Biden’s speech

Last night, President Biden addressed a joint session of Congress, although only a fraction of the members and a few guests and the press were present because of COVID limits on large indoor gatherings.

The real intended audience, though, is the American public among whom the president’s speech was well-received. A CBS/YouGov poll found 85% approval among Americans who watched the speech.

For me, it was easy to see why.

For over forty years, the federal government has been characterized as an obstacle rather than a solution to the problems everyday Americans face. We were told that tax cuts for wealthy corporations and individuals would “trickle down” to create more jobs, that spending on public projects was wasteful “pork barrel”, that our education and health systems were unparalleled, that hard work led to personal prosperity, that is was okay for Republican administrations to run huge deficits – in part to wage unfunded wars – but not for Democratic administrations.

Although many of us understood that the country was in trouble before the pandemic, 2020 revealed the weak state of our national government and the precariousness of most people’s lives. It showed the nation how dependent we are on what are now called essential workers, most of whom are poorly paid and who often don’t have even basic benefits like paid sick leave and health insurance. We saw the rates of illness and death, staggering in and of themselves, disproportionately higher among people of color and those in the lowest socioeconomic circumstances. We saw that most of our school buildings could not be made safe for staff and students and that many students and families did not have the proper resources available for remote learning. We saw our medical systems pushed beyond their limits. We saw vast inequality in outcomes among states because the Trump administration refused to lead in a time of national and international crisis.

I could go on but I think that this sets the stage for those who may not be familiar with life in the US.

After a major presidential address to Congress, the opposition party gives a response. Last night, this task fell to Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. He claimed that, as Biden was inaugurated on January 20th, the nation was on the upswing. If the Republican leadership truly believes that, they are delusional. January 20th was only two weeks after the insurrection that breached the Capitol building where they meet for the first time in over 200 years. The country suffered 4,380 COVID deaths on January 20th, on its way to what would become the deadliest month of the pandemic in the US to date.

The country was in a fragile, precarious state.

One hundred days of competent and compassionate national leadership makes a huge difference.

Experiencing that change is what made Biden’s speech so popular and, more importantly, what makes his policy proposals and how to pay for them popular, as well. The American people want good transportation systems, water/sewer systems, electrical grid, communication systems, and fast internet service. They want high-quality affordable health care. They want a strong education system available to everyone regardless of where they live. They want high-quality care for children, elders, and anyone who is sick or vulnerable. They want to be treated with dignity. They want to live in safety. They want to be paid wages that can support themselves and their families in the present and that enable them to save for the future.

They see other advanced democracies manage to do those things, while the United States has been falling behind. Instead, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top 1% of individuals and corporations, some of whom pay their executives huge sums while some of their employees need public assistance programs to have enough to eat and to pay rent. Many of the wealthiest people make most of their income from investments rather than from salaries, so they pay tax at a much lower rate.

This is why the Biden proposals to raise revenue from the highest income earners are popular with the public. All of the revenue for the programs would be raised from those with income over $400,000. The changes in the capital gains rates would only impact those over $1,000,000 in income. There is also a proposal to increase audits for high-income earners and to make it harder to avoid income taxes by using off-shore tax shelters. The corporate tax rate which was slashed by the Republicans in the 2017 tax bill would rise, although not to the level it was before that bill was passed.

This all strikes most Americans as fair.

We are in a bizarre situation where many Republican voters and local/state officeholders are in favor of Biden’s proposals but Republican members of Congress are opposed. The national Republican party is beholden to rich donors and is going to need to decide if they want to get on board and seriously negotiate with Democrats on these bills and then support the final product to benefit the people of their districts or if they are going to obstruct everything the Democrats try to do.

Now is the time that each member of Congress needs to remember that they are sworn to uphold the Constitution and are there to serve the people, not their party leadership.

It’s time to fulfill their promise in the Preamble to “promote the general welfare.”

post-vaccine life

With my immediate family in the US vaccinated against COVID-19, we are inching our way back to a more interactive life while still following the national and New York State guidelines.

The most important thing that has happened for us personally is a greater ability to see my dad, known here as Paco, who lives nearby in the assisted living unit of his long-time senior community. After months of not being able to visit, we can now go to his apartment, albeit in pre-arranged thirty minute slots. I can also sign him out to go for a car ride; previously, he was only allowed away from the unit for medical care.

This has meant that I can see him more times per week and that I can take him out for treats. Last week, we went to an ice cream stand in the afternoon. This morning, I was able to bring him to get a doughnut and coffee. We are still being cautious about indoor spaces, so I don’t bring him into buildings. We enjoy our treats in the car or at outdoor tables.

The best thing, though, was that my older sister and her spouse were able to come visit for a couple of days last week. They hadn’t been able to visit since last summer. They live in Maryland and couldn’t enter New York until recently due to our travel/quarantine restrictions. Because of the vaccines, those have been relaxed. With all of us vaccinated, we were able to have everyone to our house for dinner. B made lasagna from Nana’s recipe, homemade Italian bread, sautéed asparagus, and apple pie. It was all delicious – and extra heartwarming to be together after so many months apart.

We are also starting to work our way back to activities like dining indoors. I’ve had one lunch and one dinner inside restaurants. We wore masks when not eating or drinking and the tables were spaced so that we weren’t very close to other diners. We are likely to continue doing carryout more often than dining in for a while, especially because dining in most likely involves having to make reservations while carryout is easier to do spur-of-the-moment.

There was just a national policy announcement clarifying mask use recommendations for outdoor events in light of vaccinations. Vaccinated people can exercise, socialize in small groups, and eat outdoors without needing to wear a mask. They should, though, continue to mask if they are in a large group setting, such as a sporting event or concert where the crowd would be close together for extended periods. It is good to have this clarification, but it won’t make much difference for our family. New York has had a mask mandate in place for over a year, but it was adapted in order to deal with the circumstances. Given that we don’t live in a congested area, we were already accustomed to taking maskless walks in our neighborhood. If we stopped to talk to someone, we would just keep six feet of distance between us. Still, it was good to see that there are now different recommendations in place for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Perhaps it will serve as motivation for people who haven’t yet been vaccinated to arrange to do that. In many locations, you don’t even need to make an appointment in advance.

If people need more motivation to get vaccinated, they can switch on a news report from India to see the horrific toll that the virus takes when it sweeps through an unvaccinated population. The infection and hospitalization rates are staggering. A new variant has emerged and there are so many deaths that the system to handle them is overwhelmed.

This virus remains very dangerous, capable of inflicting serious illness and death. The vaccines are safe and very effective. Everyone aged sixteen and over in the United States has access to vaccine and should be immunized unless there is a personal medical issue that precludes it. If you don’t feel personally vulnerable, remember that, even if you yourself don’t get severe symptoms, you could pass the virus on to someone else who could become very ill or die.

The only way to end the pandemic is for there to be large-scale immunity everywhere. Every effort we make, whether it is our individual vaccination and precautions or our large-scale efforts such as sending vaccines, treatments, and supplies wherever they are needed around the world, is part of what is needed to end this.

And remember: People taking vaccines approved for emergency use are not “guinea pigs.” The “guinea pigs” are the hundreds of thousands of people like me and my family who volunteered to be in clinical trials. (B, T, and I are all part of the Pfizer/BioNTech phase III trial. I’ve posted about it a number of times over the past months.) Government agencies and the pharmaceutical companies are continuing to collect data and have affirmed that the dangers of contracting COVID are much, much greater than any side effects of the vaccine.

Please, everyone do your part to keep yourself and others safe. Vaccinate, mask, distance, and practice good hygiene. Pay attention to credible medical and public health sources. The rewards of being able to safely gather, to give a hug to a loved one, to see a friend’s smile are simple, yet profound.

We just need to work together to make it possible for everyone, everywhere.

vaccine update

Here in the United States, we are continuing to roll out coronavirus vaccines as quickly as possible, although there are a few snags.

The biggest is that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is on temporary pause, due to six cases of a rare blood clotting problem that have been reported among women aged 18-48 within two weeks after vaccination. Given that over six million doses have been administered, the percentage affected is tiny, but the two agencies in charge are being cautious, especially as a small number of similar cases have been reported in Europe in connection with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which, like the J&J, is an adenovirus-based vaccine. The pause is allowing them to gather and assess data. Additional cases may surface because of the attention this is receiving in the media. It also lets physicians know to ask about vaccine status when a patient presents with blood clot symptoms. This is important because vaccine-related blood clots call for a different treatment regimen. The hope is that the J&J vaccine will again be cleared for distribution within the next two weeks.

The public reaction has been mixed. Some people say that this pause shows how closely public health officials are tracking the various vaccines and their effects, which raises their confidence level. Others are worried that this means the vaccines weren’t sufficiently tested. A few who have received the J&J vaccine are panicking.

As someone who has been involved in vaccine trials, currently the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine but previously trials for flu, adult RSV, and pneumonia vaccines, I can attest that researchers are very careful in how they conduct trials. However, when you have a side effect that seems to appear in such a small number of people, you are unlikely to find it in a trial of thirty thousand people. If it turns out that the blood clot complication does occur, a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to develop a blood clot after J&J vaccination. I hope this would calm anyone who is panicking, although people often fear rare events while ignoring those that are much more likely to impact them.

I admit that it boggles my mind that, with over thirty-one million known COVID cases in the US and over 565,000 deaths, people would fear an extremely rare side effect more than the virus itself. There are still about 25% of adults who say they will not get vaccinated, which raises the prospect that we won’t be able to stop community spread and end the pandemic because the pool of susceptible people will remain too large. Also, remember that some people who have been vaccinated may still be infected, but their chances of being severely ill are greatly diminished. Still, the way to end the pandemic is to have 85-90% of people vaccinated so that cases of the virus can be contained rather than spreading throughout the community.

It will help when those younger than 16 can be vaccinated. Pfizer has currently asked for permission to add 12-15-year-olds to those eligible after conducting a trial with that age group. Pfizer, Moderna, and others are also conducting research on the best dosages for younger children.

Meanwhile, research is continuing into how long immunity from the vaccine will remain strong. Spouse B and daughter T who received the Pfizer vaccine last August as part of the phase III trial are part of the effort to answer that question. The six month figures showed that immunity remained strong but they will be followed for at least two years to see how that may change with time. The Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has said that he thinks a yearly booster is a possibility; they have begun studying this with phase I trial participants. We’ll see when B and T have their one-year follow-up in August whether or not they will have extended the booster dose study to phase III participants.

It is my sincere hope that by then we will have been able to fly to the UK to visit our family there and to meet granddaughter JG in person. While we are doing all we can to make that safely possible, it is frustrating to still see so many people not willing to cooperate with public health measures to keep themselves, their loved ones, and their communities safe using masks, distancing, limits on gatherings, vaccines, etc. to end the pandemic.

Yesterday, there was a Congressional hearing at which Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading health officials in the country, was testifying. Rep. Jim Jordan illustrates the dynamic that has resulted in the unfortunate and dangerous politicization of the pandemic. This is a public health issue, not a “freedom” issue. Living in a free society does not mean that everyone is free to do or say whatever they want; we each have a corresponding responsibility not to cause harm to others or damage their rights and human dignity.

This brings me to my last point. The pandemic affects the whole world. Under the prior administration, the United States suffered terrible losses and did not contain the spread of the virus. Under the Biden administration, the US is making progress and has taken some steps to help the rest of the world in the fight against COVID. The US is now part of the COVAX initiative to help distribute vaccines to lower-wealth countries, although this is just getting underway. It has also sent some of its stockpile of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been approved for emergency use in the US, to Canada and Mexico where it has been. While I expect the US to retain doses of approved vaccines as boosters, I’m hoping that once everyone who will accept the vaccine in the US has been vaccinated that we will distribute all the other doses to countries that need them, along with whatever other logistical and medical help is needed.

We can never end the pandemic until the virus has nowhere on the globe where it can run rampant. To me, this is a moral imperative. Others may be motivated by economic self-interest. Whatever the reason, it needs to happen.

SoCS: last year and the year before

There is an old song “What a Difference a Day Makes” but today I’m thinking about what a difference a year makes.

Or two.

Two years ago this spring, my mom, known here as Nana, was living in the skilled nursing section of the senior community where she and my father, Paco, had lived for ten years. She was under hospice care as she was nearing the end of her battle with heart failure. My father and I visited every day for hours with frequent visits from my daughters and granddaughter ABC, who were living with us at the time. My out-of-town sisters were able to come to visit often, too.

Nana passed away in May 2019, a few days after her 87th birthday. We were able to hold her funeral in her parish church with a visiting hour before with friends coming to comfort us. There was also a gathering at her and Paco’s senior community.

Last spring, we were all in COVID lockdown. Visiting nursing homes was totally shut down with very limited exceptions for end-of-life situations. I often thought of what that would have looked like for us, if Nana had been facing death in spring 2020 rather than 2019. We would have lost those last few weeks with her, which were painful but also filled with precious moments. We were able to bring her flowers, including her beloved lilies-of-the-valley which blossom in May, just in time for Mother’s Day and her birthday. One of the last things she was able to eat was a little fruit tart I had brought for her birthday. I helped her by cutting it and fed her as she had me when I was a baby…

In 2020, we would likely not have been allowed to visit until the very end when she was unconscious. The church was totally closed, so there would have been no funeral, not even for family.

It was hard last spring, too, because we could no longer visit Paco every day in his apartment. Although visits to independent living apartments were not totally forbidden, they were supposed to be limited, with some masked outdoor visits preferred over anything indoors. My sisters had planned to visit for Paco’s 95th birthday in March but that had to be postponed. Little did we realize at the time that that postponement would turn into cancellation.

That brings us to this spring, which is just getting underway here with some of the early bulbs flowering and the first trees starting to bud. Paco is now living in assisted living which is part of the health care center. While visiting and gathering there are still limited, my younger sister and I were able to visit him for half an hour in his apartment on his birthday and he was able to share a large birthday cake we provided with the other residents and staff on his unit later in the day. Later this month, my elder sister will be able to visit in person for the first time since last summer. She lives out-of-state so hasn’t been able to travel to New York without prohibitively lengthy quarantine, but now, with vaccines available and changes in state policy, she will finally be able to see Paco again.

We have no idea, though, if or when daughter E and granddaughter ABC will be able to visit. They moved permanently to the UK in fall 2019, joining son-in-law L in London. They have since been joined by granddaughter JG, who recently had her first tooth break through.

Spouse B, daughter T, and I would love to think that this spring we could jet off to London to meet JG in person for the first time, but it isn’t possible. Maybe this summer? It depends on conditions with the pandemic and travel restrictions.

Will we get to hold her while she is still a baby or will she be an on-the-move toddler by that time?

Will Paco ever get to meet her in person? For the UK family branch to visit the US is much more complicated and we have no idea when that will be feasible. We also, sadly, don’t know how things will go with Paco’s cognitive decline. While sometimes he remembers names of family members, sometimes he forgets them.

Sometimes, he forgets that he has great-grandchildren at all.

In 2019, I knew that spring 2020 would be very different because my mother would not be there. I could not have imagined how different 2020 would turn out to be.

Or 2021.

I dare not project to spring 2022.

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “difference.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/04/09/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-april-10-2021/

New York State update

As you may recall, I post occasionally on New York State government and politics, especially as it relates to the pandemic. This has necessarily led to some reference to the investigations into Governor Cuomo. Many New York politicians of both parties have called on the governor to resign, claiming he can’t govern effectively under a cloud of suspicion, while the majority of New York voters say in public opinion polls that he should remain in office while the investigations continue.

Given Governor Cuomo’s high profile nationally, both as a leader on pandemic policy and as the chair of the National Governors Association, there has been national coverage on the allegations and investigations, although this waxes and wanes depending on what else is happening. When there is a lot of coverage of a mass shooting or trial or a major piece of federal legislation, we don’t hear about Governor Cuomo for a few days until things calm down and we are back to the question of how can he govern under these circumstances.

Meanwhile, he has been governing. There have been numerous speaking engagements at vaccination sites, especially those in high-need neighborhoods, in the continuing efforts to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible without leaving any demographic groups behind. This week, there was the announcement of a monument dedicated to essential workers who continued to serve the public while most people were encouraged to stay safe at home. Updates to COVID policies have been rolled out as data and conditions warrant.

Most significantly from the political standpoint, our state budget has passed. Unlike most states, the New York fiscal year starts April first, so the budget was a few days late being passed. While the governor’s office is heavily involved in budget process, the delay was due more to timing of the American Rescue Plan passage in Washington, which established how much federal aid was coming to New York, and to COVID, which complicated the negotiation process which usually happens in person. Unfortunately, the Speaker of the Assembly, our lower house in the legislature, tested positive for COVID during the negotiation process but continued to serve from home.

So, our state government continues to function, which is good as we are facing yet another critical time period with the pandemic. While the overall infection rate is still quite low, cases on average are rising with sizeable presence of the B.1.1.7 variant and another variant that first appeared in New York City. We are giving out the vaccine as quickly as we can get doses. Thirty-five percent of NYers have received at least one vaccine dose, with twenty-two percent fully vaccinated. That still leaves millions of people, especially younger adults, teens, and children vulnerable to infection, so we have to continue to be cautious with masking, distancing, and gathering size and conditions.

The newly passed state budget has money to help with public health efforts, in addition to rent assistance, increase education aid, and small business programs to help everyone in our pandemic recovery. It will take time and effort, but we will build back better, a phrase that Governor Cuomo was using before President Biden and that others in the environmental and social justice movement were using before the governor took it up.

Triduum

This year, for the first time in a while, I actually made it to all three main liturgies of the Triduum, which, in Catholic parlance, is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Back in the days when I served on liturgy committee and I and my daughters served in music ministry, I would be at all the Holy Week liturgies plus the children’s liturgy on Easter morning, but, after my long-time parish disintegrated in 2005, I couldn’t bring myself to attend all the services. The situation got even more complicated when my elder care responsibilities grew.

Then came 2020 and the pandemic and no one could attend services in person for Holy Week.

I didn’t attend mass in person for over a year. I wrote here about my first time back a dew weeks ago. I noted in that post that I wouldn’t try to attend every week yet due to space constraints at church. I was able to get a reservation to attend Easter Vigil on Saturday evening and decided to attend on Holy Thursday evening and Good Friday afternoon because the church made those open without reservations, although we did have to sign in and leave contact information in case a COVID case was verified and they needed to do tracing. We also had temperature checks and single-use programs so there were no hymnals or prayer books that subsequent worshippers would be touching.

Holy Thursday had long been my favorite liturgy of the year. Its focus is the Eucharist, as it commemorates the Last Supper. In an ordinary year, there would be significant involvement from the laity. The priest would wash the feet of twelve parish members and another group of people, often a family, would dress the altar. There would be a large choir to lead the congregation in sung prayer. Because of the pandemic, everything had to be pared down. Footwashing was eliminated globally to reduce risk. There were two lay lectors, appropriately distanced from the clergy in the sanctuary, but they were both men, so there were no women’s voices in any of the spoken prayers, which added to the sense of distance for me.

The music was beautiful, though. The music director put together an octet from the music ministry, which included some married couples so that the spacing would work as they could stand right next to each other instead of having to be feet apart. With masks, spacing, and good choral microphones, they were able to lead the sung prayer very meaningfully.

Because so much of the Holy Thursday liturgy revolves around a meal, there are many references to food. Because we are living in a time of increased hunger in the United States, these passages were particularly meaningful to me this year. For example, the gathering song was “Table of Plenty” by Dan Schutte, which contains the lyrics, “O come and eat without money; come to drink without price.” and “My bread will ever sustain you through days of sorrow and woe.” Those familiar lines resonated differently knowing that many people do not have enough to eat.

The service on Good Friday afternoon is, by its nature, quite stark. It’s the one day of the church year when there is no mass with Eucharist. Instead, there is a liturgy of the word, veneration of the cross, and distribution of communion with previously consecrated hosts. Without having the liturgy of the Eucharist, the emphasis shifts to the liturgy of the word, which includes reading the passion narrative from the gospel of John.

Paradoxically, Good Friday felt less stark to me than the Lenten and Holy Thursday masses I attended. I think this was due, at least in part, to the fact that there were more lay voices and, in particular, women’s voices included. The first reading, the suffering servant passage from Isaiah, was proclaimed as a choral reading, alternating between a woman lector and the music ministers. The gospel is presented with different people reading narration, the voice of Christ, and the voice of others in dialogue, with the congregation participating as the crowd. Even though we are assigned to proclaim a lot of challenging verses – we have to say, “Crucify him!” multiple times – it is good to feel that we have a part in telling the story.

Another element of the liturgy of the word that gets more emphasis on Good Friday is the intercessions that follow the homily. They were chanted by two cantors, a woman and a man, who alternated between them, with a sung response from the congregation and a prayer by the priest after each. This year, there was an added petition specifically for the pandemic, which was both moving and sobering to hear.

The veneration of the cross was much simpler than in usual years. It’s been the custom for each person to come forward in procession to kiss the cross but that isn’t possible under pandemic protocol. Instead, the assembly knelt and venerated the cross from our places in the pews. In truth, I preferred this to the processing and kissing because it felt more solemn.

For the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we begin in a mostly darkened church. The time is set to be after sundown so it will be dark so that the first part of the mass, the service of light, begins in darkness. Usually, a new fire is lit and blessed outside the church, the new Paschal candle is blessed and embedded with incense, then lit and carried through the church in procession with music and sung responses, as each person holds a candle which is lit and passed to the next until the church is filled with candlelight for the singing of the the Exsultet (Easter Proclamation).

However, this was rather drastically abbreviated this year. We heard the blessing of the fire and the Paschal candle was brought into the church but the congregation had no candles of their own and most of the lights remained off in the body of the church. The Exsultet was chanted by a cantor whom I have had the privilege to hear sing for many years; it was very moving and brought back memories of hearing the priest chant this prayer when I was the teenage organist in my childhood church.

The liturgy of the word that follows the service of light begins with three readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each followed by a psalm and prayer. Unfortunately, the lights in the body of the church were still off, which made it a bit difficult for the assembly to sing the psalm responses which were printed in our programs. I happened to know the pieces fairly well so I could sing, but I could tell that some others were not familiar enough with them to join in. Admittedly, it was dramatic to have the lights turned on as we were singing the Gloria, but I missed the growing candlelight followed by the lights being turned on as we extinguished our candles and began the liturgy of the word.

I admit that I struggled with the homily. While it was meant to be a unifying message, the way it was conveyed reminded me too much of how many instances of division there are within our society and the church. It saddened me.

The Easter Vigil is traditionally the time when new adult members enter the church, so there are often baptisms, professions of faith, confirmations, and first Eucharists included. This year, though, there was just one candidate for confirmation, most likely because the pandemic prevented the usual series of liturgies and classes for new members that take place in the months leading up to Easter.

The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolded in almost normal fashion. I was again very appreciative of my organist-friend and the octet she had assembled. The mass that we sang is one that I know well and that we had used often. In my mind, I was adding in the sound of the handbell accompaniment and larger choir that we used on festive occasions like Easter. I wonder when or even if such large and close gatherings will again be possible.

Perhaps I should say that the liturgy of the Eucharist proceeded in pandemic-normal. There is no sharing of a sign of peace, although people do wave or nod to others across the empty pews between occupied-but-spaced ones. We also do the formal dismissal before communion is distributed, so that people receive the host and then exit, all while keeping their distance.

I was just re-reading this post to edit and I’m sure, if you have made it this far, that you realize I’m a bit of a Catholic liturgy wonk. I want to convey my wishes for Easter blessings to those celebrating and my universal wishes for peace, love, respect, and care to all.

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.

hate crimes

The United States is once again mourning the victims of a mass shooting. This time, it was in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Six women of Asian heritage who owned or worked for three day-spas were killed, along with a white man who was an employee at one location and a white woman who was a customer.

The gunman has admitted that he did this, citing his sex addiction as a motive. He bought the gun that he used that day. Unlike some states, Georgia has no waiting period to buy a firearm.

Somehow, much of the public discussion has centered around whether or not charges will be brought specifically as a hate crime in addition to murder charges.

I think the answer is clearly yes, this is a hate crime. The statute is written to account for gender-based violence and the gunman has already admitted that he set out to kill women. Further investigation may reveal that there was also racial motivation, which would add another parameter to this hate crime.

The racial aspect of this crime has spotlighted a disturbing rise in abuse and violence against Asian immigrants and people of Asian/Pacific Islands descent across the United States, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic. Thousands of incidents have been reported and many more are likely unreported. While the majority of attacks are verbal, others are physical and have resulted in serious injury or death. In some majority AAPI neighborhoods in cities, volunteers accompany elders when they go out on errands to keep them safe.

The discussion about this crime has also engendered discussion about a particularly virulent form of sexism against AAPI girls and women, in which they are subjected to hypersexualized comments and assault. Sexual harassment and violence are always wrong but the addition of a racial/ethnic component compounds the damage.

Sadly, discrimination, abuse, and violence against AAPI people in the United States is a long-standing problem. There were official government policies that hugely damaged communities, such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the nineteenth century and the shameful interment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans during World War II. Many AAPI people have been subjected to discrimination in schooling and employment, name-calling, exclusion, and, as we are highlighting recently, abuse, assault, and murder.

The recent rise in incidents seems to be tied to the pandemic. Because the prior administration blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic, some members of the public decided to attack individual people verbally or physically. While the administration was blaming the Chinese specifically, these attacks have been against people with roots in a range of Asian and Pacific Island countries because the perpetrators think they “look Chinese.”

Whatever the motivation, all these incidents are appalling. I hope that the exposure of these attacks will lead to greater protection for AAPI communities and greater accountability for perpetrators.

Hate must not go unchallenged.

In the United States, there is supposed to be equal protection under the law. The race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, religion, age, health status, or any other attribute of the person does not change that.

We all deserve safety.

typewriters and poetry

I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem on display in my hometown. The Vestal Museum has just opened a new exhibit entitled Empty the Inkpots: The History of American Typewriters. They are displaying vintage typewriters and have compiled a binder with their research on the various manufacturers. In collaboration with the Binghamton Poetry Project, the Museum is also displaying poems by area poets who have attended BPP workshops. We poets were invited to submit and I was fortunate to have one of my poems selected.

My poem with two vintage typewriters and the research binder
An Oliver company typewriter

One of the fun things about the poems on display is that they are written in a monospaced typewriter-style font. Because most of us are used to reading text in variable-width fonts these days, the look of the poems on the page is quite distinctive.

My poem, bio, and inspiration statement on display

Because it is very hard to read from the photo, here is the text, although not in the special font:

SARS-CoV-2: A Novel Coronavirus

We are only beginning this novel,
the first scenes in China,
then South Korea, Iran, Italy.

In the United States, chapters are written
for the hardest hit states—
Washington, California, New York.

No cases in West Virginia—
turn the page—
it’s there, too.

Chilling numbers give way to vignettes—
the family in Jersey that lost four members
with two more in critical condition,

the NBC audio tech silenced forever,
the loss of the doctor who tried to warn the Chinese government,
the bus driver in Brooklyn dead in March.

The plot twists.
The newest regions in lockdown.
Italian coffins in rows, waiting

for cremation and burial without funerals.
Speculation on treatments and vaccines,
though none are proven.

Fines levied for being outdoors.
Postponed elections.
Shuttered courts.

How many tested.
How many infected.
How many dead.

We spend hours reading voraciously,
awaiting the next
installment in the serial.

The novel is long—
and we may still be near the beginning.
How many of us will see the final pages?

The suspense is killing us.

*

Joanne Corey, though she grew up in New England, has called Vestal home since 1988. A stalwart of The Binghamton Poetry Project since 2014, she last attended the fall 2020 workshop and also has participated locally with the Grapevine Group, the Broome County Arts Council, and Sappho’s Circle. She invites you to visit her eclectic blog at topofjcsmind.wordpress.com.

Inspiration: Like many poets, I write to try to process current events. I drafted this in March 2020 as the pandemic was beginning and workshopped it with my poet-friends of the Grapevine Group. It also became an exercise in the use of extended metaphor.
*****

I wish I could share more of the poems here, but I only have permission for my own work. I hope that local folks will be able to see the exhibit in person. It is currently scheduled to be on display through May 31st. The link in the first paragraph will give times that the Museum is open and information on any special events.

While you are there, make sure to take part in the community poetry exercise. We are creating an exquisite corpse poem. Each person is invited to compose a sentence with adjective+noun+verb+adjective+noun without looking at the prior line. Bonus: You get to type it on a manual typewriter! Although I learned to type on a manual, it had been a long time since I had used one. Daughter T was with me and I had to do a bit of coaching. Physical carriage return was not something that she had ever experienced.

back to church

Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I attended mass in person.

If you had told me prior to the pandemic that I would ever go a year without going to church, I would not have believed it. I grew up Catholic and going to mass for Sundays and holydays was an important part of our faith practice. I was in church as a teen more than most because I became our small country church’s only organist in my second year of high school. I spent many years in music and liturgical ministries and, although I hadn’t been active in them in recent years, I still considered taking part in mass and receiving the Eucharist a vital part of my faith life.

Last March, when the severity of COVID was first becoming apparent, I decided not to go to mass for fear of exposing my father, one week before New York State went into lockdown and the churches temporarily closed. I began participating via televised mass as my mother had done when she was ill. Over time, churches here resumed services, first outdoors or broadcast to congregants in their cars in the parking lot. Later, indoor services were permitted with distancing, masking, temperature checks, pre-registration, and other measures in place, although the bishops have kept the dispensation from in-person attendance in place.

Because being part of a large group of people who are speaking and singing is inherently more risky than being at home or in a grocery store, I had made a personal decision not to attend mass in person until I was fully vaccinated. Last week, two weeks after my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I called the church to make a reservation to attend the Saturday vigil mass yesterday.

I arrived early, knowing that there would be a check-in process and that we would need to maintain spacing. I was masked, of course, and gave my name to the volunteer at a table, who found my name and contact information on her list. They keep the information on file so they can call if a positive test is reported. There was a temperature check and the distribution of a leaflet with the day’s music. I was allowed to choose my own seat among the pews, although every other row was blocked off by purple cords draped around the end. I sat near the music ministers, so that I could watch my friend play the organ and see the cantor who would be leading the singing.

If I had to choose one word for the experience, it would be stark. This is partly a function of it being Lent, which is a penitential season. There are no flowers and the sanctuary is kept as simple as possible. What was striking to me, though, was the space between all the ministers. The priest, deacon, two lectors, and single altar server were in chairs scattered around the altar and ambo, which is necessary for viral reasons. It amplified my sense of separation from them and from the rest of the congregation. Only people from the same household can sit in a group, so many of us were sitting alone.

I felt most like I was part of the assembly when we were praying aloud together. Although we were masked and there were far fewer of us than our pre-pandemic numbers, our voices carried well and we could hear one another, ironically helped by the acoustics of the space without so many bodies to absorb the sound. This was, however, a double-edged sword. During the prelude, I was annoyed by a couple behind me discussing home improvement projects, no doubt unaware how well their masked voices carried in the space.

As often happens, there were emotional moments for me during the liturgy, although not when I had expected them. As part of the prelude, my friend improvised on the Irish hymn tune St. Columba, which is often used with the text “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”. It is one of my favorite tunes. Back in the days when I could play the organ and was practicing, it was one of the hymns I would sing as a personal prayer. I was very grateful to hear it yesterday.

When we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, I was particularly drawn to the last phrase, “deliver us from evil.” I am still pondering the full implications of being drawn to that at this time. Like most Christians, I have prayed this prayer thousands of times. It is a testament to its strength that it reveals different aspects of faith as our circumstances change.

The third moment was that I choked up as we started to sing the Lamb of God. This simple text, which is placed in the liturgy shortly before communion, has long been my favorite prayer of the mass ordinary. Long ago, I set it in a choral anthem paired with a text from Isaiah. Again, a prayer that I have recited or sung thousands of times but that was somehow connecting with me in a new way.

Strangely, the thing that I expected to be very emotional was not and perhaps goes back to my feeling of starkness. In order to maintain distancing, communion was not distributed at the usual time. Instead, we prayed the concluding rite and then received communion. The priest and the deacon went to positions at the end of the far aisles and the congregants, keeping six feet of distance between them, filed up to receive the host, step away, briefly lower their mask to consume the host, then immediately process to the doors by a different route and exit, all while the communion hymn was being sung. Because I was near the front of the church, that meant exiting during the hymn without an opportunity to join in that prayer. Intellectually and from the public health viewpoint, this procedure for communion makes perfect sense. It keeps people from congregating in the building or around the exits and minimizes the chance of spreading the virus. From a liturgical perspective, though, it feels stark. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving and the word communion has the same roots as the word community; this more isolating experience feels counter to that. As someone who has study music and liturgy, it also was very difficult for me to leave while there was still sung prayer ongoing.

I was grateful to be able to attend in person but I don’t think that I will try to do it every week yet. Due to the cleaning protocols involved, there are only two masses per weekend; with fewer masses and reduced capacity, I don’t want to deprive other people from being there by taking up space myself on a regular basis. I do hope to go once during Holy Week, Easter Vigil if possible or Holy Thursday if the Vigil is in high demand.

Otherwise, I will continue to participate from home until our area progresses to the point where we can gather safely in large numbers again, when we can exchange a sign of peace, when things will not be so stark.

When we do get to that point, there will be another, more complex decision to make, which is how much of the politics and abuses of power in the church itself I can continue to tolerate. The clergy of the church continue to grapple with its own history and legacy of crimes, abuse, and sin, or worse, some grapple and some continue to deny. Meanwhile, lay people are not given the opportunity to fully use their gifts in service to the people and the church.

It’s exhausting.

The pandemic has blunted the effect of having this struggle before me every week. I haven’t decided yet if I can take it on so consistently again. I used to go to mass every week, even when I cried because of the pain. I did it because I couldn’t imagine being separated from the Eucharist. Because of the pandemic, I now know that spiritual communion is a reality, that I can feel close to Christ and to creation and all people, even when I’m not able to attend mass in person.

I don’t know what I will choose to do.

Another aspect of life in which I dwell in mystery.