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Progress, promise and peril in battle to defeat COVID pandemic

Health workers and volunteers prepare a COVID-19 mass

Health workers and volunteers prepare a COVID-19 mass vaccination site last week at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Don't spit the bit, America

The numbers on the coronavirus pandemic are telling hopeful stories and frightful ones.

President Joe Biden said Monday that by April 19, 90% of U.S. adults will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine and be able to reach a vaccination site within five miles of where they live, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez. Starting Tuesday, New York is dropping the minimum age of eligibility to 30 from 50.

Biden said his administration will more than double the number of pharmacies participating in the federal vaccination program from 17,000 to nearly 40,000 by mid-April. As of Monday, 73% of U.S. seniors received their first dose, along with more than 1 in 3 American adults.

But hours before Biden spoke, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said she was experiencing a "recurring feeling" of "impending doom" because of a possible fourth surge in U.S. cases.

The CDC’s most recent data indicates a 10% increase in the seven-day average of new cases, compared with the prior seven-day period. The United States is now averaging 60,000 new cases per day, she said. Deaths are at about 1,000 a day.

She said the current "trajectory of the pandemic in the United States looks similar to many other countries in Europe," including Italy and France, both of which have reimposed lockdowns. "We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope," Walensky said. "But right now I'm scared."

Asked if states should pause reopening efforts given the uptick in cases, Biden told reporters: "Yes." He pressed Americans to continue adhering to coronavirus restrictions such as masking. "We’re in a life-and-death race" with the virus and its variants, Biden said. "We could still see a setback in the vaccination program, and most importantly, if we let our guard down now, we could see a virus getting worse, not better," the president said.

Trump's COVID failures: An autopsy

Several top doctors in the Trump administration offered damning criticism during interviews in a CNN special that aired Sunday night of the government response to the coronavirus last year, with one of them, Dr. Deborah Birx, arguing that hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented.

There was deliberate deception as well as dysfunction. Dr. Brett Giroir, former President Donald Trump's testing czar, said the Trump administration flat-out lied to the public about the availability of testing. "When we said there were millions of tests available, there weren’t, right?" Giroir told CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "There were components of the test available but not the full deal."

Alluding to Trump's nonsensical scapegoating of testing for higher numbers of infections, Birx said, "People really believed in the White House that testing was driving cases, rather than testing was a way for us to stop cases." Birx also said most of the virus-related deaths in the United States after the first 100,000 — in the spring surge — could have been prevented with a more robust response. "That’s what bothers me every day," she said. As of Sunday, more than 548,000 Americans died of COVID-19.

Birx, Trump's White House coronavirus response coordinator, said she personally got an "uncomfortable" and "very direct" rebuke by Trump after she warned in an August interview that Americans needed to take strict safety precautions because the virus was "extraordinarily widespread."

In a rambling rebuttal statement on Tuesday, Trump called Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases official, "self-promoters trying to reinvent history to cover for their bad instincts and faulty recommendations, which I fortunately almost always overturned." He also said, "I only kept Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx on because they worked for the U.S. government for so long — they are like a bad habit!"

Janison: Democrats' perishable power

Biden and the Democrats' congressional leadership are feeling an extra urgency to enact major budget, tax and legislative priorities while they still hold majorities in both chambers, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Population shifts documented in the 2020 census will mean more seats, starting with the 2022 midterm elections, for red states like Texas and Florida, where Republican-controlled state legislatures will get to draw new congressional district lines to their party's advantage.

By contrast, the massive Democratic-dominated states of California, New York and Illinois are likely to lose one or two seats each because of fewer residents.

The GOP is seen as having a very strong chance of winning the House in 2022, which means Republicans, some with extreme anti-Democratic views, will gain new opportunities to block or sabotage Biden's initiatives.

A tax hike moonshot

The Biden administration has decided it will need more tax revenue than originally envisioned to pay for the infrastructure and jobs package that the president will unveil on Wednesday. Instead of $1 trillion in tax hikes, the White House will seek $3 trillion, The Washington Post reported.

The change is driven partly from concern that driving up the federal deficit too high could trigger interest rate hikes, which would make borrowing for everyone — including government — more expensive. The spending portion of the plan also has increased, from $3 trillion to $4 trillion.

The White House is studying a range of tax hikes on wealthy investors, corporations and rich people to pay for the package. The administration also believes the tax increases also can advance its goal of reducing income inequality.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on CNN that the administration won't seek to raise the federal gas tax or charge drivers a fee based on miles driven to pay for the infrastructure plan. He said the measures being discussed "are carefully thought through, responsible ideas that ultimately are going to be a win for the economy."

Biden boosts wind farms off Hamptons

The Biden administration on Monday released details of a multipronged effort to jump-start the nation’s offshore wind industry, including plans to auction off long-anticipated wind-energy areas off Long Island that encompass waters off the Hamptons, reports Newsday's Mark Harrington.

The announcement is part of a larger initiative to unlock barriers to the U.S. wind energy industry after years of delays under the Trump administration. The Biden plan also includes the start of an environmental review of planned a wind farm off New Jersey called Ocean Wind that is being developed by Denmark-based Orsted along with PSEG Long Island, which has a 25% stake.

In the past, East End and state officials and even wind-energy supporters had expressed reservations about developing wind farms off the Hamptons. "That area is too close to shore in my opinion and should not be considered," Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said of the proposed sites. "It appears to be 15 miles out in the ocean. That would [make it] very easy to see the large turbines. These utilities need to be located farther offshore to eliminate the visual impacts from public beaches."

Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, a Montauk commercial fishermen’s group, said she was particularly dismayed the Biden announcement didn’t include programs to compensate fishermen for the loss of fishing grounds.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Robert Brodsky and Matthew Chayes. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The CDC extended its pandemic-related federal moratorium on eviction for nonpayment of rent until June 30. It would have expired Wednesday.
  • Federal prosecutors on Long Island on Monday announced an expanded effort to investigate alleged hate crimes in the wake of an increase in violence targeting Asian Americans, report Newsday's Robert E. Kessler and Nicole Fuller.
  • The New York State attorney general's office has partnered with the Manhattan district attorney to investigate Trump ally Steve Bannon for an alleged fundraising scam, The Washington Post reported. Just before leaving office, Trump pardoned Bannon from a federal indictment amid the investigations.
  • The Biden administration suspended a trade pact with Myanmar on Monday following a bloody weekend in which Myanmar's military killed scores of its civilians amid protests against the junta's Feb. 1 overthrow of elected government.
  • The president and first lady Jill Biden made a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington on Monday. They placed a bouquet of white flowers at the base of the memorial wall and traced the names of a soldier who died in 1969 on a piece of paper. Jill Biden tweeted that they stood in "for those who couldn’t come to the wall this year."
  • Lara Trump, daughter-in-law of the former president, is joining Fox News as a paid on-air contributor. "I sort of feel like I’ve been an unofficial member of the team for so long," the wife of Trump's son Eric told the hosts of "Fox & Friends." She served as a surrogate for her father-in-law's 2020 campaign and may run for the Senate from North Carolina next year.

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