The new world war: Within days, U.S. deaths from Covid-19 will exceed the nation’s toll from World War II, which claimed 418,500 lives. More than 24.6 million people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, and over 411,000 have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. That is nearly one of every 800 Americans. More than 97.7 million people have been infected worldwide, and about 2.1 million have died. Deaths are spiking in Germany, where 30,000 of the more than 50,000 deaths have occurred since December 9, according to The New York Times. And Beijing is testing residents for the virus en masse after a handful of cases were confirmed in the city, Alexandra Stevenson and Julfikar Ali Manik write for The Times.

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Pandemic priorities: On his first day in office, President Biden signed a flurry of executive orders aimed at getting the pandemic under control, Stephanie Armour and Sabrina Siddiqui write for The Wall Street Journal. Among the directives: requiring masks in federal buildings and on federal lands and by government contractors, along with urging similar orders by state and local governments; and creating the position of Covid-19 Response Coordinator to speed production and distribution of vaccines and medical equipment. Other orders mandate wearing masks in airports and on some forms of public transportation, and using the Defense Production Act to meet shortfalls in essential health care supplies like masks. Some public health experts still see room for improvement, especially in Biden’s stated goal to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days. “It’s not bold enough…At that rate, we won’t get to herd immunity until June 2022,” Dr. Leana Wen, health policy professor at George Washington University, told The Journal. “I also would have liked to see a full-scale mask mandate. If there is concern that the federal government can’t mandate states to do so, they can try alternate mechanisms—for example, tying federal funding to state masking requirements.”

  • Also: The president halted the country’s planned withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and will resume funding, Jamey Keaten reports for The Associated Press. The U.S. also committed to joining the WHO COVAX program aimed at getting vaccines to people in need in developing countries.

Racial divide: White patients are getting vaccinated at higher rates than Black patients in all 16 states releasing data on race and vaccinations, in many cases two to three times more frequently, Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber report for Kaiser Health News. The divide is greatest in Pennsylvania, where 1.2 percent of white residents had been vaccinated by mid-January, but only 0.3 percent of Black residents had received a shot. This is in spite of the fact that most initial vaccinations have gone to hospital workers, typically a racially diverse group. While some Black Americans have been reluctant to get the shots, stemming at least partly from a history of racist medical practices, in other cases mismanagement has made it harder for some workers of color to even sign up to get the vaccine. University of Virginia Health System physician Dr. Taison Bell was horrified to find out that the janitorial staff at his workplace didn’t have hospital email access, and so hadn’t been getting the information about vaccine registration.

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Green machine: Biden also moved to address climate change on his first day in office, signing executive orders to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, canceling the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and ordering federal agencies to review and reverse more than 100 of Trump’s environmental policies, including the rollbacks to vehicle emission standards, the shrinking of national monuments, and issuing oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also halted construction on the border wall by ending the national emergency declaration that was paying for it. Wall construction is primarily an immigration issue but also has environmental consequences, including threats to the region’s animal and plant diversity.

  • Also: The Biden administration is set to reconsider action on chlorpyrifos, an insecticide the Obama administration had moved to ban, only to have the Trump administration reverse the decision, Dan Charles reports for NPR. Research has shown that chlorpyrifos can harm the brains of developing fetuses and young children exposed to the chemical.

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Royals at risk: An annual count of the monarch butterfly population wintering on the California coast saw a record low in the most recent count, The Associated Press reports, with fewer than 2,000 butterflies. At some locations where Monarch butterflies normally gather in the thousands, volunteers didn’t see a single one. “These sites normally host thousands of butterflies, and their absence this year was heartbreaking for volunteers and visitors flocking to these locales hoping to catch a glimpse of the awe-inspiring clusters of monarch butterflies,” said Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerces Society. The previous low before this was 27,000 butterflies.

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Vapeway drug: Young people who try e-cigarettes like Juuls before the age of 18 are more likely to become daily cigarette smokers in the following years than adults who try vaping later in life, according to new research based on the annual U.S. Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health study, Sara Harrison reports for Wired. This runs counter to the previous expectation–or, at least the hope–that vaping products could have a net public health benefit by diverting nicotine users from cigarette smoking, which is more dangerous. The study suggests that that hasn’t happened. It found that young people who try e-cigarettes are three times more likely than their non-vaping peers to become daily smokers.

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Sunnier days: Reporting for The Houston Chronicle, Paul Takahashi writes that former oil landmen are finding new purpose in the solar industry. Since the pandemic sent oil and gas prices plummeting, former industry employees have pivoted from helping oil and gas companies lease land to helping solar companies expand their solar farms. Texas, already the nation’s leader in oil and wind energy, is catching up to California, the number one in solar, as well. By the end of the year, the number of Texas homes powered by the sun could jump from 750,000 to a million.

FairWarning contributor Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.

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