November 30, 2020

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has returned to his Washington office two weeks after he tested positive for COVID-19, his team announced Monday.

While Grassley wasn't the first lawmaker to contract the virus, many people were concerned about the diagnosis because the senator is 87. It turned out, however, that he remained asymptomatic throughout the course of his infection and was able to keep working remotely.

Still, Grassley didn't let his fortunate situation reshape his stance on the severity of the pandemic. In a statement, he noted that the disease "affects people differently" and "more than a thousand Americans are dying every day and many more are hospitalized." So, Grassley said, he'll "continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing."

He also repeated his previous calls for Congress to pass a "long overdue," bipartisan relief bill to "help families, businesses, and communities get through this crisis." Tim O'Donnell

4:14 p.m.

After violating the NBA's COVID-19 protocols, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving has been hit with a $50,000 fine.

Irving was fined after video apparently showed the NBA star maskless at an indoor birthday party, The New York Times reports. NBA players are prohibited from attending indoor gatherings of 15 or more people under the league's health and safety protocols.

The NBA in a statement cited the "private indoor party" as the reason for Irving's fine, also saying he'll "forfeit salary for any games he misses due to his five-day quarantine period, which will allow him to return to team activities on Saturday, Jan 16 if he continues to test negative." As a result, USA Today reports, Irving will be forfeiting over $800,000 for two games. He last played on Jan. 5.

The step, The Associated Press notes, comes after James Harden previously faced a $50,000 fine in December for a violation of the NBA's health and safety protocols. Harden was acquired by the Brooklyn Nets earlier this week. Brendan Morrow

2:47 p.m.

The fast-spreading COVID-19 variant is set to become the dominant strain circulating in the U.S. as early as March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday.

While the U.S. only has less than 100 known cases of the fast-spreading variant first found in Britain now, if actions aren't taken to stop the spread, it'll rapidly take over, the CDC said in a study. The CDC advised the entire health care system to ramp up vaccination efforts and prepare for an influx of hospitalizations — troubling advice given the overwhelmed state of hospitals across the country already.

"We're concerned," Jay Butler, the CDC's deputy director for infectious diseases, told Stat News. "We want to sound the alarm and urge people to continue to do the things that we know work." Modeling by the CDC suggests only rapid vaccinations and strict adherence to social distancing and mask wearing could stop the variant from taking hold. But with vaccine distribution is behind expectations, it's hard to imagine they'll do much to stop the new strain's spread.

So far, 76 infections of the variant, which is seemingly 50 percent more transmissible than the original strain, have been found in people across 12 states. It's very likely there are many more infections across the states. Both COVID-19 vaccines approved in the U.S. have been found to be effective against the new strain.

COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have continually risen to new records over the past few weeks, with the U.S.'s death count fast approaching 400,000. Hospitals both in rural areas and cities are close to general admittance and ICU capacities, and some have exceeded those limits. Kathryn Krawczyk

2:18 p.m.

Less than a week before the inauguration, Vice President Mike Pence has reportedly called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to offer his congratulations.

Pence and Harris spoke over the phone Thursday, with Pence congratulating the incoming vice president and offering "his belated assistance," The New York Times reported on Friday and The Associated Press confirmed.

This is the first time Pence and Harris have spoken since their debate in October, and the call was "described as gracious and pleasant," the Times writes. President Trump has yet to speak with President-elect Joe Biden since the election, having spent more than two months falsely claiming to have won.

Pence may invite Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, to the vice-presidential residence prior to next week's inauguration, according to the Times, though this is reportedly not set in stone due to scheduling issues created by the ongoing security concerns following last week's Capitol riot.

Trump is reportedly expected to leave Washington, D.C. the morning of the inauguration. The president previously confirmed he will skip Biden's swearing-in, but Pence is expected to attend. Brendan Morrow

1:54 p.m.

The FBI is investigating 37 people in the killing of a Capitol police officer last week, an FBI memo sent to the private sector and obtained by The New York Times reveals.

Brian Sicknick, the officer, died last week from injuries he sustained in the pro-Trump mob attack on the Capitol building. Sicknick was struck with a fire extinguisher when the insurgents got inside the building, two law enforcement officials tell the Times. Four other people died in the attack, including one Trump supporter shot by police. Another 14 Capitol Police were injured, the memo reportedly said.

The FBI said yesterday it had 160 open case files stemming from the riot. Several attackers have been arrested in the past week.

The siege was planned across public message boards and social media sites, which have since embarked on widespread crackdowns against election fraud conspiracies and plans for other violent attacks. In the week since the attack, intelligence officials have seen Chinese, Iranian, and Russian attempts to encourage violent rhetoric, a joint threat assessment released Thursday and reported by the Times showed. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:27 p.m.

President Trump's approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, with a significant drop among Republicans.

In the latest Pew Research Center poll released Friday, Trump received a job approval rating of 29 percent, which is his lowest-ever number in this poll and a decline of nine percentage points from August. Additionally, Pew notes that "much of the decline has come among Republicans and GOP leaners," 60 percent of whom approve of Trump's job performance compared to 77 percent in August.

Additionally, Pew found that Trump voters "have grown more critical of their candidate's post-election conduct," as the "share of his supporters who describe his conduct as poor has doubled over the past two months, from 10 percent to 20 percent." The poll also found that only 29 percent of respondents said Trump should remain a major figure in U.S. politics in the years to come, while 68 percent said he shouldn't be.

The poll was conducted in the wake of last week's deadly attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, which led to Trump becoming the first president in American history to be impeached twice. In the poll, three-quarters of respondents said Trump bears either a lot or some responsibility for the riot, while only 24 percent said he isn't responsible at all. Ahead of his upcoming Senate impeachment trial, 54 percent of respondents also said it would be better for Trump to be removed from office than finish his term, a possibility that has been ruled out due to the trial not being expected to begin until President-elect Joe Biden is in office.

Pew Research Center conducted its poll by surveying 5,360 U.S. adults from Jan. 8-12. The margin of error is 1.9 percentage points. Read more at Pew Research Center. Brendan Morrow

12:00 p.m.

A reserve of second-dose COVID-19 vaccines set to be repurposed as first doses is already empty, state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans tell The Washington Post.

Both the coronavirus vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. require two doses to be fully effective. So when distribution of first doses began, the Trump administration held back matching second doses to make sure recipients would be fully protected against COVID-19. Amid a massive demand for more doses, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced earlier this week that the department would begin doling out those reserved doses to more people, saying increased production speed would make up for the soon-to-be-depleted reserve.

But as officials soon learned, the federal government had stopped stockpiling second dose vaccines weeks ago, they tell the Post. Both first and second doses were instead taken right off the manufacturing line. That meant Azar's announcement reportedly released a stockpile that didn't exist. The U.S. had already reached its maximum distribution capacity, and new doses distributors were expecting next week weren't coming, the Post reports.

HHS spokesperson Michael Pratt confirmed in an email to the Post that the last of the reserve had been taken out for shipment this weekend. He didn't acknowledge Azar's comments, but said Operation Warp Speed had "always intended to transition from holding second doses in reserve as manufacturing stabilizes and we gained confidence in the ability for a consistent flow of vaccines." he also said states had only ordered 75 percent of the vaccines available to them. Read more at The Washington Post. Kathryn Krawczyk

10:50 a.m.

Facebook may have banned President Trump, but his followers are still gaming the site to spread election fraud conspiracies and downright dangerous disinformation.

Despite Facebook officials' attempts to play down the site's role in organizing last week's Capitol riot, it's clear plenty of Facebook groups and users spread conspiracies and even used the site to fill buses to Washington, D.C. Even after the site started cracking down on the organizers last week, at least 90 "Stop the Steal" groups have remained operating under altered names, while users exploit Facebook's features to spread disinformation other years, CNN reports via research from extremism experts at the activist group Avaaz.

Facebook instituted a blanket ban on "Stop the Steal" content earlier this week. But groups and users have quickly changed gears, rebranding their pages as "'Stop the Fraud' or 'Stop the Rigged Election' or 'Own the Vote,'" Avaaz campaign director Fadi Quran told CNN.

Stories, one of Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram's most popular features, has also helped far-right users spread disinformation undetected. Stories disappear after 24 hours, and Avaaz found accounts with "tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of followers," are "inviting people to events such as the insurrection" using those temporary message boards, Quran said. And despite Facebook's claims that the site "does not profit from hate," BuzzFeed News found earlier this week that Facebook allowed firearms and military gear sellers to target ads to people involved in far-right and militia groups, even placing their ads right next to posts planning the uprising.

A Facebook spokesperson said the site banned three of the groups after being notified of their activity, and has cracked down on white supremacist and QAnon groups. Its recent ban on Stop the Steal content will take longer to ramp up, the spokesperson said. Read more at CNN. Kathryn Streeter

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