March 20, 2020

President Trump insisted Thursday that his administration was prepared for the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, but he also said: "Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before. ... Nobody ever thought of numbers like this." It turns out that his administration had gamed out an eerily similar pandemic over the first half of 2019, The New York Times reports, and issued recommendations in October that highlighted how unprepared the U.S. was to deal with such a respiratory virus outbreak.

The simulation, called "Crimson Contagion," was run by the Health and Human Services Department with participation from 12 states and more than a dozen federal agencies, including the Pentagon, Homeland Security Department, and National Security Council, the Times reports. It tried to model what would happen if an influenza pandemic that started in China spread through the U.S. with no treatment, leaving 7.7 million Americans hospitalized and 586,000 dead.

"Many of the moments during the tabletop exercise are now chillingly familiar," the Times reports. The Crimson Contagion fictional virus prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to urge social distancing, employers to shift to working from home, and a confusing patchwork of school closures. The exercise found that U.S. didn't have any way to quickly produce needed medical supplies like N95 respirators and ventilators.

"Many of the potentially deadly consequences of a failure to address the shortcomings are now playing out in all-too-real fashion across the country," the Times reports. "And it was hardly the first warning for the nation's leaders." In 2017, for example, outgoing Obama administration officials ran an extensive pandemic response exercise with senior incoming Trump administration officials, most of whom were subsequently fired or quit. In 2018, National Security Adviser John Bolton disbanded the National Security Council's pandemic response team, set up after an Ebola pandemic.

HHS says the fictional outbreak of influenza was "very different than the novel coronavirus." Read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber

8:49 p.m.

Roberto Minuta, the 36-year-old owner of a tattoo parlor in Newburgh, New York, was arrested Saturday and charged with criminal involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Minuta is accused of obstructing the formal counting of presidential election votes, trespassing, and attempting to cover up his crimes. On Monday, over the objections of prosecutors, Minuta was ordered released on a $125,000 bond, and told to surrender his 10 registered firearms, The Washington Post reports.

Prosecutors say Minuta, who recently moved to Texas, is linked to the right-wing Oath Keepers militia, and was seen with Republican operative Roger Stone on the morning of the riot; Stone told a Tennessee newspaper last month that he needed to hire private security while in Washington, and did not personally know the men protecting him.

Prosecutors have said members of the Oath Keepers conspired to storm the Capitol in order to keep Congress from certifying the results of the election. Minuta was seen at the Capitol wearing military gear, including tactical gloves and ballistic goggles, and was carrying a firearm and either bear or pepper spray, according to prosecutors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Gianforti told the court on Monday that after Minuta was arrested, he made statements that "represent a lack of remorse and an ongoing allegiance to the ideology" behind the assault on the Capitol. He also said Minuta "aggressively taunted and berated law enforcement officers guarding the Capitol" and it is "not a stretch to think Mr. Minuta, if called upon to do so, would participate in an armed rebellion yet again even on pretrial release." Catherine Garcia

7:06 p.m.

The Biden administration announced on Monday that it will grant temporary protected status to Venezuelan migrants — an action that could help an estimated 320,000 people now living in the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled their country due to economic chaos, food and medicine shortages, and widespread and frequent power outages. Under temporary protected status, people who cannot return to their home country due to war and natural disasters are allowed to legally live and work in the U.S. Venezuelans will be able to have temporary protected status for 18 months.

The U.S. recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaido as the rightful president of Venezuela, rather than President Nicolas Maduro. In an attempt to force Maduro out, former President Donald Trump tightened sanctions against Venezuela, but did not grant temporary protected status to migrants.

"The United States is in no rush to lift sanctions," a senior Biden administration official told The Associated Press. "But we need to recognize here that unilateral sanctions over the last four years have not succeeded in achieving an electoral outcome in the country." Maduro has "adapted" to the sanctions on oil, the official added, and now is the time to "start sitting down with the international community to see how we can actually exert coordinated pressure and set clear expectations for the way forward." Catherine Garcia

6:19 p.m.

The novel coronavirus that sparked the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will continue to evolve over time, but it may be running out of the type of worrisome tricks seen in mutations first sequenced in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa, Dr. Dhruv Khullar writes in The New Yorker.

All three variants are troubling because of a change to the "spike" protein that allows the virus to latch on to humans' ACE-2 receptor and enter human cells more easily, making it more transmissible. And the Brazilian and South African variants carry an additional mutation which diminishes the ability of antibodies to bind to and neutralize the virus, possibly rendering previous infection and vaccines less effective, Khullar writes. There is good news, though — at least in the eyes of Jason McLellan, a structural biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who believes such mutations may be few and far between going forward.

"There's just not a lot of space for the spike to continue to change in ways that allow it to evade antibodies but still bind to its receptor," McLellan told Khullar. "Substitutions that allow the virus to resist antibodies will probably also decrease its affinity for ACE-2," he continued, adding that because the variants "have independently hit on the same mutations" it's likely "we're already seeing the limits of where the virus can go."

McLellan expanded on his fairly hopeful outlook, telling Khullar that the virus will indeed keep mutating, but likely into a less lethal version. "This is what we think happened to viruses that cause the common cold," he said. "It probably caused a major illness in the past. Then it evolved to a place where it's less deadly." Read more at The New Yorker. Tim O'Donnell

5:21 p.m.

Former President Donald Trump spent much of 2020 pushing unfounded claims of voter fraud, often pinpointing mail-in voting as a major culprit. Yet, he continues to do it himself.

Trump, now a Palm Beach, Florida, resident, requested a mail ballot on Friday so he can vote in the city's municipal elections, The Palm Beach Post reports. Trump did vote in person in November's general election, but he previously cast mail ballots while in the White House, praising Florida's security while simultaneously criticizing the system at large.

At the time, he claimed he was he was too busy to leave Washington, and he also repeatedly drew a distinction between absentee ballots and universal vote-by-mail. But that doesn't seem to apply in this case. Read more at The Palm Beach Post. Tim O'Donnell

4:38 p.m.

The Tax Policy Center broke down how the Democrats COVID-19 relief bill, which will likely be signed into law this week by President Biden, will affect Americans across income brackets in one easy-to-read chart on Monday.

In its analysis, TPC compared the American Rescue Plan's expected tax relief to that of the 2017 Republican-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which also passed through the Senate along party lines with a simple majority vote thanks to a procedural tool called budget reconciliation. This time around, the vast majority — nearly 70 percent — of the tax benefits from the ARP will go to low- and moderate-income households, which includes those making $91,000 per year or less. Nearly half of the TCJA cuts, on the other hand, went to the top 5 percent of earners, which that year included those who made more than $308,000.

Overall, the ARP's $3,000 average tax benefit is almost double the average tax cut from the TCJA, in large part because of the next round of stimulus checks that will be sent directly to individuals, which the TPC analysis says will trim household taxes by about $2,300. Read the rest of the analysis here. Tim O'Donnell

4:15 p.m.

The former CEO of Papa John's is assuring the public he's been working on not using racist language, an effort that has apparently been ongoing for nearly two years.

John Schnatter, the Papa John's founder who in 2018 stepped down as chairman after admitting he used the N-word during a conference call, told One America News Network the pizza chain's board has painted him "as a racist" when "they know he's not a racist," per Mediaite. From there, Schnatter described his "goals," evidently including no longer saying racial slurs.

"We've had three goals for the last 20 months," Schnatter said. "To get rid of this N-word in my vocabulary and dictionary and everything else, because it's just not true, figure out how they did this, and get on with my life."

The former pizza boss also told OANN he "used to lay in bed" after his ouster wondering "how did they do this," and he called on Papa John's to come out and declare that it "didn't follow proper due diligence" and that he actually "has no history of racism."

Schnatter stepped down as Papa John's chair after Forbes reported that he "used the N-word on a conference call" that had been "designed as a role-playing exercise for Schnatter in an effort to prevent future public-relations snafus." He apologized at the time, saying "racism has no place in our society." Shortly after, though, Schnatter said he resigned because the board asked him to "without apparently doing any investigation" and that he now regrets doing so.

Later, Schnatter would vow that a "day of reckoning" would come in a bizarre 2019 interview, in which he also famously declared he's eaten "over 40 pizzas in the last 30 days."

Update: In a statement on Monday, Schnatter said he has been seeking to eliminate "false perceptions in the media" and that "on OANN, I tried to say, 'Get rid of this n-word in (the) vocabulary and dictionary (of the news media), and everything else because it's just not true,' – reflecting my commitment to correct the false and malicious reporting by the news media about the conference call." Brendan Morrow

3:22 p.m.

More than 1,000 worker deaths from COVID-19 that were linked to workplace transmission were never investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the state or local level, a Wall Street Journal investigation found. The Journal notes that the number likely understates that actual toll.

Many of those fatalities weren't reported to OSHA agencies by employers in the first place, but David Michaels, the OSHA director in the Obama administration, told the Journal the coronavirus pandemic still "exposed OSHA's great weaknesses."

Indeed, the Journal reports, OSHA records and state health care data show the agencies often took limited steps when they did respond to safety complaints. For example, the Journal identified 180 COVID-19 deaths among workers that occurred four weeks or more after complaints to OSHA agencies. In those cases, the investigation didn't extend beyond corresponding with employers. And despite an increase in complaints during the pandemic, OSHA agencies actually conducted fewer inspections than they did in the previous year.

But, aside from a lack of action, it seems there were also built-in inefficiencies that left the OSHA unprepared to respond to pandemic. The agency's rules, the Journal reports, are "designed to minimize chemical-exposure risks and injuries such as falls and electric shocks," not infectious disease. Officials did start drafting rules centered on preventing the spread of such diseases in healthcare facilities after the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, but never completed the process. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

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