Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Now Sturgis … once more

Good morning, everyone!

Timothy Bella of The Washington Post reports on the potential of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (which begins this weekend) to become a COVID-19 superspreader event.

The 81st annual motorcycle rally comes a year after roughly 460,000 attendees shunned masks and social distancing at an event that researchers associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded “had many characteristics of a superspreading event.” At least 649 covid-19 cases were linked to Sturgis, but the true total was obscured as contact tracing was difficult after bikers returned to their home states.

Although Sturgis’s coronavirus case numbers are relatively low, the CDC has designated Meade County, which includes the city, as an area of “high community transmission,” advising residents or visitors to wear masks in public indoor spaces. About 37 percent of Meade County is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, and more than 47 percent of South Dakota is fully inoculated as of Friday.

Christina Steele, a spokeswoman for the city of Sturgis, told The Washington Post that the city is offering coronavirus tests, masks and hand sanitizer stations for anyone in town, but no mask mandate is in place. The city has also signed off on a temporary open container ordinance in an effort to keep people outside instead of crowded together inside bars. Steele said those who are not vaccinated or who have certain underlying health conditions are putting themselves at risk, but the virus has not been a talking point among those who’ve flocked to the Black Hills.

Claus Hecking, Katherine Rydlink, and Thomas Schultz write for Der Spiegel that clinical trials and research have begun over the effectiveness of booster shots against the delta variant.

It is still unclear how often booster shots will have to be administered for the coronavirus vaccines. Initial findings suggest that the number of neutralizing antibodies already begin decreasing only weeks after vaccination, particularly in older people or those with previous illnesses. They often have fewer antibodies from the start than young, healthy people. And given that they were at the top of the priority lists, most were vaccinated six months ago.

With the Delta variant, what is called an antibody escape also appears in rare cases. To some extent, the virus evades the protective antibodies, with the effect that in individual cases, even fully vaccinated people can get infected and infect others. Overall, however, the data from Israel, Britain and Canada show that all the vaccines approved for use in Germany offer good protection against Delta, particularly against severe courses of the disease.

Booster vaccination with the “classical” vaccine also proved successful, according to interim results of a study by the manufacturer. It found, for example, that antibody levels in 18- to 55-year-olds increase more than fivefold on average with the third dose of Comirnaty. In 65- to 85-year-olds, they increase almost twelvefold. In both groups, the levels against Delta were reported to be barely lower than for the original virus. Final results are expected in two weeks at the latest.

Julia Wolf and Amelia Thomson-Deveaux of FiveThirtyEight take a look at some not so good news in Friday’s otherwise glowing jobs report.

Crucially, the recovery isn’t affecting all workers equally. Just as Black and Hispanic communities have struggled with higher rates of infection and death since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities of color are continuing to bear the brunt of high unemployment and economic insecurity, even as the overall numbers fall.

The gap between Black and white Americans’ employment continues to be stubborn. Before the pandemic, things weren’t great either. Black unemployment often hovers at levels much higher than for white Americans. The pandemic had exacerbated that stubborn inequality, and now we’re in the midst of a profoundly unequal economic crisis. Low-wage workers — who are disproportionately likely to be Black and Hispanic — have been hardest hit by the pandemic because they generally work in sectors, like retail and hospitality, where their work can’t be done from home. Those workplaces pose significant public health risks in a pandemic, and have been subjected to full or partial shutdowns as infections ebb and flow.

As a result, we’re much closer to economic normalcy in sectors like construction and professional and business services than we are in sectors like leisure and hospitality.

Katherine Gammon writes for The Guardian that the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme heat is affecting the health of tens of millions of Americans.

Almost 28% of Americans reported having one or more symptoms that they believed were related to extreme heat, the survey found. Nearly one-third expressed some degree of worry about heat while they were working, and one in eight said they had decreased productivity while working in very hot weather. Those in the lowest household income group were 68% more likely to experience at least one heat-related health symptom than those in the highest income group.

The pandemic also disturbed social networks – neighbors who typically would be checking on each other weren’t able to due to social distancing requirements. The heat-health effects were felt more in southern and western US states, the study found. Further research will look into the geographic disparities in these regions, which could be related to humidity in the south and the lack of air conditioning in western regions.

Although most Americans have air conditioning, about one in five respondents could not adequately cool their homes, often because of the high costs of running or maintaining their air conditioners.

That means the simple ability to have air conditioning in a home doesn’t make people safe from heat-related health symptoms, Wilhelmi says. “It’s important to think about other strategies going forward, given the situation with energy and poverty and the growing threat of extreme heat events.”

Madeline Ngo of The New York Times reports that while the “hard” infrastructure bill includes money for Amtrak expansion, perhaps the bigger problem for Amtrak is negotiating for railroad track access.

Although the infrastructure deal the Biden administration reached with a bipartisan group of senators last week would help fulfill the agency’s elusive goal of expanding across the nation, one of the biggest obstacles would be negotiating with private freight rail companies.

The issue is coming to the fore as lawmakers seek to pass a crucial part of President Biden’s agenda that would inject billions in federal money to bolster the United States’ aging public works system. Under the bill, $66 billion in new funding would go to rail, which includes money to help Amtrak expand nationwide and address its maintenance backlog.

In a statement released shortly after the Senate voted to take up the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Amtrak welcomed the investment but also urged lawmakers to guarantee that it had better access to the tracks to allow for more reliable service.

“While this funding is a fantastic start,” it said, “we call on Congress to also ensure that Amtrak gets the on-time performance and preference from our host railroads that the law requires.”

Martha Minow and Newton Minow, writing for The Los Angeles Times, assert that the government has intervened before, and can and should intervene now, in order to prevent the ”collapse” of the news industry.

The current press landscape demands new action. Journalism jobs over the past two decades have declined by 60%. As newspapers close and local broadcasting and cable news reduce investment in reporting, digital platforms have diverted ad revenues and enabled the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation. Especially notable is the loss of reporting in smaller towns, suburbs and rural areas, leaving thousands of American communities with no local coverage. This decline may even be tied to fewer candidates for office in local elections.

The idea of government intervention in the news media is not new. Throughout our nation’s history, the federal government has directly and indirectly contributed to the cultivation and growth of the news industry.

Deliberate government actions map neatly to the history of news in America. The Postal Act of 1792 generously subsidized the delivery of all newspapers. Other policies include investments in the telegraph, regulation of broadcasting and cable, even the financing of research behind the internet. And the government created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and National Public Radio and developed public television and radio stations, providing critical vehicles for further innovation.

Some scary video from Greece:

Absolutely terrifying footage from a ferry carrying passengers escaping the shores of Lake Evia in #Greece.

— Dino Sofos (@dinosofos) August 7, 2021

Smirti Mallapaty of Nature reports that not only are southeast Asian countries being hit hard with large outbreaks of the COVID-19 delta variant, but also that rural regions of India were harder hit earlier this year than previously thought.

From Indonesia and Malaysia to Thailand and Bangladesh, countries across Asia have detected Delta in their communities, and many are experiencing their largest outbreaks yet. In Indonesia, where confirmed cases hit 50,000 per day in mid-July, daily deaths have now surpassed 1,700. But vaccination rates remain perilously low in many of these nations, leaving them highly vulnerable.

Researchers in India are only beginning to grasp the full scale of their second wave, which hit a peak of 391,000 recorded cases a day in early May — but this data could be crucial for understanding the risk the variant poses to neighbouring nations.

In a nationwide survey of about 28,000 people (two-thirds of whom were unvaccinated and had therefore acquired immunity from infection) in June and July this year, researchers found that 68% had SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their blood. This represented a huge increase from the 21% with antibodies, recorded in a similar survey in December 2020 to January 2021, prior to the second wave.

Although the previous survey found higher prevalence in urban areas, the latest estimates saw little difference between the numbers in urban and rural regions, which are home to 65% of India’s population. This suggests that infections “have now penetrated very well in rural areas”, says Manoj Murhekar, director of the country’s National Institute of Epidemiology in Chennai, which co-led the June survey.

Jen Kirby of Vox details some of the chilling affects that the year-old Chinese national security law may have on Hong Kong’s status as a financial and business hub.

So far, Hong Kong authorities have used the national security law to go after civil society groups, pro-democracy politicians, and journalists. But the national security law is so broadly and vaguely written — it criminalizes the offenses of secession, subversion, colluding with foreign powers, and terrorism, none of which is particularly well defined — that it can be hard to know whether an action would run afoul of the law until it’s too late.

That makes foreign companies and employees potentially vulnerable to everything from fines and penalties, like the suspension or revocation of necessary licenses, to even imprisonment for individuals if they’re found in violation of the national security law.

For instance, there are some concerns that even run-of-the-mill banking products, like financial analysis or market outlooks, could violate the law if the Chinese government feels they endanger its national security. It’s potentially the same if a company, say, does business or hosts a website linked to a pro-democracy activist. And none of it even has to happen within Hong Kong’s borders; the national security law is written so that it applies extraterritorially.

Beyond being targets of the law themselves, officials and experts worry that businesses will be roped into national security law enforcement.

Finally, Yasmeen Serhan writes for The Atlantic that the Olympic Games are more trouble than it’s worth to stage them.

Whether staging the Games was worth the public-health risk or the staggering price tag that came with it will ultimately be for Japan to decide. But as the world looks ahead to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and debates participating in them despite China’s well-documented human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere, perhaps the question isn’t when and where the Games should be held, but whether the modern Olympics—an international spectacle that has become increasingly synonymous with overspending, corruption, and autocratic regimes—are worth having at all.

Fans of the competition argue that the Olympics are at least as important today as they were when they made their modern debut in the late 19th century. At the time, Pierre de Coubertin, the French historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympics’ governing body, billed the competition as a “peace movement” that would bring the world together through sport. In the run-up to Tokyo, Olympic organizers stressed that these Games would be “a beacon of hope” and unity during a time of unprecedented suffering and isolation.

And, in some ways, they have been. Despite their somber opening ceremony and the absence of spectators, this year’s Olympics delivered on the pomp, pageantry, and athleticism that we’ve come to expect from the world’s largest sporting festival, including such notable moments as Italy and Qatar’s shared gold-medal finish in the men’s high-jump competition and the American gymnast Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from the competition, highlighting the importance of athletes’ mental well-being. But behind the veneer of pageantry and nationalism lie more troubling trends—ones that close observers of the Olympics describe as endemic issues the IOC has so far proved unable, or unwilling, to address.

Everyone have a great day!

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