Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Bald eagles bring cheer as they carry on -- Dec. 30, 2021 column


The sun shone, the Potomac River reflected a cloudless blue sky and high in a tree were two majestic bald eagles.

They perched side by side on a leafless branch where eagles had nested for years along the George Washington Memorial Parkway a few miles north of Mount Vernon. The nest was gone, perhaps destroyed by heavy rain or wind, but on a bright post-Christmas morning this week, the eagles were back.

As my partner Keith and I took pictures, a passerby said: “There are George and Martha, watching over us.”

The sighting was a good omen made even better about 20 minutes later when we spotted two more bald eagles, or maybe the same ones, in wooded parkland by the river. Someone told us the eagles often hang out on a small island nearby.

The chance encounters with eagles and their admirers were cheerful moments at the end of a largely cheerless year.

Seeing bald eagles in the wild is no longer the miraculous event it was in the 1960s. Today, their presence delights us and is a welcome reminder America can do something right for the environment.  

After nearing extinction in 1963 with fewer than 500 nesting pairs remaining, the bald eagle population in 2019 was an estimated 316,700 individuals, including 71,400 nesting pairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported last year. The population had quadrupled since data were last collected in 2009.

“The bald eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story,” the service says on its website.

A species native to North America, the bald eagle was chosen our nation’s symbol in 1782. Benjamin Franklin famously was not a fan. He called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character. It does not get its living honestly” but steals from other birds. 

While bald eagles eat mostly fish, waterfowl, small mammals and carrion, they got an undeserved reputation as preying on farm animals. Farmers shot many to protect their livestock. Eagles’ numbers also suffered from a loss of habitat.

Congress passed protection for the bald eagle in 1940, prohibiting killing, selling or possessing the raptor. It added protection for the golden eagle in 1962.

After World War II, the advent of DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes, decimated the bald eagle population. The chemical washed into waterways and eagles ate contaminated fish with disastrous results. Eagles’ egg shells were so thin they broke during incubation. 

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, awoke many to the environmental dangers of pesticides.

The Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, and a ban on DDT gave bald eagles a second chance. The wildlife service and its partners stepped up captive breeding and reintroduction programs, law enforcement, habitat protection and land purchases.

The bald eagle’s remarkable comeback led to its removal from the endangered list in 2007. It remains protected by other measures.

Franklin and other founders could not have imagined that today we can watch eagles on 24-hour HD cameras trained on their nests. The closeups show us bald eagles aren’t actually bald. They have snowy white heads on charcoal-brown bodies.

Bald eagles usually mate for life and return to the same nests time and again.

But there was trouble at home this year between the National Arboretum’s bald eagles, Mr. President and First Lady, who first nested there in 2015 and fledged seven eaglets.

Cameras captured the drama in their nest 80-feet above the earth in a tulip poplar tree as interlopers started dropping in. First Lady tried to chase the females away.

“She would come in at 50 to 60 mph with the talons out,” Dan Rauch, wildlife biologist, told The Washington Post.  But she herself was displaced in February by a younger female who cozied up to Mr. President and stayed. It was 2021, wasn’t it?

Initially, the new female was known as V5, but she recently was given the name Lotus, for Lady of the United States. She and Mr. President mated last week.

So, as life continues in the eagles’ nests, we can all be grateful for the bald eagles’ recovery.  

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

No holiday from masks, tests as omicron surges -- Dec. 23 2021 column


As omicron tightens its grip, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Monday declared a state of emergency.

Once again, masks are required indoors in such places as churches, gyms and grocery stores, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are not yet required in restaurants and bars in the nation’s capital, as they are in New York and Los Angeles.

“I think we’re all tired of it. I’m tired of it, too,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said, announcing the mask mandate will last until Jan. 31. “But we have to respond to what’s happening in our city and what’s happening in our nation.”

The mayor is correct. What’s happening is nearly three-fourths of the new coronavirus cases in the United States are now from the highly transmissible omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. Coronavirus daily case totals are at their highest level since last summer.

There is no statewide mask mandate in Virginia, but the Virginia Department of Health recommends masks be worn indoors in communities with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.

More than 800,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Public health officials knew the coronavirus mutates and new variants were likely. Still,  fast-spreading omicron caught nearly everyone by surprise last month.

Much remains unknown, including whether the illness omicron causes is less severe than the delta variant’s, and what the long-term effects of even a mild case may be.

The first death in the United States related to omicron was announced Monday. The victim was an unvaccinated man in his 50s with an underlying health condition in Houston, authorities said.

So, while we all feel coronavirus fatigue, we find ourselves on the verge of another  New Year having to rally again to fight an insidious, unpredictable virus.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who died this year, once said you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might wish you had.

It’s wrong that Americans have had to stand in line for hours for coronavirus tests, as they have in some parts of the country. Other nations have long been able to supply their residents with free, at-home test kits.

The Biden administration is now rushing to make available, starting next month, 500 million free, rapid, in-home coronavirus test kits. The government is opening more testing and vaccination sites, deploying military medical teams to overwhelmed hospitals, and plans to expand hospital capacity.

These are important changes that remind us we are not in the same place we were a year ago. Last year during the holidays we glimpsed the hope of vaccinations as the end of the pandemic. This year, we known the pandemic is still with us, and we are lucky if all we must endure are its inconveniences.

Mask and vaccination mandates cannot be partisan when the virus is bipartisan. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who both are vaccinated and boosted, tested positive for COVID-19, as did Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and a cancer survivor.

Breakthrough COVID-19 cases are common. President Joe Biden, 79, sat near someone on Air Force One the other day who later tested positive.

Most breakthrough cases seem to be mild, which is why Biden is urging every eligible American to get fully vaccinated and boosted.

And yet, when former President Donald Trump said Sunday in Texas he had received a booster, some in the audience booed. That’s a sad commentary on the misguided, ill-informed, anti-vax crowd.

Fortunately, there are no plans for lockdowns or a widespread return to remote schooling. We are learning to live with uncertainty.

Wearing an effective mask, such as the N95, getting vaccinated and boosted, and tested if we feel sick or are exposed to someone with COVID-19 are steps all of us can take to protect ourselves and others.

Those who feel their personal liberty is abridged by mask mandates can do something about it: They can stay home, off public transportation and out of public places.

As much as we Americans don’t like rules or mandates, especially rules that change, we must live in the real world. We all want the pandemic to end. We also want our families, friends and ourselves to be around next year. Be vigilant.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

In an anxious time, ads tug at our heartstrings -- Dec. 16, 2021 column


Time magazine picked Elon Musk as its 2021 Person of the Year – the individual “who most shaped the previous 12 months, for better or for worse.”

Musk, with his Tesla and SpaceX companies, emerged this year “not just as the world’s richest person but also as perhaps the richest example of a massive shift in our society,” Time fawned. “Like it or not we are now in Musk’s world.”

Well, maybe. I’ve never ridden in a Tesla, nor do I plan to any trips into space, although I know someone who loves playing Solitaire while letting his Tesla maneuver through highway traffic.

Even if the car is amazing, I can’t imagine a Tesla exerting the emotional pull of a restored 1966 Chevy Impala convertible like the one in “Holiday Ride,” Chevrolet’s new commercial. The four-minute version is a movie unto itself about grief, love and the power of memories.

With so many of us on edge in year two of a merciless pandemic, the Chevy ad is one of several holiday commercials that tug at our heart strings and show us our humanity.

Spoiler alert – I will be telling the stories of these ads. The Chevy commercial features a grieving widower in rural America who visits the dusty, dilapidated Impala in the barn, fighting tears as he holds a photo of a smiling young woman, presumably his late wife, in happy times with the new car.

His daughter sees him putting holiday wreaths on the barn door and secretly enlists local mechanics for “night work.” They painstakingly restore the car to its former glory for a surprise reveal.

It’s “the best Christmas gift I could ever have,” dad tells daughter, and they and their dog hop in for a spin.  If you don’t tear up watching, you may have left your heart in 2020.

“Kindness, the Greatest Gift,” set to Adele’s new song “Hold On,” features the kindness of strangers during the pandemic. In this Amazon global holiday campaign ad, we see a young woman university student alone, struggling to return to near-normal life. 

In a park, an older woman neighbor, feeding birds from her palm, notices the younger woman sitting alone, seemingly downcast.

Back in her apartment, the older woman hears a news report about young people being anxious during the pandemic. She orders something on her cell phone from, of course, Amazon. The younger woman receives the surprise gift of a bird feeder and is touched by the kind gesture. The ad fades out with the two talking and sharing a park bench.

“The past 18 months have been challenging for people across the globe, including many young adults,” Ed Smith, an executive at Amazon European Union, said in a statement. “So this year, whilst the world will not be totally back to normal, opportunities for kindness and connection will take on a newfound importance.”

Another European commercial available to watch online comes from Posten, the postal service of Norway. The heartwarming, adult-themed “When Harry Met Santa” imagines brief, Christmas Eve encounters that evolve over years into a romance. The ad celebrates the 50th anniversary in 2022 of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Norway and the postal service’s commitment to diversity.

Closer to home and more traditional is a Wegmans Food Markets broadcast ad, which features a young boy energetically and enthusiastically doing chores – raking leaves, pushing a heavy trash bin to the curb, delivering huge pots of mums, shoveling snow and putting up holiday lights.

As his family celebrates with a big holiday dinner, presumably from Wegmans, the boy dishes up a plate of food and takes it next door. Viewers realize then he has been doing the chores not for his own family but for his neighbor, an elderly woman. She comes to the door and is touched and surprised by the gift of food.

The ad is one of three in a campaign Wegmans calls “Back to Happy.” They use as a theme the children’s song, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”

And, so, may we all be happier on Earth this holiday season – even if we must steer our own cars through the traffic to get together with family and friends.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Midterm campaigns kick off with a political jab -- Dec. 9, 2021 column


During a recent medical test, I noticed my face mask had slipped down.

“Sorry!” I said to the technician, who was also masked. “I’m vaccinated and boosted, and you are too, right?” Slight pause.

“I’m healthy,” he said, using a favorite dodge of the unvaccinated.

Why would anyone whose job requires close contact with people who could be sick or immune-compromised take such a risk for himself, his patients and co-workers?

He said he had decades of experience, including at a hospital where tuberculosis patients coughed in his face, and was healthy. He doesn’t buy the need for vaccinations against COVID-19, thinks they could be harmful, and believes the number of reported COVID deaths is inflated.

Scientists, however, agree vaccinations help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and its severity and are less risky than the disease.

Most healthcare workers voluntarily take the commonsense precaution of vaccinations. Still, about 30% of workers in hospitals were unvaccinated as of September, according to a Centers for Disease Control study.

Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued rules requiring vaccinations for healthcare workers and for businesses with 100 employees or more. Both rules are stalled, at least temporarily, by court challenges.

The healthcare rule would require all workers in facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid funding to be fully vaccinated, with no exceptions, or facilities could lose federal funding. The OSHA rule includes a provision that allows workers who do not get vaccinated to be tested weekly and wear masks on the job.

 President Joe Biden was reluctant to impose such vaccination mandates, but after incentives and voluntary behavior weren’t enough, he earlier rolled out requirements for federal workers and employees of federal contractors to be vaccinated.

The mandate for contractors, which included limited exceptions for medical and religious reasons, was blocked Tuesday in federal court. The White House vows to continue fighting for mandates.

Many private employers have imposed vaccination mandates on their own. They realize the economy won’t get back to normal – whatever that is -- until more of the population is protected against this deadly, unpredictable disease.

The latest troubling news about the fast-spreading omicron variant has led public health officials to urge everyone eligible to get vaccinations and booster shots. New research from Pfizer and BioNTech indicates a booster shot may help protect against omicron, but it’s too soon to know.

Opponents argue vaccination mandates are an example of federal overreach. Politicians like to claim they personally are pro-vaccine but anti-mandate. They conveniently forget they and their children had to receive vaccinations against other diseases to enroll in school.

But COVID-19 vaccination mandates are seen as a potent political issue for the midterm elections. The Senate voted Wednesday to repeal Biden’s mandate for companies with more than 100 employees. All Republicans and two Democrats – Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana -- voted to nullify the mandate.

The 52-48 vote was largely symbolic, if not a political stunt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unlikely to bring the measure up for a vote in the House, and if it were to pass, the White House said Biden would veto it. It would be his first presidential veto.

Opponents of mandates say their constituents fear mandates will cost jobs and wreck the economy, but instead of working to educate the uninformed, politicians pander.

“Encouraging and requiring are two different things,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. Republican of West Virginia, told reporters. More than killing the American economy, she said, the vaccine mandate is “killing the American spirit of being able to make decisions about yourself, to be respected for that.”

Oh, please.

Vaccination mandates may be more popular than Republican politicians think. Half of Americans support the mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees, while 47% oppose it, a Wall Street Journal poll reported this week. Slightly more – 55% -- support vaccination mandates for public safety workers, such as police and firefighters.

Everyone is sick of the pandemic, but it shows no sign of waning. We all need to take responsibility to fight it. To everyone who’s eligible, except those with a legitimate medical excuse: Get your vaccinations and boosters.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Deadly school shooting a call for action -- lock 'em up -- Dec. 2, 2021 column


A chilling headline in The New York Times read: “Michigan shooting the deadliest on U.S. school property this year.”

Let that sink in. The qualifier “this year” makes clear, a friend wrote me, that school shootings are a given, “that this is just one deadly but inevitable school shooting among many past and present.”

Sadly, she is correct. Many Americans seem to have grown accustomed to what should be unimaginable – children gunning down other children at school.

On Tuesday in Michigan, a 15-year-old boy allegedly shot and killed four of his classmates in an Oxford High School hallway after lunch. Six other students and a teacher were wounded, some critically.

The shooting was the deadliest since May 2018, according to tracking by Education Week, which reports there have been 29 on campus school shootings this year with 11 people killed and 49 injured.

Also on Nov. 30 at Humboldt High School in Tennessee, three people were shot, one fatally, at a basketball game.

In Virginia, two high school shootings occurred this year with no fatalities – in Woodbridge in August and Newport News in September.

“Schools, in general, remain among the safest places for children to be, and shootings in schools are relatively rare,” Education Week notes. Since most children were home for school during much of 2020, school shootings were much lower than in previous years.

However, unintentional shooting deaths by children rose significantly last year, according to a count by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group.

Authorities in Michigan said the toll there would have been higher had the school not practiced active shooter drills. In addition, a deputy assigned to the school and other deputies arrived on the scene quickly and took the suspect into custody.

In what has become a sickening routine after such tragedies, politicians sent their thoughts and prayers. Most congressional Democrats avoid even mentioning stricter gun safety measures.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat who represents the congressional district that includes Oxford, tweeted that the shocked students “will have to make sense of one of their peers doing this to them.”

One of their peers? What about the adult who bought the semiautomatic handgun on Black Friday that his son used four days later? It’s not yet clear how the boy -- I will not name him because sick individuals often crave publicity -- got the gun.

Slotkin said it’s time for more mental health services, and it surely is, but that is not enough.

Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald has the right idea. Citing evidence that the Oxford shootings were premeditated, she charged the shooter Wednesday as an adult with terrorism, four first-degree murder counts and 19 other counts.

The terrorism charge was justified not only for the victims who died but those who will carry emotional scars for life, she said.

“What about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home right now who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever step foot back in that school?” she said. “Those are victims too and so are their families and so is the community. The charge of terrorism reflects that.”

She also said she may charge the shooter’s parents.

“We know that owning a gun means securing it properly and locking it and keeping the ammunition separate and not allowing access to other individuals, particularly minors. We know that and we have to hold individuals accountable who don’t do that,” she said.

I believe most gun owners are responsible and would agree with the need for common-sense precautions to keep their guns out of the wrong hands.

The old “don’t touch” rule many of us grew up with doesn’t work with all young people these days. There are many different ways to secure guns, from trigger locks to gun safes.

The NRA constantly harps that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But fewer kids would be killing other kids at school – or themselves and their siblings inadvertently -- if their parents and other adults kept their guns safely locked up.

“We have to do better,” McDonald said. Amen.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Banning Hair Discrimination Emerges as Racial Justice Issue -- Nov. 29, 2021

My latest on Stateline, the online news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Read it here -- https://bit.ly/3lt54O1