December 20, 2014

That's cold, Siberia.

Tax collectors in Russia have apparently discovered a good way to get people to pay off their debts — by threatening to seize their cats, BBC News reports. Local news sources have reported on several instances in which the felines were eyed as collateral when their owners refused to pay up.

In Novosibirsk, a student reportedly owed about $200 in unpaid taxes, and bailiffs arrived to seize anything of value. They couldn't find anything, except for the man's British Shorthair cat and its kittens.

"Because the animals are pedigree and expensive, the representative of the law decided to place the cat brood under arrest," a statement from the region's court marshal's service read.

The man paid up, his cats were returned, and the bailiffs headed out, off to search for the next collateral kitty. Sarah Eberspacher

11:27 a.m.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Friday blasted the Senate parliamentarian who ruled that raising the minimum wage couldn't be included in Democrats' COVID-19 relief package, as he introduced an amendment looking to do exactly that.

The Vermont senator on Friday said he was introducing an amendment to the COVID-19 relief bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years, despite Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough previously ruling the increase couldn't be included under budget reconciliation. Some progressives had called for Democrats to overrule the parliamentarian's decision, a move Sanders backed.

"Because of an unfortunate and, in my view, misguided decision by the parliamentarian, this reconciliation bill does not include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour," Sanders said. "In my view, it should have, and I think the parliamentarian is dead wrong."

Sanders went on to argue that it's "absurd" that this "unelected staffer" would be able to make this decision about raising the minimum wage, arguing "no parliamentarian should have that power" and that senators shouldn't "shuffle off" the reasonability of voting for or against the increase.

The White House previously said that President Biden "respects the parliamentarian's decision" rejecting the minimum wage increase "and the Senate's process." But NBC News' Sahil Kapur noted that while Sanders' amendment "doesn't have 50 votes at this stage and it's subject to being removed under reconciliation rules," it "looks like he intends to put every senator on the record." Brendan Morrow

11:15 a.m.

The February jobs report is out, and it found 379,000 jobs were created last month, bringing the unemployment rate to 6.2 percent. That would be a decent number for normal times — but the U.S. is still some 9.5 million jobs down relative to how things were before the coronavirus hit. And as the White House Council of Economic Advisers pointed out on Twitter, at this rate it would take until about April 2023 to restore all those jobs:

Now, it will probably not be possible or even advisable to fully restore economic health so long as the pandemic is ongoing. Many people will not return to normal activities so long as they have not been vaccinated, and therefore bars, restaurants, concert venues, and so on will struggle. But that only underlines the case for passing President Biden's pandemic relief package as soon as possible, because it contains money to accelerate the vaccination effort, and other measures (like survival checks and a boost to unemployment insurance) to keep people solvent while that is happening.

More broadly, the U.S. has suffered over a decade of terrible growth going back to the financial crisis. As I have previously argued, there is every reason to get American balance sheets nice and fat so that when the pandemic does die down, the economy can surge back to strength very fast and, with any luck, undo some of that damage. Ryan Cooper

10:45 a.m.

Experts feared the Johnson & Johnson vaccine's slightly lower efficacy rate would lead to an impression of a two-tiered system. That has been exactly the case in Detroit, where the mayor just rejected a shipment of the company's vaccine.

CNN reports that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) declined an allocation of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week, saying the other available vaccines are better. "Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer are the best," he said. "And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the City of Detroit get the best." Stat News' Matthew Herper called this a "bad plan."

It's true that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trials showed a 72 percent efficacy rate, while Moderna and Pfizer, the two other approved coronavirus vaccines, have a rate of about 95 percent. But health experts say it's still an excellent option, and has other perks like only requiring a single shot and frequently leading to fewer side effects, reports The New York Times. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, said people shouldn't overthink which one to get, and explained the vaccines can't really be compared head-to-head because of different trial circumstances.

Besides, experts note, the raw numbers don't show the full picture. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine prevented all hospitalizations and deaths in its large clinical trial, meaning the slightly lower efficacy rate really only points to mild to moderate disease.

Detroit's mayor, however, said the city has been able to meet demand with just its supply of Pfizer and Moderna doses, but CNN notes Duggan's administration only expanded vaccine eligibility to residents ages 50 and older with chronic medical conditions on Thursday. Duggan said he would accept Johnson & Johnson doses later on if all other doses are distributed and there are remaining residents who want a vaccine. Summer Meza

9:39 a.m.

The latest U.S. jobs report is in, and it significantly surpassed expectations.

The Labor Department said Friday the U.S. economy added 379,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate declined slightly to 6.2 percent. This was above the 210,000 jobs economists were expecting, CNBC reports.

The report comes after last month's jobs report showed the U.S. economy added only 49,000 jobs in January, which experts at the time said pointed to sluggish improvement in the labor market. But that January number on Friday was revised up to 166,000 jobs.

"In February, most of the job gains occurred in leisure and hospitality, with smaller gains in temporary help services, health care and social assistance, retail trade, and manufacturing," the Labor Department said. "Employment declined in state and local government education, construction, and mining."

At the same time, The Washington Post notes that this is still "below the rate needed to regain the more than nine million jobs lost since last year."

"The engine of economic recovery is restarting as the pandemic's winter wave recedes, although there is still a long way to go," Glassdoor Senior Economist Daniel Zhao wrote, noting that "the economy would need to add almost 1 million jobs a month for the rest of 2021 to return to pre-crisis levels by the end of the year." Brendan Morrow

8:34 a.m.

Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq as part of a historic trip, one that's been raising concerns over whether it could be a "superspreader event" amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pope's plane on Friday landed at Baghdad's airport, and he was greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, The Associated Press reports. On the three-day trip, Francis aims to "urge the country's dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution," the AP writes. It's a historic trip, as this is the first time a pope has ever visited Iraq.

But amid a spike in COVID-19 cases there, The New York Times notes there have been concerns that the Iraq trip "has the potential to be a superspreader event," and that although the Vatican has said that all events will be safe and socially distanced, "the pope's goals for the visit could be eclipsed by any indication that he is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus."

Indeed, Rev. Antonio Spadaro, an ally of Francis', told the Times "there is this concern that the pope's visit not put the people's health at risk — this is evident. There is an awareness of the problem."

Francis has been vaccinated against COVID-19, as has his delegation. But the AP notes that "health measures appeared lax inside the airport" when he arrived on Friday and that hundreds gathered nearby in hopes of seeing him. And according to the Times, among the items on the agenda during this trip includes a large mass at a soccer stadium that thousands are expected to attend. Brendan Morrow

2:05 a.m.

Truffles is not your typical cat.

Danielle Crull rescued Truffles in 2016, and with the help of treats, she taught Truffles how to sit and give high fives. After seeing how quickly the cat picked up these tricks, an idea came to Crull.

An optician, Crull owns a glasses dispensary for children in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Most of her patients are between two and five years old, and many are scared or worried during their visits, as they are not used to eye exams or wearing glasses. Crull decided to teach Truffles how to wear glasses so she could bring her into the office and see if it made the kids feel more comfortable.

Crull's idea has been a hit. Kids go from crying over trying on glasses to laughing hysterically when Truffles comes out wearing frames. "It's just like magic," Crull told Today. "As soon as the kids see her, they're like, 'Okay, glasses are amazing.'" Truffles — who has about 20 pairs of glasses (without lenses) and sunglasses (with lenses) — also wears eyepatches, to show solidarity with kids who need to use them to treat the eye condition amblyopia, and stars in videos on how to prepare for eye exams and care for eyewear.

"I think animals are healing in so many different ways," Crull told Today. "I can tell Truffles really feels like, 'This is what I do. This is me.'" Catherine Garcia

1:03 a.m.

Last July, when top aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) learned that a report written by state health officials included the number of nursing home residents who died in the coronavirus pandemic, they intervened and rewrote the document, removing the data, The New York Times reports.

At the time, the death toll was more than 9,000 — a number that had not been made public, the Times reports. Earlier this year, after New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report saying the state seriously undercounted the number of nursing home COVID-19 deaths, Cuomo released the complete data. He said the number was kept under wraps over fears the Trump administration may have used it to launch a politically-motivated investigation into how New York handled the pandemic in nursing homes.

After reviewing documents and interviewing six people with direct knowledge of the matter, the Times found that Cuomo and his senior aides began concealing the number of deaths well before federal authorities started asking for the data. The report written by state health officials put the death toll at 50 percent higher than the number the Cuomo administration was publicly citing, the Times reports. Cuomo aides began pushing to simplify the number, the Times says, and that's when health officials became concerned that it would no longer be an accurate scientific report.

The death toll remained in the report even after one of Cuomo's top aides edited it, but was removed after two other aides became aware of its inclusion, the Times reports. None of the aides who were working on the edits had any experience in public health. Read more at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia

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