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The Morning Dispatch: The Sunny Side of Pandemic News
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The Morning Dispatch: The Sunny Side of Pandemic News

Plus: Amid ongoing protests, Burma's military government turns violent.

Happy Tuesday! Quick note before we begin. After receiving a helpful email from a reader, your Morning Dispatchers reassessed some of the historical and political implications behind referring to “Burma” as “Myanmar” and the city of “Rangoon” as “Yangon” in previous stories about the Southeast Asian country. In today’s coverage and in future coverage, we will opt to use the historical names of “Burma” and “Rangoon”—as is official United States government policy—in rejection of the military leadership’s unilateral renaming of the country in 1989.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The U.S. Supreme Court dealt Donald Trump two blows yesterday, first announcing it would not hear the Pennsylvania GOP’s challenge that extending the deadline to receive mail-in ballots in the state was unconstitutional. The Court also announced that it would not step in to block eight years of Trump’s financial records from being turned over to the Manhattan district attorney’s office. This does not make Trump’s records public information, but does mean the grand jury investigation into whether or not his company violated state law in New York will continue.

  • Following the water treatment facility hack in Florida earlier this month, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and FBI have been encouraging government and business entities to update their Windows operating systems and implement multi-factor authentication.

  • The Biden administration announced a series of reforms to the Paycheck Protection Program on Monday aimed at refining the targeting of the federal funding. For two weeks, starting tomorrow, only businesses with 20 employees or fewer will be able to apply for PPP loans.

  • Three rockets were fired near Baghdad’s “Green Zone” on Monday. There were no casualties in the attack, but the U.S. Embassy in Iraq was reportedly the target. 

  • Dominion Voting Systems on Monday announced a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit against MyPillow and its CEO Mike Lindell. Lindell has for months made debunked claims about Dominion rigging the 2020 presidential election.

  • The United States confirmed 53,204 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 4.2 percent of the 1,254,065 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,322 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 500,201. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 55,403 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1,086,840 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 64,177,474.

Is America’s COVID Messaging Too Gloomy?

Comedian Tracy Morgan was talking about 2014 entertainment culture when he told the New York Times that “bad news travels at the speed of light, good news travels like molasses.” But he may as well have been describing month 11 of a global pandemic.

If you’re looking for some coronavirus optimism these days, you don’t have to squint too hard to find it.

On the infection and hospitalization data itself, just take a look at the chart above. Per our analysis, the seven-day rolling average of confirmed new COVID-19 cases peaked on January 11 at 257,927. Today, that number is 70,591—a 73 percent decrease in six weeks. 

It’s not just cases, either. The seven-day average of test positivity—another marker of virus prevalence—has dropped from over 14 percent in the first week of 2021 to 5.3 percent this morning. On January 6, 132,464 people were hospitalized with COVID-19. That figure has decreased for 40 straight days, and is now nearly 60 percent lower at 55,403. Deaths are a lagging indicator, but they, too, are beginning to fall off after a sustained plateau above 3,000 per day.

And then there are the vaccines. Last March, you’d have been laughed out of many rooms if you said the United States would be on track to inoculate about 50 million people against COVID-19 by the end of February 2021. The laughter would have only grown louder if you added that those vaccines would be 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic illness, and close to 100 percent effective against hospitalization and/or death.

In recent days, the news has only gotten better. One study found that Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine is up to 85 percent effective after a single jab, and that it doesn’t actually need to be stored in burdensome, ultra-cold freezers as previously believed. A second (preliminary) report from Pfizer, BioNTech, and Israel’s Health Ministry found the companies’ COVID-19 vaccine to be 89.4 percent effective at preventing infections, meaning the vaccine limits most asymptomatic transmission of the virus as well.

Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the news couldn’t be much better. “The two mRNA vaccines we have been using have 95 percent efficacy against all manner of disease: mild, moderate, and severe. And [they] may—likely, I think, probably—reduce shedding, it just hasn’t been studied carefully,” he told The Dispatch. “And to date in the preapproval studies, we couldn’t find any evidence for serious adverse events in tens of thousands of people. And now the vaccine has been in tens of millions of people, so you can say with some confidence that the vaccine doesn’t even cause a rare serious adverse event. So I’d say it’s remarkable. I don’t think anybody could have predicted this a year ago.”

All this information is out there for anybody to find, but casual news observers may be left with a different idea of where we stand in the fight against the pandemic, due in large part to stories like this:

To be clear: That is one tweet, from one local news outlet. But it echoes much of the public health messaging out there today, including what’s coming out of the White House. 

Some variation of “Dr. Anthony Fauci says it’s possible we’re still wearing masks in 2022” ricocheted around the internet on Sunday. Yesterday, it was “Fauci cautions against dining out, even when vaccinated.”

“Despite the progress,” President Biden said last week of the declining case numbers and hospitalizations, “We’re still in the teeth of a pandemic. New strains are emerging.”

“The slope that’s coming down is really terrific,” Fauci told NBC News this past weekend. “It’s very steep and it’s coming down very, very quickly. But we are still at a level that’s very high. What I don’t … want to see is when you look at that slope to come down, to say, ‘Wow, we’re out of the woods now. We’re in good shape.’ We’re not, because the baseline of daily infections is still very, very high.”

This is, of course, true. Our current level of new cases and hospitalizations both rival their respective peaks over the summer. And it’s perfectly understandable, after the year we’ve had, to be a reluctant to make overconfident predictions about the course of the pandemic. Former Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx projected in March 2020 that 100,000 to 240,000 people would die from COVID-19; U.S. deaths attributed to the virus surpassed half a million yesterday. Former President Trump engaged in more than his fair share of happy talk about the virus “magically disappearing.”

But the sustained emphasis on the negative—particularly when there is so much actual positive news—may have an effect on a COVID-weary nation. Polling indicates willingness to receive a vaccine is at an all-time high, but 30 percent of the country—including half of all Republicans—still don’t plan to get one. One reply to the above NBC New York tweet is indicative of the problem: “Telling me that the vaccine isn’t a ticket to something resembling normalcy does not make me want the vaccine.”

Jeff Niederdeppe, a communications professor at Cornell University who focuses on strategic health messaging, pointed out the difficult needle public health officials are currently trying to thread. “I think public health officials are generally inclined toward conservatism, at least when it comes to future predictions,” he told The Dispatch. “I think part of the hesitation is if you communicate too certainly about, ‘Hey, this is looking really good, things are going to be all set,’ and then new, disconfirming evidence comes out after the fact, people don’t like that—and it can undermine trust.”

Fauci’s early guidance on masking, for example, was based in part on inaccurate assumptions and in part on a desire to preserve mask supply for health care workers. “Then we never heard the end of the flip-flopping of Fauci about masks,” Niederdeppe said, adding that there’s likely a caution of “coming out with a definitive statement and then sort of having to backtrack it.”

Some in the medical community believe that this caution has led to a bit of groupthink. Dr. Marty Makary is a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a surgical oncologist—not epidemiologist or immunologist—by training. But he wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last week arguing that the United States will reach herd immunity by April.

“The consistent and rapid decline in daily cases since Jan. 8 can be explained only by natural immunity,” he wrote. “The data certainly doesn’t fit the classic randomized-controlled-trial model of the old-guard medical establishment. There’s no control group. But the observational data is compelling.” Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb took issue yesterday with a few of the assumptions underpinning Makary’s argument, but added that he believes “the sentiment is right.”

“I do think that as we get into the warm weather, as we vaccinate more of the population and in view of the fact that at least one-third of Americans have had this, I do think that infection levels are going to come down dramatically over the course of the spring and summer,” Gottlieb continued.

“I would not say there’s been an open forum for a robust debate as we typically have in academic medicine,” Makary told The Dispatch yesterday. “There’s definitely been an old guard that has kind of said, ‘Leave it to us to tell people what to do.’”

Niederdeppe said there is room for improvement in terms of how public health officials are marketing the vaccines, but that such an improvement won’t matter too much until there’s enough vaccine to go around. “The guidance has been very unclear to people who are vaccinated [about] what difference is that going to make to them personally,” he said. “The challenge here is that you can’t tell a person, ‘Hey, just go out and get that vaccine today,’ because it’s not available for everyone to go out and get today. … If you want people to engage in a behavior, you want to make it easy for them. You want to sort of guide them to that in the short term.”

“It’s hard to hype up vaccines when you can’t get them,” Offit added. But that will eventually change—and possibly sooner than many think. Moderna and Pfizer are on track to provide the United States with a combined 220 million vaccine doses by the end of March, with Pfizer planning to more than double its weekly allotment over the next few weeks. If Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is authorized for emergency use in the coming days as expected, they’re prepared to chip in another 20 million doses before April rolls around. The current supply problem may soon become a demand one.

Fauci was asked about this—and whether the underselling of COVID vaccines could exacerbate it—in a press briefing yesterday.

“There are certain aspects of being vaccinated—and what that means to you personally and your own personal safety and that of your family—versus what vaccines will allow you to do in society,” he responded. “There are things, even if you’re vaccinated, that you’re not going to be able to do in society: for example, indoor dining, theaters, places where people congregate. That’s because of the safety of society. You, yourself, what you can do when you are together with another person, we are looking at that, and we’re going to try and find out very quickly what recommendations could be made about what people can do.”

Pressure Builds in Burma Weeks After Military Coup

It’s been two weeks since we last wrote to you about the military coup in Burma, and protests are only growing. Despite increased threats of violence by the armed forces, Monday witnessed the largest demonstration since the February 1 military takeover, with hundreds of thousands of young professionals, government bureaucrats, monks, healthcare workers, and others taking to the streets in population centers across the country.

Their demands remain the same: Fully reinstate de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected officials deposed three weeks ago. “Release all detained leaders” was the rallying cry of the day, but the military generals behind the coup have made no hint at concession.

Rather, they’ve doubled down—in some cases using live ammunition to disperse protesters. At least two people were shot dead in Mandalay on Saturday, one day after a 20-year-old shot in the nation’s administrative capital of Naypyidaw succumbed to her injuries from a protest 10 days prior. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 684 individuals have been arrested since the protests began, and 637 remain in detention. 

In a live broadcast via the state-owned MRTV network, the military cautioned Burma’s populace to expect harsher riot-control tactics if demonstrations persist. “It is found that the protesters have raised their incitement towards riot and anarchy mob on the day of 22 February,” English subtitles read. “Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life.”

The thinly veiled threat follows a nationwide push for a general strike in Burma. What began as a walkout by workers in certain civil administration roles grew into a larger shutdown, as the majority of businesses in cities across the country closed their doors to customers. According to Gregory B. Poling—a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies—the strike was designed to hit the generals where it hurts: “Their own pocketbooks.”

Far from deterring further gatherings, the armed forces’ apparent crackdown seemed to ignite Monday’s unprecedented show of resistance. Tens of thousands of protesters took to Rangoon—the country’s largest city—in what organizers have deemed the “22222 uprising,” a nod to another period of historic demonstration in Burma in the ’80s and the current date. Crowds also congregated in Burma’s second largest urban center of Mandalay, its capital of Naypyidaw, the cities of Hpa-An, Myitkyina, Bhamo, Dawei, and smaller towns across the country.

In a candlelight vigil held outside of the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, hundreds mourned protesters killed in the military crackdown and prayed for the release of political prisoners. While the U.S. sanctioned the country’s military leader—Min Aung Hlaing—in 2019 and continues to condemn the takeover, there’s a limit to what outside pressure can achieve. “The real question is what happens on the streets and whether or not it convinces the generals that the cost of this coup is too high,” Poling said.

At least in rhetoric, however, world leaders have been quick to denounce the junta’s overthrow of civilian rule and use of force to quell protests. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken weighed in on the protests again yesterday, designating two additional State Administrative Council members for sanctioning. “The United States stands in solidarity with the people of Burma who came out across the country with courage and determination today to reject the military coup and voice their aspirations for a return to democratic governance, peace, and rule of law,” he said. “We condemn the security forces’ brutal attacks on unarmed protesters, which resulted in four deaths and injured over 40 individuals. … We call on the military and police to cease all attacks on peaceful protesters, immediately release all those unjustly detained, stop attacks on and intimidation of journalists and activists, and restore the democratically elected government.”

Worth Your Time

  • The Perseverance rover landed on Mars last week after years and years of work. NASA released footage of the landing yesterday, and it is well worth watching—particularly for the cheers at the end.

  • Days after announcing his stage four lung-cancer diagnosis, former Sen. Bob Dole—who was the Republicans’ presidential nominee in 1996—hosted President Joe Biden at his Watergate apartment. Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal talked with Dole about that visit. “It was just Bob and Joe, not Mr. President,” Dole, 97, told Seib, recounting their longtime friendship. Dole mentioned that even though the two hailed from different parties, they still found common ground. “We did talk about how we were able to work together in the Senate when we both were there, one a Democrat, one a Republican,” said Dole. “We worked across the aisle and we compromised. We couldn’t solve everything, but most everything we could work out.”

  • It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s presidency flouted many established “norms” of Washington. But Jonathan Rauch argues in The Atlantic that Trump’s behavior as president changed  far more than just norms. “When I step back to look at the legacy of President Donald Trump, a surprising conclusion emerges: He has substantially altered the Constitution,” he writes. “His changes aren’t formal, of course. But his informal amendments are important. If left to stand, they threaten to make Congress an advisory body and give carte blanche to rogue presidents.” Rauch lists five “amendments” Trump established while in office, including congressional oversight being optional, and senatorial consent for presidential appointments not being required. Rauch’s tongue-in-cheek piece offers real warnings for what could happen, albeit informally, if Congress continues to cede its role to the executive branch.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Yesterday’s episode of Advisory Opinions features what we here at The Dispatch are pretty sure is the first—and best—debate on originalism and nondelegation doctrine in American history. Sarah and David are joined by legal professors Nicholas Bagley and Ilan Wurman to discuss the administrative law principle that holds Congress cannot delegate its own legislative power to other entities.

Let Us Know

Which non-traditional fast food restaurant should dive into the chicken “sandwich” wars next?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).