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10 things you need to know today: September 17, 2020

Hurricane Sally causes flooding in Alabama and Florida, Trump calls for Republicans to back more COVID-19 relief spending, and more 


Hurricane Sally causes historic flooding in Alabama, Florida

Hurricane Sally caused what the National Hurricane Center described as "historic and catastrophic flooding" in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, threatening to drench some areas with 35 inches of rain. Sally pushed slowly ashore at 3 miles per hour in the morning with top sustained winds of 105 mph, making it a Category 2 hurricane. The storm sank boats, peeled roofs off houses, and knocked out power to more than 540,000 homes and businesses. Sally ripped loose a construction crane on a barge, sending it bashing into the new Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay, destroying a section of the year-old span. Sally quickly weakened and was downgraded to a tropical storm by the afternoon. At least 377 people were rescued from flooded areas, including a family of four found in a tree. Sally moved northeast heading into Georgia and toward the Carolinas.


Trump urges Republicans to go bigger with coronavirus relief

President Trump on Wednesday urged Republicans to support a larger coronavirus relief package as White House negotiators seek a deal with Democrats. "Go for the higher numbers," Trump tweeted to his fellow Republicans. The GOP-controlled Senate last week tried and failed to pass a "skinny" stimulus bill with just over $500 billion in spending. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, one of the two leading White House negotiators, said he was more optimistic than he has been for two months that a deal would be possible. A day earlier, the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus released a proposal for about $1.5 trillion in aid to businesses, families, health workers, and others. Leading Democrats rejected the proposal and called for at least $2.2 trillion in spending.


Administration releases plan to make coronavirus vaccine free to all

The federal government on Wednesday unveiled a plan to make a COVID-19 vaccine free to all Americans, provided one of the drugs being developed proves safe and effective. In a report and "playbook" submitted to Congress, federal health agencies and the Defense Department outlined plans to gradually start a vaccination campaign in January or even late 2020, although the CDC says a vaccine might not be widely available until mid-2021. "Our goal in Operation Warp Speed is that 24 hours after" a vaccine receives emergency authorization or full approval, it will be sent to administration sites, said Paul Ostrowski, who is handling the logistics. The rushed campaign faces some public skepticism. Only roughly half of Americans said in a May Associated Press-NORC poll that they would get vaccinated.


Pelosi calls for investigating report of hysterectomies on immigrants

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday said the Trump administration should investigate a whistleblower complaint alleging that mass hysterectomies were being performed on immigrant women in a federal detention center in Georgia. The whistleblower also said authorities at the center refused to test symptomatic detainees for coronavirus infection, and failed to provide sufficient protective equipment to staff. "If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint ... are a staggering abuse of human rights," Pelosi said in a prepared statement. Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), whose district includes the detention center, said the Homeland Security Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement "have assured us that they take all allegations seriously" and are investigating the claims.


CDC director says masks could be better COVID defense than vaccine

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield told a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday that face coverings are "the most powerful public health tool" the U.S. has to fight the coronavirus pandemic. "We have clear scientific evidence they work, and they are our best defense," Redfield said. "I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine," noting that a coronavirus vaccine might only be 70 percent effective. President Trump said Redfield must have been confused, insisting that "the mask is not as important as the vaccine." Trump said he had spoken to Redfield and told him he was "mistaken." Redfield later tweeted: "I 100% believe in the importance of vaccines."


HHS coronavirus communications chief takes leave of absence after rant

The Department of Health and Human Services' communications chief, Michael Caputo, will be taking a two-month leave of absence after accusing government scientists of "sedition" in a Facebook rant. HHS on Wednesday announced that Caputo, the department's assistant secretary for public affairs, would be taking 60 days to "focus on his health and the well-being of his family." Caputo on Sunday promoted false conspiracy theories on Facebook Live, baselessly accusing government scientists of "sedition" and accusing them of belonging to a "resistance unit" of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is plotting "how they're going to attack Donald Trump next." He reportedly apologized to his staff on Tuesday for bringing negative attention to the department.


Fed to keep interest rates near zero until 2023

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell announced in a Wednesday press conference that the central bank probably would keep interest rates near zero until at least 2023. Rates will remain at this historic low level "until the economy is far along in its recovery," Powell said — although he added that Congress should take some action to make sure that happens. "Overall activity remains well below its level before the pandemic, and the path ahead remains highly uncertain," Powell noted. Until the economy reaches the Federal Reserve Board's "assessments of maximum employment" and inflation hits 2 percent, interest rates will remain low, Powell said. "More fiscal support is likely to be needed," he said, alluding to the fact that Congress still hasn't replaced its stimulus bill that expired at the end of July.


Ex-Pentagon official accused of sexually harassing two women

The Pentagon Inspector General released a report Wednesday accusing John James, the former civilian head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, of sexually harassing two women in his office. The Defense Department's internal watchdog said one woman was subjected to unwanted attention, and James allegedly took a photo of her buttocks as she walked away from him. James allegedly twice massaged the other woman behind closed doors, and she eventually left the agency because of his actions. James, who retired earlier this year, said he was trying to "mentor" the women. He blamed the allegations on a disgruntled employee passed over for a promotion. "There's a modicum of truth in the interactions, but no intent for sexual harassment, or favors," he told investigators.


Report: Barr suggested charging violent protesters with sedition

Attorney General William Barr last week urged federal prosecutors to consider filing sedition charges against people accused of violence at protests against racial injustice, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, citing people familiar with the conference call. Some of the people on the call reportedly were alarmed by the unusual suggestion of charging rioters with insurrection. Barr also reportedly asked the Justice Department's civil rights division whether Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan could be criminally charged for letting people establish a police-free protest zone in the city this summer, although DOJ said Barr didn't order anyone to explore the idea. Durkan, a Democrat President Trump has criticized, called the suggestion of criminal charges "chilling" and an abuse of power.


Scientific American backs Biden in first endorsement in 175 years

Scientific American on Thursday endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for president, the first time the magazine has taken sides in a presidential election in its 175-year history. "The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people — because he rejects evidence and science," the publication's editors wrote. "The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September." The magazine's editors also said that Trump had "attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges."


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