In This Episode
- Several states announced plans to lift mask mandates this week, but the federal government is taking a more cautious approach and has communicated that hospitalizations and deaths are still high enough that relaxing guidelines at this point would be premature. Dr. Céline Gounder, a clinical assistant professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at NYU who has been in touch with the White House, joins us to discuss what comes next in this new, slightly less-masked phase of the pandemic.
- And in headlines: Top Russian military commanders flew into Belarus for a massive military exercise, families of the victims who died in the Bronx apartment fire last month are suing the building owners, and Russian figure skaters may have their Olympic medals stripped after one of their athletes failed a drug test.
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Gideon Resnick: It’s Thursday, February 10th. I’m Gideon Resnick.
Priyanka Aribindi: And I’m Priyanka Aribindi, and this is What A Day, where we want to say that the Tinder swindler has always cool to us.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, he always had a lot of money around that he was personally offering me, and I thought that that was a true sign of friendship.
Priyanka Aribindi: Agreed. What better way to say that you are my friend than giving me your money?
Gideon Resnick: On today’s show, figure skaters from Russia may have their Olympic medals stripped after a failed drug test. Plus, Nancy Pelosi reverses course and signals her openness to a stock trading ban for members of Congress.
Priyanka Aribindi: Big day over here. But first, a number of states, including those with Democratic governors, announced plans to lift mask mandates on Wednesday.
[clip of Gov. Kathy Hochul] We had a “mask or vax” requirement for businesses. It was an emergency temporary measure put in place only two months ago, and at this time, we say that it is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses and let counties, cities, and businesses to make their own decisions on what they want to do with respect to mask or the vaccination requirement given the declining cases, given declining hospitalizations. That is why we feel comfortable to lift this in effect tomorrow.
Priyanka Aribindi: That was New York Governor Kathy Hochul lifting the mandate for her state. Indoor mask mandates will also be lifted in California at the end of next week. And in Illinois by the end of the month. At this point, none of these states have changed the rules for schools yet, but those rules are changing elsewhere. In Massachusetts, Republican Governor Charlie Baker will lift a school mask mandate at the end of the month. Obviously, these are really big changes that will affect a lot of people. However, in many instances throughout these states where mandates are being lifted, local communities and cities are following their own policies. So, for example, L.A. County is keeping an indoor mask mandate for now.
Gideon Resnick: I’m sure this will not confuse anyone.
Priyanka Aribindi: Certainly not.
Gideon Resnick: While these changes are rapidly happening state by state, the federal government is taking a more cautious approach. According to the New York Times, the White House has been having conversations with health experts about what their next move is. So for more on all of this new, slightly less masked phase of the pandemic and what comes next, we spoke with Dr. Celine Gounder, a clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at NYU School of Medicine. She has also been in touch with the White House as they formulate policies. So here is our conversation:.
Gideon Resnick, interviewing: On Wednesday, another group of states—New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island among them—announced that they were lifting mask mandates. So, Dr. Gounder, what was your reaction to that news and what do you think that means for where we are in the pandemic at the moment?
Dr. Celine Gounder: I think we are in very different places in different parts of the country right now. You have parts of the country where we are very highly vaccinated, where levels of community transmission have dropped down after the Omicron surge and have returned to fairly low levels. But in much of the country, we still have very high levels of community transmission. And not every community is highly vaccinated. So what may make sense in one community is not necessarily what’s going to make sense elsewhere.
Gideon Resnick: Right. How much of the federal government’s approach do you think has been informed by not wanting to move too quickly, like last summer when everyone was told, you know, all right, we’re taking our masks off, summer of freedom, whatever the terminology was, and then in quick succession, Delta and Omicron happened.
Dr. Celine Gounder: I think the one predictable thing about this pandemic is how unpredictable it has been. And so I think the fear is that we move to lift mitigation measures and then another variant strikes or something else unexpected happens. And so I think there’s a lot of concern about, on the one hand, doing so appropriately when the local epidemiology allows, but at the same time not doing so prematurely and then regretting having done so.
Priyanka Aribindi: Totally. That’s just what I was about to ask you. It seems like we are rounding a corner in this pandemic, you know, as evidenced by these changes and, you know, rapidly declining case numbers in certain areas. But what are the implications about possibly having to do an about face later on? And where does pandemic fatigue kind of factor into that?
Dr. Celine Gounder: I think at least in the near term, it’s going to be very difficult to re-impose mitigation measures unless you had a fully immune-evading variant where the vaccines did not provide any protection, where prior infection did not provide any protection. And I think you’d really need to see hospitals overwhelmed and unable to function before people would really be willing to entertain re-imposing any kind of mitigation measures at this point.
Gideon Resnick: Is that like a—I hate to say like, predictions—but is that like an optimistic viewpoint of where we are and where we’re about to go?
Dr. Celine Gounder: I would say that’s kind of pessimistic, right? People are just not willing to live with restrictions anymore. They want to move on with their lives. And I think you’re seeing that across the political spectrum. You’re seeing that among people who have already been vaccinated who say, Well, look, I followed the rules, you know, quote unquote—not that there really any rules in a game with the virus—you know, I think you have that faction. And then you have people who never wanted to abide by any kind of mitigation measures. They didn’t think that the harms of doing so, perhaps economic or social harms outweighed, the benefits from a health perspective. And so there would really need to be a game changing new variant for people, I think, to want to go back to any kind of restrictions or mitigation measures at this stage.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I think that definitely seems to be the case in terms of like where everybody is. I do also want to talk about kids in school, which is a separate part of this entire equation. Differences state by state in terms of how, when these mask mandates are being lifted, how they’re actually impacting schools—what is a sensible policy there at this juncture?
Dr. Celine Gounder: You know, in schools, it’s a little bit hard to say. We know that kids are at lower risk for severe disease, hospitalization, and death, but the risk is not zero. In addition, it’s not just about kids, it’s also about the adults working in the schools, some of whom may not be vaccinated, some of whom may be vaccinated but immunocompromised and so the vaccines are not fully protective for them. The other issue is that unless you mask appropriately, so you’re wearing a high quality mask, you’re wearing it over your nose and mouth, it’s not going to be truly protective. And we know that a lot of people do not wear masks correctly, including kids. So unless the right masks are being worn correctly, the impact of that masking is not going to be optimal.
Priyanka Aribindi: Right. And for kids five and younger, obviously, Pfizer and federal officials are going full steam ahead, really in trying to get them shots. But polling indicates that, you know, their parents are being pretty cautious about all of this. What do you have to say to parents who are kind of in that boat and worried about vaccinating their children, you know, whether or not they are under the age of five?
Dr. Celine Gounder: So Pfizer has submitted data to the FDA for emergency use authorization of two doses of its vaccine in kids under five. What their data has shown is that the two doses of Pfizer vaccine are indeed safe for that age group, but two doses are not protective enough for kids between the ages of two and five, but they do seem to be protective enough for kids between the ages of six months and two years. It remains to be seen you know how the FDA is going to address this. Will they simply say we’re going to approve it for all kids under five, understanding that kids two to five may need a third dose and we’re still waiting on safety and efficacy data on a third dose? Or they could say, let’s proceed with an emergency use authorization for kids six months to two years, and then let’s get more data on a third dose in the two to five-year olds and hold off on any kind of authorization for that group until then.
Gideon Resnick: So as we’re talking to you, a convoy of truckers is camped out in Ottawa protesting against COVID mandates and restrictions. This has been going on for quite some time. How entrenched is anti-vaccine sentiment and do you foresee those kinds of really public actions ending when and if governments end their COVID restrictions?
Dr. Celine Gounder: What we’ve seen in terms of mis- and disinformation on social media online is a fair amount of that, particularly when it comes to vaccines, is targeted at the parents of young children. And so I do think you’re going to continue to see the reverberations of that, whether it’s with respect to vaccine uptake among kids, perhaps even other childhood vaccinations. And so I do think that will be a group where we see increasing issues moving forward.
Priyanka Aribindi: Do you have any final thoughts before we let you go?
Dr. Celine Gounder: Yeah, I think as we emerge from the crisis phase of the pandemic and we do move into this new normal, that new normal should include some measures to protect the most vulnerable who we might otherwise be leaving behind. And so that includes, you know, people living in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, where even three doses of vaccine may not be fully protective because it’s just such a high risk group, that includes highly immunocompromised people or kids who just can’t get vaccinated yet. I think we just need to remember that new normal needs to include something about protecting those populations.
Priyanka Aribindi: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate you being here today.
Dr. Celine Gounder: My pleasure.
Priyanka Aribindi: We’ll get into more on all of this very soon, but that is the latest for now.
Gideon Resnick: It’s Thursday, WAD squad, and today we’re doing a segment called No Context Bad Vibes.
[deep voice] No context, bad vibes.
Gideon Resnick: We love it. We love it every time
Priyanka Aribindi: We really do.
Gideon Resnick: Beautiful stuff. Take a listen to today’s clip:
[clip of Rep. Marjory Taylor Green] Not only do we have the D.C. jail, which is the D.C. gulag, but now we have Nancy Pelosi’s gazpacho police spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work that we do, spying on our staff, and spying on American citizens that want to come talk to their representatives.
Gideon Resnick: Oh, I’m so glad that I saved my first listen for this moment. Gazpacho?
Priyanka Aribindi: Live on the air. Yes. That, of course, was Republican congresswoman and lifelong student of German history, Marjorie Taylor Greene. There’s a lot going on in this clip. Aside from the Gestapo-gazpacho confusion, as you know, one does, Greene is referring to the idea that Nancy Pelosi has leveraged the Capitol Police to spy on her opponents, a conspiracy theory that gained momentum among House Republicans this week after Congressman Troy Nehls accused officers of illegally searching and photographing his office. The police contend that they were doing a routine security check because Nehl’s door was left open. [laughs] Okay. Big things happening over there. Importantly, Pelosi does not oversee the Capitol Police, which is the one police force Republicans don’t seem to support, likely because of their role defending the Capitol on January 6th. And equally importantly, if there was a gazpacho police, their members would be called Soup Nazis.
Gideon Resnick: Oh my God.
Priyanka Aribindi: So Gideon, what are you thinking about his clip?
Gideon Resnick: I love it. I think that Gazpacho Police is like a different iteration of Karma Police by Radiohead. It’s like the weird, like Ska cover band doing it or whatever, they would call their version Gazpacho Police.
Priyanka Aribindi: No, I think gazpacho police, I was picturing it as humans, but they are policing specifically gazpacho.
Gideon Resnick: Oh, I see, I see, I see.
Priyanka Aribindi: Like quality control. That’s what I was thinking.
Gideon Resnick: Maybe we do want them. Maybe they are the people who give the restaurants like the A through D, F grades. I’ve never seen an F, that’s why I was hesitant.
Priyanka Aribindi: Hmmm. Gideon thinks Marjorie Taylor Greene has good ideas. That’s interesting. Hmmm.
Gideon Resnick: Well, we can edit that part out. Please bleep, Priyanka, whenever she is speaking. That was No Context, Bad Vibes.
[deep voice] No context, bad vibes.
Gideon Resnick: We will be back after some ads.
Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Gideon Resnick: Top Russian military commanders flew into Belarus yesterday for a massive military exercise, and six Russian warships are making their way from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea at Ukraine’s southern coast. During their meeting earlier this week, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin allegedly told French President Emmanuel Macron, that Russia doesn’t want to escalate tensions with Ukraine, but Russia’s latest military actions would indicate otherwise.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it doesn’t sound like it.
Gideon Resnick: I’m confused. Moscow said again the ships were simply for naval drills, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday quote, “Russia and Belarus have encountered unprecedented threats.” OK. The U.S. and Western European countries continue to worry that these moves will provide cover for a wide scale invasion of Ukraine any day now. Ukrainian troops, meanwhile, will begin their own military drills today using drones and anti-tank weapons provided by the U.S. and other NATO members.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it does not sound great over there.
Gideon Resnick: No.
Priyanka Aribindi: That is what I will say about that. Families of the victims who died in the fire that engulfed an apartment building in the Bronx last month are suing the building owners. The massive fire in the 120-unit complex left 17 people dead, including eight children, with the youngest victim being just two years old. On Tuesday, the lawyer for the victim’s families alleged that the apartment building violated city safety laws, which led to the wrongful deaths. The families are being represented by Ben Crump, a well-known civil rights attorney. Most of the people who were killed were immigrants from Gambia and other parts of West Africa. In a press conference earlier this week, Crump told reporters quote, “If these were white citizens and you had 17 people lose their lives and others catastrophically injured, that we would not even only be talking about civil liability, we would be talking about criminal culpability.” As of now, the lawsuits don’t specify monetary damages or specific safety violations.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, what a horrible, horrible situation.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah.
Gideon Resnick: Figure skaters for the Russian Olympic Committee are on thin ice.
Priyanka Aribindi: Pffft. Bye.
Gideon Resnick: Thank you very much. They may have their medals stripped after 15-year old superstar Kamila Valieva allegedly failed a drug test, testing positive for a stimulant that increases blood flow to the heart. The figure skaters initially claimed victory after the team event Monday, when Valieva became the first woman to ever land quadruple jumps in the free program. But instead of getting their medals that night as planned, the ceremony was postponed, first for 24 hours and then indefinitely. When asked Wednesday about the delay, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said quote, “a situation arose at short notice that requires legal consultation.”
Priyanka Aribindi: Big yikes!
Gideon Resnick: Big yikes because of Valieva’s age, she is classified as a protected person under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency, also known as WAD-A—WAD-A squad rise up, this is your moment—meaning the responsibility for performance-enhancing drugs will lay on her coach. As of Wednesday, the Russian figure skaters still haven’t received their team Gold Medal because of the investigation. Instead, they were given stuffed animals of the official mascot of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Bing Dwen Dwen, a very cute panda with a heart of gold. To me, honestly, there is no difference.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, to me, there’s a huge difference: the panda sounds better. Yeah. Why are rewarding this I don’t know.
Gideon Resnick: I don’t get it.
Priyanka Aribindi: They got it wrong. They got it wrong here. Democratic leadership signaled support Wednesday for legislation that would limit or ban congressional stock ownership, as a bipartisan effort has gained momentum on the floor. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor to express support for a stock ownership ban, encouraging Democrats to work with Republicans to hasten an agreement. Meanwhile, the woman whose investment returns are the stuff of legend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, took a more complex approach, signaling her support for stock limitations but advocating for the rules to also extend to the judiciary branch. And if we’ve learned anything from the Build Back Better era, the more complicated the bill, the better.
Gideon Resnick: Definitely.
Priyanka Aribindi: Multiple bills to ban stock trading exist in the House and the Senate, including one that Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and Republican Senator Steve Daines unveiled this week, as well as a proposal by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Katie Porter reintroduced on Wednesday. The demand for these bills has grown since reporting last year showed multiple legislators had profited from trading health care stocks following closed-door meetings on the early coronavirus pandemic. My solution for Americans regaining trust in their elected officials: for every stock a senator gives up, they get a pair of cozy mittens to wear while they are crossing their legs outside and looking grouchy—soon that they will be the most popular politicians of all time, at least online. It is a foolproof plan.
Gideon Resnick: I don’t think that it would translate with certain people, but with enough of them, maybe. Maybe it would work.
Priyanka Aribindi: Nancy Pelosi digging herself out of a mound of mittens?
Gideon Resnick: Yes. That’s what’s in her freezer in addition to the ice cream. And those are the headlines. They’re in the freezer now because she has so many, of course.
Priyanka Aribindi: One more thing before we go: this week on Keep It, Ira, Lewis and Aida discuss Oscar nominations and whether or not Lady Gaga was snubbed, how Black History Month has already gone terribly awry, Kanye and Kim’s messy divorce, and more. Plus, Nicole Byer joins to talk about being the busiest woman in show business and pandemic routines we’ve already abandoned. New episodes of Keep It drop every Wednesday. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, make a politician mittens so they can be popular, and tell your friends to listen.
Priyanka Aribindi: And if you’re into reading, and not just the secret history of the gazpacho police like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And come on, WAD, Bing Dwen Dwen!
Gideon Resnick: Yes, we would love to ask you questions.
Priyanka Aribindi: I want a little stuffed animal. I want to be an Olympian for that reason.
Gideon Resnick: I want to interrogate you to see if you saw any drugs while you were being held. No, I would like to hold Bing.
Priyanka Aribindi: Bing Dwen Dwen, do your tell all here. This is the place
Gideon Resnick: Tell the truth. What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, with writing support from Jocey Coffman, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.