Three weeks after a closed electricity market that’s designed to turn disasters into windfall profits collapsed in Texas, turning a winter cold snap into a deadly power shortage that still has many Texans dealing with broken pipes and ruined homes, Gov. Gregg Abbott is badly in need of a new distraction. Abbott spent days during the cold wave sitting on Fox News explaining how the real culprit was the never-passed Green New Deal, and not the fragile by-energy-billionaires for-energy-billionaires system that Republicans had spent decades assembling in Texas. But then, a lot of Texans didn’t get to see Abbott making excuses about windmills on Fox, because they didn’t have any power.

Obviously, a distraction was needed. Fortunately for Abbott, he could jump right onto a lemming train of Republican governors all making the same bad decision for pretty similar reasons. So on Tuesday Abbott decided that COVID-19 is over in Texas. He’s lifted the state’s (poorly enforced and incomplete) mask mandate, and he’s telling business they can “fully reopen.” But Abbott’s order does more than just lift any official mandate by the state. Because it also prohibits county and city governments from requiring masks, or from limiting business operation, or doing essentially anything to protect their citizens.

“There are no COVID-19 related operating limits for any business or other establishment; and … no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering.”

So just like that, Texas is all back to normal. Except for the part where people are still getting sick and dying. See how well that worked? Now no one is talking about how Abbott’s energy policies killed people.

As the Texas Tribune reports, mayors and county officials in Texas’ largest cities aren’t exactly happy about Abbott’s decision to declare a coronavirus thunderdome. With the state still averaging over 200 COVID-19 deaths a day, and several Texas counties still among the highest in the nation when it comes to with total cases or cases by population, Abbott’s order seems almost certain to generate a fresh wave of cases. And deaths. 

But then, Republicans already lose in those large cities, so … why care if their upset? Abbott’s action plays well, presumably, in the counties where officials have refused to enforce the mask mandate all along.

And hey, it’s not as if Abbott is routing vaccine away from those cities to give it all to the reddest rural counties, even when it means vaccine is being thrown away. That’s Gov. Mike Parson in Missouri’s trick. As St. Louis public radio reports, “multiple mass vaccination events in rural areas” have ended up with hundreds of leftover doses of vaccine, some of which has ultimately been disposed of. In these areas, local officials have been skipping past the supposed guidelines to offer vaccines to anyone over 18, making a few Missouri counties among the vaccination leaders.

In rural Putnam County, MO—which voted 84{1b1a587643a9e9b1244ae3f96d242e13c62224c25ebdf73114e48122c41a7985} for Donald Trump last November (and 85{1b1a587643a9e9b1244ae3f96d242e13c62224c25ebdf73114e48122c41a7985} for Parson)—a vaccination event sent 2,340 doses of vaccine to a county whose total population is just 4,696. Only about 700 doses ended up being administered. Another 1,500 went unused, with some 150 of those doses being simply discarded. At the same time, St. Louis and Kansas City have been vaccine starved, with no large vaccination events scheduled. As a result, the percentage of the population vaccinated in many rural counties is over twice that of St. Louis or Kansas City. Across the state, as many people between the ages of 18 and 25 have been vaccinated, than the percentage of any age group vaccinated in St. Louis city.

Across the nation, there is a wave of Republican governors running to be the worst when it comes to showing their disdain for the health of the citizens. Some of those governors, having at one point or another during the pandemic, been forced to issue some kind of rules to deal with overflowing hospitals and backed up morgues, now seem anxious to show that they can be just as reckless as South Dakota’s Kristi Noem when it comes to disregarding every scrap of science. That includes Gov. Tate Reeves in Mississippi, who has matched Abbott by no longer allowing counties to issue mask mandates and ordering all businesses open “to full capacity.”

All of this is ridiculously dangerous. While case counts have fallen since January’s peak, the daily average remains well above the rate that held through the fall of 2020, which was itself already much higher than the first peak that came that spring. 

The decline in cases is a good thing. The rise in vaccinations is a very good thing. With accelerating delivery of vaccines—and some attempt at equitable distribution—the United States is almost certainly just weeks away from the point where this kind of reopening could be done reasonably, with a fair degree of safety … though mask mandates should almost certainly remain in place nationwide for an extended period. 

Republican governors are essentially pushing their states off the cliff and daring Joe Biden to catch them. Biden is trying. But there’s no reason to take this risk now, especially when the possibility of a real “end” to the pandemic—one where case counts are so low that genuine case management and contact tracing can be instituted, as it should have been more than a year ago—is actually in sight.

Abbott and the rest better hope Biden’s grip is good. Otherwise, they’ll need some fresh disaster to distract the public from this one.

Brazil takes the crown for most new cases, as Bolsanaro out Trumps Trump

On Tuesday, something changed on the WorldOMeters COVID-19 chart that hasn’t moved in more than ten months—the United States is no longer in the top slot for new cases. That’s because Brazil edged out the United States for that “honor,” racking up 58,000 new cases. Unlike the United States, cases in Brazil show no sign of declining, and in fact are still on the rise. On a total cases per population level, Brazil is still well behind the United States … but then, maybe not. Because if the testing regime in the United States has been a confused mess of uncoordinated state efforts centered around an abandoned White House plan, Brazil has managed to be several times worse. The testing rate there is about one-ninth that of the U.S. Which may help to explain why the rate of deaths in Brazil is rapidly catching up to the United States, despite well-documented underreporting.

But, as The New York Times reports, it’s not as if Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro isn’t doing something. In response to a record number of deaths in a single day, he’s buying … more hydroxychloroquine. Not more vaccines. Because Bolsonaro is a vaccine “skeptic” who has failed to purchase more than a small percentage of the vaccine that would be necessary to protect his citizens.

All of this might seem like something that can be viewed at a distance, but the P.1 variant from Brazil has already made its way to the United States. That variant is one of the most evasive when it comes to defeating the action of vaccines or past infections. On it’s own, P.1 does not reduce the value of being vaccinated. Every test indicates that, even though the rate of infection may be higher for vaccinated individuals exposed to P.1, the vaccines remain effective in preventing more serious disease. But to effectively quash this pandemic before a variant emerges that is even more dangerous, it needs to be defeated everywhere.

In case you’re wondering, Bolsonaro’s popularity has been going down steadily as cases of COVID-19 have gone up. After enjoying majority support at the beginning of 2020, Bolsonaro’s support was down to 41{1b1a587643a9e9b1244ae3f96d242e13c62224c25ebdf73114e48122c41a7985} in October, and has since dropped to 33{1b1a587643a9e9b1244ae3f96d242e13c62224c25ebdf73114e48122c41a7985}. However, the next election doesn’t come until October, 2022.

Biden accelerates vaccine delivery, with doses for all American adults by May

Just days after taking office, President Joe Biden secured enough additional vaccines to get all American adults vaccinated by July. Then he went to work using the Defense Production Act, negotiating with vaccine manufacturers, and brokering partnerships like the one that will see Merck manufacturing additional doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

As a result, Biden was able to announce on Tuesday that the vaccination calendar is being moved up. As the Associated Press reports, Biden now expects manufacturers to deliver enough vaccine for all adults to be vaccinated by the end of May. 

Despite this, Biden still—quite rightly—refused to give a date for when the nation “can return to normal.” That’s because vaccine availability is not vaccine actually in the arms of Americans. With white Republicans becoming the largest group of anti-vaxxers,  it’s unclear if there will remain enough unvaccinated Americans to sustain COVID-19 as an endemic disease despite wide vaccine availability. The situation demands constant monitoring and requires that the White House roll out a system of testing and case tracing , not meaningless predictions.

 

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