first Pfizer vaccine dose!

Yesterday, I officially shed my membership in the placebo group of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine Phase III trial and became part of the vaccine group.

Yay!

There was a blood draw first, so they can check to see if I already have antibodies, which is unlikely given my personal history, and can compare it to my bloodwork from earlier in the trial after my placebo shots. There was also a COVID test to see if I have an active infection, which is also unlikely because I have no symptoms and community spread is quite low in our area at the moment.

While I was waiting for thirty minutes for the vaccine to come up to room temperature and for thirty minutes after injection to make sure I didn’t have an adverse reaction, I was able to get some family business done. With spouse B and daughter T’s consent, I was able to pick up their vaccine cards, showing the dates back in August when they received their immunizations. Although we had long suspected that they had received the vaccine and I had received the placebo, we are happy to have the confirmation – and the documentation to prove it. As a higher proportion of the population gets vaccinated, we may need to be able to prove our vaccination status for accessing public transportation, employment, visiting privileges with Paco in his senior community, etc.

The Biden administration is working to get more Pfizer and Moderna vaccine doses out to the states for distribution and the United States may soon have a third vaccine receive emergency use authorization. If approved, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be a big help in getting more people vaccinated in more locations around the world more quickly. It is administered as a single dose and can be stored at regular refrigerator temperatures, making it much easier to distribute than the current mRNA vaccines which need very cold storage and two doses. The J&J vaccine will be much easier to get to rural folks and places that don’t have good access to public transportation and medical centers.

The more vaccine available and the more people vaccinated, the sooner we have hope to end the pandemic. This needs to happen everywhere around the world, though, for the pandemic to end. There have to be so few people that are susceptible to the virus that it can’t find enough hosts to continue spreading in the community. Until that point is reached, people will still need to be careful about masking, distancing, and hygiene.

We also need to be vigilant about virus variants and the length of time immunity lasts after infection or immunization. That’s why I’m proud to be able to play my small part in the fight by participating in the Pfizer trial. The data from this latest batch of former placebo group members will show if the vaccine remains effective against the new variants in circulation and add to the statistics of how long immunity lasts as we will be followed for at least another eighteen to twenty-four months.

Today, I have a sore arm and a bit of a headache, both expected side effects from a first dose. It’s a very small price to pay for the beginning of personal protection and the advance of science to help the world understand and defeat COVID-19.

Unmasked!

As my more frequent readers may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I are all participants in the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine trial. The vaccine received emergency use authorization in the United States in December 2020. Pfizer is now unmasking people in the placebo group and offering to make them part of the vaccine group for further study as they plan to follow participants for two years to gather data on long-term efficacy.

Earlier this week, I received a call saying that I was in the placebo group, which B, T, and I had long suspected as they both had side effects after our injections but I did not. I will receive my first injection with the real vaccine in early February, timed to coincide with the end of the waiting period after the shingles vaccine I had this month. I am grateful for the opportunity to receive the vaccine and to contribute to the data which will help keep more people from suffering the worst consequences of COVID and eventually end the pandemic.

While we will still need to mask and distance, I’m hoping that, as I and others around me are vaccinated, I will be able to return to some places that I have not been able to visit. I may, at least occasionally, make a reservation to attend mass on the weekend, something that I always did pre-pandemic but have not done since March 2020. I may visit with friends indoors, which would be nice given that outdoor visits are tricky in the winter. Eventually, we may be able to travel again, although I’m afraid a trip to London will not be possible for some months.

The other piece of good vaccine news from our family is that my 95-year-old father, known here as Paco, has received his second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. In a couple of weeks, he should reach his maximum level of protection. This is particularly important because he is in an assisted living unit, which is considered a higher risk living situation. Presently, visiting is very restricted. T was able to visit him in person for half an hour today in a socially distanced visiting room; earlier this week, I was able to do a window visit, where we could see each other through a window while we spoke by phone. I am hoping that, as residents and staff all receive their vaccinations and as more members of families receive theirs, the state will relax visiting restrictions to allow masked visits into residents’ apartments. We haven’t been able to see Paco’s new place yet and would love to be able to help organize things for him.

In our little corner of upstate New York, we are chipping away at the pandemic, doing what we can to bring it under control. We know, though, that things in the country as a whole will be difficult throughout the winter. We have passed 414,000 deaths in the US with the expectation that we will reach half a million deaths in February. It’s staggering.

I’m hopeful that the Biden administration’s leadership and plans will help us get through this winter with the least amount of damage possible, although we have been warned that things will get worse before they get better. I hope each person will do what they can to help in the effort.

Day 1

Yesterday at noon, Joe Biden began his term as president of the United States.

I am grateful for that – and grateful that there was no violence, despite the many threats made. There was a massive police and military presence in Washington DC and in many state capitols, but protests were small and peaceful.

The inauguration ceremony was uplifting. It was gratifying to finally see a woman sworn into a high executive office in the US (although I had originally hoped it would be Elizabeth Warren as president). It’s sad that it took a hundred years of women’s suffrage for it to happen, but my hope is that it will finally be a political possibility for a woman to ascend to the presidency. And, perhaps, that woman will be now Vice President Kamala Harris.

I am relieved to have someone of Joe Biden’s experience, character, and temperament as our president. Our times are indeed daunting. In his inaugural address, he spoke about the daunting challenges we face and brought hope that we could deal with them together as a nation:

This is a time of testing.

We face an attack on democracy and on truth.

A raging virus.

Growing inequity.

The sting of systemic racism.

A climate in crisis.

America’s role in the world.

Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways.

But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities.

Now we must step up.

All of us.

It is a time for boldness, for there is so much to do.

And, this is certain.

We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era.

Will we rise to the occasion?

Will we master this rare and difficult hour?

Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children?

I believe we must and I believe we will.

And when we do, we will write the next chapter in the American story.

Another sign of hope was the inaugural poem proclaimed by the amazing Amanda Gorman, the Youth Poet Laurate of the United States. Her poem is a stirring complement to the inaugural address; if you haven’t heard her, this link: https://youtu.be/whZqA0z61jY will allow you to see and hear her vision and energy. Although she is now 22, she has been on the poetry scene for several years so I was already familiar with her work, but I am happy that people around the country and the world now know her name and the power of poetry.

The usual post-inaugural activities were scaled back due to the pandemic, but that allowed the new administration to begin work on their very first day in office. Vice President Harris swore in three new senators, giving the Democrats the majority in the Senate for the first time in several years. President Biden signed a number of executive orders and directives, among them beginning the process for the United States to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord, cancelling the permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, and rejoining the World Health Organization. There was a press conference with the White House press secretary Jen Psaki, reading a statement and then answering questions from the press. It was all refreshingly straight-forward and informative after the prior administration’s combative and sometimes unavailable press office.

As President Biden made clear, we in the United States are facing multiple huge challenges. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but the administration made a start yesterday and is doing more today and will be continuing to work hard on our many problems. I and millions of others are pledging to do our part, too.

*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/21/jusjojan-prompt-the-21st-spell/

One-Liner Wednesday: inauguration day

I haven’t been this anxious for noon to come since my wedding day.
~ my thought this morning as we await the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice-president of the United States

Brought to you by Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays and Just Jot It January. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/20/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-the-20th-2021-defeat/

today

This wasn’t the plan.

I expected right now I would be in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic after a month in the UK visiting daughter E and her family, meeting granddaughter JG, walking granddaughter ABC home from nursery school, celebrating US Thanksgiving in London on what is there just the fourth Thursday of November.

I thought I would get to attend mass for the first time since March as we celebrated JG’s baptism, wearing the white dress that I, E, and ABC wore before her, as well her Aunt T and great-aunts.

Of course, there would have been two weeks in quarantine before any of the visiting, but still…

It was a blessing in disguise that the news of the UK lockdown leaked early, before we flew out, so that there was time to cancel. It took most of the month, but I finally got all the charges refunded.

I had planned to get a lot of writing done while we were in quarantine and to do a long-delayed, self-guided retreat, neither of which happened this month as the usual things that needed doing were before us here and the inevitable bumps in the road appeared that needed attention. I was also impossible to ignore/escape the maelstrom of news on the election and its aftermath and of the horrifying, continuing escalation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Enter the first Sunday of Advent, with its message of watching in hope.

I’m struggling with that.

By nature, I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I try to be more of a realist. I know that with over 13 million confirmed cases so far and a seven-day average of new confirmed cases of about 160,000, compounded by Thanksgiving travel, the United States is going to have further acceleration in COVID cases in December and most likely into January, as well. There are also going to be spikes in hospitalizations and deaths flowing from that. Although there will likely be some vaccine administration starting in December, there won’t be enough to make much of a dent in transmission. The exception is that, if health care workers are vaccinated first as expected, we may be able to keep our hospitals staffed well enough to meet the surge in cases this winter.

I do have hope that the incoming Biden administration will have staff and appointees who are capable of improving the lives of people here and beginning to repair our international relationships. However, I am disheartened by the efforts of the current administration to undermine the chances that Biden’s team can implement changes quickly and easily. There are a number of last-minute rule changes, treaty withdrawals, troop withdrawals, and other measures that will make the transition even more difficult than anticipated in this time of public health emergency, economic downturn, civil rights protests, and general distrust in government.

Sigh.

So, one foot in front of the other. Doing the best I can manage under the circumstances.

Stay tuned.

Political labels

The two political/ideological labels that one hears most frequently are liberal and conservative.

I think we should stop using them.

The Oxford Languages definition of liberal is “relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.” The definition of conservative is “(in a political context) favoring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially traditional ideas.”

It’s interesting to me that free enterprise appears in both definitions.

In the United States, the Democratic party is considered liberal and the Republican party is considered conservative but there are several ways in which the definitions above don’t apply. For example, the Republican party is very vocal on upholding certain individual rights, such as gun ownership, while opposing others, such as the right to make one’s own medical decisions.

In this last election cycle, the Republicans repeatedly accused Joe Biden and the Democrats of being “socialist,” thus frightening some people into voting for Republicans. For the record, the definition of socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” To be clear, President-elect Biden and the Democratic party as a whole are capitalists. No one needs to worry that the United States will not continue to be a capitalist country where businesses are owned by individuals, families, small groups of people, and/or stockholders, not buy the society as a whole or the government.

I admit that one of the things that confuses me about the Republican party is that they are inconsistent. They think that deficits and increases to the national debt are terrible when there is a Democratic president, but when there is a Republican one, they pass tax cuts that push the budget deficit and national debt higher.

These last four years have confused the identity of the Republican party further. A number of traditional conservatives have left the party altogether.

I have no idea what comes next for the Republicans as a party.

I don’t think that they do, either.

in the middle of a nightmare

The pandemic has been more severe in the United States than globally for months – and now things are getting worse very, very quickly.

Yesterday, there were over 159,000 new cases diagnosed, which broke a record set the day before. There are entire states that are out of intensive care beds – or hospital beds in general. In some states, hospitals have to triage patients and turn some away who would benefit from care in favor of other patients who are sicker but have a higher chance of recovery.

Some places are so short-staffed that COVID-positive staff are continuing to work if their symptoms allow.

The hospitalization rate is also a lagging indicator. If the hospitals are this stressed now, what will the situation be in two weeks, given the huge numbers of new diagnoses this week?

I’ve reached a new level of dread.

New York State, where I live, still has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. Governor Cuomo is tightening restrictions on gyms, indoor dining and gatherings, as well as further ramping up testing and contact tracing in hot spots. Unfortunately, after all these months, there is an outbreak among residents in the skilled nursing unit of my father’s senior living community, as well as a number of staff members. The health center is in a separate building from where Paco lives in an apartment, so we are hoping the virus won’t spread, but it is very worrying for all of us.

And what, you may ask, is the Trump administration doing to address the explosion of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths?

Nothing.

Vice-president Pence, who chairs the coronavirus task force, finally held a meeting this week after several weeks without doing so during the campaign. There were no new actions or recommendations after the meeting.

Meanwhile, President-elect Biden has named a first-rate committee of physicians and public health experts to set up the plan against COVID for his administration, which will begin January 20th. Unfortunately, because the Trump administration refuses to acknowledge that Biden will be taking office, the Biden task force does not have access to the current plans in development for vaccine deployment, distribution of supplies, etc., which is an appalling and dangerous state of affairs.

What is even more appalling and dangerous is that, with the situation becoming more and more dire daily, the Trump administration is making no attempt at all to save people for illness, disability, and death.

I’m finding the level of stress and dismay crushing.

People desperately need help now.

January 20th is still a long way off.

post-election

I was relieved when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were projected winners in the US election, becoming president and vice-president elect. Some say that those terms should not be used until the vote is certified in each state or until the electoral college meets in December but it has been common in past election cycles to do so and I’m observing the norm.

While there are still ballots being counted, it is clear that Joe Biden has comfortable margins of victory in enough states to have earned the presidency. Election officials and volunteers of all political persuasions are continuing to work hard to complete the final tallies of the record number of ballots cast. Despite the pandemic, attempts by both foreign and domestic actors to suppress the vote, postal service slowdowns, and unfounded accusations of malfeasance, this election saw the highest percentage of voter turnout in more than a century.

When Biden was reported as the projected winner on Saturday morning, spontaneous celebrations broke out around the country and around the world. Although there were some demonstrations with upset Trump supporters, there was not an outbreak of violence as many had feared. Congratulations poured in from around the nation and the world. On Saturday evening, Harris and Biden gave moving victory speeches, recognizing the historic achievement of the first woman and first person of color to become vice-president and calling for national unity to combat the pandemic and rebuild our economy and society. There has been particularly moving coverage of the impact of Kamala Harris’s election among girls, particularly those of African or Asian descent, who are excited to see someone who looks like them about to become vice-president.

Unfortunately, President Trump refuses to accept the reality that he has lost the election. Even more unfortunately, many of his supporters believe his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. Perhaps most distressingly of all, many other Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are refusing to acknowledge that Biden has won the election.

This has delayed the official mechanisms that facilitate a smooth transition between administrations. While the Biden/Harris team is moving forward with their governing plans for after the inauguration on January 20th, most notably the convening of a coronavirus task force comprised of physicians and pubic health experts, they do not have access to all the current government personnel and assets that they need because the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration refuses to ascertain that Biden has won the election. With so many pressing issues, it is vital that these resources are available to the Biden-Harris transition team as soon as possible.

On Saturday morning, I wrote a simple message of congratulations to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Facebook. I did get one angry face as a reaction among the thumbs up and hearts, which I understand. There was also a negative comment that I wound up deleting because I don’t allow unchallenged falsehoods, conspiracy theories, or profanity on my social media. I remain committed to thoughtful dialogue and hope to be able to engage in some as the opportunity arises in the coming months.

I started writing this post early this morning and it is now late afternoon, so I will close, but, someday, I’ll write a post about my background that might prove elucidating about how my mind works.

Stay tuned.

Calling on Republican Senators

As I write this, the US presidential race has not yet been called, although it is likely to be called later this weekend for Joe Biden. This would mean that Kamala Harris, as vice president, would preside over the Senate, with the power to break tied votes.

We also don’t know what the final make-up of the Senate will be and we won’t know until January as the state of Georgia, in a highly unusual circumstance, will have run-off elections for both of their Senate seats in January.

Regardless of the final composition of the Senate in 2021, I am making a plea to those Republican senators who actually want to help craft legislation and govern the country rather than engage in obstruction under the leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell.

I think that those senators should form their own caucus. Their first act would be to vote for Sen. Chuck Schumer as majority leader, so that House-passed legislation would actually be considered in the Senate rather than gathering dust on McConnell’s desk as it has been.

They would then meet with the Democratic caucus on a regular basis to offer their ideas for advancing bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, which could then be enacted and signed into law. I’m sure that the Democrats would gladly agree to this solution to the Senate gridlock that has prevailed for years.

In my mind, some senators who might consider such an initiative are Sen. Romney of Utah, Sen. Collins of Maine, Sen. Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Toomey of Pennsylvania. Perhaps Sen. Sasse of Nebraska. They would not necessarily have to leave the Republican party to become independents, although some with strong support in their home states might be able to do that, thus obviating the threat of a primary challenger.

A lot would depend on what becomes of the Republican party without Trump as president. Will it attempt to revert to being a traditional conservative party or continue in the rather haphazard counter-factual populism it has exhibited in recent years? Would even the willingness to engage in bipartisanship be enough for the Republican leadership to kick out any senators who dared to attempt it?

In the House, the Democrats will still hold a small majority, but there might be some Republicans willing to form a similar caucus to help craft and advance bipartisan legislation.

Joe Biden has a long history of bipartisan cooperation as a senator and as vice president and has been speaking for months about restoring unity to our deeply fractured country.

Republican members of Congress, how do you respond to this call? You swear an oath to the Constitution which proclaims that our government is to “form a more perfect union” and to “promote the general welfare”.

Are you willing to act for the good of all people or only that segment that voted for you?

Update: A few minutes after I posted this, Joe Biden was projected the winner and is now President-elect. This will mean Vice-President Kamala Harris will preside over the Senate and have the power to break tie votes.

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.

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