MASK ON, MASK OFF – Institutional DC parties are back with a vengeance, with the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner scheduled for this weekend despite rising Covid-19 caseloads in the region and a rash of infections linked back to the Gridiron dinner earlier this month.
Washington announces conference season in session. You may now spittle on your neighbor.
It’s not just nerd proms and insider roasts, either. After a long pandemic winter, even in-person health policy conferences are budding alongside the Washington-area flora.
The World Vaccine Congress just wrapped up its first non-virtual confab in DC in three years, with the American Hospital Association on deck for its own live gathering this week.
AHA is not requiring masks, vaccination proof or – as recommended by the CDC – a test in the 24 hours prior to the event.
The World Vaccine Congress was stricter, asking for proof of vaccination or a test within 72 hours and recommending masks – when not on stage.
When even the health wonks are gathering in person, it’s a sign that the new, more casual pandemic mood may be here to stay. (POLITICO’s inaugural health care summit last month didn’t require mitigation measures, though it was a much smaller event than the World Vaccine Congress or the AHA meeting.)
For all the health care establishment has done to educate the public on best practices during a pandemic, it’s proving to be inconsistent on modeling that behavior for the masses. Vaccination requirements? Sometimes. Mask recommendations? Maybe.
The conferences have led Biden officials to do their own mask-policy dance. Many top health officials are attending the three-day AHA summit, and not one – including Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure – has committed to wearing a mask indoors.
That is in line with the current CDC recommendation for the DC area, but the string of maskless big events comes during a federal fight to keep transportation mask mandates in place – using arguments for airline passengers and flight attendants that could apply just as well to unmasking at an indoor wonkfest with hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, one of the Biden officials speaking at the event, tweeted last week that he would continue to wear high-quality masks while traveling.
“Right now, with cases rising and with hospitalizations starting to increase in some states, taking precautions while traveling still makes sense, ”he said wrote on Twitter. “Even if you’re low risk and aren’t concerned about # COVID19, you could transmit the virus to someone who isn’t so lucky… Our decisions affect others.”
Yet Murthy’s spokesperson, Alexandria Phillips, told Nightly that Murthy wouldn’t necessarily wear a mask at the AHA conference, citing CDC guidance that he didn’t need to because DC hospitals aren’t currently burdened with Covid patients.
POLITICO asked why Murthy wears a mask while traveling but not at an in-person event where many people may have traveled to attend. Phillips didn’t answer.
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Other Biden officials point to high vaccination rates among DC residents and other areas like New York City, where the mayor has also resisted reinstating mask mandates.
One senior official told Nightly that the true test will be in more rural areas, ones with lower vaccination rates and less hospital capacity – which is why the administration is fighting for the travel mask requirement.
While case counts have steadily risen through April and hospitalization rates are beginning to inch upward again, hospitals haven’t seen a spike like the Delta wave that stressed some health systems to capacity. Administration officials and public health policy experts say the next two weeks will show whether the milder, but still highly transmissible, Omicron and its subvariants will spark a new hospital wave.
“We’re at a crossroads,” the official said last week. “No one knows yet whether hospitalizations are going to rise; that’s what everyone is waiting to see. ”
Rising case counts haven’t dampened the pandemic shift to personal choice and responsibility rather than national requirements. And most people, including health officials and industry leaders, are choosing not to mask.
“There’s people wandering around here without masks,” said Nicole Lurie, director of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations’ US arm, last week during a World Vaccine Congress panel. “I don’t get it. But there’s something about human behavior that we’re still not really understanding. “
FUNDING SECURED – Twitter’s board of directors accepted Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company today, a takeover that could lead to the biggest revamp of the micro-blogging site since it launched in 2006. Musk – the world’s richest person – is paying $ 44 billion for the social media platform that has become an essential message machine for Washington and the center of debates over what sort of speech it should allow.
When asked about Musk’s acquisition today, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she wouldn’t comment on a “specific transaction.”
“No matter who owns or runs Twitter, the president has long been concerned about the power of large social media platforms,” Psaki said.
– Judge threatens to stop Biden’s Title 42 plan: A federal judge in Louisiana has announced his intent to issue a temporary restraining order against the Biden administration’s plans to end Title 42 on May 23, providing a measure of relief to anxious lawmakers. The White House had been preparing a more aggressive defense this week around its strategy for lifting the Trump-era deportation policy, according to five people familiar with the plans.
– DeSantis signs bill creating one of the nation’s only election police units: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis approved the creation today of a new, stand-alone election police force designed to crack down on voter fraud in the nation’s third-largest state. The Republican governor had proposed the creation of a special unit to tackle election crimes as he came under pressure from some Republicans to do a full-blown audit of the 2020 election, even though former President Donald Trump had little trouble winning Florida.
– Kansas judge rejects congressional map: A Kansas district court judge today struck down a Republican-backed congressional map that would likely make it harder for the only Democrat in the state’s delegation to win reelection this year. It was the first time a court has declared that the Kansas Constitution prohibits political gerrymandering. The state is expected to appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court.
– Justices seem sympathetic to coach fired for on-field prayers: The Supreme Court looks likely to rule in favor of Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach fired in 2015 after he refused to stop praying on the field following his team’s games. But it’s unclear if the ruling will be a sweeping decision backing the religious-freedom rights of school employees or a more narrow one tailored to the unusual facts of the case. One complicating factor is the school district’s claim that students were implicitly coerced to participate in the prayers.
– Austin and Blinken share plans to step up diplomatic presence in Ukraine: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new nominee to serve as US ambassador to Ukraine as well as plans to bolster America’s diplomatic presence in the country when they met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Sunday night. The two members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet also relayed that the United States will provide Ukraine with further security assistance and offer expanded military training for Ukrainian forces.
– Trudeau launches official inquiry into use of emergency laws to end trucker convoy: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has formally set in motion a major inquiry into his government’s decision to invoke never-before-used emergency measures in response to the trucker occupation of downtown Ottawa. Trudeau named Justice Paul S. Rouleau to lead the Public Order Emergency Commission, which will “examine the circumstances that led to the statement being issued and the measures taken in response to the emergency.”
TWITTER VS. TESLA – In the broader context of his career, Musk’s obsession with Twitter is somewhat baffling. Twitter is the quintessential digital-first medium: a piece of software that makes it easier to pass words and pictures around, Derek Robertson and Ben Schreckinger write in Digital Future Daily.
Ideas like that have built a lot of tech fortunes, but not Musk’s. Musk is famous for transforming the most hidebound industry of all: He builds automobiles. The majority of his dreams and promises are about changing the tangible, physical world around us: rockets, tunnels, batteries. He’s a capitalist in the way an 1830s shipbuilder would immediately understand.
But what if the “future” isn’t in ephemeral bits and bytes, but the refinement and science-fictionalization of the old-school industrial technology we’re all already used to?
Twitter is highly virtual, but it’s also very concrete in one respect, and that’s why people are so concerned about Musk: It’s far and away the single most important platform for news-breaking, time-wasting and rabble-rousing among the political and media class.
It’s important enough that Wired ran an article arguing that it should be publicly owned. Conservatives see Musk as a potential free-speech savior who could bring controversial users like the former president back online, though Trump has said he won’t return. Some liberals dread a potentially more lax moderation environment they say could lead to an increase in harassment, misinformation and generally the continuing toxification of online life.
For someone with as much power as Musk, that kind of influence is as “real” as it gets.
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