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Accepting MacDowell Medal, Sonia Sanchez urges compassion through art
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PETERBOROUGH — Sometimes laughing and other times crying out, Sonia Sanchez accepted the 62nd Edward MacDowell Medal on Sunday in a speech urging human compassion and understanding through the arts.

Looking out from beneath the lip of her woven hat, the Black poet, mother and professor called on the crowd that filled a tent on the MacDowell grounds off High Street to be teachers and incite change through kindness, rather than curses.

“It is possible — is it not? — for us all to listen to many different voices,” Sanchez said. “It is possible for us all, even though we don’t always agree with everything, just to hear the beauty or the concern.”

The MacDowell Medal is a national award presented annually since 1960 to an artist who has made an outstanding cultural contribution. Named for composer Edward MacDowell, who founded the artists’ retreat in 1907 with his wife, pianist Marian MacDowell, past recipients of the medal include Toni Morrison, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein and Sonny Rollins.

Sanchez, 87, is the author of more than 20 books including “Homecoming,” “We a BaddDDD People,” “Love Poems,” “I’ve Been a Woman,” “Homegirls & Handgrenades,” “Shake My Loose Skin” and “Morning Haiku.”

Warm summer air pushed through the tent as she spoke, apparently not reading from the prepared speech she held in her hand, but improvising, jumping from anecdote to anecdote, story to story.

“Is it too late to read my speech?” Sanchez joked, already more than 20 minutes in.

But for all the laughter, there were nearly as many tears. Sanchez recalled memories waking fellow poets in the early morning hours to share a fresh verse and the virtuous cycle of being kind to strangers. She remembered her more than 45 years as a teacher and spoke of an urgent need to spread love and understanding.

“As you go and you walk in the streets of America you’ve got to listen to them. We’ve got to listen to each other. We’ve got to listen to the children. We’ve got to teach these children,” she said. “No. We’ve got to teach our grandfathers. Right? We’ve got to teach them that we don’t have to be fearful at all, that this is our country.”

During what was the first Medal Day open to the public since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two years ago, Nell Painter, the chair of the MacDowell board, introduced Sanchez as a “woman with razor-blades between her teeth.”

Though she got her start in Black and non-mainstream publishing houses, Painter said, today, “Sonia Sanchez speaks to all Americans in this frightening moment as politics slam us back into the mid-20th century, into the years when the meanness of American apartheid penalized all of us who were not white, not male, not straight.”

Executive Director Philip Himberg noted that since reopening its doors October 2020, after a pandemic-induced hiatus, more than 314 artists in residence have practiced their craft in MacDowell studios.

“Art invites us to traverse a nocturnal space, one which contains powerful seeds. A place which is ripe for the imagination. For dreams and for visions of the pathways ahead,” Himberg said. “We are all learning that we need not be afraid of what we do not yet know; artists exemplify this way of being.”

Before reading a poem with accompaniment by bassist and composer Jamaaladeen Tacuma — and before those in attendance were allowed roam the grounds, stopping in at the artists’ studios — Sanchez left the crowd with a pressing question.

“What does it mean to be human?” she said. “Huh. Unless we answer that question there will not be another century. I can guarantee you that. There will not be another century. That is the question that must be looked squarely in the face now.”

Jan. 6 hearing to focus on Trump's 'siren call' to violent extremists
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On Dec. 19, 2020, then-president Donald Trump posted on Twitter one of his many baseless claims about the presidential election, alleging that it was “statistically impossible” for him to have lost to Joe Biden and alerting his supporters to a Washington protest in the coming weeks.

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted then. “Be there, will be wild!”

That tweet would serve as an invitation to far-right militia groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers as well as other violent extremists who were part of the pro-Trump mob that overran the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block the certification of Biden’s electoral college win, members of the House select committee investigating the insurrection said Sunday.

The effect of that tweet — as well as other messages from Trump and his allies — will be explored this week as the committee resumes its public hearings. Tuesday’s session will focus on Trump’s connections to those far-right and political extremist groups.

“People are going to hear the story of that tweet, and then the explosive effect it had in Trumpworld, and specifically among the domestic violent extremist groups, the most dangerous political extremists in the country at that point,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin, D-Md., said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who is scheduled to lead Tuesday’s hearing with Raskin, said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” that the Dec. 19 tweet was a “siren call” to those groups that Jan. 6 would be a “last stand” to keep Trump in power.

Trump had already mounted a broad and ongoing pressure campaign — on Vice President Mike Pence, the Justice Department and state election officials — to help overturn the election results, she added, and his tweet amounted to a call for those violent groups to provide “additional support” leading up to Jan. 6.

Committee members also confirmed Sunday that they had received a letter from a lawyer for former Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon stating that Bannon will waive his claim of executive privilege and testify at a public hearing. Bannon was indicted on charges of contempt of Congress last year after refusing to comply with the committee’s subpoena.

Bannon could still assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and may insist on conditions, such as testifying on live TV rather than in a closed-door deposition, that committee members may not want to agree to.

Raskin said Sunday that the committee would be “very interested” in hearing from Bannon, but indicated it was unlikely that his initial testimony would be public.

The hearing on Tuesday will be the committee’s first since Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, gave bombshell testimony about Trump’s rage and inaction on the day of the Capitol attack. Hutchinson testified on June 29 that Trump knew that some of his supporters were armed but urged them to march on the Capitol anyway, and that Trump had told Meadows to talk to some of his aides who had relationships with far-right militia groups.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said Sunday it would be “a logical conclusion” that Trump was aware the mob that day included members of those violent extremist groups.

“We are going to be connecting the dots during these hearings between these groups and those who are trying in government circles to overturn the election,” Lofgren said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “So we do think that this story is unfolding in a way that is very serious and quite credible.”

Raskin, Murphy and Lofgren all indicated that testimony from former White House counsel Pat Cipollone would be played during the hearing. In a closed-door hearing on Friday, Cipollone testified before the committee for eight hours, providing information that “corroborated key elements of Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony,” committee spokesman Tim Mulvey said in a statement Sunday.

Hutchinson had testified that Cipollone sought to prevent Trump from traveling to the Capitol on Jan. 6 with his supporters, fearing criminal liability and telling her “something to the effect of: ‘Please make sure we don’t go up to the Capitol, Cassidy. Keep in touch with me. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen.’”

There was a lot of information from Cipollone’s testimony that “fit into this bigger puzzle” that the committee is assembling, Murphy said Sunday.

“The overall message that we have been gathering out of all of these witnesses is that the president knew he had lost the election, or that his advisers had told him he had lost the election, and that he was casting about for ways in which he could retain power and remain the president, despite the fact that the democratic will of the American people was to have President Biden be the next elected,” she said.

The next hearing will also focus on “the fundamental importance” of a Dec. 18, 2020, meeting of Trump allies that took place at the Willard hotel in downtown Washington, according to Raskin.

During that meeting, a group of outside lawyers that included Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani — dubbed “Team Crazy” by some in the Trump White House — discussed efforts to try to overturn the election results. Potential steps included seizing voting machines around the country, Raskin told “Face the Nation.”

“But against this ‘Team Crazy’ were an inside group of lawyers who essentially wanted (Trump) at that point to acknowledge that he had lost the election, and were far more willing to accept the reality of his defeat at that point,” Raskin said.

Twitter banned Trump from its platform after the Capitol attack, citing the risk of further violence.

As the BA.5 variant spreads, the risk of coronavirus reinfection grows
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America has decided the pandemic is over. The coronavirus has other ideas.

The latest omicron offshoot, BA.5, has quickly become dominant in the United States, and thanks to its elusiveness when encountering the human immune system, is driving a wave of cases across the country.

The size of that wave is unclear because most people are testing at home or not testing at all. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the past week has reported a little more than 100,000 new cases a day on average. But infectious-disease experts know that wildly underestimates the true number, which may be as many as a million, said Eric Topol, a professor at Scripps Research who closely tracks pandemic trends.

Antibodies from vaccines and previous COVID infections offer limited protection against BA.5, leading Topol to call it “the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen.”

Other experts point out that, despite being hit by multiple rounds of ever-more-contagious omicron subvariants, the country has not yet seen a dramatic spike in hospitalizations. About 38,000 people were hospitalized nationally with COVID as of Friday, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. That figure has been steadily rising since early March, but remains far below the record 162,000 patients hospitalized with COVID in mid-January. The average daily death toll on Friday stood at 329 and has not changed significantly over the past two months.

There is widespread agreement among infectious-disease experts that this remains a dangerous virus that causes illnesses of unpredictable severity — and they say the country is not doing enough to limit transmission.

Restrictions and mandates are long gone. Air travel is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. Political leaders aren’t talking about the virus — it’s virtually a nonissue on the campaign trail. Most people are done with masking, social distancing, and the pandemic generally. They’re taking their chances with the virus.

“It’s the wild West out there,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “There are no public health measures at all. We’re in a very peculiar spot, where the risk is vivid and it’s out there, but we’ve let our guard down and we’ve chosen, deliberately, to expose ourselves and make ourselves more vulnerable.”

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, would like to see more money for testing and vaccine development, as well as stronger messaging from the Biden administration and top health officials. She was dismayed recently on a trip to Southern California, where she saw few people wearing masks in the airport. “This is what happens when you don’t have politicians and leaders taking a strong stand on this,” she said.

The CDC said it has urged people to monitor community transmission, “stay up to date on vaccines, and take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and others.”

Nearly one-third of the U.S. population lives in counties rated as having “high” transmission levels by the CDC. Cases are rising especially in the South and West.

Many people now see the pandemic as part of the fabric of modern life rather than an urgent health emergency. Some of that is simply a widespread recalibration of risk. This is not the spring of 2020 anymore. Few people remain immunologically naive to the virus. They may still get infected, but the immune system — primed by vaccines or previous bouts with the virus — generally has deeper layers of defense that prevent severe disease.

But the death rate from COVID-19 is still much higher than the mortality from influenza or other contagious diseases. Officials have warned of a possible fall or winter wave — perhaps as many as 100 million infections in the United States — that could flood hospitals with COVID patients. Beyond the direct suffering of such a massive outbreak, there could be economic disruptions as tens of millions of people become too sick to work.

“It feels as though everyone has given up,” said Mercedes Carnethon, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Carnethon said she also isn’t as cautious as she used to be. She wears a high-quality mask on airplanes, but doesn’t wear a mask at the gym. She is worried that she’ll contract COVID again — she caught it during the omicron wave last winter. But she doesn’t think a “zero COVID” strategy is plausible.

“I feel there is a very limited amount that I can do individually, short of stopping my life,” Carnethon said. “It’s risky. I’ll be catching COVID at an inconvenient time. I can hope it is milder than the first time I caught it.”

Many experts concerned about ongoing transmission have also pushed back against online fearmongering and apocalyptic warnings about the virus; people are not routinely getting infected every two or three weeks, Rasmussen said.

Population-level immunity is one reason the virus remains in mutational overdrive. The risk of reinfections has increased because newly emergent subvariants are better able to evade the front line defense of the immune system, and there is essentially no effort at the community level to limit transmission.

Al-Aly, who is also chief of research and development at Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System, has scoured the VA’s vast database to see what happened to the nearly 39,000 patients infected with the coronavirus for a second or third time. What he found was sobering. In a paper posted online last month, but not yet peer-reviewed or published in a journal, Al-Aly and his co-authors reported that people with multiple infections have a higher cumulative risk of a severe illness or death.

It’s not that the later illnesses are worse than, or even as bad as, earlier cases. But any coronavirus infection carries risk, and the risk of a really bad outcome — a heart attack, for example — builds cumulatively, like a plaque, as infections multiply.

“Reinfection adds risk,” he said. “You’re rolling the dice again. You’re playing Russian roulette.”

Vaccination remains an important, if still underused, weapon against the virus — even if it’s not that effective at stopping new infections.

Omicron blew through the largely vaccinated population last winter with stunning ease, and since then the subvariants have arrived in rapid succession, starting with BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 in the spring, and now BA.5 and its nearly identical relative BA.4.

Vaccines are based on the original strain of the virus that emerged in Wuhan, China in late 2019. The Food and Drug Administration has asked vaccine makers to come up with new formulas that target BA.5 and BA.4. Those boosters could be ready this fall.

But there is no guarantee that these latest subvariants will still be dominant four or five months from now. The virus is not only evolving, it’s doing so with remarkable speed. The virus may continually outrace the vaccines.

“I worry that by the time we have a vaccine for BA.5 we’ll have a BA.6 or a BA.7. This virus keeps outsmarting us,” Al-Aly said.

“We are in a very difficult position with regard to the choice of vaccine for the fall because we’re dealing with a notoriously moving target,” Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top adviser for the pandemic, told The Post in June, a few days before he, too, announced that he was sick with the virus.

Already there’s another omicron subvariant that has caught the attention of virologists: BA.2.75. First seen last month in India, it has been identified in a smattering of other countries, including the United States. But it’s too soon to know whether it will overtake BA.5 as the dominant variant.

There is no evidence that the new forms of the virus result in different symptoms or severity of disease. Omicron and its many offshoots — including BA.5 — typically replicate higher in the respiratory tract than earlier forms of the virus. That is one theory for why omicron has seemed less likely to cause severe illness.

It’s also unclear if these new variants will alter the risk of a person contracting the long-duration symptoms generally known as “long COVID.” The percentage of people with severely debilitating symptoms is likely between 1 and 5 percent — amounting to millions of people in this country, according to Harlan Krumholz, a Yale University professor of medicine.

His colleague, Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunology and expert on long COVID, said in an email that she believes the world is not sufficiently vigilant about the disease anymore. She is often the only person masking in a crowd, she said.

“I understand the pandemic fatigue, but the virus is not done with us,” she said. “I fear that the current human behavior is leading to more people getting infected and acquiring long COVID. I fear that this situation can lead to a large number of people with disability and chronic health problems in the future.”

The precocious nature of the virus has made infectious-disease experts wary of predicting the next phase of the pandemic. Topol warns that a new batch of variants could come out of the blue, the same way omicron emerged unexpectedly last November with a collection of mutations already packaged together. Omicron’s precise origin is unknown, but a leading theory is that it evolved in an immunocompromised patient with a persistent infection.

“Inevitably we could see a new Greek letter family like omicron,” Topol said. “There’s still room for this virus to evolve. It has evolved in an accelerated way for months now. So we should count on it.”

Jobs report fuels optimism that recession will be averted
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WASHINGTON — White House officials are expressing cautious optimism that the economy will not tip into recession this year, as a strong jobs report and new wage data give the administration a boost after months of brutal economic headlines.

President Joe Biden and his top surrogates have argued for months that economic growth and hiring are strong enough to overcome the Federal Reserve’s moves to raise interest rates. That narrative has been viewed skeptically by many economists and Wall Street analysts, who have seen intensifying signs of a slowdown both domestically and globally.

But new economic data released last week appeared to bolster the administration’s case, with the Labor Department reporting Friday that 372,000 new jobs were created in June while the unemployment rate held at 3.6 percent, among the lowest rates ever. Economists in the White House stress that it is too soon to declare victory, as the central bank is expected to continue to try to cool off the economy with additional interest rate hikes. But administration officials emphasized that the brisk hiring pace suggests that an economic slowdown is not yet hitting the country.

“I think if you want to talk about recession nervousness, you should look at today’s jobs report. Numbers like this are just very much inconsistent with any kind of recession call,” Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told MSNBC shortly after the jobs report was released on Friday. “When you’re generating 350,000 jobs on average for the past quarter — not recessionary.”

Voter frustration about the economy has proved to be one of the most persistent challenges to the administration over the past year, with huge shares of the electorate angry about rising prices. Inflation in May hit 8.6 percent, a 40-year high, with energy costs in particular squeezing American consumers, in part due to the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden’s approval ratings on the economy have fallen steadily amid inflation, which has bedeviled the administration since officials first dismissed it as “transitory” last year.

More recently, the White House has been concerned that the economy could careen from inflation to recession, if the central bank is forced to slam the brakes on the economy too quickly. But, there, too, Biden aides have seen some encouraging signs. Gas prices have fallen consistently over the past three weeks from their highs in June, while mortgage rates — after spiking to around 6 percent — tumbled. U.S. manufacturing has surpassed its pre-pandemic levels. Stock market indexes, after slumping to the worst first six months of any year since 1970, have appeared to stabilize in recent weeks.

Additionally, annualized wage growth fell from 4.6 percent to 3.8 percent from May to June, a healthy sign amid the expansion of the labor supply, according to Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group, a nonpartisan business organization. That suggests the workforce is growing to meet higher demand, reducing inflationary pressures, Ozimek said — rather than demand contracting in the face of a smaller workforce. Bernstein similarly said the deceleration in wage gains “is very much in the spirit of what the president is talking about when he talks about transitioning from a breakneck pace, economic growth, to one that’s a more steady, stable transition.” Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, posted a meme on Twitter of Usher to tease the media for hyping recessionary fears.

“Although the situation is not necessarily worse, the mood around economic management in the White House is much worse than it was even when many of these same people were trying to navigate the economy through the depths of the financial crisis. It has felt grim and hard to navigate politically, even to the scale of the damage,” said one outside White House adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations with administration officials. “But this is one day where nothing bad happened.”

Other economists see more mixed evidence from the recent data. Economic growth also has gone wobbly, with the nation’s gross domestic product contracting in the first quarter of this year and forecast to do so again in the second quarter, according to numerous analysts. The mismatch between strong employment and weak economic growth is unusual but suggests a potential slowdown outside the labor market.

And Skanda Amarnath, executive director of Employ America, a left-leaning think tank, pointed out that one of the two surveys of employment showed potentially troubling signs. The payroll survey, which contacts firms, showed the healthy improvement. But the other, less-cited survey, which interviews households, showed uneven results for the third straight month. That household survey showed jobs falling in April, rising slightly in May, then falling by 315,000 in June.

“We have one survey telling you things are all fine, and there’s another survey that shows at least a flatlining of progress after showing considerable progress last year,” Amarnath said. “I don’t think there’s a reason to panic — but there’s a reason to be on elevated alert. The job market is slowing in this survey.”

Amarnath added: “The trend has shifted from breakneck recovery to a flatlining, or, at least, less improvement. Maybe April through June will prove to be flukes. ... But we’re in the midst of a slowdown, and we should be careful about the claims we’re making about the state of the economy.”

Still, the White House is projecting confidence. “The strength of this labor market is historic,” said Brian Deese, chairman of the White House National Economic Council, in an interview on MSNBC. Deese stressed that the American private sector has now recovered all the private sector jobs lost during the pandemic, calling it an “important milestone.”