Barrett nomination advances to the U.S. Senate floor with a GOP-only vote

Mourners line up outside the U.S. Supreme Court for the public viewing for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Laura Olson.

Tillis joins Republican colleagues as Democrats boycott vote in protest

WASHINGTON—Republicans on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, as Democrats boycotted the markup in a show of protest.

The 12 Republicans on the panel speedily voted on Barrett’s nomination and sent it to the Senate floor. The full Senate will vote Monday, and Barrett is expected to be confirmed, with only a simple majority vote needed. “I doubt a single Dem will vote for her,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

While Democrats boycotted the markup, placed in the seats of their empty chairs were large pictures of people with pre-existing health conditions who would be harmed if the Affordable Care Act were repealed. Democrats throughout the confirmation process have stressed how devastating it would be to overturn the ACA in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans since early this year.

The Supreme Court is hearing a Republican challenge to the law next month, and President Donald Trump has tweeted and publicly stated that all his nominees to the Supreme Court will vote to repeal the landmark Obama-era health care law.

Barrett, 48, a judge for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois, was tapped to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18. Barrett’s nomination has spurred an outcry from Democrats, who argue that she should not be confirmed with only 11 days till the presidential election.

Advocates fear her religious views and track record on abortion rights and LGBT rights, as well as her previous writings on health care, will harm Americans.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), speaking to reporters outside the hearing room, defended Barrett’s Catholic religion.

“This is the most openly pro-life candidate for the Supreme Court in my lifetime,” he said, according to a pool report. “And once again, their attempts to attack her for her pro-life views which are well established in the record, just to fall flat. Polls clearly reflect the American people want her confirmed. She will be confirmed on Monday.”

If approved, Barrett’s confirmation will significantly shift the court to the right for generations, giving conservatives six of the nine seats.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of Judiciary, also defended Barrett, saying that she would stick to the law.

“Throughout the hearing, Democrats spun a bunch of nonsense about Judge Barrett and the Affordable Care Act,” Grassley said. “We all know that that’s bunk from how she’s described her approach to that ACA. Judge Barrett made clear then that she doesn’t have an agenda.”

Barrett worked as a law professor at Notre Dame Law School for many years and previously clerked under the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was her mentor.

Graham said that her nomination would be iconic for conservative women, just like Ginsburg’s, who was seen as a feminist hero and left a legacy of women’s rights.

“It’s historic for young conservative women knowing that there’s a seat at the table for them,” he said.

Outside on the Capitol steps, Senate Democrats voiced their opposition to Barrett during a news conference. As they spoke, a handful of protesters dressed as handmaids who also oppose Barrett’s confirmation could be heard shouting.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized what he described as “the most rushed, the most partisan, and least legitimate process” of a Supreme Court nomination.

“Democrats will not lend one single ounce of legitimacy to this awful, awful hearing,” Schumer said. “We are voting with our feet.” Read more

COVID-19, News

States struggle to draft COVID-19 vaccine plans while in the dark on details, funding

Image: Adobe Stock

WASHINGTON — Across the hundreds of pages of plans that state officials sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on distributing and tracking the yet-to-be-approved COVID-19 vaccines, there are more questions so far than answers on how exactly vaccine programs will be carried out.

Yet states will be on the front lines for a far-reaching vaccination initiative expected to cost in the billions, as the nation registers more than 8.3 million COVID-19 cases and 221,000 deaths. The federal government still has not done its part either, with additional vaccine funding stalled as Congress and the White House extend months-long talks over a new relief deal.

A review by States Newsroom of a dozen state plans found, for example:

  • Virginia officials outlined millions of dollars in anticipated costs, but they don’t yet have the money to pay for them.
  • Those in Arizona flagged that small rural clinics will need smaller allotments of the temperature-sensitive medications than the 1,000-dose increments expected in one scenario—a situation that seems likely to play out across states.
  • Colorado leaders cautioned that their phased plan for prioritizing who gets the vaccine doesn’t yet address children and pregnant women, because they haven’t been included in vaccine trials.
  • North Carolina’s draft plan specifically highlights the fact that a large percentage of the state’s residents have expressed skepticism about becoming vaccinated.

And how exactly will states ensure that their residents return for the second dose of what’s expected to be a two-part vaccine? Officials in Ohio and other states say they’re working on it, through a combination of PR campaigns, postcards, text messages and help from the providers that will be administering those shots.

States are emphasizing that the initial documents they filed last week are just that: Drafts that will be updated repeatedly as it becomes clearer which vaccine is likely to make it through the approval process first and as the CDC releases more guidance on who should be prioritized for the initial doses.

Some, including Pennsylvania and Minnesota, have so far declined to publicly share their draft plans, citing the need for further revisions and feedback from the CDC.

“It is important to understand that this plan will be continuously enhanced and adjusted to the various needs during each vaccine distribution phase,” said Maggi Mumma, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania’s Department of Health. “It is better to look at this as a framework.”

CDC deadline

The initial state plans for the massive logistical undertaking were due to the CDC on a fast timeline, only a month after the administration released its initial COVID-19 vaccination playbook. As those plans were being filed, the National Governors Association sent a long list of questions to the Trump administration, seeking more details on what states can expect when it comes to vaccine distribution, tracking and additional money to pay for those efforts.

“We need to answer these questions before the vaccine is available so that we are ready to go and no one is caught flat-footed when the time comes to vaccinate people,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a public statement accompanying those questions. Read more


As Senate Judiciary committee prepares to approve Barrett, advocates call on Tillis and Burr to reconsider

Breast cancer survivor Kimberly Dickens speaks outside the state Capitol Building yesterday.

It appears that U.S. Senate Republicans will take yet another step in the supremely hypocritical and morally illegitimate process of installing Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court today. Judiciary Committee Republicans will rubber stamp the nomination this morning, while Democratic members boycott to express their outrage at the preposterously rushed process.

As reported in this space yesterday, opponents of the nomination have another important reason to oppose the nomination: the revelation that Barrett served for years on the board of private school chain that overtly discriminated against children whose parents were LGBTQ or who were gay themselves.

And there are many other critically important reasons to oppose the nomination. A group of Triangle-area advocates for women’s health and reproductive freedom gathered outside of the state Capitol Building yesterday to highlight some of them. Led by NARAL Pro-Choice NC executive director Tara Romano, who termed the nomination “an undemocratic farce” and “a blatant power grab,” the speakers (all of them women) demanded that North Carolina senators Thom Tillis (who serves on the Judiciary Committee) and Richard Burr reconsider their support for Barrett and commit to oppose the consideration of any nominee until after next January’s Inauguration Day.

Other speakers included:

  • Kimberly Dickens of Edgecombe County — a breast cancer survivor, who explained in detail how the Affordable Care Act (a law for which Barrett has expressed contempt) quite literally saved her life;
  • Susanna Birdsong of Planned Parenthood, who lamented the fact that a Justice Barrett could, along with other far right justices, put a host of vital reproductive rights in jeopardy, including, of course, a woman’s right to obtain an abortion;
  • Gloria De Los Santos of Action NC who detailed the deep and destructive racial disparities that already afflict our flawed health care system and that would only grow far worse if the Affordable Care Act is struck down; and
  • Kelsea McClain, an advocate for abortion rights who explained how she had previously obtained two abortions at critical times in her life and how, despite being an abortion rights advocate, she was forced to endure what amounted to an anti-abortion lecture and a 72 hour waiting period under a law enacted a few years back by North Carolina’s anti-choice legislature.

All in all, it was a powerful demonstration by a group of powerful women and it will be a tragedy if it goes unheeded by Tillis and Burr.


Wayne County schools closed after coronavirus outbreaks have reopened

Students and teachers at a Wayne County elementary school returned to classes Wednesday, nearly a week after the district closed it due to a coronavirus cluster.

North Drive Elementary School became the district’s first cluster after four staff members and two students tested positive for the virus. The school shifted to remote learning after the outbreak. Wayne County Public Schools (WCPS) is operating under a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning.

Interim Superintendent James Merrill said in a statement that the decision to reopen the school came after careful consideration of the risks and two deep cleanings by a professional cleaning crew.

“When staff and students return, it will have been more than two weeks since the last reported case of a positive individual being on campus,” Merrill said in a statement.

Northside became the second WCPS school closed due to an outbreak of coronavirus.

Brogden Primary School closed Oct. 6 after eight people tested positive for the virus.  The school reopened for in-person instruction Tuesday.

School officials said the Brogden outbreak did not rise to the level of a cluster because five cases could not be connected.  State health officials define a cluster as a minimum of five laboratory confirmed cases with illness onsets and five or more connected cases.

The school district also released information about the about the purchase of  personal protective equipment and the number of Chromebooks bought in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Policy Watch requested the information for a story published Oct. 13. 

Critics say financial problem left the district unprepared to reopen for in-person instruction. The district’s superintendent and finance director resigned amid questions about a $5 million budget shortfall and a critical financial audit.

District watchdogs said there aren’t enough Chromebooks for all students to access remote learning. A former teacher and local businesses launched a Chromebook drive to raise money to purchase devices for students.

Wayne County Public Schools spokesman Ken Derksen said the district has issued 6,501 Chromebooks and 479 wi-fi hot spots for student use during the pandemic. The district is awaiting delivery of  7,639 Chromebooks, he said.

“Once the new Chromebooks arrive, WCPS will be 1:1 for all middle and high grades (1 Chromebook per student) and will be able to support elementary grades,” Derksen said.

Derksen also shared information about the purchase of personal protective equipment.

Teachers told an officer in the local branch of the NAACP that the district didn’t give them the  resources needed keep students safe.

“They [teachers] told me that they were given a bucket, some dirty rags, one bottle of sanitizer and a mask, and that’s what they were supposed to use to clean their classrooms and keep their classrooms clean,” Smith told Policy Watch. “I’m sorry, that’s not how you deep clean.”

Here’s what Derksen had to say in an email message to Policy Watch. The message included an attachment with a long list of personal protective equipment purchases:

WCPS continues using special state and federal funding to purchase cleaning equipment and supplies to support sanitization and disinfectant efforts at schools. Every school has been provided disinfectant cleaning equipment that can be used daily to disinfect both the air and contact surfaces in all of the classrooms, common areas, restrooms, and other areas where people have been. Additionally, similar disinfectant cleaning equipment has been purchased for daily cleaning of buses. Classroom supplies continue being purchased to support teacher and staff efforts to sanitize desks and other contact surfaces in between students. Since the start of school, teachers have been provided refillable hand sanitizer, wipes and cleaning solution, which will be refilled and resupplied as needed. Hand sanitizer stations have also been provided to all of the schools for placement in key areas of their campus.

WCPS is actively restocking schools and classrooms as needed while at the same time it is working to keep supplies ordered and on hand.



COVID-19, News

As COVID deaths top 4,000, state leaders press local officials to help drive down the numbers

DHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen

North Carolina officials have grown increasingly alarmed this week at the quick rise in COVID-related infections and deaths.

On Wednesday, the state surpassed 4,000 COVID-19 deaths, with 98 of those fatalities being recorded just since Sunday.

More than 1,200 people are hospitalized because of the coronavirus, and that number that has exceeded the 1,000 mark since October 5th.

Some smaller hospitals are feeling the strain.

Noting that the state is moving in the wrong direction as we approach fall and winter, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the NC Department of Public Safety sent a letter leaders in 36 counties Tuesday asking them to consider local actions to improve compliance with the governor’s executive orders. The letter reads in part:

“We need everyone’s leadership in this moment talking about wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing their hands,” said Governor Roy Cooper.

The governor singled out Halifax County Sheriff Wes Tripp, who reversed course this week in announcing his deputies would begin citing businesses where workers were not in compliance in wearing face coverings.

“More and more law enforcement across the state are beginning to recognize that it is important for them to play a role in enforcement,” said Cooper.

The governor said retail establishment and restaurants should also step up enforcement of the three Ws when they see people not abiding by the health guidelines.

“Ignoring the virus does not make it go away,” reminded DHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen.

Cohen said over the past two weeks North Carolina has seen more COVID clusters from social gatherings such as parties, family gatherings, weddings, and funerals.

Current guidance from the state calls for no gathering to exceed 25 people indoors or 50 people outdoors.

“There are places that need to work harder than they are because we see the virus spreading a lot,” Cohen cautioned.

October’s rise in COVID cases has led the state to pause any additional loosening of restrictions for at least another three weeks.

Learn more about the spread of COVID  in your county by visiting the state’s dashboard.

Social gatherings have sparked a rise in COVID cases since September. (Source: NCDHHS)