COVID19 🦠 Newsbites
Don't ignore this headline: The pandemic is getting worse. What happens next is up to you
The United States just shattered its all-time records for the most Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths reported in one day:

— On January 2, a record-high 302,506 new infections were reported in one day, according to Johns Hopkins University.

That's an average of 3.5 people getting infected every second.

— On January 6, a record-high 132,447 patients were hospitalized with Covid-19, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

Many hospitals are now filled beyond capacity, meaning even those without Covid-19 -- say, car accident victims -- might not get immediate care.

— On January 12, a record-high 4,462 Covid-19 deaths were reported in just one day, according to Johns Hopkins.

A Boeing 747 can carry about 400 passengers. That means in one day, US deaths from Covid-19 were on par with 11 jumbo jets crashing, killing everyone on board.

People are letting their guard down due to pandemic fatigue. And many of those who are sick of taking precautions are getting sick.

Now that the weather is colder, more people are socializing indoors. And the coronavirus primarily spreads during close contact with others through respiratory droplets -- produced when someone talks, coughs, sings or even breathes.

Sometimes, viral particles can "linger in the air for minutes to hours," the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

"These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space," the CDC said.

Socializing indoors with anyone outside your bubble -- even just one friend -- is risky. Gathering with multiple friends indoors can be dangerous.

... One reason why the coronavirus spreads so easily is because people can be contagious without knowing they're infected -- and can pass along the virus without looking or feeling sick.

The CDC estimates more than 50% of all infections are transmitted from people who aren't showing symptoms.

"This means at least half of new infections come from people likely unaware they are infectious to others," the agency said.

... Fallout from the holidays could still ripple across the United States for weeks to come.

"It takes two to three weeks for patients to get sick enough to need the hospital after they've gotten the virus," said Dr. Anish Mahajan, chief medical officer at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

... If you want to get life closer to normal (and more quickly), it's time to double down on safety measures:

Wear a mask in public and every time you're around someone who doesn't live with you. If there's a chance for infection within your home, wear a mask at home, too.

Don't count on a negative test result as a way to "safely" see friends or relatives. You can test negative but still be infected and contagious.

Keep social distancing. Wash your hands frequently. And don't think you're invincible -- even if you're young and healthy.

Vaccine reserve was exhausted when Trump administration vowed to release it, dashing hopes of expanded access
States were anticipating a windfall after federal officials said they would stop holding back second doses. But the approach had already changed, and no stockpile exists.

When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced this week that the federal government would begin releasing coronavirus vaccine doses that had been held in reserve for second shots, no such reserve existed, according to state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans. The Trump administration had already begun shipping out what was available, starting at the end of December, taking second doses for the two-dose regimen directly off the manufacturing line.

Now, health officials across the country who had anticipated their extremely limited vaccine supply as much as doubling beginning next week are confronting the reality that their allocations will remain largely flat, dashing hopes of dramatically expanding access for millions of elderly people and those with high-risk medical conditions. Health officials in some cities and states were informed in recent days about the reality of the situation, while others were still in the dark Friday.

... In a sign that the incentive structure may not be long-lived, a senior Biden transition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address ongoing deliberations, said this week the team did not look kindly on a system that “punishes states.”

Biden has said he wants to see 100 million shots administered within his first 100 days — an aim that will depend on quickly accelerating the pace of immunization. Together, Pfizer and Moderna have agreed to sell 200 million doses to the United States by the end of March, which is enough to fully vaccinate 100 million people.

Experts warn of vaccine stumbles ‘out of the gate’ because Trump officials refused to consult with Biden team
Even as covid-19 cases continue to overwhelm hospitals, the Trump administration balked at close communication with its successor

The last time a presidential transition began during a national emergency — in 2008 amid the Great Recession — the outgoing Bush administration set aside partisanship to work closely with incoming Obama officials on how to deal with the economic collapse.

“Everyone was completely responsive to any question,” said Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama. “They talked to us about major decisions.”

That smooth handoff is in stark contrast to what is happening now as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to assume power during a double-barreled crisis involving a lethal virus and its economic fallout that experts say demands close cooperation. Instead, as the coronavirus overwhelms U.S. hospitals and kills more than 3,300 people a day on average, the Trump administration has balked at providing access to information and failed to consult with its successors, including about distributing the vaccines that offer the greatest hope of emerging from the pandemic.

For more than a month, the Biden team pressed to attend meetings that offered “real-time information on production and distribution of vaccine” — important details for the president-elect’s advisers debating ways to bring the pandemic under control, said a transition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private interactions.

While health agencies’ career staff have been helpful, it was not until this week that Biden officials were allowed to attend meetings of Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s initiative to accelerate vaccine development and distribution. They were also not invited to the two Warp Speed sessions this weekend when Trump officials decided on sweeping changes to try to speed up the sluggish vaccine rollout. Nor were they briefed on those changes in advance.

... The lack of coordination has alarmed public health officials and experts on presidential transitions, especially as a more contagious virus variant first identified in Britain spreads across the United States and the CDC projects as many as 477,000 covid-19 deaths by Feb. 6.

The dearth of coordination “means we are stumbling out of the gate with the vaccine,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “We are failing at a government level on distribution because there is no game plan. There is a chaotic Trump one and a learning-curve Biden one.”

Debt collectors, payday lenders collected over $500 million in federal pandemic relief
Paycheck Protection Program money went to firms that have drawn sanctions and received hundreds of consumer complaints

A Texas firm that describes itself as one of the nation’s largest medical bill collectors was racking up consumer complaints last year.

“For months this company has been reporting inaccurate, unverifiable, erroneous things on my credit report and I am sick of it!!!” states one consumer’s report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in January 2020.

“I get calls almost every other day,” according to another in April. “I consider this harassment.”

“I am reporting a potentially fraudulent credit collection and reporting issue,” said a third.

The firm, Capio Asset Servicing, came under investigation last year as part of Operation Corrupt Collector, an enforcement sweep of the debt-collection industry by federal and state officials. In a September lawsuit, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) alleged that the company was seeking to collect debts that were not owed and “causing emotional and physical stress when they threaten and intimidate consumers.”

Yet the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program last year also gave the company a helping hand: It provided $2.4 million in forgivable loans to Capio and an affiliated firm, the Law Office of Mitchell D. Bluhm and Associates, which works with Capio, investigators said.

Those were just two of more than 1,800 loans that went to debt collectors and high-interest lenders through the Paycheck Protection Program, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. In all, the aid to these businesses amounted to more than $580 million.

More than 170 of those recipients have been the subject of a multitude of complaints — each racking up at least 100 with the CFPB, according to The Post’s analysis. Twenty-five have been subject to legal enforcement or consumer alerts, many by the CFPB and the Federal Trade Commission.

“Giving these companies government money was a terrible idea,” said Don Yarbrough, a lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who represents debtors in collection cases. The government loans to debt collectors essentially finance “debt collection against people who already are dealing with a global pandemic.”

... Another question that has arisen regarding such loans to consumer finance companies is whether they needed the money.

Although the Paycheck Protection Program was intended to help ailing small businesses, it did not require evidence of losses. Its rules required companies only to attest that “current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary.”

More than 1,700 debt-collection agencies and related businesses borrowed from the program, totaling more than $520 million in loans.

Yet many of these firms are prospering during the pandemic. Although debt collectors often lose in recessions, this pandemic recession may be different, industry analysts said, and some are reaping more money than ever.

... As a result, critics say, many debt collectors are prospering and should not have benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program.

“Some of these companies are recording record profits,” Yarbrough said. “They don’t need government assistance.”

... Similar questions have arisen about whether lenders, particularly payday loan companies that charge high interest rates, ought to be eligible for the program.

At the outset, the Small Business Administration imposed a rule excluding all lenders from the Paycheck Protection Program.

But the decision to exclude them — along with lobbying firms and businesses that offer “prurient” entertainment — has been repeatedly challenged in court: The SBA and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were sued last year by a strip club in Flint, Mich., a group of strip clubs in Wisconsin, a lobbying group and a payday lender.

Those who represent payday lenders argue that the point of the Cares Act was to keep employees on the job regardless of the industry in which they work.

Democrats are lining up behind Biden's COVID-19 stimulus plan, a stark contrast to the deep GOP divides over the last deal
  • Democratic Party members are largely unified in their support for President-elect Biden's COVID-19 stimulus.
  • A coordinated position — which also includes endorsement from the Chamber of Commerce — is a far cry from the chaos that dominated GOP negotiations last year.
  • In negotiating the second bill, Republicans were split between hardliners like Mitch McConnell, and a breakaway group who led bipartisan negotiations — and were ultimately undermined by Trump.
  • The issue of $2,000 checks – now reduced to $1,400 — has caused some complaints, but the party appears to be largely backing Biden's plan.