All COVID-19 is Local, BBQ edition

Burnt Ends from LC’s BBQ in Kansas City
(photo by stu_spivak CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here in metro KC, our five county area that straddles the MO/KS border and the Missouri River did a relatively good job of shutting down, even in the face of state-level idiocy in both Topeka and Jefferson City. School buildings were closed, large gatherings were cancelled, and when the two states finally caught up and issued state-wide orders, it meant fairly little around here because metro KC had already done much of what was prescribed. It hasn’t all been easy, of course, but folks adjusted and life has gone on.

Now, though, things just got real.

From this morning’s featured story on the KC Star’s website (with emphasis added):

Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue lucked out with a hefty contract two months ago, securing 1,200 cases of brisket at a price of $2.45 per pound. As the pandemic began, meat prices actually dropped and the restaurant snagged another 400 cases at $1.75 per pound, said owner Jerry Rauschelbach.

He said those purchases mean Arthur Bryant’s will be set for the next several months. But they also show how fast the market has moved: brisket was selling for more than $6 per pound this week, he said.

At that price, menu prices would soar by the time the meat is trimmed, smoked and served.

“If I didn’t have brisket and I had to pay $6 a pound, I would take brisket and burnt ends off my menu,” he said. “There’s just no way I could consciously serve sandwiches at 20 bucks. There’s just no way.”

For the uninitiated, a brisket is a big slab of meat with two parts – the flat and the point. The point takes longer to cook properly, so the two parts are either split and cooked separately, or they are cooked together until the flat is done and then the point goes back into the pit. It has more connective tissue that needs longer time to break down, and when done right you get a dark “bark” on the surface of the meat and some of the most tender and flavorful deliciousness on the inside. They’re generally cut in cubes and served either on a plate or a sandwich and when done right, they are spectacular.

There’s a lot of folklore around BBQ and who invented different styles or cooking methods or what kind of sauce to use, and damn near every little thing about putting meat over a fire. The origin of selling burnt ends is not folklore or in doubt: they were invented at Arthur Bryant’s. The point of the brisket was seen for years as waste when you trimmed and cooked the brisket flat for sandwich slices, and the counterman at Bryant’s would cut the point in chunks and set it up on the counter for customers to nibble on while waiting to get to the front to order their food. (Note: Bryant’s has also been legendary for its lines.) Eventually they realized “Hey, we could sell this stuff!” and so they did. And then so did everyone else in town. [Time suck warning: that link goes to a 30 minute video that will introduce you not just to burnt ends, but to a good chuck of KC’s best BBQ joints as well.]

So I’ll say it again: things are getting real in KC when Arthur Bryant’s is even contemplating having to take burnt ends off the menu.

I do not want to dismiss what’s happening in hospitals and prisons and nursing homes. That’s as real as real gets. I know a lot of folks in a meatpacking town in southeast Kansas where a cluster of cases has emerged. Things got real there, really quickly, once that hit. What I am saying here is that KC takes its BBQ seriously — as seriously as the pope takes communion — and this nugget about Arthur Bryant’s BBQ is a very KC-specific cultural sign of just how deeply this pandemic is hitting. We can deal with closing our school buildings and postponing our April elections until June and even closing our church buildings, but burnt ends going off the menu of Arthur Bryant’s (even temporarily) would truly be a sign of the apocalypse.

But if BBQ is the way Kansas City identifies the the apocalypse, it’s also how KC identifies hope.

For several years, Jim White has been active in Operation BBQ Relief. which was founded in KC by a bunch of folks in the competition BBQ world. Over the last 9 years, OBR has expanded across the country, and their crews of volunteers have taken their cookers to areas hit by natural disasters, to feed both those hit by the disaster and the emergency workers who come in trying to deal with it. When I sent Jim, Marcy, Bmaz, and some others a link to the KC Star piece, Jim replied with a link to an April 8 press release about OBR and their newest project, Operation Restaurant Relief:

In addition to deploying their trademark effort of providing hot barbecue meals to those affected by natural disasters, Operation BBQ Relief launched a new program called Operation Restaurant Relief with great success last week in Kansas City.

The new initiative revives closed restaurants by utilizing their kitchens to provide free meals to those in need and those on the front lines. As part of the effort, the restaurants will rehire laid off workers to comply with the program and receive a stipend for their participation from Operation BBQ Relief.

Jim could tell you a lot more about OBR, but he’s got a very important matter to attend to at the moment* so unless/until he shows up in the comments, let me direct you to their website at the link above. He did share with me his impression that OBR is doing “pretty amazing work for a group that is populated with folks who lean to the more conservative side of things – sometimes very conservative. They are slowly learning empathy.” This sounded familiar, and sure enough, Jim wrote in more depth about this kind of empathy after he worked on a OBR mission in Wilmington, NC.

That’s another thing about BBQ. Here in KC, despite having a long and ugly history when it comes to race, BBQ is one of those things that does better when it comes to crossing racial divides, in part because some of the most respected historic BBQ joints around here are African American. Even if someone’s favorite ‘cue doesn’t come from Bryant’s or Gates or LC’s, these places get a lot of respect. Arthur Bryant’s and the original location of the Gates chain are in areas of KC that a fair number of white folk would never dream of entering — but they’ll go there happily to get their BBQ fix if that’s their favorite.  Put it this way: BBQ lovers have very firm opinions about color and argue a lot about color, but they’re usually talking about the smoke ring when you cut the meat open or the overall doneness of what you’ve prepared, not the color of the cook’s skin or anyone else’s. And when people share a disaster response cooking line with folks who don’t look like themselves, it changes the way people see each other – that’s the empathy part.

Back in the day, I waited tables and washed dishes, so I know what restaurant life is like from the worker’s point of view. If you’ve got some money and are looking for a charity out there doing great COVID-19 work on the non-medical front, you could do a lot worse than Operation BBQ Relief and their restaurant relief program.

And if you’re a praying kind of person, you might pray that burnt ends do not disappear from the menu of Arthur Bryant’s.

Ever.

______

* Marcy, knowing what happens when BBQ lovers start talking BBQ, interrupted our email discussion before it could really get going, with the observation that this subject “would be a lovely post if any one of you had access to a blog.” Since I brought up the subject, I agreed I could write it up. Jim, for his part, begged off: “The BBQ site I hang out on is having a virtual cookoff. We had two weeks to submit an entry and I forgot to load up on interesting stuff to cook and submit. But we got a spaghetti squash in our CSA basket yesterday and I have some chicken breast and sweet peppers around. Gonna roast the squash and a bunch of veggies on the grill with the chicken and then make pasta sauce to go on it with the chicken.”

Jim may hold various heretical BBQ notions, but those words above comes from the heart of a true BBQ person. When your plans go awry (or you forget to follow them), you make do with what you’ve got — and that menu sounds delicious.

Long Overdue Policies that Look Obvious in the Age of Pandemic

I’m not usually a fan of George Packer. But I keep coming back to this column, We Are Living in a Failed State. The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, which is something I might have written. It argued that this pandemic, to which the US responded like a corrupt poor country, was actually the third crisis of this century, and our responses to the previous two — 9/11 and the Iraq War, and the Wall Street crisis — simply brought this country to the place where Trump could loot it.

Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.

Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.

Packer ends with a call for renewed solidarity.

But he might as well also call for a fix to all the failures of the past twenty years. Right now, mind you, Trump is failing, miserably, in part because he believes maximizing the opportunities for looting by his friends is all the policy he needs.

But the sheer scale of the crisis makes policies that long made sense for the United States more urgent and far easier to justify. I plan to keep a running list of those policies.

Medicare for All

No one has figured out how all the people put out of work by the shut-downs will pay for COVID-related health care. Trump has persisted in a plan to kill Obamacare, and some badly affected states never even expanded Medicaid.

Early reports suggested that Trump’s administration has claimed it is willing to pay hospital bill, so long as they pay those bills directly (thereby avoiding establishing a policy, I guess). But with so many people out of work and with hospitals reeling from the shut-down, the far better solution is to make Medicare available to all.

Universal Basic Income

The US government has been backing credit for big industry and tried, but failed, to provide free money for small businesses to keep their employees on staff. Instead, 26 million Americans have applied for unemployment, a sixth of all workers (and a third of all workers in MI, KY, and RI). Meanwhile, the Administration botched even a one-time $1,200 payment.

The government could better ensure that markets don’t crash entirely–and keep states from buckling as they try to serve all these unemployed people–if they simply gave a UBI to all people, as Spain has decided it will do. By keeping it, the US might be able to address the underlying inequality problems that have led to such a disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color.

Decarceration

Closed spaces, generally, amount for a huge percentage of COVID cases and (in the case of nursing homes) deaths. ACLU just rolled out a paper that argues the models for COVID (which were originally based off other societies’ social patterns, including their prison system) underestimate the total number of deaths because they don’t account for the spread in our prisons.

COVID will remain lethal for long enough that states and the federal government will need to achieve some level of decarceration to prevent the prisons from becoming a source of spread to the wider community (as they have become in the localities with harder hit prisons).

In this case, even before COVID hit, there was bipartisan support to wean ourselves from overincarceration. Prisons will become less lucrative in conservative communities, especially as some states begin to end prison gerrymandering (which gives rural communities representation for prisoners who can’t vote, just like slavery did).

So now is the time to end incarceration for minor crimes, and improve the humanity of incarceration for those who need to be jailed.

Deindustrialization of the Food System

We’ll be lucky if we avoid famine conditions. That’s partly because our food system has the same institutional/retail split our toilet paper supply chain does, meaning the market for half of the food out there disappeared when restaurants and other institutional buyers shut down. That’s partly because bottlenecks in our food supply chain — most notably, thus far, meatpacking plants, but there will be others — have further undermined the market for our plentiful food production. And that’s partly because Trump’s farmer support, thus far, has emphasized direct payments that are effectively a continuation of his earlier bribery of farmers whose markets his trade war screwed, rather than purchasing up surpluses to provide to food banks.

Trump hasn’t shown an ability to get any other needed supplies where they’re needed; it’s unlikely he’ll do better with food.

Meanwhile, food supplies that bypass these commodity markets remain. We need to make this food supply chain more resilient and one way of doing so is to bypass the industrial bottlenecks.

Broadband as a Utility

When schools shut down, it suddenly became acutely visible how many Americans — both rural and urban — don’t have broadband. While some areas have gerry-rigged solutions (like driving wifi-enabled busses to poorer neighborhoods) to get some kids online and learning, that’s not possible everywhere. And even for adults, it takes broadband access to be able to social distance.

Trump is already talking about using infrastructure investments to get America working again. Extending basic broadband as a utility should be part of that.

Update: Arne Duncan describes what needs to happen for existing efforts to expand broadband access to be really effective.

Industrial Policy

Two months after we first identified shortages in necessary medical supply, we’ve barely managed to switch production to those necessary objects, even as entire factories were otherwise shut down. We’ve got shortages of not just testing kits, but the underlying supplies. We’ve got drug shortages too (and had them, even before the President started pitching miracle cures).

It’s long past time to admit that we do have an industrial policy — but right now, it’s focused on building the troubled F-35, not ensuring that the United States has the ability to build the things we need domestically, even if we interact openly with the rest of the world. This story uses the failed lithium battery investments Obama made, largely in Michigan, to talk about how we came to be unable to supply our own medical equipment.

We have an industrial policy. We just need to be willing to match that policy to our society’s real needs, not exporting warmongering.

Rural COVID-19: The Tyson Food Clusters

There has been a lot of attention to the COVID cluster in the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, SD, which shut down after hundreds of workers became ill with COVID-19. One worker in the factory died.

But there’s another meatpacking plant that has had four deaths: a Tyson’s Food plant in Camilla, GA.

Four employees of a major poultry producer’s operations in rural southwest Georgia have died after becoming infected with the coronavirus, a company spokesman said Friday.

Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said three of the employees worked at the company’s chicken processing plant in Camilla, while the fourth person worked in a supporting job outside the plant. He declined to say how many workers there have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.

[snip]

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents 2,000 workers at the Georgia chicken plant, identified the three plant employees who died as women who had worked there for 13 to 35 years. A statement from the union said many plant employees are “sick or in quarantine.”

This factory is commuting distance — 30 miles — from Albany, GA, where a funeral on February 29 led to a significant cluster. It’s in Mitchell County, GA, which has a population of around 22,000, of whom about half are black. Camilla itself is about 5,600 people, of whom 66% are black. The poultry plant is the largest employer.

Coronavirus has spread to the next largest employer in town: Autry State Prison, which employs 500 people and houses 1,700 prisoners. 4 staffers and 6 prisoners have tested positive, according to official numbers. (And a County jail has 3 cases.)

While Tyson Foods has implemented some measures to slow the spread — including making masks mandatory — it still isn’t providing sick pay.

Gonzalez said the company has improved safety measures at the Camilla plant by checking employees’ temperatures, requiring workers to wear face coverings, installing dividers at work stations and providing more space in break rooms. He said the company in March had “relaxed our attendance policy to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick.”

[snip]

The union has called on poultry processors to require employees to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and pay them sick leave, when they’re exposed to co-workers testing positive for the virus. It also wants individual departments to be shut down for 72 hours and cleaned after a worker tests positive.

The CEO of Tyson Foods, Dean Banks, is one of the CEOs Trump claims to be consulting on how to reopen the country. Yet his plants are responsible for two clusters of COVID.

148 of the workers in a Tyson pork plant in Columbus Junction, IA have tested positive, and two have died. 47% of the population in Columbus Junction are Hispanic and 12% Asian.

Tyson’s workers account for 89% of the cases in rural Louisa County. This story includes an anonymous family member of someone who works at the plant claiming that Tyson’s public comments about preventative measures at the plant are not true.

The relative of one plant worker, however, disputed that, telling Starting Line the company did not provide face masks to workers, still had people working in close proximity to each other, allowed workers to eat together in the break room, and that workers weren’t told of the infections until the day the plant shut down. Not wanting to disclose their name, they also noted the only changes made at the plant were taking employees’ temperatures as they came in, encouraging people to wash their hands, and displaying posters with information about the virus in multiple languages.

Trump and Tyson Foods seem to think these workers are expendable. But if food plants continue to cause clusters like this, it’ll not only shut down key parts of the food supply, but create clusters of COVID-19 in rural areas that are far less equipped to deal with it.

Update: Deleted a comment about Hispanic population in Columbus Junction per Peterr’s comment.

Rikers and Roosevelt: The Uncontrolled Human Experiment Occurring with Essential Workers (and Their Wards)

In the several weeks since much (though not all) of the country has been shut down, an uncontrolled human experiment with the country’s essential workers has been occurring.

I say that because those people still required to work — especially medical care workers, nursing home workers (and their clients), prison guards (and prisoners), cops, meatpackers, grocery store workers, warehouse workers, public transit workers, and sailors and other service members — have all been asked to work with a very limited test and tracking regime in place to limit spread among co-workers, wards, and their communities.

There’s inconsistent public data about how closely the federal government is tracking these communities (they’re obviously tracking the military, and after an initial attempt to hide the numbers, have provided skeleton baseline numbers; they’re reportedly not tracking nursing homes). So what has happened in these populations cannot be described with precision yet. But there is public reporting on how seriously affected each of these groups are — and whether, and when, their employers took appropriate protective measures. Thus far, the anecdotal reports show that some individual institutions have been more successful than others at preventing mass infection, whereas certain kinds of worksites — prisons and ships — will have much less success controlling an outbreak given existing tools.

These professions are where spread is happening even with shutdowns (though some, like meatpackers, are often located in areas more likely to have shut down late or not at all). Thus, amid the debate about when we can reopen the economy, what happened to workers and their wards in these professions provide lessons about what protections have to be in place before any place can open up, how widespread COVID might get amid populations that social distance but don’t stay home, and what pitfalls are likely once we do open up.

Along the way, a lot of people have died.

Update: Elizabeth Warren and Ro Khanna have called for a Workers Bill of Rights that includes–but then adds to–a lot of the protections included in this discussion.

Medical care workers

In a recent presser, Trump claimed that the federal government eventually will figure out how many medical workers have contracted COVID-19 (though I suspect that number won’t be made public until after the election). But it hasn’t done so yet. Buzzfeed collected what was publicly available and found that key states, including New York, Louisiana, and Michigan, are not tracking this number either yet.

Buzzfeed tallied 5,400 cases in those states that are counting it, which would work out to be 1% of the cases on the day of the story (though because some of the most important states aren’t counting this, it must be a higher percentage of national cases).

At least 5,400 nurses, doctors, and other health care workers responding to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States have been infected by the disease, and dozens have died, according to a BuzzFeed News review of data reported by every state and Washington, DC. However, the true number is undoubtedly much higher, due to inconsistent testing and tracking.

[snip]

As of Thursday afternoon, 12 states reported health care worker infections: Alabama (393), Arkansas (158), California (1,651), Idaho (143), Maine (97), New Hampshire (241), Ohio (1,137), Oklahoma (229), Oregon (153), Pennsylvania (850), Rhode Island (257), and West Virginia (76). Additionally, Washington, DC (29) and Hawaii (15) reported infections at a specific hospital, not state or territory-wide. On Friday afternoon, Kentucky reported 129 health care worker infections.

In Ohio and New Hampshire, health care worker infections represented more than 20% of total confirmed cases in the state. It’s unclear if this is due to health care workers having greater access to testing there compared to other states, or something else, but it highlights the dangers these workers face. In the other states that broke out data on health care workers, rates ranged from a low of nearly 5% in Pennsylvania up to 17% in Maine and Rhode Island.

Some other states are trying to collect this information but not yet sharing it publicly, with officials citing reporting holes in their data.

[snip]

And in at least nine states, infection rates among health care workers are not being tracked at all. That includes New York and Louisiana, two of the worst-hit states by the outbreak, where officials said they aren’t specifically collecting this information. In Michigan, another hard-hit state, 2,200 health care workers have reportedly been infected, yet the state itself is not tracking infections. (Because the reporting on these cases did not come from the state itself, BuzzFeed News is not including them in its total.) Fourteen states do not make these statistics publicly available and did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News as to its collection.

As that story noted, these numbers are unreliable both because health care workers may have better access to tests, but are, in many cases, being discouraged from taking them. And workers are so overwhelmed right now it may undermine record-keeping.

Plus, there are significant discrepancies from hospital to hospital regarding how much PPE is available to workers, not to mention how overwhelmed the individual hospitals are. Hospitals that succeed at keeping infection rates low will have lessons to offer on what might successfully limit transmission among workers who are highly trained in doing so, lessons that would be of use in professions not normally trained to prevent contagion.

Nursing homes

Nursing homes are another obvious cluster — so much so that they may make up a huge proportion of what we’re seeing in non-crisis localities (as is the case in my own county). Like medical care workers, there’s not an official count; indeed, some states (especially Florida) are affirmatively hiding how badly nursing homes are being affected and ending efforts to count clusters among seniors. Nevertheless, NBC found over 2,200 deaths in the states that do count such things, representing a huge spike since March 30 (which would suggest nursing homes are where the virus has continued to spread since states and localities that have shut down).

Nearly 2,500 long-term care facilities in 36 states are battling coronavirus cases, according to data gathered by NBC News from state agencies, an explosive increase of 522 percent compared to a federal tally just 10 days ago.

The total dwarfs the last federal estimate on March 30 — based on “informal outreach” to state health departments — that more than 400 nursing homes had at least one case of the virus.

[snip]

Thirty-six states reported a total 2,489 long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases.

The toll of these outbreaks is growing. NBC News tallied 2,246 deaths associated with long-term care facilities, based on responses from 24 states. This, too, is an undercount; about half of all states said they could not provide data on nursing home deaths, or declined to do so. Some states said they do not track these deaths at all.

As with the county of medical workers, key states like Michigan and Florida are tracking neither which facilities have clusters nor how many deaths there are. New York is tracking this statistic.

Nearly 60 percent of the deaths tallied by NBC News occurred in New York, where more than 1,300 residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have died, according to the state health department.

That would represent around 18% of the deaths New York had recorded by April 9, the day before NBC published.

And these data generally only count residents affected, not the workers who might spread the virus outside of the facilities.

As Andy Slavitt explained in his Rachel Maddow appearance to discuss this data, one of the key lessons in the outbreaks at nursing homes and other assisted living facilities (though the lesson applies to all these “essential” professions) is the differential impact. Some facilities have succeeded in containing the virus, others have failed to contain known outbreaks. Those that have succeeded have lessons to offer about how to deal with this virus effectively.

The way this will get fixed — this is not to embarrass anybody — but the way this will get fixed is there are nursing homes that are doing it right. And the nursing homes that are doing it right can give guidance to the nursing homes that are doing it wrong. We don’t have enough time to go back to the drawing board and create new regulations — I wish we did. But in the middle of a crisis, I’d get them all on the phone, we’d be sharing best practices, we’d be publishing them, and we’d be slowly and slowly taking down infection rates. And for those that couldn’t do it, we would be moving people into facilities that could.

Nursing homes are, along with prisons, probably the hardest population to keep safe from COVID and there are aspects of both (the underlying health problems and the immobility and close quarters of the facilities) that are impossible to eliminate. But that means the lessons learned here — particularly the lessons learned about how to keep the workers safe (and therefore to prevent intra- and extra-facility spread through them), would be critical to share not just within the nursing home industry, but more generally with businesses as they think about reopening down the road.

Update: According to the AP, Louisiana has now stopped providing details on infections in nursing homes.

Prisons

Immediately after the impact of COVID became clear, prisoner advocates started calling for decarceration to alleviate crowding and remove the most vulnerable prisoners, where appropriate, from prison. Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine has even laid out the epidemiological reason to take such measures (that is, the obvious conservative case to release as many prisoners as possible), and Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Kevin Stitt (who was otherwise tardy in taking measures to stop the spread), is preparing to commute the sentences of 452 people to empty the prisons. Even Bill Barr has pushed for prisoner releases. His efforts risked disproportionately help white prisoners, but because BOP is now prioritizing those facilities already affected by an outbreak — meaning they’re acting reactively, not proactively — that has not yet been the practice. That said, Federal policies on releases are changing day-to-day, with some prisoners cleared for release but then continued to be held.

BOP has an official tracking number — though they’re not testing everyone. So in the prisons where there’s a real cluster, the numbers are likely far higher. For example, at Elkton, OH which BOP says has 13 inmates infected, 37 prisoners have been hospitalized with symptoms and another 71 are in isolation. At Oakdale, LA — where the first BOP death occurred and one of the hardest hit — BOP claims 40 inmates have tested positive, but at least another 56 have been hospitalized with severe symptoms and 575 are quarantined.

With regards to state and county prisons and jails, however, those counts are often still spottier — and potentially far more urgent given greater overcrowding. UCLA Law has put together a database that tries to track all the known cases (though, as one example of its limits, it only shows New York’s case statewide).

Nowhere is the spread of COVID in prison more concerning than in urban jails. NY City’s Rikers, which as of Wednesday had over 700 infections. 440 of those are staff, meaning the 287 count for inmates testing positive is surely a significant undercount. Nevertheless, that undercount shows that 6.6 percent of Rikers prisoners have tested positive, a rate seven times higher than New York as a whole. Unfortunately, this all happened at a time when Andrew Cuomo and others were trying to reverse recent measures to decarcerate New York, and Cuomo has lagged some of his Republican counterparts in his efforts to cut prison populations and so limit the spread there. Cook County, IL’s jail has 304 positive detainees and 174 correctional officers who tested positive, similar or slightly higher rates than Rikers. This week a judge ordered the Cook County Sheriff to provide soap and sanitizer to prisoners, test those exhibiting symptoms, and provide PPE to those quarantining because of exposure, but stopped short of ordering the jail to release prisoners.

Thus far, that’s what the emphasis has been: emptying the jails. That’s a welcome approach, as a number people who shouldn’t be in jail or prison (or immigration detention) have been released. It’s not clear that prisons have solved the problem of COVID and efforts to do so often end up being inhumane, leaving sick prisoners in solitary and the general population with far less ability to contact their lawyers, to say nothing of family members, which only adds to the panic and confusion for all involved.

One thing that is unclear is whether COVID has spread through guards to the surrounding population, something that — because so many of our prisons are located in rural areas — might be a vector for COVID to spread to the surrounding communities.

These badly affected prisons, however, are going to have an interesting dynamic between guards and prisoners. In Oakdale, for example, there has already been a clash between guards and prisoners. But in other places, the situation has put guards and prisoners on the same side of legal challenges to push for more releases, something that rarely happens in prisons.

No one is going to solve the problem of how to go back to work at prisons. But if you want to see the kind of societal upheaval that might happen if this effort fails, prisons may be your first measure.

Update: Florida has now tasked inmates to make cloth masks for guards, but not for themselves.

Update: Lansing Correctional Facility, in Kansas, also had a riot believed to be COVID-related last week. There are 16 staff and 12 inmates confirmed to have COVID-19.

Cops

Cops interact less directly with COVID patients and often in less enclosed environments than medical care, nursing home, and prison workers, which may make them a better read of what kind of exposure will happen among those who have to interact with a range of the public, but not necessarily a population particularly exposed.

Nevertheless, COVID had spread broadly among the police departments of the bigger cities with COVID spikes, including New York, Detroit (exacerbated by a pancake breakfast attended by a bunch of cops that was an early transmission vector), and Chicago, and known exposure has led significant numbers of cops and other first responders into quarantine, illness, and death (there are other major metros for which reports of exposure among cops is more dated and in smaller numbers). As CNN described it, the toll at the NYPD rivals (though, because of the lasting after-effects of 9/11, could never be counted in the same way) 9/11:

In a department of about 36,000 sworn officers, 7,096 — or 19.6% of the uniformed workforce — were out sick on Friday, according to data issued by the NYPD. Some 2,314 uniformed members and 453 civilian employees have tested positive for Covid-19, and 19 employees have lost their lives as a result of the virus.

The NYPD suffered an incomprehensible 23 losses on 9/11 (hundreds more died in subsequent years from 9/11-related illnesses). It’s devastating to think that the casualties from Covid-19 may soon eclipse this.

IACP and CDC guidance for first responders currently only recommend using PPE when interacting with known or suspected COVID carriers. And this week, the CDC issued new guidance for critical workers (especially including but not limited to first responders) who’ve been exposed that permits returning to work while wearing a mask rather than a full quarantine.  This effort was explicitly rolled out in an effort to address staff shortages like those in police departments.

That guidance — which relies on temperature checks rather than testing — hints at where the Trump administration intends to go as it pushes people to return to work. Which is to say, its first effort to get people back to work falls far short of the testing regime most experts say we need to control the spread.

Military

The military initially tried — in the name of national security — to prevent the release of any granular data showing where its cases are. But then William Arkin published a map showing where the 3,000 cases (of which 2,031 were uniformed military on Friday) were. That same Friday report showed 13 total deaths.

I’m particularly interested in the clusters at bases in Anchorage and Honolulu in states not otherwise heavily impacted by the virus. It suggests that the military may be a vector to spread to unaffected places.

That is a rate of infection that is higher than the US as a whole (which likely stems, at least in part, to greater access to testing), but with a mortality rate significantly lower than the overall rate.

The new count puts the department’s death rate at 0.4 percent, versus the overall U.S. mortality rate of 3 percent.

[snip]

The military’s infection rate now stands at 971-per-million, compared with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers, which shows 1,307-per-million U.S. residents having contracted coronavirus, or about 0.1 percent of U.S. residents.

Nowhere has the challenge of COVID been more dramatic, however, than on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. As the scandal over Captain Theodore Crozier’s removal and the ouster of Navy Secretary Thomas Modly has continued, the Navy has continued to test the entire crew of around 4,800. With 92% tested yesterday, 550 tested positive, meaning 12% of those tested, tested positive. That’s a lower rate than the Diamond Princess’ 19% positive rate, but of a younger and presumably far healthier population, during a period with a higher level of awareness of the virus, and among a population more likely to maintain the discipline of social distancing.

Keeping sailors on a ship from infecting each other is a daunting task, but the military has more resources to conduct evacuation and to conduct contract tracing than any private employer this side of Amazon. As other ships and bases face the challenge in the wake of the Roosevelt fiasco, it will be a measure of whether even the military can catch the virus and contact trace before other big clusters arise.

If the military can’t do it, your average small business isn’t going to be able to pull it off.

Update: The sailor who had been moved to the ICU has now passed away from COVID-19.

Transit workers

One reason New York has been so badly hit is so many people rely on public transportation. Even NY’s suburbs are among the hardest hit area of the country (with 34,392 cases on Long Island, or 21% of the state’s total), and the outer boroughs, where poverty and continued exposure via “essential” jobs, are hardest impacted by the virus within the city.

That’s why the outbreak on the MTA offers important warnings about the possibility that New York could reopen anytime soon. That’s true not just because of the high levels of infection and death — around 14% of MTA 50,000 employees have either tested positive or are quarantining with symptoms, but also because COVID has led to a shortage of workers which has in turn badly hurt service.

At least 41 transit workers have died, and more than 6,000 more have fallen sick or self-quarantined. Crew shortages have caused over 800 subway delays and forced 40 percent of train trips to be canceled in a single day. On one line the average wait time, usually a few minutes, ballooned to as high as 40 minutes.

[snip]

Still, around 1,500 transit workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 5,604 others have self-quarantined because they are showing symptoms of the infection. Absenteeism is up fourfold since the pandemic began, officials say.

If more people were working, this shortag would make it harder for passengers to engage in social distancing themselves (though usage is down 70% for buses and 92% on subways).

While MTA dawdled in imposing protective measures for employees, it now surpasses CDC guidelines, in part by providing masks to all its employees.

Patrick J. Foye, the M.T.A. chairman, who himself tested positive for coronavirus, said the agency initially followed guidance from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that healthy people did not need to wear face masks.

Mr. Foye said the M.T.A. then decided to go farther than that, before the C.D.C. changed its advice on masks. He said it had already provided 460,000 masks to workers, in addition to thousands of face shields and 2.5 million pairs of gloves.

So long as the stay-at-home order remains in place, this crunch on transit won’t prevent people from working, which if it happens would hit those who can’t afford Uber the hardest. But until NY can find a way to limit the illnesses on transit, there’s no way the city can reopen.

Meatpackers

This week a lot of attention has focused on meatpacking plant. The numbers of people infected aren’t high, on a national level, but they’re shutting down factories that supply a significant percentage of the nation’s meat supply, and often in more rural places that until recently believed they were immune to the virus.

A Tyson-owned meat processing plant that churns out 2% of the US pork supply ground to a halt this week as workers became infected with Covid-19.

And that wasn’t the only meatpacking plant impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus. JBS USA on March 31 said it hit pause on much of its work at a beef facility in Souderton, Pennsylvania and wouldn’t have it back online until mid-April. National Beef Packing on April 2 temporarily stopped slaughtering cattle at one of its plants in Tama, Iowa after a worker tested positive for the virus.

Perhaps the most notable of those cases is in South Dakota, where a Smithfield pork processing plant first closed for three days, after 80 employees had tested positive, and then today closed indefinitely after that count grew to 293, 8% of the plant’s workers (it’s unclear whether all the worker at the plant have been tested). The cluster is also significant given that those cases make up 40% of the cases in South Dakota, which has not imposed a stay-at-home order. As such, it’s an example of a workplace that, by not managing an outbreak, can significantly impact a community that may have assumed it was immune.

Guidance released by an industry organization dated April 3 noted that the industry wasn’t getting PPE because shortages mean what is available needs to be saved for medical workers, which suggests that even for an industry that recognizes the need (some of these companies also operate in China), they’re not able to provide masks for their workers because the shortage for medical workers hasn’t been solved.

Update: On April 8, the UFCW called for CDC to issue mandatory guidelines that would cover both the union’s grocery store and its food processing workers. It includes employer-provided PPE for the workers.

Businesses and services have had from two weeks to months to try to prepare their workplaces for this crisis — and for none of them has there been any doubt about their essential status. But they’re still not doing some of the basic things that experts say we’ll need more generally to reopen the economy. These workplaces — the ones for which there is some kind of real count — are facing up to 12 to 19% COVID positive rates, even in professions with a strong culture of hygiene (though none of these professions, not even medical workers, can get the testing to confirm those rates). The resulting staffing shortages are causing service shortfalls even beyond the hospital staffs we’ve been working to flatten the curve to accommodate. And for many of these communities, those numbers reflect weeks of stay-at-home orders that limit the sources of new infections.

Trump wants to reopen the economy. But it’s clear from the limited data and anecdotal reporting from essential workplaces that basic things — starting with masks — still aren’t in place to limit workplace exposure.

And again, because these men and women haven’t had the protective equipment or other workplace protections they need, many have needlessly died.

Happy Thanksgiving: Delayed Cranes and Pigs Edition

As longtime readers know, I like to focus my Thanksgiving gratitude on the Michigan farmers who provide the remarkable diversity of crops Mr. EW and I eat year round. Aside from olive oil and spices, you can source almost your entire Thanksgiving dinner from local Michigan farmers and I try to be intentional about who provides this meal. Among the providers who helped bring us dinner tonight, we thank:

  • Green Wagon Farm: Year-round greens, rutabegas, other veggies
  • Visser Farm: Spuds and carrots grown down the street from where I lived for a year
  • Hilhof Dairy: Truly exceptional dairy products
  • MOO-ville Creamery: Lots and lots of butter
  • Loves Ice Cream: Because my brother, who’s an ice cream addict, has joined us this year
  • Founders Mosaic Promise: Because the Lions game is going to suck especially bad this year
  • 2 Lads Winery: Yes, the wine comes from MI too
  • Pioneer Sugar: Even the commodity crops come from MI
  • The backyard: The Jerusalem artichokes (used in the stuffing) and herbs come from my own garden

Mr. EW and I have a special relationship with our meat farmers, Crane Dance Farm, two women who raise cows, pigs, lamb, chickens, and turkeys using humane principles. We’ve been buying our meat from them for years and gotten to be friends over that time.

Along with our meat, I get a sense of how the changing climate affects those farming the land from Jill and Mary.

This year, the cranes after which Jill named the farm, for example, came late, 20 days after the day they have arrived for decades. During that period Jill raised the missing birds every Saturday with a worried voice. They finally returned to the farm.

Then in the fall, the pork stopped, the delayed result of a significant drop-off in births much earlier in the year. Jill and Mary finally fattened enough pigs to slaughter just weeks before Thanksgiving (thankfully, given that my family tradition is cooking out turkey topped with bacon).

It’s not certain either of these things are due to the changing weather, though that’s a likely explanation. Meanwhile, Philadelphia had to pull the balloons from the Mummers parade on account of the high wind that, just days ago, ravaged the disappearing beaches here in Michigan.

I’m grateful for Michigan’s bounty. Unless we start doing something about the climate emergency, it may not be there very long.

Giving Thanks

Done BountyThis is the 11th Thanksgiving that emptywheel has survived: through the last year of the Bush Administration, the hope and shortcomings and some progress of the Obama Administration, and now two years of Trump, bolstered now by the hope, again, of a Democratic House.

Through it all there have been certain constants. Each year, I realize how lucky I am to live in a state with the diversity to supply our entire Thanksgiving meal, from sugar to turkey to locally raised veggies to wine to sunchokes (Deleuzian artichokes, as we call them in my household) raised in the yard. Over those years, the farmers that supply that bounty have become not just welcome sources, but true friends, down to the bonfires that our meat farmers, Mary and Jill, host, into which we throw sticks named for curses we want to burn away.

There’s always the Lions, who’ve returned to their losing ways. Hopefully that means I’ll be able to start snacking off the bacon on top of the turkey early this year.

In spite of the toxins in social media, there’s an ever expanding network of people, joining on-line and off to try to make this world a better place. I’m especially encouraged by the energy younger people are bringing, whether it be the Parkland kids, younger politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others. They might just salvage the wreckage the Boomers have created! That said, in MI, both young and old contributed to real progress this year, including a slate full of Constitutional officers I’m genuinely excited about and reforms to make democracy work better.

And, amazingly, there are readers who’ve been reading emptywheel even longer than that 11 years, offering so much with their comments, wisdom, and feedback. With each holiday, we at emptywheel remember those who have passed, readers who are still dearly missed. But marking each new year also reminds me how many wonderful new readers have joined our community. Thanks to those who’ve been here for years and those just joining us. The conversations here, as much as the writing, is what makes the site.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Queen Of Soul Thanksgiving Trash Talk

She is NOT dead yet. Aretha is alive and well.

Aretha Franklin has a few choice words for those who think she’s on her deathbed.

“I’m doing well generally, all test have come back good,” the 75-year-old Queen of Soul told Us Weekly. “I’ve lost a lot of weight due to side effects of medicine, it affects your weight… Thanxxxx for your concern.”

On Tuesday, the internet ran wild after a fake Twitter account erroneously announced her death.

I am one of the people briefly snookered by the hoax. So Marcy thought Turkey Trash ought feature the Queen. And so it will!

It is appropriate because Motown Lions always play on Turkey Day. And it is the first game on tap today. The Vikings come on over for the tradition at Ford Field. Has the makings on an uncommonly good Detroit Thanksgiving game. They are not always this, errrr, promising. Not sure the Vikes are all that, but give them their due, Case Keenum and the Norske handed the on a roll LA Rams their ass last weekend. It is a pick em, and I am really looking forward to this game.

Second up is Bolts at ‘Boys on CBS. Jerry Jones is a cartoon character straight out of the Simpsons villain set. Just look at his jawline and picture The Simpsons. Dallas deserves all the bad news they get. What whiny assholes. Interesting that Tony Romo will be on the call. Romo is a little relentless on his color commentary, but has been generally very good so far. Today ought be interesting. This game has nowhere near the actual playoff interest as Lions/Vikes, and no idea where it will go. The Bolts have been extremely uneven this year, but Phil Rivers is still dangerous. Probably gonna regret this, but rooting for the Bolts in an upset.

Last meat on the table is Giants at Skins. Hard to believe this is the grand finale on such a storied NFL day. Yuck. NBC must be dying that this is the dreck they were left with as America goes into an L-Tryptophan snooze. Someone will win. Theoretically anyway. At this point, Kirk Cousins is a far better QB than the Really Bad Eli. So, I’ll take the Skins.

So, today’s Trash is fueled by Queen Aretha. Could have gone with any number of songs, including Respect or, of course, Chain of Fools. But Ain’t No Way is an under appreciated favorite, so that was the choice. Happy Thanksgiving folks.

Gratitude

Sorry I’ve been absent for the last week.

While I was in Brussels my mother had a fall — the first really serious one after 16 years of a Parkinson’s diagnosis. She’s okay, but she and her housing community decided it marked a good time to move her into assisted living.

Mr. EW and I spent all week in southeast Pennsylvania with my brothers working towards moving my mother out of the apartment she has lived in for 6 years. We sorted through the better part of the lifetime of pictures and heirlooms and books and keepsakes she has acquired in her life — mom’s Girl Scout sash, my brother’s first grade assignment, the tablecloth my great-grandmother made, the turkey platter mom made 40 years ago.

It brought a special kind of reflection to this holiday of gratitude. Thanks, most of all, for all my mom has given me over my life — the intangible things, the education, the comfort, the advantages. In the year ahead, in the face of the challenges we face as a country, I aim to redouble my efforts to repay to society the gifts I’ve been given.

Thanks to Rayne and bmaz and Ed and everyone else for keeping the likker cabinet flowing all week. And thanks to our readers for joining in the conversation.

As always on Thanksgiving, I like to remember those (not all in Michigan, this year, on account of the travel) who contributed to our feast. I told a woman at mom’s community that I had brought a turkey from Michigan; she sniffed, “oh, do they make turkeys better out there?” But when we served it, everyone agreed the care that Jill and Mary put in makes for a better tasting bird. The bacon on top of the turkey this year came from a Lancaster-based pork company, Clyde Weavers.

Because I forgot my cookbooks, I made a different pumpkin pie recipe this year. The pumpkin came from an older Michigan farmer who does just a wide variety of squashes and eggplants (he brings his grandson to market most days). I had steamed the pumpkin and ground the spices before I left. For those who followed on Twitter, I did use some leftover Five Spice powder (with added ginger) for one of the pies, and it worked great. The flour came from a farm about an hour from here. They had been selling their own self-ground flour some years ago, but then stopped; this year the daughter and her husband showed up to market one day with the same great organic wheat flour as I had gotten years earlier. I like the way the nuttiness of the wheat compliments the pumpkin. My sister-in-law, who couldn’t make the trip, sent several pies from Picasso pastry in Syracuse, and the pecan pie was quite welcome.

We also brought Verterra wines — a couple of Pinot Noirs — from MI, which was a good things as there was a “glitch” at the state stores in SE PA on Wednesday.

We’ve got a tough haul in front of us. Let’s remember all the gifts and benefits we bring to that challenge.

 

Giving Thanks and Other Thanksgiving Trash

Happy Thanksgiving denizens of the Wheelhouse. This is, by my groggy count, our tenth together as the Emptywheel Blog. The first five were at Firedoglake, and the last five here as a standalone. All of the contributors here – Marcy, bmaz, Rayne, Jim White, Ed “Masaccio” Walker, and our special assignment Roving Reporter Rosalind – have been around each other for even longer than that, in one status or another, going back to The Next Hurrah. It has been a long and wonderful, if not sometimes strange, trip. And it continues to be so daily. For that, we give thanks to you. Some of you have been around with us since The Next Hurrah, many are newer. You are all valued, and thank you for reading, joining us and sharing your thoughts.

Usually there is a big food post on Thanksgiving, but for extraneous travel reasons, I am not sure there will be this year. In that vein here is some food talk to make sure there is space here in this post to discuss at length what we are all gorging on. Mrs. bmaz HATES cooking traditional Thanksgiving dinners with all the fixins etc. She is Italian by descent, and insists on making giant pots of homemade spaghetti with meatballs and sausage. It is very good, but I very much miss the traditional meal. Daughter of bmaz is cooking a blueberry pie though, so we still have that going for us. What are you all up to as to food and cooking today?

Then there is football. Thanksgiving NFL is a tradition dating back to the mid 1930’s, although the TV tradition of it all really grew in the 1960’s. And grow it has done. There are three full games on the tube today, and, for once, all teams participating have winning records and are in playoff contention. Now THAT is a change for the better!

First up on the docket is Minnesota versus Detroit. Detroit always plays on Thanksgiving, and for so many years that is why Thanksgiving Day games sucked. But Detroit is good this year. Both the Lions and the Vikes are 6-4 and, given how bad the Packers have been this year, this game is for sole possession of first place in the NFC Norske. The Vikings have a clearly better defense, but the Lions are far more prolific on offense, and have been playing as a team much better than Minnesota of late (horrible offensive line play is killing Sam Bradford). I’ll take the Kittehs at home.

Next up is Washington at Dallas. Kirk Cousins is on a roll again, and the Skins are really playing decent football. But the Cowboys at 9-1 have the best record in the NFL and are clicking on all cylinders. Dak Prescott is even opening up downfield a little, which was not the case early in the year. Ezekial Elliott is playing like the second coming of Emmitt Smith and all the receivers, not just Dez Bryant, are getting in on the action. But as decent as they have been, the Dallas defense is neither great nor particularly deep. The question is whether Cousins and the Skins O can outscore the Boys. I don’t think so in Dallas.

Last game is Pittsburgh at Indianapolis. The QB matchup you’ve been waiting for: Big Ben Roethlisberger versus Scott Tolzein. Yeah, Andrew Luck is out with a concussion. That spells disaster to a Colts team that would already be a home underdog even with Luck. Both teams are 5-5, but one of them won’t be after today!

So, there you have it folks. Good times and good eats today. Dessert today is some Savoy Truffle from the Lads from Liverpool.

Thanksgiving Blessings

TurkeyWhew.

I’ve already conceded defeat and the Detroit Lions don’t start playing for another hour.

Happy Thanksgiving all! It’s been a busy morning here at Chez Emptywheel, in part because our awesome meat farmers can’t seem to raise turkeys that, after slaughter, weigh under 20 pounds. (The pic from the right is from 2011; I visited our turkey when it was growing this year when our farmers married each other after Love Won this year, but I didn’t take pictures of things like growing turkeys…)

So I conceded to cooking the stuffing outside the bird, something I rarely do. I just wasn’t sure I could get the whole damn thing cooked any other way.

Hopefully the Lions will prove better able to face adversity today than I was.

Please provide your favorite leftover turkey recipe in comments!

As old-timers likely know, my schtick at Thanksgiving is to try, as much as possible, to serve only MI products, which is surprisingly easy to do. Our turkey and bacon (for more on that read this post) comes from Crane Dance. Our sugar comes from MI beet farmers. Our veggies come from the Hams and about 4 other farmers who are regularly at the Farmer’s Market. Our milk comes from Hillhof (though I also already lost out on the weekly scramble for their all-too-rare cream). Our wine comes from 2 Lads and other Northern Michigan wineries (though several years of weird weather is making things really tough up there).

But I was at a bit of a loss loss on flour for my pumpkin pie crust. I might have just used the organic all purpose flour (from MN) I normally use for pies and all else, but I’m overdue a trip to Ann Arbor to get a 50 pound bag and even that’s running low. I kept thinking longingly of the stone ground wheat pastry flour I bought years ago from Nashville, MI, but I had looked months ago and they seemed to be defunct. So boy was I pleased when, a week ago, the Jennings Bros showed back up at the Market out of the blue, with meat, but also with that stone ground organic flour I used years ago. Only it’s no longer the “Jennings Brothers,” but in fact a daughter, taking over the flour business. She told me she and her parents had had a long discussion about how much to charge because they didn’t remember; when asked I wasn’t sure either (but she gave me a deal for being a return customer!) The flour is a bit tough to work with (yes, stone ground pastry flour is almost a contradiction of terms). But it all worked out, and if past pies are any indication, the whole wheat of the crust will add a wonderful nuttiness to the pumpkin.

It’s been an increasingly crazy time in the scary wide world. So today is a great time to relax with family and remember what matters.

Thanks to you all for joining in the emptywheel community. And may you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

 

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