Total number of COVID-19 cases in Iowa crosses 255,000

The total number of Iowans hospitalized due to the COVID-19 continued to slowly decrease, according to state data on Saturday.

As of 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, the Iowa Department of Public Health said that 1,924 people were reported as testing positive for COVID-19, putting the state’s total at 255,009 since the starting of the pandemic. 187,463 people in Iowa are now considered recovered from the disease.

An additional 15 people have been reported as dead from COVID-19. The state’s total number of deaths is 3,212.

820 people are hospitalized due to COVID-19, a net decrease of 13 since Friday morning’s report. 170 of those patients are in ICUs, a net decrease of five. 94 of those patients require the need of a ventilator, a net decrease of three. 170 people were newly-admitted to Iowa hospitals with the disease over the past 24 hours, the lowest number of new patients since November 3.

An additional 5,281 people had test results reported by public and private labs over the last 24 hours. The positivity rate for this batch of tests was 36.4%. The positivity rate calculated using this method may differ from the number on the state’s coronavirus dashboard, due to the fact that the state only releases the number of individuals who tested positive or negative for the first time, not the total number of tests including people who have tested more than once.

A total of 1,278,945 people in Iowa have been tested since the start of the pandemic.


Iran executes journalist Ruhollah Zam over his online work

Iran on Saturday executed a journalist over his online work that invoked nationwide economic protests in 2017, authorities said, just months after he returned to Tehran under mysterious circumstances. Ruhollah Zam, 47, was hanged early Saturday morning.

A court sentenced Zam to death in June, saying he had been convicted of “corruption on Earth,” a charge often used in cases like espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government.

Zam’s website AmadNews and a channel he started on the popular messaging app Telegram had spread the timings of the protests and embarrassing information about officials that directly challenged Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

Those protests, which began at the end of 2017, caused the biggest challenge to Iran’s rulers since the 2009 Green Movement protests and set the stage for similar mass unrest in November of last year.

The initial spark for the 2017 protests was a sharp jump in food prices. Many believe that hard-line opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani provoked the first demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, aiming to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, and it turned against the entire ruling class.

Soon, cries directly challenging Rouhani and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be heard in online videos shared by Zam. Zam’s channel also shared times and organizational details for the protests.

Telegram shut down the channel over Iranian government complaints it spread information about how to make gasoline bombs. The channel later continued under a different name. Zam, who has said he fled Iran after being framed of working with foreign intelligence services, denied inciting violence on Telegram at the time.

The 2017 protests reportedly saw some 5,000 people arrested and 25 killed.

The details of his arrest still remain unexplained. Though he was based in Paris, Zam somehow returned to Iran and found himself arrested by intelligence officials. He’s one of several opposition figures in exile who have been returned to Iran over the last year.

France previously has criticized his death sentence as “a serious blow to freedom of expression and press freedom in Iran.”


F.D.A. clears Pfizer vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization on Friday night of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech has set in motion the most ambitious vaccination campaign in the nation’s history. This weekend, 2.9 million doses of the vaccine are to begin traveling by plane and guarded truck from Pfizer facilities in Michigan and Wisconsin to  chosen locations, mostly hospitals, in all 50 states.

The first injections are expected to be given by Monday to high-risk health care workers, the initial step toward the goal of inoculating enough Americans by spring to finally stop the spread of a virus that has killed nearly 300,000, sickened millions and faltered the country’s economy, education system and daily life.

The fast development of the vaccine, and its authorization based on data showing it to be 95 percent effective, has been a victory of medical science, but much in this complex next stage could go wrong.

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, and the special boxes it is being shipped in can be opened no more than twice a day, in order to maintain the deep freeze. Side effects, like achiness or headache, could cause some of the nurses, doctors and others who are first in line for the vaccine to miss a day or two of work, challenging overburdened hospitals.

States say they have only a fraction of the funding they need from the federal government for staffing to administer the shot, for tracking who has received both doses of the vaccine a booster is needed three weeks after the initial injection and for other crucial pieces of the effort.

“Our teams are on standby, ready to pivot,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. Most of the state’s allocation will be delivered to a central location and then flown in small amounts, often in tiny planes, to far-flung hospitals and clinics that will need to quickly administer it.

Preparations for this moment have been months in the making. Military planners have looked at a range of potential obstacles, from large-scale protests that could disrupt traffic to poor weather conditions. In an emergency, officials are prepared to use military airplanes and helicopters to deliver vaccines to remote locations.

FedEx and UPS will transport the vaccine throughout most of the country, and each delivery will be followed by shipments of extra dry ice a day later. Pfizer designed special containers, with trackers and enough dry ice to keep the doses sufficiently cold for up to 10 days. Every truck carrying the containers will have a device that tracks its location, temperature, light exposure and motion.

For all the planning, and contingencies, there is still a good deal of confusion. States are receiving initial allocations according to a federal formula based strictly on their adult population. But many hospitals say they still don’t know exactly how much they will get or when the shipments will arrive.

“It’s really been a lot of the unknowns about the logistics,” said Dr. Jeffrey A. Smith, the chief operating officer for Cedars-Sinai, noting that the medical center was also treating the highest number of Covid-19 patients it had seen since the pandemic began in March.

Other hospital systems are reeling from the news that their initial allocations will be much smaller than they had hoped. The Cleveland Clinic, one of the 10 hospital groups in Ohio that are receiving the first batch of vaccines, is expecting only 975 doses in an initial shipment, even though it has more than 40,000 employees around the state.


Congress to pass shutdown-averting bill to continue coronavirus stimulus talks

Congress is poised to pass a stopgap funding measure that will avert a government shutdown and provide lawmakers more time to negotiate an emergency coronavirus stimulus legislation amid deepening economic pain.

Negotiations over a $1.4tn catch-all spending package are playing out alongside bipartisan efforts to pass long-delayed Covid-19 economic relief.

Congressional leaders hope to attach the stimulus bill to the must-pass spending bill, though several key sticking points remain.

On Monday, the Democratic House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, said that the House would vote on Wednesday on a one-week spending bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to avoid a government shutdown while lawmakers race to reach an agreement. Government funding for federal agencies is due to expire on Friday.

Hoyer had initially told lawmakers that the House would finalize its end-of-year business this week, allowing lawmakers to leave Washington for the year, but negotiations over the omnibus spending bill were proceeding more slowly than he had hoped.

“I am disappointed that we have not yet reached agreement on government funding,” Hoyer wrote on Twitter. “The House will vote on Wednesday on a one-week CR to keep government open while negotiations continue.”

A bipartisan group of senators expressed optimism about a $908bn aid proposal to help alleviate the financial disaster facing millions of American families and businesses as a rise in coronavirus cases threatens the labor market, which has struggled to fully recover from the economic downturn that followed the pandemic’s arrival in March.

But their plan, the details of which could be released as early as Monday, remains hung up over provisions to aid states and localities, a Democratic priority, and liability protections for businesses from Covid-related lawsuits, which Republicans want.

The proposal is less than half of the $2.2tn relief package passed by the Democratic-controlled House in October and does not include the direct payments to Americans that Trump sought before the election.

Yet the senators’ plan is nearly double the $500bn package proposed by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who advocated a list of “targeted” relief provisions he said the president would sign.

Lawmakers quickly enacted a $3tn aid package to salvage the economy earlier this year, but they have been deadlocked for months over whether to approve another stimulus plan.

President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress to act immediately and endorsed the senators’ bipartisan framework, calling it a “down payment” that would provide immediate relief to those suffering the economic consequences of the virus. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, also tentatively expressed support, saying they would use the plan as a “framework” for their negotiations with Republican leaders, which are proceeding on a different track from the talks with the senators.

On Monday, the White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the Trump administration and Congress were nearing an agreement on aid.

“We are moving in the right direction, I think,” Kudlow said in an online interview with the Washington Post. “We are getting closer.”

The US Chamber of Commerce said in a new memo to Congress that failure to enact relief would risk a “double-dip recession” – which occurs when a recession is followed by a brief recovery and then another recession – that would permanently shutter small businesses and leave millions of Americans with no means of support.

The same issues have blocked coronavirus relief legislation for months, leading to mounting frustrations among business owners, unions, state and local government officials, and ordinary Americans.

Considering the weakening of the economy coupled with a surge in Covid-19 cases at a time when previously approved relief mechanisms are due to expire, it would be “stupidity on steroids if Congress doesn’t act”, said the Democratic senator Mark Warner, a member of the bipartisan group that wrote the proposal, to CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

A group of emergency aid programs implemented in response to the pandemic, including additional unemployment benefits and a moratorium on renter evictions, is due to expire at the end of December.

With US coronavirus deaths topping 283,000 and pressure mounting for aid to a fragile economy, the new package is expected to include fresh emergency assistance for small businesses, unemployment benefits, and funding for Covid-19 vaccine distribution.

“We have to get something done for the American people,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Monday, “before the end of the year.”