Briefs: Finally a deal for $900 billion COVID relief
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Top Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal on a $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package, finally delivering long-overdue help to businesses and individuals and providing money to deliver vaccines to a nation eager for them.
The package, expected to draw votes in Congress on Monday, would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.
It came together Sunday after months of battling and posturing, but the negotiating dynamic changed in Republicans' favor after the election and as the end of the congressional session neared. President-elect Joe Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted this fall.
Biden praised the bipartisan spirit that produced the measure, which he called "just the beginning."
"This is a model for the challenging work ahead for our nation," Biden said Sunday in a statement.
House leaders informed lawmakers that they would vote on the legislation on Monday, and the Senate was likely to vote on Monday, too. Lawmakers were eager to leave Washington and close out a tumultuous year.
"There will be another major rescue package for the American people," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in announcing the agreement for the relief bill. "It is packed with targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long."
Democrats acknowledged it wasn't as robust a relief package as they initially sought — or, they say, the country needs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed more to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
"It is a first step," she said. "We have to do more."
A fight over Federal Reserve emergency powers was resolved Saturday night by the Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, and conservative Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. That breakthrough led to a final round of negotiations Sunday.
The final agreement would be the largest spending measure yet. It combined $900 billion for COVID-19 relief with a $1.4 trillion government-wide funding plan and lots of other unrelated measures on taxes, health, infrastructure and education. The government-wide funding would keep the government open through September.
Passage neared as coronavirus cases and deaths spiked and evidence piled up that the economy was struggling. The legislation had been held up by months of dysfunction, posturing and bad faith. But talks turned serious in recent days as lawmakers on both sides finally faced the deadline of acting before leaving Washington for Christmas.
"This bill is a good bill. Tonight is a good night. But it is not the end of the story, it is not the end of the job," Schumer told reporters. "Anyone who thinks this bill is enough does not know what's going on in America."
The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $600 stimulus payment to most people would also be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits in which an individual's payment began to phase out after $75,000.
Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minority communities.
Late-breaking decisions would limit $300 per week bonus jobless benefits — one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the CARES Act in March — to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks as before. The direct $600 stimulus payment to most people would be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits in which an individual's payment begins to phase out after $75,000.
Plan for next round of vaccines: 75 and over and essential workers
NEW YORK — A federal advisory panel recommended Sunday that people 75 and older and essential workers like firefighters, teachers and grocery store workers should be next in line for COVID-19 shots, while a second vaccine began rolling out to hospitals as the nation works to get the coronavirus pandemic under control.
The two developments came amid a vaccination program that began only in the last week and has given initial shots to about 556,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and Germany's BioNTech already is being distributed, and regulators last week gave approval to the one from Moderna Inc. that began shipping Sunday.
Earlier this month, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said health care workers and nursing home residents — about 24 million people — should be at the very front of the line for the vaccines.
Sunday's vote by the panel was who should be next in line, and by a vote of 13-1, it decided that it should be people 75 and older, who number about 20 million, as well as certain front-line workers, who total about 30 million.
With winter at hand, the virus whips up winds of uncertainty
Coronavirus cases spiking nationwide. A chill, existential and literal, setting in once more. And now: a winter likely to be streaked by a soundtrack of sirens instead of silver bells.
It was winter when the pandemic began, and it will be winter long before it's over. Weary and traumatized from months of death and confinement, Americans are being handed mixed messages, from governments to their own internal clocks running haywire on flattened time.
Shouldn't it be over by now? After all, vaccines are arriving. But before the average person will get inoculated, winter will exact its toll.
The holidays are wreathed in danger for those who travel and may spread the virus — and those who don't and may suffer from isolation. Small gifts of normalcy, like in-person schooling and indoor dining, are being interrupted again. A new president will take the helm of a deeply cleaved country. And a belated reckoning with social issues marches on.
"We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it's not going to be easy," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious-disease expert, was saying as early as September.
Now, winter is at hand — a winter like no other in living American memory. And with its arrival Monday, a nation holds its breath.
"I think there's a pretty common sentiment that a lot of people feel like the world is falling apart," says Monica Johnson, a psychologist in New York who primarily serves patients from marginalized groups.
For months now, activities like socially distanced hangs in parks and bike rides have been the social capital that has allowed many Americans to reclaim a semblance of pre-pandemic life. For example, New York's CitiBike broke its monthly ridership record in September, a Lyft spokesperson says.
Winter is different. "Going outside" becomes a very different act in the cold, and indoors — where winter naturally draws us when the temperatures drop — is where the virus has spread most aggressively.
Exhibit A: public transportation, typically a mainstay of American cities in foul and fine conditions. Ridership of subway, bus and commuter rail systems has plunged this year.
Metropolitan Transit Authority bus operator Regan Weal has driven three Manhattan routes over the course of the pandemic, the beginning of which was "mentally exhausting," she says. While both ridership and conditions for drivers have improved, she says, it remains fraught. More than 130 MTA workers have died of COVID-related causes.
"I worry about when it gets cold, and now people are going to want to be on the bus more because they don't want to walk to the train," she says.
Novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder, chronicler of the American pioneer era, titled one of her "Little House" books "The Long Winter." Barbara Mayes Boustead, an Omaha-based meteorologist instructor with NOAA, used Wilder's writing as inspiration to co-develop the "Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index."
"In Laura's story, really, the winter is that antagonist out there, that thing that's preventing them from getting what they need. In the world we're in this year, I don't know if COVID is the compounding factor or the antagonist here," Mayes Boustead says. "It may be that COVID is the antagonist, and then the winter, should it be severe in some places, could be a compounding factor."
Birx travels, family visits highlight pandemic safety perils
WASHINGTON — As COVID-19 cases skyrocketed before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, warned Americans to "be vigilant" and limit celebrations to "your immediate household."
For many Americans that guidance has been difficult to abide, including for Birx herself.
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."
Even in Birx's everyday life, there are challenges meeting that standard. She and her husband have a home in Washington. She also owns a home in nearby Potomac, Maryland, where her elderly parents, and her daughter and family live, and where Birx visits intermittently. In addition, the children's other grandmother, who is 77, also regularly travels to the Potomac house and returns to her 92-year-old husband near Baltimore.
As end approaches, Trump gets doses of flattery, finality
NEW YORK — President Donald Trump's administration is ending how it began, with over-the-top declarations of praise for the chief executive.
But now the flattery is mixed with a sense of finality as key people in the president's orbit are beginning to turn the page and acknowledge his defeat. Trump himself keeps to the Oval Office, still fighting the Election Day results and offering scant acknowledgement of the death and suffering Americans are bearing in the darkest hours of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a week when the Electoral College made official President-elect Joe Biden's victory, Trump remained out of sight, staying late in the Oval Office and working the phones and television remote in his private dining area just steps from the Resolute Desk.
While he made not one public appearance, some of those who have been his most influential allies and loyal defenders gave up the fight, letting the president down as gently as possible.
Attorney General William Barr offered his resignation last Monday after weeks of tension with Trump brought about an early exit from his post. Long seen as one of Trump's most supportive Cabinet members, Barr in recent weeks and months had drawn Trump's wrath for not supporting the president's baseless claims of election fraud or for not publicly pursuing an investigation into Biden's son Hunter.
Concern among Muslims over halal status of COVID-19 vaccine
JAKARTA, Indonesia — In October, Indonesian diplomats and Muslim clerics stepped off a plane in China. While the diplomats were there to finalize deals to ensure millions of doses reached Indonesian citizens, the clerics had a much different concern: Whether the COVID-19 vaccine was permissible for use under Islamic law.
As companies race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and countries scramble to secure doses, questions about the use of pork products — banned by some religious groups — has raised concerns about the possibility of disrupted immunization campaigns.
Pork-derived gelatin has been widely used as a stabilizer to ensure vaccines remain safe and effective during storage and transport. Some companies have worked for years to develop pork-free vaccines: Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has produced a pork-free meningitis vaccine, while Saudi- and Malaysia-based AJ Pharma is currently working on one of their own.
But demand, existing supply chains, cost and the shorter shelf life of vaccines not containing porcine gelatin means the ingredient is likely to continue to be used in a majority of vaccines for years, said Dr. Salman Waqar, general secretary of the British Islamic Medical Association.
Spokespeople for Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have said that pork products are not part of their COVID-19 vaccines. But limited supply and preexisting deals worth millions of dollars with other companies means that some countries with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, will receive vaccines that have not yet been certified to be gelatin-free.
Tenn. governor enacts new virus restrictions
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has announced new social gathering restrictions while still refusing to implement a mask mandate despite pleas from front-line healthcare workers in a state experiencing the highest new cases per capita in the country.
Instead of a mask mandate, the Republican on Sunday signed an executive order limiting public gatherings to 10 people. However, places of worship, weddings and funerals are exempt from the order.
He called the state "ground zero" in the COVID-19 battle and urged Tennesseans not to gather with people outside their immediate households during the upcoming holidays. His message comes just a day after Lee confirmed that his wife Maria had tested positive for COVID-19. Lee says he has tested negative but will remain in quarantine at the governor's residence.
Tennessee is one of a dozen states without a mask mandate. Instead, local counties have the option of implementing their own mask restrictions.
Lee was originally scheduled to take reporter questions after his statewide address, but his office later postponed that until Monday without giving a reason why.
Biden's team vows action against hack as US threats persist
WASHINGTON — Once in office, President-elect Joe Biden will punish Russia for its suspected cyberespionage operation against the United States with financial sanctions and measures to hobble the Kremlin's ability to launch future hacks, his chief of staff said Sunday, as a GOP senator criticized President Donald Trump for having a "blind spot" when it comes to Moscow.
"Those who are responsible are going to face consequences for it," said Biden chief of staff Ron Klain. "It's not just sanctions. It's also steps and things we could do to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to repeat this sort of attack or, worse still, engage in even more dangerous attacks."
The head of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, which disclosed that it had been targeted by the spying attempt, said it was clear the foreign intrusions were not "one and done" and suggested there was little time to spare before the next one.
"These attacks will continue to escalate, and get worse if we do nothing," said CEO Kevin Mandia.
Cybersecurity experts and U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been clear over the past week that they believe Russia was behind the massive hack that infiltrated over 40 federal agencies, including the departments of Treasury, Energy and Commerce, as well as government contractors.