The Morning Jolt

Health Care

Holiday Travel Will Happen

People walk at Reagan National Airport ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in Arlington, Va., November 25, 2020. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

On the menu today: Dr. Deborah Birx saw her family around Thanksgiving, raising questions about just how risky it is for you to see your family for Christmas this week; the CDC votes to prioritize those over 75 and “frontline essential workers”; and the secretary of state and the president have some public disagreements about the recent massive hack into secure government computer systems.

People Are Going to See Their Families This Week

If you will be traveling to see loved ones this week for Christmas, and anyone suspiciously asks what you’re doing or where you’re going, just answer, “I’m going to winterize one of my properties before I sell it. My family will be joining me for a meal while I’m there, and we will be there for 50 hours or so.”

Because Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus-response coordinator, gave that answer for her travel right after Thanksgiving. I like Dr. Birx, she’s done the best she can in an extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and she’s been hindered by administration rivalries and infighting and a temperamental president who doesn’t like getting bad news.

But this makes her look like just another government official who expects other people to make big sacrifices until the end of the pandemic that she herself is not willing to make.

The day after Thanksgiving, she traveled to one of her vacation properties on Fenwick Island in Delaware. She was accompanied by three generations of her family from two households. Birx, her husband Paige Reffe, a daughter, son-in-law and two young grandchildren were present.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked Americans not to travel over the holidays and discourages indoor activity involving members of different households. “People who do not currently live in your housing unit, such as college students who are returning home from school for the holidays, should be considered part of different households.”

After The Associated Press raised questions about her Thanksgiving weekend travels, Birx acknowledged in a statement that she went to her Delaware property. She declined to be interviewed.

She insisted the purpose of the roughly 50-hour visit was to deal with the winterization of the property before a potential sale — something she says she previously hadn’t had time to do because of her busy schedule.

“I did not go to Delaware for the purpose of celebrating Thanksgiving,” Birx said in her statement, adding that her family shared a meal together while in Delaware.

Birx said that everyone on her Delaware trip belongs to her “immediate household,” even as she acknowledged they live in two different homes. She initially called the Potomac home a “3 generation household (formerly 4 generations).” White House officials later said it continues to be a four-generation household, a distinction that would include Birx as part of the home.

Did Birx’s six-person family gathering do any harm? Thankfully, it appears the answer is no. Because Birx works with the White House, she is probably tested regularly. She knows all of the protocols. But she’s determined that her gathering of six people from three generations is unlikely to lead to anyone else catching the virus . . . and a lot of other people are coming to the same conclusion. We’ve seen a slew of Democratic officials ignore their own edicts; now we have a figure from the Trump administration to join the pantheon.

Nationwide, about 11 percent of tests are coming back positive. That’s high and bad, but that still means almost nine in ten people who are either concerned enough to get tested or who are required to be tested for their job don’t have the virus. There’s no danger from people who are negative meeting in a group. (There is a risk that a person caught the virus between the time of the test and the time of the gathering, and some tests can occasionally have false negatives.)

Perhaps our public-health officials ought to rethink what edicts and orders are likely to be followed after a long and exhausting year. Almost all of California is currently under a stay-at-home order that bans gatherings of people from different households. How many Californians will choose to forgo Christmas at all this year? From Crescent City to Winterhaven and all points in between, families are going to gather and hope for the best.

The public might be more receptive if the message was, “This year, try to minimize your holiday gatherings,” and just acknowledge that Americans are not going to skip seeing their relatives around Christmas this year. For many of us, the day just isn’t Christmas without our families.

Seventy-five and Older, Frontline Essential Workers, Get Ready to Roll Up those Sleeves

After some nutty ideas about prioritizing vaccination by race in the name of mitigating “racial inequity,” a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel voted 13–1 Sunday to “put ‘frontline essential workers’ and people 75 years of age and older next in line to be eligible to receive a vaccine against Covid-19.

Back in August, William Marshall of the Mayo Clinic laid out why certain minority communities were getting hit particularly hard by the virus:

According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native people had an age-adjusted COVID-19 hospitalization rate about 5.3 times that of non-Hispanic white people. COVID-19 hospitalization rates among non-Hispanic Black people and Hispanic or Latino people were both about 4.7 times the rate of non-Hispanic white people.

While there’s no evidence that people of color have genetic or other biological factors that make them more likely to be affected by COVID-19, they are more likely to have underlying health conditions. Having certain conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, increases your risk of severe illness with COVID-19. But experts also know that where people live and work affects their health. Over time, these factors lead to different health risks among racial and ethnic minority groups.

Where you live and who you live with can make it challenging to avoid getting sick with COVID-19 and get treatment. For example, racial and ethnic minority members might be more likely to live in multi-generational homes, crowded conditions and densely populated areas, such as New York City. This can make social distancing difficult.

If underlying health conditions are what make minorities more at risk of COVID-19, then prioritize people with underlying health conditions, not people with a particular skin color or ethnic heritage. Because there are whites with diabetes, obesity, heart conditions, and who are immunocompromised or are undergoing cancer treatments, etc., too, and no one is going to object to protecting the people who are most likely to suffer a severe case of COVID-19.

We’re in the Very Best of Hands, America

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appearing on the Mark Levin Show, Friday:

MARK LEVIN: Now, this attack, I guess our government is still sorting it out and so forth. Reports are coming out this is a massive attack on our computer systems and our software systems, correct?

SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s right. I can’t say much more as we’re still unpacking precisely what it is, and I’m sure some of it will remain classified. But suffice it to say there was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of U.S. Government systems and it now appears systems of private companies and companies and governments across the world as well. This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.

MARK LEVIN: And yet I’m hearing these news reports and frankly listening to Mitt Romney saying the President needs to speak out, the President needs to speak out. I assume sometimes behind the scenes there’s an awful lot of work being done that can’t be spoken about yet if the perpetrators are going to be tracked down and the details are going to be determined. Am I right?

SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s absolutely true. I saw this in my time running the world’s premier espionage service at the CIA. There are many things that you’d very much love to say, ‘Boy, I’m going to call that out,’ but a wiser course of action to protect the American people is to calmly go about your business and defend freedom.

President Trump, on Twitter, the following morning:

The Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality. I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control. Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens because Lamestream is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of . . . discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!). There could also have been a hit on our ridiculous voting machines during the election, which is now obvious that I won big, making it an even more corrupted embarrassment for the USA.

Do the president and secretary of state still talk to each other much?

ADDENDUM: There are a lot of “must-read” articles that don’t quite live up to the hype. But the Elle magazine profile, The Journalist and the Pharma Bro,” published Sunday night is a doozy. The profile tells the story of a former Bloomberg News reporter who appears to have fallen head over heels for the infamous convicted pharmaceutical-company head Martin Shkreli. It’s like watching a car crash, in slow motion.

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