vaccines vs. variants

Right now, the United States is a place of both hope and fear regarding COVID-19.

The hope comes from the increased pace and availability of vaccine distribution. The two-shot regimens from Pfizer and Moderna and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson have all been approved for emergency use and are being distributed as quickly as possible. There have been over three million shots given daily in recent days. It’s possible that a fourth vaccine, a two-shot course from AstraZeneca may also receive emergency use authorization in the coming weeks. Approximately 29% of adults in the US have received at least one vaccine dose. While most states concentrated first on the older demographic and health care workers, eligibility has expanded to include medically vulnerable adults and middle-aged adults. In some states, the eligibility age has or will soon drop to 16 where Pfizer vaccine is available or 18 with the other two vaccines. Trials are underway to determine the appropriate dosages for younger children. New data have shown that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 90% effective at preventing infection in real-world application; this expands the information from the trials which looked for COVID symptoms and could have missed asymptomatic infections.

There are problems looming, though. A significant proportion of adults say that they will not be vaccinated at all. There is also a political divide in evidence. A recent survey showed that 49% of Republican men are refusing the vaccine. It will be very difficult to halt community spread if so many millions of people remain unvaccinated.

This vulnerability is in addition to the fact that too many places have relaxed their rules about wearing masks, the size of public gatherings, and capacity of indoor venues. Travel within the US has skyrocketed, including air travel. Many college students have gone on spring break trips to warmer states and gathered in large crowds without masks. The majority of states are seeing their COVID cases rise. Yesterday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that she felt a sense of “impending doom” because cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising as restrictions have been lifted. She and other health experts fear that the US is at risk for a fourth surge. The protection of the vaccines won’t be able to keep pace with the virus spread by people not observing public health guidance on precautions.

There is also the problem of more infectious variants. The B1.1.7 variant is spreading rapidly in some regions and there is a separate variant that has been identified in the New York City area. While the current vaccines seem to be doing a good job preventing these variants, it will still be harder to stop community spread with the more infectious variants in circulation.

I urge everyone to get vaccinated as doses become available for their age group in their localities. Because spouse B, daughter T, and I all participated in the Pfizer/BioNTech Phase III trials, we are fully vaccinated, B and T last August during the blinded phase of the study and myself in February when the placebo group was offered the vaccine to join the study group on long-term efficacy. (There are numerous posts about our experiences with the vaccine trial if you type Pfizer in my blog search box.)

I appreciate the things that are easier to do now that I am vaccinated. The most important thing is that I am much less worried when I visit my 96-year-old father, know here as Paco. Paco is also fully vaccinated and, while I still follow the protocols to mask and distance, I am now allowed to visit inside his apartment in assisted living.

I took an unmasked walk outdoors with a friend. I have been able to do some health care visits in person rather than virtually. I go to the grocery store with just one mask instead of two. I went to mass in person for the first time in a year and have reserved a place to attend Easter Vigil Saturday evening. My fully vaccinated sister stayed overnight at our house where we could safely be together maskless.

She and I even ate at an indoor restaurant for lunch, masked when we were not eating. The restaurant had good table spacing; our region currently allows 75% capacity at restaurants and our community transmission rate is low. In general, we usually still order carryout, but I think in a few months we may be more comfortable with dining in on a more regular basis. One of the good things about living in New York State is that we have generally been cautious about public health measures and the extent to which certain activities are allowed. Extensive testing is being done so that, if the number of cases begins to rise, they can react quickly to dial back on activities to keep the outbreak from getting worse. Having seen this measured, data-driven approach work in New York, I am that much more worried when I see other places abandon mask mandates and capacity restrictions precipitously. It not only hurts their own residents but also people in other locations because travelers can bring the virus home with them.

I don’t know yet when I will be comfortable resuming travel. If we can continue robust vaccine distribution and infection rates are low, maybe B and I will be able to take a short trip together for our anniversary in June. I had hoped to return to North Adams for another private writing retreat this spring, but I need to see what happens with vaccine distribution and transmission rates over the next few weeks to decide if that would be wise.

Of course, the big prize will be when we can go to the UK to visit daughter E, son-in-law L, and granddaughter ABC and finally get to meet granddaughter JG in person. We are hoping it will be on or before her first birthday in August, but it is impossible to plan. While the UK has also been on a vigorous push for vaccine distribution and re-opening, E and L haven’t been eligible for vaccination yet and what the rules will be for summer visitors from the US is a mystery.

Still, we are closer to being able to go than we have been before and we have also built up our own capacity for patience. Love, care, and concern for others are great motivators to remain cautious and vigilant until the pandemic is truly over.

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.

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.

Is it Easter yet?

In my religious tradition, Easter is about joy and light and hope.

Easter this year does not feel like that.

I was trying to get ready for Easter by viewing this series for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. They were beautiful videos and being able to watch them alone was helpful. I spent decades involved with church music and/or liturgy planning, so I have many wonderful memories of those liturgies. They are very emotional for me. Even if we had been able to celebrate at our church, though, I probably would have chosen not to attend because I would have been at risk for crying through them. At this time last year, we were in the last few weeks of my mother’s life, so this is another in the long line of “first times” we have been dealing with over these last months. In some ways, it felt appropriate to be commemorating at this time alone.

Easter Day itself was complicated by some upsetting things that happened with family and friends beyond our household. It is difficult to want to help but not be able to do anything, or even to go to see them. Instead of Easter joy, there was a lot of sadness. pain, and uncertainty. One bright spot was watching Mass recorded at our diocesan cathedral. I decided to watch because our bishop is relatively new and I hadn’t heard him preach yet. I  appreciated how pastoral he is: Pope Francis has been appointing bishops who have more pastoral experience rather than just those who have worked their way up through the bureaucracy. It was also nice to hear the cathedral’s pipe organ, two great soloists, and trumpet. I especially appreciated the soprano singing the Mozart “Alleluia” that daughter E had sung for her college auditions.

This Easter Monday has been spent trying to work through some of the complications that arose yesterday. In the back of my mind, I am also thinking of my parents, who were married on an April Easter Monday, though that year Easter Monday was not the thirteenth.

It was 66 years ago and the first time that they won’t be celebrating together.

Let’s be serious

I am sometimes accused of gravity.

No, that doesn’t mean that things are attracted to me.

Rather, some people think I am too serious.

It’s true that I am a serious person and have been for a long time. When I was a student, I was very serious about my schoolwork. I wanted to understand everything thoroughly and expand my knowledge. I played the organ at my small, country church, first as a substitute and, starting in my sophomore year of high school, as the only organist. Catholic mass is a serious undertaking and, with the organ in the front of the church, I had to be careful to stay attentive.

B and I were high school sweethearts. We were friends first and then fell in love. Even as teens, we had a serious relationship. Neither of us were into the social scene, which led to some interesting discussions with our friends. For example, some of them were pressuring B to ask me to his senior prom, saying that I wanted to go, which I assuredly did not. B and I talked about it and, because neither of us wanted to go, we didn’t attend either of our senior proms.

Being serious does not mean that we don’t have fun. Well, things that we consider fun. We spent part of our honeymoon at a living history museum, which was fun for us; we wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves on a cruise or at a fancy resort or, God forbid, a casino.

We married in our early twenties after we had both graduated from college and set about doing serious, adult things, like buying a house and starting a family. Challenges with careers and medical issues and spiritual issues and educational issues followed, often one atop the other.

There were a lot of things that called for gravity – and, by then, I was very experienced with it.

I feel that there are many grave issues facing us at the current time, among them, climate change, war, inequality, discrimination, and lack of civility and commitment to the common good. I consider it a personal obligation to help care for people and the planet, even though I know that my personal impact is limited. I do trust, though, that all people of good will acting together can move things in a positive direction.

If that means that people accuse me of gravity, I gladly and gravely plead guilty.
*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January. Using the prompts is optional and most days I do my own thing, but today I decided to use the prompt “gravity.” Find out more about Just Jot It January and the prompts here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/01/12/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-12th-2020/

 

SoCS: How?

How am I supposed to plan for the future in our present world? Or maybe, how am I supposed to feel settled enough to think that planning is useful?

I don’t mean this in a personal sense. I learned a long time ago that things happen to ourselves and our loved ones in random and inexplicable ways.

I did you used to feel, though, that institutions, like the US government and the Catholic church and society in general, had certain rules and ways of being that lasted or that transformed over periods of time as knowledge advanced.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

Today, of course, there was a lot more news coverage on what the assassination of General Soleimani might mean for the future. United States citizens and businesses in the Middle East are considered most at risk, but there is the possibility of reprisals within the US or a cyberattack. It’s known that foreign entities have hacked into US infrastructure, such as the electrical grid. How does one plan for that? Should I wake up every morning thinking about what I would do if the electricity went down for weeks?

I don’t think I could sustain that level of alarm long-term…

How do I remain calm in the face of the political turmoil in the US? The upcoming impeachment trial and the legislative fallout from the Iran conflict and let’s not forget about North Korea’s threat to test a new weapon of some sort. And who will the Democrats nominate? What new rifts will develop among the already sadly fractured electorate?

Did all the people who hate someone because of their skin color, language, religion, gender, etc. always feel hateful, but we are just noticing it now because they aren’t afraid to express their hatred publicly?

Don’t even get me started on dealing with the maelstrom in the Catholic church.

As Greta Thunberg has reminded people so directly, how can we not treat the climate crisis as, well, a crisis that needs our concerted efforts every day? How do we not see the suffering from fires, floods, storms, droughts, sea level rise, deforestation, desertification, and ocean warming and acidification that is always present? Or how do we see it and still not act?

Wow, this stream of consciousness started out serious and just keeps getting more and more serious. For better or for worse, this is how JC’s mind works.

And I don’t know how to turn it off.
*****
The prompt for today was to use a word with “ow” in it. You are probably all sorry that I let my mind stream on the word “how.” Join us for Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday and/or Just Jot It January! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/01/03/the-friday-reminder-for-socs-jusjojan-2020-daily-prompt-jan-4th/

writing, singing, etc.

I had been trying to post more regularly – and have now proceeded not to post for a week and a half. I’m sure that isn’t a shock to regular readers. As much as I hope to create a even a semblance of a schedule, I haven’t managed to get there yet.

Even though I haven’t been posting here, I’ve been doing a bit of writing. A letter to the editor at NCR online. A short piece that may appear as a Small Earth Story at NCR. A bio to accompany a poem that is going to be published soon. This will be in the mini-anthology that will be a companion to the winning chapbook from QuillsEdge Press; all the finalists will have a poem printed. This was also exciting because I had to approve the proof and sign a contract. It was a needed reminder that I am still a poet, even though I haven’t published much lately – or even submitted. Maybe, after the first of the year, I can concentrate on a revised version of the chapbook to send out…

I don’t have a choir with which to sing on a regular basis this fall, but have sung with the combined music ministry at church for three funerals over the last three weeks. All the funerals have been for family members of music ministers, the last being the brother of my friend, who has been director of music for decades. Sadly, she has had to play and direct for the funerals of both her parents and, now, her eldest brother. Another staff member described it as “her last gift to him.” Perhaps that, along with her professionalism and faith, is the way she can manage to keep her focus in such difficult circumstances.

At the luncheon after the funeral, I was sitting with people who I met years ago at our former parish. It’s been fourteen years since we were all together there. Even after so much time belonging to other parishes, we still miss it.

That our sense of connection remains strong is a testament to how special and loving the community was. It had a part in forming our identities and that is a lasting gift.

Sister Joanna

Yesterday, it was my privilege to join with the choirs of Holy Family to sing at the funeral mass for Sister Joanna. Sister Joanna had been most recently serving as director of social work and spiritual life at Mercy House, where my mother was in residence for five months before hospice discharged her. That was how I had met Sister Joanna, who often brought communion to my mother and coordinated such comfort measures as haircuts and massage therapy.

Sister Joanna’s death came as a shock. Although she had her share of health problems, she was only 69 and still very active between her work at Mercy House and caring for her own mother. Her loss will be keenly felt by all the volunteers and staff of Mercy House, as well as all the families and the staff of hospice.

The church was full for the funeral yesterday and included a whole row of priests who gathered around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. It was a beautiful service, but it is only the beginning of the good-byes to Sister Joanna. She was a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and a vigil service and burial mass will be held in Reading, Pennsylvania, next week.

Rest in peace, Sister Joanna.

unsettled

This month has been a demanding one personally; hence, I have managed only a few posts this month.

I will spare you the bureaucratic details that have been occupying so much of my time and headspace, but the situation is made all the more difficult by the public unraveling going on around us.

Although I have cut back on the amount of news that I see, the continuing revelations of foreign entanglements with United States elections and governance have been truly disturbing, as has evidence that the Russians have been detected infiltrating computer systems involved with the upcoming midterm elections in November. The Manafort trial, more books and articles being published about the administration and the investigation, DT’s tweets, and interviews with members of the administration and the president’s lawyers add to the unsettling mix.

The past week has also seen a lot of coverage of the grand jury report on sexual crimes by Catholic clergy and coverup by church officials in six Pennsylvania dioceses. The behavior described in the report is appalling, sinful, and criminal and my heart breaks for the victims and their families, but, unlike many people, I did not find the report shocking or surprising. We have heard similar stories from other US dioceses and from other countries for years now.

Some Catholics feel that the Church is being attacked or singled out for criticism, but I don’t feel that way at all. I see the root of the problem as abuse of power. Sexual violence is one form of abuse of power, but there are many others, verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, financial and employment discrimination, racism, and sexism among them. All of this has led some priests into a culture of clericalism, which, in turn, led to the coverup of crimes by “brother priests” and the silencing or ignoring of victims, who are usually lay people, although sometimes also members of religious orders, other priests, or seminarians.

For many people, the Pennsylvania report highlights the lack of accountability among bishops. While this issue has been on my mind for years, it is gaining new prominence in the Catholic and general press now and is being more openly discussed among lay people, theologians, and ethicists.

Pope Francis, when he visited Chile, made the mistake of dismissing sexual abuse survivors and supporting a bishop who mishandled credible allegations against priests. After public outcry, Francis appointed an investigator. Upon receiving the report, Francis changed course, met with Chilean survivors, and called all the bishops to Rome. All thirty-four bishops offered their resignations; at this point, Francis has accepted five of them.

There are now calls for the United States’ bishops to also offer their resignations, which the Pope could accept or not on a case-by-case basis. This is occurring in the aftermath of the resignation of retired archbishop of Washington, DC Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals, after reports of abuse of both minors and adult seminarians. He has been ordered into seclusion; it’s not clear if he will be laicized if he is found guilty at a canonical trial, as has happened with priests.

Of course, for most bishops, the issue will be if they covered up crimes of priests in their dioceses or moved priests to other locations where they abused still more minors or vulnerable adults.

For me, there is also a larger crisis of leadership. If a bishop fails to protect children and teens from such terrible crimes, how can he credibly claim to be leading and caring for all the Catholics in his jurisdiction? For a variety of reasons, I have been avoiding dealing with the bishops in my diocese, concentrating instead on parish-level ministry and the Church as the people of God, not as a hierarchical institution.

Still, I can’t help but think that personal complications would be easier to bear if the government and the church were functioning with stability and rectitude.