to reach the largest number of persons, including those 65 years and older and those with the greatest risk for severe illness or death due to COVID-19.”

Six: Nursing home and home health-care companies are facing the problem of a customer base that demands caregivers be vaccinated, and caregivers that don’t want to take the vaccine yet.

Seven: The prioritization criteria used by certain states doesn’t make much sense to the people facing long waits. Hawaii is vaccinating government workers in their 20s, while telling those over age 65 that they hope to get to them by March.

Eight: Even the good news we have may be not quite as accurate as promised. Florida’s state government says 100 percent of the state’s assisted-living facilities have been contacted and offered the vaccine; only 90 percent self-report being contacted and giving the opportunity.

Nine: States are understandably protective of their own supplies. Up in Rhode Island, the CVS appointment-scheduling website is directing users to CVS locations in Connecticut.

Ten: The CDC’s much-criticized VAMS — vaccine administration-management system — was built by Deloitte on a no-bid contract, and now an immunization expert who had offered the government her own mass vaccination tracker at a lower price than Deloitte’s is accusing the company and the CDC of stealing her intellectual property.

The vaccination is a human endeavor, and human beings make mistakes. But this is still pretty disappointing, and a far cry from the ready-from-Day-One, we-have-a-plan, we’re-going-to-shut-down-the-virus rhetoric from our new president and his team for the past year.

Give the Biden administration a dollop of credit for recognizing the inherent ludicrousness of a public campaign to encourage vaccination when supplies are low and the wait for an appointment is measured in months:

Much of an envisioned $1 billion public awareness campaign remains on hold, with health officials figuring it makes little sense to make their pitch when so few Americans can get vaccinated. The U.S. is not expected to make vaccines widely available to the public until the spring.

R.I.P., George Schultz

Rest in peace, former secretary of state George Schultz. I only had the chance to hear him speak once, back in 2008, when I was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution. I can’t remember his exact words, but he told a story about the then-soon-to-be-retracted deployment of missile-defense systems in Poland. The Russian government complained that the U.S. putting the systems in Poland meant they were a NATO effort to counter its military advantage. The Bush administration insisted the deployment was meant to deter any ballistic-missile attack from Iran, not Russia. The Polish government apparently piped up, “Wait, don’t tell us who these are supposed to deter! This is absolutely designed to counter a Russian military advantage!”

The editors remember Schultz’s contributions to American foreign policy here.

ADDENDA: Every NFL team is filled with well-paid general managers, coaches, assistants, trainers, and scouts all competing to build the best possible team. Vast numbers of these men, many with decades of experience in the game, study and examine the tape of every draft recruit like it’s the Zapruder film . . . and yet somehow, in 1999, Tom Brady lasted until the 199th pick.

Contemplate what has happened in the past year: The New England Patriots, having enjoyed as stellar a two-decade run as any team has ever enjoyed in any sport, let Brady go and he signs with Tampa Bay, a team that turned in a thoroughly “bleh” 7–9 record the previous year. And then Brady, along with his flaky tight end who might just be a financial genius, have no regular offseason preparation and no preseason games because of the pandemic. Add a head-case wide receiver who nearly played himself out of the league and a running back who was let go by Jacksonville . . . and somehow they not only make the playoffs, but they cut through the rest of the league like a hot knife through butter, while holding arguably the best and fastest offense since the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” to field goals. Whatever you expected in this football season, it probably wasn’t that.


Combatting the ‘Drive-By Media’ Impulse

(oatawa/Getty Images)

Have you ever noticed that sometimes a story dominates the news cycle for a few days, raises some serious allegation that never quite get confirmed or resolved, and then more or less disappears? Rush Limbaugh used to refer to the “drive-by media” — coverage of a story or topic that would be sudden, intense, frantic, and emotional, and then just as suddenly end and move on to the next big story. Today is a special Morning Jolt, as I went back to check on ten big stories from spring 2019 that were never quite resolved. But first, two astounding bits of news: that the risk of teachers catching SARS-CoV-2 from students is almost nil and that Chinese propagandists are trying to undermine faith in the U.S. coronavirus vaccines. And let’s wrap up this week with some of the worst “dad jokes” you’ve ever heard.

‘No Instances of Child-to-Adult Transmission Were Reported Within Schools’

An eye-popping peer-reviewed study from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Over nine weeks, 11 participating school districts had more than 90,000 students and staff attend school in-person; of these, there were 773 community-acquired SARS-CoV-2 infections documented by molecular testing. Through contact tracing, North Carolina health department staff determined an additional 32 infections were acquired within schools. No instances of child-to adult transmission of SARS-CoV-2 were reported within schools.

That Paranoid Anti-Vaccine Message You Saw May Have Come from China

Over in Tablet magazine, Lee Smith has an exhaustively researched, thought-provoking essay about how most U.S. financial, political, and cultural elites have bound their fates to a continued good relationship with the Chinese government. Now that their fortunes are dependent upon access to the Chinese market, these elites cannot let anything — not the Uyghurs, not Hong Kong, and not the Chinese government’s recklessness in the early days of the pandemic — get in the way of that.

Meanwhile, PBS Frontline reports that a “pro-Chinese digital propaganda network is attempting to discredit COVID-19 vaccines distributed in the United States.” Just what does it take for our leaders to accept that this regime is an enemy?

An Update on the ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ of the News Cycle

Two years ago today, this newsletter listed a series of news stories that seemed to get an enormous amount of attention and then disappear from the news cycle without resolving their explosive allegations. So put on your trench coat and join me with a gruff, Robert-Stack-like voice as we emerge from fog to see if we can find answers to some . . . unsolved mysteries.

One: Whatever happened to that January 2019 BuzzFeed story claiming that President Trump “directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow”?

UPDATE: Mystery solved. In May 2019, Ben Smith of BuzzFeed wrote:

With the release of the Mueller report, we know which characterization [Robert Mueller’s spokesman, Peter] Carr was disputing: Specifically, that the series of interactions between Trump, Cohen, and their lawyers did not, in the prosecutors’ view, amount to Trump “directing” Cohen to lie.

As Mueller’s team wrote in the report: “While there is evidence . . . that the president knew Cohen provided false testimony to Congress . . . the evidence to us does not establish the president directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

As a matter of what constitutes a crime, Mueller has the last word, and his characterization has the force of law.

In other words, the story wasn’t accurate.

Two: Whatever happened to that McClatchy wire-service story that the Justice Department special counsel had evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign?

UPDATE: Mystery solved. The Mueller report dispelled the claim, but in an all-time “just take the L already” champion, McClatchy somehow still insists their reporting is accurate.

Mueller’s report emerged earlier this year, however, it didn’t cite the evidence asserted by McClatchy. It merely stated that “Cohen had never traveled to Prague,” an assertion attributed to an interview with Cohen.

How did McClatchy handle these unwelcome developments? With an editor’s note: “Robert S. Mueller III’s report to the attorney general states that Mr. Cohen was not in Prague. It is silent on whether the investigation received evidence that Mr. Cohen’s phone pinged in or near Prague, as McClatchy reported.” (Boldface in the original.)

That is a sure-fire first-ballot candidate for the Lame Excuse Hall of Fame. The McClatchy story wasn’t that somebody stole Cohen’s phone and took it to Prague. The story began, “The Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter.” No, they did not!

Three: How’s the Chicago police department investigation into the alleged attack on Jessie Smollett coming?

UPDATE: Since that Jolt two years ago, Jussie Smollett has been indicted, had the charges dropped, been re-indicted on felony charges of lying to police, and last summer had his argument of double jeopardy rejected by a Cook County judge. He is expected back in court in March.

Four: Did Joy Reid ever catch that hacker who she claimed had hacked into the archives of her defunct blog and inserted homophobic statements?

UPDATE: Not only did Reid never catch the hacker, subsequent reporting suggested other portions of Reid’s response were untruthful. “An attorney for Reid similarly said in 2018 that the FBI was investigating, but that claim was never corroborated. NBC refused to confirm that a report was submitted to law enforcement. Subsequent statements from the network failed to mention the bureau.”

In addition to her MSNBC work, Reid will teach a journalism course entitled “Covering Race, Gender & Politics in the Digital Age” at Howard University this spring.

Five: Did Kavanaugh accuser Julie Swetnick — who described weekly parties of drugging and assaulting women going on for three years in the Washington, D.C., area involving dozens of individuals — ever name anyone else at those parties?

UPDATE: To say Julie Swetnick has disappeared from public life is an understatement. The Associated Press has not mentioned Swetnick since 2018, nor has Politico. In some ways, it seems Swetnick has been airbrushed out of history; a 2019 Los Angeles Times profile of Michael Avenatti did not mention her at all.

Six: Did Al Sharpton ever pay back the $4.5 million in back taxes he and his companies owed? Is the Internal Revenue Service comfortable with the nonprofit National Action Network paying Sharpton for $531,000 for his “life story rights for a 10-year period”? Is the IRS okay with a nonprofit spending such a sum to purchase the life story of its own president?

UPDATE: In September 2020, USA Today reported that Sharpton has paid back a hefty portion of the taxes he owes, but far from all of the considerable sums:

The IRS established over $2.8 million in liens against Sharpton from 1995-2010, according to the New York City Office of the City Register. The records indicate Sharpton has paid off over $2.1 million.

USA TODAY confirmed two tax warrants for $492,612.41 and $103,156.06 filed for Alfred Sharpton were satisfied on May 9, 2018, and June 5, 2019, respectively, according to the Tax Warrant Notice System for the State of New York.

Seven: Did anyone ever ID the guy who allegedly threatened Stormy Daniels?

UPDATE: Despite many jokes that the perpetrator will be starting as quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl on Sunday, no perpetrator was ever identified.

Eight: What did Roy Moore do with the money donated to his post-election “Election Integrity Fund” that was supposed to pay for a recount? 

UPDATE: Moore never raised anywhere near the $1 million or more needed for the recount. His Senate website is no longer online. The most recent item on Moore’s personal website is from April 2020. A month earlier, LifeSite News declared that Moore is not like “normal, weak men” and suggested that conservative groups had blacklisted Moore because they feared how honest he was:

Unlike with Kavanaugh, the Republican Party threw Roy Moore under the bus. And even the major pro-family groups, including one that had raised money on Roy Moore by having him at their national conference just weeks earlier, turned their back on him. Why? Because of their fear of his acting or speaking honestly on those issues — which ordinary Americans are faced with every day. (Even now, a major conservative political site declined to carry this article.)

“Even now” a major conservative political site declined to carry an article gushing over Roy Moore? I cannot imagine why!

Nine: The Washington Post learned, after Jamal Khashoggi’s death, that their star foreign-affairs columnist had collaborated with Qatar Foundation International and been in talks with the Saudi government to establish a pro-Saudi think tank, and not disclosed either of those relationships with his editors. While these actions by no means justify Khashoggi’s brutal murder, they do complicate the established narrative of a noble reformer using his pen to fight brutality within the Saudi state. In that light, out of all the slain reporters the Post could have spotlighted . . . why was Jamal Khashoggi included in the newspaper’s Super Bowl ad?

UPDATE: Khashoggi’s relationships with the QFI and the think tank garnered almost no attention beyond that brief mention in a Post story two years ago. A new documentary about Khashoggi by Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel is making the rounds; it won rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival but had a hard time finding a distributor, an indicator of how Hollywood may not be comfortable antagonizing the Saudi royal family.

Ten: After producing one of the most highly discussed, praised, and hated commercials in recent years, Procter & Gamble said Gillette sales remained the same after the airing of the ad. The company declared the ad a success. Is the goal of advertising campaigns to keep sales at the same level?

UPDATE: In August 2019, Procter and Gamble announced that Gillette had declined in value by $8 billion over 14 years. “They blamed currency fluctuations and competition from upstarts, not to mention all the bearded millennials who are simply burning through fewer blades.” Over in the United Kingdom, consumer research data indicated the negative response to the ad hurt the company’s reputation:

According to YouGov BrandIndex, Gillette’s buzz score — which is a balance of the positive and negative things people have heard about a brand — has fallen by 5.8 points over the past week to -3.4. That shows more people have been hearing negative things about the brand than positive and takes it from seventh in a list of 45 health and beauty brands to bottom.

ADDENDUM: It looks like the Morning Jolt is a huge hit in Micronesia, getting cited in the Marianas Variety newspaper.

Warning, serious dad jokes ahead

I found that column from Marianas quite . . . trenchant.

Yes, I know that joke had you groaning, but it’s pretty deep.

Health Care

Millions of COVID-Vaccine Doses, Just Sitting There

Pharmacist Danny Huynh fills a syringe with the Moderna coronavirus vaccine in Chula Vista, Calif., January 21, 2021. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Today we take a deep dive into the vaccine approval process . . . and begin with the eye-opening revelation that a warehouse in Maryland is amassing “tens of millions of vaccine doses that, for now, are being stockpiled with no date set for distribution.”

The Warehouse of Already Manufactured COVID Vaccines, Waiting to Be Used

A little-noticed article in the Baltimore Sun on January 29 revealed that the United States has “tens of millions of doses” of vaccines manufactured, packed up, and ready to go . . . but they still need authorization and approval from the FDA:

Covered head to toe in sterile garments, workers inside a modern manufacturing plant in East Baltimore have been making coronavirus vaccine for months — tens of millions of doses that, for now, are being stockpiled with no date set for distribution.

None of the vaccines at the Emergent BioSolutions factory has yet been authorized for use. But among the pharmaceutical companies contracting with Emergent is Johnson & Johnson, which reported promising trial results Friday and is expected to submit data to federal regulators within a week for emergency authorization.

The Emergent BioSolutions factory was built with the help of federal government dollars before the pandemic for just such an assignment, making large batches of complex vaccines and therapies.

Emergent, based in Gaithersburg, is an experienced vaccine maker, producing its own products such as a smallpox vaccine kept in U.S. stockpiles. It has nine facilities globally, including another facility in South Baltimore near the city’s professional sports stadiums, where it fills vials of vaccines and therapies.

The company has received millions in federal dollars to boost production of COVID-19 therapies and vaccines, including at the East Baltimore factory near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Emergent is now producing four vaccines, two of which are just for human trials.

It is producing large quantities of the other two for possible distribution to the public: Johnson & Johnson’s and an AstraZeneca vaccine. There is no date set for AstraZeneca to seek authorization for its vaccine.

You may recall reading last year that part of the plan for Operation Warp Speed was to make a calculated gamble, manufacturing the vaccine candidates while they were and are being evaluated for effectiveness. This is part of that effort. If and (likely) when the FDA approves the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the U.S. will have tens of millions of doses ready to distribute.

In a recent interview, Dr. Rick Nettles, the vice president of the pharmaceutical branch of Johnson & Johnson, said, “If we’re gra[n]ted emergency use authorization in late February within days we would start to ship the initial supply of that 100 million doses and hopefully people would be able to receive the vaccine shortly thereafter.

Yesterday on The Today Show, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested FDA approval could come even quicker:

The J&J data right now that we discussed last week is being reviewed with the FDA right now, so we could see literally within a week or so that they wind up getting the kind of emergency use authorization. I don’t want to get ahead of the FDA, but I would not be surprised if this happens within the next week or two.

Is the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine safe and effective? Probably. The United Kingdom approved its use December 30 and started using it already. By early January, India, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, and Morocco authorized it as well; the European Union’s medical authorities signed off on it on January 29. Switzerland wants to see more data. Germany approved the vaccine, but only for those under age 65.

AstraZeneca is eagerly touting the results of a third-phase trial of more than 17,000 test subjects in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa that showed no severe cases and no hospitalizations, more than 22 days after the first dose:

Results demonstrated vaccine efficacy of 76 percent after a first dose, with protection maintained to the second dose. With an inter-dose interval of 12 weeks or more, vaccine efficacy increased to 82 percent. . . . The analysis also showed the potential for the vaccine to reduce asymptomatic transmission of the virus.

But the earlier trials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine included some errors that left certain health experts wary:

Some experts have criticized the fact that AstraZeneca combined the efficacy results from what’s essentially two different trials and say the company will need to conduct another trial properly evaluating the effectiveness of the half-dose full-dose regimen.

“Small mistakes are common, but giving thousands of participants the wrong dose unintentionally is not a common mistake. Time will tell whether this particular mistake leads to a discovery, but at this point in time there is a lot of uncertainty around the findings,” said Dr. Philip Smith, an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Miami University in Ohio.

Smith, whose research focuses on public health and health policy, believes AstraZeneca will seek approval for the full dose, which is 62 percent effective.

The big question is whether regulators will trust the 62 percent, considering the sample size was smaller than intended, said Smith.

(When discussing the reports of 20 million missing doses this week, and worries that “the crucial supply is boxed away in warehouses,” I used the image of the giant warehouse full of crates seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But apparently there really is a giant government-funded warehouse full of vaccine doses!)

If more people knew that the U.S. has a stockpile of tens of millions of doses of vaccines sitting in warehouses, some of which are already being used in other countries sitting in warehouses, we would be having an extremely heated debate about whether the FDA is reviewing the data fast enough. (Apparently, the country is too focused on Marjorie Taylor Greene to have this discussion.)

Yesterday Matt Yglesias observed: “It’s amazing that not only is this vaccine not approved, there’s no political pressure to approve it. No members of Congress talking about this, no questions in the briefing room.”

You may recall that the notion of members of the executive branch or Congress pressuring the FDA to approve a vaccine candidate quickly was precisely the nightmare scenario we were told we had to avoid last fall. Back in October, New York governor Andrew Cuomo declared that Americans couldn’t trust the FDA and the CDC in their assessment of a coronavirus vaccine, and that he will only trust the assessments of his own state-level agencies. A month earlier, Kamala Harris contended that an unsafe or ineffective vaccine might be rushed to the American public for political purposes — and that counterevidence about the vaccine’s safety or effectiveness could be “muzzled, suppressed, sidelined.”

Do we think health officials in the United Kingdom, India, the European Union, and all of those other countries are going to look at the study data on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and come to dramatically different conclusions than our FDA officials? Do we think public-health and drug-approval officials in those countries are particularly reckless or inattentive?

Or is this a moment for regulatory nationalism? Should Americans trust the assessment of foreign health officials when we have our own FDA assigned with the role of looking out for Americans’ health?

You may or may not find it clarifying that House speaker Nancy Pelosi does not trust the United Kingdom’s system for evaluating and approving vaccines. “We need to be very careful about what happens in the UK. We have very stringent rules in terms of the Food and Drug Administration here, about the number of clinical trials, the timing, the number of people and all the rest,” Pelosi said in October. “My concern is that the UK’s system for that kind of judgment is not on a par with ours in the United States. So if [prime minister] Boris Johnson decides he is going to approve a drug and this president embraces that, that is a concern that I have.”

But you don’t have to look too hard to find smart people with extensive backgrounds in medical research who think the FDA is moving far too slowly, at least in these particular circumstances. The more-contagious South African variant of SARS-CoV-2 is now spreading in our country.

Daniel Elton lays out a detailed argument here. One point that jumps out is that Pfizer sent its paperwork to the FDA on November 22 and the agency approved the vaccine on December 11. Moderna sent its paperwork to the FDA on November 30, but the FDA scheduled the review meeting for December 17. Does it really require three weeks to review the data during a pandemic where thousands of people are dying each day?

Over at The Dispatch, Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wrote in early December, “As a Johns Hopkins scientist who has conducted more than 100 clinical studies and reviewed thousands more from the scientific community at large, I can assure you that the agency’s review can be done within 24 to 48 hours without cutting any corners. They just need to work harder.”

The Biden administration could urge the FDA to speed up its evaluation of the J&J and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines . . . but that’s exactly what Biden, Harris, and other Democrats spent the fall demonizing.

ADDENDUM: A detail in Therese Shaheen’s piece on the NR homepage that should not be missed:

Much like financial reporting of dubious economic-growth statistics, China’s reported pandemic case counts deserve scrutiny. The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker has the PRC, with a population of 1.4 billion, having experienced 100,000 cases, fewer than Bahrain, with 1/1,000th the population. At 4,800 deaths, the PRC — where the virus originated — reportedly has experienced fewer deaths than in the U.S. state of Connecticut (3.56 million population). Of course, the truth is impossible to know, so we simply report implausible Chinese official data. It has been well-documented by citizen-journalists and others that China seriously repressed reporting about the virus in November and December 2019, well before the world was aware of the problem. Doctors were censored in filing reports about a new and uncertain flu-like virus they were seeing in patients. It has now been established that the official statistics the country released well into 2020 were off by as much as 100 percent.

If the Communist government were confident in its current reporting, why has it strong-armed attempts by the World Health Organization and countries in that body to seek transparency about the origin and handling of the outbreak? Foreign journalists have limited access, and citizen-journalists continue to be harassed. In December 2020, Zhang Zahn drew a four-year prison sentence after a three-hour trial for her reporting about what was happening in Wuhan around the time of the outbreak, which was not the model of public health or virus eradication that the Communist government had presented to the rest of the world. Zhang was convicted for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” There obviously is ample indication that — despite the world’s apparent belief that “the China model” has dealt with the virus — the truth on the ground is quite different.

Health Care

The Vaccine-Distribution Bottleneck

Kate O’Leary, an EMT for Cataldo Ambulance and Nursing student prepares a Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccination dose in Boston, Mass., January 29, 2021. (Faith Ninivaggi/Reuters)

I’ll understand if you wish this newsletter would move on from coverage of the vaccination effort and get on to more exciting topics such as whatever insanity Marjorie Taylor Greene uttered recently. (She’s the topic of three of the top four stories on Politico this morning.) But it is not understating it to say that the vaccination effort is the most important thing going on in the United States today. It is also the effort that President Biden and his administration have said is their most important task, and what they ought to be judged upon. On the menu today, why the vaccine distribution is bottlenecked, why pharmaceutical companies can’t simply make more vaccines quickly, and a revealing statistic about which medical workers are declining to get vaccinated right now.

Sorting Through the Vaccine-Distribution Bottleneck

Yesterday morning, I laid out how non-higher-risk Americans were unlikely to start getting vaccinated before May. Yesterday afternoon, health officials in the state of Washington offered a new projected timeline that echoed that grim conclusion. “Phases 2, 3 and 4 of Washington’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan were initially expected to begin in May 2021 and extend through December, but the state DOH is now predicting a start date of summer or fall 2021. Health officials have yet to outline who will be included in those phases.”

(Note that Washington’s system has categories such as “Phase 1B Tier 4,” which seems needlessly complicated. Even group “1A” has two tiers. It would be much simpler and easier to understand if each category just got its own number, but I suspect some hotshot communications consultant concluded that “1B Tier 4” sounds better and like a shorter wait than “Group Six.”)

The Biden administration’s proposal to put more vaccine in each vial — creating more doses in each one — will probably help a bit. The rollout of vaccines directly to pharmacies will probably help even more. Starting February 11, CVS will begin to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to eligible populations at a limited number of its pharmacy locations in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — and they’re in talks for a similar programs in Indiana and Ohio. (As I noted on Twitter, based upon my past experience with CVS, I expect I’ll get a coronavirus vaccine with a reasonable wait, friendly service, and a 40-foot-long receipt.)

We will have more distribution centers and fewer bottlenecks soon, but will the supply increase at the same pace? Americans are currently getting the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The test results from Johnson & Johnson are good enough — preventing death and hospitalization are all that we really need — and they’re expected to submit their vaccine for an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. Americans “could receive their shot of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine as early as March.” But today’s New York Times cautions that J&J “might be able to deliver only as few as seven million doses before April.”

On January 29, NovaVax submitted the results of its testing study in the United Kingdom of more than 15,000 subjects and concluded it was 89.3 percent effective against the standard SARS-CoV-2 virus and has 60 percent efficacy in preventing mild, moderate, and severe COVID-19 disease in its testing in South Africa — suggesting it works against the South African variant. (If you’re underwhelmed by that 60 percent number, keep in mind the unvaccinated efficacy number is zero.) NovaVax still has to submit its vaccine to the FDA as well, and so this vaccine is expected to arrive in April.

And then there’s the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine — usually referred to as just the “Oxford vaccine,” sorry, AstraZeneca — which looked like a leading contender early on in the vaccine development process, and then hit snags during testing. The United Kingdom, among other countries, gave the Oxford vaccine emergency authorization on December 30. But this vaccine will probably be authorized for emergency use in the U.S. in April.

Add it all up, and we should be getting a significant expansion of supply by the time the baseball season gets started. Until then . . . we’re going to have to hobble along as best we can.

You’ll probably be hearing a lot of arguments that amount to “the companies should just make more of the vaccine faster!” Over at Science Translational Medicine, Derek Lowe walks through the process of developing and manufacturing a vaccine, and pours cold water on the arguments that “Pfizer and Moderna could share their design with dozens of other companies who are ready to produce them.” Lowe writes that each step of the process requires . . .

. . . special-purpose bespoke machines, and if you ask other drug companies if they have one sitting around, the answer will be, “of course not”. This is not anything close to a traditional drug manufacturing process. And this is the single biggest reason why you cannot simply call up those “dozens” of other companies and ask them to shift their existing production over to making the mRNA vaccines. There are not dozens of companies who make DNA templates on the needed scale. There are definitely not dozens of companies who can make enough RNA. But most importantly, I believe that you can count on one hand the number of facilities who can make the critical lipid nanoparticles. That doesn’t mean that you can’t build more of the machines, but I would assume that Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna (and CureVac as well) have largely taken up the production capacity for that sort of expansion as well.

And let’s not forget: the rest of the drug industry is already mobilizing. Sanofi, one of the big vaccine players already (and one with their own interest in mRNA) has already announced that they’re going to help out Pfizer and BioNTech. But look at the timelines: here’s one of the largest, most well-prepared companies that could join in on a vaccine production effort, and they won’t have an impact until August. It’s not clear what stages Sanofi will be involved in, but bottling and packaging are definitely involved (and there are no details about whether LNP production is). And Novartis has announced a contract to use one of its Swiss location for fill-and-finish as well, with production by mid-year. Bayer is pitching in with CureVac’s candidate.

This is all good news, but it’s a long way from that tweet that started this whole post off. There are not “dozens of companies who stand ready” to produce vaccines and “end this pandemic”. It’s the same few big players you’ve already heard of, and they’re not sitting around and watching, either. To claim otherwise is a fantasy, and we’re better off with the facts.

The bad news is that bad weather canceled planned vaccinations in a lot of northeastern states this week. According to the Bloomberg chart, 1.6 million Americans received a shot on Saturday and 1.3 million received a shot on Sunday. That dropped to 1 million Monday and 868,000 on Tuesday, although Tuesday’s figures could be updated.

If Hospital Cafeteria Workers Don’t Want to Get Vaccinated . . .

The amount of worry and discussion about vaccine hesitancy still seems wildly out of proportion compared to the problem of getting the vaccine to people who want it and can’t get it. Every person who declines to be vaccinated is one less person standing in line ahead of those who want it, and who don’t need to be enticed with Waffle House gift certificates.

You’ve probably heard some version of “a surprising number of health-care workers are turning down the vaccine.” But these statistics from a recent article in The New Yorker clarify which health-care workers:

Despite confronting the damage of covid-19 firsthand — and doing work that puts them and their families at high risk — health-care workers express similar levels of vaccine hesitancy as people in the general population. Recent surveys suggest that, over all, around a third of health-care workers are reluctant to get vaccinated against covid-19. (Around one in five Americans say they probably or definitely won’t get vaccinated; nationwide, hesitancy is more common among Republicans, rural residents, and people of color.) The rates are higher in certain regions, professions, and racial groups. Black health-care workers, for instance, are more likely to have tested positive for the virus, but less likely to want a vaccine. (Thirty-five per cent turned down a first dose.) Compared with doctors and nurses, other health professionals — E.M.T.s, home health aides, therapists — are generally less likely to say that they’ll get immunized, and a recent survey of C.N.A.s found that nearly three-quarters were hesitant to get the vaccine.

At Yale-New Haven hospital, ninety per cent of medical residents chose to get the vaccine immediately, but only forty-two per cent of workers in environmental services and thirty-three per cent of food-service workers did. The problem may be most pressing in nursing homes. In December, the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, said that sixty per cent of the state’s nursing-home staff had declined the vaccine; in North Carolina, the number is estimated to be more than fifty per cent. According to the C.E.O. of PruittHealth — an organization that runs about a hundred long-term-care facilities across the South—seventy per cent of employees in those facilities declined the first dose.

That article by Dhruv Khullar suggests that with time, this wariness may fade, characterizing the hesitancy as “less outright rejection than cautious skepticism. It’s driven by suspicions about the evidence supporting the new vaccines and about the motives of those endorsing them. The astonishing speed of vaccine development has made science a victim of its own success: after being told that it takes years, if not decades, to develop vaccines, many health-care workers are reluctant to accept one that sprinted from conception to injection in less than eleven months. They simply want to wait — to see longer-term safety data, or at least to find out how their colleagues fare after inoculation.”

Almost 34 million Americans have been vaccinated so far; severe reactions are few and far between, although a decent number of people are reporting chills, fevers, head and body aches after the second shot. As more people see their peers, friends, and relatives getting vaccinated with minimal side effects, they will probably become more willing to get vaccinated themselves. And I cannot emphasize this point enough: At a time when so many elderly and immunocompromised people need the vaccine and can’t get it yet, a healthy janitor or cook who turns it down is actually doing us a favor.

Are food-service workers in hospitals at higher risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 than the average person? Sure. But they’re at less risk than those interacting directly with infected patients. It would be preferable if every last hospital employee chose to take the vaccine when given the opportunity. But these workers are generally under age 65 and are probably at lower risk of having a serious or life-threatening reaction to COVID. It would be nice to reduce vaccine skepticism among hospital workers, but at the moment, that’s a secondary problem. Washington State might even classify it as a “1B Tier 4” problem.

ADDENDUM: Yikes. Ramesh notes that in March 2020, Congress appropriated $13.2 billion for an “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief” (ESSER) fund. November 30th, state departments of education had only spent $3 billion out of the $12.8 billion.

America’s schools have a lot of problems at the moment, but a lack of financial support from the federal government is not one of them.

Health Care

Hard Truths about the COVID-Vaccine Timetable

A nurse vaccinates a man as health professionals come out to a farming community to deliver vaccinations in Mecca, Calif., February 1, 2021. (Mike Blake/Rueters)

Happy Groundhog Day. Today we begin with the math that says we probably won’t finish vaccinating the most vulnerable until May, look at vaccination appointment websites that keep crashing and state health officials who apparently forgot about seniors who aren’t tech-savvy, and wonder why hospitals can remain open in bad weather but not vaccination centers.

Why Vaccinating the Vulnerable Will Last Well into Spring

Perhaps the country would be better off if some national leader stood up and said, “Right now, the best case-scenario is that all of the higher-risk Americans get at least one shot by the end of April or early May. Getting them all of their second shots will be three to four weeks later. If you can’t get an appointment right now, that’s not surprising. If you have gotten an appointment that is a month away or two months away, that’s not surprising either. And if you’re not in a higher-risk category, you probably won’t get vaccinated before Mother’s Day.”

People would not like hearing that message. That disappointing message doesn’t align well with past pledges such as “I’m not going to shut down the country, I’m going to shut down the virus,” and with a leader who insisted he had a plan, and who kept reminding us he and his team were “ready from day one.” But that is an accurate layout of the cold, hard numbers — and perhaps even an unrealistically optimistic one.

Roughly 52 million Americans are above age 65, and about 202 million are between 18 and 65. One report estimates that 45 percent of American adults have some comorbidity that puts them at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19. That would mean about 91 million non-senior Americans should be fairly high on the priority list before healthy adults. When you add up the seniors and those who have comorbidities, that’s nearly half the country, or almost 143 million Americans.

The United States has administered 32.8 million doses so far — and remember that the vaccines being used right now require two doses. Almost 2 percent of Americans have received both doses so far, according to the Bloomberg chart; a bit above 8 percent of Americans have received one dose.

Six million Americans are vaccinated; another 24 million need their second dose. That leaves 113 million Americans who are elderly or in another higher-risk category who need to get vaccinated, and who haven’t received any shot.

Nationally, we’re administering about 1.3 million doses per day. If we maintain this pace, we will have at least one shot in those 113 million Americans in another 86 days (April 29) — and that assumes the pace is maintained on weekends and holidays. (The good news is that the pace on weekends is now only a slight dip from the weekday pace.)

The national pace could increase; we hit 1.7 million vaccinations on January 28, and 1.6 million the following two days. If we could maintain a 1.7 million-per-day pace, the 113 million higher-risk Americans would all have at least one shot by April 10.

But that figure doesn’t include getting the second shot into the 24 million who have gotten one shot. And for those who will need one of the two-shot regimens, they may get their second shot a few weeks later — which is why the vaccination of the highest-risk Americans would really be complete closer to the end of May.

One of the complications of this back-of-the-envelope math is that it assumes every elderly or higher-risk American will get vaccinated. Some won’t want it, obviously, so maybe some appointment slots will open up for the lower-risk Americans who are eager to get vaccinated. But with corporate America and the Ad Council and other groups encouraging Americans to get vaccinated, perhaps vaccine skepticism will wane in the coming weeks and months.

One of my readers in New Jersey is trying to get appointments for two elderly aunts. He describes the process of trying to get them registered in the state’s Kafkaesque system. The locations for vaccination are few and far between, the website is glitchy when it works at all, and the rare open appointments are filled before he can finish filling out the online form. A week ago, he ran the numbers for his state, and calculated that a couple million Garden State residents were competing for about 100,000 appointments per week. You can make a strong argument that most states opened up the eligibility groups too soon. The number of vaccines available, and the number of personnel to administer them, put inherent caps on how many people can get vaccinated in a day, and right now, the number of people who are now eligible for the vaccine make waits of more than a month or two months inevitable.

(Most states have improved their numbers somewhat over the past week. On the Bloomberg chart, New Jersey is now vaccinating almost 35,000 residents per a day, which gets them to 175,000 doses in a week just on weekdays, 245,000 if they can maintain the pace seven days a week. But that’s still going to be a long slow slog through the 4.47 million state residents in the eligible categories. Best-case scenario, that’s 18 weeks — mid May or so.)

With all of that said, even if there weren’t a supply bottleneck, too many states and localities are falling down on the job.

The Ghost of Healthcare.gov Haunts Us

We are six weeks into the vaccination process. State and local health departments are still having their websites for handling appointments crash — in Western Pennsylvania, in central Ohio, in southern California, in Utah . . .

I would say it is as if no one learned from the experience of Healthcare.gov, but in many ways government institutions do not and cannot learn. All too often, someone new steps into a position of leadership, disregards any institutional memory that exists, and makes a variation of the same mistake, years later. How did the people in charge of these websites not foresee that traffic would be off-the-charts in the first few weeks?

And then there’s the issue of Americans who aren’t on the web at all — a demographic that overlaps a great deal with the group most vulnerable to the virus: the elderly.

The pandemic keeps revealing that the people who design responses to massive problems such as this keep thinking of human beings as precise, obedient automatons, instead of what human beings actually are. The state of Pennsylvania seems to be a particularly egregious example:

In the Pittsburgh region and across the country, young and millennial residents describe dropping everything to help their elderly relatives sign up for the covid-19 vaccine — often available only through online forms. Many older residents in Western Pennsylvania say they don’t have computers or internet access, or aren’t tech literate enough to navigate the process.

“The accessibility for folks that are older and not tech savvy,” Byars said, “really strikes me as lacking.”

Byars said her in-laws have a computer and an iPad, but they are not well-versed in the technology. She said they haven’t even seen the confirmation email for the appointment yet, because her mother-in-law doesn’t know how to access her email.

“I guess it’s just hard for us to do that — it’s a generational thing,” said Tamara Thomas, 70, Byars’ mother-in-law, who said she has been sheltering in place for almost a year. “We can’t navigate the way they want us to.”

Thomas said she is grateful to have children who can help.

“I think they’re forgetting those of us that are older don’t have the same tools,” Thomas said.

The problem goes beyond inconvenience, advocates and family members say. The plethora of providers, each with their own registration system and login, creates a system that’s difficult to navigate for even the most tech-literate of residents. The map of vaccine providers available on the Pennsylvania Department of Health website lists many pharmacies that, upon further investigation, don’t actually have vaccine supply. Family members say they are struggling to balance their own full-time jobs and Covid concerns with calling dozens of vaccine providers, spending hours on hold and getting booted from overcrowded websites.

For older residents with little technology experience, taking on such a task is next to impossible to imagine. Bill Johnson-Walsh, Pennsylvania’s state director for AARP, said there are many residents who don’t have any kind of device access, and if they do, it’s usually just to communicate with their grandchildren or play games.

“It is statewide,” Johnson-Walsh said. “The frustration, the confusion that’s going on. We’ve been seeing several hundred calls in the last couple of weeks, just asking for help.”

In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, Johnson-Walsh and AARP recommended a centralized 800 number for people to call to have their questions answered, a system in which a real person can walk them through the process. Johnson-Walsh understands the state’s decentralized approach to vaccine distribution — leaving independent hospitals and other providers to administer doses on their own — but for many of the state’s most at-risk residents, the lack of accessible information puts lifesaving vaccine out of reach.

We hear a lot about “inclusivity,” and at its heart, it’s a good and compassionate notion — to think of people who aren’t like you when making a decision that affects lots of people. How does this architecture work for someone in a wheelchair or who uses a cane or walker? Does this mural designed to represent America feature a wide variety of Americans? When a corporate board is making a decision, did they hear from a wide variety of people, some of whom might have a different set of life experiences and see the issue differently?

But right now, the system for getting a vaccine appointment is not very “inclusive” for not-quite-so-tech-savvy senior citizens, which seems like a really important demographic to think about in this situation.

ADDENDUM: The public discussion about the vaccination process is heated, and justifiably so. This really is a race against time, lives really are at stake, and the decisions made now are likely to have life-and-death consequences in the coming weeks and months. We’re told, with good reason, that vaccinating the vulnerable ought to be and is the single-highest national priority right now.

But the big snowstorm across the northeast canceled vaccination in many locations. No one wants to see cars slipping and sliding off the roads on their way to the vaccination appointment, and many parts north of the mid-Atlantic states got more than a foot . . . but if there’s a way to keep those vaccination sites open in bad weather, the stakes probably justify it. Hospitals manage to stay open in bad weather.

Health Care

Twenty Million Vaccine Doses Are Missing

President Joe Biden talks with staff members manning a coronavirus vaccination site during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., January 29, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: It’s the most mind-boggling figure, tucked deep in a Politico story on a Saturday: The Biden administration “is still trying to locate upwards of 20 million vaccine doses that have been sent to states.” Meanwhile, around the country, stories of vaccine doses being administered to hospital donors, boards of directors, and other wealthy not necessarily priority recipients start to pile up.

The Case of the Missing Twenty Million Vaccine Doses

On the campaign trail and before his inauguration, President Joe Biden and his team offered a consistent, bold, clear promise: They were ready to step into the executive branch of government and quickly increase the pace of vaccinations from coast to coast — even if the Trump administration had left a mess.

Then-candidate Joe Biden, June 30: “If I should have the honor of being elected president, on the day I’m sworn in, I’ll get right to work implementing all aspects of the response that remain undone. I’ll have more to say about my day one COVID-19 agenda in the weeks to come. But my response will begin well before I take the oath of office. It will start as soon as the election is decided.”

From the Biden campaign’s COVID plan: “Biden will be ready on Day One of his Administration to protect this country’s health and well-being.

November 18: “‘We will be ready on day one,’ Rick Bright, a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Wednesday, when she asked about what they would do if there was no plan from the Trump administration for vaccine distribution.”

President-elect Biden, December 8: “‘[My health-care team] going to be ready on Day One to spare not a single effort to get the pandemic under control, so we can get back to work, get back to our lives, and get back to our loved ones,’ Biden said at a press conference in Wilmington, Delaware. ‘They’ll lead the COVID-19 response across the government to accelerate testing, fix our supply chain, and distribute the vaccine.’”

President-elect Biden, January 14: “We’ll have to move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated, to create more places for them to get vaccinated, to mobilize more medical teams to get shots in peoples’ arms.

Despite the promises, heaven and earth remain unmoved.

Politico, Saturday:

After a week on the job, Biden’s team is still trying to locate upwards of 20 million vaccine doses that have been sent to states — a mystery that has hampered plans to speed up the national vaccination effort. They’re searching for new ways to boost production of a vaccine stockpile that they’ve discovered is mostly empty. And they’re nervously eyeing a series of new Covid-19 strains that threaten to derail the response.”

Only a small percentage of those unaccounted for doses — roughly 2 million, two officials said — is due to lags in data reporting, the Biden team believes. That would mean the rest of the crucial supply is boxed away in warehouses, sitting idle in freezers or floating elsewhere in the complex distribution pipeline that runs from the administration to individual states.

Politico goes on to explain: “Instead, once the vaccine shipments are delivered to the states, responsibility for tracking them has been left up to states’ individual public health systems. The administration then only gets an update once the doses are actually administered and an official record is submitted.” A comment from an unnamed Biden adviser to the Financial Times echoes this assessment: “We inherited 57 different distribution strategies, some of which were working and some of which weren’t, and that’s what we had to work with,” the adviser said, referring to the plans adopted by the different states and territories.

Which states received vaccines and then have them sitting in a warehouse somewhere? We can’t be certain, but right now, the states with the smallest percentages of vaccines administered on the Bloomberg tracker are Rhode Island (52.6 percent), Kansas (53.6 percent), Alabama (53.6 percent), the District of Columbia, (54.2 percent), and Idaho and Massachusetts (tied at 54.6 percent). Notice there is no simple geographic or political connection among the states on the bottom of the list; you can’t dismiss this as a “Deep South” problem or blame it on red-state governors.

Some of those unused shots may be second doses that are being held for use on those who received the first dose. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that all of the unused doses are in that category. We’re starting week seven of the vaccinations, so everyone who received the first shot in the first month or so should be getting their second shot soon. And for what it’s worth, the Biden administration doesn’t want states to sit on piles of unused vaccine to ensure the second-shot process will run smoothly:

They’ve also sought to persuade health providers to stop holding doses in reserve, a practice borne out of concerns people wouldn’t be able to get the second shot of their two-dose regimen — but one that’s no longer necessary and has only contributed to the confusion, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.

On a call with White House officials Tuesday, Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson vented that some states are bearing the brunt of the blame for the uneven rollout because of those reserves — a nuance not reflected in the federal numbers, according to notes of the call obtained by POLITICO.

The complaint prompted a pledge from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky to issue clearer guidance for how states should manage their allocated vaccines.

One possibility that the Politico article didn’t mention is that the vaccines are being administered, just in a way that some people would rather not appear in official records. Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that those distributing the vaccine are playing favorites, and in some cases, even stealing supplies.

The Vaccine Black Market?

There’s not quite a vaccine “black market” in the form of vaccination speakeasies or some shady guy on a street corner who says he can hook you up with the latest good stuff from Pfizer in exchange for cash. But there is an increasing number of anecdotes of medical personnel who have access and authority to distribute the vaccine helping out their friends, and hospitals bumping their donors to the front of the line.

In Santa Clara County, Calif.:

Santa Clara County officials are investigating the South Bay’s Good Samaritan Hospital after it offered Los Gatos teachers COVID-19 vaccinations in what the county has called a “problematic” series of events.

“Good Samaritan’s actions are problematic for multiple reasons,” wrote Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the county’s testing and vaccine officer, in a Friday letter to the hospital obtained by this news organization. While the county will provide the hospital enough doses to complete vaccinations for those who have received the first, it will hold back “any additional doses unless and until Good Samaritan provides sufficient assurances it will follow state and county direction on vaccine eligibility and provides the county with a concrete plan through which Good Samaritan will do so.”

On Thursday morning, teachers in the Los Gatos Union School District received an email from Superintendent Paul Johnson informing them of an “exciting development”: The offer of vaccines via Good Samaritan, which Johnson framed as a thank-you after the district raised funds for 3,500 meals for frontline workers, including at Good Samaritan, at the start of the pandemic.

In New York City:

At NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, one of the most highly regarded hospitals in New York City, a rumor spread last week that the line for the coronavirus vaccine on the ninth floor was unguarded and anyone could stealthily join and receive the shot.

Under the rules, the most exposed health care employees were supposed to go first, but soon those from lower-risk departments, including a few who spent much of the pandemic working from home, were getting vaccinated.

The lapse, which occurred within 48 hours of the first doses arriving in the city, incited anger among staff members — and an apology from the hospital.

And elsewhere in New York:

Garnet Health offered COVID-19 vaccination shots to community members who serve on boards for its two hospitals and fundraising arm, even though most appear to have been ineligible under a state priority system that restricted those doses to health care workers.

A spokesman for Garnet, which operates the former Orange Regional Medical Center in the Town of Wallkill and former Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris, has confirmed that the health system made the vaccine available to its 16-member board of directors and the 25-member board for the Garnet Health Foundation, which raises money for hospital equipment and programs.

In Florida:

At least three South Florida hospital systems — Jackson Health, Mount Sinai Medical Center and Baptist Health — have already reached out and offered vaccines to some donors in advance of the general public, while in the process of dispensing vaccines to front-line employees, patients with chronic illnesses and other stakeholders connected to their health systems.

In carefully crafted statements, hospitals confirmed that donors were among those receiving the vaccine in advance of the general public — but they insist that those who received them were within the age group prioritized by Florida and the Herald found no evidence to the contrary.

The silver lining to these stories is that even wealthy hospital donors and lower-risk hospital workers need to get vaccinated. Those of us who have the “just start jabbing as many people as possible as quickly as possible” philosophy have to accept that this means vaccinating some non-priority people ahead of higher-risk groups. Every person vaccinated, regardless of age or health status, gets us one step closer to herd immunity. The problem is that we already feel like a society where wealth and connections can get you anything, and the “we’re all in this together” cliché about the pandemic was already insufferable in all of those celebrity sing-along videos.

For almost eleven months now, we’ve been saluting doctors and nurses and watching their TikTok dances — celebrating a group of people who prioritized care for others beyond making money and getting ahead. Hearing that some doctors and nurses could be breaking the rules on something as important and serious as vaccine distribution is particularly irksome.

And then there’s flat-out theft, seen elsewhere in Florida:

A Florida fire captain accused of stealing COVID-19 vaccines meant for first responders turned himself in Wednesday afternoon, sheriff’s officials said. Polk County Fire Rescue Captain Anthony Damiano, 55, faces a felony charge of falsifying an official record as a public servant and misdemeanor petit theft, according to a Polk County Sheriff’s Office news release.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said at a news conference Tuesday that paramedic Joshua Colon, 31, was arrested Monday for covering up Damiano’s theft.

Polk County Fire Rescue had been delivering the coronavirus vaccines to first responders, and Colon, who had been honored as the county’s “paramedic of the year” earlier this month, was administering the shots, Judd said. Colon forged the vaccine screening and consent forms to help cover up the theft of three doses of the Moderna vaccine, Judd said.

You can’t explain 20 million missing doses through theft and off-the-books distribution driven by favoritism. But those factors might be small pieces of the puzzle.

ADDENDUM: For many years, I thought of John Weaver as the campaign consultant “who kept running guys named ‘John’ as the Republican candidate for people who can’t stand Republicans.

It turns out the truth was so, so, so much worse.

Economy & Business

A GameStop Explainer

A GameStop store in the New York, N.Y., January 27, 2021 (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Let’s close out the week by walking through the whole GameStop thing — but first, let’s observe that no matter what event occurs in the news, some folks will try to hammer it into a shape that fits one of their preexisting narratives. Also, some media voices belatedly realize Andrew Cuomo isn’t as great as he says he is, and China wants your DNA. Hey, at least it’s Friday.

The Danger of News Narratives Set on Autopilot

Every once in a while, the unpredictable conveyor belt of events we call a news cycle will offer us something that doesn’t easily fit the preexisting narratives.

You probably could name a bunch of these preexisting narratives off the top of your head. This natural disaster proves climate change is getting worse, so Democrats are the good guys and Republicans are the bad guys. This terrible mass shooting proves guns are bad and the Second Amendment is outdated and dangerous, so Democrats are the good guys and Republicans are the bad guys. This Republican has been caught in a scandal, so Democrats are the good guys and Republicans are the bad guys. This Democrat has been caught in scandal, so it’s just a random unfortunate occurrence with no broader lessons, or implications. (You no doubt have noticed the pattern here.)

And then something like the coronavirus comes along, and media voices try to shoehorn what’s happening into their preexisting narratives. Back in the first few months of 2020, it was not hard to find mainstream media “analysis” and “explainers” that deemed people who wanted to wear masks as being paranoid, that it was completely safe to travel to China, that “our brains make coronavirus seem scarier than it is,” that “we should be wary of an aggressive government response to coronavirus,” and that the “actual danger of coronavirus” was “racism and xenophobia.”

It turned out that the actual danger of the coronavirus was that the virus could kill you. Go figure.

More than 442,000 dead Americans later, we can conclude that those expert-sounding op-ed writers didn’t know what the hell they were talking about and were actually making people less informed and less prepared with their knee-jerk reactions. But those voices were so set on autopilot, so psychologically pre-programmed to denounce American paranoia and xenophobia and whatever the U.S. government was doing, that they never stopped to look and see if this new thing coming our way was different from all of those other things they were used to discussing.

And this past week, that unpredictable conveyor belt of events we call the news cycle brought us something new, different, and strange: the whole GameStop to-do.

Let’s Sort through this GameStop Thing, from the Top

A week ago, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about this GameStop thing. Every once in a while, my sons manage to drag me in to that store because they want to buy a game, and I wish they had had these kinds of games when I was a kid. I loosely knew that grown adult “gamers” were increasingly purchasing games by downloading them from the Internet, the same way streaming services such as Netflix were gradually replacing people’s home DVD collections. If I had bothered to think about it, I probably would have figured the GameStop chain’s long-term business outlook didn’t look good.

And for most of the past two years, much of the investing world felt the same way. From April 2019 to September 2020, a share of GameStop stock cost less than $10.

“Shorting a stock” is when an investor borrows a stock, sells the stock, and then buys the stock back to return it to a lender. This can be tough to get a head around, because we don’t do that sort of thing for other goods and services. “Hey, I’d like to borrow your car, sell it, wait for it to decrease in value, buy it back at a lower price, keep the difference and then return it to you.” As NPR notes, it’s mostly used by hedge funds and professional investors, and it makes sense if an investor thinks a particular stock is overvalued and headed for a steep tumble in the near future. Short sellers are increasingly attracting heated criticism, because some people see them as profiting from, and effectively rooting for the failure of businesses and other people.

What we’re seeing now is a “short squeeze,” which “occurs when a stock or other asset jumps sharply higher, forcing traders who had bet that its price would fall, to buy it in order to forestall even greater losses. Their scramble to buy only adds to the upward pressure on the stock’s price.” A group of smaller investors on sites such as Reddit figured out that certain hedge funds were shorting the stock of GameStop — but that if the stock price went high enough, those hedge funds would have to buy the stock themselves to avoid an even worse loss.

In the last few months of 2020, Gamestop’s stock price inched up a bit. On January 4, the company’s stock was $17.25 per share. But by January 14, it was $39.91. The Wall Street Journal summarizes how purchasing the stock became a hot and rapidly spreading online trend:

On Jan. 19, a Twitter account identifying itself as moderators for WallStreetBets posted that the forum had long been dismissed, but “we are also now a powerful force to be taken seriously.” Some users have expressed concern that the Securities and Exchange Commission would act if users appeared organized. On Discord, in a chat room linked to WallStreetBets, a user on Tuesday posted, “Guys, we need to pump $GME. Everyone buy 1000 shares in exactly 60 seconds.”

By the end of Tuesday, the stock closed at $147 per share. By Wednesday, $347 per share. And at 2:10 p.m. on Thursday, it peaked at $492 per share, and closed yesterday at $193 per share.

If you’ve lived through the dot-com excitement of the late 1990s or tried to purchase a house in George W. Bush’s second term, you can recognize a bubble. Bubbles are a lot of fun when they’re inflating, and no fun at all when they pop. (GameStop is the most extreme example, but AMC theater chain, Blackberry, and Bed Bath & Beyond stocks have seen similar rapid jumps in the past week.)

About ten minutes after the GameStop stock surge turned into a big story, some media voices started trying to hammer the events into a familiar preexisting narrative. For example, Chris Cillizza over at CNN contended that the stock surge could be explained by “Trumpism.”

What’s the end game for the GameStop surgers? Like, now that they have proven the point that they can take a stock that the pros have declared moribund and revive it — at least for a moment — what do they do now? Because they don’t really believe that GameStop is suddenly the new Amazon or Apple or Google. It’s still mostly a business that derives its value from brick and mortar stores in malls. Which, again, is not exactly a big growth area in the coming years.

The point is that there is no real point beyond showing up the pros — proving to them that they aren’t as smart as they think they are and that they don’t have the ability to control everything.

Which, again, has its roots in Trumpism. The entire notion of Trump’s candidacy and presidency was to stick it to the elites.

(Er, “What’s the end game for the GameStop surgers?” Isn’t it to sell the stock at some point and make a fortune?)

A lot of people instantly latched onto the notion of the little guys (the Reddit-using investors) figuring out a way to beat the big guys (hedge funds that had shorted the stock). But I found this observation by George Pearkes at Business Insider useful:

The WallStreetBets poster that initially identified GameStop and drove interest in the stock invested $50,000 of his cash in stock and call options, and the position is now worth over $50 million. While that poster is to be commended for such an impressive return, anybody with $50,000 to throw into an extremely high-risk equity market trade doesn’t fit a reasonable definition of “the little guy.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that Jaime Rogozinski, the man who created Reddit’s WallStreetBets, started it “while working as an information technology consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington.

Yes, the WallStreetBets dudes and Redditors are the “little guy” compared to the largest hedge funds. But ultimately this is a battle between two groups of investors on opposite sides of a bet. So far, the Redditors have won big and the hedge funds have lost big, and the Redditor guys’ actions are completely legal. They may or may not be wise; more specifically, the ones who got in early were a combination of shrewd and lucky, and the people joining the party later and purchasing GameStop for more than $300 per share are taking bigger risks.

Where it gets more complicated is when stock-trading companies such as Robinhood and E-Trade suddenly decided they wouldn’t allow users to purchase stocks such as GameStop, only hold or sell. This morning, several of those companies reinstated the ability to purchase those stocks.

How scrambled is this situation? A week ago, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren promised to “push for a sweeping set of reforms intended to stop what she calls ‘Wall Street looting.’” Now she’s not sure which side is to blame, but is certain that we need the Securities and Exchange Commission to intervene.

“That’s the problem: How do you know who’s manipulating the stock at this point?” she asked. “Are you entirely sure that there aren’t wealthy people on both sides? That hedge funds haven’t moved in on the side of the people who bid up the price of GameStop?” I guess we’ve finally found the circumstance where Elizabeth Warren will come running to the aid of hedge funds.

What does it matter if there are “wealthy people on both sides”? Everybody involved in shorting or purchasing this stock knew or should have known the risks — a share’s price can rapidly move in the wrong direction for you. Somebody’s going to lose their shirt, eventually. GameStop is pretty much the same company it was a month ago, a year ago, and two years ago. People are still purchasing games online in larger numbers. Unless something about the company changes, the long-term outlook for brick-and-mortar retail video-game stores is no better than it was last month. But at least for now, demand for those stocks is high, because it’s turned into an online trend.

Someone Belatedly Realizes Andrew Cuomo Hasn’t Lived Up to His Own Hype

I don’t want to pick on Chris Cillizza, but yesterday he wrote a piece headlined, “Andrew Cuomo’s Covid-19 performance may have been less stellar than it seemed.” (Every reader of this newsletter, simultaneously: “No kidding.”)

Cuomo’s performance seemed “stellar” to people who didn’t pay any attention, or who didn’t play along with CNN’s decision to use the governor and anchor Chris Cuomo in a Smothers Brothers-esque “Mom always liked you best” schtick. That the governor and his administration lied and covered up nursing-home deaths is no longer in dispute:

New York State attorney general, Letitia James, reported on Thursday morning that Mr. Cuomo’s administration had undercounted coronavirus-related deaths of state nursing home residents by the thousands.

Just hours later, Ms. James was proved correct, as Health Department officials made public new data that added more than 3,800 deaths to their tally, representing nursing home residents who had died in hospitals and had not previously been counted by the state as nursing home deaths.

Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, had long dismissed the critiques of his policies governing those facilities as partisan attacks from the Trump administration and other Republican adversaries.

Back in May 2020, this newsletter told you that since March 25, New York state policy barred nursing homes from denying entry to patients recovering from COVID-19 — meaning that for six weeks and four days, contagious patients were being brought back into buildings full of the people most vulnerable to the virus. The policy was absolute madness, but few people in media wanted to look at it too closely, because it meant that the most-praised governor of the pandemic was likely to really have been the worst.

ADDENDUM: An unnerving news story straight out of Hunting Four Horsemen:

The largest biotech firm in the world wasted no time in offering to build and run COVID testing labs in Washington, contacting its governor right after the first major COVID outbreak in the U.S. occurred there. The Chinese company, the BGI Group, made the same offer to at least five other states, including New York and California, 60 Minutes has learned.

This, along with other COVID testing offers by BGI, so worried Bill Evanina, then the country’s top counterintelligence officer, that he authorized a rare public warning. “Foreign powers can collect, store and exploit biometric information from COVID tests” declared the notice. Evanina believes the Chinese are trying to collect Americans’ DNA to win a race to control the world’s biodata.

If you know someone’s DNA, it is not difficult to figure out what maladies their bodies are particularly vulnerable to, and what could cause a death that would appear to be from natural causes.

Energy & Environment

Climate Change Does Not Mean Job Creation

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on climate change prior to signing executive actions as White House climate envoy John Kerry and Vice President Kamala Harris listen in the State Dining Room at the White House, January 27, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: After canceling the Keystone Pipeline and eliminating 1,000 jobs, the Biden administration says climate change means job creation; Biden continues to characterize tax-code provisions designed to increase domestic energy production as “handouts”; Biden wants federal agencies to purchase more electric vehicles, whether or not those agencies say those vehicles work well for them; the CDC says they’re still trying to figure out why there are “many vaccines that are sort of unaccounted for”; and a quick observation on the stock price of GameStop.

Fact-Checking ‘Climate Day’ in the Biden Administration

Yesterday, President Biden announced, “Today is ‘Climate Day’ at the White House and — which means that today is ‘Jobs Day’ at the White House. We’re talking about American innovation, American products, American labor.”

Biden’s chief climate adviser, former Obama-era EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, added, “when we say, ‘climate change,’ eventually, people are going to think ‘jobs,’ just like President Biden when he hears the words ‘climate change.’”

The problem is that Biden’s first major move on climate, canceling the Keystone Pipeline, already eliminated 1,000 jobs, according to TC Energy. And defenders of the Biden administration are being ludicrously disingenuous when they insist that “most of the [Keystone Pipeline] jobs would be temporary.” Yes, all construction jobs are temporary. (It only seems like the contractor working on your kitchen is taking forever.) When the construction crew has built what they’ve been assigned to build, that job is over, and they have to find a new one.

The Biden administration answer to those 1,000 laid-off workers is to tell them to find other jobs. A week ago, the incoming transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, declared in his confirmation hearing, “We are very eager to see those workers continue to be employed in good-paying union jobs, even if they might be different ones.

And yesterday, “Special Climate Envoy” John Kerry suggested that coal miners could and would easily transition into the solar-power industry: “You know, you look at the consequences of black lung for a miner, for instance, and measure that against the fastest-growing job in the United States before COVID was solar power technician. The same people can do those jobs, but the choice of doing the solar power one now is a better choice.”

Elsewhere in the day, Biden continued to characterize existing U.S. energy policy as “handouts” to oil companies. “Unlike previous administrations, I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to big oil to the tune of $40 billion in fossil fuel subsidies. And I’m going to be going to the Congress asking them to eliminate those subsidies.”

When Biden says “handouts,” you may be picturing the U.S. government handing a check to oil companies. What Biden is actually referring to are provisions in the tax code that were all designed to increase domestic energy production, reduce dependency on foreign sources, and reduce the cost to consumers.

When Biden says he’s going to “stop giving them federal subsidies,” what he means is that he wants to change the tax code so that domestic production of oil and natural gas becomes more expensive.

Electric Cars for Everyone! Except High-Level Government Officials, of Course

Yesterday, Biden also said, “the federal government owns and maintains an enormous fleet of vehicles, as you all know. With today’s executive order, combined with the Buy American executive order I signed on Monday, we’re going to harness the purchasing power of the federal government to buy clean, zero-emission vehicles that are made and sourced by union workers right here in America. With everything I just mentioned, this will mean one million new jobs in the American automobile industry. One million.”

Every time the U.S. government makes a decision to purchase one new kind of vehicle, it is choosing not to purchase the old kind of vehicle. Purchasing a few thousand more electric vehicles means not purchasing a few thousand traditional vehicles. Purchasing electric cars will indeed create new jobs as U.S. manufacturers increase production to meet the government’s demand for them, but it will also eliminate jobs as manufacturers decrease production for the old cars.

The U.S. government’s vehicle fleet varies from 640,000 to 645,000, with roughly 225,000 sedans, minivans, and SUVs, 412,000 trucks, and about 8,000 ambulances and buses. About 200,000 of those trucks are used by the U.S. Postal Service. The overall size of the fleet increases or decreases by 20,000 in a big year and by 1,000 in a stable year.

During the Obama years, government purchasing offices were gradually reducing the percentage of government vehicles that were “conventional,” and in 2015, Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions and increase acquisitions of electric vehicles; Trump repealed that order in 2018.

According to the General Accounting Office, some federal agencies would like to buy electric vehicles, but the ones on the mark