Headlines: March 26, 2020
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The US Labor Department on Thursday announced a historic jump in unemployment as a whopping 3.3 million Americans filed for benefits last week. The number far surpasses the last record-breaking weekly jump when nearly 700,000 Americans lost their jobs in 1982. According to the Washington Post, “Many economists say this is the beginning of a massive spike in unemployment that could result in over 40 million Americans losing their jobs by April.” So many people applied for unemployment benefits that in several states websites crashed with the flood of online applications and those applying over the phone had hours long wait-times. In February the rate of unemployment was 3.5% and now it has jumped to 5.5 percent. The Post further explained that, “A lot of workers are not allowed to apply for unemployment benefits, meaning the true number of layoffs so far due to the coronavirus is likely far higher than 3.3 million. Self-employed workers, gig workers, undocumented workers, students, and people who worked fewer than six months last year are typically not eligible to apply for unemployment insurance in most states.”
The disturbing numbers of unemployed came just after US Senate finally voted on and unanimously passed a massive economic stimulus package to the tune of $2.2 trillion – a number that was previously so unimaginable that most lawmakers scoffed at the price tag for a Medicare-for-All program that ran into trillions of dollars over ten years. The Senate bill includes, among other things, assistance to State governments, $350 billion in loans for small businesses, emergency unemployment insurance, assistance for hospitals and healthcare organizations, and payouts to Americans who make less than $75,000 a year. On Wednesday, as debate over the bill went late into the evening, Senator Bernie Sanders slammed a proposed amendment by four Republican Senators who attempted to reduce benefits to low-wage workers because it may result in them bringing home slightly higher amounts than their normal pay. The Senators were Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Tim Scott (S.C.). Here is Sanders on the floor of the Senate denouncing the amendment. The House will now take up the Senate bill and expects to vote on it by Friday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicts that it will pass with, “a strong bi-partisan vote.”
Meanwhile the Covid-19 virus continues to ravage the United States with nearly 70,000 people confirmed to be infected and 1,046 deaths. Of the deaths, more than a quarter – 280 – were attributed to New York state alone, mostly in New York city. The New York City convention center is being turned into a makeshift hospital and in Louisiana hotels are being converted while state parks are being used as isolation sites. According to Associated Press in New York city, “A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city’s police, their ranks dwindling as more fall ill, were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing. Another was erected outside a hospital in Elmhurst, Queens.” Nationwide there is a massive surge in the need for more hospital beds as even non-coronavirus patients hope to not be left behind – such as expectant mothers and cancer or heart patients awaiting surgeries or needing urgent care.
Added to the struggle of healthcare workers is the on-going scarcity of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and gowns. A photo of Mount Sinai Health System nurses forced to wear plastic garbage bags for protection has been circulating online highlighting the desperation of staff. Hospitals are also worried about a lack of life-saving equipment like ventilators to help keep alive patients whose airways are shutting down due to the virus. Meanwhile more than a hundred national security professionals have written to President Donald Trump to urge him to invoke the Defense Production Act, which gives him the power to compel private industries to accelerate production of the much-needed equipment. The letter says that the delay in using the law is, “a grave mistake.” Additionally, say the signatories, “If the ultimate objective is to save American lives, there is no alternative to utilizing the DPA immediately and to the fullest extent.”
Politico has published a damning report based on a 69-page leaked document produced by the National Security Council on exactly how to deal with a pandemic of the sort we are facing now. The document is titled, “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents.” Trump was reportedly briefed on the document in 2017. From Politico: “Is there sufficient personal protective equipment for healthcare workers who are providing medical care?” the playbook instructs its readers, as one early decision that officials should address when facing a potential pandemic. “If YES: What are the triggers to signal exhaustion of supplies? Are additional supplies available? If NO: Should the Strategic National Stockpile release PPE to states?” The Trump administration appears to have ignored almost all the advice laid out in the NSC playbook, leading to the Covid-19 crisis being much worse now than it could have been.
In other news, reports emerged of three private companies that have been selling unauthorized home testing kits for the coronavirus. The companies Carbon Health, Everlywell and Nurx received letters from two members of Congress demanding more information on their testing. According to the New York Times, “The companies had marketed kits designed to allow consumers to collect their own saliva, throat swabs or deep nasal swabs at home and send the samples to labs to be tested for the virus.” But the FDA has yet to approve any at-home testing kits. The companies have now stopped marketing the tests directly to the public. The lawmakers also asked the following question in their letter: “Do you intend to refund all consumers all amounts they paid for at-home coronavirus test kits, and if so, when and how you will you do so?”
In non-coronavirus related news, a federal judge just ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline in a major victory to the Standing Rock Sioux and environmental activists opposing the project. The ruling flies in the face of the Trump government’s decision to green light the pipeline although it not yet clear if the ruling will stop the pipeline’s operations.