One-Liner Wednesday: Vote!

A timely reminder that I saw on a bench when I was heading into the grocery store.

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Pfizer vaccine update

My spouse B, daughter T, and I are participating in the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine trial. My most recent update on our personal experience is here, but I wanted to share an open letter from Pfizer which you can find here.

President Trump has been intimating that a vaccine would be available under emergency authorization by election day November third, which has led to fears that the companies might compromise the science in order to meet that deadline. The companies, though, have been trying to reassure the public that they will adhere to sound scientific and public health principles.

The letter from Pfizer’s chairman and CEO Albert Bourla explains that there are three necessary components for vaccine approval: effectiveness, for which they expect data by the end of October; safety, for which they will have data in the third week of November; and manufacturing data to ensure consistent quality. If there are good results confirmed by outside experts, Bourla believes that Pfizer will be able to apply for emergency use authorization from the United States Food and Drug Administration shortly after the safety data are available in the third week of November.

Even if the emergency and final authorization is approved, Pfizer will continue its study for two years in order to monitor safety and longevity of effectiveness.

I appreciate Pfizer’s transparency of their process and truly hope that their vaccine will be shown to be safe and effective so that we can begin to protect first our most vulnerable and eventually everyone from COVID-19. I also hope that lots of other companies in the US and around the world will also produce safe and effective vaccines so we can end the pandemic as soon as possible.

My US Supreme Court plan

In a comment to this post on my refraining from watching the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, I promised my thoughts on the future of the United States Supreme Court, so here is my attempt to weigh in on a very fraught civics topic. Please note: This is my personal opinion as a citizen. I am not a lawyer or someone with a degree in public policy. This is my brainstorming on the basis of common sense, fairness, and trying to codify what had previously been expected to accord with good governance and ethics.

In the design of the Constitution, the judicial branch is co-equal with the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (president and executive agencies). Its function is to interpret the Constitution and laws. In recent years, the courts have been politicized. The impartiality of their judgements is called into question by the machinations of the politics around their appointment by the president and confirmations by the Senate.

The process as written in the Constitution is that the president nominates individuals for open seats on the various federal courts with the Senate’s advice and consent. Since Mitch McConnell has been Republican majority leader of the Senate, he has failed in his Constitutional duty to give Senate hearings and votes to nominees made by Democratic president Barack Obama, most (in)famously in the case of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland but of dozens of nominees to lower federal courts, as well. During the Trump presidency, McConnell has busily filled those seats with Trump’s very conservative nominees, even when those people have been rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association.

This is an unfair practice but not technically illegal because there are not specific statutes on how the Senate gives advice and consent. My plan begins with codifying what had previously been expected, timely consideration of a president’s court nominees. I propose that all nominees to the federal bench have their Senate hearings begun within sixty days of their nomination and a confirmation vote by the full Senate for those who are advanced by the Judiciary Committee taken within ninety days. The exception would be for a vacancy to the Supreme Court in a presidential election year. A vacancy that occurs on July first or later would be held open for the winner of the presidential election that November.

My sense of fairness also calls for some remedy to the McConnell machinations that have skewed the federal courts to having more Republican appointees than there should have been. If Biden is elected, I think he should be able to make two immediate nominations to the Supreme Court, one for the seat that should have been considered for Merrick Garland because Antonin Scalia’s death was prior to July first in 2016 and one for the seat that will presumably be filled by Trump after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. This basically applies the principle that would be codified in the new law. I envision these two seats as temporary. Going forward, Supreme Court openings would be filled by Democratic (or independent) presidents as usual; Republican (or another conservative party that might arise out of the current maelstrom) presidents would forfeit the next two openings that occur during their presidencies, gradually reducing the Supreme Court back to nine justices.

A similar remedy might be able to be applied to the other federal courts, looking at seats that McConnell blocked from being filled by President Obama as a basis.

This is not a perfect solution, as it will not restore the balance and integrity that the courts would have had without these abuses of power, but it would at least give a legal structure to prevent a repeat in the future and some measure of accountability to the parties that acted unfairly.

Another court reform that is being discussed is to put a term length on what are now lifetime appointments. I have mixed feelings about this. I like the concept of lifetime appointments because it removes any thoughts of a justice deciding in a certain way in order to influence their re-appointment for an additional term. On the other hand, it bothers me that there are justices who were rated as “not qualified” or who have been credibly accused of sexual harassment or lying under oath who will serve for a lifetime on the federal bench. If a term of service is imposed, it should be long, on the order of eighteen or twenty years. I would leave the option available for the president to re-nominate a justice for Senate confirmation. As much as I might like to apply a time limit retroactively, I don’t think this is a good idea. For better in some cases and worse in others, those approved as lifetime appointments should be able to remain in those positions.

For the record, there has been much talk about the Democrats, if they control Congress and the presidency, “packing the Court” meaning adding seats permanently to the Supreme Court. This term is meant pejoratively. I think the Democrats will definitely pursue court reform which is needed to prevent what Aaron Blake of the Washington Post has termed “court-stacking” – the Republican gamesmanship that has resulted in the current skewing of the courts toward justices nominated by Republican presidents.

The idea of temporarily adding seats and exacting a penalty against future Republican/conservative presidents is something that I dreamed up on my own, not something that I have seen proposed elsewhere, proving once again that you can never tell what might be top of JC’s Mind.

By the way, in tangentially related Senate procedure, I propose that the filibuster return to its traditional role as a tool to convince other senators to support one’s position. If a senator wishes to filibuster a nomination or piece of legislation, they may take the floor to talk about the issue as long as they wish. When they finish, debate ends and the measure is brought to the floor for a vote. In a body that already gives outsized influence to states with small populations, forty-one of one hundred senators should not have the ability to permanently block what the majority of senators wants to enact.

SoCS: JG+toys

two-month-old granddaughter JG whom we plan to meet in person next month

*****
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JC’s Confessions #16

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

I should be watching the Senate Judiciary committee’s hearings on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court right now.

I can’t bring myself to do it.

There are a lot of reasons.

First, it renews my sorrow at the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Second, it is difficult to cope with the nomination going forward under the current circumstances. There is the proximity to the election with voters already casting their ballots and the hypocrisy of the Republicans in moving forward with the confirmation process when they would not allow a hearing for President Obama’s nominee in 2016 many months before the election. There is also the fact that the Senate is not in session due to several senators being COVID positive; if it isn’t safe to be in session, in-person hearings should not be held, either.

Third, I’m leery of how the subject of religion will be handled. Like me, Judge Barrett is Roman Catholic, as are five current members of the Supreme Court with a sixth having been raised Catholic. In a country that is predominantly Protestant, it seems odd to have so many Catholics on the Court. I realize that justices make determinations on the basis of the law, but there are times that some of the arguments made in cases cross into religious belief and the Catholic hierarchy sometimes makes arguments that are factually incorrect. For example, some recent cases have upheld employers’ refusal to offer birth control in the medical insurance of women employees on the grounds that birth control is abortifacient, which, while taught by the Catholic bishops, is not medically true. Likewise, you see arguments that same-sex marriage is an assault on religious freedom even though it is a civil law; while some religions choose to offer ceremonies for same-sex couples, no religion is compelled to do so.

Fourth, I remain suspicious of the originalist/textualist bent that Judge Barrett exhibits. That judicial philosophy fails to account for how the meaning of words changes over time. In my view, one of the strengths of our Constitution and laws is that it can be interpreted in the light of new circumstances. Let’s face facts: many of the men who wrote the Constitution were slaveholders who never envisaged that one day Blacks, women, and people who don’t own property would be voters. Many modern issues could not have been imagined by people in the 18th century.

However, some issues that were clearly spelled out in the legal writings of the 18th century are ignored by originalists when it suits them. For example, the second amendment very clearly places the right to bear arms in the context of a “well-regulated militia” but originalists often ignore that part of the text and original intent. It’s also very clear that the Founders understood that corporations are not people; a future Supreme Court may someday strike down the Citizens United ruling on that basis.

I don’t know what will happen with this nomination or with the Court in the coming years, but, right now, I can’t bear to watch.

looking for antibodies

Last week, B, T, and I had our third visit in the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine trial.

The main purpose of the visit was to draw blood to analyze for the presence of antibodies and other factors involved in viral immunity. Because the study is placebo-controlled and blinded, neither we nor the researchers will know our individual results, but the data will be important in determining how quickly and how well the vaccine works.

Our next appointments aren’t until March when more blood work will be done to check on antibody levels again and to see if they have remained and/or declined. In the meantime, we will continue to check in weekly through a phone app which asks about possible COVID symptoms. We will also contact the office if any of us develop symptoms that could be COVID, so that we can be tested.

The Pfizer phase III trial data will be evaluated when a certain number of COVID cases develop among the participants. When these case benchmarks are reached, the researchers will be able to determine how much protection the vaccine group exhibited compared to the placebo group. That percentage helps to determine if the vaccine will be approved.

If the vaccine is approved, Pfizer may decide to end the trail early so that the placebo group members can receive a vaccine to protect themselves. They would continue to follow the vaccine group from the trial for two years as planned, collecting data on how durable the immunity is and any side effects that might not be evident immediately.

We have also passed the window of time after the second injection in the trial when one couldn’t receive any other vaccines, so all three of us have now gotten our seasonal flu shots. We do always get flu vaccines every year, but public health experts are particularly strong in their recommendations that everyone get a flu shot this year. They are afraid of having a bad flu season on top of the coronavirus pandemic, which would make the fall and winter even more dangerous.

Please, all the Northern Hemisphere folks reading this, make arrangements to receive a flu vaccine, if you haven’t already done so.

for the archives

A few weeks ago, a poet-and-church friend who is a faithful reader of Top of JC’s Mind asked if I would like to get in touch with a friend of hers who is involved with a local historical society. Their historical society is joining with others in New York State to assemble an archive related to the pandemic. My friend thought that my posts about being in the vaccine trial might be appropriate for the archive.

It turned out that the archiving project was interested in my vaccine trials posts and any others that dealt with living in the time of COVID. I had sent the vaccine posts first. Then, I worked my way through my blog archive, copying the links to other pandemic related posts.

I knew that I wrote about the impact of COVID-19 quite a lot, but I was surprised at how long the list of posts was – fifty-six posts, from late February through September 11, in addition to the handful of vaccine ones. I joked with the archivist about it being either “an embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment!” Since then, any time I write about our pandemic experiences I send her the link.

I had asked her how they were preserving the archive. She said that, while they do keep links on their computer, they are printing the materials for posterity. Archival technologies tend to come and go but paper lasts for a very long time.

It’s humbling to think that, decades from now, some future historian might stumble across some of my posts and be able to glean some insights about what it has been like dealing with these fraught times in our communities in upstate New York. First person contemporaneous accounts are highly sought sources for historians and documentarians and I would be honored if my posts are able to assist someone with their research some-year in the future.

scatter-brained

I’ve been wanting to write a post for several days, but have felt too scattered to do it.

I’m still feeling too scattered, but am determined to do it now regardless, ignoring the fact that I have unread email messages going back to Sunday, although I think I’ve caught all the important ones, and a long to-do list of other tasks.

Our national drama and the pandemic continue to demand an outsize share of my thoughts. The president’s behavior and rhetoric are increasingly bizarre, possibly as a result of the high-dose steroids he is taking for COVID. There are over two dozen known cases among White House and campaign personnel and cases and quarantine of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our highest ranking military officers. The president is planning to resume public campaigning, even though he is most likely still infectious. The medical information that has been released publicly is at best incomplete and at worst misleading.

Yesterday, arrests were made as a result of a plot to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. I’m grateful that the governor and her family are safe but appalled that a self-styled right-wing militia was planning such a horrible attack. Gov. Whitmer, like many other governors around the country, has enacted executive orders to address the pandemic. She has been vilified by protesters, some of whom were armed, Republican legislators, and the president. She has been publicly threatened with violence and been subjected to sexist slurs. Still, it was shocking to learn that there was a serious plot to kidnap her and “try her for treason” before the November election. Instead of expressing support for her yesterday after the news broke, the president tweeted criticism of her and her policies, along with mischaracterizations of her and other Democrats.

In local COVID news, there has been an uptick in cases here in Broome County and we are officially on yellow alert, which sets lower limits on gatherings and increased testing for schools. Our county executive had already asked residents to stay at home as much as possible, so there isn’t much additional impact on daily life, but the official recognition by New York State has reminded me to be even more cautious with outings.

I am also getting increasingly anxious about our upcoming trip to the UK to visit daughter E and her family. The UK has also had an increasing number of COVID cases recently and has tightened restrictions. B, T and I are going for the month of November because we will need to quarantine for the first two weeks. Then, we will have two weeks to visit, although it’s unclear if we will be able to all congregate at their home as gatherings of more than six are prohibited. We are also hoping to celebrate JG’s baptism, but aren’t sure how many will be allowed to attend. After we return home to New York, we will need to quarantine for two weeks, bringing us to mid-December. The airline has already changed our flights once and I’m hoping that no additional travel restrictions go into effect this month.

Part of what is stressing me out is trying to plan and prepare for six weeks of travel and quarantine. Besides B, T, and me, I need to have plans in place for Paco and for the house, where my sisters and brother-in-law in various constellations will be holding down the fort in our absence. This is turning into a major re-jiggering and re-stocking effort indoors, while a long-awaited landscaping project has been going on outdoors.

Meanwhile, in my continuing quest to catch up with personal preventive health measures, I had a COVID test this morning in advance of a colonoscopy next week. Because of some pre-existing conditions, my prep is a bit more complicated than for most people, so I’m hoping I can get through it with a minimum of repercussions. Maybe I’ll write a post next week while I’m waiting for the remnants of the sedation and medications to wear off. That could be, um, interesting?

On the poetry front, I got another chapbook rejection. It was a debut chapbook competition that had drawn over 200 entries, a detail I’m including as it gives people an idea of the odds, and this contest was relatively small. On the unexpectedly happy news side, I received notification of acceptance to an anthology called Lullabies and Confessions: Poetic Explorations of Parenting Across the Lifespan from University Professors Press. I had submitted to the anthology over four years ago and had assumed my poem had been rejected although I hadn’t gotten an email about it, but the project had instead been delayed and my poem will be included. Publication is expected in print and ebook early next year.

I’m still feeling scattered, as though there is something else I’m supposed to be saying, but I want to get this out. Stay safe and be well!

One-Liner Wednesday: individualism

 Radical individualism is a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate, for it is clever. It makes us believe that everything consists in giving free rein to our own ambitions, as if by pursuing ever greater ambitions and creating safety nets we would somehow be serving the common good.

Pope Francis, from the just released encyclical Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 105

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DT and COVID

As I’m sure the whole world knows, the president of the United States is hospitalized with COVID-19. It’s been a bit difficult to get the straight facts on his condition, but it is increasingly looking like his case is on the more severe side.

He does have multiple risk factors, including his age, gender, and weight. He is being treated aggressively by his medical team, including with an experimental antibody treatment and with remdesivir. These are both given early in the course of the disease to help the body fend off the virus.

Today, though, it was revealed that the president is being given the steroid dexamethasone, which is usually given only to more severe cases later in the disease course, when there are significant lung complications and/or the need for a ventilator.

The medical team is even talking about the possibility of discharging him back to the White House, which does have its own sophisticated medical unit, tomorrow.

This doesn’t seem to add up. If his condition warrants dexamethasone, it would seem best to keep him in the hospital for close observation.

Another concern is that days seven through ten of COVID often see an exacerbation of symptoms. The president is only on day four. It seems it would be much safer to keep him in the hospital. It’s not as though he is cramped for space or lacking amenities in the presidential suite at Walter Reed; besides medical care, it also has its own secure conference room and kitchen/dining space.

I also wish that the president would temporarily sign over powers to Vice-president Pence in accordance with Article 25 of the Constitution. We know that the president has suffered with a high fever and times when his blood oxygen level has dropped below normal. COVID is nothing if not unpredictable. Foreign powers could take a provocative action, surmising that the president would not be well enough to respond appropriately. I think it would be safer for the country to have the vice-president, as long as he remains well, exercise the presidential powers until the president is fully recovered. Pence can always confer with president when his symptoms are well-controlled, but he would have the power to respond on his own if the president were to be unwell when a crisis arose.

The president and First Lady’s illness with COVID would be problematic enough, but a number of senators and other government and campaign staff and advisors have also been infected or exposed. Because the incubation period can extend to fourteen days, there are many people who should be in quarantine to make sure they don’t expose others while pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. Somehow, despite the seriousness of the situation, Sen. Mitch McConnell plans to push ahead with the confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. He considers that worth the risk, while he won’t put the latest House-passed coronavirus relief package up for a vote.

Voters, pay attention to how candidates on your ballot are handling this health and governmental crisis. Are they prioritizing your and the country’s health and well-being or their own power?