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.