The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power Up: Trump's final days in office could be the worst of the pandemic yet

with Brent D. Griffiths

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At the White House

TRUMP'S LEGACY: The president's final days in office are expected to be marked by the worst we've seen yet of the pandemic, with a potentially record-setting number of coronavirus related hospitalizations, infections and deaths in the United States before Jan. 20.

President Trump's top public health experts are begging Americans to take aggressive precautions to slow the surge of the virus. But Trump and his allies remain unchastened by the virus that has already killed 281,000 people in the U.S. and continue to flout the advice and guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

  • “This is not just the worst public health event,” Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said on NBC News's “Meet the Press.” “This is the worst event that this country will face, not just from a public health side.” 

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Trump is still holding mass rallies where voters are not required to wear masks and the White House is hosting at least 25 indoor holiday parties that each include over 50 guests. Attendees have already been spotted at the White House festivities without masks and in proximity to each other. 

They are wrong and you can see the evidence base,” Birx said of those who parrot Trump and others in the administration who have failed to take the virus seriously. 

  • “And right now, across the Sun Belt, we have governors and mayors who have cases equivalent to what they had in the summertime yet aren't putting in the same policies and mitigations that they put in the summer, that they know changed the course of this pandemic across the South,” Birx added. “So it is frustrating because not only do we know what works, governors and mayors used those tools to stem the tide in the spring and the summer.” 

And Trump's 76-year-old personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani has contracted the coronavirus just the latest of those inside Trump's orbit to test positive. He was hospitalized on Sunday at the Georgetown University Medical Center after extensive travel “to Michigan, Arizona and Georgia last week where he met indoors with state legislators in an effort to persuade them to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, our colleagues Felicia Sonmez and Josh Dawsey report

It's unclear how many people Giuliani came into contact with but videos of his various appearances showed he was frequently not wearing a mask during the meetings. 

  • I think it's really important that every single person understands that the way this virus is spread is if you're with anyone indoors without a mask, that's a viral spreading opportunity,” Birx said before the news was made public. “We have to listen right now to what we know works, which is masks, physical distancing, washing your hands, but not gathering. You cannot gather without masks in any indoor or close outdoor situation.” 

On Saturday one day after Georgia set a record for new covid-19 cases, with 6,226, according to a New York Times database,” per the New York Times's Jonathan Martin — thousands of supporters attended Trump's rally there in Valdosta. 

  • “At the end of last month, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia extended an executive order banning gatherings of more than 50 people unless individuals remain six feet apart … Some brought masks, but few wore them during the event. And Mr. Trump, fixated on his defeat, scarcely mentioned the raging pandemic, according to Martin. 
  • The outdoor venue may have offered some protection, since the virus spreads more easily indoors. But after the rally, thousands lined up without masks to board buses taking them back to remote parking lots set up for the rally.” 

Fox News's Chris Wallace pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Sunday about the “massive failure by President Trump and his administration” to stop the recent surge in new infections and deaths. Azar defended the administration's guidelines and did not address Wallace's criticisms that the president himself has not set an example.

  • “The fact is, the president said on the first day, April 3, that he wasn't going to wear a mask. He didn't wear a mask in public for three months until July and just last night at that rally in Georgia, not only didn't he wear a mask but I was watching the rally — thousands of people packed together. None I could see were wearing a mask,” Wallace said to Azar before pointing out that Trump's behavior is a “direct violation of what the CDC and you are recommending.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also has a packed holiday party season: invitations to celebrate the holidays at large indoor parties at the State Department have been issued to 900 people, our colleague John Hudson reported last week. This comes as State Department leadership recommended to employees that “any non-mission critical events” be changed to “virtual events as opposed to in-person gatherings.”

By the numbers:A record 101,487 covid-19 patients were in US hospitals on Sunday, according to the covid Tracking Project, underscoring the immense pressure on the nation's hospitals and health care workers,” per CNN's Madeline Holcombe and Dakin Andone. 

  • “As of Saturday, the US averaged 190,948 new cases over the last week, another record high, according to a CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins data.” 
  • Last Wednesday, the U.S. recorded it's single-worst daily death toll since the start of the pandemic: “Not since spring, during the pandemic’s first peak, were so many deaths reported. The high point then was 2,752 deaths on April 15. On Wednesday it was at least 2,760,” the Times's Sabrina Tavernise reports. 
  • “On Friday, more than 229,000 new cases were reported in the United States, a record, and several states hit new daily highs over the weekend,” per Times's Michael Shear, Apoorva Mandavilli and Jill Cowan
  • “And as staggering as it is, the death toll reported Wednesday appears likely only to worsen, experts say, as the delayed effects of Thanksgiving travel are felt. And many Americans are now weighing how to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s,” per Tavernise.

There are some bright spots: the covid-19 mortality rate in the U.S. has declined since the start of the pandemic and there's a vaccine on the way. 

  • “Vaccine development typically takes years, even decades,” The Post's Carolyn Y. Johnson reports. “The progress of the last 11 months shifts the paradigm for what’s possible, creating a new model for vaccine development and a toolset for a world that will have to fight more never-before-seen viruses in years to come. But the pandemic wasn’t a sudden eureka moment — it was a catalyst that helped ignite lines of research that had been moving forward for years, far outside the spotlight of a global crisis.”

But there's a limited amount of vaccine available and the aggressive timeline for distribution laid out by Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser of Operation Warp Speed, on Sunday — 24 million people vaccinated by mid-January — was met by experts with skepticism. 

  • Health experts said the timeline sketched out by Dr. Slaoui and Mr. Azar was uncompromising and did not account for the possibility of delay during the many steps from vaccine manufacture to distribution at state and local levels, not to mention the hesitancy that many people might feel about taking a newly approved vaccine,” per Shear, Mandavilli and Cowan. 
  • To meet those kinds of aggressive timelines, all the stars would have to align,” Dr. Peter J. Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told them.

Warp Speed's timeline has already shifted: “Federal officials have slashed the amount of coronavirus vaccine they plan to ship to states in December because of constraints on supply, sending local officials into a scramble to adjust vaccination plans and highlighting how early promises of a vast stockpile before the end of 2020 have fallen short,” our colleagues Christopher Rowland, Lena H. Sun, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Carolyn Y. Johnson report

  • “Instead of the delivery of 300 million or so doses of vaccine immediately after emergency-use approval and before the end of 2020 as the Trump administration had originally promised, current plans call for availability of around a tenth of that, or 35 to 40 million doses.”
  • “Lower-than-anticipated allocations have caused widespread confusion and concern in states, which are beginning to grasp the level of vaccine scarcity they will confront in the early going of the massive vaccination campaign.”

The transition

BIDEN PICKS BECERRA FOR HHS: “In selecting California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), a 24-year member of Congress before taking the attorney general post, Biden picked someone with an unorthodox background for Department of Health and Human Services secretary,” Amy Goldstein and Seung Min Kim report.

  • Why this is an unusual: “The job running the sprawling department often has gone to governors, and public health officials have been urging the Biden transition team to select someone with expertise in medicine, given that the raging pandemic will remain front and center for many months.”

Lawmakers and activists have pressured Biden to picks more Latinos for prominent roles: “Becerra becomes the second designated nominee who is Latino, after Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick for homeland security secretary,” our colleagues write.

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. (Video: Reuters)

The selection shocked some in the health-care world: “One person familiar with that effort said people involved were ‘astounded’ by the selection of Becerra, and suggested that Biden elevate Vivek H. Murthy, who will reprise his role as surgeon general, to a cabinet-level position,” the Times's Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Michael D. Shear report of the reaction among five leading medical groups that last week called on Biden to name “qualified physicians” to key health-care posts.

  • Becerra's record: “An outspoken advocate of improved health care access, he said in 2017 that he would ‘absolutely’ support Medicare-for-all, a proposal for government-run health care that Mr. Biden has explicitly rejected. A source familiar with the selection said Becerra would support the president-elect’s call for strengthening and preserving the A.C.A. and would not be pushing Medicare-for-all while in office.”

Biden has also selected a CDC head: Rochelle Walensky, an infectious-disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, will be the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” our colleagues write.

  • “In being chosen to lead the CDC, Walensky will take over an agency within HHS that was once the world’s most admired public health agency but has suffered a loss of credibility under the Trump administration, which has sidelined it during the pandemic.”

TRUMP TRIES TO LOCK OUT BIDEN: “Even as Trump has been consumed with his waning political fortunes in a desperate attempt to retain power, his administration has accelerated efforts to lock in last-minute policy gains and staffing assignments that it hopes will help cement the president’s legacy and live on past Jan. 20 …,” David Nakamura, Juliet Eilperin and Lisa Rein report.

  • Just some of what is happening: “Last week, for example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services adopted a longer and more difficult citizenship test that critics said could further curb legal immigration. The Pentagon named 11 new members, including a pair of prominent former Trump campaign aides, to a Defense Department business advisory board. And the president signed an executive order drafted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy aimed at protecting civil liberties in the use of artificial intelligence by the federal government.”

In the agencies

BARR CONSIDERS RESIGNING: “Attorney General William P. Barr is considering stepping down before Trump’s term ends next month, according to three people familiar with this thinking. One said Mr. Barr could announce his departure before the end of the year,” the Times's Katie Benner, Michael S. Schmidt and Peter Baker report.

  • This predates the latest criticism of his department: “Barr first broached the topic with associates shortly after Election Day, when it became clear that Biden had won, according to one person familiar with the conversation. Before the election, Barr had told friends that if Trump won, he would like to stay on as attorney general for some time in the second term,” our colleagues Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report.

The campaign

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE GEORGIA DEBATE: “Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler repeatedly declined to say who won the 2020 election during last night’s debate in one of the U.S. Senate races in Georgia that will determine the balance of power in Washington,” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports from Atlanta.

  • It wasn't just a single question: “Loeffler was asked President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud in Georgia at least five times and ducked at every turn, highlighting the challenge she faces as she tries to court Trump supporters — and the president — without directly repeating his false claims that hundreds of thousands of votes were tainted by fraud in Georgia.”
Incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) faced off against the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D) at a debate in Atlanta on Dec. 6. (Video: Reuters)

Sen. David Perdue (R) didn't even show up: “Perdue declined to debate Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. Early Sunday evening, Ossoff took questions from panelists while standing next to an empty lectern marking Perdue’s absence,” our colleague writes.

  • His absence led to this incredibly surreal ‘exchange’: 

How it's playing on the ground: “Loeffler referred more than a dozen times to the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church as ‘radical, liberal Raphael Warnock,’ and she warned that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Washington Democrats want to use the Georgia Senate seat to ram liberal policies through Congress … For his part, Warnock continued his previous attacks on Loeffler — possibly the wealthiest member of Congress — painting her as enriching herself at the expense of Georgians suffering during the pandemic,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Patricia Murphy reports

On the Hill

A DECISIVE WEEK: “The government needs to be funded by Dec. 11, and congressional leaders have yet to strike either a spending agreement or a coronavirus deal. Congress is also hurtling toward a confrontation with Trump on renaming Confederate bases and tech company protections on the defense bill, with Trump threatening to veto the legislation,” Politico's Burgess Everett reports.

  • Key quote: “We have a lot of work to do and just a few days to do it,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said on ABC's “This Week.” “And it really is a superhuman effort on our part to get this together in time to help the American people as quickly as possible.”

What's at stake for millions of Americans: “More than two dozen federal stimulus programs crafted to help cash-strapped workers and businesses weather the pandemic are set to expire in a matter of weeks, adding urgency to congressional negotiations over a new $908 billion relief package that might help break months of political deadlock,” Tony Romm reports.

  • Signs abound the recovery is slowing: “The country added only 245,000 jobs in November, according to new federal data released Friday, marking the slowest month of growth since the recovery started this summer. The dour figures arrived as states including California started instituting new restrictions on businesses and public gatherings last week amid a meteoric rise in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”