• Trump Brag-Tweets that COVID-19 “Numbers” Are Declining. The Numbers Don’t Say That.

    Samuel Corum/Zuma

    President Donald Trump spent Sunday much the same way he did his Saturday—tweeting conspiracy theories about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and the threat of mail-in voting. But, strikingly, as the U.S. approaches 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, Trump also issued a blithe announcement that all-things “pandemic” are improving, without bothering to back it up, of course.

    In many ways, this tweet is no different than Trump’s other random proclamations of progress, which he has issued from the very start of the pandemic. But the brag seems particularly tone deaf: experts are warning that even as former COVID-19 hotspots like New York City appear to be making progress, there are signs of new outbreaks in rural areas scattered around the country

    According to data compiled by the Washington Post, while some moderation of new cases is being reported, numbers have remained fairly flat for the past two weeks, with the seven-day average number of new cases remaining well over 20,000. Yesterday, for instance, there were 22,520 new cases, which is lower than the previous two days, but more than other days in the last two weeks. And according to the Post’s numbers, there were 1,071 new COVID deaths yesterday, which is less than the previous days, but slightly more than the previous Saturday.

    Experts also say those numbers are only telling part of the story. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner who served under Trump and now works with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday morning and said that the threat from virus has not abated. “We expected cases to go up and hospitalizations to bump up as we reopened, but we need to understand this isn’t contained, and it’s continuing to spread,” Gottlieb said.

    Later, he tweeted data showing that after two weeks of moderate decline in numbers, in the past week has revealed a slight uptick.

    Gottlieb was making the case for reopening the country, but safely, to mitigate the risks of new outbreaks.

  • A Dollar General Analyst Complained About Store Workers Getting Screwed. He Got Fired.

    A Dollar General store in Vallejo, California.Justin Sullivan/Getty

    One day in early March, Rebecca told her manager at a Dollar General store in South Carolina that she was starting to feel sick. She had a fever, some difficulty breathing. At the time, Rebecca recalls, everyone working at the store seemed to have a fever or cough.

    Could she stay home and get paid somehow? she asked her boss. Her boss, Rebecca recalls, told her to come into work or file for food stamps.

    At that point Dollar General had not announced a paid sick leave policy. In fact, the fast-growing chain of bargain retail stores, which likes to brag that 75 percent of the country lives within five miles of one of its franchises, wasn’t offering employees much of anything. No gloves, no masks, no hazard pay, no raise. Without PPE, “we were making our own hand sanitizer at the store,” Rebecca says. Her ersatz blend mixed aloe vera and rubbing alcohol.

    Rebecca—whose name has been changed for fear the company might retaliate—had been working at the store since March 2019, making about $10 an hour. Stay home? “I couldn’t afford it,” she tells Mother Jones. She didn’t like the thought of filing for food stamps while she’s out sick, and she said as much to her boss.

    “That’s the Dollar General way,” her manager said, laughing. Later that week, Rebecca returned to work. 

    Around that time, Rebecca and a handful of her colleagues began sharing stories over social media. As the pandemic unfolded, they learned a lot about the Dollar General way. They learned that a company focused on expansion—particularly in small, rural areas where even Walmart can’t gain a foothold—is not going to worry overmuch about the health of its lowest workers. They also learned that asking too many questions about such matters can get you fired—as one whistleblower in Dollar General’s corporate office discovered for himself.

    On March 16, Daniel Stone began asking the first of too many questions. A market planning analyst in Dollar General’s corporate office near Nashville, Stone was worried that the company’s response to the coronavirus was lacking. He was in a position to know. His job was to analyze locations for new stores. It put him face-to-face with the realities of working in a Dollar General store. He knew population demographics, median income, traffic. He knew the precarity under which employees live. Dollar General now employs 143,000 plus people across 16,300 stores, which are often placed in lower-income, low-population rural areas. “Areas that have like 500 households,” Stone says, where “they’re pricing out general stores.”  

    The company’s only public acknowledgment of the coronavirus to that point was to announce a designated shopping hour for seniors. Concerned, Stone emailed Dollar General’s chief people officer, Kathy Reardon, and asked about guaranteed sick leave for those working in the store.


    Do you work for Dollar General corporate or in a store? We want to hear your stories (especially if you know anything about the “Blue Zone” model). Email me at jrosenberg@motherjones.com


    Stone got a cheery, even heartening response. “You will be proud to know that our practice during this time has been to pay our employees for any missed/scheduled shifts in [our stores] for up to 14 days when they are quarantined for their own illness or to care for a member of their household who is quarantined,” Reardon wrote, according to an email obtained by Mother Jones. If there was a policy in place at the time of her conversation with her manager, Rebecca didn’t know about it and neither, ostensibly, did her boss.

    On March 18, Todd Vasos, CEO of Dollar General, sent a similar message to the public, but with an important difference: He said Dollar General offered paid sick leave for “any employee that is forced to remain at home due to a confirmed case” for their “regularly-scheduled hours.” A confirmed case: Did that mean workers needed a positive COVID-19 test result in order to receive sick pay? What if they couldn’t obtain a test in the first place? 

    Dollar General did not answer specific questions about the timing of protective measures for this article. But it said in a statement that paid sick leave for employees “impacted by COVID-19” includes those waiting for testing, caring for a family member, or “those who must remain home due to their own diagnosis.” It’s not clear if this is the same policy that Vasos announced on March 18.  

    Stone was happy that the company was paying out at least some sick leave. But he began wondering about other problems—and he wondered what was actually happening in stores. Were workers being sent masks? Was there going to be a bump for hazard pay? He peppered management with more questions. And he began organizing private social media channels so he could hear stories on the ground. Eventually, more than 300 people joined, he says.

    They told stories about lax safety, about Dollar General’s neglect over the years, which now seemed to be coming home to roost, according to Stone. When Dollar General said on March 24 that it was releasing $35 million in bonuses, he learned on Facebook that workers were struggling financially. One reached out to him directly asking for help.

    As Dollar General rolled out protective policies, Stone saw more and more problems. There were the masks sent to each store, for instance. “I will never forget this: They were freaking T-shirts,” says Rebecca, who was a member of the Facebook group. “It was like somebody went into a house and cut up a bunch of shirts and said, ‘Here.’” A photo of a mask also showed up on a subreddit devoted to Dollar General.

    A photo of a mask posted to Reddit.
    A mask sent to an employee at a New Jersey Dollar General store.

    In a New Jersey store, workers were left to take precautions on their own initiative—closing public restrooms, sanitizing counters, not using customer’s reusable bags, putting up handmade signs about one-way aisles. “DG didn’t suggest we do this,” a worker in that store tells Mother Jones. “It’s a joke.”

    Dollar General says it did implement social distancing measures, including plexiglass shields for cashiers, by March 23. The company also closed stores early for more cleaning and distributed PPE. On April 30, Dollar General announced another round of bonuses, adding $25 million to the $35 million already put forward.

    The company branded its response to the coronavirus: Its mission, it said, was “Serving Others.” But the workers in Stone’s group could only wonder, What about us? After Dollar General announced it was hiring more workers, Rebecca learned of “mandatory” cuts to overtime hours at her store. A franchise might have a small number of workers—under a dozen, say—but managers were expected to find a way to operate even if people were ill. “Back in February and March, when we were all working with fevers and coughs,” Rebecca says, “we couldn’t close the store because it was a skeleton crew. God forbid we close the store!” By hiring more temporary workers, Dollar General could cut back on hours and overtime pay for full-time staff. “One week I got 18 hours,” Rebecca says. “I get my full-time benefits eating up my whole paycheck.”

    For Rebecca and her colleague in New Jersey, there’s nothing new about Dollar General being oblivious to the concerns of the people working in its stores. “They have no idea what goes on at store level,” the New Jersey worker tells Mother Jones. “One December, we were without heat for three weeks—so the COVID-19 response is right up the ‘I don’t give a damn’ alley. It’s all about the dollar.” She says the store doesn’t always feel safe. (A recent NBC News report found at least 27 Dollar General workers were injured in violent robberies from January 2019 to January 2020.) Rebecca recalls a manager having to clean up sewage that flooded her store multiple times over weeks. The manager was unwilling even to talk to higher-ups. “Everybody knows it’s a waste of time to reach out to corporate,” she says. “If you complain you’re headed out the door.”

    Stone soon learned that lesson. He continued to ask questions of corporate over email, using the stories he was hearing on social media as examples. Eventually, Dollar General had enough. On April 27, the company fired Stone. “It’s come to management’s attention that there’s been some negative emails and posts and other things like that about the company,” Jason Reese, a senior director of market planning at Dollar General, told Stone on a call, with Leslie Allen, the company’s senior director of human resources, on the line. “There’s been some…sounds like bad blood.” 

    “I would say that the only bad blood that I have is the current inaction, frankly, towards workers in stores and distribution centers,” Stone replied. “I’m proud to work at this company, and I would like to see it be a leader in the American economy and the zeitgeist and push for higher wages and proper protection.” He referenced the T-shirt masks: “It kind of hurts my heart to see the people on the frontlines subjected to a T-shirt cutout to protect themselves.” 


    Listen to audio of Daniel Stone getting fired.



    Soon after, Stone filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. And then he posted about the experience on Twitter.

    In its statement, Dollar General says “we emphatically deny” that Stone was fired for “any unlawful reason,” adding that the company “has a zero-tolerance policy for unlawful retaliation.”

    Already 2020 had been for Stone a “what the hell?” kind of year, he says. “Now during a pandemic I’ve been terminated for organizing workers.” He still struggles to understand the logic of it. “What’s negative about asking for better pay?” 

    Dollar General isn’t known for looking kindly on assertive workers. During its expansion, the company cracked down hard on workers organizing for better conditions. Twice in the past five years, the New Jersey worker tells Mother Jones, corporate reps showed up in the store to hold what she understood to be meetings discouraging unionization. “My cashiers felt bullied,” she says. (One thread in the Dollar General subreddit asked, “Why is dollar general so anti union??” The top reply: “Because then they’d have to treat us like actual human beings.”) You won’t hear employees talk about it much in public, though. Workers told Mother Jones they were afraid to speak on the record specifically because they feared harsh blowback from corporate. They said the employee handbook forbade them from speaking with the press. “People are just scared to lose their job,” Stone says. Dollar General did not respond to questions about these policies.

    In December 2017, workers at a Dollar General in Auxvasse, Missouri, voted to unionize in a 4-to-2 vote. It was the first store in the chain to unionize. The company challenged the outcome on the basis of complaints from two workers who had voted yes. One claimed that a fellow employee threatened to slash her tires if she voted against the union; another claimed the same employee offered her $100 to vote yes. In February 2020, the union vote was upheld. But it did not matter.

    “They sent us a letter about three weeks ago that they are willing to bargain with us,” says David Cook, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, which helped the Missouri employees unionize. In the same letter, he says, the company also informed Stone it was closing the store. “So, they are willing to negotiate a contract for us for a store they’re going to close,” Cook tells Mother Jones, chuckling.

    He likens it to what Walmart did when meat cutters organized in a handful of stores. The company shut down meat counters across the country. “Dollar General is copying that playbook to the T—we will fight you all the way, we’re trying to get you to quit, we’ll make you miserable,” Cook says. “And we will even close stores before we recognize your union.” Dollar General did not respond to questions about the union drive in Missouri.

    Growth is everything at Dollar General. It will not be deterred from its expansionary goals—not by a union, not by an inquisitive market planning analyst, certainly not by a pandemic. In 2017, a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek described a presentation given by Vasos that included a map “that looks similar to an epidemiological forecast, with yellow and green dots spreading like a pox”—the green ones representing “remaining opportunities.” Each store might not sell the mass quantities of a Walmart, but Dollar General sought to make up via sheer ubiquity what it might lack in same-store sales. The company would be everywhere, selling a little. In 2017, Dollar General had 12,483 stores; it now has 16,300. This hit the company’s goal, as Stone described it to Mother Jones: a thousand new locations a year. 

    “Nothing really impacted our expansion,” Stone says. “It was going to expand regardless of the pandemic.” In fact, the COVID-19 crisis may even give the plans a boost. CNN Business thinks that discount chains like Dollar General “stand to thrive” in a pandemic, as shoppers cut back on their spending and focus on household essentials. On Tuesday, Jackson County, Florida approved a new Dollar General to open.

    In the past five years, Dollar General has already taken on 35,000 new employees, giving it nearly 150,000, and some 50,000 additional workers are being added during the pandemic. More stores means more workers laboring under the Dollar General way—more workers getting caught up in what Rebecca calls “the contradictions of their policies and their action.” 

    “They don’t give a shit what you do. They don’t care what you do,” she says. “They want it done. Cleaned up. Move on.”

    Rebecca, in the end, never got tested for the coronavirus. “I still had to come back and work because I didn’t get paid,” she says. “It’s been awful.” She describes the company’s COVID-19 response as a “smack in the face”—not that she expected anything better. By now she knows the Dollar General way.

  • The United States’ Coronavirus Death Toll Is About to Hit 100,000. Donald Trump Went Golfing Today.

    Donald Trump walks onto the green at the Trump International Golf Course in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, in December 2017.Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

    President Donald Trump, who in 2014 attacked Barack Obama for golfing during an Ebola outbreak that ultimately took the lives of two Americans, hit the links on Saturday as the number America deaths attributed to coronavirus neared 100,000.

    That happens to be a total that Trump, in one of his frequently revised predictions of the virus’ expected toll, has said it will not exceed. “It looks like we’re headed to a number substantially below the 100,000,” he said on April 10. (He notoriously had opined on February 26 that 15 cases reported cases in the United States “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”) There are now more 1.6 million confirmed cases in the United States, according to the New York Times, though there is no way to know the actual number, because, despite Trump’s claim on March 6 that “anybody that wants a test can get a test,” most people can’t get tests.

    One hundred thousand deaths is also likely an undercount. State mortality figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control suggest the ongoing pandemic has caused the deaths of somewhere between 33 to 60 percent more Americans  than the official figure attributed to COVID-19. Though coronavirus continues to take the lives of around 1,200 Americans each day, Trump has recently amped up an effort to push for states and churches to reopen, a position nakedly aimed at aiding his reelection hopes by reversing an economic collapse that has left 38 million Americans unemployed. His outing Saturday appears aimed at signaling “the worst is behind us and that America is ready to return to normal,” as the Washington Post‘s Philip Bump wrote. Mission accomplished. Now watch this drive.

    Trump traveled Saturday by motorcade from Washington, DC, to Sterling, Virginia, locales in which stay-at-home orders leave golf off limits to regular residents. It was his first golf outing since March 8, but also his 250th as president. As he often does, Trump played at one of his own courses, a practice that helps promote his floundering hospitality business and forces the Secret Service to spend taxpayer funds at Trump properties.

    Some pundits have consistently argued that Trump’s golf, and hypocrisy over golf, is relatively unimportant amid his policy failures. And indeed, his coronavirus record would be ripe for criticism even if it included no golf. But symbolism matters. And as the death toll mounts, golf is the symbol Trump picked Saturday.

  • A German Soccer Club Came Up With an Oddly Ingenious Way to Fill Its Empty Stadium

    Cardboard cuts outs of fans inside the stadium prior to the Bundesliga match between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Borussia-Park on May 23, 2020.Ina Fassbender/Pool via Getty Images

    Germany’s professional soccer league has resumed play with fans banned due to coronavirus, so one team found an unusual way to fill empty stadium seats.

    Borussia Mönchengladbach, currently in fourth place in the Bundesliga, reportedly placed more than 12,000 cardboard cutouts of fans in their 54,000 stadium. These are real likenesses of season ticket holders who shelled out 19 euros each to have their facsimiles present for the contest. According to the Associated Press, the cutouts are the brainchild of the team’s fan club, which is using some of the proceeds to maintain the jobs of seven of the club’s workers, whose jobs have been under threat due to the soccer shutdown. A small portion is also supposed to help pay for a boy to receive treatment for spinal muscular atrophy.

    This is kind of thing that German soccer fan clubs, which are notoriously intense and well organized, do. It’s tough to imagine Astros season ticket holders, or any American sports fans, dispatching cardboard cutouts of themselves to games. But what about politics? As Republican and Democratic parties mull holding their nominating conventions this summer, they might want to take a note.

  • Grocery Workers May Be Called “Heroes,” But Their “Hero Pay” Is Disappearing

    Senior citizens line up at dawn waiting for the opening of a Kroger supermarket. Kroger is among more than 40 grocery chains that recently ended their $2 hourly "hero" pay raise for workers.Jim West/Zuma Wire

    When Larry Franklin received an emergency coronavirus paycheck for $818.76 from the Ralphs grocery store where he’s worked for six years, he thought it was a sign of appreciation from his employer.

    Franklin, a 39-year-old immuno-compromised cancer survivor, has been in quarantine since March. After working through the early pandemic days of panic-shopping, preparing carts for a deluge of customers lining up two hours before the store opened, his doctor ordered him to stay home. He received one week of paid sick time and a $300 bonus, but otherwise has been on unpaid leave. 

    But two weeks after he received the emergency check, he got a letter from the store’s parent company, Kroger, asking him to pay the money back. He had already spent it, paying off bills and buying groceries from the same Los Angeles–area Ralphs store where he works.

    “That’s when my jaw dropped,” Franklin says. “I cannot believe you would put a policy in place and retract it for people who are really in dire health need right now.” (According to Kroger, the check was an error, but the company has since backtracked on its plans to ask employees like Franklin to return what it calls “overpayments.”)

    Franklin is strategizing with his doctor about how to return to work safely. But even if he returns, he won’t be able to count on the “hero” pay his colleagues earned for the past two months: Kroger is one of more than 40 grocery companies ending the temporary pay boosts it implemented for workers at the beginning of the pandemic, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Kroger’s subsidiaries, including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Mariano’s, and Ralphs, ended their $2-an-hour “hero pay” increases on May 17. Instead of an ongoing wage hike, Kroger will pay a one-time “thank you” bonus of $400 to full-time employees and $200 to part-time associates.

    The pay cuts come as states push to reopen after the initial coronavirus shutdown. Yet even as more businesses are reopening and restrictions are lifted, the pandemic shows no signs of slowing. According to the UFCW, at least 68 grocery workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed. Essential workers’ “hero” status is at a crossroads: While Congress considers raising pay for frontline workers, many companies are cutting back on their temporary hazard pay.

    “As you must know, this pandemic is not over,” Marc Perrone, the international president of UFCW, wrote in a letter to the CEOs of 49 grocery companies ending their pay raises. “To the contrary, every one of your food and grocery store workers are still being asked to risk exposure to this virus and work in dangerous conditions that require them to wear protective equipment on the job.”

    A Kroger spokesperson told Mother Jones that without the temporary pay raises, its average pay rate was more than $15 per hour. “We also provide our associates with health care and retirement benefits that many of our competitors do not offer their employees,” the spokesperson said. “This was true prior to the pandemic and remains true today.”

    Some companies are rolling back their pay raises even as their profits soar. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ wealth has grown by $34.6 billion just since mid-March, according to a new report from Americans for Tax Fairness. “There’s no question that Amazon can afford to protect its workers and to provide hazard pay and paid sick leave,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich told me this week. “But Amazon has chosen not to be a leader, even though it is making huge amounts of money off the backs of a lot of very, very hard working people who are risking their lives in warehouses and in Whole Foods stores.”

    Amazon is ending its workers’ temporary $2 hourly pay raises at the end of May. “With demand stabilized, next month we’ll return to our industry-leading starting wage of $15 an hour,” an Amazon spokesperson wrote in an email. “We’re proud that our minimum wage is more than what most others offer even after their temporary increases in recent months, and we hope they’ll do the right thing for the long term and bring their minimum pay closer to ours.” 

    As more companies end temporary pay raises, Congress is considering boosting pay for frontline workers. On May 15, the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion package that includes many of the provisions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)’s Essential Workers Bill of Rights. The bill, called the Heroes Act, includes a $13 per hour pay raise for essential workers during the public health emergency, as well as personal protective equipment and support for child and elder care.

    Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has expressed support for a similar pay bump of an additional $12 an hour for frontline workers. But the Senate has yet to take up the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “an 1,800-page seasonal catalog of left-wing oddities.” On Fox News, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told Sean Hannity the Heroes Act was “grandiose” and said he didn’t think the Senate would pass it in any form. “It’s not a coronavirus bill,” he said. “It’s basically a ‘remake Western civilization’ bill.”

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the Senate Republicans of prioritizing “political retribution” over the needs of working families. “McConnell and the Senate GOP need to come to the negotiating table to help deliver the relief that families desperately need,” she said in a statement.

    Many frontline workers never received hazard pay at all. For some, the recognition as “heroes” makes them feel like their work is seen for the first time—but they’re still not getting properly compensated for it. 

    “The part that really bothers me and angers me to the core of my soul is that now all of a sudden we’re essential workers when we’ve been doing this all along,” said Steve Kelley, a commercial cleaner from Pittsburgh, in an April Zoom rally for the proposed Essential Workers Bill of Rights with Reps. Warren and Khanna. “All along we’ve been cleaning your bathrooms and you never noticed. When this moment is over, will you continue to call us essential? Will you provide us with essential worker pay?”

    Reich told me the absence of protections for workers who are risking their lives every day could fuel an increase in labor strikes, already on the rise before the pandemic. “After risking their lives in the way they have been and after putting up with the lack of paid sick leave, a lack of paid family leave, lack of hazard pay, I think workers have had enough,” he said. “Frankly, I think that we’re going to see a wave of labor activism such as we haven’t seen in this country in decades.”

    Since the pandemic began, workers have gone on strike at big tech companies like Amazon and Instacart, retailers like Whole Foods and Target, fast food restaurants, and clothing factories. In some industries, workers have won protective gear and the right to paid sick time. Through the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act passed in March, Congress extended coronavirus-related paid sick and family leave to workers across the country. But because of a loophole that exempted big companies, 85 percent of workers in essential grocery, pharmacy, and retail jobs remain unprotected, according to the University of California–Berkeley’s Shift Project. The Heroes Act would close this loophole.

    With or without more protections from Congress, Steve Kelley has no intention of returning his janitorial work to the shadows. “No longer should we be considered invisible,” Kelley said during the Zoom rally, “because now you realize how much you need us.”

    Warren agreed. “You’ve always been an essential worker, and now people are beginning to notice,” she told Kelley. “This is about building an America that recognizes your worth.”

  • “A Petulant Child Who Refuses to Follow the Rules”: Michigan AG Slams Trump for Maskless Ford Plant Tour

    Tia Dufour/White House/Planet Pix/Zuma

    President Trump on Thursday continued to defy public health experts by refusing to wear a mask during a visit to a Ford plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Afterward, in an interview, the state’s attorney general likened him to “a petulant child who refuses to follow the rules.”

    During his appearance at the plant, which is producing ventilators, Trump told reporters that he had worn a mask on other parts of his tour, but that he “didn’t want the press to get the pleasure of seeing it.” An executive order in Michigan mandates the use of face coverings in enclosed public spaces, and Ford’s company policy requires the use of personal protective equipment.

    “This is not a joke,” Dana Nessel told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday, adding that 23,000 people had died in Wayne County, near Ypsilanti. “He’s conveying the worst possible message to people who cannot afford to be on the receiving end of terrible misinformation, and it’s very, very concerning.”

    Watch the video below:

  • Trump’s Hydroxychloroquine Cocktail Connected to 45 Percent Increased Risk of Death

    Yuri Gripas/ZUMA

    “What do you have to lose?” President Donald Trump asked reporters last week while, once again, promoting the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus treatment. 

    It turns out, as experts have repeatedly warned, a whole lot.

    A new Lancet study released on Friday and first reported by the Washington Post revealed that taking hydroxychloroquine to combat COVID-19 was connected to a significantly increased chance of death. The study, which examined 96,032 patients and is the largest to investigate the antimalarial drug’s potential in fighting the virus, had even more alarming news for taking hydroxychloroquine with an antibiotic, the combination once touted by Trump as a “gamechanger” in the fight against coronavirus. “For those receiving hydroxychloroquine and an antibiotic—the cocktail endorsed by Trump—there was a 45 percent increased risk of death and a 411 percent increased risk of serious heart arrhythmias,” the Post reported. The study doesn’t necessarily extend to those taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure, as Trump claimed this week to be doing.

    The astounding findings come on the heels of a study published last month that reported more deaths among US veterans treated with hydroxychloroquine than those who received standard care. Trump initially claimed that he hadn’t seen the veterans’ study—a curious assertion considering his aggressive campaign to promote the drug—but then on Tuesday accused the medical researchers of political motivation. “That was a false study done,” he said at a White House event. “It was given by obviously not friends of the administration.”

    The president has not yet offered a conspiratorial angle with which to discredit the Lancet study, but something tells me that’s inevitable.

  • Contact Tracing Can Do a Lot More Than Find Coronavirus Cases

    Public health nurse Jennifer Morgan, right, checks-in via phone with a patient self-quarantined at home who had some risk of exposure to the coronavirus as University of Washington epidemiology student Erika Feutz observes at the public health agency for Seattle and King County. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

    When the coronavirus caused San Francisco to close its public libraries in March, Ramses Escobedo, a 41-year-old manager at the Excelsior neighborhood branch, was put on paid furlough. He took advantage of the free time to install shelves in his home and catalogue his wedding photographs. But he missed seeing people from his community, and he wished he had a way to lend a hand during the crisis. So when an email from the library’s human resources department popped up on his computer asking if he wanted to be a contact tracer, he jumped at the opportunity.

    Contact tracing is a technique public health researchers use to gain a deeper understanding of the way a virus infects people so they can help slow its spread. There are now more than 66,000 contact tracers in 44 states, according to a survey by NPR. Their goal: to identify all of the people an infected person came into contact with during the 48 hours before they started showing symptoms of COVID-19, and help them quarantine for two weeks.

    Each infected person can, on average, infect 2 to 3 others, according to researchers at the Center for Health Security, a nonprofit based out of John Hopkins University. And if one person spreads the virus to three others, that first positive case can turn into more than 59,000 cases during 10 rounds of infections. But if people can be warned before they develop symptoms, they will be less likely to spread the disease to someone else.

    Epidemiologists first used contact tracing to contain smallpox in England 200 years ago. Cities have long used it to slow down the spread of other diseases such as syphilis, tuberculosis, and HIV. West African countries used it to contain the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and Asian countries, including China, used the method to contain the SARS outbreak in 2003. Recent contact tracing efforts have already taught us a lot about how the coronavirus behaves: A study that traced the paths of tourists who became infected with COVID-19 after staying in a chalet the French Alps helped prove that asymptomatic people can still act as carriers of the disease. We know more about how the virus spreads through air droplets in confined spaces through contact tracing of patrons at a hotel restaurant in China.

    But COVID-19 has made contact tracing more challenging because of the speed with which the virus spreads, and the long incubation period of four to 14 days, during which patients often feel no symptoms. Add to it that almost 25 percent of patients never experience any symptoms at all. So a massive army of case investigators, contact tracers, clinicians, and public health officials are working to identify those infected and track down the rest of the people who may have been exposed to the virus, whether they feel it or not. 

    San Francisco launched its contact tracing effort on April 15, in partnership with the Department of Health, the University of California, San Francisco, and the software company DIMAGI. The team includes 276 furloughed city employees, including 34 librarians, and staff from the city’s attorney’s office, assessor’s office, and the labor department.

    Escobedo thinks that his experience as a librarian —which involves interacting with a wide range of residents and providing them with resources and reliable information—serves him well in the new job. Escobedo, who grew up in Mexico and is a native Spanish-speaker, is also one of San Francisco’s few bilingual contact tracers, enabling him to connect with the city’s Latinx population, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. As of May 5, 45 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases in San Francisco were from the Latinx community, even though Latinx people only make up 15 percent of the city’s population.

    The detective work starts at the point when someone is identified by a doctor as having a confirmed case of COVID-19. An investigator, usually a full-time employee of the Department of Public Health with credentials in disease investigation, then interviews the infected person on the phone, and asks the patient to name everyone she has been within six feet of, for at least 10 minutes, in the past 48 hours. This list is then passed onto the contact tracing team.

    Once Escobedo is assigned a list of contacts (up to 25 or 30 for one infected person), he calls them one by one, and lets them know that they have been exposed to the virus. To protect medical privacy, he won’t divulge the name of the person who may have infected them—though he says most people already know, because most of the time it’s someone in their family.

    But Escobedo’s job doesn’t end with asking the person to quarantine. 

    “We don’t just call people up,” says Dr. Michael Reid, an assistant professor of medicine at UCSF who has worked with HIV patients since 2014, and is leading San Francisco’s contact tracing efforts. “We recognize that if we’re serious about asking somebody to be in quarantine, then we need to provide them with the wraparound services so that they can quarantine,” Reid says. “So that means, you provide food for them, if they’re housing insecure, you provide housing for them, if they can’t pay their bills, then hopefully you provide financial support for them.” 

    If someone doesn’t have access to a private bathroom, Escobedo passes along instructions for how to disinfect the area. If someone doesn’t have enough food for a 14-day quarantine period, he puts them in touch with someone at Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help them get groceries delivered to their door. If someone is unable to safely quarantine themselves because they live with many others also infected with COVID-19, then he calls his team leader so they can arrange to move them to a hotel. 

    Escobedo has had to call people multiple times and may not hear back from them for days. Once he called a family of seven and couldn’t reach a single member. But he says most people cooperate with him and understand the motive behind the city’s initiative. And the work has a side benefit: He gets to develop deeper relationships with the people in his community. Sometimes people are talkative during the calls, he said, and “sometimes they’re a little down. Sometimes they just want to talk about family,” he said.

    Once when he was explaining the importance of quarantining to an elderly man who had his speakerphone on, he heard someone yell in Spanish in the background, “Yeah. You tell him! Reprimand him. I tell him all the time not to go out.” Escobedo paused and said, “Well, it seems someone is throwing you under the bus. Who is that?” The man chuckled, and then Escobedo chuckled. The man said it was his daughter. Escobedo replied, “Well listen to her, she is not wrong.”

    Another time, a toddler picked up the phone and started to babble. As he unsuccessfully tried to convince the kid to give the phone to an adult, the toddler hung up on him.

    Two decades of his work in the library has given Escobedo the ability to read people, and know when to ask an extra question. “Sometimes people come to the library because they need empathy, and they need somebody to put their shoulder to put their hand on. And so you learn how to navigate through emotions.”

    During a conversation with a family of four, where the mother was infected with the virus, the father seemed overwhelmed with having to quarantine himself and his two daughters. Escobedo helped him make test appointments and arranged for food and cleaning supplies to be delivered to their home. Twenty minutes after Escobedo’s call, the father texted him: “Gracias amigo.”

    So far, Dr. Reid has trained over 250 contact tracers like Escobedo. The city’s shelter-in-place order is helping them keep the number of cases at a manageable number. But as the city starts to gradually reopen, epidemiologists predict that cases will increase again as infected people start coming into contact with healthy people in public spaces. At that time, contact tracing will be key to controlling the spread of the epidemic. Reid and his team plan to train 20,000 tracers and case investigators in the next few weeks to expand their program to cover all of California, under new orders from Governor Newsom. This new task force will be comprised of state employees with the “the right kind of background cultural sensitivity, cultural competency, different language skills,” and “a health mindset,” according to Newsom.

    But Reid says contact tracing can’t function in isolation: It only works alongside mass testing campaigns. “One of the really challenging things about COVID-19 is that a lot of people are completely asymptomatic,” he said. “It’s really hard to do case investigation on somebody who’s completely well.” It’s impossible to identify the source of the spread if that person doesn’t get tested in the first place.

    It may be a few exhausting weeks for Reid, but he views the effort as much bigger than stopping the spread of the virus. “I do think this is a singularly unique moment where we can change the arc of health care in America—because it’s clear that we’re not gonna end this pandemic unless we solve problems related to homelessness, and health disparity in the Latinx community in San Francisco,” he said. “I feel fairly optimistic that if you train hundreds of contact tracers—not just in contact tracing, but in the complexities of what it means to deliver public health care—we transform society.”

  • Trump Staples Words Together to Say He’s “Tested Very Positively” for COVID-19

    President Donald Trump, while speaking to reporters outside the White House on Thursday, attempted to describe the results of his latest coronavirus test. That exceedingly simple task proved too much for our president, who rejected a straightforward reply to instead offer this incoherent string of words:

    Here’s to watching how the rest of his supposed hydroxychloroquine regimen unfolds.

  • Will DIY Coronavirus Test Kits Close the Testing Gap?

    Lisa Maree Williams/Getty

    Every day for the last week, between 338,000 and 413,000 people have received coronavirus tests in the United States. For people who aren’t hospitalized, the process typically requires obtaining a doctor’s order, going to a drive-through site, and allowing a medical worker clad in protective gear to stick a long cotton swab deep into the nasal cavity. Yet as the country’s public health agencies struggle to provide and process the millions of daily tests experts say are needed to allow Americans to return to work and school safely, getting tested has to get easier. And that may mean doing it yourself.

    At-home testing has promise, says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Theoretically, this approach can reduce the need for clinical providers to collect specimens, increase safety for healthcare providers, and reduce demand for personal protective equipment,” she says. “When you try to do drive-through [testing], you have limited access,” explains Eric Topol, the director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “You can only do so many a day. It requires appointments. A lot of vulnerable people can’t get to these drive-throughs. You’re never going to get to the 5 million tests a day or more that we need.”

    Nationwide testing proposals by the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics include a role for at-home tests—either kits that can be mailed to labs or still-in-development tests that deliver an instantaneous result like a home pregnancy test. Of all the options for collecting swabs and samples, at-home test kits have “the lowest demand on personnel and infrastructure and should be a high priority for the FDA,” the Harvard researchers wrote. “There’s no other way we can get to a massive scale of testing outside of a home test kit,” says Topol. 

    In Seattle, a large-scale study to monitor the regional spread of the coronavirus could offer insight into the efficacy of at-home sample collection. For months, researchers affiliated with local public health authorities have been sending thousands of nasal swabs to healthy and sick people who had to follow instructions for swabbing themselves and then mail the samples to a lab. “The whole idea was if that worked well as a screen for infection, then that would be a great model for the whole country,” Topol says. “But now it’s stopped.” The study, which is funded by Bill Gates, was put on hold last week by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the New York Times, researchers needed additional authorization to let participants know the results of their at-home tests.

    Another effort to track the spread of the coronavirus using self-collected saliva and blood is in the works in Massachusetts, according to Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard. “Instead of having public health people go to apartment buildings, we’re going to be mailing them the supplies and we’ll receive those back and test,” Mina told reporters during a recent press conference. “I think that this is a very good approach and it’s a way to reduce transmission.”

    Kits to collect samples at home and mail them to a lab for testing are now available on demand—for a price. In March, a handful of startups began marketing home-collection kits before being quickly shut down by the FDA. But on April 21, the FDA allowed LabCorp, which runs one of the largest networks of commercial labs in the country, to conduct tests on nasal swabs collected at home. LabCorp first offered its home swabbing kits to health care workers and first responders, but now sells the kits for $119 to people who pass a screening by one of its contracted doctors. (LabCorp says it will bill insurers or the federal government directly, meaning there’s no upfront cost to consumers.) Results from the tests will be reported to public health authorities.

    And more DIY nasal swabs are coming: Last week, the home health testing company Everlywell, one of the companies that had started marketing kits in March, got a green light from the FDA to sell a home swab kit. Samples collected with the $109 kit could be analyzed with one of a couple authorized tests, giving the company the flexibility to send tests to different labs. The company says its kits will be available by the end of the month. 

    Yet home testing could run into the same supply-chain issues that have hobbled US testing capacity over the past few months. Like drive-through and hospital-based testing, at-home sample collection relies on specialized nasal swabs, which have been in high demand and surprisingly hard to procure in some places. And there’s some potential for user error. LabCorp warns that incorrectly collected samples may not be tested at all, while false negatives could be more likely if customers don’t ship their samples on the same day they swab themselves.

    Meanwhile, emerging research suggests that there may be a better way to test yourself than sticking a swab into the depths of your nasal cavity. Preliminary findings from the Yale School of Public Health suggest that tests that looked for the presence of the coronavirus in saliva were at least as accurate as tests using nasopharyngeal swabs. With further validation, widespread use of saliva sampling could be transformative for public health efforts,” said Anne Wyllie, a Yale associate research scientist.

    On May 8, the FDA allowed Rutgers University to start performing the first tests on home-collected saliva samples. Users spit into a vial, then drop it in the mail. Companies, including the telehealth startups Vault Health and Hims & Hers, promptly cut deals to offer the saliva collection kits for $150 apiece. According to the companies’ websites, buyers are first screened for signs of COVID-19. Hims & Hers requires a consultation with a doctor to approve the test; Vault Health has doctors supervise sample collection over a video call. The samples are tested in the Rutgers lab.

    Nuzzo calls at-home saliva collection a “promising development.” But like the home nasal swab kits, they’re still susceptible to supply chain issues, because the lab tests used analyze saliva require chemicals that are in short supply. And both nasal and saliva samples can take several days to get to the lab for analysis, Nuzzo points out. That can make the tests less useful, particularly if people who were negative get infected before receiving their results.

    Ideally, we would have a coronavirus test that could be performed at home and immediately return results, “like a pregnancy test,” Topol says. People who tested themselves—perhaps using saliva—would know immediately if they were carrying enough of the virus to transmit it others and could then adjust their behavior accordingly. “We could go into reopening if we could do that,” Topol says. “We could have it at stores, grocery stores and shopping malls and restaurants and workplaces.”

    It is already difficult to tally the exact number of coronavirus tests being done across the United States. Home tests that deliver instant results could also be hard to track. It would be difficult to ensure that people report positive results to public health authorities, who need that data to conduct contact tracing and other surveillance efforts to stop potential outbreaks. “Can you have these things have RFID chips in them or something to send out or Bluetooth?” Mina wondered. “I think we’re going to have to figure out how to balance the speed that individuals are getting their results with also ensuring that those results, because this is a public health issue, can get to the public health departments that need to be notified.”

    Nuzzo says diagnostic tests that are done entirely at home could be a game-changer for people who need to test themselves frequently, such as those who work in high-risk jobs or live with someone who is medically vulnerable. She points to home HIV tests, which have been sold in stores and online since 2012, as a precedent. “In the past, we’ve always worried about people interpreting their own test results and acting upon information without a healthcare professional in the loop,” she says. “I think maybe as a society we might be shifting away slowly from worry about that, for better or for worse.”

    Mina believes such DIY tests are not far off. “These might be a paper strip tests that look like pregnancy tests but actually for the pathogen itself. That might be a two- or five-dollar piece of paper that you can either spit on, or you swab a Q-Tip into your nose and rub it on this thing, or put some solution on it,” he said. The tests wouldn’t even have to be especially sensitive, he explains, so long as they were used daily to check for transmissible levels of the virus. “I think that we might see a moment in the not-too-distant future,” he says, “where that starts to become a reality.”

  • The Trump Administration Just Extended Its COVID-19 Border Restrictions—Indefinitely

    The San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, in late April.Francisco Vega/Getty Images

    The Trump administration indefinitely extended its coronavirus border restrictions Tuesday, finalizing a rule that has allowed the government to turn away asylum seekers and other immigrants for public health reasons over the past two months.

    The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, wrote that the border closure “shall remain in effect until I determine that the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health.” The closure will be up for review every 30 days.

    On March 20, President Donald Trump directed immigration officials to begin turning people back at the US-Mexico border, citing concern over the spread of coronavirus. The administration invoked a federal code that states that the government has the power to prohibit people from foreign countries or places once the surgeon general determines there’s a serious danger of introducing a communicable disease from a foreign country. The first order was extended an additional 30 days in mid-April. 

    The latest extension applies to all land and coastal ports of entry, as well as to Border Patrol stations where people would otherwise be detained. US Customs and Border Protection data for April show a steep decline in border activity; approximately 14,000 were apprehended last month, compared to the more than 109,000 people who were processed by Border Patrol in April 2019. 

    Over the past several years, the Trump administration—led by senior adviser Stephen Miller—has pushed to limit asylum opportunities at the border and further restrict immigration. A New York Times story earlier this month reported that Miller has been mulling how to use a public health crisis to further his restrictionist policies for some time: “The ideas about invoking public health and other emergency powers had been on a ‘wish list’ of about 50 ideas to curtail immigration that Mr. Miller crafted within the first six months of the administration.”

    The White House has limited, or blocked, most forms of migration into the United States during this pandemic. On April 22, Trump signed an executive order hat temporarily restricting some immigrant visas—a move he framed as a necessary response protect American jobs in the midst of an economic downturn. (That order expires after 60 days but can also be extended.) 

    Human rights advocates have said that these pandemic-era restrictions have little to do with curbing the spread of the virus and violate international agreements that protect asylum seekers. “The president is hellbent on exploiting a public health crisis to achieve his long-held goal of ending asylum at the border,” said Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy for the American Civil Liberties Union. “He’s also doubling down on fear-mongering against immigrants, so many of whom are essential workers during this crisis. Do not be fooled: Trump’s goal is not to protect our health, it’s to sow division and advance his political agenda.” 

  • Shelter-in-Place Orders Saved Nearly 250,000 Lives

    Wong Maye-E/AP

    Finally, some good news: Despite months of botched coronavirus testinglimited treatment options and flip-flopping on masks, new research suggests something is working to flatten the curve—stay-at-home orders. According to an analysis by the Urban Health Collaborative at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, in the 30 largest metro areas, shelter-in-place orders likely saved 232,878 lives and prevented 2.1 million hospitalizations. In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, nearly 25,000 lives were saved in 45 days of stay-at-home. By the end of this month, the researchers estimate that New York will have avoided more than 30,000 covid-19 deaths, and nearly 300,000 hospitalizations.

    This reduction in deaths and especially hospitalizations meant many of the worst-case-scenarios never came to fruition. Despite concerns about overcrowded ICUs and ventilator shortages—which plagued hospitals in Italy back in March—even the hardest hit areas are seeing case numbers start to plateau

    Los Angeles, which instituted shelter-in-place nearly a week before New York, has prevented nearly 40,000 covid-19 deaths and more than 350,000 hospitalizations. Chicago’s shelter-in-place reduced deaths by nearly 10,000.

    “What we really wanted to do was to say this matters. Doing nothing is in fact doing something,” Jennifer Kolker, associate dean for public health practice at the Dornsife School, told The Hill. “We really wanted to give city leaders the opportunity to say to their residents and their jurisdictions, ‘Hey folks, look what you did, you saved lives, you kept people out of the hospital.'”

    You can read more estimates from cities including Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Seattle here.

  • As States Reopen, Concern Grows Over Data Manipulation

    Austin Mcafee/ZUMA

    The rush to lift lockdown measures, even as COVID-19 continues to pose major problems across the country, is sparking new concern over whether some states are using misleading data in order to justify reopening.

    In Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has led one of the most aggressive campaigns to restart the economy, widespread confusion abounds after at least three errors in its recent data-tracking were caught by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Those mistakes included presenting days in the incorrect order, which created the appearance that infections in the state were rapidly declining. For some, the apparent error was too glaring to be just that, immediately drawing suspicion that it had been done intentionally, though Kemp’s office denies the accusation.

    “Our mission failed,” Kemp spokesperson Candice Broce said after one reader noted that the cases along the x-axis were not in chronological order. “We apologize. It is fixed.”

    Amid those mishaps in Georgia, the leading architect behind Florida’s coronavirus data dashboard revealed on Friday that she had been abruptly removed from her post. According to Florida Today, Rebekah Jones’ announcement followed weeks of strange website crashes and missing data. “As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months,” Jones said in an email announcing her dismissal. “After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

    That’s sparked worries that Jones’ removal may be a signal that the state is clamping down on transparency, as its governor rushes to declare victory against COVID-19.

    The potential trend echoes a similar development at the White House, which has reportedly been pressuring the CDC to change its methodology for tallying deaths in a way that would undercount fatalities.

  • Plague Comforts: “Nature Is Healing, We Are the Virus” Memes

    A fox squirrel eats pizza in Portland, Oregon.Alex Milan Tracy/AP

    An occasional series about stuff that’s getting us through a pandemic. More here.

    The apocalypse sucks, but the memes have never been better. Stuck inside, newly unemployed, people have seemingly endless time to film elaborate Tik-Toks and remix Cardi B. It’s a coping mechanism—as Wendy Williams sings in this auto-tuned clip from her 2019 appearance on The View that somehow came up on my feed, “If we don’t laugh, then we’ll cry.” And no meme has interrupted my crying as much as the various spins on “nature is healing, we are the virus.”

    The meme satirizes an earlier trend of people earnestly posting photos of pollution clearing up over major cities and animals “returning” to urban environments, as if these were their natural habitats. “We are the virus,” people declared on Twitter. The idea was that nature is better off when humans stay inside. But without belittling the benefits of Wuhan residents breathing cleaner air, or the Himalayas being visible in northern India for the first time in decades, I can’t help but sense troubling naiveté in the idea that nature is healing. That’s what makes the ironic version, the memes, so compelling. 

    Here’s the sentiment expressed in earnest:

    Here’s the meme version:

    Sure, COVID-19 has people driving less and taking fewer flights. But nearly empty planes are still crossing our skies, by decree of the airline industry bailout. Animals who move into cleared city streets, while cute, may actually be in danger. Trump has relaxed environmental protections and classified meat production as “critical,” sacrificing workers, animals, and much of our carbon budget. The push to get everything “back to normal” will jumpstart pollution in no time. CO2 levels are hitting their highest point in human history. 

    But Delilah, you say to me. This is no comfort. We’re already dealing with a global pandemic. Do you have to remind us of the even greater crisis?

    To which I respond, sry, ya, i do. A few months of humans being on lockdown does not the Earth heal. That will require an immense effort, which, lest we forget amid our present troubles, has hardly even begun. But while my favorite corona-viral meme mocks absurd contrasts between the natural world and consumer detritus (see: Furbies sitting in a leaf-bare tree), the relief it offers is more than just comic. Humans and cities aren’t separate from nature. Our fates are deeply intertwined. And “we” are not the metaphorical virus plaguing Earth—the capitalist system is.

    As Greta Thunberg writes in her family’s recent book Our House Is on Fire, “Our emissions are the main problem. Not the people. Most humans live well inside the planetary boundaries….So if you want to limit the population to save resources, you ought to start a campaign to rid the world of billionaires.”

    In my favorite iteration of “nature is healing,” people place an emoji heart after “we are the virus.” It renders the unsettling phrase trite and hollow, like celebrities singing “Imagine,” or feel-good posts that idolize essential workers as “heroes” without recognizing the everyday precarity that forces people to work in unsafe conditions, pandemic or not (we’re all in this together ❤️). Our world is complicated and fucked up, and the ways people respond online are often hilariously glib. Memes, at their best, turn that shit into gold, alchemizing collective consciousness out of lolz.

    If the TikToking kids of Gen Z have taught me anything, it’s that irony is nonbinary: You can laugh at things while also taking them seriously. Sometimes it’s the only way. If we don’t laugh, then we’ll cry.

  • Trump Says He’s Taking Hydroxychloroquine Preventatively

    SMG/Zuma

    For weeks, President Trump has been touting the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle drug” for treating COVID-19. On Monday, he admitted that he has been taking it prophylactically for a week and a half.

    “A lot of good things have come out about the hydroxy,” he said. “I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it.” 

    Trump slipped the revelation in at the end of a “roundtable with restaurant executives and industry leaders” in which he railed against the whistleblower who revealed the Trump–Ukraine scandal and defended Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged habit of having a staffer perform household tasks. (Trump’s justification? “Maybe his wife isn’t there.”) But of all the absurd things Trump said, his purported use of a non-approved drug for an illness he doesn’t have takes the cake.

    When asked for evidence of the drug’s efficacy, Trump replied, “Here’s my evidence: I get a lot of positive calls about it.” 

    The drug, which is used to treat lupus and arthritis, has not been proven to be effective in treating COVID-19, though a clinical trial is underway. In an observational study of hospitalized COVID-19 patients published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that “hydroxychloroquine administration was not associated with either a greatly lowered or an increased risk of the composite end point of intubation or death” and noted that randomized, controlled trials are still needed. The Food and Drug Administration has warned against its use outside of hospital settings.

    Watch the video below:

  • A Watchdog Asks Why the Trump Administration Removed a Key Requirement for Pandemic Loans

    Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Zuma

    A congressional oversight panel wants to know why the Trump administration and the Federal Reserve are no longer requiring businesses seeking coronavirus relief loans to attest that the pandemic was the source of their financial woes.

    The CARES Act, passed in early April, created the Main Street Lending Program, which was designed to make it easier for small- and medium-sized businesses that lost money because of the public health emergency to acquire loans. But on April 30, the Treasury Department and the Fed revised the program’s term sheets to remove a requirement that companies attest that they need the financing “due to the exigent circumstances presented by the coronavirus disease.”

    The Congressional Oversight Commission, the watchdog group created to oversee the Fed’s and the Treasury’s management of CARES Act funds, asked in a report Monday why the clause was removed. “Without this requirement,” the authors added, “how will the agencies ensure they are providing liquidity ‘to eligible businesses, [s]tates, and municipalities related to losses incurred as a result of coronavirus’?” The bipartisan commission, which consists of Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.), and former Elizabeth Warren staffer Bharat Ramamurti, is vowing to find out.

  • Western States Lead the Way in Vote-By-Mail Elections

    Wearing gloves, an election worker collect ballots from a drop box.John Froschauer/AP

    This piece was originally published in High Country News and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

    As the first wave of COVID-19 hits communities during primary season, states are still resolving how to hold elections in the middle of a pandemic. Voter advocates and organizers see the primaries as a test run, with many assuming that the November general election will also need to adapt to COVID-19. Since April, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, a virologist, and epidemiologists have predicted that another, potentially worse, wave of the virus will hit communities this fall and winter.

    Universal vote-by-mail is being promoted by secretaries of State and voter advocates alike as a clear solution to balancing voter access and public health concerns. In this area, the West leads the way. “The crux of it is: Let’s make it as simple as possible for people to get a ballot,” said Heather Smith, executive director for ACLU of Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota. “Now is the time to be thinking about November and making sure that processes are in place for the least amount of disruption possible to the voting system.” 

    When it comes to Election Day, Western states might be more prepared to face pandemic-related election challenges than the rest of the US Most of the nation uses traditional in-person voting in a poll booth. But in 2018, 69 percent of votes in the West were cast by mail, according to the Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan, vote-by-mail advocacy nonprofit. That compares to just 27 percent in the rest of the nation. Of the five states that vote entirely by mail pre-COVID-19, four are in the West: Oregon has done so since 2000, Washington, Colorado and Utah joining in the last decade. And Western states that don’t have statewide vote-by-mail still have high numbers of residents who use absentee ballots. The majority of voters in Arizona, Montana and California participate in their state’s elections from afar (though California Gov. Gavin Newsom has already declared November’s election will be entirely vote-by-mail). Nevada and New Mexico also depart from tradition, with the majority casting their votes early, before Election Day.

    Sightline Institute; Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

    Why is the region so different from the rest of the US? In short, it’s geography and a history of electoral reform. Western states are much larger and, generally, their populations are more dispersed than the rest of the country. Vote-by-mail has historically been decided on a county-by-county basis, making it a local government decision. Phil Keisling, the former Oregon secretary of State who helped usher vote-by-mail in Oregon in the 1990s, says that it’s popular not only among voters, but also among local election officials—a sign of its grassroots success. “This has been one of the keys of its evolution in the West: Locally elected county clerks, some elected on a partisan basis, others on a nonpartisan basis, have been at the vanguard of this approach to elections.” 

    The history of vote-by-mail has had its heated partisan moments, just as it does today, selectively championed by both Democrats and Republicans. In 1981 in Oregon, Linn County Clerk Del Riley wondered if he could improve the county’s election process by moving entirely to vote-by-mail, since the county already mailed sample and absentee ballots. Working with Secretary of State Norma Paulus, a Republican and the first woman elected to statewide office, they got the Republican-controlled Oregon state Legislature to agree to a test of vote-by-mail after observing a mailed election in San Diego in 1981. From there, it expanded; by 1987, all counties could conduct local elections by mail. Less than a decade later, Republican proponents decided to take vote-by-mail to back to the Legislature, this time to expand it to statewide elections. In 1995, legislation to apply it to primary and general elections statewide passed the Republican House and Senate, but Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, listening to state and national Democrats, vetoed it.

    The partisan views flipped, however, when Oregon held a special election for a US Senate seat using vote-by-mail in 1996. A Democrat, Ron Wyden, won the race, and the next time vote-by-mail legislation came up, the roles had reversed; now Democrats were the champions, and Republicans the detractors. Republican House Majority Rep. Lynn Snodgrass wrote in a 1997 op-ed that voting by mail would “destroy the integrity of the principal of why we vote in the first place,” arguing that coercion and fraud would take place. An aide to Republican House Speaker Bev Clarno (who is currently secretary of State and supports vote-by-mail) said it would help Democrats “because there are more of them.” Politics stymied the effort in the Legislature that year, but a volunteer-backed ballot initiative brought the question to voters in 1998. By then, some Oregon residents had been voting in local elections by mail for 17 years already, and the majority of voters supported it statewide. It passed. “The parties in Oregon argued back and forth about which party would get an edge from it,” said Priscilla Southwell, professor of political science at University of Oregon. “There’s really no evidence that vote-by-mail favors one party over the other.”

    Today, there is bipartisan support in states that use vote-by-mail, and recent polls show the majority of Americans would support vote-by-mail elections. Because of the last two decades of successful elections in Oregon—where voter turnout is among the nation’s highest—vote-at-home advocates point to a ready-made model that other states can adapt. Still, advocates say transitioning states will need to work with tribal governments, Latino communities, rural areas and other historically disenfranchised voters to make sure there’s awareness of the changes, and that early voting and vote centers remain an option for those unable to vote-by-mail, with social distancing measures in place. 

    The key difference among the Western states lies in their use of either vote-by-mail or absentee voting. And the approaches vary widely:

    Arizona

    Primary date: Aug. 4
    Before COVID-19: Roughly 75 percent of Arizona voters were already absentee voters.
    The plan: Instead of vote-by-mail, Arizona election officials will send out forms to registered voters to apply for an absentee ballot.
    Will polls be open? Yes, though it will vary county to county. 

    Idaho

    Primary date: May 19
    Before COVID-19: Voters used absentee, early voting and Election Day voting. Idahoans must show their ID when voting at the polls.
    The plan: Idaho will have its first statewide absentee voting election, and voters had to request an absentee ballot by May 8. As of May 1, more than 185,000 Idahoans had requested their ballots.
    Will polls be open? No. According to the office of Idaho’s secretary of State, fewer than 2 percent of the normal number of poll workers in one of the state’s largest counties were willing to facilitate the primaries during the pandemic.

    Nevada

    Primary date: June 9
    Before COVID-19: In the 2018 primary election, less than 10% of voters signed up for absentee ballots, because most either voted early or used day-of polling sites.
    The plan: This spring, in response to COVID-19, the state Legislature passed a new law for universal vote-by-mail, which will send ballots to all “active” registered voters.
    Will polls be open? Not traditional polling sites, but every county will have at least one vote center.

    Utah

    Primary date: June 30
    Before COVID-19: 90 percent of voters in Utah already use vote-by-mail.
    Will polls be open? No in-person voting will be available, but some counties are opting for a drive-up voting option. According to Utah’s secretary of State office, with the removal of in-person voting, voters will not be able to register at the polls on Election Day, though that has been allowed in the past.

    Voting-access proponents say a universal vote-by-mail system is necessary, but note that accommodations such as increased educational campaigns are critical to make sure voters are not disenfranchised by the changes. “This is particularly true for ethnic minority groups,” said Sonja Diaz, founding director of UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative. “Young Latinos and Asian Americans in this country are the two fastest-growing demographic groups. And they are very young in age, especially in comparison to older white voters, and that means that you’re seeing a lot of first-time voters because they’re aging into the electorate.”

    Most secretary of State offices are still closed because of COVID-19, meaning that voter registration has moved online. That’s a problem for many rural areas without access to broadband, including over 90 percent of Indigenous communities on reservations. Other barriers to Indigenous voters involve inadequate mailing services and lack of language assistance. According to Jacqueline De León (Isleta Pueblo), an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, it’s critical that state and county election officers work with tribal governments to identify and address those obstacles ahead of the primaries and the November election. “Vote-by-mail has the potential to devastate the Native vote,” De León said, “because if you don’t have residential mail delivery, you’re not getting the ballot at your house.” 

    This week, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and House Democrats unveiled the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, the latest coronavirus relief package. The HEROES Act would provide $3.6 billion to assist states in election changes like vote-by-mail, expanded early in-person voting and same-day or online voter registration. Pelosi has cited the importance of not forcing voters to choose between exercising their right to vote and contracting COVID-19. “What country do we want to live in?” said Keisling, Oregon’s former secretary of State. “I’d rather live in a country where a lot more people are voting even when my candidates lose, than winning because we’ve lowered the turnout.”

  • Why Is My Dentist Pushing an Unproven Coronavirus Treatment?

    DuxX/Getty

    I’ll admit that one of the nice things about being stuck at home has been indefinitely postponing my next dental appointment. So I felt a twinge of guilt the other morning when an email from my dentist’s office popped into my inbox. But it had more urgent business than reminding me to floss: “The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly developing situation. We here at [office name redacted] are concerned about you, the patient.”

    The message continued: “Hydrogen peroxide (H₂O₂) appears to be another potential treatment for COVID-19.” This common compound, it explained, is “an oxidizing agent, which means that it can kill living cells, such as bacteria.” (Isn’t the coronavirus a… virus?) “To help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” my dentist’s office was offering a foaming peroxide gel which I could put on my teeth for 15 to 20 minutes at a time:

    The foaming helps clean the area, remove dead cells, and reduce bacteria which helps prevent the spread of the virus and can actually slow it down from spreading to the lungs if you do have it.… If you know you need to go out, when you return home, use the solution immediately to prevent the virus.

    Just $100 for six applications (not including a mouth tray)!

    Needless to say, I didn’t bite. There were plenty of red flags in the email, starting with its casual description of hydrogen peroxide as possible way to both prevent and treat COVID-19. Then there was the lack of any mention that this protocol had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the American Dental Association, or another reputable organization. It did mention, however, that H₂O₂’s potential COVID-fighting powers had been noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unsurprisingly, a search failed to turn up any evidence that the CDC has okayed putting hydrogen peroxide, a topical disinfectant, into your mouth to stop the coronavirus.

    The message also cited a Dr. Thomas Levy, the author of books such as Death By Calcium, Curing the Incurable, and Magnesium: Reversing Disease (from the blurb: “magnesium is the natural antidote for the root cause of all pathalogical [sic] damage from every disease and poisoning known to man.”) During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Levy suggested that the virus could be “destroyed naturally” with massive doses of vitamin C

    Levy has also boosted the purported curative properties of hydrogen peroxide. In March, a blog republished an article in which he advocates using a nebulizer to inhale a three-percent solution of peroxide to fight the coronavirus. “Because you now have a simple, inexpensive, and effective way to conquer virtually all viral infections,” he writes, “you do not have to live in fear of COVID-19 or any other pandemic.” Dr. Joseph Mercola, the anti-vaccine dietary supplement guru, also suggests aerosolized peroxide as a possible coronavirus blocker.  

    Back in the real world, hydrogen peroxide has non-kooky applications as a mouthwash and teeth whitener. It is considered safe in low doses, though Today’s RDH, a publication for dental hygienists, warns that rinsing with undiluted peroxide can can cause a benign condition known as “black hairy tongue,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It also comes in brown, yellow, green, blue, and colorless varieties. (Take my word and do not do an image search for this.) And too much exposure to peroxide can also cause chemical burns and tissue damage.

    Yet I could not find any recommendations that peroxide gel should be used orally to stop the spread of coronavirus. The American Dental Association’s guidelines for treatment during the current pandemic say that dentists may have patients rinse their mouths with a hydrogen peroxide solution before receiving care. In a recent video, Dr. Dave Preble, the senior vice president of the ADA’s practice institute, explains that while hydrogen peroxide may kill the coronavirus in the mouth, that hasn’t been clinically proven. And, he continues, “considering that the microscopic particles that we are trying to be protected from are coming from the patient’s lungs, a mouth rinse is not going to be a panacea—unless you’re going to have the patient rinse after every breath they take.”

    Having done a little homework, I wrote an angry email to my dentist’s office, saying that I found its message irresponsible and misleading, particularly at a time when people are desperate for reliable information about the coronavirus.

    Not long afterwards, I got a reply from the office manager, who said she had written the email and reassured me she had only described hydrogen peroxide as a potential COVID-19 treatment—“Key word being potential.” She included a link to a company that sells a whitening gel that contains hydrogen peroxide, which made me suspect that this had been a clumsy attempt to repackage tooth whitener as a coronavirus therapy.

    Later, I received a more detailed response from my dentist, who apologized for his office manager’s “confusing” message and disavowed the reference to Levy. Yet he doubled down on the original email’s endorsement of hydrogen peroxide. He said that there is “new research suggesting peroxide gels can help fighting the coronavirus.” He attached a couple of non-peer-reviewed articles; one was written by the CEO of a peroxide gel maker. He also stated that the Environmental Protection Agency “recommend[s] using the hydrogen peroxide gels for use against SARS-CoV-2” and included a screenshot of the agency’s list of disinfectants that can be used on the coronavirus. I visited the EPA’s site; it very clearly states, “These products are for use on surfaces, NOT humans.” 

    I was astounded. Less than a month after President Trump had wondered if injecting disinfectant could kill coronavirus, a medical professional was blurring the line between using hydrogen peroxide to kill viruses on hard surfaces and its potential for internal use. The whole thing smacked of misguided opportunism. However, my dentist insisted that he wasn’t trying to make a quick buck. In his email to me, he said that dentists are desperate for peroxide products right now and that he “would make huge profits” if he sold his inventory to his colleagues.

    On the bright side, I suppose, the only side effect of trying to clean the coronavirus out of your mouth with peroxide is a whiter smile (or maybe a discolored, hairy tongue). Anyway, I really need to find a new dentist.  

  • Donald Trump and His Son Have an Insane New Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory

    Donald and Eric Trump on the campaign trail in 2016Jae C. Hong/AP

    Eric Trump made headlines this weekend with an outlandish accusation. Democrats, he claimed, are seeking to prolong coronavirus lockdowns in order to prevent his father from holding campaign rallies. It’s a version of a conspiracy theory that has become increasingly popular among the president’s supporters—and has been voiced even by Donald Trump himself.

    The president’s middle son was interviewed Saturday on Fox News by Jeanine Pirro, a Trump loyalist who opened her show by declaring, “The Democrats see a silver lining in this: Instill fear, stop this country at all costs, and shut it down—destroy Donald Trump’s signature piece of his four years, the economy.”

    “Biden loves this,” Eric Trump told Pirro. “They think they’re taking away Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time…You watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3. And guess what: After November 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear, and everybody will be able to reopen. They’re trying to deprive him of his greatest asset.”

    “Make no mistake,” Eric Trump added, “to a lot of them, this is a very cognizant strategy that they’re trying to employ…It’s no different than the mail-in voting that they want to do all these places. It’s no different than wanting illegal immigrants to vote.”

    Eric Trump isn’t the only one promoting baseless conspiracy theories about Democratic governors using lockdowns to damage the president. While interviewing Vice President Mike Pence last week, Rush Limbaugh claimed that some blue-state governors “seem to have a political desire to inflict pain on your administration rather than get their states [reopened].”

    President Trump made a similar assertion last week, when he suggested in an interview with the Washington Examiner that Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, might delay the process of reopening his state in order to interfere with the Republican National Convention, which is scheduled to be held in Charlotte in late August.

    “We have a great state, North Carolina, that’s been very, very good,” the president said. “Although, it’s got a Democrat governor, so we have to be a little bit careful…because they’re playing politics. They’re playing politics, as you know, by delaying the openings.”

    Part of this seems to be projection on the part of a president who has attempted to use federal coronavirus aid as a means of rewarding his allies, punishing his perceived enemies, and extracting political favors and praise from the nation’s governors. Whether or not Donald Trump really believes what he’s saying may not matter. He’s now thrown his full weight behind MAGA protesters’ efforts to end social distancing orders across the country—turning the public health response to a disease that has killed nearly 90,000 Americans into a partisan brawl animated by outlandish conspiracy theories.

  • Elizabeth Warren Says Her Brother’s Coronavirus Death “Didn’t Have to Happen”

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a primary night rally, at Eastern Market in Detroit, March 3, 2020. Patrick Semansky/AP

    There’s a particularly cruel aspect of the coronavirus pandemic. Patients have suffered, and often died, alone. Their families, meanwhile, have had to grieve in isolation. That reality was underscored by Sen, Elizabeth Warren, who discussed her older brother Donald Reed Herring’s death from COVID-19 with the Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere.

    “It just feels like something that didn’t have to happen,” Warren says. She remembers losing her parents and a beloved aunt in a relatively short span of time years ago, but notes how different this loss feels—and how alone her brother must have been:

    And so a little while later I called back, and then I got the news that he had been taken to an emergency room. In any other state of the world, I would have been there with him. We all would have been there with him. And instead he was by himself. I just kept imagining what’s happening to him. Is he afraid? Is he cold? I kept thinking about whether he was cold. There’s no one there to talk to him while he waits for the doctor. There’s no one there to be with him while he receives the news.

    “And all I could do would be talk by phone with my brothers,” she adds. “It’s not the same. You need to touch people. We have to hug; we have to be with each other.”

    The coronavirus has transformed the grieving process all over the world. Support systems and traditions that have long been the pillars of grief—funerals or memorial services, for example—have broken down in the age of social distancing. Sure, some people have tried. More than 200 people gathered at a funeral in Albany, Georgia, in February. That event was later identified by researchers as a “super spreading event.” By early April, more than 500 people in the county had tested positive for the coronavirus. In late April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio broke up a large funeral gathering for a rabbi who had died of the disease.

    Given the disastrous federal response to the outbreak, Warren—who’s in the running to become Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee—is in a unique position. Her personal tragedy is one being shared by millions of potential voters, putting her in a position to maybe, possibly do something.