First lady Melania Trump released a farewell message Monday, reflecting on her four “unforgettable” years in the White House.
The nearly seven-minute message, which came two days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, began with the first lady expressing her gratitude for military service members, law enforcement and caregivers – all of whom have inspired her since she entered the White House in 2017.
“The past four years have been unforgettable. As Donald and I conclude our time in the White House, I think of all the people I have taken home in my heart and their incredible stories of love, patriotism and determination,” she said in the video message.
The first lady then transitioned to talk at large about the pandemic and its impact on the nation, thanking essential workers such as health care professionals and truck drivers for their roles in saving lives. She briefly called on Americans to practice “caution and common sense” to protect high risk, vulnerable individuals as COVID-19 vaccines continue to be distributed.
She also seemed to refer to the violence that ensued on Jan. 6 in Washington, where pro-Trump rioters stormed into the U.S. Capitol building in protest of Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Although she didn’t explicitly mention the riot, she asked Americans to “remember that violence is never the answer and will never be justified.”
Trump ended her message by reflecting on her work with the “Be Best” campaign, which focused on tackling issues facing children, including well-being, online safety and the opioid abuse. She briefly spoke of the campaign’s accomplishments domestically and internationally before calling on Americans to find unity in division.
“I ask every American to be an ambassador of Be Best. To focus on what unites us. To rise above what divides us. To always choose love over hatred, peace over violence, and others before yourself,” she said.
The U.S. on Monday stood on the brink of 400,000 reported coronavirus deaths, almost double the total of the next most severely hit nation and still mourning more than 20,000 deaths per week. The U.S. has added almost 4 million new infections this month, and the emergence of new variants only figures to add to that total.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had forecast 20 million first-shot vaccinations in December and another 30 million in January. More than halfway through January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 10.6 million people have received their first shot, less than 2 million the required booster.
►A California man who told police that COVID-19 left him afraid to fly has been arrested after hiding at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for three months. The man told authorities he was too “scared to go home due to COVID,” so he found a badge that gave him access to a restricted area and sustained his months-long stay by relying on other passengers to give him food.
The totals: There have been more than 95.4 million infections reported globally and more than 2 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. In the U.S., there have been more than 24 million infections and nearly 400,000 deaths.
Amid a continued winter surge of coronavirus infections that has resulted in COVID-19 deaths rising in 30 states, the emergence of new, highly contagious variants is raising concerns among public health experts and elected officials.
New mutations have been identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, prompting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call on the U.S. government to curtail travel from those countries. “Stop those people from coming here,” Cuomo said Monday. “Why are you allowing people to fly into this country, and then it’s too late?”
Federal authorities have already restricted travel from Britain and Brazil, as well as requiring proof of a negative coronavirus test for anyone flying into the country. But the UK variant has made its way to the U.S., and California officials have also identified another strain spreading across the state.
Another new variant of the coronavirus — potentially more infectious but apparently not more dangerous than the current dominant strain — is on the rise in California, drawing the attention of public health officials.
The mutation, dubbed L452R, has been detected on a few occasions dating back to March but appears to have been very rare until November.
Between Nov. 22 and Dec. 13, the variant made up 3% of California cases where the virus had been genetically sequenced. Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3 that rose to 25%, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor of medicine and expert in viral genomics at the University of California-San Francisco.
It appears the variant, different from the one found in the UK, is more communicable, but there’s no evidence that it makes people any sicker. There is some concern that the parts of the virus that are mutating might have an effect on the effectiveness of vaccines, but the data so far is very preliminary, Chiu said.
“The takeaway is not that we need to start worrying about this,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Health Officer and Director of Public Health for Santa Clara County, which encompasses Silicon Valley. “The takeaway is that we need to lean in and learn more about it.”
Even though Washington, D.C., is at a heightened level of security following the Jan. 6 riots, the memorial “will feature a lighting around the the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool,” the PIC said in a statement on Monday afternoon.
President-elect Joe Biden – along with Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff – will participate in the event to light the reflecting pool with 400 lights to honor lives lost to COVID-19. This is the first-ever lighting around the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial.
Iconic buildings like the Empire State Building in New York to the Space Needle in Seattle are also scheduled to be illuminated. In addition, hundreds of towns, cities, tribes, landmarks and communities all across the country have also committed to joining the tribute in a national moment of unity.
The inauguration “represents the beginning of a new national journey – one that renews its commitment to honor its fallen and rise toward greater heights in their honor,” said PIC CEO and president of Delaware State University Tony Allen. “In that spirit, it is important that we pay tribute to those we have lost – and their families – and come together to unite our country, contain this virus and rebuild our nation,” he said.
Acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine continues to soar, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds, but pessimism about when things in the United States will return to normal also is on the rise.
Both results may be signs that the messages from President-elect Joe Biden are being heard. He has taken the vaccine himself on camera, and he has also cautioned that the pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better. Now 56% of those surveyed say they will take the vaccine as soon it’s available to them, a jump of 10 percentage points since December and 30 points since October.
“The more people that get a vaccination and they see that it’s safe … then more people are willing to go get it,” said Shellie Belapurkar, 50, a nurse-practitioner from Nashua, New Hampshire, who was among those surveyed. She has gotten the vaccine herself and has been volunteering at a clinic each week to give it to others.
Besides being the first president to get impeached twice, Donald Trump will have a stain on his legacy with arguably longer-lasting consequences: mishandling the coronavirus pandemic.
The national death toll could surpass 400,000 Monday. Not since Woodrow Wilson was in office during the 1918 flu pandemic – which killed about 675,000 in this country and 50 million worldwide – had a president overseen the loss of so many American lives. Trump showed disdain for mask-wearing recommended by public health experts – despite being infected himself.
“What’s so troubling about this loss of life is it was preventable,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This is an infectious disease we knew how to prevent. … . And yet, we did not mount a response to wage war against this virus.”
It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’re two days from President-elect Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day and here are the updates from Washington:
NSA moves forward with installing Trump loyalist as general counsel; Democrats blast move
Just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the National Security Agency is moving forward with installing Michael Ellis, a Republican operative and loyalist of President Donald Trump, as the agency’s general counsel.
Congressional Democrats blasted the move, accusing the Trump administration of politicizing a critical civil service position at the government’s largest spy agency.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller had ordered NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone to install Ellis before a 6 p.m. Saturday deadline, the Washington Post reported, after originally tapping him in November following Trump’s reelection loss.
“Mr. Ellis accepted his final job offer Saturday afternoon,” an NSA official said to USA TODAY, adding that the NSA is “moving forward with his employment.”
Politico and CNN reported Ellis will begin his job Tuesday, the day before Biden’s inauguration.
Ellis, former counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a Trump ally, has worked in the White House since 2017, first as deputy legal advisor for the National Security Council and later senior director of intelligence on the NSA.
He is tied to the controversy surrounding Trump’s 2019 phone call with the president of Ukraine that led to the president’s first impeachment. In testimony, Lt Col. Alexander Vindman said Ellis advised that a memo documenting the phone call be moved to a highly classified server.
In a letter Sunday to Miller, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanded that he halt Ellis’ installment.
Characterizing Ellis as a recent law school graduate with “a limited resume,” Pelosi said he was chosen over more qualified candidates and was involved in “highly questionable activities that are disqualifying.”
“The circumstances and timing – immediately after President Trump’s defeat in the election – of the selection of Mr. Ellis, and this eleventh-hour effort to push this placement in the last three days of this Administration are highly suspect,” Pelosi said. “Further, the efforts to install him or ‘burrow’ him into a highly sensitive intelligence position 72 hours prior to the beginning of a new Administration manifest a disturbing disregard for our national security.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the appointment is “part of the administration’s effort to embed people in the civil service who are political and partisan actors who don’t belong there.”
“There’s no way someone like Michael Ellis should be confirmed or appointed or hired for a career civil service position,” Schiff said on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday, “particularly if there were other applicants, which there were that were more highly rated.”
— Joey Garrison
Biden, Harris volunteer for MLK Day as Trump signs 3 executive orders
President Donald Trump issued three executive orders Monday designed to expand gun ownership and create a yet-to-be approved “Garden of American Heroes.” All appear to be limited.
One order is designed to make it easier for judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers to obtain permits for concealed firearms by cutting “red tape” in the application process. Local jurisdictions determine gun regulations, and it’s unclear if judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers face undue burdens.
Another order is issued “to protect Americans from facing unwarranted criminal punishment for unintentional violations of regulations,” Trump wrote. Those kinds of issues, however, are largely decided by judges and appeals courts in individual cases.
A third Trump order seeks to establish a new “Garden of American Heroes,’ though Congress has yet to sign off on the idea. In the order, the Trump administration listed dozens of names of Americans who could have statues in the garden.
They ranged from Christopher Columbus to Kobe Bryant; jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong to poet Emily Dickinson; “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek to former slave and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth; and President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Biden, Harris tout MLK service at part of healing, ‘duty’
Biden and his family encouraged Americans to join them in volunteer work and acts of service on MLK Day, the only federal holiday to also be designated as a day of service.
“Service is a fitting way to start to heal, unite, and rebuild this country we love,” Biden encouraged in an email from the inaugural committee. Biden said his family was focused on supporting COVID-19 relief efforts. “I hope you’ll join us today on the National Day of Service and make a difference in your communities.”
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also took part in the Day of Service.
“My mother taught me that service to others not only gives life purpose and meaning, it’s part of the duty each of us has as members of a community,” Harris tweeted Monday.
Harris also stepped down from her Senate seat Monday ahead of her swearing in as vice president. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is set to be sworn in as her replacement.
President Donald Trump does not have any acts of service on his agenda for Monday.
Biden taps Wall Street watchdogs Gary Gensler, Rohit Chopra
Biden on Monday nominated two former financial regulators from President Barack Obama’s administration to lead two agencies, signaling a shift to tougher oversight of the financial industry after President Donald Trump rolled back regulations.
Gary Gensler, a progressive champion of Wall Street reform, is Biden’s pick as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Biden also named Rohit Chopra director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tapping a strong consumer advocate who worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to establish the agency in 2010.
Gensler chaired the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 2009 to 2014, leading the Obama’s administration’s efforts to reform the derivatives market following the financial crisis. Gensler, who is also a Warren ally, is currently a professor of the Practice of Global Economics and Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
A former Goldman Sachs partner who transformed into an advocate of stronger regulations over big banks, Gensler served as chairman of the Maryland Financial Consumer Protection Commission from 2017 to 2019 and worked as chief financial officer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
Chopra, a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission appointed in 2018, was the assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when it launched under Warren’s leadership following the 2010 passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. He led the agency’s efforts on student loans and was later named the CFPB’s student loan ombudsman.
As commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, Chopra pushed for has pushed for “aggressive remedies against lawbreaking companies, especially repeat offenders,” the Biden transition team said in a statement, and increased scrutiny over large technology firms.
The pick garnered immediate praise from consumer advocacy organizations.
“Financial predators, watch out,” the consumer rights nonprofit Public Citizen said in a statement, adding that Chopra has “proven himself a dedicated consumer champion and passionate defender of Main Street Americans against corporate wrongdoing.”
“Consumers can rest just a little bit easier knowing that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will not just be on their side, but aggressively establishing rules to stop ripoffs and enforcing the rules against financial cheats and scamsters.”
On the day after Christmas, passengers on a United Airlines flight from Denver to Calgary, Alberta, were potentially exposed to COVID-19.
So were travelers on a Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit to Toronto, an Air Canada flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Montreal and 11 other international flights to Canada.
The next day, another busy holiday travel day, more of the same: 14 flights to Canada from places including Boston; Chicago; Houston; Cancun, Mexico; and the Dominican Republic, all had at least one passenger on board who tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after the flight.
The flights aren’t outliers due to the holiday travel rush.
Data from Canadian public health authorities show a near daily occurrence of flights where a passenger may have been infected while flying. From the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March through early January, the Public Health Agency of Canada has identified potential exposure on more than 1,600 international flights and more than 1,400 flights within Canada, for a total of more than 3,000 flights, including nearly 200 in the past two weeks alone.
On the list: U.S. carriers American, United, Delta, Alaska and Allegiant. The U.S. cities with the most affected flights on the list: Chicago, Phoenix, a magnet for Canadian visitors, and Denver.
The details aren’t buried in some secret database. Canada has been posting public COVID-19 exposure alerts online for flights, trains and cruise ships throughout the pandemic. Flights are listed as soon as authorities receive word of a positive test of a recent traveler, regardless of where and when they might have been infected, factors that are hard to pinpoint in most COVID-19 cases.
Incidents are posted as little as two days after the flight, so other recent travelers can search to see if someone on their flight tested positive and watch for symptoms. The flights fall off the list after two weeks because of Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival. One major Canadian airline, WestJet, keeps a running list of its affected flights (more than 700 to date) on its website for recent passengers and would-be ticket buyers to see.
“Some people might look at that (disclosure) negatively,” WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell said. “We just thought that transparency was the best thing.”
The publicly available details on COVID-19 on Canada flights, which includes flight date; airline; flight number;origin and destination; and, where available, row numbers because passengers seated within a few rows of an infected passenger are most susceptible to exposure, are in stark contrast to disclosures about impacted flights in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t publish a list of affected flights, nor do U.S. airlines, who prefer to tout their pandemic safety protocols and studies that show a low risk of virus transmission on planes.
The CDC has revealed little information on the scope of COVID-19 exposure on flights except to release, when requested, the number of affected flights. The latest tally: more than 4,000 flights within and into the United States.
That number has more than doubled since Augustand compares with infectious disease investigations on just 150 flights in each of 2019 and 2018.
But those reports don’t give travelers the full picture of the regularity with which someone who has been on a plane might have traveled with COVID-19, with or without symptoms, and on which airlines and routes.
Canada’s approach has two major public health benefits, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Allowing the public to easily see if someone on their flight tested positive so they can take the appropriate steps in an effort to stop the spread is essentially public contact tracing, he said.
The regularly updated lists of flights also help would-be travelers, he said.
“It gives someone an idea if they’re debating on whether or not to fly, of what the risks are,” he said. “The more information the public has on the risk of everyday activities, the more informed those activities are going to be.”
Public or not, Adalja says no one should be surprised by the number of cases of airplane passengers likely flying with the virus given the surge in coronavirus cases and the fact that so many cases involve no symptoms or mild symptoms.
“You could do the same study on Greyhound buses or Amtrak trains or the subway. The fact is, that with so much community spread, when you go anywhere, you’re going to be around people with COVID,” he said. “I think that people just don’t realize that this virus is everywhere right now. Any activity you do is going to have risk.”
Adalja said the key is mitigating that risk with face coverings, hand-washing and social distancing. The latter is a challenge while traveling, as anyone who spent time at an airport during the holiday season knows. Despite the best efforts of airlines and airports, crowds still form in the usual spots: check-in, gate areas, deplaning and baggage claim.
So why doesn’t the U.S. have a more robust public accounting of COVID-19 on planes?
Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said COVID-19 has “superpowers” and is the toughest virus he’s fought in nearly 30 years with the CDC.
He said it’s nearly impossible to give the public an accurate risk assessment on flying or other activities in “wartime,” especially as cases surge.
Cetron recalled a tuberculosis case involving a passenger on a flight from Atlanta to Paris in 2007. The CDC raced to get the information out to the public about getting tested and even set up a hotline for fellow passengers to call for more details.
Cetron said he’s not sure the agency could do that today with a faster spreading disease and 4,000 flights.
“And who would they call?” he said, citing underfunding of public health.
State and local health departments, which initiate the contact tracing, are also overwhelmed, he said.
The CDC “could be doing better,” Cetron said, but he noted that Canada has a fraction of flights to monitor, and travel has been strongly rebounding in the U.S. There were 2.1 million international passenger arrivals between Dec. 1 and Dec. 28, he said, an average of 76,000 passengers a day and quadruple the number of passengers in June.
There were 45,000 scheduled domestic and international flights arriving in Canada in the fourth quarter, compared with 1.2 million in the U.S., according to global aviation data firm Cirium.
Cetron also said publishing the list of flights is not contact tracing; it’s the first step in a contact investigation.
“All Canada really does is the first step,” Cetron said. “That’s a notification. We could do that.”
Yet they don’t.
Cetron said the CDC, working with local and state health authorities, aims to get more details, he said, tracking down other passengers, educating them on the virus and symptoms to watch for and finding out if other passengers on the flight end up getting sick to see how and if the virus spread among passengers. He called it a cumbersome process, where people drop out through the process because they can’t be reached or don’t respond to requests for information.
Officials often run out of time because the longer it takes to start a contact investigation after a known exposure, the more time there is for the disease to spread, he said. Most contagiousness peaks in the first week after exposure.
“If you can’t get the whole thing done in four days, it becomes an exercise in futility,” he said.
Cetron said he thinks the best approach for the CDC when it comes to information on activities like travel during the pandemic is to suggest ways to reduce the risk of getting COVID-19.
The CDC’s advice on travel, which has gained an urgent tone since Thanksgiving: Don’t do it. And the agency is not just talking about flying. Travel is a “door-to-door” experience, Cetron said, with potential exposure from the ride to the airport to the car rental shuttle and hotel.
“Trust us, this is not the time to be traveling,” he said, adding that pandemic record holiday travel volumes “broke his heart.”
Airlines for America, the U.S. airline industry’s trade group, said airlines have relied on science to help protect passengers during the pandemic.
“U.S. airlines have implemented multiple layers of measures aimed at preventing virus transmission on board the aircraft, including strict face-covering requirements, enhanced disinfection protocols and hospital-grade ventilation systems,” Katherine Estep, the group’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We remain confident that this layered approach significantly reduces risk and are encouraged that science continues to confirm there is a very low risk of virus transmission on board aircraft.”
Estep also pointed to mandatory pre-departure health forms airlines have added in a bid to keep ill passengers from traveling.
Airlines ask passengers a series of health questions during online check-in or at the airport. Delta calls it “Your commitment to safety” and asks them to pledge that they have not been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19 within the past 14 days; have not had any of the primary symptoms in the past 14 days; and will wear a face covering throughout the airport and on the plane.
Alaska calls it a “health agreement’ and asks passengers to certify that they will wear a mask, have not been diagnosed with COVID-19 within the past 21 days, have experienced no COVID-19-related symptoms within the past 14 days, have not been denied boarding by another airline due to a medical screening for a communicable disease for the past 14 days, have not had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 14 days and, that if they feel ill after check-in but prior to the fight, they will not travel. It urges travelers to rebook if they don’t meet the criteria.
But passengers are on the honor system. United said the passenger who died said on his form that he did not have the virus or any symptoms. Yet fellow passengers who documented the in-flight emergency on Twitter said he appeared sick.
Preflight COVID-19 testing: The answer to keeping sick passengers off planes?
Travelers who haven’t been on a plane during the pandemic are often surprised to find out U.S. airlines aren’t checking passengers for COVID-19 symptoms – only Frontier takes passengers’ temperatures, and it says the number of travelers denied boarding due to fever is minimal. And most aren’t aware that passengers don’t actually have to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding except for scattered international destinations with entry restrictions, including some Caribbean resorts.
The preflight testing scene is changing rapidly, though, a move designed to reduce the number of flights carrying passengers who may be infected.
As of Jan. 7, Canada requires all travelers ages 5 and older to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test to the airline before boarding a flight to Canada. And, notably, they still have to quarantine for 14 days.
The U.S. will join the testing club on Jan. 26. The CDC announced Tuesday that all passengers over the age of 2, including U.S. citizens, boarding an international flight to the United States will have to show proof they tested negative no more than three days prior to their flight or have recovered from COVID-19. Those who don’t will be denied boarding. There is no universal requirement in place for flights from and within the United States, and Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said on Thursday that he doesn’t see that happening.
Adalja is a fan of preflight testing, the closer to departure the better.
“I do think it’s better than what we’re doing right now,” he said.
Testing is not foolproof, of course. There can be false negatives (and false positives), and travelers could become infected after they have their test but before they board their flight.
And despite what airlines call a low risk of onboard transmission, it has happened, even with mandatory pre-departure testing and in-flight mask requirements. New Zealand health officials found a cluster of coronavirus cases genetically linked to one passenger, who didn’t have any symptoms, traveling on an 18-hour flight from Dubai to New Zealand in September.
A report on the flight in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal, released last week concludes: “Although not definitive, these findings underscore the value of considering all international passengers arriving in New Zealand as being potentially infected with SARS-CoV-2, even if predeparture testing was undertaken, social distancing and spacing were followed, and personal protective equipment was used in-flight.”
“The National Guard and many political leaders have responded quite appropriately,” said Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. “This is the time to find out what the mass deployment of troops can and can’t deal with.”
An FBI warning of possible armed protests by supporters of President Donald Trump –who believe his false claim that the election was rigged – at the U.S. Capitol and state capitol buildings have put the nation on edge. Smoke that turned out to be from a small fire at a homeless camp near the Capitol complex on Monday prompted a brief lockdown of the buildings and sent scores of people, rehearsing outside for Wednesday’s event, scrambling for cover.
“Out of an abundance of caution the U.S. Capitol complex was temporarily shut down,” the Secret Service said on Twitter, adding that there was “no threat to the public.”
In Virginia, a “Lobby Day” event Monday had police in Richmond prepped and ready. Lobby Day is an annual event organized by the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League that last year drew an estimated 20,000 people to Richmond.
On Monday, trucks and cars bearing American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” banners and stickers declaring “guns save lives” flowed into downtown. They were part of several caravans of pro-Second Amendment protesters, which had set off earlier in the day from different corners of the state.
Denied a rally permit by authorities, various gun advocacy groups, including representatives from extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois, milled around waving flags and proudly holding their rifles. Barricades and a heavy police presence kept the protesters outside a cordon around the state Capitol building.
By 1:30 p.m. only a few hundred people had gathered downtown.
Some of the self-professed Proud Boys flashed white power signs and said they planned to protest and then “go and drink some beers.” A few blocks away, a group of a couple dozen men and women dressed all in black with patches identifying the New Black Panther Party – and also carrying weapons – shouted “Black Power” at the white supremacists nearby.
In a brief interview, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he wasn’t fazed by the presence of extremists at the rally.
“It’s America, they’re free to be wherever they want to be,” Van Cleave said. “I’m not going to tell anyone where they can or can’t be.”
Police posted signs to “inform those who may gather that firearms are prohibited at permitted events and events that would otherwise require a permit, as well as areas adjacent to such events.”
The FBI warning had suggested some possibly violent protests would take place Sunday, but few conflicts emerged. Small groups of protesters did show up at some state Capitols, including some armed at gatherings outside statehouses in Michigan, Ohio and South Carolina.
In Ohio, about 50 people rallied at the Statehouse in Columbus. Some condemned the attack on the U.S. Capitol and said they were not aligned with any political party, office-holder or candidate.
Pape said he would not be surprised if the nationwide show of force helped discourage violent protests. But he warned that even the ascension of Biden to the presidency on Wednesday doesn’t mean the threat of violence will have passed.
“There is no reason to believe at all that this movement will come to an end on Inauguration Day,” Pape said.
BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Rebekah Jones, the fired Florida Department of Health data scientist-turned-whistleblower, turned herself in to police Sunday night to face a felony charge and a possible ban on using computers and the internet as a condition for release on bond, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Monday.
Court records show Jones bonded out at her initial appearance Monday morning. Her bond was set at $2,500. It is unclear if conditions were imposed.
The FDLE in their arrest warrant affidavit suggested bond conditions of “no computer access, no internet access, and no contact with the witnesses or those people whose personal information was acquired through the download.”
Jones, 31, was charged under Florida’s computer related crimes statute “with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices,” the FDLE said. If convicted the third-degree felony can carry a penalty of up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The investigation began November 10 after FDLE received a complaint from the Florida Department of Health that someone illegally accessed a state emergency-alert messaging system, known as ReadyOp. FDLE agents determined the message was sent from Jones’ home in Tallahassee, the agency said.
The FDLE executed a search warrant on Jones’ home on December 7. Armed agents raided Jones’ home seizing computer hardware, phones and memory devices. The raid drew criticism from some for its heavy handedness. Legal and digital rights experts were also concerned about the vagueness of the search warrant affidavit.
FDLE says evidence shows Jones illegally accessed message system
In a series of tweets Saturday, Jones announced that she would be turning herself in and claimed that her impending arrest was unrelated to the reasons behind the December raid.
But the FDLE alleges that evidence they found as a result of that raid “shows that Jones illegally accessed the system sending a message to approximately 1,750 people and downloaded confidential FDOH data and saved it to her devices.”
The office of the State Attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit will prosecute the case.
Jones on Dec. 21 filed a civil suit against the state in response to the Dec. 7 raid, alleging it was an act of retaliation. In the suit she denied the allegations against her and claimed her constitutional rights were violated.
Jones was fired from the Department of Health in May for alleged insubordination. She has claimed she was fired for refusing to doctor the state’s COVID-19 numbers on the DOH’s coronavirus dashboard. Since then she has created her own competing dashboard which she says presents the data more honestly, and includes additional public health metrics.
More recently Jones began compiling COVID-19 data related to schools nationally, submitting at least two research papers for journal publication. She has gained a considerable online following on Twitter where she has over 370,000 followers and is a frequent critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Her last tweet on Sunday read: “Censored by the state of Florida until further notice.”
Follow reporter Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon on Twitter: @alemzs
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Capitol complex was briefly locked down and an inaugural rehearsal at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol was evacuated Monday after a fire in a homeless encampment, authorities said.
“Out of an abundance of caution the U.S. Capitol complex was temporarily shut down,” the Secret Service said on Twitter. “There is no threat to the public.”
The lockdown lasted about an hour. President-elect Joe Biden was not present.
The incident occurred as the nation’s capital is on edge days before Biden’s inauguration and two weeks after a violent riot at the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump who believe falsely that the election was rigged.
The rehearsal was taking place at the Capitol’s West Front when Capitol Police began yelling to “get inside” and “this is not a drill.” Scores of people began running up the steps, some struggling to ascend them, as an automated announcement told those fleeing of an “external threat.”
D.C. Fire officials said they responded to a fire near the Capitol “that has been extinguished. There were no injuries. This accounts for smoke that many have seen.”
The fire in a homeless tent beneath a nearby freeway was extinguished, fire officials said. The occupant was using propane, which could explain a report of an “explosion,” they said. One person was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
Lawmakers in all buildings within the Capitol complex were warned that “due to an external security threat located under the bridge on I-295 at First and F Streets SE, no entry or exit is permitted at this time.”
Lawmakers and staff were told that they could move through their buildings but were warned to “stay away from exterior windows and doors. If you are outside, seek cover.”
Contributing: Kevin Wexler; Christal Hayes and Jasper Colt
Donis Hernández spent three hours Wednesday trying to register his 77-year-old father for a COVID-19 vaccination appointment.
The Las Vegas construction worker and his dad have been waiting for this moment. Hernández works at construction sites, where four of his co-workers have contracted COVID-19. He worries about his dad, who lives with him.
But when he finally got through on the newly opened online portal for seniors, appointments already were booked through June.
“He’s frustrated because he wants the vaccine,” said Hernández, 41, whose family fled violence in El Salvador more than a decade ago and received temporary protected status. “He’s afraid of contracting COVID.”
As states open vaccinations to those 65 and older and those with health issues that put them at greater risk of serious illness, groups nationwide are strategizing grassroots efforts to ensure access for people of color who have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
The process has proven to be a struggle, and early findings show states that rank high on COVID-19 vulnerability indexes are falling behind on vaccinations.
That includes states like Nevada, where Hernández lives. A coalition of diverse nonprofits, each focusing on specific racial and ethnic groups, formed the One Community Campaign, an outreach effort to reach and educate at-risk populations about the virus and the vaccine through campaigns on radio, billboards and print and digital fliers in multiple languages.
Part of the coalition is the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, which supports Latino domestic workers and other laborers.
The center’s health and safety in construction department has been repurposed into a COVID-19 prevention hub, which teaches those who work housekeeping jobs to sanitize and protect themselves after cleaning a home where the virus was present.
“We’re going to be pivoting in the future to assist folks with making online (vaccine) appointments,” said Bliss Requa-Trautz, executive director. “To be able to make an appointment for the vaccine right now, you need to have a computer, you need to have internet in your home. You need to be comfortable scanning a copy of your identification and uploading it.”
Many lack those resources. The center only recently helped about a third of its members get acquainted with Zoom, and the undocumented feel especially wary about scanning identification, Requa-Trautz said. And there’s an added challenge: the online registration portals aren’t in Spanish, so the center has stepped in to provide clients with translation services.
“They have not released (vaccine registration) information directed toward Spanish-speaking community members, which is 33% of our population in Nevada,” she said. “That’s probably going to be an indicator of what initial data is going to look like in terms of who is accessing or not.”
Nevada ranks high in COVID-19 vulnerability – one of the top 18 states, according to a tool developed by nonprofit Surgo Ventures and referenced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Surgo’s index analyzes vaccine distribution rates and scores states on COVID-19 community vulnerability using socioeconomic, health and household income data.
On average, more vulnerable states have so far administered less of their allotted vaccines. Texas, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia are the top five most vulnerable, according to the index.
Stark racial disparities in vaccine access also are becoming apparent. In Florida, about 350,000 white people have received the first dose, compared with about 27,000 Black people, according to the state’s vaccine tracker.
The task force is working to designate 40 vaccination sites across the state by the end of the month, specifically at trusted sanctuaries such as Black churches, community centers and Florida’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“The whole idea of the task force on a statewide level is to make sure African Americans and other minorities will not be left behind as they continue to roll out the vaccines,” said Holmes, of the capital city’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.
“The government cannot do this by itself. The government needs to partner with faith-based groups that have the respect and credibility in these communities. We know that Black churches are well-respected in communities across the state of Florida. We know that HBCUs are respected and trusted … those are venues that people trust.”
On Jan. 10, a century-old anchor of Tallahassee’s Black community, Bethel A.M.E. Church, administered 500 Pfizer vaccines to seniors. A concurrent effort was heldat Saint Matthews Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
President-Elect Joe Biden has made vaccine access for communities of color a key feature of his ambitious $1.9 trillion plan to confront the pandemic. The plan calls for creating more vaccination sites, such as mobile clinics, to get vaccine to hard-to-reach, marginalized communities in underserved urban and rural areas.
Throughout the South, hard hit by COVID-19, health activists are leading neighborhood-level education and outreach efforts to fight deep seated vaccine hesitancy sown by mistreatment of Black people in medicine.
The Mississippi Urban League, which runs the Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity initiative, is planning a digital campaign to provide education surrounding the vaccine to correct myths and ease fears. There’s misinformation fueling the fire, such as a rumor certain vaccines are being injected into Black folks and other types into white folks, said the urban league’s director Beneta Burt.
“This vaccine really shines a light on our need to be healthier, to build a healthier community,” Burt said.
The state is also high in COVID-19 vulnerability. The Mississippi Delta is a region burdened with health conditions that put people at higher risk for COVID-19. The area, with a population that is 50% Black, has a disproportionately high rate of cardiovascular disease, and the state suffers the highest obesity rate in the nation.
Many members of Burt’s community also lack a medical home – a primary-care practitioner – and instead visit the emergency room for treatment, a hallmark of disparities in health-care access.
“We want to be proactive in helping fill those gaps,” Burt said, adding the league is working on partnerships to help address obesity and lack of health care access, both of which have placed Black Mississippi residents at higher risk for the novel coronavirus.
“This is an important opportunity, I think, for this country to reevaluate how it looks at health for everyone and how improved health has to be done across the board. And it has to be done in conjunction with communities.”
Supply, demand — and barriers
Public health experts warned broadly opening early vaccine access could undercut efforts to ensure the nation’s most vulnerable residents get vaccinated.
If states immediately grant access to those above 65 and tens of millions of younger adults with qualifying conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, vaccine demand will quickly outstrip supply, said Dr. Andrew T. Pavia, a pediatric infectious diseases chief at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
“If we throw it open as (outgoing Health and Human Services) Secretary Azar has suggested to 180 million people, but we have perhaps enough vaccine to vaccinate maybe 40 million by the end of this month, there’s a huge disconnect and that creates a lot of problems,” said Pavia, an Infectious Diseases Society of America fellow.
Recommendations from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices were designed to maximize impact, equity and practicality when vaccinating the public. Groups were prioritized to match anticipated supply, but the revised government plan “has kind of thrown out that practicality aspect,” Pavia said.
The new approach might favor “those in general who have more resources,” said Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s public health committee.
“They are going to be healthier and able to stand in line. They’ll probably have better mobility. They’ll have Internet access,” Vaishampayan said. “So we need to really double-down on our work to try to reach those who don’t have all those resources.”
Vaishampayan is a public health officer in Stanislaus County, California, a community with a large Latino population. Her county works with community groups to make sure people who don’t speak English or don’t have Internet access have a fair shot at getting vaccinated.
She said only people from eligible groups such as health care workers initially could schedule vaccines. That will change now that California has opened vaccination to adults over 65.
“It’s going to be a little bit harder while we’re trying to manage long lines” and crowded clinics, Vaishampayan said.
Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Hernández is waiting for his dad to get his COVID-19 shot.
“The only thing I can do is make sure I’m always wearing my mask,” the father-of-two said through a translator.
Asked if he feels safe going to work until then, Hernández said “no,” but he still goes.
“I consider myself an essential worker in construction and have been working throughout the pandemic,” he said. “And as a TPS holder, if it weren’t for the (worker’s) union, then I would be without any sort of support right now.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had forecast 20 million first-shot vaccinations in December and another 30 million in January. More than half way through January the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports just over 10 million people have received their first shot, less than 2 million the required booster.
The U.S. has added almost 4 million new infections this month. Total infections since the pandemic began now stand at about 24 million.
More than 30 million vaccine doses have been distributed to states, but less than half of them have been used thus far.
The totals: There have been almost 100 million infections reported globally and more than 2 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. In the U.S., there have been almost 24 million infections and nearly 400,000 deaths.
Acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine continues to soar, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds, but pessimism about when things in the United States will return to normal also is on the rise. Both results may be signs that the messages from President-elect Joe Biden are being heard. He has taken the vaccine himself on camera, and he has also cautioned that the pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better. Now 56% of those surveyed say they will take the vaccine as soon it was available to them, a jump of 10 percentage points since December and 30 points since October.
“The more people that get a vaccination and they see that it’s safe … then more people are willing to go get it,” said Shellie Belapurkar, 50, a vaccinated nurse-practitioner from Nashua, New Hampshire, who was among those surveyed. She has gotten the vaccine herself and has been volunteering at a clinic each week to give it to others.
Besides being the first president to get impeached twice, Donald Trump will have a stain on his legacy with arguably longer-lasting consequences: mishandling the coronavirus pandemic. The national death toll could surpass 400,000 Monday. Not since Woodrow Wilson was in office during the 1918 flu pandemic – which killed about 675,000 in this country and 50 million worldwide – had a president overseen the loss of so many American lives. Trump showed disdain for mask-wearing recommended by public health experts – despite being infected himself.
“What’s so troubling about this loss of life is it was preventable,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This is an infectious disease we knew how to prevent. … . And yet, we did not mount a response to wage war against this virus.”
A Kansas couple who both tested positive for the coronavirus after a Christmas Eve family gathering started out the new year battling the virus. After nearly two weeks of several ups and downs, they died less than two hours apart while holding hands in bed at the Salina Regional Health Center, family members say. Albert “Bert” and Carol Stevenson met later in life, after previous marriages, at a Kansas restaurant in 2009. 2012, on a warm summer day at Carol’s homestead near Kanopolis Lake in Kansas when Carol was 72, Bert 69. They died a couple hours apart on Jan. 8.
“My mother knew of the risk, but she could not help herself. She had to give presents,” said Carol’s daughter, Pennie Pickering. “Christmas is a big deal for her to see family. They were literally 30 days from being vaccinated and they had made it since early March of quarantining.”