Border security: President Biden has prohibited non-citizens who have recently been in South Africa from entering the United States in an attempt to stop the spread of a new coronavirus variant, David Shepardson reports for Reuters. Biden also reimposed an entry ban on non-U.S. travelers who have been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across borders. Some health officials worry that the South Africa variant, which is 50 percent more infectious, will not respond to the vaccines. While that variant has not yet been detected in the U.S., another likely originating in Brazil has been found in a Minnesota resident who recently traveled there, The New York Times writes. “With the world travel that you have, and the degree of transmissibility efficiency, it’s not surprising,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the president.
- Also: 25.3 million Americans have contracted Covid, and more than 424,000 have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Globally, the number of cases exceeds 100 million and more than 2.1 million people have died from the virus.
National emergency: President Biden has signed two executive orders meant to help those most in need during the Covid pandemic, Lauren Egan reports for NBC News. The first directs the Agriculture Department to increase by 15 percent the nutritional assistance provided to children who would get free or reduced-price lunches if schools were open, and expands the emergency increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which means a low-income family with three children could receive $100 in extra benefits every two months. The order also allows workers who are unable to take a job for fear of catching the coronavirus to still qualify for unemployment benefits. The second order revokes an action by President Trump by restoring collective bargaining power for federal workers, and raises the minimum wage paid by federal agencies and contractors to $15 per hour. “We’re in a national emergency. We need to act like we’re in a national emergency. So we’ve got to move with everything we got,” Biden said before signing the orders.
- Also: Biden also ordered the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue revised Covid safety guidance to workplaces within the next two weeks, to review enforcement procedures and policies, and to decide in the next two weeks if an “emergency COVID-19 standard is necessary” and if so, to implement it before March 15. According to The National Law Review, it’s not so much if OSHA will issue an emergency standard, as when. Increased workplace safety during the pandemic was one of Biden’s stated priorities on the campaign trail.
Vaccine chasers: In Los Angeles, crowds of people are congregating outside vaccination sites in hopes of receiving excess doses that would otherwise go to waste, Julia Wick and Hayley Smith report for the Los Angeles Times. Many of these “vaccine chasers,” as one woman jokingly described herself, are much younger than the groups currently prioritized for vaccinations. A large standby crowd outside a clinic in a neighborhood where 97 percent of the residents are Black or Latino, and the median income is just $39,612, was largely white and hailed from other parts of the city.
- Also: A wealthy Vancouver couple took vaccine chasing to the next level, chartering a plane to fly to the Yukon, lying about their residency and work status, and taking vaccine doses meant for Indigenous elders, Antonia Noori Farzan reports for The Washington Post. Rodney Baker, a 55-year-old casino executive, and his wife, Ekaterina Baker, a 32-year-old actress, told the workers at the vaccination clinic that they were new hires at an area hotel to get the shots. Baker earned more than $10.6 million last year, but the only penalty he and his wife face is a $900 fine for violating quarantine guidelines.
Clemency “kick in the teeth”: Prosecutors who oversaw cases of Medicare fraud have been horrified to see President Trump override the sentences of the guilty with a flick of his pen on the way out the door, Eric Lipton reports for The New York Times. Those whose sentences and penalties for bilking the federal government and taxpayers of billions of dollars have been drastically shortened include: Philip Esformes, the former nursing home executive behind one of the biggest Medicare frauds in U.S. history; Judith Negron, who was convicted in a scheme to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent Medicare payments; and Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, who diagnosed Medicare patients with eye diseases they didn’t have and then performed medically unnecessary tests and procedures, fraudulently billing the federal government for at least $42 million. “It is an insult and slap in the face to everybody,” said Roger H. Stefin, the lead prosecutor on the Melgen case, especially for “the patients who are getting needles stuck in their eyes and lasers blasting their retinas for treatments they did not even need.”
Worker protections: More than 70 unions, advocacy groups, and other organizations including the National Employment Law Project and NAACP have signed onto a letter to Congress asking them to give gig workers basic labor protections, Politico reports, and to reject legal frameworks like California’s Proposition 22 that exempts employers from providing gig workers certain protections and benefits. “Millions of workers hired and managed by companies via internet apps, such as Instacart and DoorDash delivery workers, Uber drivers, and Handy home service workers, are deprived of basic labor protections that many of us take for granted,” the letter reads. “Because their employers insist on unilaterally calling them ‘independent contractors,’ these workers don’t get a minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment, state disability insurance, or access to federal protections from discrimination, including sex harassment.”
Costly chemicals: The chemical company DuPont, a longtime leader in manufacturing toxic PFAS compounds known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, and two spin-off companies, Chemours and Corteva, have announced a cost-sharing agreement of $4 billion to settle lawsuits related to PFAS contamination, Bloomberg reports. PFAS are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines, and they stay in the environment until cleaned up. They contaminate more than 2,300 sites in the U.S.
Ice melt: New research published this month shows that global ice loss has increased rapidly over the past 20 years, rising from 760 billion tons lost per year in the 1990s to more than 1.2 trillion tons in the 2010s, and will likely continue to accelerate, Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman report for The Washington Post. What’s more, scientists may have underestimated the amount of sea level rise ice melt will cause.
FairWarning contributor Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.
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