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White House Urges Boosters Ahead of Third COVID-19 Winter
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White House Urges Boosters Ahead of Third COVID-19 Winter

But uptake so far remains low.

Happy Thursday! Everyone knows that winning the lottery can ruin your life, what with all the temptation for dumb spending and potential greed from loved ones. Maybe that’s why nobody showed up to claim $4.3 million in winnings from a lottery ticket sold at an Arizona Safeway.

Now that money will be put back in the pot to wreck someone else’s life—a lucky escape for whoever’s holding the winning ticket.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Iranian protesters clashed with police Wednesday at demonstrations marking 40 days since the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained for violating Iran’s religious dress code. In Tehran, security forces fired teargas and pellet guns at protesters, who burned trash cans and threw rocks. Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury announced more sanctions against Iran—targeting 14 individuals and three organizations U.S. officials say are responsible for violence against protesters and internet blackouts intended to keep protesters from organizing. Also Wednesday, attackers killed 15 people visiting a shrine in southern Iran—though it’s unclear whether the attack was related to the protests, and state-controlled media blamed members of a Sunni sect mostly practiced in Saudi Arabia.
  • Russian forces on Wednesday conducted nuclear weapons drills simulating a response to an adversary’s nuclear attack—part of scheduled annual drills that Russia notified the United States about in advance. NATO is also conducting annual nuclear exercises through October 30 in Belgium, the United Kingdom, and over the North Sea. The exercises come amid concerns over Russia’s threats of nuclear retaliation against Western countries interfering in its war against Ukraine. “It would have sent an absolutely wrong signal if then suddenly we canceled that exercise,” NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said, insisting the simultaneous drills won’t heighten tensions.
  • A 40-year-old man was found guilty of six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and countless other charges for driving his car into a crowd at a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin last November, killing six and wounding dozens more. The man had been released from jail in a domestic abuse case days prior to committing the murders, on a bail that prosecutors later conceded was “inappropriately low.” He now faces life in prison.
  • Also Wednesday, a Michigan jury convicted three men of providing “material support” to a terrorist act for their role in a plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan in 2020. The men provided gun training to a leader of the scheme and were also convicted of a gun crime and membership in a gang prosecutors argued was a criminal enterprise. They’ll be sentenced in December.
  • Michael Soliman, an adviser to Sen. Robert Menendez, confirmed Wednesday the New Jersey Democrat, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is under federal investigation once again but unaware of the probe’s scope. Menendez was indicted on bribery charges in 2015—prosecutors claimed he planned to trade political favors for campaign donations, travel expenses, and other benefits—but the case ended in a mistrial after a federal jury was unable to reach a verdict.
  • The Department of Justice has charged Ukrainian national Mark Sokolovsky with being a “key administrator” of Raccoon Infostealer—a Windows malware that since 2019 had stolen more than 50 million banking and login credentials from 2 million people. Sokolovsky is being held in the Netherlands pending extradition to the U.S. The FBI has created a website for users to check if they’re victims of Raccoon Infostealer, but DOJ officials warned they likely don’t have all the stolen data.
  • The Justice Department on Wednesday officially changed department policy to prohibit the use of subpoenas, warrants, or court orders to obtain journalists’ records or testimony as part of efforts to identify leakers—with limited exceptions. The move codifies regulations that Attorney General Merrick Garland instituted in July 2021 after news broke that the Trump-era DOJ had secretly pursued the email records of reporters at several outlets.
  • The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that new-home sales fell 10.9 percent month-over-month in September—and 17.6 percent year-over-year—while the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that mortgage applications dropped 42 percent year-over-year last week. The weakening demand is driven largely by higher interest rates, as the average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage hit 7.16 percent last week—the highest level since 2001.
  • New York’s Supreme Court ordered New York City to reinstate—with back pay—sanitation workers fired in February for refusing to comply with a COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Justice Ralph Porzio called the mandate “arbitrary and capricious,” noting that the city made exceptions to a similar mandate for public-facing employees of private companies—such as athletes and performers—suggesting the mandate wasn’t solely public health-driven. The city has appealed the decision.
  • A second woman has claimed that Herschel Walker—Georgia’s Republican nominee for the Senate, running on an anti-abortion platform—was involved in her abortion. Identified by attorney Gloria Allred as “Jane Doe,” the woman alleges Walker pressured her into getting an abortion in 1993, which he denies. Another woman—the mother of one of Walker’s children—previously claimed that he paid for her abortion in 2009. Walker denies that claim as well.

Suppose They Gave a Vaccine and Nobody Came?

President Joe Biden receives his third COVID-19 booster shot at the White House this week. (Photo by Tom Brenner / The Washington Post via Getty Images.)

After delivering remarks on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, President Joe Biden took off his suit coat, rolled up his sleeve, and received his fifth overall dose of a COVID-19 vaccine—the bivalent booster authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in August to target the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the Omicron variants. The act put him in rare company. “The truth is, not enough people are getting [the booster],” Biden said. “We’ve got to change that so we can all have a safe and healthy holiday season.”

Administration officials told reporters earlier this fall they anticipated uptake of the newest vaccine would increase as the weather cooled and Americans lined up for their annual flu shots. Many pharmacies have been encouraging customers to knock both jabs off their to-do list in the same visit. But several weeks later, that confidence appears to have been misplaced: Although the Biden administration purchased more than 170 million doses of the updated vaccine, just 19.4 million people—about 8.6 percent of those eligible—had received one as of October 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The White House is starting to get worried, with chief of staff Ron Klain reportedly convening an urgent meeting of public health officials last week to discuss the prevention of what models see as up to 70,000 “needless” COVID-19 deaths this winter. The result? A handful of measures unveiled this week to get more shots in arms. From a national ad campaign targeting rural, black, and Latino communities, to pop-up vaccination events at nursing homes and community health centers, to email reminders for millions of people on Medicare, the administration is devoting its dwindling pandemic funds to ensuring Americans know about and can access the latest shots. Biden also encouraged businesses and schools to give workers and students time off to go get the vaccine, and announced a partnership between Walgreens, Uber, and DoorDash that would allow “socially vulnerable” Americans to have Paxlovid—Pfizer’s oral COVID-19 treatment—delivered to their home at no cost.

Although the CDC now encourages just about everyone aged five and older to get the bivalent booster, slightly more than half of vaccinated respondents in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey said they either weren’t sure if the updated shot was recommended for them or believed that it wasn’t. For those people, a renewed messaging push from the administration could make a difference.

But a significant portion of the remaining unboosted—including millions of those who received two doses of the original vaccine—haven’t gotten the latest shot not out of obliviousness, but a determination that, for one reason or another, they don’t need it. According to Dr. Paul Offit—an infectious disease specialist and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—many of them are correct in that assessment. “On September 1, the CDC said they are recommending a bivalent vaccine for everybody over 12 years of age. Where did that come from?” he asked rhetorically in an interview earlier this week. (That recommendation was expanded to children as young as five earlier this month.) “I mean, why? Why are we giving a healthy 12 year old another dose?”

Offit—a member of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee—voted back in June against tailoring existing booster shots to the Omicron variant, but he’s not opposed to boosters in general. Citing CDC studies showing a third dose—and to a lesser extent, fourth—led to a lower likelihood of hospitalization, he noted that the benefits were largely concentrated among three buckets of people: the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with “high-risk medical conditions” like chronic lung, heart, or kidney disease. Dr. Leana Wen, a physician and CNN medical analyst, outlined a similar argument in a recent piece for the Washington Post.

“I think the American public at some level gets it,” Offit told The Dispatch. “My sense is the people who do have comorbidities, people who are immunocompromised, or people who are elderly are more likely to get [the booster], but healthy young people aren’t getting it.” 

With COVID-19 cases and deaths attributed to the virus hovering near all-time lows—and with President Biden himself declaring the pandemic “over” last month—it’s easy to see why demand for the latest shot isn’t as robust as demand for previous iterations. But one could’ve said the same thing at this time last year, when Omicron was still weeks away from being discovered in South Africa. Virologists haven’t yet sequenced one single game-changing new variant for this winter, but a number of new Omicron offshoots—BQ.1, BQ.1.1, BF.7—have been growing in recent weeks as a proportion of total cases, and Europe—which throughout the pandemic has generally served as a bellwether for the United States’ coming trends—is currently experiencing an uptick in infections.

“I think people should go get vaccinated before Halloween,” White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters earlier this month. “Why Halloween? Because it takes a couple of weeks for your immune system to generate the benefit from that vaccine. And that means you will be ready by Thanksgiving and certainly by the holidays.”

Worth Your Time

  • Student achievement plummeted during COVID, and—although there are exceptions and complicating factors—research suggests that school closures played a major role in the learning loss. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson examines the disparate impact of school closures, points out that other countries kept schools open, and argues America—and Democrats in particular—should learn from the shutdowns. “Democrats’ disproportionate support for school closures was very likely an unforced error that has contributed to worse achievement gaps between rich kids and poor kids, and that has set children back several years in math classes in which they were already struggling to demonstrate proficiency,” Thompson writes. “Democrats shouldn’t just want to be the party of government. They should want to be the party of government that actually works. With little evidence that school closures saved lives and ample evidence that they hurt kids, this is a policy that failed. To make government work better next time, we have to see reality clearly.”
  • In a moving tribute to her father—who was raised in the Midwest and spent much of his life helping farmers in the Global South—Lydia Polgreen traces their relationship through closeness in childhood, distance after his divorce, and eventual reconnection as he died. “He was a dreamer and an optimist, sometimes to an absurd and even dangerous degree,” Polgreen writes for the New York Times. “But a bias toward the vulnerability of hope—that is a true gift. As my father lay dying, I was glad I had the chance to tell him that I loved him and I was grateful. I don’t know if he could hear me, and that’s OK. As we sat together, I thought about the principles for dying and realized that they are also rules for living. A set of maps for navigating a broken world on a dying planet. Tolerate uncertainty. Normalize feelings. Minimize regret. Know that people have the capacity to change and connect, right up to the end.”
  • Democratic officials say our democracy is in danger, but they’re not acting like it—and not just in their funding of election denying candidates, Charlie Cooke argues for the National Review. Democrats who previously cast doubt on valid election results are now refusing to moderate their positions to attract voters uneasy about the direction of the Republican Party, instead insisting that these voters sign up wholesale for Democratic projects. “Democrats have done what Democrats always do,” Cooke writes. “They have sent out endless gobs of money to all and sundry; they have insisted without qualification that abortion must be available everywhere up until birth; and they have determined that whatever social innovations progressives have contrived in the last three weeks are not only desirable, but ought to be mandatory. And while they have done all this, the Electoral Count Reform Act has sat gathering dust on the sidelines—a solution to a problem that Democrats find it convenient to keep unsolved.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • The press team for Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman warned he would struggle at Tuesday’s debate, trying to soften the blow by noting that his auditory processing and speech haven’t fully recovered after his stroke. But Fetterman didn’t live up to even those lowered expectations, delivering world-salad answers disjointed enough to leave even sympathetic viewers wondering if his mental acuity has been affected in other ways—and whether he’s up to the job of being a senator. Yet, as Nick writes in latest edition of Boiling Frogs (🔒), the response from Fetterman supporters after the debate has been less focused on his fitness for office than on blaming tech issues or accusing questioners of being bullies, ableist, or eager to distract from Republican Mehmet Oz’s performance. 
  • Wednesday was a double-header for Nick, as he also dove into the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ release—and near-immediate retraction—of a letter calling on the Biden administration to do…something…different about the war in Ukraine.
  • Scott is writing about the Jones Act again in the latest Capitolism (🔒)—but it’s less about the regulation itself and more about regulatory capture, bureaucratic incompetence, and the challenges they’d pose for “new right” policymakers trying to bend big government to their goals.
  • Today’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast features Allan Fung, the longtime mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, who now hopes to be the first Republican to represent the state in Congress in nearly 20 years. He joined Declan to talk about his “leave your party label at the door” approach to politics, about the possible agenda of a Republican House, and whether Trump still sets the tone for the party.
  • The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments for the affirmative action case on Monday (Happy Halloween?), and David and Sarah lay out their thoughts in today’s episode of Advisory Opinions. But first, they check in again on the biggest scandal gripping our nation—the chess world’s cheating allegations.
  • On the site today, Harvest Prude surveys the state-level Republicans currently running for secretary of state, many of whom deny the results of the 2020 election; Kevin Williamson outlines the alarming possibility that debt markets may soon decline to absorb ever-higher levels of U.S. debt; and Paul Matzko discusses the future of AI-driven social media content moderation and the problem with the practice of “shadowbanning.”

Let Us Know

Are you following COVID news these days? Do you care about America’s booster uptake?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.