The United States recorded nearly 1,800 new COVID-19 deaths Thursday, pushing the U.S. death toll since the start of the pandemic to over 520,000. For the first time, a seven-day average of vaccinations has topped 2 million doses — though just 8.4% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended President Biden’s remark that Republican governors who’ve lifted mask mandates were guilty of “Neanderthal thinking.”
Press Secretary Jen Psaki: “He believes that if we’re going to get this pandemic under control, we need to follow public health guidelines. He simply was asked — asked the American people to abide by wearing masks for a hundred days. We’re at about day 40. Are we at day 40? Around there. Sixty more days.”
On Wednesday, Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey said she would end a statewide mask mandate on April 9 — joining Mississippi and Texas. Alabama has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the U.S.
The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are reporting top aides to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pressured state health officials to alter a July report in order to cover up the true number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. The report was edited to only count people who died inside nursing facilities, excluding those who got sick there and later died in hospitals, leaving out thousands of fatalities. The report was released as a response to criticism of Cuomo’s order in March 2020 barring nursing homes from rejecting recovering coronavirus patients that were discharged from hospitals, which some feared would further spread the virus. Last spring, Cuomo signed legislation shielding nursing home executives from lawsuits related to their handling of the pandemic.
One of three women who have accused Cuomo of sexual misconduct gave her first TV interview Thursday. Former aide Charlotte Bennett told CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell that Governor Cuomo repeatedly made inappropriate comments to her — including questions about whether her experience with sexual assault had impacted her sex life.
Charlotte Bennett: “He asked me if age difference mattered. He also explained that he was fine with anyone over 22.”
Norah O’Donnell: “And how old are you?”
Charlotte Bennett: “Twenty-five.”
Norah O’Donnell: “What were you thinking as he’s asking you these questions?”
Charlotte Bennett: “I thought, ’He’s trying to sleep with me. The governor’s trying to sleep with me. And I’m deeply uncomfortable, and I have to get out of this room as soon as possible.’”
Top Florida Democrats have called on the acting U.S. attorney general and the FBI to investigate Republican Governor Ron DeSantis for corruption and wrongdoing after reports that most residents over 65 in a wealthy Key Largo community had received vaccines by mid-January. Seventeen residents donated $5,000 each to DeSantis’s political committee prior to the vaccinations; the former Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, also a resident of the community, increased his contribution to $250,000. This comes amid accusations that DeSantis prioritized wealthy communities that were connected to political donors for vaccination “pop-up” sites.
In Geneva, Switzerland, members of Doctors Without Borders held a protest outside the headquarters of the World Trade Organization Thursday demanding a waiver on patent rights for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines. South Africa and India are leading an effort that would temporarily allow for the production of generic versions of the life-saving products. Stephen Cornish, director-general of Doctors Without Borders-Switzerland, joined Thursday’s protest.
Stephen Cornish: “If we had the waiver, we’d be able, in a number of countries, to scale up production right now, which would allow for the diagnostics, the medicines and the vaccines to get where they’re needed most. Right now we’re seeing just a trickle of vaccines making it to the Global South. And this is just not acceptable in today’s world.”
In Arkansas, the man photographed with his feet propped on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk during the January 6 assault on the Capitol shouted at a federal judge Thursday that it was “not fair” that he was being held in jail ahead of his trial. Richard Barnett has pleaded not guilty to felony charges — including obstruction of Congress and disorderly conduct in a restricted building with a dangerous weapon.
In Virginia, federal agents have arrested former Trump administration official Federico Klein, charging him with assaulting a police officer with a dangerous weapon during the January 6 attack. Klein worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and served as special assistant in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department. He’s also a former U.S. marine who was deployed in Iraq. This comes as federal agents are probing communications between pro-Trump insurrectionists and members of Congress or their staffers.
On Thursday, the U.S. Capitol Police requested a 60-day extension of the National Guard’s mission helping to protect Congress. If approved, as many as 2,200 troops could remain on Capitol Hill into May.
The Senate Energy Committee has advanced interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland’s confirmation to a full Senate vote — where Haaland is almost certain to be confirmed. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only Republican on the committee who supported Haaland’s nomination. Murkowski said she struggled with her decision as her constituency in oil-rich Alaska is concerned about Haaland’s opposition to fracking, pipelines and fossil fuel development. If confirmed, Deb Haaland would be the first Native American to serve in a cabinet post.
The U.N. is urging Eritrean troops to leave Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where there have been reports of many atrocities by multiple parties in the ongoing conflict. This is U.N. Human Rights Office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani.
Ravina Shamdasani: “A preliminary analysis of the information received indicates that serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors, including the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean armed forces and Amhara regional forces and affiliated militia. … Deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties continues to be shared.”
The U.N. also warned of potentially catastrophic hunger and said it is still lacking the necessary access to deliver aid.
Pope Francis has landed in Iraq for a much-anticipated three-day visit, where he hopes to rally the shrinking Christian community. Francis will meet with other religious leaders later today at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church, where a 2010 massacre by fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda killed over 50 people. His trip is also expected to include stops at historic religious sites and northern Kurdistan, where he will hold an outdoor mass for thousands in Erbil.
In Italy, dozens of humanitarian aid workers have been charged with complicity in human smuggling after saving thousands of refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempted to reach European soil. The charges against over 20 humanitarian aid workers, with groups including Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children, come after a four-year investigation by the Italian government, which in recent years has increasingly criminalized both refugees and rescuers. The charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Back in the U.S., the Transportation Department’s inspector general has found the department’s former secretary, Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, repeatedly misused her office to help family members, including her father and sister, who run a global shipping business with large operations in China. The inspector general’s report was referred to Trump’s Justice Department last December, which declined to open a criminal investigation.
The Intercept reports Mitch McConnell has prepared a short list of candidates to succeed him as Kentucky senator, in the event he does not serve out his full term. Normally, Kentucky’s governor — in this case, Democrat Andy Beshear — would appoint a replacement, but Republicans are pushing legislation in the Kentucky General Assembly that would strip him of that power. At the top of McConnell’s list is state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is facing calls for impeachment over his mishandling of Breonna Taylor’s case. Taylor was the young EMT who was killed by police in a no-knock raid of her home last March.
Texas’s power grid operator ERCOT overcharged customers by $16 billion during last month’s historic winter storm that caused power outages across the state, according to a watchdog filing. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which sets the price of electricity, kept the emergency surge pricing in place for 33 hours longer than needed. In related news, the president and CEO of ERCOT, Bill Magness, was fired Wednesday amid the ongoing fallout.
In Honduras, Vice reports leaked documents have revealed the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to over 70 journalists as part of Hernández’s efforts to control the press. The accusations are part of the latest corruption case against Hernández’s government. Hernández is a key U.S. ally.
A group of Democratic congressmembers have reintroduced the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which would suspend military aid to the Central American country until the Honduran government investigates allegations of human rights violations by their security forces. The bill is named after beloved Lenca Indigenous land and water defender Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated on March 3, 2016, a day before her 45th birthday. In 2017, The Guardian reported the extrajudicial killing had been planned by military intelligence specialists linked to Honduras’s U.S.-trained special forces. Cáceres would have turned 50 this week. In 2019, Democracy Now! spoke to one of her daughters, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, in Madrid, Spain.
Laura Zúñiga Cáceres: “Then we see how the United States government continues to support governments in Honduras which are highly repressive and violators of human rights. The United States supports these governments, particularly in the area of militarization. And at the time of my mother’s murder, one of the things that caught our attention is that it was said that members of the FBI were investigating her killing, which the U.S. Embassy never clarified, even though it was not true, and the U.S. Embassy allowed the Honduran state to create that false narrative.”
See our coverage of Berta Cáceres’s life and death and our 2019 interview with her daughter Laura Zúñiga Cáceres at the U.N. climate summit in Madrid.