INDIANAPOLIS — There were several developments in the coronavirus pandemic that you may have missed overnight.
Here’s a look:
Coronavirus relief. Congress is returning for one final, perhaps futile, attempt at deal-making on a challenging menu of year-end business that includes a new coronavirus relief package.
Democrats have battled with Republicans and the White House for months over a fresh installment of COVID relief that all sides say they want. But a lack of good faith and an unwillingness to embark on compromises that might lead either side out of their political comfort zones have helped keep another rescue package on ice.
The aid remains out of reach despite a fragile economy and out-of-control increases in coronavirus cases, especially in Midwest GOP strongholds. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a potent force for a smaller — but still sizable — package and has supplanted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as the most important Republican force in the negotiations.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to have overplayed her hand as she held out for $2 trillion-plus right up until the election. The results of the election, which saw Democrats lose seats in the House, appear to have significantly undercut her position, but she is holding firm on another round of aid to state and local governments.
Before the election, President Donald Trump seemed to be focused on a provision that would send another round of $1,200 payments to most Americans. He hasn’t shown a lot of interest in the topic since, apart from stray tweets. But the chief obstacles now appear to be Pelosi’s demand for state and local government aid and McConnell’s demand for a liability shield for businesses reopening during the pandemic.
At stake is funding for vaccines and testing, reopening schools, various economic “stimulus” ideas like another round of “paycheck protection” subsidies for businesses especially hard hit by the pandemic. Failure to pass a measure now would vault the topic to the top of Biden’s legislative agenda next year.
“Surge upon a surge.” The nation’s top infectious disease expert said Sunday that the U.S. may see “surge upon a surge” of the coronavirus in the weeks after Thanksgiving, and he does not expect current recommendations around social distancing to be relaxed before Christmas.
Meanwhile, in a major reversal, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said the nation’s largest school system will reopen to in-person learning and increase the number of days a week many children attend class. The announcement came just 11 days after the Democratic mayor said schools would shut down because of rising COVID-19 cases.
“We feel confident that we can keep schools safe,” he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC’s “This Week” that the level of infection in the U.S. would not “all of a sudden turn around.”
“So clearly in the next few weeks, we’re going to have the same sort of thing. And perhaps even two or three weeks down the line … we may see a surge upon a surge,” he said.
Fauci addressed the school issue, saying that spread “among children and from children is not really very big at all, not like one would have suspected. So let’s try to get the kids back, but let’s try to mitigate the things that maintain and just push the kind of community spread that we’re trying to avoid,” he said.
Fauci also appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he made similar remarks, adding that it’s “not too late” for people traveling back home after Thanksgiving to help stop the spread of the virus by wearing masks, staying distant from others and avoiding large groups of people.
“So we know we can do something about it, particularly now as we get into the colder season and as we approach the Christmas holidays,” he said.
The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the United States topped 200,000 for the first time Friday. The highest previous daily count was 196,000 on Nov. 20, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Since January, when the first infections were reported in the U.S., the nation’s total number of cases has surpassed 13 million. More than 265,000 people have died.
Fauci said the arrival of vaccines offers a “light at the end of the tunnel.” This coming week, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss a rollout of the vaccine, he said.
He added that President-elect Joe Biden should focus on distributing vaccines in an “efficient and equitable way.” Fauci also said he planned to push the new administration for a rigorous testing program.
“We’ve got to go beyond the symptomatic people and get a better understanding of the asymptomatic transmission,” he said.
Health care workers will likely be among the first to get the vaccine, with the first vaccinations happening before the end of December, “and then as we get into January and February and March, more and more,” he said.
“So if we can hang together as a country and do these kinds of things to blunt these surges until we get a substantial proportion of the population vaccinated, we can get through this,” Fauci said.
Indiana’s schools struggle to stay open. Dozens of Indiana schools are struggling to stay open as growing numbers of coronavirus infections and related quarantines exacerbate a preexisting statewide teacher and substitute shortage.
As of last Monday, 1,755 schools across the state have reported at least one positive case of COVID-19, according to the Indiana State Department of Health’s weekly data update. That brings the statewide total to more than 15,000 students, teachers and staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
While some schools have elected to close their doors entirely, others are asking teachers to continue with in-person instruction. Oftentimes, that means taking on more classes and duties to compensate for those out sick or in quarantine. In other instances, that’s also meant teachers are asked to keep working even after they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.
That’s been the case in Shelbyville Central Schools, 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis, where the staffing shortage has become so dire that district leadership are allowing teachers who were exposed to COVID-19 to keep working without the 14-day quarantine recommended for close contacts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Shelby County Health Department emphasized the importance of keeping critical infrastructure workers like teachers in place after an exposure, and urged schools to keep their buildings open in a memo released Nov. 17: “If schools cannot effectively staff for in-person instruction, the recommendation is to follow the (state health department) guidelines allowing employees who have been exposed to someone that is positive for COVID-19 to continue to work as long as they remain asymptomatic…”
Shelbyville Central employees are expected to screen themselves daily and monitor for symptoms, wear a mask, social distance and clean their workspaces, according to the local health department. They’ve also been directed to continue to quarantine at home when not at work.
These situations are “unsustainable and unsafe,” Indiana State Teachers Association president Keith Gambill said in a statement. The state’s largest teachers’ union is now calling for schools in counties hardest hit by COVID-19 to return to virtual learning and urging state officials to require that local school districts comply with state recommendations for school operations.
“While we believe in-person instruction for students is best under normal circumstances, these aren’t normal circumstances,” Gambill said. “The lack of consistency within and across school districts is causing serious instability for students and educators alike. We simply cannot continue to put them and their families’ lives at risk.”
State health officials say they still haven’t seen evidence of widespread transmission inside school settings and that a blanket approach doesn’t work because of variations in schools districts’ sizes and staffing resources. The latest guidance from Indiana’s health department says, “schools may remain open to in-person instruction at all levels as conditions permit.”
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has resisted another statewide closure of schools like the one he issued in March.
The Republican governor has instead insisted that mask-wearing and social distancing “are proven to work” so schools can remain open for in-person instruction. Currently, decisions about when schools should close is left up to local officials.
Still, as virus spread increases, more Indiana school districts are changing in-person learning schedules or sending students home altogether.
All schools in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, are now required to close and return to virtual instruction by Monday. Schools are encouraged to close sooner, if possible, and instruction will remain online until at least Jan. 15.
NYC’s phased reopening. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday that the city’s public school system, the largest in the U.S., would begin phased reopening of schools starting in December.
The schools were closed less than two weeks ago after the citywide rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive exceeded a 3% benchmark agreed to by the mayor and teachers’ union. De Blasio said the 3% benchmark was being scrapped.
“It’s a new approach because we have so much proof now of how safe schools can be,” de Blasio told reporters.
Pre-kindergarten classes will reopen Dec. 7 for students whose parents agree to a weekly testing regimen for the virus. Schools that serve children with special educational needs, known as District 75 schools, will reopen Dec. 10. De Blasio said middle schools and high schools would reopen at later dates that had not yet been set.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who joined the mayor at a news conference, said with the new measures he believed the city could “safely and successfully keep our schools open for the duration of this pandemic.”
The city has more than 1 million public school students. As of the end of October, only about 25% of students had gone to class in school this fall, far fewer than officials had expected.
New York City’s school system, like others across the nation, halted in-person learning in mid-March as the virus spiked.
While many big U.S. school districts later decided to start the fall term with online learning, de Blasio pushed for opening schoolhouse doors.
The reopening date, originally set for Sept. 10, was postponed twice as teachers, principals and some parents said safety precautions and staffing were inadequate, with the teachers’ union at one point threatening to strike.