learning civics and history

Earlier this week, I was listening to a discussion around Richard Haass’ new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.

The discussion centered around the dearth of knowledge among many in the United States on the basics of civics and history. The root of this lies seems to lie in our educational system.

Unlike most countries, the United States does not have a national educational system. Schools are controlled by local school boards with a greater or lesser role played by state education boards, depending on the state. This leads to a wide range of what students learn in school and the depth of that learning.

I went to public schools in western Massachusetts in the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Civics and history were an important part of our schooling. I remember in the later grades of grammar school reading the US Constitution and summaries of landmark Supreme Court cases. We were expected to apply what we had learned from history to current events, such as deciding for whom we would vote for president in a mock election. This being small-town New England, we would attend town meeting day with our families, showing democracy in action.

Having already learned the basics of US and world history in our younger years, in high school, our coursework was designed to delve more deeply into particular areas of social studies. One of the best courses I took was one on minorities in America. I learned about such important historical events as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. We studied the Black experience in the US, from enslavement and Jim Crow through the civil rights movement, which was, of course, ongoing. I learned for the first time about the discrimination that had affected my own Italian grandparents and Irish great-grandparents. By the time I turned 18 and could register to vote, I had a good understanding of the complexities of our past and of how to evaluate issues of the present and future.

My daughters went to school in New York, where the State Board of Regents is the main driver of curriculum. The Regents set the required courses and use statewide exams in high school to ensure that the students are fulfilling the goals of the curriculum. While the State is fond of survey courses, they do expect students to do much more than memorize historical facts. A major component of history exams is a document-based essay, where the student is given primary source material, such as political cartoons, government documents, and newspaper articles, and asked to use them to write an essay expressing support or opposition to a given proposition. It demonstrates the kind of decision-making that voters need to do to evaluate candidates or stances on current issues. High school students, usually in their final year, also take a semester course on participation in government, which is considered the capstone of their civics education. This New York State framework, which my daughters used in the 1990s-early 2000s, remains in place today.

Some other states and localities do a poor job of educating their students in history and civics. Some even boast about the limitations they place on what is taught in their schools. A current egregious example of this is the state of Florida, which passed a law last year severely limiting teaching about race and identity. This led Florida to reject a pilot of the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it includes materials about current topics such as intersectionality, the reparations movement, and Black feminist literary critique. They also objected to students reading works by such well-known Black scholars and writers as bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Florida officials claimed the course was more indoctrination than education, failing to realize that one needs to learn deeply through the full spectrum of a field of study to be truly educated and able to make judgments. Perhaps, their own education was too limited for them to appreciate the complexities we all now face.

At this point, we have a lot of catching up to do, with adults needing more education in civics, as well as many younger students. Part of this effort must be to emphasize our responsibilities to each other as citizens, or, as Richard Haass calls them, our “obligations.” (I haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, which was just released this week, so the following thoughts are mine and not from his work.)

For example, the First Amendment states that the federal government cannot establish a religion or prevent anyone from practicing their religion. I have the right to practice a religion or not, as I choose. However, I have a responsibility to not impose my religious tenets on anyone else. The First Amendment also says that laws can’t be made to abridge freedom of speech, but I am responsible for what I say and should take care that it is truthful and appropriate.

There is some tendency in the US for people to be hyper-individualistic, crowing about their individual rights, viewpoints, possessions, etc. while ignoring that we all exist in community and relationships, with people who are similar to us and those who are different in some way. Part of the reason that education in civics is so important is to increase the realization that we are responsible to each other as members of the community and the nation.

We are responsible for finding out the facts on an issue, forming a reasoned opinion, and taking action. We need to be respectful of others and set a good example. We need to keep listening and keep learning, as new information and discoveries come to light every day.

We need to be civil.
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Monterey Park

I’m sad to say that I woke up this morning to news of another mass shooting, this time in Monterey Park, California, near Los Angeles. Ten people are dead with ten more wounded and hospitalized.

The shooting occurred at a ballroom dance club, after an evening Lunar New Year celebration. Monterey Park is a predominantly Chinese-American suburb which hosts one of the largest Lunar New Year celebrations in the area. Today’s activities have been cancelled in the wake of the shooting.

As I write this, there is no suspect in custody and no idea if this attack was motivated by racial hatred.

It certainly casts a sorrowful shadow over the start of the Year of the Rabbit. May the year bring healing to all who mourn.
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SoCS: count on it

Linda posts the prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday on Friday so that people have a chance to mull the prompt before writing the post, which is stream of consciousness so no editing allowed.

Confession: Sometimes, I write the post on Friday and just schedule it to come out on Saturday.

Second Confession: Sometimes, I plan the post in my head more than I probably should to be true stream of consciousness.

I usually do, though, manage to have some thoughts about the prompt or I just don’t participate that week.

Because it’s Just Jot It January and because I already didn’t do Stream of Consciousness one week because I had a post of my own I wanted to get out, I really wanted to do SoCS this week.

The prompt is to use “count on it” in the post.

When I read it Friday morning, I thought that it would be pretty straightforward. Something would pop into my head as the focus for the post.

But that didn’t happen.

A lot of things that I can no longer count on came into my head, but it seemed too unsettling to write about that.

I think the combination of personal losses, the pandemic, the divisiveness of the United States, and the feeling that I’m always waiting for the next shoe to drop – and it does – have left me unsure that there is anything I can count on.

It’s probably more feeling than fact.

It’s cold and grey today.

The sun will rise tomorrow.

I can count on it.

Yes, let’s go with that.
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not cooking with gas

I have never been one to cook with gas.

I grew up in a rural area where there was no methane infrastructure, so I learned to cook on a GE electric range. In adulthood, we have had electric stoves in the two houses we have owned.

I have had occasion to use gas ranges, in rental apartments or homes of family members, but I never liked them. I’m not a fan of flames in the kitchen and it often seemed impossible for there not to be small leaks of methane that I could smell because of the odor that is added to the gas.

When I became involved in the anti-fracking movement, I learned that not only do gas ranges leak methane which is detrimental to the climate but also other gases that are harmful to human health, such as radon and benzene.

I was, therefore, unsurprised at the release of a recent report attributing 12.7% of current cases of childhood asthma in the United States to the use of gas stoves. This is similar to the figure attributable to second-hand smoke exposure.

Nationally, gas stoves are used in 40% of homes, although in some states the percentage of use is much higher. For example, in California, the rate is 70%. That adds up to a lot of emissions of methane, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, benzene, radon, particulates, and other harmful substances.

Proper maintenance of equipment and increasing ventilation can help mitigate some of the health effects, but the best remedy is to switch to cooking with electricity. The faster and most energy-efficient electric cooking today is induction. For those who can’t afford to replace a gas cooktop with an induction one or who are renters, a good alternative is to buy a portable induction burner unit. You will need to use cookware that has iron in it but the nice thing is that the burner itself does not get hot, so there are no worries of burning yourself by touching the unit after you’re done cooking.

In order to make the transition to cooking with electricity, some places in the US have begun to ban gas hook-ups in new construction. In order to promote both human and environmental health, it’s likely that regulation will expand over time to eventually eliminate cooking with gas indoors.

Some people are very upset about it and complaining loudly in the press and on social media.

I invite those people to join the 21st century and give induction a try. Energy technologies and sources evolve over time. We used to use candles or whale oil for lighting our homes. We used to use wood or coal in our kitchens for cooking. We moved on to cleaner, healthier alternatives. It’s time to again move away from burning things in our homes for energy and onto using increasingly clean electricity to power our lives.
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the debt ceiling

Today, the United States reached its debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount of debt that it is allowed to have under current legislation. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen can borrow money from pension funds and such to keep up with debt payments and government obligations until June but the responsible thing would be for Congress to immediately either raise the debt ceiling or suspend it. (The most responsible thing would be to eliminate the debt ceiling but no one is even discussing that.)

Like many other governments and corporations, the United States raises some of the money it uses for its operations through issuing bonds. Perhaps you are familiar with the US Savings Bonds program or with Treasury Bills, often called T-bills. The purchasers of these financial instruments are basically loaning money to the government, which then pays it back with interest on the maturity date. While some of these are held by individuals, the vast majority are held by large financial institutions, like banks and mutual funds, or by foreign governments. The United States dollar is considered the world’s reserve currency because of its stability and the reliability of the US government.

If Congress does not pass an increase in or suspension of the debt limit, the US government would default on its bonds, which could cause a steep downturn in both the stock and bond markets, a severe recession, higher unemployment, rising interest rates on loans, and higher prices. The impact would be global because many US government financial instruments are held in or by other countries. It would also cause some countries to mistrust that the United States will keep its word in other areas.

The US government also would not be able to pay its workers or to fully pay Social Security, veterans’ benefits, nutrition programs, and all the other programs that the federal government provides. This would be a huge hardship to many of their constituents, so why would Congress hesitate to raise the debt ceiling?

Politics.

Apparently, one of the things Kevin McCarthy promised in order to get enough “yes” and “present” votes to win the Speakership was that he would not pass a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling. Instead, McCarthy promised that the debt ceiling increase bill would mandate spending cuts, including to programs that are earned benefits, like Social Security.

This doesn’t make sense. The debt ceiling issue has to do with paying the bills for spending that has already been authorized by Congress. The time for debate about cutting the total amount of government spending is when debating appropriation bills for the next budget year.

Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment, Section Four to the US Constitution states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” It seems that the House Republicans are trying to question the validity of public debt by threatening to default on it.

It’s also telling that Republicans passed debt limit increases without making a fuss three times during Donald Trump’s presidency when the budget deficits were higher than they are now under President Biden. Part of the reason deficits were higher was that the Republicans passed large tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, thus reducing revenue. At the same time, they cut the budget of the Internal Revenue Service so that it was more difficult to audit and catch high-income tax cheats.

It’s hypocritical for the Republicans to be complaining about the size of the national debt now, because it increased so quickly during the four years of the Trump presidency. 25% of the total national debt is attributable to the Trump years.

If the Republicans were serious about balancing the budget and beginning to pay down the national debt, they would be looking at ensuring the wealthy are paying their fair share in taxes. Current law, with lots of loopholes for the wealthy, often has the very rich paying a lower percentage of their income in taxes than their average employee does. Yet, one of the first pieces of legislation the Republicans in the House passed was to rescind that increased funding to the IRS to upgrade their systems and audit more high-income earners. This bill would result in lower tax revenue as tax cheats would have a lower chance of being discovered and forced to pay what they owe. Fortunately, the Senate will not take up this House bill so it has no chance of becoming law.

I have already written to my member of Congress, Republican Marc Molinaro (NY-19), to ask him to join with Democrats and the reasonable Republicans in the House to pass a clean debt ceiling increase or suspension. If Speaker McCarthy won’t put the bill on the floor, they may need to file a discharge petition to get the bill put up for a vote.

Unfortunately, that process takes several weeks, so they had better start now. Secretary Yellen will enlist whatever shuffling of resources are allowed while they do it, but the clock is ticking and folks – and the financial markets – will be worried.

Of course, it would be faster and easier if McCarthy put the good of the country first and introduced a clean bill today. It would also show that the House Republicans want to cooperate in the governance of the country to “promote the general welfare,” as the Preamble to the Constitution states.

Given that they have thus far not shown this inclination, I won’t hold my breath.
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January 6 contrasts

Last week in the United States, we marked the second anniversary of the January 6th attack on our Congress by supporters of then-President Trump who were trying to keep the election of Joe Biden from being certified.

There was a short, solemn ceremony on the Capitol steps, led by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. Families of officers who died in the aftermath of the attack read their names and a bell was rung in their memory. There was a period of silent reflection of 140 seconds to honor the 140 officers who were injured that day, some so severely that they had to leave their jobs permanently. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Republican House members chose not to attend. Only one was spotted among the 200+ Democrats commemorating the day.

In the afternoon, President Biden honored fourteen individuals with the Presidential Citizens Medal. Nine were police officers who worked to defend the Capitol. Sadly, three of the medals were given posthumously. I was especially moved by the acknowledgement that the two officers who died by suicide after dealing with trauma from the attack were its victims as much as if they had died as a direct result of physical injury. Also honored were five people who upheld the integrity of the 2020 election, despite threats and actions against them.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans not only did not show respect for the anniversary but also displayed their inability to govern effectively. Late in the evening of January 6th, Kevin McCarthy failed to be elected Speaker for the fourteenth time. Two years ago, McCarthy was among the 139 House Republicans who refused to certify state electors in the 2020 presidential electoral college, even after the mob had broken in, ransacked the Capitol, and threatened to harm or kill Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi, and members of Congress. Many of those 139 are still in Congress, including some who are known to have been involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. It’s not known if any of them will eventually face charges or other consequences for their actions, but their refusal to honor the sacrifices of the officers who defended them two years ago was telling.

In the early morning hours of January 7th, McCarthy won the speakership on the 15th ballot because enough Republicans voted “present” rather than “no” for him to get the majority of votes cast. Unfortunately, McCarthy and the House Republicans so far have shown no intention of working with Democrats toward effective governance. They have passed a rules package that calls for votes on bills that the Senate will never take up, gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics, and passed a meaningless bill to require care for a baby born alive after an attempted abortion, meaningless because, in the rare instances where this occurs, those protections are already in place.

I am still holding out hope that there will be a few moderate Republicans who will join with House Democrats to pass needed bills into law over these next two years. It may take a lot of complicated maneuvers to get bills to the floor, such as discharge petitions. Of course, it would be much easier if McCarthy reaches out to craft bipartisan bills for the good of the American people but he hasn’t shown that level of political ability as of yet.

Stay tuned.
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XBB.1.5

A new COVID subvariant has emerged here in the United States. It is designated XBB.1.5 and is considered the most transmissible Omicron variant to date by the World Health Organization. It is also considered to be highly immune evasive, which means it is more likely to cause infection among those who have COVID antibodies, whether from vaccines or prior infection. However, the vaccines should still be effective in reducing hospitalization and death rates from infection.

XBB.1.5 is especially prevalent in the northeastern region of the US. It is powering the rise in regional cases accounting for 72.7% of cases in the past week. It is also likely the driver behind Broome County, New York, where I live, again moving into the CDC’s high community risk level classification. (That will mean mandatory masking at our concerts this weekend.)

The XBB.1.5 subvariant orignated in the US, but has spread to some other countries. Meanwhile, China is suffering through a huge infection wave, although there is no reliable official data on its extent.

In many places, especially in the Northern Hemisphere winter, there are also high rates of flu and RSV.

As always, I’ll repeat my advice. Vaccinate, if you are eligible and vaccines are available to you. In particular, if you are eligible for the bivalent COVID booster, get it as soon as possible because it is much more protective against all Omicron strains than the original formulation. If you are sick, get tested. If you contract COVID or flu, immediately contact a medical provider to see if you can take antiviral medication to cut down on symptom severity. When there is risk in your area, use a high-quality mask in indoor public spaces and avoid crowds. Increase ventilation and/or air filtration indoors. Wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face (more for flu/RSV prevention than for COVID). Try to eat and sleep well. Look out for one another.

We need to work together for this pandemic to end. We are all tired of COVID but we need to fight effectively and continuously. Ignoring the risk and letting the virus spread just gives it even more opportunity to mutate and develop more virulent strains. We are now in our fourth year of the COVID pandemic. Let’s work together to make it the last.
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One-Liner Wednesday: Speaker-less

Yesterday, for the first time in a hundred years, the United States House of Representatives failed to choose a Speaker on the first day of the new Congress, when Kevin McCarthy failed to get a majority of votes on three attempts, despite the fact that his Republican party holds a slim majority.

This update to my post from yesterday is brought to you by Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays and Just Jot It January. Join us! Details here: https://lindaghill.com/2023/01/04/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-the-4th-2023-courage/

late 2022 US political wrap-up

In the media, there are lots of summaries and lists as the old year closes and the new one begins.

Here at Top of JC’s Mind, I sometimes post about US politics to summarize what has been going on and offer my viewpoint in such a way that people who don’t follow US politics can get the gist of the situation. Over these last few weeks, though, it’s been impossible to keep up and synthesize what has been going in with the various investigations into our former president.

The House Select Committee on January 6th held its final public hearings and issued an 845 page final report. It has also released thousands of pages of transcripts from interviews they conducted. I haven’t been able to read all the materials but have seen and heard commentary from lawyers and analysts I trust. With these materials, there is lots of publicly available evidence showing what seemed to be happening at the time: that President Trump knew that he had lost a fair election to Joe Biden but orchestrated an elaborate plot to lie about it and try to stay in power. The plot encompassed not only the ultimate 1/6/21 attack on the Capitol but also pressure on lawmakers in various states to throw out legally cast votes and appoint alternate electors to the electoral college, pressure on the vice-president to fail to certify the electors so that the election would be thrown to the House where each state would get one vote and Trump would likely win, and the call for Trump supporters to descend on Washington and “be wild” on January 6th when Congress would meet to fulfill their Constitutional duty to certify the presidential and vice-presidential election.

The Select Committee referred Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department on a number of counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement, and inciting, assisting, and/or giving aid and comfort to an insurrection. The Justice Department will be deciding in the coming months whether or not to file these charges or others. We know that there are grand juries reviewing evidence but we don’t know what they will decide or when. It does seem, though, that things are moving more quickly since the appointment of Special Counsel Jack Smith.

Jack Smith and the Justice Department are also investigating other possible crimes of Donald Trump and his administration. One area of investigation is the presidential documents that Trump took with him when he left office. He then defied subpoenas to get the documents back to the National Archives. Some of the documents that have been recovered were classified, including some that should only be viewed in a secure location. Legal analysts think that the documents case may be getting close to the point of indictment.

Another area that is coming under public scrutiny is Donald Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Since Nixon, presidential candidates have released their tax returns publicly and have placed their business investments in a blind trust so that the public can see that they aren’t being influenced by personal financial factors when they are making decisions for the country. Trump refused to do this and fought the House Ways and Means Committee request to review his taxes and the IRS audits that should have been routine for all presidential and vice-presidential tax returns. The IRS hadn’t even begun the audits until Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Richard Neal requested them in 2020, midway through Trump’s term. Trump fought the returns being turned over all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally decided that they should be made available to the Committee just a few weeks ago. The Committee redacted personal data like Social Security numbers and released six years of returns publicly just a few days ago. They show that the Trumps paid little or no federal income taxes in most of those years and showed lots of business losses. There are lots of questions about the legality of some of the deductions, business expenses, and losses, but it will take forensic accountants to unravel all that information.

The release of the tax returns follows the recent New York State court ruling that convicted the Trump Organization of tax fraud. Trump, his three elder children, and the Trump Organization are also named in a civil lawsuit in New York for fraud for lying to insurers and lenders about the value of assets.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, a grand jury has been hearing evidence about attempts to overturn Biden’s victory in the state. After they finish their report, the Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis may decide to indict Trump in the case. It’s possible that federal charges could be made in the same case, but it’s worth noting that, if Trump were convicted on state charges, he could not be pardoned by a future Republican president, as would be possible for federal convictions.

I think that it is likely that Trump will be indicted on numerous charges over a period of time. It seems that there is a lot of evidence of guilt and I am hoping there will be accountability for Trump and for those who took part in the planning and execution of crimes against the Constitution and the people of the United States.

Guilty pleas or verdicts on some of the possible charges would bar Trump from ever again holding office. Of course, despite the losses of many Trump-backed candidates in the midterms, Trump has already declared himself as a presidential candidate for the Republican party for the 2024 election. So far, the campaign does not have many backers but I am scared about the prospect of Trump ever holding political power again, having experienced the harm he has already inflected.

Meanwhile, the new Congress is being sworn into office. It’s still unclear if Kevin McCarthy has enough votes to be elected Speaker of the House. (As I publish this, the House is schedule to convene for the Speaker vote in a couple of hours.) The Republicans are arguing among themselves so much that it may not be possible for them to pass much legislation, especially bills that the Democratic majority in the Senate would also agree to pass so that they could become law.

I’m trying to remain hopeful that support from Congress for Ukraine will remain strong, as well as for keeping the basic functions of the federal government running. The Republicans don’t have a great record for passing bills, though, so we’ll have to wait and see. I have the feeling that I will need to write to my member of the House frequently; he is a newly elected Republican who stressed his ability to work with Democrats to get things done. We’ll see if he can do that on the federal level. With the House majority so slim (only a four seat margin for Republicans), a handful of Republican moderates could join with the Democrats to pass bills, even if they have to use the discharge petition process to force a floor vote.

We’ll see.
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two years into COVID vaccines

After yet another period of high community risk level for COVID here in Broome County, New York, we have just today returned to medium level. After a post-Thanksgiving spike in infections, we experienced a hospitalization spike which had increased our community risk level. With the US health system also dealing with an early, hard-hitting flu season and RSV, the dreaded triple-demic, in some areas hospitals are reaching capacity and sending patients to other locations. Additionally, infection rates are predicted to rise as family and friends gather for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year celebrations in the coming weeks.

This comes at a time when only 14.1% of people five and over in the US have received the new bivalent COVID booster, which was designed to better combat the Omicron BA.4/5 variants and is proving effective against the current dominant strains, BQ1 and BQ1.1, which are part of the BA.5 lineage.

Furthermore, a recent study indicates that the US vaccination program likely saved 3.2 million lives and prevented 18.5 million COVID-related hospitalizations. The vaccines are estimated to have averted nearly 120 million infections. Another recent study shows that in the two years of COVID vaccine availability in the US, the excess death rate among Republicans is significantly higher than among Democrats, mirroring the difference in vaccination rates, a sad reflection of the politicization and misinformation around vaccines by many prominent Republicans.

It’s horrifying.

The mistrust sown over the COVID vaccine among Republicans seems to be spreading to other vaccines as well. A newly published survey finds that over 40% of Republican or Republican-leaning respondents oppose requirements for the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) for school children.

This does not bode well for public health measures. It’s frightening how many people will believe politicians or media figures rather than doctors and public health experts on these important issues. People have been infected because they weren’t up to date on vaccinations. People have been hospitalized, developed long COVID, experienced complications, or died at higher rates because they refused vaccines or boosters. The data show this.

Please, get a bivalent COVID booster if you are eligible. Begin or continue the primary vaccination series if you haven’t completed it. If you get symptoms, test immediately and contact a health professional if you test positive to see if antiviral medication is right for you. Don’t go out and expose others if you sick with COVID, flu, or anything else. Mask indoors when infection levels for COVID, flu, RSV, etc. are high in your area. Avoid crowds. Increase ventilation. Wash hands and avoid touching your face – more for flu/cold prevention than COVID. Try to eat and sleep as well as possible.

If you are someone who has been getting health information from pundits, please turn to your personal health care provider, public health department, or national health organizations, such as the CDC. Look for data and advice from public health experts, not anecdotes.

For readers outside the US, turn to your public health experts to see what measures are available and appropriate for you.

Reminder to all: COVID 19 is still a global pandemic. Act accordingly for your health, your household’s and community’s health, and global health.

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