The Covid Fight Gets More Challenging

Biden and the states confront a fast-morphing virus, while Republicans have already started looking to 2022. It’s Tuesday, and this is your politics tip sheet. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.

Where things stand

President Biden has said that nothing is more important to him right now than containing the coronavirus.

But as the rubber meets the road, it’s increasingly clear just how tough it will be to establish a national plan for confronting the pandemic — especially after former President Donald Trump refused to organize a broad federal response.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would delay the openings of mass vaccination sites at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field because the city didn’t have enough doses to distribute. Many New Yorkers have had their inoculation appointments canceled as the city waits on more vaccines.

Hopes dimmed yesterday that Merck might become the third pharmaceutical company in the United States to develop a working vaccine that could be approved by the F.D.A. Merck said it was abandoning two experimental vaccines because they did not produce a strong enough immune response against the virus.

And there’s growing evidence that the virus is morphing more quickly than experts had thought, with new variants emerging that make it more difficult to contain. Yesterday, two drug makers reported that their vaccines, while still effective, are slightly less potent against the variant from South Africa.

With the virus starting to slow down after a weekslong surge, California officials announced yesterday that they were lifting stringent restrictions across much of the state.

But the announcement came only after the state government had drawn criticism for the apparent inconsistency of its response. Hospitals in Southern California and other parts of the state are still overwhelmed, and experts worry that new variants of the virus — including one that was recently found in more than half of test samples collected in Los Angeles — could lead to another surge.

In Chicago, the school district and the teachers’ union are locking horns over the city’s plan to bring elementary and middle school students back for in-person learning next week. The union had resisted returning to classrooms until teachers had begun to receive vaccines, or the city’s positive test rate fell below 3 percent.

The conflict offers a possible cautionary tale as the Biden administration pursues its stated goal of reopening schools as soon as safely possible.

Biden will temporarily bar noncitizens from entering the United States from South Africa, and will extend Trump’s similar bans on travel from Brazil, Britain and Europe, his press secretary announced yesterday.

The coronavirus variant in South Africa has particularly worried medical experts. A similar one has been detected in Brazil, though it is believed that the two strains developed independently. On Monday, health officials in Minnesota said they had documented the first case of infection with the Brazilian variant; the South African one is not believed to have reached the United States.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, dropped his demand that Democrats commit to preserving the filibuster, allowing the incoming Democratic leadership to assemble committees and assume full power — but not before observers had begun to wonder whether the chamber had reached a new low in terms of partisan gridlock.

McConnell pointed to the statements of two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have said they will not vote to do away with the filibuster. “With these assurances, I look forward to moving ahead,” McConnell said in a statement.

But the debate is not put to rest. If Democrats are unable to garner the support of at least 10 Republicans for the key elements of their agenda — an unlikely scenario at best — they will come under increasing pressure to do away with the filibuster.

In an executive order yesterday, Biden reversed Trump’s ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. Biden’s order restored the anti-discrimination protections first put in place by former President Barack Obama, and he called for an immediate end to involuntary discharges of transgender troops who were already in the service.

Biden signed the order with Lloyd Austin, his newly confirmed secretary of defense, at his side. Later in the day, the Senate confirmed Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary in a bipartisan vote, putting her in place to lead the administration’s effort to deliver more economic aid to families and businesses struggling amid the pandemic.

Last night at 7 p.m., the House presented the Senate with a lone article of impeachment against Trump, officially starting the trial process. Senators are expected to be officially sworn in as jurors today.

But oral arguments won’t actually start until Feb. 9, under a deal struck last week between Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate. They agreed to delay the proceedings for two weeks, allowing the chamber to focus on working on confirmations of Biden’s appointments while the defense and prosecution prepare for trial.

Senator Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s longest-serving Democrat, is expected to preside over the trial, making determinations about the admissibility of evidence and the legitimacy of trying a former president.

So far, Senator Mitt Romney is the only Republican in the chamber to have expressed support for the House’s decision to impeach Trump on a charge of incitement to insurrection. Democrats will need at least 17 Republicans to reach the two-thirds majority required to convict Trump.

The Justice Department’s inspector general opened an investigation yesterday into whether officials there had improperly used their authority to support Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud after his loss in November.

The announcement came after a Times article had described efforts by Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the department’s civil division, to push top leaders to falsely and publicly state that ongoing investigations had thrown the Electoral College results into doubt.

Photo of the day

The House impeachment managers walked the article of impeachment to the Senate yesterday.

The early 2022 jockeying is underway.

The 2020 election is barely behind us, but inevitably the talk of 2022 has already begun.

Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, announced yesterday that he would not run for another term next year, setting up a primary fight in a Midwestern G.O.P. stronghold that will inevitably offer clues about the direction of the Republican Party.

But the simple fact of Portman’s decision to retire — and the reasons he gave for doing so — said something about the state of American politics. A veteran of the George W. Bush administration, Portman had developed a reputation in the Senate as a staunch conservative who nonetheless insisted on reaching across the aisle.

He helped push through the new North American trade deal in 2019, and was part of the bipartisan coalition that pushed a pandemic relief package late last year, then pressured House and Senate leadership to finally pass it at the end of December.

Widely seen as a leading contender to replace him is Representative Jim Jordan, a die-hard Trump ally whose heavily gerrymandered district is likely to be redrawn this year — and not in his favor.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

If Jordan can win a statewide primary to succeed Portman, it would signal a significant victory for Trumpism in a state where the Republican electorate has historically been well balanced between working-class white voters and more affluent white suburban Republicans. Think of John Kasich, and before that, William Saxbe: This isn’t supposed to be the most Trump-friendly Republican state.

The opposite is true of Arkansas, where Trump enjoyed some of his strongest support in the 2020 election (62 percent voted for him). That would seem to make it fertile terrain for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary for Trump, who yesterday announced her bid for Arkansas governor, her father’s old job.

If she wins, it would plant a clear flag for Trump’s influence, at least in the strongest of Republican strongholds.

Sanders sounded Trumplike in her announcement video, posted on Twitter. “With the radical left now in charge of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense. In fact, your governor must be on the front line,” she said. “So today, I announce my candidacy for governor of Arkansas.”

New York Times Podcasts

‘The Ezra Klein Show’ kicks off with a conversation with Vivek Murthy

Ezra Klein, a founder of and newly hired New York Times Opinion columnist, recently recorded the first episode of his podcast for us. In it, he spoke with Dr. Vivek Murthy, Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, a post he previously held from 2014 to 2017.

They spoke about the challenges the coronavirus pandemic continues to pose, the politicization of science and how the country can move past the crisis.

“There are times, you know, when we are 50 states and there are times where we’re one nation,” Murthy said at one point. “This is a time where we have to be one nation. And if we don’t do that, then we are not going to turn this pandemic around and we are going to continue to lose more people to this terrible virus.”

Listen to the episode here. You can listen and subscribe to “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Stitcher (here’s how to listen).

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