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COVID reaches the senior ranks of the Biden administration
Three top officials tested positive for the virus yesterday as the White House rails against Senate Republicans for holding up emergency pandemic funding.
As inflation, the crisis in Ukraine and the culture wars continue to nudge the pandemic to the backburner of America’s collective attention span, Wednesday was another reminder that COVID-19 is still a clear and present challenge for the federal government.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Vice President Kamala Harris’s new-ish Communications Director Jamal Simmons were all announced to have tested positive for the in succession.
Simmons was in close contact with Vice President Harris. Her office said in a statement that she will continue to consult with her doctor and keep her public schedule.
The three senior Biden administration officials will work from home until they test negative.
“We’ve seen an increase in cases in the country, in the region, among the press corps and certainly in the White House. But it’s not, at this point, what we saw during Omicron” Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who last Friday returned to the podium from basement isolation after her second COVID infection, said during her daily briefing. “People who are out because of that — the vast, vast majority have mild cases and are continuing to work from home.” (White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is also recovering from a recent case and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff resumed his public schedule this week after bouncing back from the virus too.)
Raimondo, Garland and Simmons share a commonality: They each attended the Gridiron Club Dinner, an annual white-tie affair that brings together elected officials and political operatives from both parties and members of the press for a night of high-powered schmoozing.
Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff of California and Joaquin Castro of Texas attended the dinner and have since tested positive. Max Tani and Alex Thompson at Politico report that journalists from news organizations like PBS, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and several others have as well after the dinner.
Public health officials have warned reporters for weeks now that BA.2 — the dominant strain of the Omicron variant — could cause a surge in cases due to its super-transmissibility. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says BA.2 accounts for nearly two-thirds of circulating variants nationally.
But there’s no evidence that the subvariant results in more severe disease compared with its predecessor. And while it’s more transmissible than previous variants, it doesn’t appear to be more likely to evade immune protection.
President Joe Biden did not attend the dinner and tested negative on Monday.
And Psaki was peppered on Wednesday about how the White House is taking steps to protect the oldest president in US history.
“I would say we take additional measures that go beyond what the CDC protocols and requirements are to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to keep principals — the president, vice president and others, of course, in the building,” she said.
Everyone who sees or travels with Biden is tested in advance. And senior officials take steps to socially distance in the Oval Office and other White House meeting spaces. Individuals in the White House identified as close contacts are required to wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure and tested regularly following.
Ever the savvy communicator, Psaki used the line of inquiry to pivot to an attack on Senate Republicans who have held up a $10 billion emergency COVID funding agreement.
If you’ll think back to Monday’s issue, there was deep optimism that the deal would be passed before the Senate went on a two-week recess.
But GOP senators are forcing a vote to reinstate a public health authority that removes migrants from countries where COVID-19 was present. The vote would also require Democratic incumbents up for reelection to buck their party and take a tough position on immigration.
Psaki used a prop — a hefty 385-page binder — to argue that the administration has given Congress a full accounting of every dollar that’s been spent on the COVID medical response and all the specifics of planned additional funding.
She also outlined the costs of the current funding lapse: The program that reimbursed doctors, pharmacists and other providers for vaccinating uninsured people ended yesterday. The nation’s supply of treatments that effectively keep people out of the hospital will run out as soon as next month, according to White House projections. And the administration’s test-manufacturing capacity will begin to ramp down at the end of June.
“We’re going to continue to work closely with Congress to drive to a solution, because the president knows that we can’t afford inaction in this moment,” Psaki said. “It’s going to require politicians to stop skirting their responsibility to the American people. COVID is not over and we have an obligation to protect our country, the American people, and make sure we’re taking steps to prepare.”
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Today in Politics
President Biden this morning with receive his daily intelligence briefing with Vice President Harris.
The House is in and will consider a COVID-19 relief package for restaurants and other businesses.
The Senate is in and will vote to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.
In the Know
The US announced new sanctions against two key Russian financial institutions and the adult children of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sanctions were also imposed on 21 members of Russia’s National Security Council.
More than 5,000 civilians have been killed in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, including 210 children and 50 people who were reportedly burned to death. Russian forces are said to regrouping for a major push on eastern Ukraine after facing fierce resistance in the north and south. (Adam Schreck and Andrea Rosa / AP News)
The US announced it secretly removed malware from computer networks around the world in recent weeks. Officials described it as another step to preempt Russian cyberattacks by making them public before President Vladimir Putin can strike. (Kate Conger and David E. Sanger / NYT)
Fertility rates of women ages 20-24 declined by 43 percent from 1990 to 2019, according to the Census Bureau. Those of women ages 35-39 increased by 67 percent during the same almost-30-year period.
Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio led a bipartisan commemorative reading of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail on the Senate floor. Brown was joined by Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Republican Sens. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah. Former Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who initiated the annual floor reading in 2019, was also present. Dr. King was assassinated 54 years ago this week.
No criminal charges will be filed in the death of Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man who was shot and killed in February by a local Minnesota SWAT team during a no-knock raid, authorized by a warrant intended for someone else. Officials for Hennepin County said the state would be unable to prove that the officer’s use of force was unlawful. (Victoria Albert / CBS News)
Six state attorneys general warned the National Football League that it could face a broad investigation unless it takes steps to address allegations of workplace harassment of women and minorities. The state AGs asked victims and witnesses of discrimination at the NFL to file complaints with New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office. The NFL has disputed the allegations. (Ken Belson and Katherine Rosman / NYT)
The Transportation Department announced a more than $20 billion investment to enable transit agencies to modernize and expand services for communities of all sizes. The Biden administration says it’s the largest public-transit investment in US history.
Sen. Brown of Ohio and Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland introduced a bill that would quadruple the amount educators can deduct from their taxes for out-of-pocket classroom expenses. The legislation would increase the deduction to $1,000 from $250 and continue to index it to inflation.
Read All About It
Scarlett Newman on the criticism of Telfar, a Black-owned Brooklyn-based fashion label:
Yet Telfar isn’t the only Black-owned brand to have felt the disdain of its fans. Rihanna’s LVMH-backed apparel venture, Fenty, saw similar criticism over its prices, while her previous collaborations, like those with Puma and River Island, were set at more accessible price points. Handbag designer Brandon Blackwood has faced criticism over the quality and production of his bags, and though there have been instances of mainstream luxury brands sending customers faulty products, the difference is that Blackwood’s hiccup was magnified with the help of social media. Race is at play by default in such situations considering the history of marginalization that Black-owned fashion brands have endured over the years.
There seems to be a disconnect between luxury and accessibility in the way people view not only Telfar but Black-owned luxury brands in general. In the current era of consumption, especially as it pertains to high fashion, the idea of luxury is slowly drifting from the old-guard declaration of the past and becoming more fluid in its definitions. Luxury is relative, and luxury is arbitrary, leaving it to the individual to define.
Susan Cain on why sadness is the emotion that’s missing from the workplace:
More than two years into a pandemic that has revealed the painful side of reality, many employees remain discouraged from sharing difficult feelings and experiences at work, creating a culture of emotional repression that hurts workers and managers alike.
In private discussions I’ve had over the years with executives and managers, they’ve raised one recurring objection to these ideas: If everyone is encouraged to air difficult feelings, won’t this sap workers of their ability to get things done and make offices depressing? But this growing area of management research suggests otherwise, showing the value, for both productivity and employee well-being, of workplaces where staff are free to name their emotions and experiences—both the bitter and the sweet. And though American businesses still have a long way to go, managers may one day be able to kick off meetings with a call to share how everyone is feeling—and actually expect honest answers.
Elizabeth Bernstein on why we’re all forgetting things right now:
The deluge of information coming at us on multiple channels is cluttering our brains, too. We’re terrible at paying attention, constantly scrolling our phones while we’re doing other things, which neuroscientists say makes it hard to encode memories in the first place. And it can be hard to remember something out of context, such as the name of the co-worker suddenly talking to us in person, rather than on Zoom.
Then there’s the sameness of our lives during the pandemic. How are we supposed to remember a specific event when each day was exactly the same as every other?
Mary Harris in conversation with Helena Bottemiller Evich on the impending school lunch disaster:
You’re not seeing lawmakers own the anti-school-lunch-funding stance publicly, which I think is interesting. I think there is a desire everyone has to try to get schools back to normal, but you’re hearing a really strong Republican push to not continue a lot of pandemic programs longer than they feel is necessary. I also think it is completely fair to ask how big of a priority this really is for Democrats, because it’s not something we see in political talking points right now. You don’t hear Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talking about this, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything from Biden. So I don’t know how far they’re willing to go or how much they’re really willing to fight over this, and as we’ve learned, there aren’t that many trains that leave the station now in Washington in terms of legislation. So it’s hard to see what the other options are here.
It’s a chaotic way of running things. There’s not a lot of certainty. And even now, with a decision having been made, there’s still uncertainty, right? Because there’s still some hope that maybe Congress will fix this in some other way. And I think the feeling from schools is that it’s an added stress at a time when they feel like they shouldn’t have added stress on their plate.
Rhoda Feng on the invention of “accidents”:
The vogue for declaring certain categories of death “accidents” is older than we may think. “From the Industrial Revolution onward, powerful corporate interests insisted that fallible people were the source of all accidents,” [author Jessie] Singer writes. Railroads provided some of the earliest data for accidental worker deaths; almost half of those injured or killed on the job were workers who connected train cars. Many were dismissed as “careless, drunk, or dumb.” When newspapers began reporting on the death toll of railroad workers (recorded at 11,000 in 1892), Congress took note and passed the Safety Appliance Act. The act mandated automatic couplers, saving workers the trouble of standing between two railcars and jeopardizing their lives. The number of lives lost to coupling train cars dropped by thousands in subsequent years. The problem was not individual reckless workers but an unsafe system.
Katie Heaney on post-pandemic social distancing:
Of course, it’s hard to know what the world will look like when (or if) COVID has “ended,” and all we can do now is speculate. But the researchers have asked a version of this question every month since the pandemic began, and the number of people who say they have no plans to stop social distancing has remained relatively unchanged (between 10 to 15 percent) despite vaccination and other encouraging metrics.
Ten to 15 percent is a sizable minority — that amounts to between 25 million and 38 million adults in the U.S. And while that group may shrink, it hasn’t yet, and so it seems important to ask why: If one’s risk of contracting or transmitting COVID is negligible — as the survey asks respondents to envision — why wouldn’t they do all the things they did before?
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