The United States recorded 3,124 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, shattering every daily world record since the start of the pandemic. One hundred seven thousand people across the U.S. are hospitalized with the disease — also a record — and more than 220,000 new infections were reported in just 24 hours. More than a third of U.S. residents live in areas where intensive care units have either filled to capacity or are running critically short of ICU beds. Forecasts published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict as many as 23,000 new COVID-19 hospitalizations a day could follow the Christmas holiday weekend, unless public health measures like social distancing and mask wearing are widely adopted.
In Alabama, former Republican state Senator Larry Dixon died Saturday of COVID-19 at the age of 78. His widow, who also tested positive, reported her husband’s last words were “We messed up. We let our guard down. Please tell everybody to be careful. This is real, and if you get diagnosed, get help immediately.”
On Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives approved a one-week extension of federal funding in order to give more time for lawmakers to reach agreement on a coronavirus relief bill. Senate Republicans have failed to pass a new stimulus package since the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act last May.
Germany reported 25,000 coronavirus infections Wednesday — a record — with over 1,000 deaths in just the past two days. Chancellor Angela Merkel pleaded with Germans to limit social contacts over the holidays as she called for a new lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Chancellor Angela Merkel: “It hurts me. It really aches in my heart. But if the price of these niceties is that our fatalities are now at 590 people a day, then this is not acceptable, and so we have to tighten this.”
Merkel’s plea came as several European countries hard-hit by a fall wave of COVID-19 have shown significant progress flattening their infection curves after reimposing tough new lockdown measures.
In the United Kingdom, regulators have warned hospitals against administering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to people with a history of strong allergies, after two people had reactions to their jabs on Tuesday — the first day of vaccinations in Britain and Northern Ireland. The U.K. has enough doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for 800,000 people and has ordered enough to vaccinate 20 million more people.
Canada has approved Pfizer’s vaccine and could begin immunizations as soon as next week.
In the U.S., a Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory committee is holding an all-day meeting today to review the Pfizer vaccine. Depending on how the committee votes, the first U.S. doses could be delivered on Friday.
Here in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo promised state officials will not share the immigration status of vaccine recipients with the federal government. Cuomo said, “If undocumented people don’t get vaccinated, it compromises their health and it compromises the whole program.”
In the United Arab Emirates, health officials say a large clinical trial of China’s Sinopharm vaccine shows the two-dose vaccine is 86% efficacious at preventing COVID-19 and prevented severe disease in everyone who received it. Public health officials reviewing the claims caution they need more information about how the vaccine trial was conducted.
Attorneys general from 46 states joined the Federal Trade Commission Wednesday in a pair of antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, saying the social media giant used its monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition. The lawsuits call on Facebook to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram, and are demanding limits on future mergers and acquisitions by Facebook. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the states’ lawsuit.
Attorney General Letitia James: “By using its vast troves of data and money, Facebook has squashed or hindered what the company perceived as potential threats. They’ve reduced choices for consumers. They stifled innovation. And they degraded privacy protections for millions of Americans.”
President-elect Joe Biden has selected Katherine Tai to serve as U.S. trade representative. If confirmed by the Senate, Tai — who is Asian American — will become the first woman of color to hold the Cabinet-level post. As the top lawyer for the House Ways and Means Committee, Tai pressed the Trump administration for stronger labor protections in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade. She also prosecuted several U.S. disputes against China at the World Trade Organization.
Joe Biden has formally nominated retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin to be defense secretary. Austin, who would make history as the first Black defense secretary, spoke alongside Biden on Wednesday.
Lloyd Austin: “America is strongest when it works with its allies. And over the years, I’ve worked hand in hand with our diplomatic colleagues and partners around the globe and witnessed firsthand what we’re able to accomplish together.”
Austin now serves on the board of the leading defense contractor Raytheon and is a partner in the venture capital fund Pine Island Capital alongside Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Austin can only be confirmed if he secures a waiver from Congress due to laws designed to preserve the civilian control of the military. Several Democratic senators, including Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Duckworth, Jon Tester and Elizabeth Warren, have indicated they would oppose granting a waiver to Austin. Blumenthal said, “A waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control of a nonpolitical military.” Three years ago, 17 Democratic senators voted against giving a waiver to James Mattis when he was nominated by President Trump.
The Trump administration appears set to move ahead with a $23 billion arms deal with the United Arab Emirates after a bipartisan effort in the Senate to block the deal failed. Critics said the arms deal could further destabilize the Middle East and worsen the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The deal includes the sale of F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and other military equipment made by Raytheon and other U.S. weapons manufacturers.
Philippe Nassif of Amnesty International criticized the arms deal, saying, “Today’s vote could be the first act in a domino effect which ends in human tragedy as this country provides capabilities which risk being used to injure and kill thousands of Yemenis and Libyans in their homes, their schools, and their hospitals.”
In Iraq’s Kurdistan region, at least eight people have been killed over the past week as security forces clamped down on protests over unpaid salaries. The semi-autonomous region is facing a financial crisis tied to corruption and a plunge in oil prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In eastern Afghanistan, gunmen shot and killed television journalist Malalai Maiwand as she was on her way to work in the city of Jalalabad Thursday, making her at least the 10th Afghan media worker killed this year. Maiwand’s driver was also killed in the assassination. No group has claimed responsibility, and the Taliban has denied involvement.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns in a stark new report that greenhouse gas emissions have radically transformed the Arctic in just the last 15 years. The 2020 Arctic Report Card warns of dwindling sea ice, accelerating Arctic wildfires, summertime temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and rapidly melting permafrost that’s releasing vast quantities of heat-trapping methane gas. On the whole, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the globe.
The state of New York has announced plans to divest its $226 billion retirement fund from most fossil fuel companies. The New York State Common Retirement Fund is the third-largest public pension fund in the United States. New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said the fund would divest from the riskiest oil and gas companies by 2025 and decarbonize by 2040. The decision follows years of organizing by the DivestNY campaign, which was launched after Hurricane Sandy. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, hailed the decision.
Bill McKibben: “This is one of the really great, important moments. This is the biggest pension fund to divest yet. It comes from the state that is at the heart of the global financial system. That is, it is smart money. And it comes after the long effort of the comptroller to engage with these oil companies and try to knock some sense into them.”
President Trump has asked the Supreme Court to side with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a lawsuit to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory. Paxton sued the states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin and has asked the Supreme Court to block the states from voting in the Electoral College. Seventeen Republican attorneys general have backed Paxton’s extraordinary lawsuit. Trump’s last-ditch effort to overturn the election results comes as Paxton and several other Republican attorneys general are set to meet with Trump for a private luncheon today at the White House. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have now certified their presidential election results. On Monday, Electoral College voters will meet in their respective states to formally cast their votes for president.
President Trump’s top campaign attorney Rudy Giuliani left Georgetown University Hospital in Washington Wednesday after four days of treatment for COVID-19. Giuliani told New York radio station WABC he received the same drugs President Trump got during his battle with the coronavirus in October. Giuliani’s special treatment followed similar care administered to Trump allies Chris Christie and Ben Carson — both of whom received experimental antibody therapies for severe cases of COVID-19. The drugs, produced by Eli Lilly and Regeneron, are in such short supply that many states and hospital systems have set up a lottery system to determine who will receive them.
Meanwhile, Jenna Ellis, another Trump campaign attorney, who worked in close contact with Giuliani, has tested positive for COVID-19.
Federal officials are investigating Hunter Biden, focusing on his taxes and business dealings in China. Investigators had not disclosed any new information about the probe until recently because of Justice Department guidelines barring overt actions that could affect an election. Hunter Biden maintains he has done nothing wrong.
In Minnesota, the Minneapolis City Council passed a budget today that redirects about $8 million from the police department. The funds will go toward violence prevention, mental health response and other services — but does not reduce the number of police officers and maintains new hiring targets, after Mayor Jacob Frey threatened to veto any staffing reductions. The budget is a far cry from the City Council’s pledge this summer to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department at the height of racial justice protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
In California, the freshly sworn-in Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón announced plans for sweeping changes to L.A.’s criminal justice system during his inaugural address this week. Gascón called for ending the death penalty, ending cash bail for minor offenses, and reducing the prison population by quickly resentencing prisoners who are serving excessive terms. He also promised to end harsh penalties for children arrested for minor drug offenses.
George Gascón: “Most kids experiment with drugs. But the painful truth is that the disadvantaged kids that get caught tend to go to juvenile hall, while kids in wealthier communities tend to go to rehab.”
Gascón is a former police officer who previously served as the district attorney of San Francisco. He ran as the progressive alternative to eight-year incumbent Jackie Lacey, who critics say too often sided with police and had come under fire more recently after her husband pulled a gun on Black Lives Matter protesters earlier this year.
Johns Hopkins, the 19th century businessman and namesake of the prestigious hospital and university in Baltimore, Maryland, enslaved at least four Black people before the Civil War. The revelation, made by school officials this week, was based on newly unearthed census documents and counters the popular narrative that Hopkins was an abolitionist.
Connecticut has become the first state to require high schools offer courses on African American, Black, Puerto Rican and Latinx studies, starting in 2022. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said, “Increasing the diversity of what we teach is critical to providing students with a better understanding of who we are as a society and where we are going.”
A judge in Lebanon has charged Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers with negligence in connection to the devastating August 4 explosion at the Port of Beirut. The explosion killed over 200 people, injured 7,000 and left more than a quarter-million Beirut residents homeless.