Five. Hundred. Thousand.

Catch up in 5 minutes: A big COVID milestone + new Iran diplomacy + NCGA considers unemployment restrictions + more gerrymandering lawsuits coming

Mon., Feb. 22, 2021

Welcome to Monday. We’ll have partly cloudy skies and some showers this afternoon. High in the mid-50s, but it will be windy. (WRAL)

Today — this is weird to say after the last four years — is a slow news day, but there are a few important things to touch on.


Today’s Number: 500,000

COVID deaths surpassed by the U.S. on Sunday, a count that exceeds in a year the number of Americans killed during World War II — more than any war in U.S. history, save the Civil War.

  • Worldwide, COVID has killed nearly 2.5 million.

  • The U.S. has exceeded 28.2 million cases.

From The New York Times:

  • “No other country has counted so many deaths in the pandemic. More Americans have perished from Covid-19 than on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. The milestone comes at a hopeful moment: New virus cases are down sharply, deaths are slowing and vaccines are steadily being administered. But there is concern about emerging variants of the virus, and it may be months before the pandemic is contained.”

  • “In New York City, more than 28,000 people have died of the virus — or one in 295 people. In Los Angeles County, which has lost nearly 20,000 people to Covid-19, about one in 500 people has died of the virus. In Lamb County, Texas, where 13,000 people live scattered on a sprawling expanse of 1,000 square miles, one in 163 people has died of the virus.”

Of the 500,000, at least 271 have been children.

  • “Although relatively few children die of covid-19, ‘it’s not fair to say it’s a benign disease among children,’ said Sean O’Leary, an immunization researcher at Children’s Hospital Colorado and vice-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases. ‘For every one of these deaths, quite a few kids spend a long time in ICUs and suffer lingering effects.’”

  • “The children who have died of covid-19 are, even more than among adults, disproportionately children of color — about three-quarters of those who’ve succumbed to covid so far, according to CDC data.” (WaPo)

When you step back from the day-to-day, it’s amazing the degree to which we’ve collectively acclimated to all of this death: Five hundred thousand people. As numb as we’ve become, the pandemic didn’t have to be this bad.

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel:

  • “Sunday was another day with lower COVID-19 numbers across the board [in North Carolina]. There were 2,541 new cases reported, the fewest since Tuesday and the eighth day in a row with fewer than 4,000. Those lower numbers have caused the seven-day average to drop below 3,000 for the first time in three months. It is now at 2,963, the lowest since it was 2,900 on Nov. 18.”

  • “The number of people currently hospitalized dropped by 61 from Saturday, the fifth straight day of declines. The state now has 1,647 COVID patients in hospitals, the fewest since there were 1,603 on Nov. 23.”

  • “There were 30 more deaths reported, the fewest since Monday. The total number of deaths across the state is now 10,926.” (CBS 17)

More light:

  • “On Wall Street and in Washington, attention is shifting to an intriguing if indistinct prospect: a post-Covid boom. Forecasters have always expected the pandemic to be followed by a period of strong growth as businesses reopen and Americans resume their normal activities. But in recent weeks, economists have begun to talk of something stronger: a supercharged rebound that brings down unemployment, drives up wages, and may foster years of stronger growth.”

  • “There are hints that the economy has turned a corner: Retail sales jumped last month as the latest round of government aid began showing up in consumers’ bank accounts. New unemployment claims have declined from early January, though they remain high. Measures of business investment have picked up, a sign of confidence from corporate leaders.

  • Economists surveyed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia this month predicted that U.S. output will increase 4.5 percent this year, which would make it the best year since 1999. Some expect an even stronger bounce: Economists at Goldman Sachs forecast that the economy will grow 6.8 percent this year and that the unemployment rate will drop to 4.1 percent by December, a level that took eight years to achieve after the last recession.” (NYT)

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+TODAY’S TOP 3

1. Iran Inches Closer to Talks

In 2018, Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran, which led the country to restart its nuclear enrichment program. Last week, President Biden announced that he was open to restarting talks with the Iranian regime and backed off Trump’s effort to convince the United Nations to impose new sanctions on Iran.

  • “Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told European foreign ministers in a call on Thursday morning that the United States would join them in seeking to restore the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which he said ‘was a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy.’”

  • “But with an Iranian presidential election only four months away, it was not clear if the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the nation’s political and military leadership would fully support re-engagement with the United States.”

This week, Iran took a tentative step toward engagement.

  • “Iran appears to have partly lifted its threat to sharply limit international inspections of its nuclear facilities starting on Tuesday, giving Western nations three months to see if the beginnings of a new diplomatic initiative with the United States and Europe will restore the 2015 nuclear deal.” (NYT)

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2. NCGA Republicans Want to Reinstate Unemployment Work-Search Requirement

After the pandemic hit, Governor Cooper signed an executive order suspending North Carolina’s requirement that those receiving the pittance the state doles out in unemployment benefits actively seek work — specifically, at least three contacts per week.

  • Under the requirement, for the first 10 weeks of benefits, the Division of Employment Security can consider the unemployed person’s “customary occupation,” the distance from their home, and their prior earnings.

  • After that, if they don’t whatever they can get for wherever they can get it, the DES can cut them off.

Nearly a year after that EO went into effect, General Assembly Republicans think there are too many lazy people on the dole.

  • “Republican legislators have drafted a bill that would reinstate the requirement that jobless people actively seek work in order to receive unemployment benefits. … The draft bill filed by legislators on Wednesday would reintroduce those requirements, exempting people who are out of work for COVID-19-related reasons.”

  • “Rep. Mark Brody, a Republican, said that on his drive to the Capitol from his home in Union County, he had noticed multiple signs advertising available jobs, including at two poultry plants in his district. … Perry also cited complaints from employers who can’t find enough workers to fill available jobs.” (N&O)

Just a thought, but if those poultry plants are really struggling to find workers — during a pandemic, no less — they might want to consider a) improving workplace safety, or b) improving wages. Anyway:

There’s no evidence that workers — especially those whose unemployment isn’t COVID-related, haven’t been eligible for federal supplements, and wouldn’t be affected by this legislation — have been living off government cheese.

  • This bill, which Cooper will veto, will probably be redundant sooner than later: “Pryor Gibson, the assistant secretary of Commerce for Employment Security, said … his office’s goal is to reintroduce the work search requirement ‘within days, certainly within weeks.’ At the very least, he said, they hope to reintroduce the work registration provision, which requires people receiving benefits to be registered with the state’s job service office, NC Works.”

  • “At the same time, he expressed hesitations and declined to specify a date for reactivating the work-search requirement.”


3. More Gerrymandering Suits Likely

We’re getting ahead of ourselves — the General Assembly won’t start the redistricting process until later this year — but former attorney general Eric Holder told the UNC School of Law on Friday that unless the state’s Republicans change their ways, his National Democratic Redistricting Committee will probably bring a new round of legal action challenging the eventual gerrymanders.

  • Holder: “North Carolina really is, in some ways, ground zero for partisan and racial gerrymandering. And the only way, I think, to crack that which is happening in North Carolina is through the courts, and use those decisions to get a more fair Congressional delegation from North Carolina.”

  • “Now that Democrats hold Congress and the White House, Holder said, he hopes they pass a sweeping voting rights bill named after the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis — even if it means killing the filibuster, if Senate Republicans try to hold it up.” (N&O)

Senate Republicans will, and killing the filibuster will depend on Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema changing their minds. So, for now, that brings us back to North Carolina, where Republicans — the same guys behind the voting rights laws that attacked African Americans with “surgical precision” — say there’s nothing wrong with their system, and Holder is a “charlatan.”

  • Phil Berger spox: “Eric Holder is the worst kind of phony partisan operator. He pretends to care about ideals like ‘fair maps,’ but it’s just a veneer to hide his true partisan goal of electing more Democrats.”

  • What if — stay with me here — fair maps led to more elected Democrats because Republicans had been elected under unfair maps?

Anyway, the chances of anything systemic changing, either in Congress or the legislature, appear next to nil. If that’s the case, lawsuits are all but a certainty.