COVID, Day 366

Today in 6 minutes: Smoke up and cut the vaccine line + NCDHHS wants to reopen schools + NC Medicaid pays unlicensed docs + the Dems’ own goals + Texas’s Neanderthal thinking

Thurs., March 4, 2021

Hola, amigos. My apologies for missing yesterday’s newsletter — and for missing two in a week. By way of explanation, I’m writing four different articles right now, the first of which is due today, so things have been a bit hectic. What’s good for me not being broke is not always necessarily good for PRIMER.

Anyway, it’ll be nice out today, with a high of 66. Go enjoy it if you can. As for me, I’ll be glued to my keyboard. Womp, womp.


Today’s Number: 100

Cigarettes you had to have smoked in your lifetime to become eligible for the COVID vaccine on March 24 as part of Group 4. One hundred ciggies … as in five packs … as in what I probably smoked in a day during exam week in college.

  • “As of 2019, roughly 18.5% of North Carolinians reported ‘smoking at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime and currently smoke daily or some days,’ according to a 2020 report from the United Health Foundation.” (N&O)

  • The 100-cigs thing is based on the CDC’s definition of a smoker. You’ll be on the honor system, so there’s no need to rush out and buy a carton of Marlboros if you’ve been on the straight and narrow your whole life.

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+ TODAY’S TOP 4

1. COVID: One Year Later

One year and one day ago, we learned about the first case of the novel coronavirus in North Carolina, a Wake County man who attended the Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cary.

  • Within two weeks, the ACC Tournament and NCAA Championship would be canceled. Then college campuses shut down. Then the state went under a stay-at-home order.

  • On March 22, the first North Carolinian died of COVID, though we didn’t find that out for a few more days. When the month ended, North Carolina had logged 1,373 cases and seven deaths.

  • To date, more than 11,000 North Carolinians — and 500,000 Americans — have died.

  • Our schools —some of them, anyway — are still virtual, though not for much longer.

  • Our businesses have reopened — some of them, anyway — though many at limited capacity.

  • Our economy collapsed like nothing we’ve seen since the Great Depression, and it was saved only by an unprecedented but insufficient congressional intervention.

  • Our federal government failed us: The Trump administration failed to take the virus seriously, prioritizing the president’s reelection over public health. Untold thousands died as a result. The president lost his reelection bid.

  • Vaccine delivery is starting to ramp up. Governor Cooper, Mary-Ann Baldwin, and other politicians got theirs yesterday when elected officials became eligible in Group 3.

  • The General Assembly plans to get its third COVID relief bill, worth $1.7 billion in federal money, to Cooper’s desk by the end of the week.

Meanwhile: The Great School Reopening Debate isn’t letting up. Right on the heels of Cooper’s veto of SB 37, which would have forced schools to offer in-person instruction, his Department of Health and Human Services is releasing new guidance requiring schools to be either fully or partially in person.

  • “The new document requires schools to offer in-person learning under Plan A (fully in person) or Plan B (a mix of online and in-person) for kindergarten through 5th grades. Plan A requires minimal social distancing, and Plan B requires six feet of social distancing. Plan B would be required for all other grades.” (WRAL)

  • The guidance has to be approved by the State Board of Education today. (It will.)

▶️ OTHER COVID NEWS

Yesterday, Texas did exactly what public health experts were begging it not to do: Gov. Greg Abbott announced that as of March 10, he was ending all capacity limits and mask mandates. This, even though Texas lags the nation in vaccine distribution and is still seeing 7,000 new cases and hundreds of COVID deaths a day.

  • Mississippi then ended its mask mandate.

  • Abbott has been widely criticized for his handling of the deadly winter storm, which he blamed on renewable energy rather than Texas's anti-regulatory approach to energy production. The days of power outages may have helped spread the virus. Dangerous variants of the virus have started appearing in the state, where 44,000 have already perished.

  • President Biden: “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask and forget it. It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science. Wear a mask and stay socially distanced. And I know you all know that. I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it.” (NYT)

Share PRIMER | North Carolina


2. State Medicaid Program Paid Unlicensed Docs

Here’s one to restore your trust in bureaucracy: Seven years ago, Beth Wood’s office released an audit that found that the state’s Medicaid program kept reapproving doctors whose licenses had been terminated or suspended, meaning they were eligible to get funds for treating patients. This is, obviously, bad.

Last month, the state auditor’s team redid that audit. Guess what:

  • “In February her office found DHHS allowed18 medical providers with suspended or terminated licenses to remain on the list of providers eligible to receive taxpayer-backed Medicaid funding.”

  • “Officials in charge of the state’s $14 billion Medicaid program had missed that those providers were disciplined for issues ranging from substance abuse to sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with female patients. One had a terminated license due to a felony conviction for health care fraud.”

  • “At least two unlicensed providers saw Medicaid patients and received payments. They saw around 2,400 patients and were paid a combined $1.64 million from Medicaid while their licenses were suspended.” (N&O)

This is also bad. DHHS — which has 45 auditors on staff — missed the unlicensed doctors. While the agency says it takes responsibility, those doctors could face criminal charges.

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3. Amazon Adding Triangle Delivery Stations

All hail our corporate overlords. Jeff Bezos’s union-busting juggernaut has signed leases to add two additional delivery stations in Wake County — one in Garner, the other in Raleigh — that will create “hundreds” of jobs that start at $15 an hour.

  • It’s part of Amazon’s “last-mile” delivery efforts — i.e., getting you stuff within hours instead of days.

  • “Instead of just regional fulfillment centers — like the new one Amazon built off I-40 in Garner — Amazon is pushing out smaller locations as a way of getting products out even quicker.” (TBJ, subscription)


4. The Dems’ Dumb Own Goal

If you read my column this week — you did, right? Ahem — then you understand how and why Joe Manchin has Senate Democrats over a barrel. They can’t do anything without him, and they have no leverage over him. To make matters worse — based on this ass-kissing profile — he’s pollyannish about the possibilities of bipartisanship and naive to the cynicism of Mitch McConnell.

  • He will force Dems to water down bills both because he’s more conservative than his caucus and because he genuinely believes he can bring compromise back to the Senate that way.

  • He will do this even if the compromise legislation serves no policy or political purpose.

  • In a 50-50 Senate, Democrats will have no choice but to do as he says. It won’t even matter that Republicans won’t vote for the bill anyway.

Case-in-point: At the behest of Manchin and other moderates, the White House agreed to limit who will receive the $1,400 — not $2,000 — checks in the stimulus package. In the $1.9 trillion bill, it will save $12 billion. In other words, 0.6% — a rounding error. In return, Democrats get … nothing.

  • “Moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have been insistent on ‘targeting’ the checks more, to make sure the aid goes primarily to low-income people that need it badly. … The compromise means that some people who got checks from the Trump administration now seemingly won’t get them from the Biden administration.”

  • “Now, as in the original version of the bill, single people who earn up to $75,000 will receive the full $1,400. Those who earn between $75,000 and $80,000 will receive a partial amount of that money. But those earning more than $80,000 will get nothing. Previously, people earning between $75,000 and $100,000 would get some partial amount.”

  • “For couples who file taxes jointly, those who make up to $150,000 will still receive the full amount. Couples earning between $150,000 and $160,000 will get a partial amount. But those earning more than $160,000 will get nothing. In the original bill, couples earning between $150,000 and $200,000 would get a partial check.” (TPM)

With complete control of DC, Democrats are going to help fewer voters than Trump did. That’s not good politics. And shaving $12 billion off the bill while denying aid to people just for the optics doesn’t do squat for policy, either.

  • The good news: 280 people are still eligible.

And it’s not entirely true that Democrats didn’t anything out of the deal. The Manchin gang also wanted to cut the unemployment supplements from $400 to $300. That’s not happening — and from a macroeconomic perspective, those are more important than the one-time check.

  • From Slate’s Jordan Weissman: “Politically, it very much does feel like Democrats are cutting off their nose to spite their face here, given that they made a new round of relief checks a centerpiece of the Georgia runoff campaigns that won them the Senate. It’s probably not the end of the world if a family that earns $170,000 doesn’t get a little extra help from the government this time. And in the end, ITEP says that 86 percent of Americans are still set to benefit from a check, versus 91 percent under the previous version. But that’s still several million voters who could feel let down.”

  • “To be clear: Some upper-middle-class voters who got a check from Donald J. Trump will absolutely not get a check from Joseph R. Biden, and I cannot possibly imagine that will help cement the Democrats’ new suburban Sun Belt coalition come 2022.”

▶️ OTHER WASHINGTON NEWS

As I also mentioned in my column (ahem) the only reason any of this reconciliation stuff matters is because Democrats — particularly Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — are dead-set against ending the filibuster, thinking they can convince Republicans to behave like grownups. (Or thinking the filibuster prevents them from taking difficult votes.)

  • The unstoppable force will meet an immovable object when the Senate takes up HR 1 while Republican legislatures around the country gut voting rights.

  • “To many civil-rights advocates and democracy scholars I’ve spoken with, this new wave of state-level bills constitutes the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot,” Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic.

  • “Democrats may have a single realistic opportunity to resist not only these proposals, but also GOP plans to institute severe partisan congressional gerrymanders in many of the same states. That opportunity: using Democrats’ unified control of Washington to establish national election standards—by passing the omnibus election-reform bill known as H.R. 1 [which passed the House yesterday], and the new Voting Rights Act, which is expected to come to the floor later this year.”

  • The biggest obstacle: There is no way HR 1 passes with the filibuster in place. If Democrats don’t eliminate the filibuster, they’ll quite literally be allowing Republicans to cheat their way into power for years to come.

Meanwhile: Fox News is focused on the important stuff.

  • “If you watched Fox News [on Tuesday], you’d think the most pressing news of the day was the supposed cancelation of Dr. Seuss. The network devoted an hour and nine minutes of coverage to Dr. Seuss, more than twice as much as it gave to multiple positive news stories about the coronavirus vaccine distribution and a congressional hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray on the January 6 attack and the threat of extremism.” (Media Matters)

To put it visually: