A nurse in a long-term care facility in Massachusetts receives the coronavirus vaccine.Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe/Getty
The morning of January 8, employees gathered in the lobby at LiveWell, a nonprofit long-term care facility in central Connecticut, to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Armed with fresh N95 masks and face shields, they trooped upstairs in 15-minute increments to get their shots, then returned to cheers and applause from their colleagues. Some took photos in front of a poster emblazoned “I got my #ShotOfHope.” Others put a sticker on their face shields to indicate they’d gotten vaccinated.
Meanwhile, CVS pharmacists and pharmacy technicians went from room to room vaccinating LiveWell’s residents, all of whom have dementia. By the end of the day, 99 percent of the facility’s 111 residents had received their first dose, while about 70 percent of the facility’s 207-person staff had been vaccinated, according to LiveWell chief operating officer Maley Hunt.
The high vaccination rate among LiveWell’s staff appears to be unusual for Connecticut, where, like elsewhere across the country, it’s been difficult to convince nursing home employees to get the coronavirus vaccine. As the first of three rounds of vaccination wrapped up in Connecticut nursing homes earlier this month, only about 40 percent of the staff at the state’s facilities had agreed to be vaccinated so far, according to Dr. Vivian Leung, a member of the state’s public health department who has been helping nursing homes detect and respond to the coronavirus.
Since the earliest days of the pandemic in the United States, nursing homes have been the site of the country’s most lethal outbreaks—including in Connecticut, where residents and staff account for 65 percent of all COVID-19 deaths. Across the country, nursing home residents and staff have been uniformly prioritized for early vaccination. In late December, under the federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, Walgreens, CVS, and other drug stores began holding vaccination clinics at nursing homes. But now, as the initial round of clinics approaches completion, not only has the rollout been slower than expected, but early estimates reveal that in some places, more than half of nursing home staff are still waiting to be vaccinated or refusing the shot altogether.
In some Virginia nursing homes, for example, as few as 10 to 20 percent of staff have agreed to receive the vaccine, estimates Dr. Christian Bergman, a geriatrician and member of the state’s COVID-19 long-term care task force; the more successful facilities in the state have vaccinated around 40 percent of their employees. North Carolina’s secretary of health and human services said in early January that more than half of nursing home workers in the state might refuse the vaccine. In Ohio, just 40 percent of staff statewide who had been offered the first dose of the vaccine in late December accepted it, Gov. Mike DeWine said at a press conference. A spokesperson for CVS Health, which is administering nursing home vaccinations in 49 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico, says that initial vaccine uptake among staff remained low as of mid-January.
Now, states, employers, and associations for nursing home professionals are mounting efforts to convince more workers to get the vaccine, offering Zoom chats with experts, town hall meetings, and online education about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. The goal is to prevent future outbreaks at nursing homes, Bergman explains. “The more staff that get vaccinated, the less likely that you would have a new outbreak in the future,” he says. “The size of the outbreak would likely be smaller if you had more staff that were vaccinated.” Even though vaccination rates are high among long-term residents, most nursing homes will continue to care for short-stay patients who may be unvaccinated and vulnerable.
Bergman isn’t surprised by the low vaccination rates among some nursing homes. According to the CDC, only about 69 percent of long-term care facility staff get flu vaccinations. “If I have 40 percent of staff getting this brand new vaccine after just one clinic with CVS, that’s very good turnout,” he says. In a January 6 progress report, CVS Health noted that the low rate of staff vaccinations so far may be partly due to staggered vaccination dates. And in some facilities, the vast majority of staff have opted to get the vaccine as soon as it was offered, including at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the center of the first known US outbreak.
But Bergman has noticed a stratification among long-term care workers who have so far decided to get vaccinated: Managers are more likely to want the vaccine, while lower-paid workers like sanitation staff and certified nursing assistants are more hesitant. That’s no surprise to Lori Porter, cofounder and CEO of the National Association of Health Care Assistants, a professional group for certified nursing assistants. In an informal Facebook poll of 3,119 CNAs conducted by Porter’s group in mid-December, 72 percent of respondents were a “hard no” for the vaccine. Just six percent were undecided.
Some believe the vaccine is a hoax, Porter says; some think they are being used as guinea pigs. CNAs, she explains, “don’t trust the government, and they don’t trust their leaders, their managers”—a result, she argues, of CNAs being “battered” by workplace conditions, where they are under high pressure to care for too many residents with little professional support. “Oftentimes, they’re not communicated with,” she says, “which also leads to the trust factor.” That mistrust has only grown as companies began offering incentives to be vaccinated, Porter adds. One nursing home chain, PruittHealth, said it would distribute Waffle House gift cards to vaccinated employees. At least two chains, Juniper Communities and Atria Senior Living, have made vaccines mandatory for almost all workers.
Porter is worried about the second round of clinics. She’s begun to hear from CNAs who say they will refuse the second dose of the vaccine. “Not because they’re afraid of it,” she explains. “They can’t afford to miss three days work with the side effects.”
At LiveWell, a standalone nonprofit facility in Plantsville, Connecticut, the groundwork for its successful vaccination rollout was laid in early in the pandemic, when managers at the nursing home tried to send a message that all employees were all responsible for keeping LiveWell’s dementia patients safe. “We have a population of people that can’t tolerate wearing a mask,” Hunt says. “They don’t understand social distancing. They kind of sometimes go in other people’s rooms, or use different bathrooms. The idea of stopping the spread, once it got in the building, was basically designated as almost impossible.”
To safeguard residents, LiveWell required employees to wear masks and prohibited visitors before the state required such measures. It also decided not to allow staff to work multiple jobs, which is common among nursing home employees. (A recent study analyzing smartphone location data found that nursing homes that had more staff or contractors moving among multiple facilities tended to have a higher number of COVID-19 cases.) According to Hunt, employees who gave up other jobs to stay at LiveWell were offered more hours, while those who declined to give up other gigs may return to their LiveWell jobs after they get the vaccine or once community transmissions decreases.
The company also paid attention to who was inside the nursing home’s “bubble.” “The team wasn’t just the team that worked here,” Hunt says. “We made sure that we were keeping people’s family safe as well.” The company offered masks for employees’ kids, hand sanitizer for households, and back-to-school packs to families. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the company offered paid leave not only to workers with symptoms, but also to those whose family members had been exposed to the virus. It also gave rapid antigen tests to family members who were showing symptoms of COVID-19. “Creating that bubble with both our staff and our families, and letting the families know how important they are in rooting us on, and making sure that they’re feeling connected with what’s happening, even when they’re not here, made them tremendous advocates and supporters of the team,” Hunt says. By the time the vaccine became available, she says, “Our staff were so excited. They see this as hope, and they see this as a return to normalcy.”
LiveWell almost escaped the pandemic unscathed. The combination nursing home and assisted living facility went more than 270 days without any coronavirus cases among its residents. Then, shortly after Thanksgiving, an employee tested positive one day after working in one of the skilled nursing units. Over the following weeks, 29 out of 30 residents in that unit tested positive for the virus. Nine people died. Hunt remembers standing in the affected unit in the midst of the outbreak as another staff member told her they didn’t want to get the vaccine. “It evoked an emotional response in me,” she says. “I had this feeling of, ‘Why? How could you not want to get this? This is going to save lives.'”
As LiveWell prepared for vaccinations, the company called every employee on staff individually to have a conversation about the vaccine, Hunt says. Those who weren’t sure about it were required to attend a half-hour Zoom meeting with a doctor of geriatric medicine, who answered their questions and tried to address their worries. Some employees brought up their concern that the vaccine had been developed too quickly; some had questions about potential long-term side effects or implications for pregnant women; others cited disinformation about microchips or fetal tissue being in the vaccine. The doctor, Hunt said, tried to listen without judgement, understand the roots of people’s fears, and address their questions fully. “They might be saying, ‘What about the long term side effects?'” Hunt says. “But what they’re thinking is something else, or there’s something underneath there, some other medical experience that they’ve had.”
Leung, at the Connecticut Department of Public Health, believes that more nursing home staff members in the state may get the vaccine when it is offered a second time. “There seems to be an increased confidence and decreased concern as medical staff are seeing more and more of their colleagues get vaccinated,” she says. Bergman, in Virginia, harbors the same hope. At his nursing home’s first vaccination clinic, 24 out of 85 staff agreed to be vaccinated. “If they can provide firsthand experience,” he says, “we may be able to convince a few other people who were just kind of anxious about, potentially, the side effects.”
According to Hunt, 25 more LiveWell employees have pledged to get their first dose of the vaccine at the facility’s second clinic date on January 29. Ultimately, the company is aiming for 90 percent of its employees to be vaccinated. For now, Hunt says, it’s focusing on one-on-one outreach to people still hesitant to get the shot. “We’re not giving up on them yet,” she says.
On the final full day of Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States reached another grim milestone during four years marked by plenty of grim milestones. By most measures, 400,000 people in the US now have died from the coronavirus. It’s the highest death toll in the world—but tragically unsurprising given the trajectory of the past year.
The staggering toll was both preventable and entirely predictable. Even aside from his vast personal incompetence—we’ll get to that later—President Trump blithely put into practice cherished conservative principles that are incompatible with a decent pandemic response. Castigating and delegitimizing government institutions, demonizing minority communities, and playing into white grievances may help Republicans win elections, but when it comes to beating back a massive public health catastrophe, what’s paramount is robust public agencies, a strong health care system, and special attention to the vulnerable. In many ways, we were doomed from the start.
But then there is the unique, Trumpian imprint of mendacity and cruelty. In March 2020, when the virus was seriously spreading and the country was hobbled by a lack of tests and testing strategy, Trump responded to a question from a reporter with a single line that would go on to define his administration’s coronavirus approach and inexorably lead to the number of deaths on his last full day in office 10 months later. “No,” he said emphatically, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” As the death toll first climbed, then soared, Trump and his enablers continued to act as if the president was the real victim. “I am incredibly disappointed in the politicization of this COVID-19 response,” Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said last March at a Congressional hearing. “The 24/7 criticism that the president is undergoing is unwarranted at a minimum.”
Trump never found a grudge he wouldn’t hold and a grievance he wouldn’t amplify. So it didn’t help that the virus’s first assault was concentrated in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, his hometown, the scene of many of his commercial and social triumphs that today has become hostile foreign territory to him and his merry band of family members and other sycophants. Plus, throughout the country, the virus was disproportionately killing people of color. For our white supremacist president, this deserved not even glancing recognition.
As the East Coast attempted to cope with the onslaught of the virus, the Trump administration maintained the illusion that people who lived in red states were immune. Even when he belatedly declared a state of emergency in mid-March and many states instituted lockdowns to varying degrees, the administration didn’t ramp up testing or begin contact tracing in any systematic way that might have at least managed to bring the virus under some control. To make matters worse, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended wearing masks, Trump rejected and ridiculed them and his supporters dutifully followed suit, pretending that this most basic effort to contain the spread of the disease was in fact some kind of intolerable infringement on their rights. Anti-maskers frequently made public spectacles of themselves as they were denied entry into grocery stores and even appropriated the “I Can’t Breathe” mantra from racial justice protesters. As I wrote last July:
Officials have reassured anyone who would listen that even though wearing a mask can be a little uncomfortable, it doesn’t inhibit breathing. Nonetheless, almost immediately, the mask mandates turned into a new front in the culture war. Only liberal sheep wore masks to protect the public from coronavirus; real conservatives and libertarians would never stoop to something so feminine and weak! Just look at the president! Meanwhile, as the coronavirus has surged in the South and West, so too has the intensity of the mask war. The anti-mask cohort has adopted a slogan they saw was very effective, insisting that when wearing a mask, they can’t breathe.
When his supporters sometimes violently protested public health restrictions, especially in areas where Black people were dying disproportionately, he encouraged them, tweeting “LIBERATE” Virginia and Michigan.
By late May, the death toll had reached 100,000—a dark day for a nation that was once told 60,000 deaths would be the high-end. And still the Trump administration didn’t act, except to suggest that coronavirus patients inject bleach (just kidding, he later insisted) or to hawk hydroxychloroquine, an unproven medical treatment. Contrary to the president’s cherished convictions, the virus didn’t leave Trump-supporting regions alone, and the death toll accelerated in the midwest and in Southern states. Instead of, at least, caring about his own supporters, the president became preoccupied with his reelection and with demonizing Black Lives Matter protests. Plus, ever determined, against the advice of public health professionals, he held campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where failed presidential candidate and co-chair of the Black Voices for Trump Herman Cain was photographed maskless. Cain died from coronavirus the following month.
Thus we witnessed our president’s modus operandi during a crisis: teetering between ignoring the virus and denying its severity by continually insisting the country was “rounding the corner.” Besides, he had more important things to do, like pack the Supreme Court after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Even then, his generally unmasked September White House party for Amy Coney Barrett, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rushed through in the days leading up to the election, turned into a superspreader event. Then, in October, Trump tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized for three days. Maybe this would bring him and his administration to their collective senses.
Of course not.
After recovering, Trump became the Superman his doctors always pretended he was, assuring the country that the deadly virus was actually not a big deal. “Don’t be afraid” of the virus, he crowed as the death toll surpassed 200,000. His supporters were in such deep denial, that Trump added to his repertoire of lies that recovery from the virus was a breeze. One only needed to be pumped up on steroids and receive the best medical care on the planet at Walter Reed Medical Center.
All this denial didn’t help him in the end, since he was defeated and will now, fortunately, not serve a second term—partially because of his disastrous handling of the coronavirus. When the country entered the worst phase of the pandemic thus far, Trump was more preoccupied with perpetuating the Big Lie that the election had been stolen from him through massive fraud. As my colleague Dave Gilson wrote in December, in the month after the election, Trump launched 729 tweets, but not a single one was about the death toll:
Reading Trump’s recent tweets, you would never know the United States is in the midst of a surging pandemic that is killing more than 2,000 people a day. Of his 729 tweets between November 3 and December 16, more than two-thirds were about his attempts to reverse his election loss through baseless claims of voter fraud and far-fetched lawsuits. The pandemic was just a blip: Four percent of his tweets were about vaccines and just two percent mentioned the coronavirus at all—without ever acknowledging its human cost or encouraging Americans to take precautions to protect themselves or others from getting sick.
A kind of psychic numbing had gripped so many of us by the end of December, when 300,000 people had died from the coronavirus; it would take only a few weeks for the next 100,000 to follow them. The Washington Post reported in December that according to a wealth of psychological research, the higher the death toll climbs, the less we care. Or rather, the less we are emotionally capable of caring. In mass disasters like the pandemic, say, or a tsunami, the more death surrounds us, the more remote it feels. Not that the Trump administration even thought to commemorate the lives lost with any public mourning, much less mention the staggering death toll in any public statement. Even then, the sheer scale was difficult to fathom, unless one is mourning a lost parent, child, sibling, relative, neighbor, friend, or co-worker.
The Trump administration has finally reached its conclusion with a predictably dark legacy: the only president to be impeached twice—once for inciting an insurrection— the only lame duck president to carry out federal executions—since the federal death penalty was reinstated, only three executions had been carried out by a president until Trump executed 13 people—and a president who exacerbated the toll from the deadliest months in US history.
Yes, millions of people are breathing a sigh of relief that the Trump presidency is over. But the aftermath is just beginning. The coronavirus death toll will continue to climb, the vaccine rollout will continue to lag, and the economic recovery will continue to drag on. The United States will be grappling with the damage from a one-term president for years to come.
Trump’s 2017 inaugural address was laden with ominous references. Nonetheless, he still promised to “fight” for the country. “I will fight for you with every breath in my body,” Trump said. “I will never, ever let you down.” But all the clues that Trump would make for a horrific pandemic president were there from the beginning. He began his campaign by demonizing the people who would be most impacted by the coronavirus and, as president, continued the Republican tradition of dismantling public institutions. In the end, the words from his inaugural address that most reflected his presidency were not his vow to fight for his country, but his description of “American carnage.” Four years later, he shunned the typical farewell address, choosing to release a 20-minute video highlighting his accomplishments. “We did what we came here to do,” he said. “And so much more.”
Since the start of the pandemic, deep racial inequities in US society have led to people of color being infected and dying of the coronavirus at higher rates than white people. The disproportionate pain and death suffered by non-white communities is the result of stark racial divides: who works “essential” jobs in grocery stores and public transit, who has access to health care, and who lives near sources of environmental pollution that contribute to underlying health conditions, like asthma and heart disease, that can worsen COVID-19. Black, Hispanic, and Native people are dying from COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white people, according to CDC data.
Now, with potentially lifesaving vaccines being rolled out nationwide, early data show that fewer initial doses of the vaccine are going to the communities of color most affected by the coronavirus. According to a Kaiser Health News analysis, Black people are being vaccinated at lower rates than white people in 16 states that provided racial data on vaccination distribution.
In most states nationwide, the first doses of the vaccine were allocated to health care workers, a racially diverse workforce that includes a range of workers on the front lines of the pandemic, from doctors to nursing home assistants to janitorial staff. Even still, a disproportionate share of the vaccines are going to white people. In Mississippi, which is 38 percent Black and where 37 percent of health care workers are Black, Black people account for just 15 percent of vaccinated residents so far. Thirty percent of Maryland residents are Black, and 42 percent of health care workers in the state are Black, but Black people make up only 16 percent of those who have received their first vaccine dose there. Of the states that provided data, Pennsylvania had the highest disparity: 1.2 percent of the white population had been vaccinated, but just 0.3 percent of Black residents had gotten the vaccine.
The disparities in vaccination appear to be the result from both access issues and distrust of the vaccine, experts told Kaiser Health News. For example, Dr. Taison Bell, a member of the University of Virginia Health System’s vaccination distribution committee and a Black physician, said that janitorial staff at his hospital did not have access to the hospital email, meaning they did not receive the same information about registering for the vaccine as the rest of the staff.
Meanwhile, Dr. Mysheika Roberts, public health commissioner of Columbus, Ohio, pointed out that in Black communities, public health officials must overcome distrust built by decades of mistreatment—both individual experiences of denigration by doctors and famous examples of exploitation like the Tuskegee syphilis study and the experience of Henrietta Lacks. “We have to dig deep, go the old-fashioned way with flyers, with neighbors talking to neighbors, with pastors talking to their church members,” Roberts said.
COVID-19 reduced life expectancy in the general United States population by more than a year, a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found. It also showed massively disproportionate impacts for Black and Latino populations driven by the pandemic.
The coronavirus has caused more than 380,000 deaths in the United States. It is a staggering total. And an indictment: The death rate in the US outpaces other countries with populations over 5 million. In 2020, this mass death caused one of the worst years for life expectancy in nearly 20 years. Researchers estimate the pandemic dropped average life expectancy in the country down to 77.48 years—the lowest it’s been since 2003.
The effect has been disproportionate. Black and Latino population life expectancies are estimated to have dropped by 2.10 years and 3.05 years, respectively, compared to just a 0.68-year reduction for whites. This staggering gap in COVID-19 outcomes, as Mother Jones reporter Edwin Rios has noted for us in the past, has to be understood in context. “This disproportionate effect [of COVID-19] is a social issue in the guise of an epidemiological one,” Rios wrote in April. It’s not “because of biology,” but because:
Black Americans, particularly in the Southern states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, are more likely to be uninsured. They’re more likely to work a low-paying job. They’re more likely to suffer from heart disease, asthma, cancer, and other conditions. …
It’s because of straightforward social choices such as where toxic dumps get sited, where new highways get built, and where Black people have historically been permitted to live.
Unaffected by the population’s existing age distributions, life expectancy is a particularly useful metric for examining the impact of COVID-19 beyond infection rates, the authors argue. Black and Latino populations in the US tend to be younger than white populations. The coronavirus kills older people at alarmingly higher rates. Raw mortality rates don’t account for this fact.
The lower life expectancy represents a unique failure. “The US reduction in 2020 life expectancy is projected to exceed that of most other high-income countries,” the study authors note, “indicating that the United States—which already had a life expectancy below that of all other high-income developed nations prior to the pandemic—will see its life expectancy fall even farther behind its peers.”
Last year, after the state of Texas temporarily banned abortions in a purported effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, nearly 1,000 Texans crossed the border to access abortion services in other states. According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there were 1,752 fewer abortions performed in Texas last April (compared to the number performed in April of 2019). But 947 patients traveled to clinics in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma to receive care. A representative of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains told Mother Jones that during the ban, they experienced a sevenfold increase in Texas patients in their New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada clinics alone.
The ban stemmed from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s March executive order that required all procedures that were not “immediately, medically necessary” be postponed, theoretically to preserve PPE for frontline workers and save hospital beds for coronavirus patients. The state’s attorney general interpreted the order to include most abortion services, despite the fact that abortion providers require minimal PPE and, as Kari White, lead author of the study and an investigator for the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) said, “complications from abortion are incredibly rare, particularly those that require hospitalization.”
Abortion advocates said at the time that the ban was more political opportunism than genuine concern for public health. Texas lawmakers have attempted to rollback reproductive rights for nearly half a century—the pandemic was just their latest justification. “The stated reasons for prohibiting abortion during that time period were just not grounded in scientific evidence or typical medical practice,” she said. (Abortions were allowed to resume in Texas on April 22.)
But as per usual, the attempt to stop abortions from happening merely meant that they were happening elsewhere and in less safe conditions. In addition to finding that women were forced to cross state lines to get care, the study also found that second-trimester abortions—which are less safe than first trimester procedures—jumped nearly 61 percent after the ban was lifted because many women had to put off getting care.
Even though it only lasted for a month, the ban had a profound affect on many women. Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a physician at Planned Parenthood Center for Choice in Houston, said during the ban, his patients were desperately seeking help, calling clinics all over town. They were “calling the clinic every day, even driving up to the clinic, just to see if we were open,” he said.
“It was chaotic, it was confusing,” said Kumar, who also serves as the national medical spokesperson for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “There was an executive order, but because that went through the courts, there were a total of eight times that we either opened or closed, sometimes in the middle of the day.” When the ban was lifted in late April, Kumar’s clinic had a backlog hundreds of names long.
Back in March, Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, similarly told my colleague Becca Andrews that the ban—as well as it’s near-constant legal back-and-forth—was wearing on would-be patients:
Last Monday night, her team made calls to pregnant people who had appointments scheduled in their Texas clinics to let them know their procedures were canceled, at least for the time being. “People were sobbing, people were begging for us to see them anyway,” she recounted. “‘Can’t you just figure this out?’; ‘What am I going to do?’; ‘Where am I going to go?’” Making those phone calls and hearing the desperation in the voices of would-be patients was gutting, she said. “We’re really concerned about these people’s mental health—it’s palpable,” even through the phone.
Now, her staffers have to make the calls all over again. “It’s absolutely cruel to say to somebody, ‘You have to continue your pregnancy against your will when there’s a pandemic,’” Hagstrom Miller said. “Those patients are just heartbroken.”
The pandemic also compounded the obstacles to abortion already in place in Texas. One woman told TxPEP researchers that she was unemployed during the pandemic when she learned she was pregnant. She had a mandatory ultrasound done, but had to postpone the abortion procedure because she couldn’t afford the cost out-of-pocket and Texas doesn’t allow patients to pay for abortion care using state insurance or Medicaid. But because the same medical provider has to perform both the ultrasound and the abortion, she couldn’t reschedule.
“They said, ‘No, you have to come in the next week and redo the whole process and get another ultrasound and do everything all over again.’ And I’m like, I don’t want to pay an extra hundred dollars,” she said. The woman, who was kept anonymous, decided to carry her pregnancy to term because she was overwhelmed by the logistics and increasing costs of her delayed abortion.
TxPEP researchers talked to her and nine other women who sought abortion care in late March and early April, who detailed the stress and risk they faced while trying to end their pregnancies. Another woman, pseudonymously named Maria Isabel, successfully had an abortion in south Texas, but only after nine weeks of rescheduling at multiple clinics in her city. By the time she was able to get an appointment she was past the gestational age limit for medication abortion, and had to pay $1,200 for a procedural abortion instead. Yet another woman was able to travel 700 miles to New Mexico for an abortion, but worried that she’d contracted coronavirus because she was feeling feverish on the drive home.
“It was stressful time for everybody, everybody was dealing with economic uncertainty,” White said. But to make matters worse, these women either had to wait a month for abortions to resume in Texas or risk contracting coronavirus while traveling across state lines. All of them reported stress, anxiety, or depression.
“I don’t think that I’ve ever been more depressed in my life, to the point where I didn’t see a future for myself,” one woman told White and her colleagues. “I said, ‘Well, I just have to deal with this. This is just going to have to be what it is. I’m either going to have to parent this baby or adoption.’ I think every day I sat there, it just got worse and worse and worse and worse, and I felt like I didn’t have any options.”
Better science communication can help combat the coronavirus pandemic. But as Mother Jones has reported since the beginning of the outbreak, scientists are frustrated by the lack of coordination and coherence in the Trump Administration’s public health messaging. “The government is missing a huge opportunity in not using social media as a means to get people aligned on COVID messaging,” a microbiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera told us in November. “Science communication just can’t be an afterthought,” said Yale epidemiologist and science messaging expert Saad Omer.
The Trump administration could learn a thing or two from Rob Swanda, a 26-year-old PhD student at Cornell, whose social media talents have earned him overnight science communication stardom.
When Swanda first created his viral video explaining the mRNA technology used in two coronavirus vaccines, he had a smaller audience in mind: his parents. “My mom is a hairstylist,” he told me on a recent Zoom call. Her clients were asking how the vaccine worked. He knew he could help them understand things clearly. “So you can imagine my shock that it has been seen by over 3 million people,” he said.
The video is an energeticand simple explainer of how mRNA, a new genetic technology, is being used in both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Using a whiteboard, Swanda explains complex science in a way that has connected with over 4 million people so far.
Explaining jargon like “mRNA,” “spike protein,” and “lipid nanoparticle”, Swanda breaks down fears about the vaccine. “Being cautious of how the thing how the mRNA vaccine works is very reasonable, it’s a new innovation,” he says. “But if we just only relied on the old technology, like the attenuated or weakened version of the virus, we’re still waiting on those clinical trials to end, so how many more months are we going to be waiting?” While mRNA isn’t new in the newest sense (mRNA vaccines have been development for the last decade or so), it’s never been utilized on such a massive scale. And because the mRNA process eliminates the need for labs to grow a protein and then inject it—the mRNA teaches your body to make the protein itself—it cuts out a time-consuming production step in traditional vaccine manufacturing.
Here I describe a brief overview of how the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines work. Taking a vaccine is one’s personal choice, and I hope this video can help someone make that decision rooted in science. pic.twitter.com/ZjFH0DH5ca
So far, feedback has been good. “I was pleasantly surprised that like 99.9 percent of everything has been super positive,” he says. But there’s still that .01 percent. Some commenters accused him of “listening to music” in his AirPods, or claimed that he “was being paid by these companies.” (A few even insinuated that Rob was a pawn of Bill Gates.)
But that hasn’t dissuaded Swanda from the task at hand. Between the pandemic and an encroaching climate crisis, science is increasingly part of our everyday lives, and Swanda believes that he and his peers can use viral social media communication to help. “The connectedness of this new generation coming into science is going to be super critical for pushing out new research that’s going to span multiple disciplines,” he says. “We can use that.”
Check out more of Swanda’s science explainers on YouTube.
Customers cheer as Debbie Thompson, owner of the Horseshoe Cafe, informs them that she is violating the state's stay-at-home order by allowing guest dining at her restaurant in Wickenburg, Arizona, in May.Matt York/AP
After months of mishandling its COVID-19 response, Arizona has reached a new low: The state now has the highest infection rate of anywhere in the world, according to new data released this week. Over the past seven days, the state has seen a daily average of 118.3 new cases per 100,000 residents, well above countries like the Czech Republic (99.4) and the United Kingdom (86).
But if you drive around many parts of the state, you wouldn’t know that it leads the world in infections. That’s because Gov. Doug Ducey and municipal leaders think it’s perfectly fine to just keep doing what Arizonans have been doing for months, which perhaps is best described as “whatever the hell they want”—including eating and drinking inside at bars and restaurants so long as you wear a mask when you first walk through the door.
Ducey refuses to enact astatewide mask mandate or make changes to his unusually relaxed restrictions on large events, indoor gatherings, and non-essential business openings. Driving around Tucson, I see packed parking lots at outlet malls, lines out the door at brunch places with indoor seating only, and sports bars with dozens of people hanging out inside without masks. Bowling alleys, arcades, and movie theaters are also open at half capacity, and indoor gyms at 25 percent occupancy.
Compare that with California, which has the second-highest infection rate in the United States right now, with an average of 95.8 daily cases per 100,000 people. California is currently in crisis mode, with strict restrictions on indoor activities, and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order last month that shut down indoor and outdoor dining, among other things, until the numbers go down.
In Arizona, it apparently doesn’t matter that the state is breaking nationwide records for infections: Life has gone on basically the same since the state opened up in May, after briefly enacting tighter restrictions in the spring. The summer months saw huge spikes in infection rates and hospitalizations when extreme heat made it more difficult to be outdoors. Now, even though Arizona has some of the most beautiful weather in the country—it was 70 and sunny Tuesday afternoon in Phoenix and Tucson—the infection rates and hospitalizations are higher than during the summer spike. The kind of social interaction currently taking place inside could easily be forced outdoors, but apparently that’s just not the kind of thing people here (elected officials and regular folks) want to deal with right now.
In early December, as the number of cases, deaths, and hospitalizations continued to rise, health care leaders in Arizona wrote a letter urging the state health department to immediately issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, end all indoor dining, and close athletic activities for at least a month to avoid a disaster. Ducey held a press conference days later thanking Arizonans for being “so responsible” over Thanksgiving (even though his own health department reported a spike after the holiday weekend), ignoring the recommendations of the health care leaders. He made no changes to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Days later, nurses at the Tucson Medical Center wrote a public letter to the city’s residents practically begging them to stay home ahead of Christmas.
In Tucson, city leaders enacted a three-week-long 10 p.m. curfew after Thanksgiving but made no other mitigating changes. As public health experts I talked to about the efficacy of curfews pointed out, it does does little good to stop serving people drinks indoors at a bar at 10 p.m. when you’ve had hundreds of maskless patrons there throughout the day.
Of course, there are thousands upon thousands of Arizonans taking this pandemic seriously and living in a new normal that follows all the guidelines we now know work to slow the spread of this deadly virus. So many of us have changed the way we live and are sticking to it because the pandemic is far from over. But as this Instagram account seems to show, Ducey’s twentysomething son, Jack, is not one of those people.
We received this video from a follower which was posted to Jack Ducey’s public Instagram story earlier this week.
New York became the fourth state to reach 1 million coronavirus cases after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office released data reporting 15,074 new cases on Friday alone. Over 30,000 people in the state and 350,000 people nationwide have died from COVID.
New York joined California, Texas, and Florida, as the only other states to surpass 1 million cases, as the nationwide total of coronavirus cases hit 20 million on New Year’s Day. Experts are anticipating those numbers to spike after travel and gatherings over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
It’s likely, however, that the total number of cases and deaths is even higher given the scarcity of testing in the spring when available tests were sparse and the spread of the pandemic in the US was just beginning.
On ABC’s This Week, leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told moderator Martha Raddatz that he did not expect coronavirus deaths to reach such heights. “But, you know, that’s what happens when you’re in a situation where you have surges related to so many factors,” he said, “inconsistent adhering to the public health measures, the winter months coming in right now with the cold allowing people or essentially forcing people to do most of their things indoors as opposed to outdoors.”
President Donald Trump had claimed that the numbers from the Centers for Disease Control of those who had been infected by COVID were “exaggerated.” But on CNN’s State of the Union, US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said, “From a public health perspective, I have no reason to doubt those numbers.”
Even with the initial rollout of a vaccine, it’s unclear when the spread of cases will slow. The Trump administration has been criticized for bungling vaccine distribution. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Saturday morning that it administered 4,225,756 first doses and has distributed 13,071,925 doses throughout the country, which is a far cry from Trump’s September promise of 100 million doses created and 20 million doses administered by the end of 2020.
Many doses are set to expire by the end of January, without a clear plan of accelerating vaccinations to avoid this. Regardless, the numbers are an improvement from the only 2.1 million doses that had been administered as of Dec. 30.
Trump claimed on Sunday, without citing evidence, that vaccines “are being delivered to the states by the Federal Government far faster than they can be administered!”
Cuomo didn’t address New York’s surpassing one million cases directly in a statement on Saturday but encouraged New Yorkers to remain steadfast in taking precautions to slow the spread of the disease.
“As daunting as it may seem after all this time, it’s critical that the rest of us remain tough and keep up our efforts to slow the spread,” Cuomo said. “We’ve already come so far and we will finally reach that light at the end of the tunnel if we all just do our part.”
In November, the state of Wyoming announced that it had ceased calling the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 to let them know they may have been exposed to the virus. Instead, it asked Wyomingites to do it themselves. Health officials from some counties and tribes have continued their own contact-tracing programs, however—and, with the state’s resources stretched thin, that patchwork of local coverage remains key to supporting Wyoming communities.
About six weeks before the announcement, the number of COVID-19 cases in Wyoming began to spike. The state saw just a few dozen new cases a day throughout the spring and summer, but by late November, there were multiple days with more than 1,000 new cases. Surges in hospitalizations and deaths soon followed. With only around 130 public health workers available to make calls statewide, the state had to triage its efforts. It chose to focus on calling people who test positive, but it no longer attempted to notify their close contacts.
As a result, groups like Teton County’s contact tracing team—comprising two dozen County Health Department employees and volunteers—are the state’s remaining contact tracers. When the group started contact tracing, in March, the caseload felt manageable. By late November, it had become overwhelming. “There is no break,” said Andi Gordon, Teton County’s COVID-19 lead case coordinator. But the team remains dedicated to trying to curb the virus’ spread—and keep the community united. “We’re trying to hold on so strongly to that personal touch. I want to keep calling people, because I think people really value that.”
On the ground, contact tracers are making vital connections between local residents and community resources. Erin Engavo-Munnell, the COVID coordinator at Eastern Shoshone Tribal Health on the Wind River Reservation, said that she and her team are able to connect with their neighbors in a way people outside the area may not be able to. (The state has contracted with a company called Waller Hall to help with case investigations, but its employees largely call from outside Wyoming.) “All three of us who do contact tracing are enrolled members, and members of the local community —people are more likely to talk to us and give us information, and be more open,” said Engavo-Munnell. She also tells people about services that can deliver food and cleaning supplies to them while they’re in quarantine, whether they live on the reservation or not.
In Teton County, Gordon’s team is so well-connected that they frequently end up calling people they know. “It’s a small community,” she said. “We say to the team, ‘If you think it’s going to facilitate the work, go for it, but if you think it’s going to complicate it, recuse yourself.’ It happens a lot.” The team has also facilitated some on-the-fly problem solving. For instance, they realized that COVID-positive people often weren’t able to get home from the hospital. “There wasn’t anyone to drive them. Who’s going to drive a COVID-positive person?” said Gordon.
Ultimately, local firefighters and EMTs pitched in, as did the police department, which used sheriff’s vans with enclosed cabs to transport people. The team also enlisted the local sheriff’s office to help pick up and deliver prescriptions to quarantining residents.
The borders between reservations and counties are permeable, however, and that can complicate the tasks these small teams are doing to try to control the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. Sometimes, said Gordon, they’ll call someone only to discover they’ve already traveled somewhere, if only as far as the next county. That means more potential exposures, and more calls for the team. The Wind River Reservation is surrounded by Fremont and Hot Springs counties, so people often end up traveling through it. In the initial weeks of the pandemic, while Fremont County clinics limited testing amid staffing and supply shortages, the Wind River Reservation offered testing to any local residents, enrolled tribal members or not.
Meanwhile, other areas, inundated by new cases, have handed off all calls to the state—which means only COVID-positive people are being contacted. Fremont County’s nurse manager, Becky Parkins, confirmed in mid-December that the county is no longer contact tracing. (She declined to answer further questions, noting that she was focused on facilitating the county’s imminent rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.) Without tracing, there are fewer opportunities to stop the chain of viral transmission; even though Wyomingites are asked to call their contacts, illness or stigma may prevent them from doing so. It also masks the extent of community spread—and that can make people less concerned about the virus and less willing to take precautions.
New cases started to decline in December, and Clay Van Houten, the Wyoming Department of Health’s infectious disease epidemiology unit manager, said that the state will monitor COVID-19 numbers to determine whether it can resume contact tracing. “It will depend on what we see over the next few weeks,” Van Houten said in mid-December. One option is to contact trace on a case-by-case basis to maximize resources. “If we can identify clear exposure for folks, or clear exposures for others to the case, then it makes sense to do more intense contact tracing,” he said.
Meanwhile, local contact tracers continue calling, and calling, and calling. “While sometimes it feels like we’re just drowning, at the same time, I always want to keep in mind that every person we do get ahold of is one person we have been able to make a difference with,” said Janet Garland, Teton County Health Department’s nurse manager. “If we don’t get to everybody on the list today, they’ll be there tomorrow—and we’ve made a difference for those folks we got to today.”
Emma Walker As Told To Isabela DiasDecember 29, 2020
Mother Jones illustration; Courtesy of Emma Walker
We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.
Emma Walker, 26
Position: Nurse aide, TLC Adult Care Center Started: November 20, 2019 Quit: November 27, 2020 Salary: $10.50 per hour, 12 hours per day (every other day)
As told to Isabela Dias
In early December, a local news station first reported that Emma Walker, and others, quit the TLC Adult Care Center, an assisted-living facility and nursing home in West Newton, Pennsylvania, because of what employees said was inadequate pandemic response. “It’s not being handled properly at all,” Walker told the station. She, and other workers, alleged that the owners failed to even provide proper protective equipment. According to data reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there was an outbreak at the facility: 27 residents and 11 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. (Less than five deaths have been reported, the state says.) Contacted multiple times for comment, The TLC Adult Care Center’s owners did not address the specific incidents and alleged failures to meet pandemic safety requirements outlined in this article.
I first started after I left my kids’ father and I was looking for work. I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do with my life back then.
My stepmom’s friend told me about this job. She had issues there with the owners, but she said that it was a good place to work. I ended up applying and getting the job without having no experience or background.
I found out after working there that I love doing it. I loved that one-on-one with the people. I looked at it like they were my grandparents. I took care of them and gave them everything they needed. And I could feel the love they gave me.
Because I worked overnight, we cleaned the whole building and then we got the residents up. We washed them and got them dressed and ready for the day. We had 17 people we had to do. There were people who requested me to do it because I knew their routine, I knew everything they liked. Say someone wanted lotion on their feet, I knew that’s what they wanted. And I wouldn’t skip over that because I wanted to get my job done. I did it because that’s what they wanted. I tried to keep everything normal, how they would have done things day to day at home.
Whenever I first started, it was fine, everything was fine.
And then this coronavirus situation hit.
On November 25, 2020 is whenever the owner Stephanie Short called and told us about a positive resident in our building. We’re thinking she’s the one that brought it in. A couple of days prior to that, on a Monday, she changed the schedule. Her son got it at school and then she was taking care of him, we found that she was asymptomatic, and she continued to come into work until she found out she was positive.
It started to get real shady after that. We moved the one resident that was positive into a private room that had somebody else in it and that person got moved to her bed, instead of quarantining the positive and the roommate. They switched it up and cross contaminated, which we all questioned and we were told that it was fine. The first initial resident would come out of her room all the time. They were just letting her.
Even before the positive, whenever they first started getting sick, we could tell because of the coughing, and the body aches, and a lot of them would get confused. When a lot of them started having breathing problems, we knew right away that’s what it was. We were saying that they were probably positive. We got told that it was probably a cold. If we were getting tested regularly, we would have caught it faster.
The only thing that they did provide us was one N95 mask. We had to provide our own mask before the N95s were given to us. That was in the beginning of November, whenever we got fitted for them. That was the only really thing that they did for us and got for us. They told us to use hospital gowns to protect us, instead of giving us proper PPE, which is the gowns that have full length sleeves that go all the way into your gloves and that way you’re not exposed.
Then Thanksgiving, on the 26th, is whenever we all started having symptoms. I got called to come in. I didn’t have a babysitter until my scheduled time to be there at seven o’clock pm. The owner told me to bring my kids in there. I kind of fought with her about it. I told her that it wasn’t right to bring my own children who were five and three at the time. That made me think: “Does she really care about what’s going on to risk my kids going in?” But me being me, I let that go. I had to wait until I had a babysitter, and I did go in.
On Friday, I started getting more symptoms of COVID. I expressed to her that I was starting to feel sick, but I was still going to come in because I knew she needed me because we were understaffed. I was already on my seventh day of working without having a day off. On my eight day, I went to the hospital because I was having like an asthma attack type symptoms. That’s when they confirmed that I had COVID.
I had a paper saying that I had to quarantine and she told me that it was impossible for me to quarantine because she didn’t have enough staff members and she couldn’t come in until that following Wednesday when she was done quarantining. Well, I made the decision not to go in at all. I was so sick; I could barely move. My body hurt so bad. My oxygen levels dropped. My mom came and she started taking care of me. I’m actually pretty healthy, I was so shocked of how sick I got. I was quarantining away from my kids for a total of 12 days.
I didn’t want to go in until we had the proper equipment to take care of the positive people. As I got sicker and sicker throughout, I didn’t want to risk my life. With my kids I was just scared that I would give it to them, and they would have it worse than me.
The owners kept texting and calling me. My mom actually answered the phone one time and my mom was like, she has literally been in bed for four days and she physically can’t. When I called back, she said: “Is there any chance that you’ll go work tonight?” My voice is still raspy from it, I couldn’t finish sentences. I could barely breathe and then doing a 12-hour day with a mask on already not being able to breathe… I couldn’t do it.
There have been four people who died. They were completely fine before all this happened. She didn’t tell any of the family members until I think the third one died. They still haven’t even confirmed that it was COVID-related.
Four days into quarantining I decided to quit. I texted saying I wasn’t coming back.
I was looking out for the well-being of myself and my kids. That does kind of sound selfish, but I put my kids before anybody else anyway. Part of me didn’t want to quit. I didn’t want to leave because of the residents. I cared so much for them and I didn’t want their needs to be ignored because I wasn’t there to fulfill my job. I’m not getting no rise or no gains from this. I did it because I care for the people who live there. I obviously felt kind of sad because I do have a big heart. I feel like I abandoned them. I know that they miss me and that breaks my heart because I left so suddenly. I kind of gave no warning. I know they’re not going to get the exact care that I gave them. I just don’t want them to have anger towards me. I know most of them will understand because they knew I had to care for my babies.
They started pointing fingers at us like it was our fault. Supposedly, I’m being blamed for bringing it in on Thanksgiving. She’s—Stephanie, the owner—telling family members that an employee brought it in because her mother had it. She’s also telling the family members that they are fine and that they’re handling everything properly. They weren’t whenever I was there. But I can’t say now because I’m not there anymore.
Now, my other concern is not having a job. I have my own house. I have bills to pay. But it’s a risk I had to take. I can find another job. Next thing is for me to get better. I still have to test negative to even move on.
I would like to still be in this field. I do want to get certified. It’s a lot harder being a single mom going to school and needing a job to keep a roof over our heads. But I’ve gotten through with their abusive dad, I can go through this. I know I can make it work for us. If I were to stay in this field, I would want to make sure that the owners are taking every precaution because it’s still going to be around. It’s not just in that building.
I know people quit right after me. I think me doing it kind of gave them the courage to. They were all having the same exact experiences as I was.
Mother Jones illustration; Courtesy of Julia Devanthéry
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In 2013, Julia Devanthéry joined Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center and specialized in teaching students how to represent tenants in housing disputes. In 2017, after witnessing how many clients were facing housing instability due to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, she realized that students needed a more focused approach to representing them. So, she founded the Housing Justice for Survivors Project within the Center in order to train law students in what is known as a trauma-informed practice, one that focuses on domestic violence-oriented defense strategies against eviction, while also helping clients break leases without financial repercussions and find transitional housing.
In 2019, Devanthéry and her students won an important case in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court after appealing an eviction order on behalf of a client who had fallen behind on payment of rent because her abusive partner was stealing her income. The court’s ruling in Boston Housing Authority v. Y.A. affirmed the right of domestic violence survivors in public housing to raise the Violence Against Women Act as a defense against an eviction procedure.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders often leaving victims of domestic violence trapped with abusive partners, the team’s eviction defense work has become even more urgent. Like several other states, Massachusetts enacted a comprehensive temporary moratorium in April prohibiting most residential evictions, but Republican Gov. Charlie Baker let it expire in mid-October. The same day the state’s eviction moratorium ended, Devanthéry warned that “without a moratorium in place, we will still see an explosion of homelessness now that evictions are allowed to go forward next week.” She forecasted “a humanitarian crisis” and a “completely preventable tsunami of homelessness.” She spoke to Mother Jones about the importance of states keeping bans on evictions in place, and why we need to be thinking past January 31, when the federal moratorium extended as part of the stimulus package Trump signed on Sunday is set to expire.
On the heightened vulnerability of survivors: A lot of our cases involve instances where victims are being brought to court—or their tenancies and housing benefits are being terminated—for reasons that are directly related to their experiencing abuse. Our clients get blamed, even though they are unable to exercise control over the person who was physically and emotionally hurting and systematically terrorizing them in their own homes. Because of the power dynamics in an abusive relationship, if the abusive partner refuses to put their name on the lease or to contribute income towards rent, that’s a violation of the housing program that could cause the victim to lose a voucher—which otherwise they would have had for the rest of their lives. We see that situation a lot where people are being held accountable for the actions of their abusers. But in reality, within the context of that relationship, they don’t have the power to compel the abuser to do anything, because the power is so skewed in the other direction.
On the importance of housing protections contained in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA): A survivor reached out to us and shared that she was experiencing very significant physical and emotional abuse. Her partner was threatening to dismember her, and kill her and her daughter. The housing provider was going to terminate the Section 8 voucher, but we put together a letter where she asked for the protection of VAWA, which prevents people from losing housing subsidies and their homes as a result of domestic violence. We sent it over to the Housing Authority, and within a week-and-a-half they reversed their decision and allowed her to keep her housing subsidy—which she needed in order to be able to afford rent. It also spared her the re-traumatization of becoming homeless as a result of being in an abusive relationship. The abusive partner is incarcerated, and she and her daughter are safe and able to stay home for Christmas.
VAWA has not yet been reauthorized, and that’s an unspeakable shame on this Congress and the Republicans who obstructed it. There are many programs that serve domestic violence survivors but many funding sources are not available, and that hurts clients every single day. But the housing provisions built into VAWA do not expire, they still are the law of the land. I’m hopeful that, looking ahead to a new Congress, we might have some cause to be optimistic about the strengthening of the protections—especially when you have the author of VAWA in the White House!
On the trauma of eviction: Anyone who’s facing housing instability is panicked. It’s such a scary and overwhelming experience. Especially if you have a family and kids, thinking about where they’re going to go, how it’s going to impact school, how you’re going to explain to them that you have to pack up and leave without a place to go. What they’re facing is a sheriff or constable coming to their home—basically bursting through the door even if it’s locked—with movers, who are just strangers, who come into the home and start packing and removing belongings. Then they physically remove the tenant and their family from the property and put those belongings in storage. People lose property, essential documents, medication and eyeglasses, and all the things that people need for survival. It’s just a very violent experience in and of itself.
On how the pandemic has made everything worse: It’s been a really difficult time for our clients. While we were all ordered to stay home to keep ourselves and our community safe from the spread of the coronavirus, our clients basically have been required to stay in spaces that are the opposite of safe for them. They have to stay confined in spaces where their physical health and emotional and sexual autonomy are jeopardized. People have been dealing with a lot of extreme violence and having a very hard time accessing safe shelter alternatives, because the predominant model for emergency domestic violence shelters relies on congregate living spaces. Because there are fewer shelter spaces, what folks end up doing is going to live with family and friends in a way that also puts family units at risk of contracting the coronavirus. Or, they decide to stay in a very unsafe, violent situation because there are no alternatives. I have a number of clients who have coronavirus and are very sick. They are trying to deal with their safety concerns, take care of their kids, figure out what to do about housing, while also dealing with this deadly virus. There’s also limited access to courts, so it’s very hard to get access to restraining orders. When eviction cases are going forward virtually that’s a huge barrier for clients who maybe don’t have stable wifi or smartphones.
For people who are in abusive relationships to find a safe space to even just talk to a lawyer or a service provider is a real challenge. We’re having to be very creative about when and where we make appointments. That’s been incredibly stressful and scary. Then you layer on top of that the economic devastation of the virus, the suffering is just really unprecedented. Even though we’re not physically in our offices, and we’re not able to build rapport and trust with people in ways that we used to do—and that we hope we will do again in the future—the need for connection is as high as it’s ever been.
On the benefits and shortcomings of an eviction moratorium: People are facing loss of housing in such astronomical rates right now because the Massachusetts moratorium has been lifted. Some people are protected by the federal moratorium, but not everyone. While we had it, it was incredibly powerful and the result was that people were able to stay in their homes during one of the most difficult periods in our state’s and in our country’s history. They didn’t have to deal with the trauma and rupture of housing loss in the midst of the pandemic.
What we’ve been seeing since October has been a real surge in people reaching out to us for help. All of the advocates I’m connected with on the housing and the domestic and sexual violence side, everyone was just in disbelief that the state moratorium would be lifted. They just couldn’t imagine it. I think there were political factors that pressured the governor not to extend the moratorium again, and he just let it expire. Now, it’s a disaster. It’s complete chaos in the housing courts, and people are losing their homes and being evicted. We have a huge snowstorm right now—like a foot of snow. There’s a coronavirus surge and no place for people to go, and no financial resources to help them transition to appropriate alternative housing. It’s really just shocking and disappointing and outrageous. I don’t know how else to describe what I’m seeing.
On attempts to mitigate the harm: There’s a new study about the correlation between COVID-19 deaths and the lifting of state moratoriums. Keeping people housed and also allowing them to get access to dispute resolution and rental assistance would have saved lives. What eviction diversion initiatives aim to do is really positive; to reduce the total number of evictions that go through court by doing a variety of early interventions, to provide rental assistance to address non-payment, to do out-of-court mediation, and increase the number of free lawyers for folks who do end up in court. Unfortunately, what we have is a highly adversarial, punitive system of evictions alongside a diversion program that is not completely staffed up and not operating at full capacity. There’s not nearly enough money in rental assistance allocated to address the total amount of money owed by tenants across the state, and there aren’t lawyers yet for everybody who needs them. These are all great ideas but meanwhile the eviction machine is ramping up. People should not be evicted during this time, period.
On rental assistance and eviction records: There’s just going to be a huge amount of rental debt following people around after this crisis. We need a shift in how we’re conceiving of rental assistance. We should move away from a sort of welfare benefit model, where tenants have to go through cumbersome bureaucratic procedures to get access to money as a bargaining chip to use through the eviction process to keep them housed. Instead we should impose a moratorium that prevents evictions, but allows landlords to get access to 100 percent compensation for the rent that is owed while taking that off of the tenants’ ledger. That would be a much better way to run these programs and ensure that the financial strain caused by COVID-19 is not going to follow people around for months, or years, after the pandemic is over.
We’re also going to see a massive increase in the number of cases coming through the courts, and people who never had any contact with courts, as well as very low-income people dealing with poverty, are going to have eviction records. We’re going to see people who are just locked out of the rental market at a huge rate as a result of being brought through the court system because of the economic devastation of COVID-19. Legislation to allow people to seal their eviction records, forgiving the debt, and then making sure that eviction actions are not like zombie marks on everyone’s records are all really important.
On the need for long-term solutions: The lack of enough safe affordable housing for all creates a perpetual scarcity of resources for people dealing with poverty and impacts survivors in particular. We need a guarantee of safe, affordable housing for all. That means an expansion of affordable housing programs sufficient to meet the need, and increased protections against the loss of housing. Societally, we should approach housing as a basic need that everyone should have access to no matter their income—like healthcare or public education. In a world in which there’s a right to housing, everybody has an opportunity to have a place to live, no matter how poor they are, no matter how disabled they are, no matter what their needs are. That’s the world I’m working towards.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trump has criticized the bill since it passed Congress last week, calling it a “disgrace” and demanding Congress bump up the $600 stimulus checks to $2,000. But, after a wave of criticism today—and the lapse of unemployment benefits—he caved.
“It is insane. It is really insane,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had said on Sunday of Trump’s refusal to sign the bipartisan legislation. “I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks,” said Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, “but the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire.”
The bill is not enough. But it will offer crucial money for those in need. Trump’s signature stops 14 million Americans from losing unemployment benefits, ensures a continued moratorium on evictions, and will bump more stimulus money into the economy. As I noted earlier today, that could be hugely beneficial for those who are suffering.
Vice President Mike Pence attends a campaign rally in Georgia.Spencer Platt/Getty
According to reporting by RealVail.com, a Vail, Colorado news outlet, Vice President Mike Pence is celebrating the holidays in the wealthy ski town. His frivolity is not the experience of many of those living in the United States—especially those struggling as they wait for the government to move toward a deal on a COVID relief bill that has stalled because of President Donald Trump.
On December 18, Pence received the first of two shots of the coronavirus vaccine. But until he has received his second the vaccination process is not complete. As of today, there have been over 19 million cases, with more than 200,000 reported yesterday.
Vail, Colorado is famously “tony,” a small ski town with a median income over $80,000. Gerald Ford, a fan of hitting the slopes, went to the valley often. It was dubbed, during his tenure, the “Western White House.
So while millions of Americans worry about how they will feed their families or make rent, Mike Pence is skiing. Trump, meanwhile, is golfing.
NBC News confirms that Vice President Mike Pence is currently vacationing in Vail, CO, having arrived earlier this week, and is set to fly out of the local airport after New Year's. Pence's office has not commented on his location.https://t.co/ZadRL78i3D
Despite the $600 stimulus checks being negotiated by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Trump criticized the amount for being too little and called on Congress to cut “pork” from the measure. Democrats happily joined Trump in attempting to bump the checks to $2000. But the new measure failed in the House.
This morning, Republicans have urged Trump to sign it on talk shows. “You don’t get everything you want, even if you’re the president of the United States,” said Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. But the money is still waiting, in limbo.
In the meantime, millions will suffer. What are the consequences of a lag in this aid? “Foreclosures, hunger, homelessness, suicide,” Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, told the New York Times.
But let us take this from the abstract.
For Rockie McMahan, the last day of unemployment relief was dolled out on Christmas Day, according to reporting by the Texas Tribune earlier this week. “I’m flat broke,” said the Amarillo, Texas woman, who was sleeping in her 2007 Ford Fusion. In Austin, Texas, another woman told a local TV station that she is down to her last $100. “I lost so much weight because I don’t eat. I can’t afford nothing,” a woman in San Antonio said to the Tribune.
In the next few months, tens of millions face potential eviction. An Ohio woman, Jo Marie Hernandez toldUSA Today she and her child “can’t wait a few weeks for help. We’re starving and will be out on the street soon.” According to data collected in a national survey by the Census Bureau, over 6 million Americans fear eviction or foreclosure is somewhat to very likely. In North Carolina, Washington D.C., and South Dakota, this number is highest—around 50 percent are worried about not making rent. In Arkansas, over 15 percent of households said they did not have enough food over the last seven days. Over 80 million say it has been difficult to pay basic household expenses. Food banks, and organizations that track hunger, say that over 50 million will have experienced food insecurity by the end of this year. Just last week, over a million Americans filed new unemployment claims.
On December 23, the New York Times reported that Nicole Craig spent the last $7 in her bank account on tinsel for a small tree for her child’s first Christmas.
“I’m really afraid of what’s going to happen,” she said, worried that the pandemic relief wouldn’t be coming.
The weekend before Christmas was a busy one for the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). On Saturday, in an emergency session, they unanimously approved the second COVID vaccine, this one from Moderna. On Sunday, ACIP held another emergency session during which they attempted to resolve a subject of intense debate: namely, who would be included in the next phase of the CDC’s coronavirus vaccine distribution recommendations.
The advisory committee is made up of pediatricians, epidemiologists, and vaccinologists from across the country. They look at the scientific data from FDA vaccine trials and recommend who should get which vaccines, when and how they should get them, and then follow up with official written guidelines. They had already determined that the people at the front of the vaccine line, also known as Phase 1a, should be healthcare workers and long-term care facility workers, and they’ve already been injected with the first shipments of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. But who should be included in Phase 1b? On Sunday, they announced that frontline essential workers—first responders, food and agriculture workers, public transit workers, teachers and school workers— and people 75 years and older are up next.
“The goal of the ACIP is to provide recommendations that maximize benefit, minimize harm, that address inequality and disparity,” says José Romero, a pediatrician and the chair of CDC’s ACIP. Romero is also Arkansas’ Secretary of Health, meaning that he helps write the guidelines and implement them at the state level.
Teachers were not a shoe-in for the next phase of vaccinations. While they certainly play an important role in America’s social infrastructure, both as educators and childcare providers, throughout the debate about which Americans do and don’t count as “essential workers,” teachers have occupied ambiguous space. Some states, like Alabama and Arizona, designated teachers as essential workers in the early days of the pandemic. Other states, like New York, did not. Now, the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine has re-upped the questions and controversies surrounding the essential workers’ designation.
Right now, with 2.9 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and 6 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine sent out in the first shipments, the coronavirus vaccine is a scarce resource, and state and local public officials are the ones who must prioritize who gets the vaccine first. Vaccinating teachers and school could mean the beginning of the end school closures, which has been one of the most disruptive aspects of the pandemic. Public schools across the nation serve over 50 million children. Students across the country have spent most of the past year doing school in front of a screen, but studies and analyses have noted the potential long-term academic, emotional, social, and physical effects.TL;DR: they aren’t good.
Ricardo Colon is an instructional coach and teacher at PS/IS 30, a K-8 public school that’s home to about 900 students in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This year he’s teaching English Language Arts to two classes of seventh graders, with about 30 students in each class. Though Colon goes into the school building, his students’ classes have been virtual this year. Some of Colon’s middle schoolers get shy about turning their cameras on, which can be challenging for English language learners who rely on facial cues to understand what their classmates are saying.
“It was always awesome to just shut your computer, push everything to the side, and just walk into the classroom and enjoy the kids—to hear their conversations, to see a teacher genuinely at work promoting student discussion and student thought,” says Colon. “And that’s what I miss most.”
In-person schooling provides structure that is especially important for kids who are English-language learners or have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). “I am worried that we might see some gaps that were widened a bit,” he says. The teachers and school staff at PS/IS 30 get tested once a week, and the school was forced to shut down for two weeks before Thanksgiving, and again the week before the winter holidays after staff tested positive for the virus.
Teachers across the country have balked against the pressure to return to their classrooms without appropriate safeguards, like access to PPE, frequent testing, and vaccinations. President Trump categorized teachers as essential workers last August in an effort to resume in-person education in the fall. In some states where teachers were forced to return to in-person teaching, like Tennessee and Florida, they were told that they should keep working after being exposed to the coronavirus instead of quarantining. Others participated in protests against unsafe in-person teaching and voiced concerns that teachers were being treated as “sacrificial.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), says that she stopped using the term “essential workers” after it became so dangerously politicized by the Trump Administration. “Teachers have always been essential, whether or not there’s a moniker or nomenclature placed on them,” says Weingarten. “The way in which Trump and [Secretary of Education Betsy] DeVos politicized this issue made most of us completely distrustful of their motives and intentions, and their actions showed they were not to be trusted.”
According to an AFT survey conducted in June 2020, 76 percent of their members were comfortable with going back to in-person teaching if provided with the proper safeguards. But as teachers saw the way in which the Trump administration was handling the pandemic, their confidence dropped. Weingarten heard constantly from teachers, via text, email, phone calls, and town halls, that the Trump administration made them feel expendable. They saw how the CDC watered down their guidance for the safeguards necessary to reopen schools. They saw that schools were being told to reopen without receiving any resources to purchase the PPE or do the testing that would make it possible to reopen safely. So in August, when President Trump announced that the federal government was designating teachers as essential workers, the trust was already broken.
“Their push on this was for political reasons,” Weingarten says, “whether to polarize teachers versus parents, or whether it was because they wanted good economic numbers for Trump going into the election.”
Jen Kates from the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has been analyzing the vaccine distribution plans across all 50 states and D.C., explains that the CDC’s decision to include teachers in Phase 1b of the vaccine distribution will have a big impact on what states decide to do.
“When we did our review that was released last week,” Kates says, “some states had mentioned teachers, but they hadn’t gotten that specific yet because they were waiting to get more guidance from CDC.”
The ACIP has been giving advice on how to administer vaccines— from smallpox to rubella to influenza— since 1964, but this is the most highly anticipated mass vaccination campaign in history. Over 300,000 people in the United States have died from the coronavirus. Infection levels continue to climb at catastrophic rates with over 200,000 new cases reported in the last week. As Americans settle in for what is shaping up to to be the pandemic’s dark winter, the spread of the disease will get worse before it gets better. Not to mention the downstream toll the pandemic will continue to take on hospitals as beds and ICUs fill up with new COVID-19 patients. With so much hope pinned on coronavirus vaccines as the golden ticket out of the pandemic and back to some semblance of normalcy, ACIP’s routine work has come under intense scrutiny–and pressure. Romero has been lobbied by associations representing sheriffs, fire fighters, teachers, camp counselors, and mental health providers, who are all trying to ensure their members are as close to the front of the vaccine line as possible.
On November 30, a coalition of teachers’ unions sent a letter to Romero asking that adults working in schools be given “priority access to vaccinations.” Weingarten also sent a letter to Romero asking specifically that teachers and school workers be included in the 1b category.
“Our students need us to be back in the front of the classroom,” says E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA). “That’s the best place for their educational experience, not only academically, but also socially, emotionally.”
California’s vaccine drafting guidelines working group has said that it is using four metrics to decide which professions get the vaccine first: societal impact, economic impact, equity, and occupational exposure. In the first two categories, teachers have a solid argument. Not only are they responsible for training the next generation to be kind, productive, and curious citizens, having children at home has also been seriously disruptive to parents in the workforce—especially women. The unemployment rate skyrocketed for everyone at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, but women were hit hardest of all, with their unemployment rate reaching a high of 15.7 percent in April 2020, hitting the double digits for the first time since 1948. This is partly because many women simply lost their jobs because of pandemic-related layoffs, but also because women bore the brunt of increased childcare duties with children home from school. These forces have led to this recession being known as a “she-cession.”
Weingarten and the Learning First Alliance letter have both pointed to another reason for vaccinating teachers early: schools could serve as vaccination sites. “Schools were vaccination sites for polio, for smallpox,” Weingarten says. “There’s no reason that we could not work with health facilities to do that here. And, frankly, schools are more trusted than most in terms of dealing with vaccine hesitancy.”
According to Kates from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the built-in infrastructure of schools will make this a more straightforward population to vaccinate. Teachers and school workers are an identifiable group with whom it’s easy to get in touch. Other groups, like those with high risk conditions, will be more difficult. This is an area that could be rife for abuse. For instance, the wealthy could use their means to get an advantageous diagnosis that could help them jump the line.
While the justifications for vaccinating teachers early were plentiful and ultimately persuasive, critics remain. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told The New York Times that teachers shouldn’t be prioritized for the vaccine because teachers “have middle-class salaries, are very often white, and they have college degrees.” Others suggest that if teachers are moved forward, other essential workers will necessarily be moved back. Truck drivers, for example, were relegated to Phase 1c.
Toby Boyd, the president of the California Teachers Association, emphasized that as important as the vaccine is, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. California—with one of the highest infection rates per capita in US—is a state where infections are high and on the rise. Boyd says vaccinations will have to be supplemented by other safety measures, like frequent testing and social distancing. At the same time, he suggests that the process of reopening schools can present an opportunity to fix some of their systemic problems.
“They need smaller class sizes where they can sit six feet apart, ventilation where they can breathe in clean air, and robust testing in order for us to truly feel safe in the classrooms,” he says. “There are so many things that we can do to push the reset and say, okay, this is our chance to make it better.”
While making it into Phase 1b feels like a victory for Weingarten, she points out that it’s only the very first step toward getting schools reopened. Teachers are one group within the 30 million people in Phase 1b, which means that many logistical hurdles remain, including producing enough vaccines, getting them to people, and making them free and accessible. “None of those questions are answered; we still don’t have a national plan,” she says. “The fact that the vaccines got out to so many health care facilities in the last two weeks is remarkable, but that’s only the first step.”
Of course, states don’t have to listen to the CDC recommendations at all, and the inclusion of teachers in the essential workers category has been hotly contested throughout the pandemic. So what if states just refuse to cooperate?
“That is always a possibility,” says Romero. “But we will provide a scientific rationale based on the current epidemiology of the disease that will inform the governors, and hopefully convince them that our recommendations are sound and are the best way to deliver vaccine to the populations at high risk.”
Despite the complications and the risks, Colon is optimistic that in-person schooling will resume eventually, with the added benefit that he and his fellow teachers will bring the technological skill they’ve acquired over many months of remote teaching back to the classroom with them.
“There’s something about a vibrant school building that really makes makes someone want to be a teacher, ” Colon says. “It’s the relationships with the children, it’s the seeing them in the hallway. Those interactions weigh just as much as the learning that happens in the classroom.”
A federal advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that frontline workers—grocery store workers, teachers, day-care staff, police, firefighters—and adults aged 75 and older should be next in line for the coronavirus vaccine.
The recommendations follow FDA approval Friday of the second vaccine, from Moderna. The vaccine from Pfizer and the German company BioNTech was approved December 11. It’s hard to know for sure how many people have been vaccinated thus far, but the New York Times estimated Friday that the total was at least 128,000 people across the country, many health care workers since the first vaccinations took place on December 14.
One of the first coronavirus vaccines was just administered to a Black woman, by a Black woman, both of who are frontline healthcare workers.
Even as optimism around the COVID vaccines offer some hope, news from the United Kingdom is there to remind us that 2020 isn’t quite done with us yet. The latest: Countries across Europe are restricting travel from the United Kingdom as that country grapples with an apparent surge in cases resulting from what appears to be an even more virulent coronavirus mutation. “The new variant is out of control,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC on Sunday. “This news about the new variant has been an incredibly difficult end to, frankly, an awful year.”
The Washington Post reported that Austria, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, and the Netherlands all announced travel bans on Sunday, with other nations expected to follow suit. The new variant, the Post reported, apparently speeds transmission of the virus. Hancock said this week that it was “highly unlikely” that the new strain would fail to respond to a vaccine. Meanwhile, Reuters reported Sunday that US health officials are monitoring the new strain. As of Sunday afternoon, the US State Department advised travelers to “reconsider travel” to the UK, but the travel advisory did not ban it.
All of this is happening while Congress edges closer to a COVID relief deal, which reportedly will be voted on as early as Sunday night. The deal includes $600 payments to adults and children (an amount that will be reduced for incomes over $75,000 and eliminated altogether at $99,000 annually). It also includes enhanced unemployment benefits through mid-March, and some relief for small businesses. It’s unclear how the relief deal handles funding for vaccine distribution, but earlier in the week reports suggested that $6 billion would be included for this, a figure lower than what groups representing health departments say is needed, CNBC reported on Monday.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized a second coronavirus vaccine made by Moderna on Friday, clearing the way for about 5.9 million more doses to become available in the United States to front-line health care workers. Pfizer, the company behind the first vaccine to be approved, says it shipped 2.9 million doses this past week.
Dr. Anthony Fauci told the New York Times, “never before has anybody even imagined you would get vaccines to people in less than a year from the time that the sequence was made known.”
That’s the good news. But the United States passed several new milestones this week. Pandemic fatigue, mask denial, and the holidays have helped fuel the skyrocketing rates of new cases.
The numbers vary slightly because of different methodologies but all the COVID trackers reported new all-time records for a single day of COVID cases: The New York Timessays there were more than 250,000 new cases recorded in a single day. According to the NYT tracker there were 1 million new cases in just five days this week. Data from Johns Hopkins University and CNN reported 249,709 new coronavirus cases, while the Covid Tracking Project by the Atlantic found 228,825 new cases, a 9.5 percent increase in a day.
There are now more than 305,000 who have died in the United States. That number will continue to rise as cases climb. According to the NYT: “Three hundred thousand is more than the number of Americans who died fighting in World War II. It is roughly half the number of total cancer deaths expected this year. It is the population of Pittsburgh.”
As the pandemic’s toll grows worse, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color have been hit the hardest.
Meanwhile, Congress’ talks over a relief package have extended into the weekend as unemployment benefits expire for 12 million Americans over the holidays. The president doesn’t appear to be concerned. Based on a Mother Jones analysis as of December 16, out of the 729 tweets Trump sent since Election Day, not a single one acknowledged the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic or encouraged Americans to take any precautions. Just 2 percent of his tweets mentioned the coronavirus at all.
As the first shipments of the coronavirus vaccine are unpacked from the Styrofoam and dry ice and loaded into hospital freezers, the scramble to secure a place in line for the limited supplies is intensifying.
Across the United States, the first doses are earmarked for front-line health care workers; in most states, next will be the long-term care residents who have suffered most acutely from COVID outbreaks. A Centers for Disease Control panel making vaccine priority recommendations appears likely to designate the next wave of vaccinations, known as phase 1b, for “essential workers.” But the definition of “essential” is slippery: By some counts, including a rubric published by a Department of Homeland Security agency, “essential workers” include about 70 percent of the US workforce. That means states, which have final say on vaccine distribution, will need to set priorities—and industry representatives are eager to help them do so.
Who comes next is already the focus of a lobbying frenzy. “Priority 1a for us is getting our employees into that ‘priority 1b’ priority group,” Bryan Zumwalt, the executive vice president of public affairs for the Consumer Brands Association, which represents manufacturers like Colgate-Palmolive and Kellogg’s, told Quartz this week. Other industries lobbying for phase 1b priority include pesticide manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms, and zoo and aquarium operators, according to the Intercept. Same goes for airlines, including companies that either never instituted capacity restraints on flights or dropped social distancing measures.
Some of the other industries that want vaccines sooner rather than later have kept their workers on the job during the pandemic with few workplace protections. Take, for instance, the meat industry, whose executives have been talking about how their workers deserve vaccine priority, according to the Wall Street Journal. In early December, national associations for producers of beef and pork as well as the North American Meat Institute sent a letter to governors requesting meat industry workers receive “very high priority” for the vaccine because they constituted “critical infrastructure.” Those workers—a great many of whom are immigrants—”have been on the front lines ensuring Americans have access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food,” the trade groups said. But keeping meatpackers on the line has come with a steep human cost: at least 51,433 have been infected and 262 have died from COVID-19 as of mid-December, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network.
COVID-19 spread so rapidly in meatpacking plants in part because their employees spend physically demanding 8- to 12-hour shifts often working shoulder-to-shoulder. Matters weren’t helped when President Donald Trump, following weeks of lobbying by meat companies, issued an executive orderdrafted by the industry that kept plants open even as their case rates were spiking. Company policies also played a role. “Some employees were incentivized to work while ill as a result of medical leave and disability policies and attendance bonuses that could encourage working while experiencing symptoms,” said a May CDC report. This fall, OSHA fined Smithfield Foods for “failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus” at one South Dakota plant that became country’s top coronavirus hotspot. At a Colorado plant run by JBS, the largest meatpacker in the world, one worker was told she would lose her job if she took two weeks off to follow a doctor’s order to quarantine, according to a Mother Jones investigation; the company also gave bonuses to employees with good attendance records even after its first confirmed infection.
Also lining up for a shot at early shots are the gig economy giants Uber, Lyft, and Doordash. This month, Uber and Doordash sent letters to the CDC and every governor asking for early access to the vaccine. A representative for Lyft said it was working on the issue with state and local policymakers. Earlier this year, on-demand delivery and ride-hailing companies spent about $205 million on a successful California ballot initiative exempting them from a law that reclassified their workers as full employees eligible for overtime pay, health benefits, and paid time off—benefits that would be even more crucial during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has made gig work even more precarious. Under pressure from gig worker advocacy groups, companies rolled out programs to provide payments to drivers who got sick even as they were incentivizing workers to keep taking gigs, my colleague Jacob Rosenberg reported. And workers reported being unable to access the extra funding touted by the companies. (“Instacart has still not provided essential protections to Shoppers on the front lines that could prevent them from becoming carriers, falling ill themselves, or worse,” the Gig Workers Collective wrote during an Instacart strike in March. “Instacart’s promise to pay Shoppers up to 14 days of pay if diagnosed or placed in mandatory quarantine not only falls short, but isn’t even being honored.”)
President Donald Trump on the golf course on November 26.Tasos Katopodis/Getty
On Wednesday, as the United States hit new records for the number of daily deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, President Donald Trump was, as usual, tweeting about the election he lost more than a month ago. While he was typing a flurry of false claims about “massive FRAUD,” the country’s total death toll was passing 300,000.
Reading Trump’s recent tweets, you would never know the United States is in the midst of a surging pandemic that is killing more than 2,000 people a day. Of his 729 tweets between November 3 and December 16, more than two-thirds were about his attempts to reverse his election loss through baseless claims of voter fraud and far-fetched lawsuits. The pandemic was just a blip: Four percent of his tweets were about vaccines and just two percent mentioned the coronavirus at all—without ever acknowledging its human cost or encouraging Americans to take precautions to protect themselves or others from getting sick.
November 16 was typical: After nearly a dozen tweets about his recent defeat (“I won the election!”), he bragged that news of the Moderna vaccine’s efficacy had boosted the stock market. “For those great ‘historians’, please remember that these great discoveries, which will end the China Plague, all took place on my watch!” he gushed. That was followed by a quick dunk on the nation’s allies: “European Countries are sadly getting clobbered by the China Virus.” Then it was back to normally scheduled programming: more angry tweets about the effort to undo President-elect Joe Biden’s win.
Since December 1, as the pandemic has entered its most deadly period in the United States, Trump has mentioned the coronavirus just three times on Twitter. Twotweets were about getting kids back to in-person school. The other was an announcement that his lawyer Rudy Giuliani—”who has been working tirelessly exposing the most corrupt election (by far!) in the history of the USA”—had tested positive for “the China Virus.”
Of course, Trump’s efforts to downplay the pandemic are nothing new, from his initial denial of its risks to his suggestion earlier this fall that deaths in Democratic states shouldn’t be counted. In the past six weeks, the closest Trump’s tweets have come to noting the virus’ impact in the US was an attempt to downplay the death toll in a November 21 message in which he defensively accused the media of not mentioning “that far fewer people are dying when they get Covid.” Within less than a month, Biden’s election victory would be confirmed (again) and another 50,000 Americans would be dead from COVID-19. So far, Trump hasn’t acknowledged either.
It was still dark when Veronica Perez arrived at Primex Farms, a nut-packing facility in California’s Kern County. Crickets murmured in the almond and pistachio groves stretching for acres in all directions. Once inside the building’s mirrored doors, Perez would usually stand next to other sorters alongside a conveyor belt, picking out blemished pistachios. But on June 25, at 4:30 a.m., Perez didn’t go in. Instead, for the next five hours, she and about 40 of her co-workers formed a picket line. More circled and honked in their cars. They held homemade signs with the names of co-workers who had the coronavirus. One sign in Spanish read, “The wise see danger and leave, but the foolish go on and suffer the consequences.” The employees chanted, “¡Somos esenciales!”: We are essential.
Perez, who is 42, had worked in California packing plants ever since she arrived from Mexico City 25 years ago, but she had never joined a walkout or protest. There hadn’t been many to join. But in recent months, things at Primex had become unbearable. In April, after employees requested the right to bring in masks to wear on the job, the company allegedly prohibited it. When it relented and allowed masks, it sold them for $8 apiece, according to several workers. (Primex denies ever selling masks.)
By May, employees at the 400-person plant were falling ill. Sick workers who stayed home went unpaid, so some kept coming to work with hacking coughs. Primex remained tight-lipped about any illnesses. When Perez asked the HR manager about a colleague who had contracted the virus, she recalled, the manager told her to “go home and stay there and not tell anyone about it.”
Remigio Ramirez, a 54-year-old maintenance worker, told his boss in mid-June that he wasn’t feeling well. The supervisor still encouraged him to come in since the team was already short-staffed. A few days later, Ramirez was diagnosed with COVID-19. He stayed home, isolating in his bedroom. “When I got up the next day, I didn’t see anyone—not my wife, not my daughters,” he says. “And I thought to myself, What’s happening? Did they leave me alone? But no, each one was in their room, sick.”
Over the summer, the coronavirus tore through the Central Valley, the vast, fertile interior of California that produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of its fruits and nuts. (Primex processes an estimated 6 percent of the state’s pistachios, most of which are exported.) By late July, the Kern County fairgrounds had been transformed into a federal surge testing site, and more than one in five coronavirus tests in the county were coming back positive. “The problem we’re seeing is not whether you’re going to get infected,” Armando Elenes, the secretary treasurer of the United Farm Workers (UFW), told me at the time. “It’s no longer a matter of if—it’s a matter of when.”
On June 23, Primex told a local news channel that 31 workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Employees who saw the broadcast were shocked: The company hadn’t told them about the cases, which it had confirmed about two weeks earlier. Ramirez seethed at the betrayal. “They said that they were going to let us know if anyone came down with it,” he says, “but they didn’t.” Primex didn’t comment on the alleged lack of communication to employees, but stated in an email: “We began implementing anti–virus spreading steps long before the CDC guidelines were published. We are proud to say that we are one of the cleanest and most sanitized plants in the industry.”
Barely 5 feet tall, with an often-furrowed brow and a quiet voice, Perez never imagined herself becoming a labor organizer. “I’m not the loudest,” she admits, speaking through a translator. “I believe the message can be better communicated with control and poise.” Yet Perez knew what it looked like when a company turned a blind eye to its employees’ health. Years ago, she was injured at an almond packing plant and fired. A single mom of three kids, she suddenly found herself with no job and no medical help. “They use you until you can’t give any more of you—and once you have a problem, they’ll get rid of you like you’re nothing,” she says. She got through that crisis with support from Líderes Campesinas, an advocacy group for female agricultural workers. But it made her realize just how vulnerable she and her peers on the bottom rungs of the food system were. “I figured that if this happened to me, most likely it’s happening to many other women,” she says. Perez started attending Líderes Campesinas’ workshops on immigration law and workers’ rights, eventually volunteering with the group and joining its governing board.
The day the news of the Primex outbreak broke, Perez messaged the UFW’s Elenes, who created a WhatsApp group, called Justicia en Primex Farms, for concerned workers. (Primex isn’t unionized, but the UFW advocates for agricultural workers regardless of union status, Elenes says.) The next day, 100 people—a quarter of the facility’s workforce—had joined. That evening, they gathered on Zoom, many using the video platform for the first time, to plan a demonstration the following morning.
When dozens of her co-workers showed up for the walkout early on June 25, Perez was thrilled at the turnout and terrified of the possible consequences. She carried a sign listing three demands: sick pay, job protection, and respect. Ramirez, who had tested positive the week before, joined the protest from the confines of his car.
“Most workers prefer to always keep quiet for fear of losing their jobs or for fear of retaliation,” Perez said in a text message. “I was amazed myself at the quick response we got from our co-workers. It may be that everyone is tired of always staying silent.”
“¡Somos esenciales!” is a double-edged phrase: an overdue acknowledgment of the economic role immigrants play and a cudgel with which to keep them on the job. As the country went into lockdown in March, President Donald Trump declared that essential workers, including farmworkers, “have a special responsibility” to maintain normal work hours. Pickers and packers, including Primex employees, started carrying cards or letters from their employers identifying them as essential workers. “I am a farm worker helping to protect our food supply during the coronavirus pandemic,” read the letter a berry picker shared with me. “My job is considered essential so that we can produce food.” In theory, these pieces of paper, tucked away in pockets and wallets, could deter curious cops or ICE agents.
The federal government estimates that half of farmworkers are undocumented. The rate for food packers, like Primex’s employees, is thought to be lower than farmworkers’ but much higher than the overall workforce’s. These workers are critical to feeding the country, but deportable at the drop of a hat. The pandemic has only made this contradiction more manifest. Undocumented workers don’t benefit from federal coronavirus relief measures, such as expanded unemployment insurance. While federal legislation and policy expansions by California Gov. Gavin Newsom eventually granted essential food workers two weeks of paid sick leave, or “COVID pay,” enforcement has been spotty. “If an employer is not paying them covid pay, that sends a message to everybody else to not say anything,” Elenes says. And if an undocumented worker loses their job, they don’t get the standard unemployment stipend that federal or state relief promises to citizens. “Most employees accept that they don’t have health insurance. But not having any income? That’s not something they can resolve.”
So begins a potentially deadly feedback loop: The fear of lost wages and deportation breeds silence, which in turn increases the risk of transmitting COVID. The mentality is, “If I feel good, even though I have the virus, I’m not going to tell you,” explains one farmworker in the Central Valley town of Lost Hills. “The farm supervisors aren’t interested in if you have it or not. You might feel sick, but it’s fine—as long as you don’t die.”
“People are scared to say anything—or they take it like it’s a common cold, and they continue going to work,” says a 46-year-old I’ll call Esperanza, who works at a nursery near Oxnard. The nursery wouldn’t give out masks, and her co-workers came in sick, knowing they wouldn’t get paid if they stayed home. Esperanza spoke to me over the phone in a quiet, cracking voice; just a couple of weeks before, she had come down with the coronavirus.
Even without this shroud of silence, agricultural workers are especially vulnerable to the pandemic. Some live in dormitories for temporary workers, where the virus proliferates. It’s common to carpool to job sites, which include greenhouses and packing houses with limited ventilation. Oil fields and freeways contribute to the Central Valley’s atrocious air quality; Bakersfield and Fresno have the worst particle pollution in the country. Rates of respiratory ailments like asthma and Valley Fever, a fungal lung disease, have soared. And for much of August and September, a ring of wildfires blanketed the fields in a hot, dense smog.
It’s no surprise that farmworker organizing and labor actions are a rarity. Less than 2 percent of farmworkers are unionized. “It just seems like an insane proposition to go out on strike,” says Lucas Zucker, communications and policy director of the advocacy group Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “Without a union who’s really organizing and providing support and assuring you of your legal rights, it can be really daunting. So it only does happen when people really reach a breaking point.”
As some pickers and packers reached that breaking point, there have been blips of COVID-related organizing up and down the West Coast. In the month before the Primex walkout, hundreds of fruit packers in Washington’s Yakima Valley left production lines to protest a lack of safety precautions and hazard pay. In Santa Maria, California, strawberry pickers walked off the job to protest wages falling just as many families were particularly cash-strapped. Blueberry pickers near Fresno also struck over a wage cut, standing by the fields waving red-and-black UFW flags.
Could the pandemic and the recognition of agricultural workers as essential begin to change the power dynamic between farmworkers and their employers? I took the question to Marshall Ganz, who once worked as the UFW’s organizing director and now lectures at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Where do you find courage to take risk? Grievances don’t generate courage. They generate anger or rage. They generate despair. So unless there’s some hope source, people don’t really engage,” he says. “Hope isn’t about certainty at all—it’s just about possibility.”
“So then the question is, under these conditions, are there unusual or new sources of possibility?”
The demonstration at Primex had an immediate impact: Within 24 hours, the company closed its processing facility for cleaning. Amid a flurry of local news reports about the outbreak, executives announced a plan to set up a mobile testing unit and implement other safety precautions, like installing Plexiglas dividers at the sorting tables, and more outdoor seating areas so employees could spread out during breaks.
When the plant reopened fully after a week, about 60 workers protested outside, alleging that Primex still wasn’t cleaning adequately or providing sick pay. But this demonstration lasted only a few hours. “We went back because we needed the work,” Perez says.
Meanwhile, suspecting that more people had been infected than the 31 that the company reported, employees started a coronavirus census, counting whoever had gotten sick. Primex is a 24-hour operation, and the texts started to the group thread coming in day and night; Elenes recalls waking up and finding message after message from upset employees. One woman reported that not only was she infected, she had exposed at least 16 family members. The youngest person in the Primex cluster was 6 months old.
In late June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation. (It is ongoing, and OSHA did not respond to requests for comment.) By mid-summer, the employee-led count found that 97 of Primex’s 400 employees had tested positive, along with more than 60 family members. A week later, the mobile testing unit provided by the company would find that a total of 150 employees had been infected.
In mid-July, a 57-year-old Primex employee named Maria Hortencia Lopez was taken off life support. Perez had known Lopez as a lively co-worker who often brought in fruit to share and who asked after Perez’s kids. “I couldn’t believe that a person so full of life, such a happy and a good person, suddenly isn’t with you anymore,” she says.
Perez couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this could have been prevented. “That’s what hurts the most.”
The lack of basic workplace protections for farmworkers is by design. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, securing private sector employees’ right to collective bargaining and catalyzing an explosion of union membership. Under the law, workers could bring complaints of unfair labor practices to the newly created National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which could sanction offending employers. But Northern Democrats couldn’t pass the legislation without the support of Southern Democrats, who wouldn’t sign on to anything that threatened the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow. So lawmakers made a devastating concession: Packers, canners, and other “mechanical” food workers were covered by the NLRA, but farmworkers and domestic workers were not, effectively excluding two-thirds of the Black workforce from its benefits.
Three years after the passage of the NLRA came the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guaranteed a minimum wage and overtime pay. Again, to appease Southern Democrats, farmworkers and domestic laborers were excluded. These compromises, made to enshrine the legacy of slavery, continue to define conditions in the fields today. As Ira Katznelson wrote in his 2013 history of the New Deal, Fear Itself, “The South permitted American liberal democracy the space within which to proceed, but it restricted American policymaking to what I call a ‘southern cage,’ from which there was no escape.” Nearly century-old decisions are still shaping farmworkers’ lives, says Lori Flores, a historian of Latinx labor and politics at Stony Brook University: “What we’re seeing now is exactly what was happening in public discourse 100 years ago—this idea that farmworkers have always been this separate workforce that doesn’t need to be considered in federal protection.”
The official indifference toward agricultural workers persisted as their demographics shifted. During the Second World War, Mexicans were enlisted through the Bracero program to fill the labor void on farms and railroads. The program encouraged seasonal workers to come to the United States legally and reside in labor camps that were, in theory, supposed to meet health and labor standards, but in practice were unregulated, exploitative, and sometimes lethal. The program coincided with a rise in undocumented migrants, deemed “wetbacks” because many had forded the Rio Grande to enter the country.
For the food industry, the Bracero program was the root of “the arrogance that you will always have this bottomless reservoir of migrant labor,” Flores says. “Whether they are legal guest workers, undocumented, or citizens, migrant workers all feel the same kind of vulnerability to being fired, to losing their jobs, to not being able to advance within an industry or make a living wage.”
A 1951 report by the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor found that undocumented migrant workers suffered appalling work conditions, “grossly inadequate” housing, and “little opportunity to participate in influencing their wage rates.” “Since the ‘wetback’ has no legal rights he can make no demands, so is often preferred by the employer to the alien laborer brought in under intergovernmental agreement,” it stated. The report also noted that health problems disproportionately afflict migrant workers, issuing a warning that reverberates today: “The conditions contributing to this situation endanger not only the health of the migrant but that of the community as well.”
Such was the state of things when Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong established the United Farm Workers in 1966. The farm labor movement is often depicted as taking off thanks to Chavez’s singular charisma, but it also succeeded because it focused primarily on the rights of legal migrants and US citizens denied basic protections that other workers had enjoyed since the New Deal. “They took advantage of civil rights discourse and applied it and extended it to people who the average American wouldn’t normally think was undergoing their own civil rights struggles,” Flores says. Yet Chavez saw undocumented workers as strikebreakers, a threat to the movement he was trying to organize. He criticized growers who relied on them, and called for enhancing the Border Patrol; he also directed UFW workers to personally monitor the border. “As long as we have a poor country bordering California, it’s going to be very difficult to win strikes,” he said in a 1972 interview.
The UFW’s defining moment was its grape campaign: a series of boycotts, marches, and strikes demanding higher wages and union representation for California’s grape pickers. Many Americans first learned of the movement in 1966, when Chavez led hundreds of farmworkers on a 340-mile march through the Central Valley. The march began in Delano, just 15 miles from Primex.
Because farmworkers didn’t enjoy the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, they instead relied on secondary boycotts, encouraging consumers to avoid non-union produce. A vast network of organizers led protests outside grocery stores, distributing iconic UFW grape boycott pins. “It was all about getting the average housewife or the average shopper going into their grocery store to make a choice: not to buy non-union lettuce or grapes,” Flores says. “If they could just make that one choice, then even if they lived in New Jersey, or Minnesota, they could help farmworkers struggling in California.” Even dockworkers in Europe refused to unload American “scab grapes.”
The late ’60s and ’70s marked a brief golden era for the UFW. At its peak, the union was 50,000 members strong, having lobbied successfully for the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first state law in the country allowing collective bargaining among farmworkers.
Those days were short-lived. California’s corporate growers found ways around the union contracts, restructuring after they expired so that a new union would have to be formed from scratch. In one common workaround still used today, growers set up trucks in the fields where freshly picked produce is packed by workers who can be categorized as “farmworkers” exempt from the New Deal protections. Free trade agreements, so-called right-to-work laws, and a host of Supreme Court decisions have made it even harder for farmworkers (and all workers) to form and join unions.
Yet much of the UFW’s fall was internal, fueled by Chavez’s increasing paranoia and refusal to decentralize power. After Chavez befriended the founder of the self-help cult Synanon, he subjected union leadership to “the Game,” a practice of spewing personal attacks in the name of therapy. “It began to cut the heart out of the union: purges, witch hunts, all of that stuff,” Ganz recalls. “The worst thing was that worker leadership who wanted to try to step up…were treated as traitors, and they were fired.” The union went into a downward spiral as key members left and fewer contracts were renegotiated. When civil wars in Central America led to mass migration to the United States in the 1980s, the UFW didn’t make overtures to bring the new arrivals into the fold, Flores says. “Its intense anti-‘wetback’ rhetoric was really damaging,” she says. In the following years, wages dropped, fringe benefits dried up, and living conditions worsened, Flores notes in her history of California farm labor, Grounds for Dreaming.
Today, there are roughly 1 million hired farmworkers across the country; the UFW represents just 7,500 of them. In many ways, pickers and packers face the same conditions as the grape strikers did in the 1960s—a model “rooted in plantation economics,” as Zucker, of CAUSE, put it. Only five states entitle farmworkers to overtime pay. In New York, overtime for farmworkers is defined as more than 60 hours a week. Lawmakers “are still pushing the boundaries of trying to make farmworkers seem like they’re not like other types of workers—that they can stay treated differently, and their bodies can stand to undergo more harm,” Flores says.
Even in California, where farmworkers have the right to collective bargaining and overtime pay, “the laws on the books aren’t the laws in the fields,” Zucker says. In theory, workers can complain to the state division of occupational safety and health, but in practice, aggrieved workers, who may be undocumented, poor, and not native English speakers, find the process difficult to navigate. Hazel Davalos, the community organizing director at CAUSE, says her group refers people with complaints to the state agency, but “if the worker doesn’t chicken out the moment they ask for their name, will Cal/OSHA actually come when their nearest office is like three hours away? Probably not. And if they’re strapped for resources? Probably not. And during a pandemic? Forget about it.”
Fixing this undeniably broken system would require legislation to improve and expand federal worker protections. But in the absence of the political will to do that, Flores says, a lot could be gained from taking a page out of the UFW’s old playbook for mobilizing consumer choice. Florida’s tomato industry provides something of a model. A decade of organizing by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers led to the creation of the Fair Food Program, which ensures workers on participating farms a penny-per-pound premium on top of minimum wage and basic safety standards like shade and water. Farm owners are guaranteed business from sellers, who can boast about their ethical practices to consumers. The program has gotten buy-in across the supply chain, including big customers like Taco Bell and Walmart. “I want to see Fair Food programs expand to not only other food items, but to also bring back that idea of visual power,” Flores says. “I’d love to see it more in grocery stores.”
Shoppers already know what labels to look for to make sure their produce is pesticide-free and their chickens had space to roam. What if that same transparency applied to the workers who harvested and packaged their food? And what better time than now—as Americans hang signs thanking essential workers of all stripes—to make amends for the decades that farmworkers have been denied a seat at the table?
In other parts of the food industry, workers have seized this moment to demand—and secure—change. The spring brought a series of deadly, highly publicized coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants across the country. As of mid-December, more than 50,000 meatpacking workers had contracted the virus, 262 of whom have died, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. The spring was “horrendous at best,” says Mark Lauritsen, director of the food processing and meatpacking division of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 70 percent of beef workers, 60 percent of pork workers, and a third of poultry workers.
In the calamity—and the outpouring of public sentiment that came with it—Lauritsen and his colleagues saw an opening. They busied themselves pushing through labor standards and wage increases at unionized JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield facilities. Union activists were able not only to secure hazard pay, but to make it into a permanent fixture. Now, the base hourly pay at some union shops has increased by $2; at several plants, the lowest-paid workers make between $18 and $20 an hour. “If these plants were going to be able to attract and retain workers in a pandemic, quite honestly, they just had to do it,” Lauritsen says. “They couldn’t afford a massive wave of disruptions during this time. So it was just a matter of leverage and time.” Still, Lauritsen acknowledges that “those folks on farms have struggled with the same issues that essential workers across this country have—they’ve just been left out because the law is set up against them.”
The challenges farmworkers must surmount to eke out even modest gains were evident during a protest last spring at Rancho Laguna, a raspberry and strawberry farm in Santa Maria, California, that supplies the berry giant Driscoll’s. In May, pickers walked off the job to protest changes to quality standards that slowed workers down, effectively lowering their wages. The action didn’t last long after Rancho Laguna called the local sheriff’s office. No one was arrested, but the sight of uniformed officers in the fields was enough to put an end to the walkout. When workers tried to deliver a petition to a Driscoll’s facility, the company also called the cops.
CAUSE helped the workers, who are not unionized, file a complaint with the state and put together an online petition signed by 60,000 people. The group also warned the farm owner, who happened to be a Santa Barbara County planning commissioner, that they would attend his next public commission meeting if he didn’t meet with them. The petition’s success appears to have done the trick: Driscoll’s president got on the phone with workers, and the farm owner agreed to increase the rate to $2.10 per flat. Driscoll’s noted that it “had limited involvement regarding the wage discussions as that would have interfered with the operations of the separate and independent business of Rancho Laguna Farms.” In a public statement, Rancho Laguna’s owner promised to ensure that workers feel safe, adding that he should have met with his employees before calling the sheriff.
After all that, wages increased by about $13 a day. While the result was ultimately a win, it also underscored how much organizing it takes to “get even the most bare bits of human dignity in the workplace” for farmworkers, Zucker concedes. “It’s unclear to me how long that public sympathy will last after the pandemic—and if that’s long enough to really make systemic change.”
Following the summer’s wins for workers, the atmosphere at Primex became increasingly oppressive. In late July, about a month after the first protest, dozens of workers lost their jobs when Primex ended its contract with a temporary staffing agency. The company attributed the reduction to typical seasonal changes, but according to employees and the UFW, the cuts included many of the employees most critical of Primex’s pandemic response. “Everyone knows why those employees were fired,” Perez says. “They put their health at risk. And even after they got sick, and after they got better, they were fired.”
Primex brought in new workers the same day, according to the UFW, which filed a complaint about the firings with the NLRB. (The case is open; Primex didn’t comment on it but said of the UFW, “all they do is just play the blame game without any accountability.”) When the board decides, the fired workers will likely have moved on, says Elenes. “They just delay, delay, delay, so by the time you actually win, it’s a really hollow victory.”
Perez and Ramirez say they were separately called into meetings that included Primex’s manager of human resources and were instructed to retract statements they’d made to the media. The company would close because of all the bad press, a manager said, and if it went down, it would be because of employees like them. “They said, ‘This company should mean something to you,’” recalls Ramirez, who has worked at Primex for 13 years. The HR manager told Perez that “her head was hurting from hearing me talk so much, and she didn’t want to hear from me anymore.” (A complaint to the NLRB accuses Primex of “making coercive statements to employees.” Other complaints allege that Primex retaliated by giving Ramirez a more demanding schedule, and by demoting Perez to on-call status.)
In July, one of Perez’s colleagues tried to record a video inside the plant showing that social distancing and mask-wearing weren’t happening consistently. Primex disciplined the employee, according to another nlrb complaint, and the company required workers to sign a policy prohibiting video recording on-site. Perez refused to sign. “That’s when [the production manager] pulled me into the office. He likes to scream a lot,” she recalls.
“I’m very short, and he’s tall,” Perez said in a virtual panel put together the same day by Líderes Campesinas. She began to weep. “It makes me want to cry because my co-workers…I’ve tried to be really strong in front of them, but I can’t anymore.” When they spoke up, things got worse. “We’re only asking for a safe place to work,” she exclaimed. “What do we have to do?”
In theory, Primex workers could form a union. But with so many vocal workers gone, and others exhausted and afraid of retaliation, there’s not much appetite for the lengthy unionization process. Elenes often runs into this roadblock: Workers put in so much energy to get the basics like masks or an extra 20 cents per flat of strawberries, that the organizing peters out after the first win. “It’s short-term thinking. And employers know this,” he says. “But the issues usually are much bigger and deeper than that. And that requires a much bigger commitment, which sometimes they’re not ready for.”
Fifty years ago, with the farmworkers’ movement ascendant, the conditions at Primex “would have been an invitation to organize,” says Ganz, the former UFW organizer. “There’d be a grievance, and people would call out the union to come and help.” Today, it’s much harder to see how conditions will get better anytime soon. There’s no shortage of reasons for anger or despair. Are there any sources of hope?
When I put the question to Perez, I feel silly even asking it. To my surprise, she responds with a resounding yes. “Hope never dies,” she says, as if stating the obvious. “It doesn’t matter if I get fired. It doesn’t matter if I get yelled at. Nothing will make me quiet my voice.” At the same time, she is clear-eyed about the pace of progress. “I understand that this probably isn’t going to be beneficial for me or my co-workers—probably not even in our generation.” If history is any guide, it could take decades for her labor to bear fruit.
This article was featured in Mother Jones’s January/February 2021 print issue, and has been updated to reflect research and editorial changes.