An advisory committee of U.S. vaccine experts voted Thursday to recommend emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, with the Food and Drug Administration poised to issue its approval on Saturday. Once that comes, some 2.9 million doses will be shipped to sites across the U.S., with the initial, limited supply of the vaccine rationed for healthcare workers and nursing home residents.
On Thursday, the U.S. recorded another staggering toll from COVID-19, with over 224,000 new infections and nearly 3,000 deaths. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that for the next 60 to 90 days the U.S. will likely see more COVID-19 deaths per day than the number of people killed in the September 11 attacks.
Dr. Robert Redfield: “It’s also very sobering to realize in the United States today that COVID-19 now is the leading cause of death, surpassing heart disease.”
Meanwhile, a CDC official told lawmakers earlier this week she was instructed by CDC Director Robert Redfield to delete an email from the Trump administration which sought to alter a scientific report on the risks of COVID-19 to children, in order to better match Trump’s messaging on reopening schools.
In New Hampshire, an autopsy reveals state House Speaker Dick Hinch, a Republican, died of COVID-19 on Wednesday. His death came one week after he was sworn in as New Hampshire’s top lawmaker at a December 2 ceremony. The event was attended by several Republican lawmakers who revealed just one day prior that they’d tested positive for coronavirus after attending an indoor meeting in late November where many people refused to wear masks.
New Hampshire state representative and ophthalmologist William Marsh blasted fellow Republicans, tweeting, “Those in our caucus who refused to take precautions are responsible for Dick Hinch’s death.” New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu also criticized members of his own party Thursday.
Gov. Chris Sununu: “You don’t wear a mask and social distance just for yourself; you do it for those you’re surrounding yourself with. And for those who are out there doing just the opposite just to make some sort of bizarre political point, it’s horribly irresponsible. It really is. And it has horrible consequences.”
The Labor Department reports nearly 1.4 million U.S. workers filed for initial unemployment assistance last week — a sharp rise from the previous week — as the worsening pandemic continues to hammer the U.S. economy. The latest figures come as 12 million unemployed people are set to lose all their benefits at the end of December. And about 19 million people are currently unable to pay their rent, with the CDC’s moratorium on evictions set to expire on New Year’s Day. The Washington Post reports that a sharp rise in hunger and homelessness across the U.S. has led to a spike in shoplifting, with staple foods like bread, pasta and baby formula in heavy demand.
Morocco and Israel have agreed to establish diplomatic relations as part of a U.S.-brokered deal. Morocco becomes the fourth Arab nation to establish ties with Israel since August. As part of the deal, the United States agreed to become the first country in the world to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara — what many consider to be Africa’s last colony. Morocco has occupied much of the resource-rich territory since 1975 in defiance of the United Nations and the international community. Thousands have been tortured, imprisoned, killed and disappeared while resisting the Moroccan occupation. After headlines, we’ll get a response to the Morocco-Israel agreement from leading Palestinian and Sahwari figures.
Azerbaijan’s military held a massive parade in the capital Baku on Thursday, celebrating its victory over Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who backed Azerbaijan in the war, was on hand for the parade, which featured a display of Turkish armed drones. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report both Azeri and Armenian troops committed war crimes during the six-week conflict — with evidence of extrajudicial executions, beheadings, torture and the desecration of the bodies of slain soldiers.
In the United States, President-elect Joe Biden told civil rights leaders in a private conference call Tuesday that he would use his executive authority to undo many of President Trump’s actions — but would not take executive action to implement a progressive agenda. In audio of the call leaked to The Intercept, Biden said using his executive powers to enact policies like a ban on assault rifles would be “way beyond the bounds” of his constitutional authority. Biden also asked civil rights leaders not to pursue campaigns to transform policing in the United States until after twin Senate runoff elections to be held in Georgia on January 5, which will determine the balance of power in the Senate.
President-elect Joe Biden: “They’ve already labeled us as being 'defund the police.' Anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing, which I promise you will occur — promise you — just think to yourself and give me advice whether we should do that before January 5th, because that’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable.”
President-elect Biden has tapped Susan Rice to be director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Rice served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and national security adviser under President Obama. Critics called out the pick over Rice’s inexperience with domestic policy, as well as her role supporting U.S. military actions that caused devastation in Syria and Libya under Obama. The position does not require Senate confirmation.
In related news, Biden has picked another Obama administration alum, former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans groups expressed disappointment Biden did not pick a veteran to serve in the role. Jeremy Butler of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told The Washington Post, “He’s starting in a position of public deficit because of who he is not.”
A watchdog report has found current Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and other senior leaders discredited and smeared a House aide who reported a sexual assault at work. Andrea Goldstein, who issued the complaint, said in a statement, “The millions of women and men who have experienced or witnessed sexual violence in the military recognized Secretary Wilkie’s actions as horrifyingly familiar: refuse to take or enforce accountability, blame, shame and make the victim the problem.”
A majority of House Republicans have backed Trump’s last-ditch effort to overturn the election results by asking the Supreme Court to toss millions of votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia — all states that voted for Biden — as part of a Texas-led lawsuit. One hundred six House Republicans signed on to a legal brief Thursday in support of the lawsuit.
State Department Inspector General Matthew Klimow stepped down Thursday after Mike Pompeo lashed out at a report in which the watchdog found Pompeo’s wife did not secure proper approval or documentation for trips she took with her husband as part of official State Department business. The investigation, however, cleared Susan Pompeo of violating federal ethics rules.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that three Muslim men who were placed on a no-fly list can sue government officials for damages. The plaintiffs say the FBI placed them on the no-fly list as retaliation for refusing to spy on their communities, which prevented them from making trips to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, harming their reputations and jobs.
The latest acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Tony Pham, is stepping down after less than five months in the role. During his tenure, Pham oversaw the installation of billboards on Pennsylvania highways with the faces of immigrants who, according to ICE, “pose a public safety threat.”
In Indiana, officials at the federal prison in Terre Haute injected 40-year-old condemned prisoner Brandon Bernard with a lethal dose of pentobarbital Thursday evening. The execution — on International Human Rights Day — came after the Supreme Court declined to intervene to halt the ninth execution of a federal prisoner this year. The Trump administration plans to kill four more prisoners before Joe Biden’s inauguration. Click here to see our coverage of Brandon Bernard’s case and Trump’s lame-duck executions, the first time in 130 years.