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COVID-19’s tragic reach: US virus deaths at brink of 500K
US deaths at brink of 500K, confirming virus’s tragic reach

For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting tiny flags across her yard — one for each of the more than 1,800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19 — the toll was mostly a number. Until two women she had never met rang her doorbell in tears, seeking a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.

Then Pollock knew her tribute, however heartfelt, would never begin to convey the grief of a pandemic that has now claimed nearly 500,000 lives in the U.S. and counting.

“I just wanted to hug them,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”

After a year that has darkened doorways across the U.S., the pandemic is poised to surpass a milestone that once seemed unimaginable, a reminder of the virus’s reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or have a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We haven’t really fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”

Experts warn that over 100,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.

At other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.

“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counseled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.

In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

Still, at almost half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

The toll, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early projections, which assumed that federal and state governments would marshal a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.

Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal by many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fueled the spread.

The figures alone do not come close to capturing the heartbreak.

“I never once doubted that he was not going to make it. ... I so believed in him and my faith,” said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.

The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then, on Jan. 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat its last. He was 36 and left behind a 3-year-old son.

“Today it’s us. And tomorrow it could be anybody,” Nancy Espinoza said.

By late last fall, 54 percent of Americans reported knowing someone who had died of COVID-19 or had been hospitalized with it, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The grieving was even more widespread among Black Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.

Deaths have nearly doubled since then, with the scourge spreading far beyond the Northeast and Northwest metropolitan areas slammed by the virus last spring and the Sun Belt cities hit hard last summer.

In some places, the seriousness of the threat was slow to sink in.

When a beloved professor at a community college in Petoskey, Michigan, died last spring, residents mourned, but many remained doubtful of the threat’s severity, Mayor John Murphy said. That changed over the summer after a local family hosted a party in a barn. Of the 50 who attended, 33 became infected. Three died, he said.

“I think at a distance people felt ‘This isn’t going to get me,’” Murphy said. “But over time, the attitude has totally changed from ‘Not me. Not our area. I’m not old enough,’ to where it became the real deal.”

For Anthony Hernandez, whose Emmerson-Bartlett Memorial Chapel in Redlands, California, has been overwhelmed handling burial of COVID-19 victims, the most difficult conversations have been the ones without answers, as he sought to comfort mothers, fathers and children who lost loved ones.

His chapel, which arranges 25 to 30 services in an ordinary month, handled 80 in January. He had to explain to some families that they would need to wait weeks for a burial.

“At one point, we had every gurney, every dressing table, every embalming table had somebody on it,” he said.

In Boise, Idaho, Pollock started the memorial in her yard last fall to counter what she saw as widespread denial of the threat. When deaths spiked in December, she was planting 25 to 30 new flags at a time. But her frustration has been eased somewhat by those who slow or stop to pay respect or to mourn.

“I think that is part of what I was wanting, to get people talking,” she said, “Not just like, ‘Look at how many flags are in the yard today compared to last month,’ but trying to help people who have lost loved ones talk to other people.”

11% of county vaccinated against COVID-19

Vaccination efforts in Williams County have resulted in 11% of residents being inoculated against COVID-19, a virus that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans and 2.46 million people worldwide.

State data shows Williams County has given at least the first of two doses of the vaccine to 4,111 people, which accounts for 11.2% of the population.

Of those, 3,974 have received the first dose as of Feb. 17, according to the Williams County Health Department. A total of 1,126 county residents have received both doses.

While the overall number is relatively low, the county has been able to vaccinate a good portion of the priority age groups.

For example, nearly 65% of the county’s 80 years old or older population have been vaccinated, along with 54.66% of the 75-79 year olds.

The Williams County Health Department will have its next vaccination clinic Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Bryan Senior Center.

While most of the clinics have been at the Bryan Senior Center, Health Commissioner Jim Watkins said they were looking at possibly doing one at the former Montpelier Superior School.

“We’re looking at other locations all the time, trying to find different locations around the county,” he said, adding they could hold one elsewhere in the county as early as next week.

Watkins said he is happy with the results of the vaccination campaign as they get the vaccine out to people when they get it in.

“We can’t do more than what the vaccine provides,” he said.

Supply has always been an issue, with Watkins having said several times in the past there is always more demand than vaccine.

Of those vaccinated, 1,508 are over the age of 65, which is the current priority.

Next week, Watkins said, teachers will receive their second dose.

“We’re making some good progress there, working our way down the list (of priorities),” he said. “I know that earlier (Monday) they were talking about scheduling some 70 year olds.”

Council awards asphalt bids, discusses summer recreation

MONTPELIER — The Montpelier Village Council awarded a bid for this year’s asphalt program on Monday while also discussing the need for workers for the summer recreation programs.

Morlock Asphalt, Ltd., based out of Portage, was awarded the asphalt bid for $87,440.

“They came in a little less than $10,000 under the engineer’s estimate and they were the low bidder,” Village Manager Jason Rockey said.

When asked, Rockey said the village had not used this company in the past but a village employee looked into their work and village officials are confident in their ability.

The project will need to be completed by around the end of October.

“There’s a three-year project that’s going to happen on the (Ohio) Turnpike and the asphalt plant on State Route 15 is going to be substantially dedicated to the project,” he said. “That’s why we wanted a big enough window to secure a decent bid and they can do it at their discretion, then.”

Council approved the bid with a 5-0 vote. Councilman Kevin Motter was absent.

Separately, Councilwoman Melissa Ewers — who attended the meeting virtually — asked several questions about the summer recreation program.

Sandy Gordon, Montpelier parks and recreation director, is working on her annual “registration blitz” and is planning on having a program guide completed by April 1, according to Rockey and Village Director of Finance Nikki Uribes.

“She had requested from all the local entities to get that information to her — it’s not exactly flooding in,” Rockey said. “People don’t know what they’re going to be able to offer.”

Another issue the parks department is facing, he continued, is getting workers, especially concession stand workers and lifeguards.

Only three people have applied to be a lifeguard this year, a stark contrast from last year, when 16 or 18 applied.

“We have every intention of opening the pool this year as long as the state says we can do that,” Rockey said. “That won’t be possible without lifeguards.”

Nine lifeguards are needed to open the pool, but more would be needed if they were to have the pool’s normal hours.

With the plan to also include baseball and softball games, Rockey said they would need to hire concession stand workers, too.

Uribes said people can apply directly at the village hall, online at http://bit.ly/MntParkapplication or can call village hall at 419-485-5543 or the parks department at 419-485-3496 for more information.

In other business:

• Council entered into an executive session to discuss compensation of a public employee. Upon return to open session, council voted to change the policy manual concerning pay for any village employee who may be deployed to active military service. In an interview with The Bryan Times after the meeting, Rockey said council went “above and beyond” the minimums set in Ohio Revised Code.

• Ewers said she received a scam call from someone claiming to be with Medicare. She wanted people to know Medicare would never call and ask for information such as their Social Security or Medicare numbers. Councilman Chris Kannel said he received a call claiming to be from the local utility company saying he was eligible for a refund, a similarly fraudulent scheme that Uribes said has also come to the village hall.

• Kannel praised the village’s snow removal efforts, saying it was “second to none.”

• Rockey said they had some additional questions for the bidders of the village’s asphalt crushing program this year and should have a recommendation for council at the next meeting.

AG nominee Garland vows Capitol riot will be top priority

Judge Merrick Garland, nominee to be Attorney General, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Monday, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s attorney general nominee, vowed Monday to prioritize combating extremist violence and said his first focus would be on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as he sought to assure lawmakers that the Justice Department would remain politically independent on his watch.

A federal appeals court judge who was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016, Garland appeared Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process with bipartisan support.

“The attorney general represents the public interest, particularly and specifically as defined by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States,” Garland said. “I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone.”

Garland will inherit a Justice Department that endured a tumultuous era under Trump — rife with political drama and controversial decisions — and that faced abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.

“I have grown pretty immune to any kind of pressure, other than the pressure to do what I think is the right thing, given the facts and the law. That is what I intend to do as the attorney general, I don’t care who pressures me in whatever direction,” he said.

Early in the hearing, Garland faced questioning about his plans to handle specific investigations and politically sensitive cases, like the federal tax investigation involving Biden’s son Hunter Biden, and the special counsel’s inquiry started by William Barr, while he was attorney general, into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, which also remains open.

Garland said he had not spoken with Biden about the investigation into his son. He said he had agreed to the nomination as attorney general because the president had vowed that “decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department.”

Garland, though saying he was supportive of transparency and in publicly explaining Justice Department decision-making, declined to commit to making public the results of the Durham investigation. He said under questioning from Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee’s top Republican, that he had not spoken to Durham yet but had no reason to think that former Attorney General William Barr’s decision to give Durham special counsel status to remain in his position was “not the correct decision.”

To date, Durham has interviewed officials from the FBI, Justice Department and the CIA regarding the early days of the Russia investigation, and has produced criminal charges against just one person — a former FBI lawyer who pleaded guilty to altering an email. Garland said “there were certainly serious problems” with applications for surveillance during the FBI’s Russia investigation, and that he intended as attorney general to speak more deeply about the issue with the Justice Department’s inspector general and with the FBI director.

“I am always concerned and have always been concerned that we be very careful about FISA,” Garland said, using the acronym for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Garland’s failed nomination to the Supreme Court wasn’t far from lawmakers minds’, with the bitter partisan feelings over the 2016 confirmation battle apparent in the hearing room. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who was chairman of the panel at the time and carried out GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s directive to block Garland from the court, defended his role, saying he took a position and “stuck to it.” He then criticized Democrats over their handling of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Still, he indicated he would be supportive of Garland.

“I admire Judge Garland’s public service,” Grassley said. “Just because I disagreed with anyone being nominated didn’t mean that I had to be disagreeable to that nominee.”

Garland said his first briefing as attorney general would be focused on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and promised to provide prosecutors with whatever resources they need to bring charges in the cases.

“I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6 — a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government,” Garland said in his opening statement.

Biden’s choice of Garland reflects the president’s goal of restoring the department’s reputation as an independent body. During his four years as president, Donald Trump insisted that the attorney general must be loyal to him personally, a position that battered the department’s reputation.

In his prepared remarks, Garland focused on prioritizing policing and civil rights to combat racial discrimination — he says America doesn’t “yet have equal justice” — as well as confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats and restoring the department’s political independence after years of controversial decisions and turmoil.

“Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system; and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution, and climate change,” Garland said.

As civil rights groups and activists push Biden, a death penalty foe, to take immediate action to halt federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment during the Trump administration, Garland described his reservation about the death penalty and its impact.

He said he believes it is likely the Biden administration could issue a moratorium on the death penalty after 13 federal executions were carried out in the final six months of the Trump administration. They were the first federal executions in nearly 20 years and became super-spreader events during the coronavirus pandemic. Garland said the death penalty gives him “great pause” and is concerned about what he sees as the “almost randomness or arbitrariness of its application” and the “disparate impact” the death penalty has on Black Americans.

Garland is an experienced judge who held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which led to the execution of Timothy McVeigh. But he is set to return to a department that is radically different from the one he left. His experience prosecuting domestic terrorism cases could prove exceptionally handy.

Garland held back tears as Sen. Cory Booker asked Garland about his family’s history confronting hate and discrimination.

“I come from a family where my grandparents fled antisemitism and persecution. The country took us in, and protected us, and I feel an obligation to the country to pay back, and this is the highest best use of my own set of skills to pay back,” Garland said. “So I very much want to be the kind of attorney general that you’re saying I could become, and I’ll do my best to become that kind of attorney general.”

His nomination has gained public support on both sides of the political aisle, from more than 150 former Justice Department officials — including former attorneys general Loretta Lynch, Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, along with 61 former federal judges. Others, including two sons of former Attorney General Edward Levi, have also written letters of support to Congress.

“There have been few moments in history where the role of attorney general — and the occupant of that post — have mattered more,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.