Briefs: No deal in Congress yet ... but close

Associated Press

A $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package would deliver additional help to businesses, $300 per week jobless checks, and $600 stimulus payments to most Americans

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators are closing in on a $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package that would deliver additional help to businesses, $300 per week jobless checks, and $600 stimulus payments to most Americans. But there was no deal quite yet.

The long-delayed measure was coming together as Capitol Hill combatants finally fashioned difficult compromises, often at the expense of more ambitious Democratic wishes for the legislation, to complete the second major relief package of the pandemic.

A hoped-for announcement Wednesday failed to materialize as lawmakers across the spectrum hammered out details of the sprawling legislation and top negotiators continued to trade offers. But lawmakers briefed on the outlines of the aid bill freely shared them.

It's the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark CARES Act in March, which delivered $1.8 trillion in aid and more generous jobless benefits and direct payments to individuals. Since then, Democrats have repeatedly called for ambitious further federal steps to provide relief and battle the pandemic, while Republicans have sought to more fully reopen the economy and to avoid padding the government's $27 trillion debt.

President-elect Joe Biden is eager for an aid package to prop up the economy and deliver direct aid to the jobless and hungry, even though the package falls short of what Democrats want. He called the emerging version "an important down payment" and promised more help next year.French President Macron tests positive for COVID-19

French president tests positive

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron has tested positive for COVID-19, the presidential Elysee Palace announced on Thursday. 

It said the president took a test "as soon as the first symptoms appeared." The brief statement did not say what symptoms Macron experienced. 

It said he would isolate himself for seven days. "He will continue to work and take care of his activities at a distance," it added.

It was not immediately clear what contact tracing efforts were in progress. Macron attended a European Union summit at the end of last week, where he notably had a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He met Wednesday with the prime minister of Portugal. There was no immediate comment from Portuguese officials.

Macron on Wednesday also held the government's weekly Cabinet meeting in the presence of Prime Minister Jean Castex and other ministers. Castex's office said that the prime minister is also self-isolating for seven days. 

A pandemic atlas: How COVID-19 took over the world in 2020

Almost no place has been spared — and no one.

The virus that first emerged a year ago in Wuhan, China, swept across the world in 2020, leaving havoc in its wake. More than any event in memory, the pandemic has been a global event. On every continent, households have felt its devastation — joblessness and lockdowns, infirmity and death. And an abiding, relentless fear.

But each nation has its own story of how it coped. How China used its authoritarian muscle to stamp out the coronavirus. How Brazil struggled with the pandemic even as its president scoffed at it. How Israel's ultra-Orthodox flouted measures to stem the spread of the disease, intensifying the rift between them and their more-secular neighbors.

Spain witnessed the deaths of thousands of elders. Kenyans watched as schools closed and children went to work, some as prostitutes. India's draconian lockdown brought the rate of infection down — but only temporarily, and at a horrific cost. 

At year's end, promising vaccines offered a glimmer of hope amid a cresting second wave of contagion.

Vaccinations reach nursing homes as California faces crisis

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — The first COVID-19 vaccinations are underway at U.S. nursing homes, where the virus has killed more than 110,000 people, even as the nation struggles to contain a surge so alarming it has spurred California to dispense thousands of body bags and line up refrigerated morgue trucks. 

With the rollout of shots picking up speed Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington closed in on a long-stalled $900 billion coronavirus relief package that would send direct payments of around $600 to most Americans. Meanwhile, the U.S. appeared to be days away from adding a second vaccine to its arsenal. 

At the same time, a major snowstorm pushing its way into the Northeast raised concern it could disrupt distribution of the first vaccine.

Nursing home residents in Florida began receiving shots Wednesday, after nearly 2,000 such vaccinations were administered in West Virginia on Tuesday. Thousands more are scheduled there in the coming days. Other states are expected to follow soon.

The elderly and infirm in long-term care have been among the most vulnerable to the virus and, together with health workers, are first in line to get the limited, initial supplies of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech. Nursing home residents and workers account for more than one-third of the nation's 300,000 or so confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

Palestinians left waiting as Israel is set to deploy vaccine

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel will begin rolling out a major coronavirus vaccination campaign next week after the prime minister reached out personally to the head of a major drug company. Millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control will have to wait much longer. 

Worldwide, rich nations are snatching up scarce supplies of new vaccines as poor countries largely rely on a World Health Organization program that has yet to get off the ground. There are few places where the competition is playing out in closer proximity than in Israel and the territories it has occupied for more than half a century.

Next year could bring a sharp divergence in the trajectory of the pandemic, which until now has blithely ignored the national boundaries and political enmities of the Middle East. Israelis could soon return to normal life and an economic revival, even as the virus continues to menace Palestinian towns and villages just a few miles (kilometers) away. 

Israel reached an agreement with the Pfizer pharmaceutical company to supply 8 million doses of its newly approved vaccine — enough to cover nearly half of Israel's population of 9 million since each person requires two doses. That came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally reached out multiple times to Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla, boasting that at one point he was able to reach the CEO at 2 a.m.

Israel has mobile vaccination units with refrigerators that can keep the Pfizer shots at the required minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit). It plans to begin vaccinations as soon as next week, with a capacity of more than 60,000 shots a day. Israel reached a separate agreement with Moderna earlier this month to purchase 6 million doses of its vaccine — enough for another 3 million Israelis.

Russia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout draws wary, mixed response

MOSCOW — While excitement and enthusiasm greeted the Western-developed coronavirus vaccine when it was rolled out, the Russian-made version has received a mixed response, with reports of empty Moscow clinics that offered the shot to health care workers and teachers — the first members of the public designated to receive it.

Kremlin officials and state-controlled media touted the Sputnik V vaccine as a major achievement after it was approved Aug. 11. But among Russians, hope that the shot would reverse the course of the COVID-19 crisis has become mixed with wariness and skepticism, reflecting concerns about how it was rushed out while still in its late-stage testing to ensure its effectiveness and safety.

Russia faced international criticism for approving a vaccine that hasn't completed advanced trials among tens of thousands of people, and experts both at home and abroad warned against its wider use until the studies are completed.

Despite those warnings, authorities started offering it to certain high-risk groups, such as front-line medical workers, within weeks of approval. Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya Institute that developed the vaccine, said last week over 150,000 Russians have gotten it. 

One recipient was Dr. Alexander Zatsepin, an ICU specialist in Voronezh, a city 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Moscow, who received the vaccine in October.

Snow continues to fall on Northeast US, with vaccines in tow

NEW YORK — Snow continued to fall Thursday during a key period in the coronavirus pandemic, days after the start of the U.S. vaccination campaign and in the thick of a virus surge that has throngs of people seeking tests daily.

Snow fell from northern Virginia to parts of New England on Wednesday. It carried on north into the evening, sustaining a storm that was poised to drop as much as 2 feet (0.6 meters) of snow in some places by Thursday.

Officials said they didn't expect the winter blast to disrupt vaccine distribution, which began Monday for frontline health care workers.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday that the government is tracking the vaccine shipments precisely, has staffers already in place to receive them and believes the companies transporting them can navigate the storm.

"This is FedEx, this is UPS express shipping. They know how to deal with snow and bad weather. But we are on it and following it," he told Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends."

States grapple with next steps on evictions as crisis grows

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Ryan Bowser looked somber as he sat in his cramped Oregon apartment, worried whether he, his pregnant girlfriend and her 10-year-old daughter would have a roof over their heads in the new year. It may well depend on state lawmakers.

The family is three months behind on the $1,165 in rent they pay for their two-bedroom unit in the college town of Corvallis. Bowser, a custodian at Oregon State University, took eight weeks off because he was sick and couldn't afford child care. 

They're among thousands hoping Oregon extends an eviction moratorium until July 1 in a special legislative session next week. The proposal also would create a $200 million fund mainly to compensate landlords. If passed, it would go further than a one-month extension of a federal eviction moratorium expected in a coronavirus relief package nearing consensus in Congress.

"We are forced to make decisions between which bills to pay — rent, car or groceries," said Bowser, adding that they may have to sleep in their car, stay on friends' couches or move to another state to crash with distant relatives. "We don't know if we will have a home next year."

The plight of Bowser and other renters on the edge foreshadows a national crisis that's expected to grow next year, with states and cities that granted renters a reprieve amid the coronavirus-battered economy now wrestling with what comes next. While states like Oregon and California are trying to pass much longer moratoriums, some don't have more protections in the works.

Does Electoral College end election for conservative media?

NEW YORK — Newsmax's newest star, Greg Kelly, sought to rally President Donald Trump's supporters after Monday's Electoral College vote confirmed their hero's defeat at the hands of President-elect Joe Biden.

"My fellow deplorables," he said, "it's not over."

By continuing to support the president's unfounded accusations of election fraud, Kelly is by no means alone within a media infrastructure that competes for the loyalty of Trump's backers. He doesn't speak for all, however, and a shift toward preparing for a post-Trump world is slowly gaining momentum.

Geraldo Rivera offered tough love following Biden's nationally televised address Monday night, telling his Fox News Channel audience that "it's over."

The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Trump and Republicans "can help the country and themselves by acknowledging the result and moving on." Online on Tuesday, Breitbart News played up the story of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan saying that Republicans who won't accept the election results are "embarrassing us." Only one of 15 stories on the homepage of Dan Bongino's site concerned the election.

Polls illustrate the stark choice imposed by Trump's refusal to concede.

A CBS News-YouGov poll released this week found that 82 percent of Trump voters didn't believe Biden was the legitimate winner of the election. Similarly, a Fox News poll found that 77 percent of Trump voters believe their candidate actually won.

So if success as a media personality depends upon this audience, do you tell them the truth or what they want to hear?

"It may not be the ethical answer, but in terms of business? You tell them what they want to hear," said Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University professor and author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics."

Throughout the Trump era, conservatives who opposed the president have generally lost their media platforms while pro-Trump voices have been ascendant, she said.

As often stated by Rush Limbaugh, many conservative media voices consider themselves entertainers, even if listeners treat them as news sources, said Brian Rosenwald, author of "Talk Radio America" and a scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania.

The audience is their first loyalty, he said.

"As conservative media proliferated, it put a lot more pressure on the hosts to move to the right and embrace warfare politics," Rosenwald said. "If they don't, they get accused of selling out. This is a business."

Hemmer said she expects the Electoral College vote will begin to shift the narrative from "the election is undecided" to "the election was stolen."

The difficulty of that transition was evident in coverage of the Electoral College voting. 

Newsmax, riding a wave of newfound popularity thanks in part to Trump's promotion, has resisted calling the election for Biden, making it significant when anchor John Bachman twice referred to Biden as the president-elect. 

Some colleagues had trouble with that idea: Host Chris Salcedo referred to a "potential Biden administration." With Congress meeting Jan. 6 to formally count the Electoral College vote, Kelly said, "the way I read it, we won't have a president-elect until then."

Meanwhile, daytime anchor Bill Hemmer's hourlong newscast didn't even mention the Electoral College. Trump aide Stephen Miller was invited on "Fox & Friends" to call for "heroes to step up and do right thing" and grant the president a second term.

Then there are, like Kelly, the true believers. Maria Bartiromo said on Fox Business Network on Monday that "an intel source (is) telling me that President Trump did, in fact, win the election." Lou Dobbs cited "cries of fraud from almost every corner of the country." Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity said that anyone who doesn't "bow before the election decrees" will face a media mob's wrath.

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