$1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue bill in sight, as variant ‘increasing exponentially’ in US

The bill includes extended help for the unemployed, money to reopen schools, aid for stricken small businesses, child tax credits and health insurance subsidies. It would enshrine one of the boldest deployments of federal power to alleviate the plight of the poorest Americans in at least a generation, and would invite comparisons between Biden and great reforming Democratic presidents of the 20th century, on a crisis measure uniformly opposed by Republicans.

In addition to its short-term impact, proponents of the bill say it has the potential to significantly cut child poverty and improve health care for many Americans — results that would not normally be expected in an economic stimulus bill.

But the laborious process of shepherding it through the Senate while balancing the aspirations of moderate and more liberal Democrats offered a warning about how hard it will be for Biden to enact the rest of his ambitious agenda.

And major challenges still stand in the way of the United States defeating the pandemic that has killed over half a million Americans.

B.1.1.7, a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first discovered in Britain, has spread to at least 46 states and Washington, DC, and is likely to become predominant in the US, possibly leading to more cases and deaths. The current rate of vaccinations might not be fast enough to fend off a major B.1.1.7 surge in the coming weeks.

“That strain is increasing exponentially. It’s spiking up,” said Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist. “So we are probably right now on a tipping point of another surge.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser on Covid-19, warned in an interview Sunday on CBS that the decline in cases in the US had stalled and was “plateauing at quite a high level.” The trend was concerning, he explained, because plateaus have previously been followed by a new spike in cases. Fauci pointed to Europe, where cases leveled off before increasing by about “9%” over the last week or so, as a worrying signal.

The best way to prevent further spread of variants, Fauci said, is to “get people vaccinated as quickly and as expeditiously as possible and, above all, maintain the public health measures that we talk about so often, the masking, the physical distancing and the avoiding of congregate settings, particularly indoors.”

YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED

Q: Why go out when you can stay in?

A: A year ago, Americans had just wrapped their last normal weekend and they didn’t know it yet. Now, the US is deep into a pandemic with a new strain of the coronavirus on the loose. But there are glimmers of hope.

As more people get vaccinated, it finally seems like a return to the Before Times is in sight. Still, staying home for months on end has raised questions about the way we live and socialize. Are bars simply overpriced drinks? Concerts a sea of sweaty armpits? Gyms just a house party for germs?

Send your questions here. Are you a health care worker fighting Covid-19? Message us on WhatsApp about the challenges you’re facing: +1 347-322-0415.

WHAT’S IMPORTANT TODAY

Russian disinformation campaign targets confidence in US Covid-19 vaccines

Online platforms directed by Russian intelligence are spreading disinformation about two of the coronavirus vaccines being used in the US, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to CNN on Sunday.

The agency’s Global Engagement Center identified three Russian outlets that are spreading not only misinformation about the virus, but also regarding “international organizations, military conflicts, protests; and any divisive issue that they can exploit,” according to the spokesperson.

The campaign comes as the US and other countries race to vaccinate people using three vaccines developed in record time by the drug makers Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. US officials have been working to increase confidence in the drugs in recent months as studies showed a concerning level of vaccine hesitancy among some people, though that has decreased as the rollout has progressed.

Migrants could become the new Covid scapegoats when Europe’s borders reopen

With Europe’s vaccine rollout creeping forward, attention is turning to what will happen when the continent’s borders reopen. Where this debate could get particularly fraught is over the thorny issue of migration, Luke McGee writes.

Last weekend, populist Euroskeptic Nigel Farage, whom many credit with making Brexit happen, tweeted about a “Covid crisis in Dover,” baselessly claiming that a boat carrying migrants had landed in southeast England, “with 12 on board and they all tested positive for the virus.”

The UK government took the unusual step of directly responding to Farage’s tweet. Then a Home Office official told CNN that while the suggestion migrants are spreading the coronavirus is a “fringe opinion,” they are concerned about people with large groups of followers — like Farage — amplifying this false message. And they noted that Farage’s tweet got a lot more interaction from Twitter users than their reply correcting it.

Experts slam Merkel’s vaccine decisions as a disaster

Last month Bild, Germany’s largest-selling tabloid newspaper, made headlines in the UK when it ran the front-page splash: ‘Liebe Briten, we beneiden you!’ [Dear Britain, we envy you] in a pointed message on how Germany was floundering with its vaccine rollout in comparison to Britain’s strategy, which has been widely hailed as a success.

Since it administered its first shot in December, Germany has only vaccinated around 6% of the population, with around 5 million first doses and 3 million second doses deployed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has admitted to failings with the speed of the rollout and said Wednesday that doctors’ offices should be able to vaccinate patients by the end of March.

But the comparisons to Britain became even more painful last week as Merkel announced a U-turn on the decision not to authorize the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for people over the age of 65.

ON OUR RADAR

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sipped a coffee at a Jerusalem cafe on Sunday, marking the reopening of restaurants as part of a lockdown exit plan spurred by Israel’s fast-paced vaccination program.
  • Pope Francis wrapped his historic visit to Iraq on Monday, a symbolic moment for the country’s dwindling Christian community and a possible health risk for many faithful who were unable to social distance and did not don masks.
  • China will launch a program to inoculate Chinese people living abroad, setting up centers “to administer Chinese vaccines for our compatriots in surrounding countries.”
  • The Dalai Lama, 85, received his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Saturday at a hospital in Dharamsala, India, where he lives in exile.
  • England’s schools were back in session for all pupils on Monday, the first step in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap for lifting lockdown measures.
  • Some children’s hospitals are seeing a surge in a rare Covid-19 complication: multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C).

TOP TIPS

Americans are one year into this new, strange pandemic life. It’s been a harrowing and heartbreaking transition for many. Allison Hope has broken down some lessons from the past twelve months, with some much-needed levity. One of her top takeaways: There are very few instances in life in which pants are required.

“There’s almost been an equal split down the middle of Covid-19 era beauty/fashion from minimalist and bare-faced to anything goes to full-out glam,” said Rachel Weingarten, a pop culture and trends expert and former celebrity makeup artist.

“On the one hand, you have those who believe bras and pants have become irrelevant and don’t see the purpose of even putting on a pair of shoes anymore,” Weingarten said. “The opposing view often includes those who have a lot of Zooming going on and feel either the pressure or relief of an opportunity to dress up — at least from the waist up — and spend time on their makeup and hair.”

TODAY’S PODCAST

“I’ve gone from 600 followers to about 350,000 followers in a little under a year, and it just doesn’t stop because the information doesn’t stop.” — Laurel Bristow, infectious disease researcher

Bristow has made a name for herself disseminating helpful, pandemic-related information on Instagram under the handle @KingGutterBaby. She talks to CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta about her rise to fame, the pressures that come with it, and what her username means. Listen now.



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