Christmas tree 2020/21

It’s January 12th and our Christmas tree is still up.

We are lucky that fresh-cut Canaan firs are so resilient. It is not shedding needles and is still exuding a lovely scent.

It is still adorned with our usual assortment of ornaments – glass, ceramic, wood, metal, cloth – many of which were gifts or handed down to us or collected on our travels. There are LED light strands, which are great because they don’t use much energy, don’t get hot, and don’t dry out the needles. The angel I made with the help of a friend years ago is perched on top.

Ordinarily, we decorate our tree in mid-December and take it down at Epiphany. This year, we put it up in early December. It was the first time in several years that I actually wanted to decorate the tree, after several stressful years, although I admit that my energy to do so flagged mid-way through, sapped by memories of loss.

Still, it was nice to have it all decorated and glowing near the living room window.

And then, an avalanche of things happened.

Everyone knows about the horrific toll of the coronavirus around the world and particularly in the United States. The single day death toll topped 4,000 deaths for the first time on January 7th. More virulent strains are spreading. The vaccine rollout is too little, too late to tamp the spread for the winter, although it is offering some hope.

Everyone also knows about the precarious and dangerous political situation in the United States. The breach of the US Capitol by insurrectionist followers of DT and the destruction, violence, injury, and death they caused, coupled with the craven complicity/opportunism of dozens of Republican members of Congress, have thrown us into the most dangerous situation of my lifetime. I think the best course would be for both DT and Pence to resign, giving Nancy Pelosi the powers and protection of the presidency for a few days to try to stabilize the government before the January 20th inauguration. I know this is another exercise of my penchant for political fantasy, but I think it is perhaps the least dangerous of the possible paths, given that both Pence’s and Pelosi’s lives were threatened by the mob on January 6th.

While both of those situations are sapping my brainpower and motivation, the biggest factor in not taking down the tree is that I am spending a lot of time in trying to get my father settled into his new unit in assisted living without being able to physically go into the building to tend to things due to COVID restrictions, while dealing with cleaning out his apartment in independent living and handling all the nuts and blots of changing contact information with all the businesses, doctors, insurance, financial institutions, etc. [I have also been dealing with the aftereffects of my second shingles vaccine, which, while not as severe as after the first, are still bothersome.]

I was so proud of what I accomplished yesterday and had hoped to get more done today. Instead, I’ve had to spend most of the day so far on the couch. I can’t even wrap my head around making the string of phone calls waiting for me.

Tomorrow, I’ll need to get back at it, especially with the apartment packing and such. B, T, and I are hoping to have everything cleared out by the end of the long weekend for MLK Day.

The tree?

Maybe we’ll get to it over the weekend, too.

*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/12/jusjojan-prompt-the-12th-sing/

One-Liner Wednesday: sedition

“Sedition is a bad idea.”
~ John Heilemann, on Morning Joe, January 4, 2021

This helpful reminder brought to you by Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday and Just Jot It January. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/06/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-the-6th-2021-icy-fingers/

what hasn’t changed

The last few years have been challenging for me and my family. As I have written in (many) posts, these personal challenges have been compounded by what is happening in the United States.

As I begin a busy week in caring for my family, the back drop is the horrifying news that United States has passed 20 million confirmed COVID cases with over 352,000 known deaths with COVID. It is immeasurably sad – and infuriating because we could have prevented a large share of these with good public health measures and accessible, timely medical care. There is hope for the coming months with vaccines becoming available and the incoming administration has a good team to improve the national pandemic response.

Unfortunately, the current president and many Congressional Republicans are still trying to prevent the duly elected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from taking office as president and vice-president on January 20th. Over the weekend, an hour-long recording of a telephone call from the president to the secretary of state of Georgia and his legal counsel was released, in which the president repeatedly pressures and threatens them to change the certified election win of Joe Biden to a win for Trump. On Wednesday, both houses of Congress will meet to count the electoral college votes, which will be 306 for Biden and 232 for Trump. Nevertheless, over a hundred Republican members of the House of Representatives and a dozen Republican senators plan to challenge or vote against acceptance of the count from six states Biden won, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Given that dozens of court cases alleging fraud or procedural problems with the voting system have already been dismissed and the proper certifications by the states have been done, there are no real grounds for the objections and they will be defeated after hours of debate. That so many members of Congress are willing to violate their oath to uphold the Constitution and US law is frightening and disconcerting and does not bode well for passing needed legislation through Congress.

Yes, the change from 2020 to 2021 did not erase any existing problems, but we need to work toward rectifying them and making life better for people, not devolving into lies and blaming others.

*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January. Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/04/jusjojan-prompt-the-1st-fingertips/

progress for Pfizer

Today is an important day for the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.

In the United Kingdom, the first doses are being given, predominantly to those over the age of eighty. The recipients will need a second dose in three weeks.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has published a 53-page review of the Pfizer/BioNTech data and confirmed the findings of safety and 95% efficacy. This clears the way for a public hearing on Thursday and possible emergency use authorization within days. Distribution will start within 24 hours of approval.

It is good that so much of the data is now public because you can see that the vaccine is safe and effective across different age, racial, and comorbidity groups. There is also evidence that some protection develops from the first of the two doses, although the highest level of protection begins about a week after the second dose.

As a Pfizer trial participant, I expect to hear back from the researchers shortly after the approval goes through. Pfizer plans to offer the vaccine to people in the placebo group in order to continue their long-term study on efficacy and safety. Among our family in the study, we expect that we have two who have already received two doses of the vaccine and one who is in the placebo group.

I can assure you that the suspected placebo person is anxious to join the vaccine group as soon as possible!

Political labels

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

I think we should stop using them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think that they do, either.

Thanksgiving 2020

The fourth Thursday of November is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day in the United States. It’s traditional to gather with family and friends for a big dinner, usually turkey with lots of side dishes.

This Thanksgiving will be quieter for many of us because of the pandemic. Cases are rising across the country and in many states are already so numerous that hospitals are running out of space for patients. Frighteningly, millions of people are not heeding the advice of public health experts and are travelling long distances and/or gathering in groups larger than ten or with people outside their household, thus increasing the danger of even higher case counts in December.

Our plan for the day is for spouse B, daughter T, and I to go to Paco’s apartment in his senior community where we will have a Zoom session with my sisters and daughter E. In that way, Paco will get to see his great-granddaughters ABC and JG who will be celebrating American Thanksgiving on an ordinary (lockdown) Thursday in London, UK. B,T, and I were supposed to be in London with them near the end of a month-long visit until the lockdown there cancelled our trip. Once I have Paco set up with the Zoom session on this laptop, I’ll go to another room with another device so he can take his mask off.

After our video chat, Thanksgiving dinner will be delivered to the apartment and we will eat with Paco on one side of the room and B, T, and me on the other as we will need to take our masks off to eat. We will leave expeditiously after dinner so as to limit our contact time.

It won’t be the usual Thanksgiving, but it will be special in its own way.

The point of the holiday is to give thanks but the gratitude this year is tinged with sorrow and regret. I am very grateful that our family is weathering this very disrupted year. B is able to work from home and we are able to stay safe at home for the most part. We certainly miss being able to visit Paco every day and are sad to not be able to travel to the UK to visit for all of 2020, but it would be so horrifying and dangerous to have inadvertently exposed someone to COVID that the separation is necessary.

I am grateful for Governor Cuomo and all the medical personnel and other essential workers who have worked so hard to keep as many of us safe and well as possible. At the same time, I mourn the millions of people in the US and around the world who have been impacted by the coronavirus, either by illness or death of themselves or a loved one or loss of work, shelter, food security, medical care, etc. I am also dreading the coming weeks, which are projected to see a steep rise in cases on top of already soaring rates in the US. There have already been over 12.8 million confirmed cases and 261,000 deaths and the thought of millions more is overwhelming.

I am grateful that the Biden /Harris administration is starting to take shape with the announcement of well-qualified people to key posts. At the same time, I’m sad to see so many not accepting the facts of the situation and not being willing to join in the efforts to come together to fight the pandemic, revive our communities, and unite as one nation.

I’m grateful for the ideals of our country but sad that we are so far from embodying them.

I feel similarly about the Catholic church. I’m grateful for the moral grounding, social doctrine, integral ecology principles, and primacy of love that it has taught me, but sorrowful and penitent about the many abuses of power done in its name, including war, torture, colonialism, racism, sexism, clericalism, sexual abuse and cover-up, and oppression of other religions and peoples over centuries.

So, yes, a very different Thanksgiving. With widespread vaccine use possible by November 2021, maybe next year will be more “normal.”

Or, maybe, there will be no going back to what used to be considered normal.

I pray that we can finally build institutions that live up to their high ideals for the good of all creation.

the Moderna vaccine

Today, Moderna announced that their early data indicate their coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective. This follows the announcement last week from Pfizer/BioNTech that their vaccine, with which I and two members of my family are participating in the phase III clinical trial, is over 90% effective in the immediate time period after the second immunization.

Like the Pfizer vaccine, Moderna’s is a messenger RNA vaccine. The caveats that I wrote about here apply, but there is now hope that there will be two effective vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States before the end of the year. I’m sure the companies are also pursuing approval in other countries, as well.

Unlike Pfizer, Moderna accepted US government funds for the development of their vaccine. Like Pfizer, the US government also pre-ordered 100 million doses from Moderna. Initially, priority will be given to health care workers and other front-line occupations, expanding to highest risk people. Availability, pending full approval, for the general public will not be until spring 2021.

The Moderna vaccine will be easier to distribute than the Pfizer one because it can be kept for up to a month in a refrigerator. The Pfizer vaccine currently needs a super-cold freezer or dry ice for transport and storage.

Having two good candidates that might be available for the most vulnerable this winter is great news. I’m hoping that more of the vaccines currently in Phase III trials will also be shown safe and effective in the coming weeks. The more vaccines we can make available, in the US and around the world, the better, so we can get the pandemic under control globally.

Meanwhile, Pfizer, Moderna, and other companies need to continue their trials, following everyone who received the vaccine for the coming months to watch for how effective the vaccine is over time, if it protects some people better than others, e.g. seniors or children, and how much it might reduce symptoms in vaccinated people who do become sick with COVID versus unvaccinated. It’s possible that the placebo group may be released early from the studies when the vaccine is fully approved for ethical reasons. The companies may very well ask those participants if they would like to join the study as a second set of vaccinated subjects, doubling the amount of data on vaccine efficacy over time.

So, more good news today, but we have to keep in mind that masks, distancing, restrictions on gathering, etc. will need to stay in effect for months still. Until we have a large majority of the population fully vaccinated – and both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines need two doses several weeks apart – we need to stay on guard. Sadly, the United States passed 11 million cases recently and is approaching a quarter of a million deaths. We need to do better now, not let more people suffer while we wait for the vaccines to be generally available.

post-election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

over 90%

Today, Pfizer/BioNTech announced analysis that showed over 90% effectiveness of their coronavirus vaccine, currently in Phase III clinical trials. There are over 43,000 people around the world enrolled in this study, including spouse B, daughter T, and me. My most recent post on the trial is here.

That is an extraordinarily high percentage for a vaccine; for comparison, most years, the seasonal flu vaccine is about 50% effective. Lest you think that Pfizer or BioNTech are exaggerating the data, neither company did the analysis. That was accomplished by an independent science review board.

While this is welcome news, there are some cautions involved. The number of cases of COVID among the large study group is still small; as time goes on, it’s possible that the efficacy rate might drop. Because the virus and the vaccine are so new, there is no way to know how long immunity might last. This is part of the reason that the study is set to last for two years, so more data can be collected about the long-term efficacy, longevity, and safety of the vaccine.

Besides the speed with which this vaccine was developed, the remarkable thing is that this is among the first messenger RNA vaccines to be tested in a large trial. If it is shown to be safe and effective, there are hopes that the Moderna vaccine, also currently in Phase III trials and an mRNA vaccine, may be effective as well. Additionally, there are vaccines that were developed in more traditional ways in Phase III trials. The more vaccines that are shown to be safe and effective, the more people can be vaccinated in a shorter timeframe, so that we can bring the global pandemic to an end, perhaps as early as late 2021 or early 2022.

It’s possible that Pfizer will be able to apply for emergency use authorization in the United States later in November, after there is two months of safety data from half the study participants after their second dose. This, along with manufacturing safety data and the efficacy numbers, will be considered by the Food and Drug Administration to determine if the vaccine can begin to be distributed, with full approval coming after more data is collected.

It’s worth noting that Pfizer/BioNTech have a contract to provide 100 million doses to the United States government if the vaccine is approved. Unlike some other companies, though, Pfizer and BioNTech did not take money from the US for their research and trial expenses. The contract is for $1.95 billion but the US government will distribute it free of charge.

My hope is that this and several other vaccines will be approved over the next few months so that as many people as possible can be protected as quickly as possible, starting with frontline health workers, first responders, and those most vulnerable due to age, underlying conditions, living facilities, and occupation.

We got the sad news today that there are several people in the skilled nursing unit of Paco’s senior community who have tested positive for the virus. Access to the unit had already been restricted, so there is hope that it will not spread any further, but we are all worried about those impacted.

The sooner we have vaccines – and better treatments – the better.

Calling on Republican Senators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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