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 volunteermatch.org 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.



Thursday, October 8, 2020

When scientists were prized -- now! -- Oct. 8, 2020 column


Growing up in Hawaii, Jennifer Doudna loved exploring the exotic rainforest near her home.

Fascinated by a plant whose leaves folded shut when she touched them, she knew a chemical reaction was involved. But why did it happen?

Doudna’s high school chemistry teacher encouraged her to pursue her questions and study science.

The curious girl eventually became a superstar of science -- professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and executive director of the Innovative Genomics Institute at Berkeley.

On Tuesday, Doudna, 56, received the Nobel Prize for chemistry for developing the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. The CRISPR tool can change DNA in plants and animals and is used widely to treat cancer and cure inherited diseases.

She shares the prize with her French research collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier, 51, who lives in Berlin. The two are only the sixth and seventh women ever to win the Nobel for chemistry.

“This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of life,” said Goran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, announcing the prize.

It was a good week for science and scientists.

Nobel prizes also were announced for physics and medicine. The physics prize went to three scientists for their work on black holes, and the medicine prize to three scientists who discovered the hepatitis C virus.

The Nobel committee said by discovering the virus the scientists had “made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.”

The Nobel prize guarantees international acclaim, a place in history and cash prizes each worth about $1.1 million.

In this country, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named several scientists among the 21 winners of what are popularly known as “genius grants.”

The foundation does not like the term genius because it connotes only a very high I.Q. It calls the winners fellows, who are brilliant and highly original and creative.

Each fellow receives a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000 paid out in quarterly installments over five years.

The money is liberating, but what makes the award so coveted is being recognized as exceptional in one’s field. You can’t apply for a MacArthur grant; you are chosen. Just about the only requirement is fellows must either live in the United States or be a U.S. citizen.

The Nobel and MacArthur awards remind us in 2020 of the good that comes when we believe in science and reward scientists. The recipients have devoted their lives to making the world a better place at a time when science is often disparaged and scientists denigrated. Their personal stories will inspire a new generation.

This year’s MacArthur class includes Damien Fair, 44, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine who studies the developing brain from infancy to young adulthood. His research aims to improve the long-term health for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism and other conditions.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, 62, of Montgomery, Alabama, is an environmental activist who works on sanitation and wastewater issues in rural areas.

Some of the winners focus on theoretical research, others work in more practical fields and some do both. During the pandemic, Doudna is using the CRISPR system in her lab to search for a simple, inexpensive test to detect the novel coronavirus in people’s saliva.

The sole American sharing the Nobel physics prize is astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, 55, a professor at UCLA who discovered an invisible and extremely heavy object that governs the orbits of stars at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. A supermassive black hole is the only currently known explanation.

She is only the fourth woman to win the Nobel for physics. Marie Curie was the first in 1903.

Ghez has the distinction of also winning a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2008. She used three-quarters of the prize money in ways other parents will appreciate – on her two children.  

“Just hiring more help with the logistics of life and not feeling that was a bad thing – it was part of doing my job well,” Ghez told The New York Times in 2015. “I was so thrilled that I could have a work and family life.”

We’re thrilled she could too. Everyone benefits from the hard work of these dedicated scientists.

(c) Marsha Mercer 2020. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Learning from a messy presidential debate -- Oct. 1, 2020 column


Not that time stood still during the first presidential debate, but at one point I desperately checked the clock: How much longer can this last?

The 90-minute dumpster fire, street brawl, fiasco, expletive-deleted storm – pick your description -- still had nearly 30 agonizing minutes to go.

The way President Donald Trump behaved, he seemed determined to ensure he’d never again have to debate Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump broke the debate rules his campaign had agreed to, insulted Biden repeatedly and made many baseless claims.

His blab-athon – by one count he interrupted Biden or moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News more than 120 times – was over the top.

It was classic, classless Trump -- shocking but not surprising.

Trump is a showman, and his fans love his “gladiator” style. This time, even his allies said his jabs missed the mark.

Biden did not take Trump’s bait. He mostly kept his cool, though he called the president a “clown” and said, “Shut up, man,” when Trump was talking over him. Vigorous and sharp, Biden was not the least bit sleepy.

This doesn’t mean Biden’s performance was flawless. In a rare policy moment, he refused to say whether he supports ending the filibuster in the Senate or adding justices to the Supreme Court, both favored by progressive Democrats.

Trump again refused to offer any details of his supposed health care plan.  

The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates promised Wednesday to consider format changes so the two remaining presidential debates will be more substance oriented. Good luck with that.

Trump who trails Biden in most polls, tries to deflect attention from his record on the coronavirus by sowing confusion and distrust in our revered institutions – public education, public health and the electoral process, among others.

The president continues to claim, falsely, the only way he can lose is if Democrats steal the election.

The presidential winner should be decided Election Night, he says, even if millions of mail-in ballots are uncounted. He wants to install Amy Coney Barrett as the ninth Supreme Court justice to help settle the election.

Without evidence, he constantly claims Democrats will flood the polls with fraudulent votes and voters. Meanwhile, voter intimidation and suppression are in the air.

Trump and his family are recruiting an “army” of supporters to watch for fraud at early voting places and on Election Day.

“We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s Election Security Operation,” Don Trump Jr. said in a video the Trump campaign posted on social media Sept. 23.

President Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox: “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys” at the polls.

But when Trump observers tried Tuesday to enter early voting places in Philadelphia, they were turned away. Trump tweeted:

“Wow. Won’t let Poll Watchers & Security into Philadelphia Voting Places. There is only one reason why. Corruption!!! Must have a fair Election.”

Three exclamation points do not make corruption the only possible reason poll-watchers were denied entry. As usual there’s more to the story.

Tuesday was the first day of early voting in a few satellite locations where people could register and vote. Rules are different at those locations than at regular polling places, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Election officials are also following safety restrictions because of the pandemic, the paper said.

Every state sets its own election rules. In Virginia, a poll watcher must be registered to vote, and the state limits on the number of poll watchers allowed per party in polling place.

As we go into the final weeks of the 2020 campaign, we can expect more Trumpian efforts to erode confidence in the election.

But remember this: Our neighbors, mostly volunteers, work the long hours at the polls and tabulate the ballots. State officials, not Trump, certify the winners.

I’ve been a city poll worker, and I know how hard these volunteers work for a fair election.

After the debate, analysts kept using the same word to describe it: chaos. Messy and stinky work too.

I won’t be surprised if democracy’s longest hour and a half was a preview of the election chaos ahead.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Voting in a Supremely important election -- Sept. 24, 2020 column


I voted. As a reporter, I’ve never put a campaign sign in my yard, donated time or given even a dime to any candidate.

But I always vote. So, six weeks before Election Day, I voted early and in person -- no excuse necessary. Voters in Virginia used to need an acceptable reason to vote absentee. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case.

People were already in line – masked and socially distant – before the Alexandria election office opened at 8 on sunny Tuesday morning. I came back about an hour later. The line was longer, and again I passed by. But I was antsy to do my civic duty. I walked back.

The third time, oddly, there was no line. I walked in, showed my driver’s license and received a Registration Verified tag which I exchanged for my paper ballot. A staffer led me to the freshly wiped-off voting booth, and I filled in my choices, staying within the boxes. It took only a couple of minutes.

Outside, people again waited in line.

Voters are, to borrow a Democratic campaign slogan from the past: “Fired up! Ready to go!”

For many, the passing of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the exercise of raw political power by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to name and confirm a replacement at warp speed adds urgency to voting.

As if choosing the next president weren’t motivation enough, voters also will decide control of the Senate, where a simple majority confirms who will sit on the Supreme Court and other federal courts for life.

Ginsburg served on the court for 27 years. Trump’s first two picks to the Supreme Court – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – are in their 50s.

It now appears McConnell has the necessary Republican votes to push a nominee through before the election, despite refusing to allow even a hearing for President Barack Obama’s last nominee in 2016.

Since Trump came to office in 2017, Republicans have made filling judicial seats a priority. Besides the Supreme Court justices, Trump has named 210 other federal judges to lifetime appointments, according to the Federal Judicial Center, the research arm of the federal judiciary. That’s more than one in four federal judges.

The Senate currently has 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats – including two Independents who caucus with Democrats. To win control, Democrats need to pick up three or four seats, depending on who wins the White House. The vice president breaks a tie.

Thirty-five Senate seats are up, including special elections in Arizona and Georgia to replace Republican senators appointed to serve out the unexpired terms of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who died in 2016, and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who resigned for health reasons at the end of 2019. Republicans are defending 23 Senate seats.

Virginia is viewed as a safe Democratic Senate seat. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner holds a comfortable 19-point lead over Republican challenger Daniel Gade in the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls.

In the Electoral College contest for president, Virginia is Likely Democratic, according to projections by the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball.

Crystal Ball prognosticators this week moved the critical Senate race in Maine from Toss-up to Leans Democratic and, saying Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina “is in greater danger of an upset,” moved that race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham’s role in the Supreme Court fight “could save him, though,” the Crystal Ball noted.

Meanwhile, we’re about to enter debate season. The first presidential debate is Sept. 29, with a vice presidential debate Oct. 7. Two other presidential face-offs are scheduled Oct. 15 and 22.

I think most people have made up their minds for president, and the debates won’t change much. If you’re undecided, you can still wait until Nov. 3 to cast your ballot in person at your regular polling place.

Mail-in voting is also an option – just request and mail in your ballot early.

I’ll still watch the debates, glad I put my ballot through the scanner and saw the waving American flag on the screen, indicating my ballot was recorded.

I voted. How about you?

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Liking Ike at his memorial -- Sept. 17, 2020 column


One of the surprising things about the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which was formally dedicated Thursday, is that it exists at all.

In our time, many white American men once revered and honored by their country have been toppled – literally or figuratively – from their perches of prominence. 

The reputations of many presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson come to mind – have been tarnished.

And yet, the new Eisenhower memorial makes admiration not only possible but likely, even in 2020.

Renowned architect Frank Gehry elevates Eisenhower by focusing on his personal story, his ideals, his integrity and his lifetime of service to country.

The 34th president and five-star general is portrayed in the four-acre space at 540 Independence Ave., SW, in three separate, sculptural vignettes representing different phases of his life – boyhood, the military and the presidency.

But the memorial also includes two gigantic cylindrical pillars that look like smokestacks and a 450-foot-wide, 8-story-tall metal “tapestry” of woven stainless steel whose main purpose seems to blur the ugly federal office building right behind it. For that, the location is to blame.

The memorial sits in a new urban park across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. That modernist building, completed in 1961, is so charmless it was originally known as Federal Building #6.

The National Mall is nearly full, and this location does offer a view of the Capitol, where President Eisenhower respected and worked with Republicans and Democrats. It’s near buildings that house federal departments with links to his presidency. In time, when the trees grow, the location may feel less odd.

Creating a memorial to the man who led the troops that saved the world from Nazism and was twice elected president might seem straight-forward, but the process was mired in controversies that lasted far longer than World War II.

Congress authorized the Eisenhower memorial in 1999 and chose Gehry’s design a decade later. But the Eisenhower family was dead-set against having a statue of Eisenhower as a boy as the centerpiece as well as three huge, metal scrims. 

After congressional hearings and years of negotiations, the family came around when Gehry moved the boyhood statue to the side, dropped two of the scrims and changed what’s shown on the remaining one.

Instead of Kansas, it’s Gehry’s own sketch of the Pointe du Hoc cliffs at Normandy, France, in peacetime. Army Rangers scaled the cliffs under German fire on D-Day, the air, land and sea invasion that changed the course of World War II and history.

The bronze statues depict Eisenhower first as a boy in Abilene, Kansas, dreaming of his future, then as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, boosting the morale of six paratroopers on the eve of D-Day.

Finally, he’s shown as president with three aides in the Oval Office. Seeing the office takes a bit of imagination, but the free audio tour, part of the E-memorial available on personal electronic devices, provides context.

The three aides are symbolic of the competing influences of domestic progress and strength abroad. Closest to Eisenhower is a Black man, carrying a briefcase. He symbolizes the work Eisenhower did to advance civil rights, the audio tour explains.

In 1957, he sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne to protect nine Black students as they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Etched into the reverse side of huge granite blocks behind the sculptures are excerpts from Eisenhower’s most famous speeches.

“I’m quite overwhelmed by it,” granddaughter Susan Eisenhower told CBS News as she toured the memorial for the first time this week. “I’m really thrilled.”

But the $150 million memorial has received mixed reviews. “Monumentally Mediocre,” pronounced The Wall Street Journal.

 The audience for the Eisenhower memorial is not art critics, of course. The main audience is children in grades K-12, who may be inspired to dream of greatness, as well as tourists and office-workers.

They are likely to visit the memorial in the daytime, but the better views are at night, when the sketch of the cliffs is illuminated.

I think children and their families will be grateful the Eisenhower memorial exists.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.