10 things you need to know today: January 16, 2021

·8 min read

1.

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday doubled down on his plan to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots to Americans within his first 100 days in office, calling the rollout so far a "dismal failure." So far just 10 million Americans have gotten their first vaccine doses. If necessary, Biden said in a speech he'd invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up vaccine production. He'd then mobilize the National Guard, FEMA, and public health workers to give the federal government a bigger role in distribution. And to ensure "equity" in vaccinations, he promised a national public education campaign and pushed states to let people 65 and older get the vaccine. These proposals build upon the $160 billion Biden promised he'd put toward vaccines in his stimulus package. [Vox, CNBC]

2.

The extra-contagious COVID-19 variant that is now spreading in the U.S. will likely become the dominant source of infection across the country in the coming months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday. The coronavirus variant, which is believed to be more contagious but not inherently more deadly, could lead to huge new spikes in cases and deaths by March. Though just 76 cases of the variant have been recorded, scientists believe case counts will quickly multiply without intensive preventative measures. "We're concerned," said the CDC's Dr. Jay Butler. "We want to sound the alarm and urge people to continue to do the things that we know work." Both COVID-19 vaccines approved in the U.S. have been found to be effective against the variant. [Stat News, The New York Times]

3.

Vice President Mike Pence has reportedly called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to offer his congratulations. Pence and Harris spoke over the phone Thursday, with Pence congratulating the incoming vice president and offering "his belated assistance," The New York Times reported Friday. This is the first time Pence and Harris have spoken since their debate in October. President Trump has yet to speak with President-elect Joe Biden since the election, having spent more than two months falsely claiming to have won. Pence may invite Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, to the vice-presidential residence prior to next week's inauguration. Trump is reportedly expected to leave Washington, D.C. the morning of the inauguration. The president previously confirmed he will skip Biden's swearing-in, but Pence is expected to attend. [The New York Times, The Associated Press]

4.

The United States government on Friday night executed Dustin Higgs — the 13th federal death row inmate to be executed since the Justice Department resumed federal capital punishment in July 2019 after a 17- year gap — at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Supreme Court declined to stay the final execution under the Trump administration (President-elect Joe Biden has opposed the death penalty), despite an appeal from Higgs' attorney Shawn Nolan. Higgs, along with two other men, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering three women in 1996. He has maintained his innocence of the murder, proclaiming with his final words, per CNN, "I'd like to say I am an innocent man. I did not order the murders." Nolan argued the execution should be delayed because Higgs was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, and also that he was unfairly sentenced considering the actual gunman is serving a life sentence. [NPR, CNN]

5.

India on Saturday began what is likely the world's largest coronavirus vaccination rollout when the country's first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. The government of the world's second most populous nation is hoping to provide shots for 300 million people by the summer, beginning with 30 million frontline health care workers, followed by 270 million people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. New Delhi has granted emergency approval to the vaccine produced by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, which also received a green light in the United Kingdom, as well as one developed by Bharat Biotech, an Indian pharmaceutical company. The latter has gone through early stage trials, but Bharat Biotech has yet to provide any data. [The Associated Press, The Washington Post]

6.

A reserve of second-dose COVID-19 vaccines set to be repurposed as first doses is already empty, state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans tell The Washington Post. Both the coronavirus vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. require two doses to be fully effective. So when distribution of first doses began, the Trump administration held back matching second doses to make sure recipients would be fully protected against COVID-19. Amid a massive demand for more doses, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced earlier this week that the department would begin doling out those reserved doses to more people, saying increased production speed would make up for the soon-to-be-depleted reserve. But as officials soon learned, the federal government had stopped stockpiling second dose vaccines weeks ago, they tell the Post, and the U.S. had already reached its maximum distribution capacity. [The Washington Post]

7.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sent the White House a departure letter this week, NBC News reports. While he clarified he will continue in his role until Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden assumes office, Azar was critical of President Trump's post-election actions, particularly his role in the deadly riot at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6. "Unfortunately, these actions and rhetoric following the election, especially during the past week, threaten to tarnish these and other historic legacies of this administration," he wrote, referring to the rapid development of two vaccines to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Azar said the riot was an "assault on our democracy and on the tradition of peaceful transitions of power" in the United States. Azar stopped short of resigning, however, because he wants to ensure a "smooth transition" to the Biden administration "with the pandemic raging." [The Hill, NBC News]

8.

President Trump's approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, with a significant drop among Republicans. In the latest Pew Research Center poll released Friday, Trump received a job approval rating of 29 percent — his lowest-ever number in this poll and a decline of nine percentage points since August. Much of the decline has come among Republicans and Republican-leaners, 60 percent of whom approve of Trump's job performance compared to 77 percent in August. Additionally, only 29 percent of respondents said Trump should remain a major figure in U.S. politics in the future. The poll was conducted in the wake of last week's deadly attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Three-quarters of respondents said Trump bears either a lot or some responsibility for the riot, while 24 percent said he isn't responsible at all. [Pew Research Center]

9.

Germany's Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, on Saturday elected Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany's most populous state) as its new leader. He'll replace former chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had succeeded Merkel in 2018 only to resign following a lack of success in February 2020. Laschet is considered a centrist and a close Merkel ally, though he reportedly angered her last spring by advocating for loosening the country's COVID-19 restrictions. To secure leadership, he defeated one of her intra-party rivals, Friedrich Merz, whom The Guardian describes as a "conservative hardliner," by a count of 521 to 466 votes. Per BBC, Laschet is in good position to emerge as the party's candidate for chancellor when Merkel steps down in September, but there's no guarantee he'll be the choice, as there are a few other popular options within the party. [BBC, The Guardian]

10.

The National Rifle Association said Friday that it has filed for bankruptcy and will move from New York, where it's currently based, to Texas. New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit alleging financial crimes by the gun rights group's top officials and is seeking to disband the organization. James said "we will not allow the NRA to use" the bankruptcy filing "to evade accountability and my office's oversight," although CBS News notes Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection stops all court and legal proceedings regarding debt or collection while an organization restructures its debts. The NRA's recent financial struggles have resulted in dozens of layoffs, and the organization has also shut down fundraising and its national convention amid the coronavirus pandemic, a significant setback, especially during a presidential election year. The bankruptcy won't affect membership, CEO Wayne LaPierre said. [Fox Business, CBS News]

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