200,000

The number of known COVID-19 deaths in the United States is over 200,000.

It’s hard for me to grasp the total, knowing that each of these was someone’s child, parent, sibling, co-worker, neighbor, friend.

A few days ago when I was working on this post, I needed to look up the population of Broome County, New York, where I live.

It’s about 190,000.

I am imagining the city of Binghamton empty, the University and all the other schools without students and staff, all the towns and villages without people, just the wild creatures and birds alive.

It’s sobering.

In reality, Broome County has lost 85 residents to COVID, each person a loss to their family and community. Somehow, though, my thought experiment in concentrating the loss to our country as the obliteration of our entire county has given me a sense of scale and of grief that the statistics alone did not elicit.

What does 200,000 deaths mean to you?

SoCS: RBG and MM

Last night, we received the sad news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87 from complications of pancreatic cancer. She was an amazing woman with a remarkable record of achievements, overcoming the discrimination she faced as a woman, a mother, and a Jewish person. As a lawyer, she argued landmark sex discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of the six cases she presented. One of her keys to success was that some of those cases were brought on behalf of men who suffered lack of access to careers or benefits that were ascribed to women, for example, allowing men to study nursing. This was able to reach the all-male justices in a way that a case brought on behalf of women did not. It was a way in to address the injustices of sexism.

As a judge and then in 27 years as a justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a strong voice for equal justice under the Constitution, regardless of race or gender. As the Court became more and more conservative, she was well-known for her well-reasoned, cogent, and accessible dissents, many of which may be the basis for reversals over time, as we have seen with some infamous Supreme Court decisions in the past.

Millions of people around the country are sad, but also terrified. The terror is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be replaced this year by the current president, even though the election is only six weeks away. This totally flies in the face of what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did in 2016, when conservative justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly ten months before the election and he refused to even have hearings to vote on Merrick Garland, who was nominated by President Obama. He said that the people should have a voice in the selection through their presidential choice. The Supreme Court had to operate for over 400 days with only eight justices. Even more scandalously, there was the threat that if Hillary Clinton had won, McConnell would still not have allowed a Court nominee to be voted on in the Senate. It’s such an abuse of power.

Which brings me to the “-tion” word that popped into my head, compunction. In the midst of the mourning that immediately followed the announcement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, McConnell announced that Trump’s nominee would receive a vote in the Senate. That he had no compunction in doing so is appalling. The level of hypocrisy and the naked abuse of power is off the charts.

I am hoping that a significant number of Republican senators will stand up and say that they will not vote on a nominee under these rushed and suspect circumstances. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said last night that she would not vote on a nominee, saying “fair is fair.”

I wish I could say that I am shocked that McConnell also had no compunction in releasing his statement on a replacement right after news of Justice Ginsburg’s death broke, but he acted similarly after Justice Scalia’s death. I hope that we can focus on RBG’s legacy and life in the coming days, not the political and partisan circus that McConnell has unleashed.

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week was a word that ends with -tion. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/09/18/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-sept-19-2020/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley!

unmasked

Last week, I needed to bring one of our vehicles to a dealership for a recall. The one we usually use wasn’t certified to work on the electrical/battery system of our hybrid, so we made the appointment at another dealer in a neighboring county. We live near the county line, so it’s just a couple of towns to our west.

Tioga County is a rural county; Broome, where I live is a mix of rural, urban, and suburban, although Binghamton is a small city by most standards with a population of about 46,000. Broome County’s population is about 190,000 in 716 square miles; Tioga’s is 48,000 in 523 square miles.

Your geography trivia for the day!

So, I arrive at the service department of the dealership, wearing my mask. There is a sign on the door that face coverings are optional for customers but required for staff, which seemed a bit odd as New York State rules are to wear a mask whenever people are closer than six feet (2 meters). I was surprised to walk up to the service desk to find that there was no plexiglass barrier to protect the employee and he was not wearing a mask.

I tried to maintain distance as best I could. I checked in, walked past unmasked customers in line, and sat in the waiting area with unmasked customers while unmasked employees walked through several times. When the repair was complete, the employee doing checkout hastily put on a mask after the window that separated her desk from the hallway was opened.

The experience left me feeling not endangered, because I was masked and maintained social distance most of the time, but disrespected. While the business knew that its employees should be masked when in proximity to another employee or a customer, they were not complying.

As the designated shopper in our house, I’m used to visiting businesses which have implemented careful measures to keep their employees and customers as safe as possible. The result has been that our infection rate in the state has remained very low as we methodically re-open businesses and services. If I am ever in a similar situation that I have to use this car dealership, I’ll make arrangements to drop the car off the evening before so that I only need to go inside to do the final paperwork when it’s ready.

I hope that there won’t be any outbreaks from the disregard that I witnessed at the car dealership, which, presumably, was considered acceptable to others in that community. For me, it seemed a small taste of what I hear on the news from other states, that folks don’t believe that masks and distancing help prevent COVID infections or that masks infringe on their liberties or that COVID doesn’t exist, all of which contribute to the appalling rates of illness and death in the United States.

At least I know that no one there will have contracted COVID from me.

September 11

Nineteen years ago today, terrorists, most of whom were from Saudi Arabia, attacked the United States, killing thousands of people and destroying airplanes and buildings in New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I remember those killed, the many who acted valiantly to try to save lives, often at the cost of their own, those who worked in the aftermath of the disaster, many of whom suffered illness as a result, and the many thousands, both military and civilian, who were impacted by the wars in Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East that sprang from the 9/11 attacks.

Nine years ago, my area was suffering from a record flood of the Susquehanna River, brought on by the remnants of tropical storm Lee. What many people don’t realize is how long it takes to recover from such an event – and that some things aren’t recoverable. It took years to repair homes that could be and tear down those that couldn’t. There are neighborhoods with patches of grassland where homes once stood, interspersed with homes that managed to survive. Those neighborhoods have changed character, with fewer older folks in them as they were the most likely to move to higher ground or leave the area after the flood. Our own home was not flooded, but there was standing water three blocks away and significant basement flooding one block away. We had long carried flood insurance on our house, although it isn’t required by the (still outdated) flood maps; we will continue to do so, hoping that we never have to use it while realizing that the increased strength of weather systems and changes to the upper-level wind patterns brought on by global warming may someday send us another record-breaking flood that will reach our home.

Despite these prior events, September 11, 2020 feels even more fraught. The global pandemic has exacted a terrible toll on the United States. We are over six million cases and closing in on 200,000 fatalities. The economic impact, especially on those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, has been severe, with rising rates of hunger and housing crisis. The pandemic also made more prominent existing problems with the health care system, racism, environmental degradation, education, infrastructure, jobs, wealth, taxation, and social programs. While some of the effects have been buffered by living in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has been leading an effective response to the crisis, I am appalled by the lack of leadership from the president and the callous intransigence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which are prolonging and deepening the suffering in the country as a whole. Because the Senate hasn’t passed the HEROES Act which the House passed in May, additional federal assistance to households, state and local governments, the post office, and the election system isn’t available. As a result of the national inaction, states are going to have to lay off front-line personnel and the vote count in November’s elections will take a long time.

To make matters worse, this week has seen new evidence that the president’s failure to address the pandemic was not due to lack of understanding the crisis. A just-released recorded interview on February 7 with Bob Woodward makes clear that the president knew that the virus was highly contagious, deadly, and spread through the air, yet he continued to intentionally downplay the threat rather than mount an effective and protective response. If the president had lead the nation in the kind of efforts that Governor Cuomo did in New York, there would have been millions fewer cases of the virus and thousands upon thousands fewer deaths. There would be widespread testing and contact tracing. The test positivity rate would be below one percent, as it has been in New York State for over a month. Businesses and schools would be thoughtfully and carefully re-opening, ready to re-adjust if cases start to rise. Instead, Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, is telling the United States to “hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it’s not going to be easy.” I only hope that people take the advice to heart in their own lives and at the state and local level, because Trump and McConnell are still not helping us mount a national response.

The Trump/Bob Woodward interview I mentioned above was just released because Woodward has a book coming out, part of a spate of books about Donald Trump being published with less than two months to go before the presidential election. These books reveal information that, while perhaps suspected, had not previously been confirmed about the president and his staff. The picture isn’t pretty. While there is some straight-up incompetence and inexperience at play, there is even more corruption, selfishness, greed, and disregard for the Constitution and laws, morals, ethics, and the common good.

Time for the pitch. Make a plan and vote! We need there to be a President Biden in January 2021 in order to have any hope of reclaiming our democracy.

Which brings me to another fear. While there is widespread and credible polling both nationally and in battleground states showing that Biden is leading Trump by several percentage points, the election process itself is under threat. The most frightening is that the Russians, along with several other countries, are once again attempting to interfere with election. This week, a whistleblower came forward with evidence that the administration is knowingly tamping down revealing the extent of the Russian interference, in particular. At the same time, the administration and the Republicans are filing lawsuits to disrupt mail-in voting. The postal service is slowing mail delivery, which could make ballots arrive too late to be counted. The president keeps saying that mail-in ballots lead to widespread fraud, which is absolutely a lie; states and local election boards have numerous, proven safeguards in place to prevent fraud. It is true that the final vote tally will take longer, especially in states that don’t count mail-in votes until days after Election Day. (Of course, some of the delays could have been averted if the Senate had acted on the HEROES Act which would have provided more training, machinery, and personnel to count ballots more quickly.) People need to be aware that we may not have final election results for a couple of weeks. This does not mean there is fraud; it means that election bureaus are diligently following their procedures to report an accurate tally.

Nineteen years ago, despite sorrow and shock, the people of the United States pulled together to help us get through the crisis. Nine years ago, our local community drew together to assist those impacted by the flood. Unfortunately, I don’t see that same sense of solidarity in the country as we face the pandemic, government corruption, and economic catastrophe, along with the long-standing problems of racism, lack of equal access to good-quality education and health care, environmental ruin, and other injustices. Granted, it’s a lot, but we can improve our lives and our nation if we act together. When we say in the Pledge of Allegiance “with liberty and justice for all”, we have to mean it.

vaccine trial – injection 2

This week, B, T, and I are receiving our second injections of the Pfizer/BioNTech experimental COVID vaccine or placebo, three weeks after the first round. There is COVID testing and general health screening but no blood draw, which will wait for the next visit to see the antibody response. Throughout the two years of the trial, we will continue with a weekly diary of possible COVID symptoms, although we would contact the trial staff immediately if we suspected we had COVID. We each have an emergency test kit at home to collect samples if we are directed to do so by study personnel.

The possible date of vaccine approval in the United States has become a hot topic. The president has intimated that a vaccine could become available before Election Day, November third. Local health departments around the country are supposed to have plans in place for distribution by November first.

However, that timeline doesn’t jibe with the amount of time needed for preliminary Phase III trial results. Yesterday, Pfizer, BioNTech, and seven other drug companies involved in COVID vaccine development signed a joint pledge to uphold their rigorous testing measure and not request authorization without the requisite data showing safety and efficacy.

I’m pleased that they made this commitment to the public. When vaccines do become available, it is vital that billions of people around the world receive them so that we can end the pandemic. If only a small fraction of the world’s population receive it, the pandemic will not end because there will still be a large pool of potential victims for the virus. Some of those victims will be people who were vaccinated, as no vaccine is 100% effective. The vaccine should lessen the severity in those people who do contract it, as we see with current flu vaccines. It’s important to remember, though, that part of the way vaccines work is by creating herd immunity so that a pathogen can’t create an outbreak. Vaccines offer a safer, less lethal path to herd immunity than just allowing vast swaths of the population to be infected.

I suppose it’s possible that a vaccine might receive emergency use authorization this fall so that it could be used by front-line medical workers and extremely vulnerable individuals before long-term safety and efficacy could be established, but widespread vaccination isn’t possible until next year, at the earliest.

The wisdom of moving forward scientifically and methodically was illustrated this week by AstraZeneca, which put their COVID vaccine trial on hold in order to investigate a possible adverse reaction. It may be that the reaction had another cause, but, until that can be determined, they don’t want to risk the health of their participants. Rushing the swine flu vaccine out to the public in 1976 caused enough serious complications that it had to be suspended after ten weeks; no one wants to repeat that experience with COVID.

Meanwhile, our family will keep doing our small part in advancing the science in hopes that COVID-19 can be brought under control, saving as many people as possible from illness, disability, and death.

I can’t even…

There have been so many distressing articles about Donald Trump that you think nothing could possibly break through to elucidate something worse.

Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, one of the oldest and most venerable magazines in the United States, published this article on Trump’s disparagement of members of the military across generations. Trump has publicly and privately called people who served “losers” and “suckers”, including those who were wounded, captured, or killed in action.

Some of the people interviewed for the story think that Trump can’t understand anyone being motivated by anything other than personal gain, especially monetary gain.

This inability to understand the fundamental nature of public service would be shocking enough coming from a president of the United States who is elected to serve the country and its people, but one particular incident in the report saddened me on an even deeper level.

On Memorial Day 2017, Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, a short drive from the White House. He was accompanied on this visit by John Kelly, who was then the secretary of homeland security, and who would, a short time later, be named the White House chief of staff. The two men were set to visit Section 60, the 14-acre area of the cemetery that is the burial ground for those killed in America’s most recent wars. Kelly’s son Robert is buried in Section 60. A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan. He was 29. Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” Kelly (who declined to comment for this story) initially believed, people close to him said, that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.

from Jeffrey Goldberg’s article, Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’, The Atlantic, Sept. 3, 2020

How could anyone, standing with a father at his son’s gravesite, not have the decency to either offer sympathy or maintain respectful silence?

Trump’s lack of compassion and humanity frighten me even more than his inability to govern and to protect the health and safety of our country. He and the press team at the White House are denying the reporting, but Goldberg’s reporting is well-sourced and has been corroborated by other reporters using their own sources. Sadly, it is also entirely believable because Trump has often publicly disparaged those who have served in the military, including the late senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain. For the White House to claim that Trump never said things that are archived in recordings, tweets, etc. only compounds the problem. Denying your lies is just another lie and another reason not to believe anything you say.

I have always believed that character matters and have used it as one of my top criteria in voting. I have made my plan to vote in the November third election and urge all US citizens to make sure they are registered and have a plan in place to safely and securely cast their ballot so that we can unequivocally elect Joe Biden so our country can begin the healing process and restore respect and human decency within and beyond our borders.

Surreal-er

I don’t think surrealer is an accepted English word, but it’s all that comes to mind right now.

When I was away for a week, I didn’t follow news as closely as I usually do, but after a few days back at home, it seems that the levels of contradiction and absurdity and fear-mongering and conspiracy-theorizing have reached new highs in the United States.

Serious journalists have to try to try to explain QAnon. The Republican convention played up fear of anarchy and violence as being part of “Joe Biden’s America” – despite the fact that Donald Trump has been president for over three and a half years – while neglecting to confront the very real fear of the spread of coronavirus. The official case count in the US is now over six million and the actual case number is probably much higher. That’s terrifying.

If the consequences weren’t so disturbing, I’d laugh. Instead, I’m stuck with the bewilderment of surreal-er.

I realize that people who are in a media bubble or conspiracy mindset are not generally inclined to factcheck, but I implore people to seek out credible sources of information. Go to Joe Biden’s campaign website for his positions on issues and his public statements. Go to the Johns Hopkins website for US and world COVID statistics. I was hoping to provide a link for Donald Trump’s plans for a second term, but his official website doesn’t have an issues and plans page; I haven’t heard him give a clear answer about plans in interviews, either. It’s a major problem, especially with so many challenges facing the country right now and so little effective action from the administration.

What will next month bring?

And the month after?

When will life not seem surreal?

Russia – again

People sometimes describe the torrent of daily news in the US as “trying to drink from a fire hose.” Last week, there was deservedly a lot of focus on the Democratic National Convention that officially nominated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to run for president and vice president in November.

I want to highlight a news story that is extremely important, but that did not get as much attention as it deserved. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published a one-thousand(!) page, bipartisan report on “Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election Volume 5: Counterintelligence Threats and Vulnerabilities“. Yes, the link is to the actual report, just in case anyone is in the mood for a political horror story…

The report details dozens of links between Trump associates and Russian intelligence, including the relationship between one of Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort and Russian operative Konstantin Kilimnik. It makes clear that Russia interfered extensively in the election to aid Trump and that the Trump campaign knew it and aided in various ways.

It’s not that there wasn’t plenty of evidence in public before this. Prior investigations, reports, and court documents had already established the Russian interference, but this new report reveals even more, albeit with some redactions.

It still sickens me that the 2016 election was tainted by foreign interference, but I wish this report had been available sooner. Here we are, with the 2020 election only two months and a bit away, facing the continuing danger of Russian interference, as well as influence from other foreign countries. The US electorate expects our elections to be fair and free, yet we face foreign attacks as well as domestic shenanigans.

I hope that all US voters will take their responsibilities seriously. We need to make sure that we are receiving reliable, truthful information and that we cast our ballots in a safe and timely way. We must have this election be one of integrity so that everyone can honor the results.

COVID vaccine trial update

Last week, B, T, and I each had our initial visit for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial for COVID-19. There was a lengthy informed consent document, medical history and physical exam, COVID test, blood draw, and injection with either the trial vaccine or placebo. Two of us had some mild side effects and one of us did not, so we are surmising that one of us received the placebo, but the study is triple-blind (participant, care provider, investigator) so we don’t know for sure if that is the case.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is a messenger RNA vaccine; this type of vaccine has not previously been approved for widespread use. It works by enclosing a strip of messenger RNA in a lipid shell. When it gets into cells, it manufactures the spike protein that the SARS-CoV-2 has on its exterior, so that the body recognizes it and makes antibodies and T-cells to combat it.

The phase I data looks promising, so I hope that this vaccine will be found effective. RNA vaccines are able to be manufactured quickly, which will be a plus if they are approved for use. I am hoping that a number of vaccines will be able to complete Phase III trials and earn approval, so that we can get as many people around the world vaccinated as quickly as possible. It’s the only way to gain herd immunity without a horrifying level of illness and loss.

The Pfizer/BioNTech trial is expected to finish its primary collection of data needed for approval in mid-April 2021, although the trial will continue to follow participants through November 2022 to see how well antibodies and T-cells persist.

Science takes time and the COVID vaccine is being developed at a blindingly fast rate in terms of past vaccine development. Remember that we are still looking at months before approval, not weeks. Even when one or more vaccines are approved, people will need to keep up with distancing, masks, sanitizing, etc. to keep the disease at bay while vaccination production and distribution campaigns occur.

Please, everyone, do your part to keep yourself, your family, and your neighbors as safe as possible, while vaccines and effective treatments are developed. I’ll post more information about our trial as time goes on.

Votes for Women!

On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, recognizing women’s right to vote. It reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

It had taken many decades to pass the amendment. Generations of women who had worked toward it died before they were able to legally cast a ballot. Many black women continued to be denied voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shamefully, part of the Congressional enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and some states have enacted discriminatory practices. The House of Representatives has passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to address these issues, but Sen. Mitch McConnell has not brought it up to a vote in the Senate. A brief overview of the bill can be found here.

Because of the centennial, there have been a number of documentaries and news features about women’s suffrage in the United States, as well as articles and editorials. We have seen striking visual reminders of the struggle, such as the women in Congress wearing white for the State of the Union address, because white was the color that many suffragists wore during their marches and demonstrations. [A side note on wearing white: When I was a member of the Smith College Glee Club, we wore white when we performed. I don’t know if this tradition sprang from the suffrage movement or not. After I graduated in 1982, the Glee Club moved to wearing all black, but I admit that I still miss the striking sight of a group of young women blazing onto the stage wearing white.]

Because of the pandemic and the current civil and voting rights struggles, the commemorations of the ratification of the 19th amendment will be somewhat muted. I’m remembering, though, the 75th anniversary, which was a special event for me.

I live in upstate New York, a couple of hours drive from Seneca Falls, home of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Twenty-five years ago, I was a member of a mostly female, mostly Catholic group called Sarah’s Circle. We met for prayer and discussion on a regular basis and occasionally took part in public events. We decided to take part in the parade and other events in Seneca Falls. We marched wearing matching shirts with our logo, designed by one of our members, on the front:

The back read “Can We Talk” because, at that time, an instruction had come down from the Vatican forbidding even the discussion of women’s ordination.

This did not deter the members of Sarah’s Circle from still speaking up about women’s ordination, but we were trying to appeal to members of the hierarchy to speak with us about it. A number of the our members who felt called to ordination wore Roman collars with their shirts. At the time, I did not feel that call personally so I did not add the collar. As we marched, we sang women’s suffrage verses that one of our members had written to familiar hymn tunes.

It was an inspiring day, filled with joy, hope, and thanksgiving. We had no idea that, twenty-five years later, there would still be such a struggle for fair voting and for equal rights and opportunity. May this centennial commemoration energize us to continue to speak out and vote for those who will uphold the voting and civil rights and the dignity of every person. May we also defend vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris from sexist and racist attacks.

We’ve come a long way in one hundred years, but not nearly as far as we should have.