election reflection

When I finally made myself post about the upcoming midterm elections in the US, I knew I’d have to do a wrap-up post, so here goes…

The election outcomes were more positive than I had feared but not as good as I had wished. Some of the ultra-MAGA candidates lost and accepted defeat but a few that lost are refusing to concede. Some who won their races are trying to leverage their position to move legislatures to the extreme right. This is particularly worrisome in the House of Representatives, where some individual Congress members are threatening to withhold their votes to make Republican Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House unless he agrees to undertake certain investigations that come out of right-wing conspiracy theories.

Technically, the election season is not quite over yet. While the Democrats picked up a Senate seat which gives them the majority of 50-49, the race in Georgia is going to be decided in a run-off in a few days. If current Senator Raphael Warnock is re-elected, the Democrats will hold a clear majority of 51-49, which will also give them a majority of committee seats and make confirming President Biden’s nominees quicker and easier in the new session. Theoretically, this would also help make legislation easier to pass but it’s unlikely that the Republican House will pass many bills that the Senate cares to take up. Given that the Republicans don’t really have a platform, it seems they are more inclined to undertake endless investigations than to actually try to make laws and pass budgets.

The impending change in the balance of power in the Congress has led to a push to enact as much legislation as possible before the end of the year. One thing that should happen is raising the debt ceiling; in my ideal world, it would be abolished but I doubt that is in the cards. There needs to be a budget resolution passed. I’d love action on voting rights, codifying reproductive health access, gun safety, care for children and the vulnerable, and anti-poverty programs like permanent expansion of the child tax credit. One major piece of legislation that has passed is marriage equality, which was in place in only some states before the 2015 Obergefell decision from the Supreme Court made it legal nationally. Given the current Court’s eagerness to overturn precedent, an explicit law from Congress will be helpful in ensuring the continuing right to marriage the partner of one’s choice.

I believe that the Republicans were only able to regain the House majority because of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, along with their allowing redistricting maps that were found to be unconstitutional by state courts to stand for this election in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio. There was also extensive gerrymandering in Florida and Texas that favored Republicans.

Contrast this with my home state New York. In an attempt to make redistricting fairer, map making was taken out of the state legislature and assigned to a bipartisan commission with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, the commission could not agree on a new map and sent two versions to the legislature, which drew its own map and adopted it. The Republicans sued, a court threw out that map, and a new one was drawn by an academic. This delayed our primaries and caused major changes in which some incumbents ran against each other in primaries and others had districts that had a majority of voters that were new to them.

It also led to some representatives shopping for a new district that would elect them, even though they don’t live there. Take my current representative Republican Claudia Tenney as an example. She lives in the present 22nd district, which nonsensically lumps part of the Southern Tier where I live with the Utica area where she lives. When it looked like one of the commission or legislative maps was going to be adopted, she had filed to run in the Southern Tier district to my west which was an open seat because the Republican incumbent had resigned. When the court map was adopted, she changed to run in the new 24th district which had been most of the district of the retiring Republican John Katko. I don’t know whether or not she plans to move. I now live in the 19th district and our incoming (Republican) representative, Marc Molinaro, also lives outside our district. I haven’t heard anything from him that he plans to move here, either.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints from national pundits that the Democrats lost the House majority because “the New York legislature is bad at gerrymandering” but they are off the mark. The fact is that the prior maps were drawn when the Republicans had the majority in the State Senate while the Democrats controlled the Assembly. The maps made the House districts upstate, which tends to have more Republicans, lower in population than the downstate districts, which tend to be more heavily Democratic. All the versions of the new maps made the population distribution for each district more even, which is good. Unfortunately, the court’s map that went into effect didn’t give much weight to the prior lines, so lots of voters and candidates were thrown into new districts at a very late date.

For me, that meant going from a central NY district that didn’t really make a lot of sense into a district that stretches from here, through the Catskills and Hudson Valley over to the Connecticut border. It would make much more sense for Binghamton to be included in a Southern Tier district. The Southern Tier is our economic development zone and our regional identity. If we needed to be connected to another region to make the population required, it would make the most sense to include some of the Finger Lakes region. We have much less in common with the Catskills/Hudson Valley.

There are big changes in Democratic Party leadership in the House. The most noted is that Nancy Pelosi, who has been either Speaker or party leader for twenty years is stepping down from leadership. This didn’t surprise me as she had promised to step down from leadership to make room for the next generation. Additionally, she is in her eighties and is recovering from the trauma of the politically motivated attack on her husband and their home before the last election.

Nancy Pelosi has been the most effective House speaker in my lifetime, shepherding through major legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, with very small Democratic majorities and next to no help from Republicans. She is very astute in figuring out what is possible and bringing along the members to pass it. While she grew up around politics, I think a lot of her success comes from her personal values, shaped by Catholic social justice doctrine and the Constitutional call to “promote the general welfare,” and with her experience raising five children.

Unfortunately, she has been attacked by Republicans in personal and vile terms, which has led to political violence. Besides the recent attack at her home, there are several chilling videos of January sixth insurrectionists threatening her life. That she continues to serve her district and the country is a testament to her strength and convictions as a person and a public servant. I’m grateful that she is remaining in Congress as a mentor in the coming terms, as well as, of course, a powerful voice on policy questions.

When Pelosi stepped down from leadership, her fellow octogenarians Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn also took themselves out of the running for the next two highest-ranking leadership posts. The new top leadership team is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as Minority Leader, Rep. Katherine Clark as Democratic whip, and Rep. Pete Aguilar as Democratic Caucus chair. They are all in their forties or fifties. Jeffries is the first Black to become leader of a major US political party. Clark is only the second woman, after Pelosi, to be in a top leadership post in Congress. Aguilar is the highest-ranking Latino in Congress.

What is happening with the Republicans is still unclear. While Kevin McCarthy was elected Republican leader, it remains to be seen if he has enough votes to be elected Speaker. It’s also unclear if he or anyone can hold the party together with a slim majority as Speaker Pelosi has been able to do with the Democrats. My fear is that the House Republicans will refuse to craft bipartisan legislation with the Democrats but not be able to hold their own party together to pass bills either. We could wind up with gridlock that leaves even vital legislation in limbo. We’ve seen this before under some past Republican Speakers.

I have a feeling that I will spend the next term writing to Rep. Molinaro, who claims to be a proponent of bipartisanship, asking him to stand up for reasonable legislation that passes the Senate to make it to the House floor for a vote, where it can pass with Democratic and a minority of Republican votes.

Will that happen? I don’t know, but I’ll try to at least start out with that hope.

the aftermath of Dobbs

When I wrote this post after the leak of US Supreme Court Justice Alito’s draft opinion on an abortion law in Mississippi, we weren’t sure if there would be changes before the decision was announced.

When the decision was announced on June 24, it was little changed from the draft. The majority signed on to the opinion that Roe v. Wade had been “wrongly decided” and threw the matter of the legality of abortion to each state’s legislature.

It’s not that long-standing Supreme Court precedents have never been overturned or declared “wrongly decided” – the Dred Scott decision springs to mind – but the Dobbs case was the first time that such a reversal came at the expense of a recognized right.

Many lawyers and Constitutional scholars have faulted the majority’s decision on historical and legal grounds, as Alito seems to cherry-pick sources in support of his view while ignoring the mainstream history and scholarship to the contrary. For example, while it is true that the Constitution does not specify a right to an abortion, it also never uses the word “woman” or “family.” There are many rights that have been recognized by the courts over the centuries that are not specifically cited in the Constitution under the Ninth Amendment which states “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The right to privacy and to bodily autonomy belong to each person and should not be under the jurisdiction of the government at any level. The Alito opinion also seems to violate the Thirteenth Amendment against involuntary servitude and the Fourteenth Amendment which promises “equal protection of the laws.”

While Alito said that abortion was a unique situation in terms of privacy protections, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence that openly questions other rulings, such as those allowing contraception and marriage equality in all states. Somehow, he didn’t suggest that the Loving case, which forced all states to allow interracial marriage, had been wrongly decided, one assumes because he is a partner in one.

It’s now a little less than a month since the decision was handed down and there is upheaval. There have been many protests and public demonstrations. Some states moved to ban all abortions or all after six weeks of pregnancy. Some states are even trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care, as though being a resident of a state gave them ownership over you. While the House has passed legislation to codify abortion rights similarly to Roe and to allow interstate travel for medical care, the Senate Republicans have blocked both measures from coming to a vote.

Some states are protecting and codifying the Roe framework. My home state, New York, had done this previously and is now beginning the years-long process to amend the equal rights protections of the state constitution to include “sex, including sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive health care and autonomy”. Bonus: this will protect marriage rights and stand against all gender-related discrimination, as well as returning reproductive health rights to each individual.

Before the decision was handed down, those of us warning of the dangers to the health and well-being of pregnant people were scolded for being alarmist, but we were being realistic. Every day, there are stories in the news of delayed care for miscarriages that threatens the health and life of the mother. There are stories of rape victims having to go to another state for an abortion. The most heart-breaking of these is the case of a ten-year-old rape victim who had to travel from Ohio to Indiana to receive an abortion at six and a half weeks pregnancy. This child has had to endure not only rape and the severe threat to her health that pregnancy at such a young age entails but also the trauma of some politicians and commentators questioning the veracity of her story.

These cases show the dangers of trying to legislate what should be private medical decisions. While some are contending that it’s not really an abortion if a child is pregnant and her life is endangered or if there is an ectopic pregnancy or if there is an incomplete miscarriage, medically speaking, all pregnancies end either in live birth or an abortion. Miscarriage is not a medical term; on medical records, it is termed a spontaneous abortion. Health care providers are being put in the impossible situation to provide the best care to their patients or to be forced by lawyers to wait until their patients are clearly dying themselves before intervening to remove a doomed fetus. When the federal government reminded hospital emergency rooms that they are required to treat any endangered pregnant person to save their life, the state of Texas filed suit, saying that their state law against abortion should take precedence.

Some states are making moves not only against abortion but also against contraceptives, even though these are not abortifacient. They are trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care. As I mentioned previously, while the US House of Representatives has passed legislation to codify abortion rights and to affirm the right to interstate travel, the Senate is not taking these up because of obstruction by Republicans. Chillingly, there is talk of the Republicans passing a national abortion ban if they regain the Congressional majority. Meanwhile, Republicans fail to pass legislation that would uphold the health and dignity of each person, such as universal health care, living wages, social welfare support, etc.

As a Catholic woman, I knew this was coming. Alito was parroting the arguments that Catholic bishops have made against abortion and Thomas went even further down that road in his calls against contraception. I have struggled for years against a church that denies my full personhood as a woman, despite their lip service to the concept of human dignity. I did not expect my country to follow suit.

Like most women my age, I didn’t think we would still be fighting these kinds of equality battles, but we will. I can’t predict the manner or timing of victory, but we will not be demoted to second class citizenship by a skewed Supreme Court.

Much Ado in the Garden

Why, you may ask, is Joanne wearing a fetching Renaissance costume?

Because tomorrow, Sunday, July 17, 2022, I will be singing madrigals with The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton at the Much Ado in the Garden event, sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension-Broome County.

There will be music, dancing, garden tours, Shakespearean scenes, games, food, and more, so come to Cutler Botanic Garden and join us!

Madrigal Choir will be singing at 2:00. At 11:15 AM, I will also be participating in a mini-workshop and reading with the Binghamton Poetry Project, but not in costume.

I’m sure that you want to see my headpiece, so one more costume shot.

finally, but…

Broome County, New York, where I live, finally managed to get into the low community risk category on the CDC’s COVID map late last week, after many months in the high category with a few weeks of medium thrown in.

This is long hoped for news, but it is likely only a very temporary lull.

We had been high for so long due to our lower level of up-to-date vaccination and the fact that an Omicron subvariant that became dominant originated in central New York.

Unfortunately, another Omicron subvariant BA.5, is making its way into our area. BA.5 is already the most dominant strain in the US and carries the dubious distinction of being more contagious than other forms of Omicron. It may also have a tendency to more often affect the lower part of the respiratory tract, although this is still being researched; Omicron in general has been more likely to remain in the upper respiratory tract. It also appear to more easily infect people who are up-to-date on vaccination and those who have already had Omicron, even if the prior infection was only a few weeks ago. It’s difficult, though, to tease out which effects in the population are from the variant itself and which are from decreasing immunity that occurs over time.

It is also unfortunate that repeat infections increase the post-infection risk of stroke, heart attack, and other serious illnesses and bring the risk of long COVID.

Even with BA.5, though, being vaccinated and boosted is helpful. It lowers rates of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Pfizer and Moderna are each developing vaccines/boosters that are more effective against Omicron that will be available in the fall. Of course, masking, avoiding crowds, and other public health measures are also helpful if transmission is high in your area.

Remember: the pandemic is still with us. Another new variant is spreading in India and several other countries and could cause another global wave of infections if it can out-compete BA.5. Stay alert and do what you can to take care of yourself, your family, and your community.

I’ll be doing that here. Even though our current infection rate is low, it has begun to creep up. I’ll be watchful.

The US and guns – update

In late May, when I wrote this post, I knew there would need to be an update in the continuing saga of gun violence in the United States. A lot has happened since then, so here goes.

In the wake of the national furor over the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, a bipartisan group of senators managed to hammer out a bill that could pass. It is much weaker than the bill that had originally passed in the House but does have some important provisions. It increases funding for mental health services, which is much needed. The impact on mass shootings is unclear but the majority of gun fatalities in the United States are suicides, so there is hope that these funds will avert some share of these deaths. There are incentives for states to implement red flag laws, which prevent firearm sales and/or remove guns from homes where someone is deemed threatening to themselves or others. The laws preventing those convicted of domestic violence from obtaining guns were strengthened. There will be enhanced background checks for those ages 18-20. Penalties for those who purchase guns for someone who is not eligible to own one have been increased. Funding for security in schools will increase.

Unfortunately, stronger prevention measures were not included, most of which have broad public support. Among these are strengthened and universal background checks, banning military-style assault weapons and large ammunition clips, and raising the age to buy semiautomatic weapons to 21. It’s unlikely that Republicans will agree to any further national legislation in the immediate future, so it is up to states to do what they can to protect people, although it is easy for anyone intent on getting a weapon to do so by visiting a state with looser regulations.

Ironically, just as this legislation was passed, the Supreme Court handed down an opinion that struck down the process to carry a concealed weapon in my home state, New York. This law, which had been on the books for over a century, was somehow not deemed to be part of our history and tradition by the conservatives on the Court, while ignoring the clear text of the Second Amendment that places gun rights in the context of “a well-regulated militia.”

Governor Hochul called the state legislature, which usually is in session only in the winter and spring, back from recess to pass new laws that would seem to be acceptable to the Court which had objected to a gun owner proving that they needed to carry a concealed weapon for protection. The new laws include mandatory standardized training and tests to obtain a concealed carry permit, a blanket prohibition on carrying firearms on private property and businesses unless they expressly give permission, and a list of “sensitive places” where concealed weapons are not permitted, including public transportation, medical facilities, schools and day care facilities, libraries, government buildings, houses of worship, public demonstrations, entertainment venues, and establishments that serve alcohol.

There are also provisions that strengthen New York’s already relatively strict gun laws, including background checks for all ammunition purchases, enhancements of the safe storage requirements including in vehicles, and extending the sales ban on body armor to include hard body armor which was used by the shooter in Buffalo.

These new laws will take effect on September first. They may be challenged in court but the legislature and governor tried to design them in such a way that they will be upheld. At least, we will have greater protections while the cases wind their way through the courts.

Meanwhile, of course, gun violence continues unabated. The Fourth of July weekend was especially brutal, with over 500 shootings, at least 11 of which were categorized as mass shootings (four or more injured or killed, not counting the shooter), resulting in over 220 deaths and nearly 570 injuries. The information source for this reporting is the Gun Violence Archive, an organization that collects and compiles data on shootings in the US. That our country has need of such an organization is sobering in and of itself. As I write this on July 7, 2022, they have verified 22,733 gun deaths so far this year, of which 12,408 were suicides.

The most prominent of the mass shootings this weekend was at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. A 21-year-old man, shooting with a military-style weapon from a rooftop overlooking the parade route, killed seven with several dozen wounded. He was later arrested and has confessed to the crime. Our news reports are filled with the tragic losses of family members, including the parents of a 2-year-old who was found beneath his father’s body.

This father died protecting his only child from a young man who should not have had a weapon of war. All of us need the protection of law to keep these weapons out of civilian hands. Congress, do your job and pass more laws so that our rates of gun violence are more in line with those of other advanced democracies. Other countries have similar rates of mental illness, violent video games, and social problems, but have nowhere near our rates of gun violence. Republicans, it’s time to wake up and admit the truth that the heart of the problem is too-easy access to guns, especially military-style weapons. And remember that your beloved Second Amendment is about a “well-regulated militia” – now akin to the National Guard – not your mentally unstable 18-year-old neighbor who has fallen into some dark conspiracy-laden corner of the internet and thinks he should kill some folks to show he has power over them.

Congressional Republicans, you have the power to join with your Democratic and Independent colleagues to protect us. If you need help mustering courage, look to the example of that dad in Highland Park. Your possibly sacrificing a few votes in your next election or some campaign contributions is nothing compared to his sacrificing his life and his chance to see his child grow into adulthood.

mass shootings and Broome County and beyond

On May 14, 2022, a shooter from Broome County in the Southern Tier of New York State where I live killed ten and injured three in a Tops Supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, a city about three and a half hours away.

This horrible crime evoked immediate grief and rage. In such circumstances, commentators in the media react quickly, which can result in oversimplification of a complex situation. I heard commentators say that mental health problems are just an excuse used when the shooter is white. That his parents must be monsters. That his town must be filled with racists.

I understand the passion and fury of their reaction but they had not had time to look into the realities on the ground here in Broome County. The shooter did have mental health issues. He had been evaluated at a hospital after making disturbing comments about murder/suicide in an online high school class last year, not long before he graduated. He managed to convince people that he had been joking but we now know that he was not. I don’t know if he was referred for any counseling but mental health services in our area, especially for youth, are not easy to access. Wait lists can be long as there aren’t enough providers to meet the needs of residents, especially with the increased mental strain brought about by the pandemic. New York State does have a red flag law which would have removed weapons from his home but it was not triggered because he wasn’t reported as a threat.

The shooter went to great lengths to hide his activities from his parents. He hid his newly acquired assault weapon in his room. Because ammunition clips of more than ten rounds are banned in New York State, he modified the Bushmaster himself. He told his parents he was going hiking when he was making a reconnaissance trip to Buffalo.

The students at the high school in Conklin mobilized to send messages of support to the victims in Buffalo and to raise money for their needs. While it’s true that less than 1% of residents in town are Black, the students wanted to show that their school is not racist. The “white replacement theory” that the shooter espoused was not something he learned there or in town but from mass media and the internet. This is not to say that there aren’t racists in Conklin, as I’m sure there are, but to show that many people there are anti-racist and working to show that in the wake of the shooting.

That mental illness is part of the story in mass shootings is not confined by race. The mentally ill shooter in the April 12, 2022 New York City subway shooting is a Black man. While the Broome County shooter in Buffalo is white, the shooter from the other Broome County mass shooting was not. On April 3, 2009, a Vietnamese-American man killed thirteen people and wounded four before killing himself inside the American Civic Association in Binghamton. He was known to be mentally ill; his father had begged the state not to allow his son a handgun license. This was before red flag laws in New York, which were not enacted until after the Newtown shooting.

The ACA shooting, though it was among the ten deadliest mass shootings in the US at the time, did not enter the national consciousness like other mass shootings. While there was a brief descent by national media, there was no presidential visit or long-standing news coverage of the aftermath of the families and community, except in limited local sources. I wrote this post on the fifth anniversary, positing that, because most of the victims were immigrants from various countries, the American public failed to relate to the victims as people like themselves. Because it was dismissed from public discourse so quickly, Broome County largely did “move on” from the shooting. As a young child at the time, the eventual shooter from Conklin may not even have heard about the ACA shooting, despite it happening in a bordering city to his town.

I had been mulling all this, preparing to write this post, when the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas happened. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old gunman, who also injured others, including his grandmother before he went to the school. He was later shot and killed by police.

The United States suffers mass shootings like this on a regular basis. Political leaders offer thoughts and prayers. Democrats typically call for legislation to reduce gun violence and Republicans typically say it isn’t the right time or that nothing should be done to restrict access to guns or that a proposed legal change would not have helped the situation. The Republicans even say that we need more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens so that they can stop the bad guys with guns, despite the fact that even trained security officers have trouble stopping a gunman with an assault weapon and body armor. So nothing gets done and the cycle repeats.

Will the juxtaposition of these two horrific shootings, each by an 18-year-old wearing body armor and armed with a military-style assault weapon, change any national policies in order to reduce future mass shootings?

I’m trying to have hope but it’s difficult to maintain.

I believe that national level laws are needed. New York has enacted a number of laws that have reduced gun violence and mass shootings, including red flag laws and limiting the size of gun magazines. Sadly, the shooter in Buffalo evaded those. If the size of magazines was limited throughout the US, though, he would not have been able to modify his gun to shoot more than ten rounds, which would have afforded a better opportunity to stop him when he had to pause to reload.

Besides national red flag laws and limiting the size of magazines, other measures for consideration could be universal background checks for all gun sales, requiring safety courses and licensing to own a gun, increasing the age to buy a gun to 21, and banning the sale of military-style weapons. From 1994-2004, the United States did have a ban on these weapons. The number of mass shootings fell in those years and skyrocketed after the ban expired.

The main reason that opponents of gun safety measures give is the Second Amendment to our Constitution. This is due to a misinterpretation; regulation of arms is permitted as has been shown in the courts many times. In his retirement, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.” Still, most Congressional Republicans and many Republican governors maintain that gun ownership is an absolute right, which keeps them from taking action to reign in gun deaths and injuries.

While mass shootings generate the most public outrage, the sad fact is that the majority of gun deaths occur in smaller incidents. The greatest number of gun deaths are self-inflicted. This fact again shows the intersection of mental health and gun violence. In a country with more guns than people, easy accessibility to guns makes suicide attempts more likely to be lethal.

One of the excuses politicians use is that reform X would not have prevented this specific incident. This misses the point. We need to enact a broad swath of reforms which will still not prevent every death but will prevent many of them.

The sickening thing is that the long delay has enabled more and more deaths and injuries to occur. It was discouraging to look back on my posts on this topic, for example, here and here and here. In 2016, I even had a guest viewpoint printed in our local newspaper. I make the same arguments that many others have made in the media and in the political arena.

And here we are again, in national mourning, waiting for action to address the carnage, this time with the spectacle of the National Rifle Association, the most powerful anti-reform group, holding its convention in Texas just days after the shooting in Uvalde.

Will we finally see national action this time, however slight? Will the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, added to Newtown, Charleston, Las Vegas, El Paso, etc., etc., and, yes, even Binghamton, finally tip the scales in favor of action by the Republican officeholders who have been preventing protective laws? Or perhaps the belated recognition that they are continually losing constituents to violent crime, domestic violence, shooting accidents, and suicide? Maybe they will begin to suffer the cognitive dissonance of laws that withhold alcohol and tobacco sales until age 21, while allowing 18-year-olds to vote, serve in the military, and buy guns – and that charge even young teens as adults for violent crimes.

Congress is currently in recess. When you come back to Washington, please, do something, however incremental, to make a difference. A first step will lead to others so that the United States can make progress toward the rates that nearly every other Western country has regarding gun violence. We elected you to lead us to “domestic tranquility.”

Our current state of sorrow and rage is its opposite.

Covid red again

Like many places around the world, COVID cases are rising here in Broome County, New York (USA), so much so that we are once again in the highest risk category from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Technically, the high risk category is now orange, not red, but I used red in the title of this post because it seems to be yet another “code red” to me.

Broome County is in one of the red zones with the Covid Act Now site that I use regularly. Our current rating is “very high,” the fourth of five levels. Our seven day average is 50.2 daily cases per 100,000 residents. This figure is likely an undercount, as not all people who test positive with a home test are contacting the health department or a medical professional to report the case or seek advice and treatment. UPDATE 4/19/22: The Covid Act Now site is now using the (much less useful) CDC rating system. Fortunately, the more granular data by neighborhood is still available, as are statistics like percentage of population with booster shots.

There are a number of factors involved in the current rise in cases. Our vaccinated and boosted rate is only 35.5% so we have many vulnerable people. (While it’s true that boosted people are still vulnerable to infection, they are much less likely to fall seriously ill with COVID.) It is also likely that we have cases of two new omicron subvariants that have recently emerged in central New York. While information is still being gathered, these may be even more wildly contagious than the previous versions of omicron.

You would think that our government officials would be re-instituting indoor mask mandates, but they have yet to do so. This is what I feared would happen. When the mandates were lifted, politicians and public health experts said they were doing it to give people a break while cases were relatively low so that they could bring mandates back if we had another surge, but only a few jurisdictions, like the city of Philadelphia, are actually following through.

Instead, government officials are relying on individuals to make their own decisions. The problem is that the majority of people in the US are not seeking out credible information about the risks in their localities. As a participant in the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine trial, I have been following the science closely. Discussions with my personal medical team have reinforced the wisdom of trying to avoid or, at least, continue to postpone infection. Nearly all the public health goals at this point are aimed at reducing serious infection, hospitalization, and mortality, but I also want to avoid illness, infecting others, experiencing long-COVID, and developing complications. I had continued to wear a KF94 mask in public and avoid crowds as much as possible, including singing masked for this performance and this video. With our current infection levels, we will most likely return to take-out dining only.

I did attend Easter Vigil last night, as I knew that it would not be very crowded, unlike the services today. I was masked but the majority of attendees were not. I admit that I cringed when I heard some very loud coughing jags near the back of the church. I was sitting near the front, so I was very far away from them, but I realize that many people are infected without knowingly being in close contact.

The ease of the spread of COVID was brought home to us over the last couple of weeks. B had gone into the office for the first time in over two years because they were having a new product launch. There was only a fraction of the workforce there, all of whom were vaxxed and boosted. Despite that, B got a message three days later that a co-worker with whom he had been conversing had developed symptoms and tested positive. B immediately masked at home and kept his distance from T and I. He did not go out in public and did self-testing. I am happy to report that we are now over ten days from his exposure with no symptoms or positive test, so he is in the clear, but the story illustrates how easily one can be exposed and risk unwittingly infecting others.

I’m not sure what additional actions I may need to take for my and my family’s protection. If the numbers stay this high, I may forgo attending mass in person and return to televised or recorded services until the numbers are better. I will probably try to speak to the local researchers in charge of the Pfizer vaccine trial to see if they are planning to offer a fourth shot to those fifty and older. The CDC has opened the option for our age group to receive a fourth dose but we need to follow the study protocols to remain enrolled in the study which is still ongoing with weekly symptom checks and periodic blood draws to check antibody levels, etc. B and daughter T received their third dose last July, while I received mine in October. We are all well beyond the four-month interval to be eligible for a fourth shot, although T is not old enough to qualify. At this point, we probably have decent protection against hospitalization but not not much against infection. It’s hard to say for sure, though, because B and T are part of the data set on which such findings are based. (I’m a bit behind them because I was part of the placebo group in the initial phase of the study, so I was vaccinated and boosted later than they were.)

I am hoping that this wave in the Northeast will pass quickly. I always hope for surges to pass quickly to reduce suffering but I have an additional personal reason this time. I am scheduled to attend my 40th reunion at Smith College beginning on May 12th. It’s the first time since 2019 the event will be held in person. It’s planned in a cautious way, with all participants required to be vaxxed and boosted, many events being held outdoors, and indoor masking requirements in place except while eating or drinking. Even with a surge, we should be okay to go ahead but it will be less stressful if the surge has passed by then.

So, once again, fingers crossed. I’m doing what I can to keep myself, my family, and my community safe. I urge all of you to stay informed from credible sources in your area and take whatever steps you can with vaccination, masks, testing, medications, etc. to get the virus levels down and protect public health and your own.

We know what can happen if we don’t pay attention and act. The United States is closing in on a million known COVID-19 deaths. It’s already a stunning level of tragedy here and around the world. Please do all you can.

still masked

Last Friday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed their methods of assessing COVID risk to include the strain on the health care system, resulting in about 70% of the population now being classified as being in low or medium risk areas, meaning that indoor masking in public places and distancing measures can be rolled back.

However, Broome County, New York, where I live, is still in the high risk category. In the even more granular Covid Act Now tracker, our risk level is rated as very high, the fourth of five levels, with 26 daily new cases per 100,000 residents as of today, February 27.

The problem is that, when New York State rescinded its mask mandate, our local government also rescinded theirs. Our local conditions don’t warrant that, but, without a rule in place, the vast majority of people will not be masking in public, which will likely delay further progress in getting our case numbers down. Another thing that would help would be increasing our vaccine booster rate, which has crept up to 34% but is still low for our state, as is the 63% full vaccinated rate.

Earlier this month when New York dropped its mask mandate, I posted that I would continue to wear an N95 in public and to avoid crowds in an effort to stay COVID free. As a participant in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial, I am supposed to be following CDC protocols. With our county still being at high risk according to the current CDC map, I am still in compliance with my obligations to the trial.

The next decision point for me will be when Broome County finally gets into a lower risk category. In discussions with my personal physicians, they have advised attempting to avoid infection entirely for as long as possible. I share in this viewpoint. Many public health commentators have gone to the less stringent goal of trying to keep out of the hospital or dying from COVID and to prevent strain on the health care system. I, however, want to protect myself, my family and friends, and my community from being infected at all, so they won’t have to deal with the threat of severe illness, long COVID, and long-term cardiovascular, pulmonary, or neurological damage that can follow infection, even in those who didn’t have serious enough symptoms to warrant hospitalization.

The CDC does say in their guidance that “People may choose to mask at any time.” That will probably be me for quite some time yet, unless our county improves dramatically soon.

Lent is about to start. I’m trying to be hopeful that our situation will improve enough that I can safely drop my crowd avoidance in time to participate in some of the Lenten and Holy Week liturgies. We’ll see.

politics and/or science

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve posted frequently about it, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial in which B, T, and I are participating, the evolving science on the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants, the similarly evolving public health recommendations, and how these are being implemented here in my home state of New York and elsewhere in the United States. I do sometimes comment on the pandemic in the UK and globally, but I know best what happens close to home.

Throughout the pandemic, New York had been in the vanguard of following the recommendations of public health experts, avoiding the tendency we have seen in so many other states to ignore the benefits of masking, distancing, limiting crowds, getting vaccinated, isolating if infected, etc.

That ended this week.

Governor Hochul bowed to public and political pressure and lifted the mask mandate for businesses. While it is true that statewide the peak of the Omicron wave has passed and the vaccination rate is decent, my county’s risk is still rated as very high, with 44.7 per 100,000 daily cases. Technically, New York as a state is also in the very high category with 31.2/100,000 today (February 11), but it is counties like mine that are keeping the state in that risk category rather than dropping into the (merely) high category. Medium and low risk are a long way off at this point.

Meanwhile, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending not only that everyone age two and over wear a mask while in public but also that those masks be N95 or similarly protective types because Omicron is so highly contagious. Alarmingly, an even more contagious omicron sub-variant has reached the US, making protective masks that much more important.

Does this sound like the proper time to end mask mandates for businesses in New York State?

Certainly not, if one is truly following the science.

The problem is that many people are tired of having to deal with the pandemic and are complaining very loudly. The politicians who had been following the science hear them and loosen the rules that had been helping to get their residents through the current wave with as little hospitalization and death as possible. This could extend the current omicron wave and increase the likelihood of yet another new variant that has the potential to be even more transmissible or evade current vaccines and treatments or cause more severe disease.

Regardless of New York State rules, I am continuing to follow medical advice, to avoid crowds, and wear an N95 when in public. Because I am vaccinated and boosted, I will still visit with people who are similarly protected without a mask. I had hoped to return to church services this weekend but have decided that I can’t do so with the daily case rate still being so high; being stationary in a room with that many people for over an hour is too much risk for me, even masked.

Sigh.

At some point, the pandemic will end and I will follow medical and scientific advice on what my “new normal” will be. I had hoped that our state policies would be an aid in this, as they had been through most of these past months, but that remains to be seen.

I’m just hoping that this latest relaxation of protections doesn’t cause even more cases than we have already suffered.

Update: Almost immediately after publishing this post, I saw reports of this study from the CDC, which shows that booster effectiveness wanes significantly after four months. Given that B, T, and I all had our boosters on the early side due to our participation in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial, I’m all the more resolute in my vigilance regarding masking, distancing, etc. While we are all still likely to avoid severe disease or hospitalization due to our longer-than-four-months-ago boosters, I prefer to try to avoid infection entirely.

over COVID?

Over the last few weeks, many people here in the United States have said publicly that they are “over COVID” or “through with the pandemic” and are going to “go back to normal” which means living like they did before SARS-CoV-2 appeared.

Guess what? Pandemics don’t disappear just because we are tired or frustrated or in denial. There were 3,622 COVID deaths reported in the US yesterday, adding to the almost 900,000 deaths in the US since the start of the pandemic and 5.7 million deaths worldwide. These staggering totals are almost certainly undercounted, as some regions don’t have the will or capacity to track and report. Also, some deaths result from lasting heart, lung, or neurological damage from COVID rather than from the active infection itself and so may not be identified as COVID related.

Some people are saying we just have to live with COVID, as we do with flu and other viruses. Thus, they are saying that it is now endemic, but here is the problem. There is a specific definition of pandemic, “(of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world” (Oxford Languages). Looking at case numbers in the US and around the world, it’s obvious this is still a pandemic. We will get to a point where it is endemic, someday, through a mix of vaccination and immunity from having been infected, although no one yet knows how long immunity acquired through either route will last. Dictionary.com has a handy non-epidemiologist explainer of pandemic, epidemic, and endemic.

The subtext of being “over COVID” seems to be more along the lines of I’m tired of masking and distancing and avoiding crowds, so I’m just going to get back out there because a) I’m vaccinated/boosted so I don’t think I’ll get sick or at least not seriously so; b) I am young/strong/take vitamins/exercise so I’m not going to get sick; c) I don’t believe there is such a thing as this virus; d) you can’t tell me what to do; or e) we have to ease up on restrictions now so that we can re-institute them when the next variant or spike in cases occurs.

The thing is that a virus doesn’t care about your age or status or location. It’s only mission is to live and replicate and it will adapt to make that happen as easily and widely as possible. Exhibit A: the Omicron variant, which is wildly contagious and somewhat able to cause breakthrough infections in the vaccinated.

As regular readers here may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I are all part of the Pfizer/BioNTech phase three vaccine trial. We are all vaccinated and boosted, although we were boosted on the early side of the curve, B and T as part of the trial that is contributing efficacy data that we see reported out in the news, and I who received a booster through the trial as soon as it was authorized for public use but before most people in my age range were eligible. I am also contributing data for the study, but I’m not on the leading edge like B and T. Therefore, while many of the boosted can get comfort from knowing that their immunity is likely still strong because the data from the trials is showing that, I don’t know if B and T might be showing a decline because there hasn’t been enough time to collect and analyze that data. I’m sure we would all love to know that booster immunity lasts a year or longer but it’s only been about seven months so far, so we can’t know. Likewise, we don’t know how long immunity lasts after infection.

I know that I am unlikely to become seriously ill, to be hospitalized, or to die if I contract COVID, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ready to be cavalier about it. I don’t want to be sick if I can prevent it by continuing with masking, distancing, and avoiding crowds. Even mild cases of COVID can result in months of symptoms, which is termed “long COVID.” As someone who has lived with a person suffering from FM/ME, which causes similar symptoms, I find the prospect of long COVID frightening.

What frightens me even more is the danger of spreading COVID to someone else. I have many friends who are older than I and at higher risk, as well as friends who are immunocompromised. Young children still are not eligible for immunization, although Pfizer/BioNTech has just applied for emergency use authorization for children 6 months-4 years of age, so perhaps that will begin in the coming weeks. I’m sure I also happen upon unvaccinated people because the fully vaccinated rate in my county is 62% and the boosted rate is only 33%. Some of the fully vaccinated are not yet booster eligible but we know that boosted people have the best chance against Omicron, so, if I am out in public, chances are that only 1 in 3 people I encounter will be a similar status to me.

Those are not great odds, especially with a variant as contagious as Omicron accounting for 99% of US cases. I have recently upped my mask protection to N95s, as I wrote about here. I’m learning how to deal with them as someone who needs progressive lenses in her glasses. The tighter fit of the N95 masks makes it difficult for my glasses to be in the correct position, so I can get a headache from eyestrain if I try to do close work for any length of time. Still, I’m trying to wear the N95s when I have to go out with a surgical mask/good quality cloth mask combo if I have to take the N95 off.

I used this site, https://covidactnow.org/us/new_york-ny/county/broome_county/?s=28791756, to find today’s Broome County statistics. (You can use it to find statistics in your area in the US. International data may be found here: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/.) It rates our risk level as “Extremely High.” While other may be “over COVID,” I am not ready to take that much risk for myself, my family, and my community.

As conditions change, I will re-evaluate and adjust my behavior as I see fit. Until then, I hope that those I meet will respect my viewpoint.

I’m not “over COVID” yet.

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