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Congress stalls on coronavirus relief bill as crisis deepens

Yet even in the depths of that crisis, members of Congress are still bickering and stalling — leaving the Capitol on Friday night without striking an agreement on an emergency coronavirus stimulus package to get the economy back on track and narrowly avoiding a government shutdown by passing a two-day extension of funding that will keep agencies running through Sunday night.
The consequences of their negligence and indecision if they do not reach a deal within days could be brutal. Some 12 million Americans could lose their jobless benefits on December 26 if Congress fails to act, according to an analysis by The Century Foundation, and many others have already lost those benefits because members didn’t get a deal done months ago when those benefits started running out.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana noted Friday night that the $908 billion package “has been talked about, in a bipartisan way, for about a month now.”

“So it’s really ridiculous that we can’t give businesses and working families the kind of certainty that they need to be able to be successful, especially during the holiday season,” he said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” Friday night. “It’s really important that we tend to business and get it done. The negotiations are going on. But the bottom line is, let’s get a bill, let’s bring to the floor, let’s amend it if we have to, and vote.”

One central point of tension in the negotiations is the size of direct payments to working-class Americans, many of whom are facing food insecurity and the possibility of eviction. The deal that took shape this week included $600 payments for individuals. But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate who is an independent, is warning that he could try to block the major government spending bill from passing the Senate if members do not approve “substantial direct payments” for individuals and families affected by the pandemic.

He argued Friday in a floor speech that payments should be $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for families — and refused to define exactly what amount he would consider “substantial.”

“If this country means anything, if the US government means anything, it means that we cannot turn our backs on that suffering, and that we cannot leave Washington for the holidays to go back to our families unless we address the pain and anxiety of other families throughout this country,” Sanders said in his speech.

Under normal circumstances, any responsible commander-in-chief witnessing the congressional stalemate would try to intercede to nudge both sides toward a deal. But President Donald Trump has been silent, still obsessed with his election conspiracy theories as he urges his allies to mount a new effort to overturn Biden’s victory on January 6 when Congress ratifies the election results.

Trump, who retweeted a mask skeptic this week, was also notably absent on Friday when Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence, along with Surgeon General Jerome Adams, publicly took their first shots of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine that was authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration last week.

The on-camera display by Pence and Adams was praised by medical and public health experts who say that it is important for Americans to see that show of confidence in the vaccine as hesitancy persists in some of America’s hardest-hit communities. President-elect Joe Biden and incoming first lady Jill Biden will be vaccinated Monday in Delaware.

A second vaccine at a dire time

But the vaccinations of the nation’s top leaders, including some members of Congress, occurred as the country’s Covid-19 crisis deepened — with the US hitting a record 114,751 hospitalizations and a record 249,709 new cases Friday.

In the midst of those alarming numbers, the FDA authorized the Moderna vaccine for emergency use Friday night — a welcome development for hospitals that are trying to get as many front-line health workers vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Shots of the Moderna vaccine, which could be easier to deliver to hard-to-reach communities because it does not have to be kept at the ultra cold temperatures required for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, could begin going into the arms of Americans next week if a key advisory panel to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the agency itself, sign off this weekend.

But those additional Moderna doses will not arrive soon enough to alleviate the havoc that the virus is creating in communities where case numbers are surging out of control, such as Los Angeles County. Dr. Brad Spellberg, the chief medical officer at Los Angeles County + University of Southern California (LAC+USC) Medical Center, warned Friday that “hospitals around the county are running out of ICU beds.”

“We’re getting crushed,” Spellberg said during a briefing Friday. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this. We are getting crushed.”

States told by federal government they will receive fewer Pfizer vaccine doses next week, sparking confusion

There are also puzzling signs of problems within the nation’s vaccine distribution system, an area where members of Congress should be doing troubleshooting if they were not so mired in their own dysfunction. Several governors and state health officials have said they are confused about why they are receiving smaller allotments than expected of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer accused the Trump administration of “slow-walking the process” of getting the addresses to Pfizer of where the vaccine needs to be shipped.

“I still cannot get a straight answer out of the Trump administration on why Michigan, like many other states, is receiving a fraction of the vaccines that we were slated to receive,” the Democratic governor told reporters. She added that the delay is “either corruption or ineptitude that is keeping us from saving lives and protecting people.”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, also said he was unable to understand the rationale for the smaller vaccine deliveries that the federal government is coordinating with Pfizer.

“Many people heard the news yesterday that the federal government announced that smaller quantities of vaccine would be delivered to states, in this first wave — including Massachusetts,” Baker said Friday. “At this time, it’s not clear to us why the shipment amounts have been adjusted. … We’re certainly frustrated that we won’t be receiving the amount that we expected in the first wave.”

On Thursday, Pfizer said in a statement that the company is not having any production issues and that “no shipments containing the vaccine are on hold or delayed.”

“We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses,” Pfizer said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services told CNN this week that states will ultimately receive their full allotment but deliveries may be spread over a longer time frame.

Despite those hangups, medical experts took a moment at the end of this week to mark the historic nature of the swift authorizations of the first two vaccines in the US and the speed at which they were developed.

“Biomedical research and science have given us something that just a decade ago would have seemed unimaginable,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said during a virtual event with the Duke Initiative for Science & Society Friday. He noted that over the past year the world has been engulfed in one of the most “destructive pandemics in over a 100 years.”

“Just over the past few days, science has allowed us to have a vaccine that when we distribute it to people throughout the country, and hopefully throughout the world,” Fauci said, “we will crush this outbreak that has really terrorized us for the last 11 months.”


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