Wednesday, December 30, 2020

What should we carry into 2021? -- Dec. 31, 2020 column


Four years ago this week, I wrote about “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s haunting short story about the weight of things foot soldiers carried in Vietnam.

The soldiers carried necessities as practical as mosquito repellent, as powerful as anti-personnel mines and as personal as memories. The short story is a classic, beautifully written, rich in detail and as poignant now as when it was first published in 1990.

Rereading it made me start thinking about the New Year, what I wanted to carry into 2017 and what I hoped we could leave behind.

I mainly thought we should leave behind the 2016 presidential election. At the time, the wounds of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump were still fresh. Her supporters were devastated, and recriminations were flying.

Yes, the election was a shock, but we need to let it go, I said.

Commentators were prolonging the agony, and even President Barack Obama opined that he could have beaten Trump in the general election had he been able to run again. I thought that was the kind of wishful thinking Democrats should leave behind with 2016.

In retrospect, the 2016 election was a civics lesson. While Democrats were sad about Clinton’s loss in the Electoral College, after winning 3 million more popular votes than Trump, they did not deny Trump’s victory. No one harped for weeks the election was rigged or voter fraud rampant. Clinton was gracious in defeat.

No one could have imagined then how the Trump presidency would shred democratic norms and values or that it would end in a Trumpian hail of false claims of victory, spurious attacks on election and state officials and even on Republicans who dared to acknowledge reality that Joe Biden won.

But Trump has always been all about Trump. Even after dozens of defeats in the courts challenging election results without producing any verifiable evidence and numerous failed overtures to bully state legislators into overturning the will of voters, Trump continues to rage against facts and truth.

“Can you imagine if the Republicans stole a Presidential Election from the Democrats – All hell would break out,” he tweeted Tuesday from Florida. His temper tantrums are ludicrous but also dangerous.

Trump still has many dedicated followers, and I write this knowing they will see red – and not just their MAGA hats – at my opinion.

Democrats, take note: Trump was the most admired man in America in 2020, Gallup poll reported Tuesday, with 18% of respondents naming Trump compared with 15% for Obama. Trump toppled Obama from the top slot after 12 years.

Biden came in at 6% and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, 3%.

When Gallup asks people the open-ended question which man and woman they admire most, the incumbent president usually wins, the pollster reported. But 21% of respondents this time did not offer an opinion at all and 11% named a relative or friend as the man they admire most.

So what should we leave behind in 2020? I wish we could leave the disputes over the 2020 presidential election, but we know Trump will never concede. He’ll keep flailing in the mud from Mar-a-Lago or wherever he ends up after Jan. 20. But Americans will no longer need to pay attention to his sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Biden has a rocky road ahead, and it’s made more difficult by lies that he gained the office by cheating. Biden, though, already is showing a contrast with the last four years of megalomania. He has the experience at governing that should help restore confidence in our battered institutions.

He’s surrounding himself with a diverse group of competent people, starting with his choice for vice president. Kamala Harris will inspire new generations of young people to public service.

And what should we carry into 2021? You already know. We need to keep our masks and hand sanitizer close and our social distance. We need to fight coronavirus fatigue and be ready to roll up our sleeve to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s our turn.

That’s the only way we truly will put 2020 behind us.

Happy New Year.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

When Jupiter aligned with Saturn -- Dec. 24, 2020 column


In the longest, darkest nights of the year, we turn to the light.

We set electric candles in windows, light the Hanukkah menorah and the Kwanzaa Kinara, and decorate Christmas trees with strings of light.

We adorn our houses, trees, shrubs and lamp posts with colored, white, twinkling and flashing lights – the flashier the better.

The light show this pandemic holiday season started earlier and seemed brighter and more sparkly than in other years. Since more people were staying home for the holidays, they evidently amped up their displays. We need it.

Our holiday lights outshine those in the night sky, but this December the heavens offered us a rare treat: the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn.

The giant planets aligned and from Earth appeared as one bright star on Dec. 21. The planets appeared to be just a tenth of a degree apart – about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length, NASA reported.

How rare was it? The last time the two planets appeared to be this close to each other was during the Middle Ages.

“You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky,” said Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan.

Taking such a long view of the natural phenomenon raises questions. What were people thinking and doing in 1226 when they looked up to see this bright “star” in the night sky? Were they as consumed by their daily cares as we are by ours? Surely, they were, but we know little about 1226 except that the “great conjunction” took place.  

More recently, but still about 400 years ago -- as Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years War and the New World’s Plymouth Colony welcomed two additional ships -- Jupiter and Saturn were nearly as close on July 16, 1623, as they were this week.

In 1610, the Italian astronomer Galileo, using his telescope, had discovered the moons of Jupiter and an oval around Saturn that became known as its rings. There’s no record of Galileo viewing the conjunction of the two planets 13 years later, however.

The timing of the “great conjunction” so close to Christmas this year was coincidental – the planets come together every 20 years, although we on Earth can’t always see the event -- but it called to mind the story in the Gospel of Matthew about the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wise Men. Astronomers believe a similar conjunction did happen around the time of Jesus’s birth.

The very bright “star” is an optical effect. Jupiter and Saturn were 500 million miles apart on Monday. The event was bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. Or, for those under cloudy skies, observatories closed because COVID-19 to in-person viewing parties live-streamed the conjunction.

People around the world paused and looked up. For a few minutes, we could put aside our worries about the coronavirus pandemic, economic hardship and political struggles and marvel at the bigger picture overhead.

Mankind has always consulted the night skies for guidance on sailing the seas and when to plant crops. Looking into the night sky sparks questions about how we got here and how we fit into the universe. The ancient Greeks believed the gods placed the constellations in the sky to give us lessons on how to live.

While most of us have lost our connections to the heavens, astronomical events like the “great conjunction” fire our imaginations and help us feel connected to other inhabitants of our blue dot of a planet.

In his 1994 book, “Pale Blue Dot,” astronomer Carl Sagan wrote about a photo of Earth taken from a space:

 “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

The next time Jupiter and Saturn will be this close is March 15, 2080. Mark your calendar.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.





Wednesday, December 16, 2020

COVID vaccines are a gift -- if we accept them -- Dec. 17, 2020 column


This Christmas, the gifts of Three Wise Men -- make that three pharmaceutical companies -- are COVID-19 vaccines.

The Pfizer vaccine is in distribution, Moderna’s is about to be authorized, and AstraZeneca’s is likely not far behind.

In 2020, these treasures are more valuable than gold, frankincense and myrrh. If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that safety and good health are of incalculable worth.

Seeing the first American healthcare workers baring their upper arms to get the shots boosted everyone’s morale. But it’s estimated 60% to 80% of Americans will need to be immune to the devastating virus, either through infection or vaccination, to achieve herd immunity and begin to resume normal life. That will take months.

The arrival of the miracle vaccines also raises a question: Will people get them?

Polls and anecdotal reports indicate a wide swath of the population, and Black people especially, may be wary. Only 17% or Blacks said they’d definitely get a COVID vaccine, compared with 37% of whites and Hispanics, a Kaiser Family Foundation Poll in October reported.

That was before the vaccines were a reality and before people began seeing their peers gladly roll up their sleeves.

Sandra Lindsay, 52, an intensive care nurse in Queens, New York, who is Black, received the Pfizer vaccine Monday, one of the first people in the United States to do so.

Her goal wasn’t to be first, she told The New York Times, “but to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.”

Generations of Black Americans have grown up distrusting the federal government’s medical programs since the 1932 Tuskegee study in which Black men who had syphilis were left untreated so doctors could study the effects.

Many Americans are inoculation phobic. Most adults typically don’t even get a flu vaccine.

In addition, since it usually takes years to develop a vaccine, the speed at which the COVID vaccines arrived makes even some medical personnel leery of taking the first shots, although clinical trials show the vaccines are remarkably effective and safe.

In its first analysis of the Pfizer vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration found it worked well no matter the volunteer’s age, race or weight. It was 95% effective after two shots three to four weeks apart. Side effects are generally mild, although some experts suggest people might want to take the day off after the second dose in case it brings fatigue, chills or fever.

There’s much we don’t yet know. How well will the vaccine work on children and pregnant women? How long will immunity last? And, while the vaccine protects vaccinated persons from the disease, can the vaccinated still spread the virus through droplets in sneezes and coughs?

The recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is for healthcare workers and long-term care residents to be the highest priority for shots. The Virginia Health Department adopted the recommendation.  

The advisory committee seems likely to recommend that other essential workers be next, followed by those over 65 and those younger who have health conditions that put them at high risk – a plan Virginia also has adopted.

States vary in their priorities. A few states have prioritized law enforcement, prisoners and the homeless in the first group, a review of state policies by the Kaiser Family Foundation found.

The supply of vaccines is limited at present but will increase. By next spring or summer, the general population in Virginia and elsewhere will be eligible to be jabbed.

But will they? A blizzard of misinformation is coming from sources many consider reputable – political figures, radio talkers, posters on social media. By now, no one should believe COVID-19 is a hoax. Not when more than 300,000 in the United States have died of the disease this year and millions more face long-term symptoms.

That’s why everyone must mask up and practice good hygiene and social distancing well into 2021. By next Christmas, with luck and perseverance, we can celebrate the end of the pandemic.

The vaccines are a gift, but first we must accept them.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Biden injects dose of reality -- Dec. 10, 2020 column


It was the shot seen round the world.

At 6:31 a.m. Tuesday, a 90-year-old grandmother in England named Maggie Keenan became the first person in the United Kingdom to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Days from her 91st birthday, Keenan said it was a “privilege” to be first and urged others skeptical about being jabbed to “go for it.”

“V-Day” is coming soon to the United States. The federal government says 20 million Americans could be vaccinated against COVID in the next several weeks.

Suddenly, people everywhere feel the flicker of an emotion as scarce as toilet paper last March: hope.

Life approaching normalcy could return next year. It won’t be as soon as anyone would like. We know the corner is ahead, but, despite the fantasy talk you’ve heard, we’re far from turning it yet.

COVID-19 just became the number one killer of Americans. More than 15 million in the United States have been infected with the novel coronavirus, more than 288,000 have died and thousands more face debilitating effects of the disease lasting months.

President-elect Joe Biden injected a dose of reality to the pandemic Tuesday when he announced his healthcare team and three-point plan for fighting COVID-19.

“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”

Biden’s first priority will be for all Americans to wear masks during his administration’s first 100 days. He’ll require mask-wearing in federal buildings and during interstate travel on planes, trains and buses and work with governors and mayors on state and local mask requirements.

Wearing a mask can reduce cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but it will take more than edicts from the White House, statehouses and city halls to make masking universal. It will take all of us choosing to believe in science – or at least in our family, friends, community and country.

A mask “is not a political statement. It’s a patriotic act. It won’t be the end of our efforts, but it’s a necessary and easy beginning, an easy start,” Biden said.

It’s truly great news three effective vaccines are in the pipeline. Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are expected to gain FDA approval and begin distribution this month with AstraZeneca’s vaccine close behind, but massive logistical challenges loom.

Only a limited amount of vaccine likely will be available in the beginning and, after an initial round, vaccinations could slow and stall, delaying millions from receiving shots for months.

The cold-storage and transportation requirements are daunting. Only some hospitals, typically not clinics or doctors’ offices, have the necessary storage capacity.

Biden’s second priority is a goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots a few weeks apart to be effective, so that would mean about 50 million people could be protected.

First in line will be those most at risk -- healthcare professionals and people living in long-term care facilities.

Biden’s third priority is to open a majority of American schools by the end of his first 100 days, so educators will be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Success for his plan depends on several factors, including where distribution stands when he takes office Jan. 20. He called on Congress to provide funding to ensure vaccines reach all parts of the country and for public health measures in schools to safeguard students, teachers and staff.

Success also depends on persuading large numbers of Americans to shrug off fear and misinformation and take the vaccine. We’re likely to see celebrities baring their arms for the cause.

Biden isn’t sugarcoating the situation. Vaccine distribution will be “one of the hardest and most costly operational challenges in our nation’s history,” he said.

“All I can tell you is the truth. We’re in a very dark winter; things may well get worse before they get better.”

But Biden also exhibits calm, competence and confidence that are refreshing and reassuring. When he uses the pronoun “we,” which he does a lot, he means all of us.

“We know that we can overcome and heal together as one nation,” he said. “We can do this.”


© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Sore loser hurts himself and the country -- Dec. 3, 2020 column


On Wednesday, the United States reported nearly 3,000 people had died in one day from the coronavirus, and President Donald Trump released a speech on video.

It could be his most important speech ever, he said, but it wasn’t about the record loss of life for a single day or that as many Americans died of the coronavirus in one day as perished on 9/11.

Instead, the president railed for 46 minutes about “bad things” in the election, again making baseless claims about fraud, ballot “dumps” and conspiracy theories.

Trump is doing a disservice to the country and to his legacy with his continuing attacks on the electoral process. He will go down in history as a president who was impeached, lost his re-election bid and spread more conflict, distrust and hatred on his way out.

Unfortunately, many of his supporters believe his unsubstantiated claims. History shows repeating a lie often enough makes it seem credible, especially a lie from a trusted figure.

Trump has spun his web of deceit into a successful fund-raising effort that reportedly has reaped $170 million since the election. He claims it is for his lawsuits but could use it for the 2024 comeback presidential campaign he is said to be considering.

He is still being aided and abetted by many Republican members of Congress. And yet, some Trump allies and hand-picked subordinates are finally standing up and refuting his lies.

Attorney General William Barr told the Associated Press Tuesday, “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

That prompted Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, to claim there hasn’t been “any semblance” of an investigation into Trump’s complaints.

But Barr Nov. 9 authorized U.S. attorneys around the country to pursue “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities even before the vote tallies were certified, despite the lack of any evidence of widespread fraud. The Justice Department’s top elections crime official left the post after Barr sent the memo.

Trump badgers Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, as “hapless,” and urges him to use his “executive powers” to undo the election, even after the state counted, recounted by hand and certified the election for Joe Biden. Kemp rightly says he does not have such powers.  

Trump also tried to stop Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, from certifying that state’s electoral votes to Biden.

Ducey had made “Hail to the Chief” the ringtone of Trump’s calls, so he wouldn’t miss one. But when the tone played while Ducey was on live TV at the certification ceremony, Ducey put down his phone and signed anyway.

Trump threatened that Republicans “would remember.”

On Nov. 17, Trump fired by tweet Christopher Krebs, a Republican, Trump appointee and Senate-confirmed director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the Department of Homeland Security.

Krebs had batted down the president’s claims that election systems were hacked or manipulated, saying in a tweet “59 election security experts all agree, `in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have ben unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.’”

One of Trump’s legal henchmen said Krebs should be executed. He later said he was just being sarcastic.

Trump previewed his obstinacy long ago. In 2016 and this year, he insisted he could not lose unless the election was rigged. But because someone can’t stand to lose is not grounds to toss out millions of legal mail-in votes.

Courts around the country have shut down Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the election, citing a lack of credible evidence of fraud.

When U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann in Pennsylvania ruled Trump’s allegations were “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations . . . unsupported by evidence,” team Trump tried to discredit him as an “Obama appointee.”

Yes, but. Brann is a conservative Republican and member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. The state’s two senators, one Republican and one Democrat, recommended him to Obama for the judgeship.

We rely on free and fair elections to choose our leaders. Trump’s refusal to accept reality exacerbates the gulf between Americans and is dangerous for the future of our democracy.

If Trump wants to run again in 2024, that’s his business. Now he needs to put the country first.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Make your voice heard -- again -- on Giving Tuesday -- Nov. 26, 2020 column


The election is over. Let’s get to work building a better world.

Americans made their voices heard in the election and can again on Giving Tuesday, Dec. 1, the annual day of global generosity after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Giving Tuesday encourages us to take a breath after days of consuming to reflect on what’s important to us and act on our values.

Charitable giving is more important than ever during the pandemic and recession as nonprofits have suffered a decline in donations and loss of in-person fundraising opportunities.

Wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters have wreaked havoc on our fellow citizens. Millions have lost their jobs, leading to higher levels of food insecurity. We’ve all seen the news footage of thousands of cars in line for food. 

Nearly 26 million adults – 12% of all adults in the United States – said their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey reported this month. 

Among adults with children, the situation was worse – 16% said their household didn’t have enough to eat, compared with 9% of those without children at home.

A federal moratorium currently prevents landlords nationwide from evicting renters, but the moratorium is set to expire Dec. 31. Food banks, shelters, health clinics and other social service organizations are straining to meet increased demand and would welcome your help.

You don’t have to give cash. You can contribute your time, energy or talent to a cause or a neighbor. During the pandemic, many organizations are seeking in-person or virtual volunteers. Check out to find opportunities in your ZIP code.

Giving Tuesday isn’t political; it neither accepts nor distributes contributions, and anyone can participate free. The idea is for each person to choose a charity, donate on the charity’s website and publicize the choice on social media with the hashtag #givingtuesday. Since Giving Tuesday started in 2012, it has spread to 220 countries worldwide.

Americans donated an estimated $511 million online on #GivingTuesday last year – up from $400 million in 2018.

If you have the wherewithal, there’s a new incentive to be generous. By doing good, you basically can reduce your taxable income in 2020.

In the past, only taxpayers who itemized deductions could take charitable contributions off their federal taxes. But the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security -- or CARES -- Act allows taxpayers who don’t itemize to take a charitable deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions to qualifying organizations.

Qualifying groups are those that are “religious, charitable, educational, scientific or literary in purpose,” the IRS says. More details

Last year Americans gave almost $500 billion to charities, and about 69% of the total came from individuals, according to Giving USA 2020, a report researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

A recent survey found 40% of donors plan to give more to charity this year than last. The survey by Classy, an online gift processor, found that the pandemic was a big motivator for charitable giving, followed by the political climate and racial justice issues. 

If your inbox, like mine, is overflowing with Giving Tuesday requests, deciding which nonprofit to support can be daunting.

A word of caution, though. Scammers are also after your money. Experts advise against clicking on the handy links that come in emails. Instead, research the organizations, then go directly to their websites to give.

To make sure your donation goes to a legitimate charity, consult Charity Navigator, GuideStar (now Candid), the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance or Charity Watch, which monitor charities.

One person can make a difference. Dolly Parton has received well-deserved praise for her long history of charitable giving, especially her recent $1 million donation to help develop a coronavirus vaccine. Her Imagination Library initiative has given 147 million books to children since 1995. She started it as a tribute to her father, who couldn’t read.

Few can sing or be as generous as Dolly Parton, but each of us can make our voice heard on Giving Tuesday.

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Thursday, November 19, 2020

No thanks? Why we need this Thanksgiving -- Nov. 19, 2020 column


A few days ago, my neighbors added to their Biden-Harris and Ruth Bader Ginsburg yard art with a sign over their front door that reads simply: “Gratitude.”

Around the neighborhood, a few inflatable turkeys, pumpkins repurposed with wooden turkey heads and feathers, and cheery “Gobble Gobble” signs remind that  Thanksgiving is upon us.

But for many, Thanksgiving 2020 seems to have lost its luster. Some suggest postponing or canceling the holiday altogether. I get that in a pandemic and recession, we’re tempted to say, “No thanks,” that it’s easy to be more focused on what we are missing than what we have managed to hang onto.

No question, this has been a terrible year, a time of unbearable sadness and grief.  We have lost 250,000 Americans to COVID-19 and thousands more suffer lasting symptoms. The virus has devastated the economy, taking away jobs and the livelihood of millions of Americans.

But while this Thanksgiving must be different -- smaller and more poignant, virtual and outdoors around a fire pit or indoors with the windows open – we can still  practice gratitude.

We have rarely needed this holiday and the coming season of lights, music and cheer more than during the long, dark days of our plague year, our annus horribilis (Latin for “horrible year”), 2020.

Yet the Thanksgiving tradition in New World began in hard times. Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation claims the first official Thanksgiving in 1619, after the settlers had endured a year of unimaginable suffering and loss. English puritans traditionally gave thanks with a time of prayer and fasting, not feasting.

In 1621, pilgrims in Plymouth, Mass., shared a harvest meal with about 90 Wampanoag Indians. But calling the Plymouth meal the “first Thanksgiving”?

That was a clever marketing tool in the 18th century to boost New England tourism, says David J. Silverman, history professor at George Washington University and author of the 2019 book, “This Land is Their Land.”

President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War in the forlorn hope of drawing the country together after the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863.

This year, many people seem to have skipped right over Thanksgiving and landed on Christmas. My corner drugstore in Alexandria installed Santas in its front and center windows before Halloween.

Before anyone tucked the first pumpkin pie in the oven, Christmas arrived on the plaza in front of City Hall in the form of a tall, stately white-lighted holiday tree.  A smaller tree brightens the riverfront. On King Street, white lights illuminate bare tree branches, and red bows and greenery adorn lamp posts.

Alexandria will even collect trash and recycling Thanksgiving Day, rather than take a typical “holiday slide.” That, though, was the choice of collection workers, who prefer to start their pickups at 6 a.m. Thursday so they can be home that evening and off Friday with their families, the city said in a news release.

The holidays won’t be the same this year. We will be distant, actually or socially, wear masks and wash our hands often.

But that shouldn’t stop us from remembering advice attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson to “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.”

There are real signs of hope. Promising coronavirus vaccines are in the pipeline. Moderna said its vaccine was 94.5% effective in early tests, and Pfizer announced its vaccine is 95% effective with no serious side effects.

Scientists and medical personnel are true American heroes, going to work every day to save lives. Now we need President Donald Trump, Republicans and the federal government to step up and help President-elect Joe Biden plan for the vaccines’ distribution and the transition to a new administration.

Meanwhile, we can be glad not to live in the little town of Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, at the state’s northernmost point.

On Wednesday, the sun set there at 1:30 p.m. Alaska Standard Time -- not to rise again until Jan. 23.

That’s right – 66 days of what’s called polar night, when the sun does not rise above the horizon.

With everything else happening, we at least will have sunrises and sunsets and the hope of brighter days ahead. Find your gratitude.

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Don't be a turkey on Thanksgiving -- Nov. 12, 2020 column


We need to talk about Thanksgiving.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting -- generations happily gathered shoulder to shoulder around the dinner table as the roast turkey makes a glorious entrance -- is many Americans’ ideal Thanksgiving.

But in 2020 that festive family dinner could be a COVID-19 super spreader event.

Friends and family members traveling from afar, hugging, helping in the kitchen, sitting together for a long meal indoors with the windows closed, passing platters family-style or helping themselves to a buffet using the same serving utensils – are a recipe for disaster.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, doesn’t care if we have pandemic fatigue. It’s not taking a holiday, and we can’t pretend everything is back to normal. We are months from having a widely available and effective vaccine to prevent and therapeutics to treat the deadly virus.

Older people and those with underlying health conditions are still more vulnerable to the disease, which is rampaging around the country.

Upwards of 100,000 new cases are being reported day after day. More than 148,000 cases were reported Wednesday alone. Cases are surging in almost every state, swamping hospitals and funeral homes.

More than 10 million Americans have been stricken, more than 242,000 of us have died, and hundreds of thousands more suffer debilitating effects that linger for months.

Several states have returned to more restrictive rules. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, limited indoor private gatherings to 10 people and closed bars and restaurants at 10 p.m. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, ordered restrictions on restaurant capacity and indoor gatherings and discouraged travel to hot spot states. 

“This virus is still alive and well and very, very contagious,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said Tuesday. COVID cases have soared in rural southwest Virginia and have risen in central Virginia. So far, Northam has left reopening rules unchanged.

It’s up to us to take personal responsibility and be disciplined and careful.

The Centers for Disease Control issued guidance Tuesday on how to make this Thanksgiving safer. 

First and foremost, wear a mask. It should have two or more layers to stop the virus spread.

The latest CDC research indicates a mask can help protect the wearer as well as those with whom they come in contact.

But no cheating: “Wear the mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin. Make sure the mask fits snugly against the sides of your face,” CDC says.

Many tips, like washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer when you can’t wash, are familiar.

“Stay at least 6 feet away from people who do not live with you” (italics mine) is a variation on a theme.

Hosts and hostesses need to rethink their traditional plans and stifle their inner Martha Stewart.

Limit the number of guests and talk beforehand about expectations for celebrating together. Eat outdoors, if possible; inside, open the windows. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and items between use, CDC says.

Guests: Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils. Avoid going in and out of the kitchen. Use single-use items, like salad dressing and condiment packets, and disposable food containers, plates and utensils.

Better yet, just stay home. “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others,” CDC says.

Home is not risk-free, however. A CDC study found that people who carried the virus, most without symptoms, infected more than half the other people in their homes.  

Instead, host a virtual Thanksgiving with those who don’t live with you. Share recipes. Watch parades, sports and movies on TV or online.

 If you do need to travel, get a flu shot beforehand. This year, a flu shot is essential even if you’re not traveling. Carry disinfecting wipes and extra masks.

And don’t even think about crowding into stores for Black Friday deals.

We can get through this if we exercise caution this year. By next Thanksgiving, we should be able to resume our normal activities.

Let go of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving so we don’t unwittingly spread an unpredictable, deadly disease to friends and family. That’s something to be thankful for.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Health insurance for millions in peril -- Nov. 5, 2020 column


With the future of health care in limbo during the prolonged presidential election, the Supreme Court next week will take up a case that could yank health insurance from 23 million Americans during a pandemic.

On Tuesday, the court will hear oral arguments in California v. Texas, which questions whether the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, is constitutional. What the court ultimately decides could affect nearly every American family, not just those who buy their insurance through Obamacare.

Republicans have long argued Congress overstepped its authority when it imposed the individual mandate, requiring most Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.

In 2012, the court upheld Obamacare 5 to 4. Chief Justice John Roberts, siding with the more liberal justices, wrote that since the penalty was collected by the IRS, it could be considered a tax and Congress has the power of taxation.

In 2017, Congress zeroed out the penalty. A group of red states challenged Obamacare, arguing a zero penalty means there is no tax and the law is unconstitutional. The Trump administration backs the red states.

After rounds in federal courts, a group of blue states supporting the law asked the Supreme Court to review the issues. The House is also defending the law, which remains in effect.

This time, conservative justices hold a 6 to 3 advantage. In a sign of the significance of the case, the court has lengthened arguments from the usual 30 minutes to 40 minutes for each side side.

Tuesday’s arguments may give us a glimpse into the mind of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who said at her confirmation hearing, “I am not hostile to the ACA,” although as a law professor she wrote an article criticizing Roberts’s reasoning in the 2012 decision.

The current case raises the doctrine of severability -- whether a law can still stand if part of it is struck down. Barrett said she has not talked or written about severability.

The highest court could let Obamacare stand, abolish it entirely or do something in between. A ruling is expected by summer.

No one argues Obamacare is perfect. Many Americans bristled at being told they had to buy insurance, at paying a penalty if they failed to do so and at the cost.

But. Under Obamacare, insurance companies may no longer deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions like cancer, diabetes or sleep apnea; charge them higher premiums, subject them to long waiting periods or cap their benefits.

About 54 million Americans under 65 – or 27% -- have a preexisting condition that, before Obamacare, insurance companies could use to decline coverage on the individual market, an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found. In Virginia, about 1.3 million people under 65 – or 26% -- have such conditions, the report said.

Besides protecting those with preexisting conditions, Obamacare also prevents insurers from charging women more than men, permits children to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26 and offers subsidies to some customers to help pay premiums.

Most Americans get their insurance through their employers or a government program like Medicare or Medicaid, but no one knows when a job loss, divorce or other life event may require buying insurance on the individual or non-group market.

The pandemic and economic downturn prompted an additional 3 million Americans to seek help, raising the number covered under Obamacare to 23 million, according to the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

In the absence of Obamacare, COVID-19 could be considered a preexisting condition, and survivors could be denied health insurance.

President Donald Trump has promised since 2016 to repeal and replace Obamacare with something better and cheaper but has never presented a replacement plan.

He issued an executive order on preexisting conditions in September that experts said was symbolic and had no practical effect.

Obamacare has withstood more than 70 Republican attempts at repeal in the House and many judicial challenges.

Before the election, when it appeared the Senate and White House might flip blue, both Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they would work to strengthen Obamacare.

A Republican Senate led by Mitch McConnell makes meaningful change more difficult and raises the stakes for what the court decides.

Republicans and Democrats need to work together to write a law that works and people will accept. America will be healthier for it.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.






Thursday, October 29, 2020

Will nine justices in black robes be ultimate electors? -- Oct. 29, 2020 column


President Donald Trump beamed like a proud papa and Republicans cheered at Amy Coney Barrett’s swearing-in show on the White House lawn Monday night.

The president and Senate Republicans had successfully rushed Barrett through the confirmation process as an associate justice on the Supreme Court before the election.

In one fell swoop, they bolstered their standing with GOP voters and took out an insurance policy in the event a razor-thin presidential election prompts legal challenges.

Voters should know Trump has long sown distrust in the electoral process and has laid the groundwork to contest the results if Democrat Joe Biden wins.

As in 2016, Trump refuses to say he will accept the election result, repeatedly claiming the only way he can lose is if it is rigged or stolen.

On Sept. 23 Trump told reporters he wanted nine justices in place because they may need to decide the election. He has appointed three justices, cementing a 6 to 3 conservative advantage.

Armies of lawyers on both sides are suiting up for post-election battle.

Without evidence, Trump continues to insist mail-in voting is ripe for Democratic fraud. Trailing in the polls in several battleground states, he is unwilling to let election officials take the time necessary to count mail-in ballots.

Most states require ballots to be mailed by Election Day, but several allow days or weeks for the postal service to deliver them and election officials to tally the votes.

In Virginia, mail-in absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by noon Nov. 6. Voters who haven’t mailed their ballots can hand-deliver them to their polling place on Election Day. Virginia results will be certified Nov. 16.

On Election Night in some states, including Virginia, localities will report in-person Election Day results first. Since Trump voters are likely to vote in person and Democrats by mail, Trump could take an early lead but lose it when absentee and mail-in ballots are counted.

That’s why Trump’s insistence “Must have final total on November 3rd” is self-serving and just plain wrong.

“It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on Nov. 3rd, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Everyone wants election results as soon as possible, but we all need patience so the process works fairly.

A week before Election Day, more than 64 million Americans had already voted, with about half of the votes in the dozen or so competitive states that will decide who wins the Electoral College, The New York Times reported.

So how could the election come down to nine justices in black robes?

Many younger voters won’t remember 2000, the too-close-to-call presidential race in Florida and the recounts, lawsuits and intense scrutiny of “hanging chads” that followed.

Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote nationwide, but the Electoral College is what counts.

With Republican George W. Bush ahead in Florida by only 537 votes, the dispute went to the Supreme Court, where a 5 to 4 vote on Dec. 12 halted the Florida recounts, essentially delivering the state’s 25 electoral votes and victory to W. The five justices who ended the Florida recount were nominated by Republican presidents. Democrats cried foul.

Trump now hopes the court will smile on him. His campaign and the Republican party challenged ballot deadline extensions in several battleground states that were favored by Democrats because of coronavirus concerns.

Before Barrett joined the court, justices blocked a deadline extension in Wisconsin, where a federal judge had said mail-in ballots could be counted for six days after Election Day if they were postmarked by then. The justices said counting must end Election Day.

But the highest court Wednesday rejected GOP requests to overturn ballot extensions in two other key states, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where the extensions came from the state Supreme Court and state elections officials, respectively.

Barrett, whose first day on the job was Tuesday, had not had time to review the cases and did not participate.

Voters, the time for dilly-dallying is over. In Virginia, in-person absentee voting ends Oct. 31. You can still vote Tuesday. Just do it.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Getting a leg up was pandemic prep -- Oct. 22, 2020 column


Anthropologist Margaret Mead said in a lecture the earliest sign of civilization is not a clay pot, iron, tools or agriculture.

To her, the earliest evidence of true civilization was a healed femur, the long bone in the leg. A healed femur showed that someone took care of the injured person – hunted on his behalf, brought him food and served him at a personal sacrifice, she said.

“Savage societies could not afford such pity,” surgeon and Christian author Dr. Paul Brand and co-author Philip Yancey wrote in the 1980 book “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.” Other authors over the years have also cited the story, although when and where Mead gave the lecture remains unknown. She died in 1978.

The story may be apocryphal, but it rings true to me.

A year ago on Oct. 23, I was out for my morning walk when I slipped and fell hard on a charming, but treacherous, brick sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria.

I got my first ride in an ambulance that day. An x-ray at the hospital revealed I had fractured my right femur in three places. I had never before broken a bone.

The orthopedic surgeon said more than once it was a shame the break hadn’t been an inch or so higher. Then, I could have had a hip replacement, which, he assured me, would have been a speedier, easier recovery than I faced. I never dreamed I’d wish I qualified for hip replacement.

The surgeon put me back together with a long steel screw, a plate and four pins and said it would be a year before I felt like my old self. I spent a couple of days in the hospital and a week at a hospital rehab center, learning to coax my right leg to move. At first, lying in bed, I couldn’t raise my leg at all.

I learned how to get in a car by sitting first and then picking up and moving my right leg. I reversed the procedure to get out.

A couple of weeks after it happened, I wrote in this space about my mishap. After covering health care policy as a reporter, it was eye-opening to be on the receiving end of care. I was, and am, impressed by the dedication of health care professionals.

An anniversary is a good time to reflect on what’s happened and what we’ve learned. My mishap, as disruptive as it was, helped prepare me for life during a pandemic.

When the novel coronavirus hit in March, I already knew what it felt like to be plucked from the reality I knew and dropped into a world I did not know.

I could not drive for eight weeks and learned to rely on other people. My mishap made me grateful for not only for medical personnel but for family and friends who cheered me on.

I arrived home with a walker and in a few weeks graduated to a cane. The cane, though, became a crutch and I gave it up months later only because the surgeon said it was time.

At first, a nurse, physical therapist and home health aide came to my house. For a couple of weeks, I felt uncomfortable taking a shower unless someone stood right outside the door, in case I needed help. Fortunately, I never needed any.

Life during a pandemic also makes you aware that risks lurk everywhere. Health officials continue to insist we’re safer at home. I already worked at home, but sometimes we have to go out.

I’d never feared falling before, but danger loomed large.

In my three-story townhouse, stairs were a challenge. For the longest time, I held onto the banister tightly and took the stairs one careful step at a time.

In December, once I was cleared to drive, I went to out-patient physical therapy. After the pandemic hit, I moved to online PT and then to exercise videos.

After a year, I’m glad to say my femur has healed and I’m practically my old self. I’m back to walking four miles a day. I take the stairs without holding on. I even walk on brick sidewalks.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Trump ignores elephant in the room -- Oct. 15, 2020 column



When President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday night, a giant billboard at the airport helpfully pointed the way to the “TRUMP COVID SUPERSPREADER EVENT.”

Rural America 2020, an agricultural advocacy group that opposes Trump, paid for the billboard.

“We’re doing our part to warn Iowans that @realdonaldtrump is in town tomorrow. This billboard is directly outside the Des Moines Airport where he will hold his hangar rally,” the group tweeted Tuesday.

Darkly humorous and deadly serious, the billboard reminds us that Trump is hosting campaign rallies around the country that put his supporters, their friends and families at risk even as coronavirus cases are surging.

Iowa has seen such a jump in coronavirus that White House health officials warned the state Oct. 4 to limit gatherings to 25 people or fewer. Trump and his campaign ignored the advice and packed thousands shoulder to shoulder in the hangar.

Rally attendees receive temperature checks, but most do not wear masks or keep social distance. Trump still refuses to model good behavior by masking up. He revels in the large, enthusiastic crowds, urging the news media to turn their cameras on his fans.

So much about this is perplexing: The president continues to flout his own health experts’ recommendations. Fans still flock to his rallies. Republican politicians stand by and smile.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, did say he has not been to the White House since August because he disagrees with White House coronavirus protocols, but other GOP politicians have stayed silent or backed Trump’s irresponsible behavior.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, continues to warn against large gatherings, saying they are “asking for trouble.”

While declining to criticize campaign rallies specifically, Fauci said Wednesday on CBS, “large congregate settings with a lot of people” are an avoidable risk.

For months, we’ve heard that cooler weather will bring a surge of COVID-19 cases, as people head indoors where transmission is easier. We’re already seeing a surge in the upper Midwest and northern plains, where some hospitals are overwhelmed.

In the District of Columbia and 37 states, including Virginia, the number of new cases rose 5 percent or more this week over the previous week, according to Johns Hopkins University coronavirus trackers.

Fauci urged all Americans to “double down” on mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowds, being outdoors when possible and washing hands.

If we fail in these simple precautions, we’re likely to see more cases, hospitalizations, deaths and more suffering by “long-haulers,” people who fight the effects of COVID indefinitely.

The president insists he himself is now immune -- “I feel so powerful,” he said Monday at a rally in Florida -- after spending three nights in the hospital at Walter Reed National Military Center and receiving a drug that’s unavailable to most Americans. An antibody cocktail from Regeneron is in clinical trials.

At least 1,011 new coronavirus deaths and about 60,000 new cases were reported in the United States on Oct. 14, according to a New York Times database. New cases had dropped to between 30,000 and 35,000 a day in early September but averaged more than 53,124 cases a day over the past week, an increase of 23 percent from the average two weeks earlier, The Times said.

In 2016, Trump bragged he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York and shoot someone and not lose voters. Now, as he plays fast and loose with a deadly virus, polls show he’s losing support among seniors who are the most vulnerable to severe illness.

We’re in the campaign’s final stretch. If Trump should defy the polls and win re-election, he likely will orchestrate more mass events as COVID worsens.

“This winter – this November, December, January, February – could be the worst time in our epidemic,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said Tuesday on CNN. “Get ready to hunker down.”

Trump’s far different message: “Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

But don’t be reckless. Be smart, follow health guidelines and avoid super-spreader events of any kind.  

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.