More states have announced plans to relax public health measures as this winter’s devastating Omicron wave of coronavirus infections continues to ebb — unevenly — across the United States. On Wednesday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said he will lift a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools at the end of February. Democratic governors in Illinois and Rhode Island also announced they will roll back mask mandates for indoor public gatherings. Here in New York, Governor Kathy Hochul said the lifting of an indoor mask-or-vaccine mandate today marks a “new phase in this pandemic.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul: “Overall cases are down, positivity rate’s down, hospitalizations are down, cases per 100,000 are down, and new additions are down. That is a beautiful picture. That may be one of my favorite slides. Vaccines and boosters are up, and our hospital capacity. So, New Yorkers, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. reported nearly 3,600 new deaths from COVID-19. Hospitalizations remain high but have dropped below September’s peak of infections from the Delta variant. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday her agency was looking into updating and reviewing its guidance.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: “But at this time, we continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission — that’s much of the country right now — in public indoor settings.”
CDC data show more than 99% of counties across the United States are currently considered “high risk” for transmission.
On Capitol Hill, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty says Republican Congressmember Hal Rogers poked her in the back and said “Kiss my ass” after she asked him to wear a mask aboard the Capitol building’s subway system. Beatty said Wednesday she had accepted Rogers’s public apology, but said she felt she might have been treated differently if she were not a Black woman.
The White House accused Russia of escalating tensions Wednesday as an estimated 30,000 Russian troops begin 10 days of military drills in Belarus. Satellite images appear to show Russian military hardware has been moved closer to the border with Ukraine. Meanwhile, some 3,000 extra U.S. troops have mobilized to Poland and Romania, some of them relocated from Germany. More troops from NATO member countries could follow suit.
The Biden administration has laid out a $5 billion plan to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations along interstate highways. Money for the program would come from the recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure bill. It’s part of the administration’s plan to make half of new cars sold in the U.S. by 2030 battery-powered or plug-in electric hybrids.
The House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment has held hearings on the role of major oil companies in funding and disseminating misinformation about the climate crisis. Board members of Shell, Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil refused congressional requests that they testify at Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, lawmakers heard from climate scientists and experts on Big Oil’s public relations efforts. This is Tracey Lewis of the group Public Citizen.
Tracey Lewis: “At least 45 years ago, oil industry scientists privately warned their own company executives that their products would spell doom for the planet. … Yet, instead of taking action, the fossil fuel industry has used its political power and public messaging capabilities to undercut climate policymaking and climate action, misleading the public about its products, and therefore causing well-documented harms.”
A group of 13 youth climate activists has filed a lawsuit accusing their home state of Virginia of backing fossil fuel projects that contribute to the climate crisis in violation of their constitutional and public trust rights. The plaintiffs are aged 10 to 19 and are represented by Our Children’s Trust. In related news, another group of young activists announced their historic climate trial against the state of Montana will begin next February.
Human rights experts told a Senate panel Wednesday that Congress should take back authority for use of lethal force from the executive branch. The testimony came during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s first hearing into the military’s use of drones in nearly a decade. Citing the monitoring group Airwars, Committee Chair Dick Durbin noted that as many as 30,000 civilians had been killed as a result of U.S. coalition airstrikes since that 2013 hearing. This is ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi, testifying Wednesday.
Hina Shamsi: “Successive presidents have used secretive war-based rules to kill terrorism suspects in places where we weren’t or aren’t at war. In doing so, they’ve crossed the lines between wartime and peacetime powers that are essential to the rule of law, to democratic accountability and the right to life. Despite widespread credible accounts of horrifying civilian deaths, the executive branch kept expanding the program and the categories of groups and people who could be targeted. It used vague and ever-shifting secret legal justifications. If any other country had done this, we would call it unlawful extrajudicial killing, yet it’s a core component of what Americans now call our forever wars.”
The Senate committee hearing began when Dick Durbin played a clip of Democracy Now! of a Yemeni victim of the U.S. drone strikes.
In Mexico, three suspects were arrested over the shooting death of longtime Tijuana reporter Lourdes Maldonado López. She was assassinated last month amid a wave of journalist killings. In 2019 , Maldonado pleaded with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for help at his daily press conference, telling him, “I fear for my life.”
California is suing Tesla, accusing the electric car maker of operating a “racially segregated workplace” at its factory in the San Francisco Bay Area. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing received hundreds of complaints from Black workers at Tesla’s Fremont plant who say they were subjected to racial slurs and discriminated against in job assignments, discipline, pay and promotion. Last year a federal jury in California ordered Tesla to pay $137 million in damages to Owen Diaz, a Black man who suffered racist abuse while working at Tesla as an elevator operator.
In Tennessee, recently fired Starbucks workers are speaking out after they were sacked by the coffee chain for organizing a union drive at a Memphis store. The workers say they refuse to be silenced and are calling on Starbucks employees around the country to unionize more locations.
Amazon workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse are voting to unionize for the second time in a mail-in election that began last Friday. The new vote comes after the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon unlawfully interfered with the first election last year.
Meanwhile, a new report found Amazon was able to dodge over $5 billion in federal income taxes in 2021. Amazon reported record revenue of $35 billion last year but benefited from a federal income tax rate of just 6%, thanks to corporate tax breaks. The report was issued by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which said, “Amazon’s strategy for retail dominance rests on two tactics: avoiding taxes and using the savings to finance a slow strangulation of its retail competition.”
Senators Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar have unveiled a bill that would slash prescription drug prices in half, and are calling on Democrats to debate and vote on the legislation. Sanders spoke from the Senate floor Wednesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Let me tell you why we pay the highest prices in the world, why people in America die because they can’t afford prescription drugs. And the answer has everything to do with a corrupt political system in which over the past 20 years the pharmaceutical industry has spent over four-and-a half billion — not million, four-and-a-half billion — dollars on lobbying and hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Yes, you heard that correctly.”