Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cause, effect and the need to test for COVID-19 -- column of Aug. 27, 2020


A wise editor of mine used to say, “Wet streets don’t cause rain.”

John’s point, of course, was not to confuse cause and effect. I’ve thought about his warning often since President Donald Trump began his counter-narrative about coronavirus testing.

As the number of positive cases of COVID-19 soared this summer, Trump repeatedly blamed the tests for causing the cases.

Testing “makes us look bad,” he tweeted in June.

At the Tulsa rally a few days later, he said, “I said to my people, `Slow the testing down, please.’”

His aides tried to pass that remark off as a joke, but Trump said, “I don’t kid.”

“Cases, Cases, Cases! If we didn’t test so much and so successfully, we would have very few cases,” he tweeted in July.

And, he told reporters, “When you test you create cases.”

That’s all wrong. Pregnancy tests don’t create babies.

Not only the number of cases but the positivity rate – the percentage of tests coming back positive -- also soared in many places.

“A higher percent positive suggests higher transmission and that there are likely more people with coronavirus in the community who haven’t been tested yet,” the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says, noting it may be a time to add restrictions to slow spread of the disease.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly posted new guidelines on its website that likely will sow confusion and discourage people from getting tested.

“If you have been in close contact (within 6 feet) of a person with a COVID-19 infection for at least 15 minutes but do not have symptoms, you do not necessarily need a test,” the latest guidance says.

Previously, the CDC urged all people who had come in close contact with an infected person to get tested.

The timing could not be worse. Hundreds of thousands of children and older students are going back to school and college. To keep them, their teachers and other essential workers safe, people need to know if they’re infected so they can self-isolate.

The new guidance cites as an exception “vulnerable” individuals and advises everyone to listen to health care providers and local public health officials.

“I’m dumbfounded by this recommendation,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of infectious diseases research at the University of Minnesota, said on CNN.

It may take four or five days for exposure to show up on a test, he said, but people still need to be tested.

Trump and everyone who comes near him at the White House are tested repeatedly. He doesn’t need to wear a mask, he says, because everyone gets a test.

Good for them. But what about the rest of us?

Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of testing, denied Trump pressured the CDC and said the guidance had been updated to reflect “current evidence.” But he didn’t present any.

“All the docs” including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had signed off on the new guidelines at a meeting, Giroir said.

Not so, said Fauci. He had seen an earlier draft but wasn’t present when the final version was approved. He had a good excuse.

“I was under general anesthesia in the operating room and was not part of any discussion or deliberation regarding the new testing recommendations,” he told CNN. Fauci had surgery Aug. 20 for a polyp on his vocal cords.

“I am concerned about the interpretation of these recommendations and worried it will give people the incorrect assumption that asymptomatic spread is not of great concern. In fact, it is,” Fauci said.  

About 40% of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, the CDC estimates, and the chance of people with no symptoms infecting someone else is 75%. That’s why knowing who is infected and having them quarantine for two weeks is important.

Trump has consistently attacked his own health experts, pressuring the CDC to rewrite guidelines for opening schools and businesses and rushing at “warp speed” to have a vaccine by Nov. 3.

Everyone wants to live in the world again, and most of us rely on science for the facts. 
That means we need to know more – not less – about the coronavirus, who has it and how it works.

For now, wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance, stay home if you’re sick, and remember: Wet streets don’t cause rain.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

What's your Pence-Q? -- Aug. 20, 2020 column

On Monday, the Republican National Convention opens four nights devoted to championing President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. This election, with the oldest presidential candidates in history – Trump is 74, Democrat Joe Biden 77 – makes running mates more important than ever.

Pence has been No. 2 for nearly four years and in government for decades, but how much do you know about the man a heartbeat away from the top job in the land? Take our political trivia quiz below. And, if you missed last week’s Democratic Veep quiz, take the What’s your Kamala-Q? here.

1) Michael Richard Pence is the grandson of Catholic immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1923 from which country?
A. Germany
B. England
C. France
D. Ireland

2) Pence once voted for . . .
A. John F. Kennedy
B. Jimmy Carter
C. Bill Clinton
D. None of the above

3) Which club did Pence write he was a member of?
A. Failed Politician’s Club
B. Campaign Losers Club
C. Never-Give-Up Club
D. None of the above

4) Pence and his wife Karen have been married since 1985 and have three grown children. Which of these has Mrs. Pence NOT done?
A. Promoted art therapy as a mental health profession
B. Taught elementary school
C. Painted with watercolors
D. Sold real estate

5) Pence described himself as . . .
A. “A husband, father and small businessman – in that order”
B. “A Hoosier, an American and a fan of moose tracks ice cream – in that order”
C. “A Christian, a conservative and a Republican -- in that order”
D. “A child of God, of the heartland and, politically, of Ronald Reagan”

6) Who is or was Greg Pence?
A. Mike Pence’s son, a Marine
B. Mike Pence’s late father, who owned gas stations in Indiana
C. The online name Mike Pence used in the past
D. Mike Pence’s older brother and a U.S. House member from Indiana

7). How many times did Mike Pence run for Congress and lose?
A. One
B. Two
C. Three
D. None. He won the first time he ran.

8) In 2006, House Republicans chose John Boehner over Mike Pence to be minority leader. Of the 196 votes cast, how many did Pence get?
A. 17
B. 27
C. 37
D. 57

9) Esquire magazine in October 2008 included Pence in one of these groups. Which one?
A. Members of Congress most likely to run for president
B. 10 worst members of Congress
C. 10 best members of Congress
D. 10 most forgettable members of Congress

10) Who did Mike Pence initially back in the 2016 Republican primaries?
A. Marco Rubio
B. Ted Cruz
C. Donald Trump
D. Mike Huckabee

BONUS: How old is Pence?
A. 58
B. 61
C. 64
D. 66

1. D
2. B
3. A In his essay “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner”
4. D
5. C At a Values Voter summit in 2010
6. D
7. B
8. B
9. C Calling Pence “one of the most principled members, from either party”
10. B

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Test your Kamala-Q -- column of Aug. 13, 2020

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made history Tuesday when he picked Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket wins, Harris will become the nation’s first Black, female and Asian American vice president.

With the presidential candidates the oldest in history – Biden is 77 and President Donald Trump, 74 – running mates are more important than ever. So, how well do you know the people who could be a heartbeat away from the top job next January?

Today, before the Democratic convention opens Monday, test your trivia of Harris. Next week, before the Republican convention opens Aug. 24, take our quiz about Republican Vice President Mike Pence.

1) What’s the correct way to pronounce Kamala Harris’s first name?
A) Kuh-MAH-luh
C) COMMA-luh
D) I’m not sure

2) Kamala is the Sanskrit word for what?
A) Leader
B) Lotus flower
C) Sunshine
D) Fearless

3) Harris is the daughter of immigrants from which countries?
A. India and Africa
B. India and Ecuador
C. India and Trinidad
D. India and Jamaica

4) What were her parents’ occupations?
A. Mother a breast cancer researcher, father an economics professor
B. Mother a housewife, father a translator at the United Nations
C. Mother a politician, father a corporate exec
D. Mother and father both nuclear engineers

5) In another first for someone on a major party’s presidential ticket, Harris is a graduate of which historically black college or university?
A. Morehouse College
B. Howard University
C. Spelman College
D. Hampton University

6) True or false: Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris all failed the bar exam.

7) How old was Harris when Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate?
A. 4
B. 6
C. 8
D. 10

8) Which title did Harris say means the most to her?
A. The gentlelady from California
B. Momala
C. Madame Vice President
D. None of these

9) What is the name of Harris’s husband?
A. Douglas Emhoff
B. David Englehoff
C. Donald Epstein
D. Daniel Ellsberg

10) Which of these did President Trump NOT say or tweet about Harris?
A. She’s “risky”
B. She’s “nasty”
C. She’s the “meanest” and “most horrible” senator
D. She’s “pretty cute”

BONUS: How tall is Harris?

1. C. Harris put out a campaign ad when she ran for the Senate in 2016 with kids explaining how to pronounce it.
2. B
3. D
4. A. Her parents divorced when Harris was a child.
5. B. Class of 1986
6. True. They all went on to pass bar exams later.
7. C. She was born Oct. 20, 1964. Biden was first elected to the Senate in November 1972.
8. B. It’s the name her two stepchildren came up with.
9. A. They were married in 2014.
10. D
Bonus: She’s 5-feet-2

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Honey, they shrunk the conventions -- Aug. 6, 2020 column


Both political parties are scrambling to put together national political conventions virtually, on the spur of the moment, after throwing out long-developed plans for the usual in-person gatherings.

What could go wrong?

The way 2020 is going, it’s not hard to imagine the conventions as more trial and tribulation.

Democrats will celebrate at a social distance Aug. 17 through 20, and Republicans with a hybrid of in-person and remote events, Aug. 24 through 27.

Democrats and Republicans each initially expected upwards of 50,000 delegates, media, elected officials and celebrities to converge as they formally nominate their candidates for president and vice president.

But the novel coronavirus upended the coronations. As few as a couple hundred people may attend each convention in person. There could be more protesters than conventioneers.

The only smidgen of suspense is who Joe Biden’s running mate will be, and he’s likely to announce his choice beforehand.

President Donald Trump yanked the Republican convention from Charlotte when North Carolina’s sensible Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper refused to say Trump could fill up the convention hall.

Trump moved the shindig to Jacksonville, then canceled that “celebration” when COVID-19 cases surged in Florida.

Republican officials still plan to formally nominate Trump in Charlotte but are considering other cities for parts of their spectacle. Trump may deliver his acceptance speech from the White House South Lawn, in a huge break from tradition.

Congressional Democrats and even some Republicans say it’s possibly illegal and at least unethical to use the White House for political gatherings, though Democrats grumble Trump gives campaign speeches masquerading as news conferences at the White House nearly every day.

The pandemic has kept Biden close to home, but he was expected to break out and travel to Milwaukee to give his acceptance speech. He announced Wednesday he won’t even go to his own convention.

After consulting with health advisers, Biden decided the safe and responsible move was to give the most important speech of his life from Delaware. Other top Democratic speakers also will speak remotely.

The convention will still be “exciting,” Biden promised, offering no details.

Since COVID-19 has made 2020 one long root canal, it’s not surprising the national conventions would be strange. How strange? Even the police bailed.

In Milwaukee, more than 100 police agencies from Wisconsin and around the country that had planned to provide security quit after the Milwaukee police chief said they could not use tear gas or pepper spray to subdue protesters at the Democratic convention.

Before Trump pulled the plug on Jacksonville, the mayor as well as the local sheriff said Republicans lacked an adequate security plan for the convention and they couldn’t guarantee security.

So, what will the conventions look like? A few details are trickling out.

The GOP plans to rebrand as “the party of real, hardworking Americans.” A “nightly surprise” at 10 will feature guests and themes around “the forgotten men and women of America,” Axios reported, citing two senior Trump campaign officials.

Monday’s theme is America as “a land of heroes,” Tuesday “land of promise,” Wednesday “land of opportunity” and Thursday “land of greatness” with Trump’s plans for “the great American comeback,” Axios reported.

Democrats say they will have a “custom virtual video control room” designed to take in hundreds of live and recorded feeds from around the country at their Convention Across America that now will be “anchored” in Milwaukee.

Unlike previous conventions when speakers drone on day and night, Democrats plan only two hours of programming a night.

For decades, the value of the conventions has dwindled. Candidates clinch their nomination early, and the thousands of delegates and alternates in funny hats are little more than props for prime-time infomercials. That will be especially true for this year’s shrinking conventions.

But during the pandemic, with most of us stuck at home, Americans may enjoy watching makeshift political performances. Typically, voters watch only the party they already support, so no minds are likely to be changed.

What ultimately will be important is that the conventions signal the start of the fall campaign. No matter how jerry-rigged the conventions are, once they end it will be time to get serious.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.