News

Trump in final debate slams pandemic aid as a ‘big bailout’ for blue cities and states

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

Courts & the Law, News

Supreme Court confirmation hearings to plow ahead amid COVID-19 infections

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

Positive COVID test, reelection race put Tillis in the spotlight

Federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett will face the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee beginning today for what’s expected to be an unusual and contentious four days of hearings on her nomination for the Supreme Court.

Democrats sought unsuccessfully to block those hearings, raising concerns about the short time frame before Election Day, the urgent need to focus instead on coronavirus relief legislation, and safety considerations related to COVID-19 cases among two Republican members of Judiciary.

Those lawmakers, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, both tested positive for the virus after attending Barrett’s announcement ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, a packed event where few attendees wore masks.

President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, White House officials, and the University of Notre Dame president also have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since that announcement ceremony.

Senate Republicans declined to pause or slow down the historically fast confirmation process. During the Judiciary hearings, the committee’s 12 Republican and 10 Democratic members will have the option to participate remotely, a hybrid approach that congressional panels have used in response to the pandemic.

Several Democrats, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who helped set up remote hearings earlier this year, have opposed allowing senators to take part virtually while considering a Supreme Court nominee. A spokeswoman for Klobuchar did not respond to questions on whether she plans to participate remotely or in the hearing room.

Tillis, who announced Oct. 2 that he had tested positive for COVID-19, told Fox News that he plans to join virtually “for the first day or two, and then I should be cleared for the vote later in the week.”

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, are expected to attend in person.

Inside the hearing room, there will be limits on the number of people in attendance, as well as stations stocked with protective gear, such as masks and gloves.

Barrett, 48, a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, was tapped by Trump to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18. Barrett graduated from Notre Dame’s law school and has served on the faculty there.

The nominee previously appeared before the Judiciary Committee in 2017, when she was being considered for her current appeals court post. Democrats sparked criticism for questions in that hearing over how Barrett’s Catholic faith would affect her legal decision-making.

Her confirmation would secure a shift on the court toward its conservative wing, giving them a 6-3 majority on the bench.

Under the confirmation hearing schedule outlined by Republicans, most of Monday’s action is expected to center around opening statements from committee members and introductory remarks from Barrett.

The question-and-answer portion begins on Tuesday, when each senator will have 30 minutes to question Barrett. In subsequent rounds of questioning, the time allotments will shrink to 20 minutes and then 10 minutes.

On Thursday, witnesses on an outside panel that has not yet been announced are expected to testify about Barrett.

This week’s hearings will set up a pair of swift votes on Barrett’s nomination. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told reporters recently that she expects the committee will vote on Oct. 22, with a floor vote by the full Senate to follow on Oct. 26 or 27.

Republicans have secured enough support to confirm Barrett, with the GOP senators who tested positive for COVID-19 expected to be able to safely return to the Capitol in time to vote.

But the confirmation hearing still will be closely watched, particularly after the hotly debated confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chaired the Judiciary panel during those hearings, and remains on the committee. He’s expected to attend in person, and the 87-year-old was one of the few members who wore a mask even when speaking during a recent Judiciary hearing.

Iowa’s junior senator, Republican Joni Ernst, also will participate in person. Ernst is one of two female GOP members on the committee. She and Sen. Marsha Blackburn were added following the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018. There were no Republican women on the panel as it investigated sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, and there never had been.

Blackburn has been a visible defender of Barrett in her interviews and other appearances, arguing that the judge would bring a new perspective to the court as a conservative, working mother.

Tillis, who is in a very competitive re-election race this fall, was a swift supporter of Barrett, and vowed even before she had been named to vote for whomever Trump tapped for the court.

The panel also includes Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican who intends to participate in person. After meeting with Barrett last month, Kennedy described her as “an impressive, thoughtful jurist,” and said he looked forward to her confirmation hearing.

Laura Olson covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes NC Policy Watch.

News, Trump Administration

Trump plans to leave the hospital and return to the White House on Monday night

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump is expected to leave Walter Reed National Military Hospital on Monday evening, announcing his plans in a social media post that declared he’s “feeling really good” as he recovers from COVID-19.

“Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Trump tweeted from his suite at the hospital in suburban Maryland. “We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

The president’s pending departure from Walter Reed follows a weekend in which his doctors and top staffers offered conflicting messages on his condition. On Saturday, Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean P. Conley, offered a rosy assessment of Trump showing improvements, while the president’s chief of staff Mark Meadows presented a starker outlook immediately after that briefing.

Before and during his hospital stay, Trump received several experimental treatments, including the antiviral drug remdesivir and dexamethasone, typically used in severe COVID-19 cases.

His doctors did confirm that he received supplemental oxygen at times and that his blood oxygen levels dropped at least twice since he tweeted about his diagnosis early Friday morning.

By Sunday evening, Trump and his security detail loaded into SUVs, so the president—who was wearing a cloth face mask—could wave to supporters gathered outside the hospital.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the president’s tweet about returning to the White House, Conley described Trump as “up and back to his old self, predominantly.” Conley declined to disclose certain details, including specifics of what the president’s lung scans showed, citing federal health confidentiality laws.

Conley also did not elaborate on any plans for how the president would quarantine at home, including whether he would remain in the residence instead of using the Oval Office, or other details about how the administration planned to safeguard the health of the many staffers who work at the White House.

He said that with any hospital patient, the goal is to return them home as soon as possible.

“Right now, there’s nothing that’s being done upstairs here that we can’t safely conduct” at the White House, Conley said.

Conley declined to give a date for when the president could travel again, saying that doctors will continue monitoring his virus levels.

Asked about the seven-to-10-day window he had stated as the most critical for COVID-19 patients, which is yet to come, Conley acknowledged they are in “uncharted territory” when it comes to the experimental treatments that Trump has received, and that he’ll remain under close observation through the weekend.

“If we can get through to Monday with him remaining the same or improving, better yet, then we will all take that final deep sigh of relief,” Conley said.

COVID-19, News

Could COVID-19 delay the Supreme Court confirmation hearings?