• It Was Never Just About Masks

    August 14, 2021 // 19 Comments »

    It was never just a mask, it has always been a way of thinking. “Mask” is just shorthand.

    I got fired from my volunteer work at the Hawaiian Humane Society for choosing not to wear a mask outside walking their dogs. Neither science, the CDC nor the state requires a mask outdoors and I’m fully vaccinated. Some minimum-wage staffbot saw my naked face and informed me of their “policy.” I asked why they had such a nonsensical policy, and her only answer was “it is our policy.” The conversation ended like an ever-growing percentage of conversations in America now end, with her saying “Do I need to call security?” I didn’t enjoy it but I think she did.

    It made me sad because I was doing something that was just good. I liked the big dogs, the lifers, the ones some other volunteers shied away from, and having brought one abused dog back from the edge in my home, had some small connection with the damaged ones at the shelter, too.

    I was left with no good to do this week, and a simple, real COVID question. Why are fully vaccinated people treated the same as the unvaccinated? Everyone on the plane wears a mask and goes through the same mock social distancing. Everyone at a restaurant, office, concert, etc. does the same. The answer lies at the core of whether public policy in America will shift and allow us to crawl back into our lives.

     

    The first answer, how can we know if someone has been vaccinated, is a strawman. Vaccinated people have little CDC cards. If they have no security features to prevent McLovin fakes, the CDC can create new cards and mail them to us; we had to give out all that info to get the shots. Why not have a database? We have NSA databases of all our emails, an international database of no-flys, Ohio can check if a Minnesota driver’s license is valid, and so forth. But vaccine status is somehow the third rail of privacy?

    Or is COVID different? When children register for school, they prove their mandatory childhood vaccinations with little cards. My kids, born abroad, effortlessly proved their vaccination status in Virginia with cards issued in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. As an adult, you take me at my word I’m not carrying smallpox and have been vaccinated against measles, no card even needed.

     

    The biggest reason for treating vaxxed and unvaxxed people the same miserable way is the claim that vaccinated people can still get COVID enough to pass it on. Funny thing is you can actually “get” the measles even after being vaccinated. That vaccine works by basically weakening the virus to the point where it does little harm but still exists. The vax is actually only 97 percent effective, similar to the COVID ones. But nobody talks about measles or demands we wear a mask to prevent their spread. We simply accept and deal with the risk, to include vaccination.

    The next question is really, really hard to find an answer to. Exactly how many vaccinated people actually get COVID, the so-called “breakthrough” cases? That exact number is critical because it is the pivot point for the risk vs. gain decision our society needs to make. If we cannot make a wise choice we will be struggling with and fighting over the restrictions on our lives and livelihoods forever. If we assume we’ll never have full vaccination and that breakthrough cases are a non-zero number and likely always will be then we need to make an informed decision about risk. So is it a non-zero number like “smoking causes cancer” or a non-zero number like “very few people die from meteor strikes (or from the measles.)”

    The current public policy decisions on risk are haphazard. All 50 states have different rules, many large cities, too, and each and every company. There are different rules if you take a bus or want to go dancing. One grocery store demands masks, another does not. It makes no sense. It becomes not a considered decision but an example of lack of public policy leadership. Into that leadership void enters superstition, pseudo-science, politics, voodoo, and most of all, fear.

    So what are the chances of a fully vaccinated person getting a breakthrough infection? It turns out this pivotal question is not clearly answerable but we act as if it is, with consequences for our lives, our mental health, education, commerce, and more. Even for our stray dogs.

    I started with Google and “What are the chances of getting COVID after being fully vaccinated?” expecting the answer in 0.0039 seconds like when you ask what year some historical event happened. Nope. The response from AARP said “less than one percent of fully vaccinated individuals have been hospitalized with, or have died from, COVID.” That’s a small number but does not fully address the question.

    Over to NPR, which reports “On rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” What does rare occasions mean? This is supposed to be, you know, science, so we finally get some numbers from the CDC: out of 159 million fully vaccinated people, the CDC documented 5,914 cases of fully vaccinated people who were hospitalized or died from COVID, and 75 percent of them were over age 65. That means only 0.0000037 percent of vaxxed people were hospitalized or died, and most of them were elderly. That is a very small number. It is a lot less than one percent and a lot less than rare. Chances of dying in a car wreck are many tens of thousands of times higher and we drive on.

    It still however does not answer the question of how dangerous the vaxxed but unmasked are in terms of transmitting the virus. No one really knows. Recent scare headlines calling for reinstated restrictions and vax mandates are based on a single outbreak, 469 cases, in one city in Massachusetts, that appears to show (at variance with existing studies) 75 percent of those infected had been vaccinated and oddly, almost all of those people (87 percent) were male. Most of the infected were asymptomatic or experienced mild symptoms. No deaths.

    What is believed is the a) delta variant of COVID makes a b) temporary home inside a vaccinated man’s nose or upper respiratory area, c) outside the immune system. It waits there to be d) blown out and then be e) received by an f) unvaccinated person. So all of these multiple things have to go “right” for it to matter. It is not simply a matter of toting up how many vaccinated people tested positive and then hitting the panic button. As one doctor put it “We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody’s nose.”

    Requiring everyone to wear masks again based on one outbreak that appears related to gender may seem as if it can’t hurt, but it does. Organizations waste time and credibility enforcing measures that have limited if any impact (and consider how many masks are old, dirty, improperly worn, etc. to be fully useless.) To simply dismiss the reality of numbers with a blithe “well you can’t be too careful” only works if you imagine COVID restrictions have no secondary or tertiary effects.

    Via layers of Keystone Kops political gestures, entire cities’ economies have been devastated, with no clear end point for those dependent on renting office space or tourism. Education has near-disappeared for large numbers of kids. Despair grows menacingly. Economic inequality got a booster shot. The power of government has grown in ways that make the post-9/11 shenanigans look like amateur efforts. The ability to shape how we live, shop, work, and eat has been handed randomly to a near-endless range of actors, from the president to governors empowered with “emergency edicts” to flight attendants who can prevent you from seeing grandma in Florida to minimum wage store clerks ever-anxious to call security not on shoplifters but on an exposed nose.

    Convincing Americans to set aside their irrational fears is no longer impossible. Those fears were created by politicians and the media, and have become a profit center. The Little Hitlers on the plane are unwilling to return to just serving drinks when they tasted power over lives. The NYT for months ran columns saying Trump’s vaccine was another government syphilis experiment. Vice President Harris refused to take the shot during the campaign. Biden took it, said it worked, then went right on masking as if it didn’t work. It was a very successful organized campaign to propagate uncertainty for a political purpose. Following the election, many right wing media outlets pivoted to pick up a version of the song. It is all their fault vaccine acceptance varies by political party, where we live, and how much education we have. No other country suffers this additional burden to a return to normal.

    So we won’t concede the reality kids are unlikely to get sick and should go to school. That the vast majority of deaths occur among the elderly with comorbidities not the general population. That ill-fitting masks and wiping down groceries with Clorox are theatre. That the debate has become a political argument instead of an evidence-based one. That the CDC has lost credibility until one side needs it for some partisan purpose. That previously healthcare decisions started with the premise of “first, do no harm” while today there is no conversation allowed about the balance of benefits and harm. That we simply tally the collateral damage while the virus remains unaffected. That if we are to heal as a society there is only one answer: at some point we must simply ask what works.

    We lack the political leadership to say what’s true so we’re going back to “let’s just argue about masks.” Meanwhile the virus continues to find unvaccinated hosts. The economy won’t snap back. Biden is facing a mini-civil war over mandates or restarting lockdowns and has no plan. Things will hit the fan in September as Hot Vax Summer sputters, when every school district does something different, and Federal unemployment supplements run out. People have grown weary of being afraid, and grown weary of being subject to the paranoid demands of safety fetishists. Many did what they were told to do — get vaxxed — only to find themselves stuck inside the same dysfunctional loop. Gonna be some angry folks looking for better answers than their leaders have given to date. So tell us how this ends, Joe.

     

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden

    Is Everyone in Texas Dead Yet? (Why I Rarely Wear a Mask)

    March 19, 2021 // 1 Comment »


    Texas governor Greg Abbott announced residents will no longer be required to wear face masks and encouraged businesses to reopen at full capacity. Some 15 other states — Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee — also do not have mask orders in place. Still more states have thrown off almost all restrictions.

    Criticism of the Texas decision (there are not enough votes in the other states to warrant much criticism) was swift.  Joe “Unity” Biden called the unmasking the result of Neanderthal thinking. No less than photogenic loser Beto O’Rourke said the unmandate is a “death warrant” and “Abbott is killing the people of Texas.”

    We’ve seen this all before. About a year ago when Florida reopened its beaches for Spring Break everyone was gonna die. The Republican convention was to be a superspreader event, as was the Super Bowl, and some motorcycle rally (here’s a complete list of all superspreader events to include dinner parties for five.) Each new variant of the virus is the end of us, each expansion of dining options a death sentence. Everyone is gonna die. Except they don’t. It works the other way, too. Places proclaimed the Gold Standard for COVID precautions end up with their own upticks. The numbers from place to place should be as dramatically different as the measures implemented and they are not.

    As for Texas, the problem is again everyone there and in those other unmasked states is not dead. And in states with the most draconian rules and lockdowns (looking at you New York) people are still dying in healthy numbers. This all used to be the former president’s fault, but inconveniently more than one-fifth of all the COVID-19 deaths occurred since Biden took office. New York leads the nation in virus hospitalizations per one million people. If it were a country, New York would have been the worst performing country in the world at handling COVID, and that’s despite NY’s fraudulent undercounting. In late November, right before New York’s winter spike, Governor Cuo­mo trumpeted mask compliance was 98 percent. Seven out of 10 states with the highest number of COVID deaths per capita have mask mandates. California, formerly an example of the positive impacts of viral fascism, had among the worst winters in the world.

    A year’s worth of data (science!) from the four largest states shows lockdowns had little effect other than to drive taxpayers out. Making the pro-lockdown argument even weaker was that the same thing happened with several heavy lockdown nations (most notably the UK) suffering at least as badly, if not worse, than everyone else did. We’re left with something that too many people refuse to consider: it is possible lockdowns and masks have very little effect on COVID. Waves come and go, seemingly independent of what we do or don’t do. Nature finds a way.

     

    I’ve conducted my own sort-of research. In the last year, one of my relatives who is a medical professional was exposed to COVID. She tests negative regularly. I see her in person whenever I can, hug her, we eat together unmasked as a baby’s behind.  And we live in NYC, ground zero, again, this time for COVID. I use public transportation.  Until when the company was forced to shut down by the government, in my day job I worked with people from all over, including enough Chinese from China to fill a Seuss book. In the last few months I was hospitalized twice (heart, not COVID) and saw doctors as an outpatient multiple times.  I went to the gym until it the government closed it. I ate in restaurants and shopped until the government closed them. I stayed in a hotel and drove a rental car in two different states. I attended what the media would have called a superspreader event if it hadn’t been organized by Democrats. I wear a mask only when the hassle factor from the scolds, Karens, and COVID cops rises to the point I can’t get whatever I’m doing done.

    I took two long airplane trips. No one had any idea if anyone was infected because the only check was a questionnaire and a temp with no medical training with a temp gun. Waiting a few minutes to board we were aggressively kept six feet apart (while the A/C and ventilation was moving air six feet away toward me) before sitting down for hours zero feet apart. Once at altitude, we were encouraged to spread out but only within our paid for cabin; the nearly empty business and first class sections stayed nearly empty and we all concentrated in the same cabin and used the same toilets. Drinks and then meals were served to the whole cabin at once, meaning everyone removed their masks to breathe recycled air in and out for the same 40 minutes. In the scrum to get off the plane we were literally pressed against each other. I haven’t heard from the airline through its contact notification system that anyone got sick.

    The experience was not that different from using the NYC subway, which never shut down throughout the COVID emergency. But there was no need; a recent study shows riding in a poorly ventilated metal tube with often unmasked strangers and no social distancing demonstrated no correlation between NYC subway ridership and COVID spikes. If you weren’t going to get sick that way, you are not going to get sick in most others. The lifesaving precautions were mostly health theatre, stopping infections that never were going to happen the same as TSA stopped terror acts that never existed outside some kid’s Facebook.

    My experience of not dying from COVID is not unique. It is shared by some 327,500,000 Americans.

    Someone will post a quickly Googled document saying all this is wrong. Maybe. But it seems the questions around the value of masks and lockdowns are worth at least some discussion instead of being dismissed as Neanderthal. Follow the science we are told, even as the decisions which control our lives are made by self-serving politicians and not scientists. We have 50 different “solutions” to the same problem. They can’t all be correct, yet we assume one variety is and the other is not, even when faced with contrary data.

     

    Live TV tickers count COVID deaths. Yet we ignore the deadly psychological effect the “solutions” have on our society. While there exists room for discussion on some topics, here’s one that is both indisputable and unconscionable: kids are dying because of what we are doing.

    Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 24. Since the pandemic began, the CDC reports the proportion of pediatric emergency room visits for mental health increased 31 percent. Reasons include isolation from friends and family, and the effects of parental stress and economic hardship. Government for the most part controls those factors, making conditions worse for children while providing ambiguous protection against the virus. Schools in many areas have been closed for a year, even though the political guidance finally matches what doctors have long been saying: if schools follow basic public health precautions, there is very low spread of COVID.

    A peer-reviewed study found “social distance and security measures have affected the relationship among people and their perception of empathy toward others.” That science (!) concludes “a careful evaluation of the potential benefits of the quarantine is needed, taking into account the high psychological costs.” The WHO found “economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating, with tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty.” In the United States, that poverty risk is fully government-made, based on sweeping non-science based decisions to unemploy people by decree, and make them subject to surviving on unemployment payouts and stimulus check handouts. As for the future, the National Institutes of Health warns “the impact of long-term school closure is yet to be seen.” The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association acknowledges “an escalating crisis.” Other studies speak of a “lost generation.” Domestic violence is up. Drug overdoses are up. Crime is up. Academic performance has tanked. Our elderly die alone, unvisitable, in solitary confinement.

    Our nation has been suckered into ignoring a tormenting real public mental health crisis in favor of slapped together efforts at social distancing based on as much political as scientific factors (the mayor of NYC is more concerned about “racial equity” in locating vaccination centers then in how many shots can be administered.) False heroes and villains are created to buttress the argument. No one is allowed to seek the calculus, the balance, of prudent protections versus recognizing the cure is worse than the disease. We are literally destroying our society believing we are saving it. Too many are convinced there is zero doubt there is a significant positive result from taking away basic freedoms.

    It’s troubling when people decide I must be making a political statement, or am a QAnon member, unmasked. You wear a mask, or hang garlic on your belt if you wish. I’ll get vaccinated when politicians make it easier to get an appointment than front row Springsteen tickets. I do not want to die this year. I don’t want to kill you. But I keep thinking critically and asking questions at a time when I fear too many have either stopped.

    COVID solutions and lockdowns have not lead to limits on death. They have tanked the economy and brutalized the people. There is a lot more going on here than inconvenience over wearing a mask. The answers, rationale thinking and vaccinations, are elusive.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden

    Propaganda and the Coronavirus

    March 9, 2020 // 30 Comments »


     
    “Um, is it Colonel Vindman in the Russian Tea room with the coronavirus?”

    “Very funny. Now everyone settle down. Welcome back to Propaganda and the Death of Media 101 in case you’re in the wrong class, and its, um, March 15, 2024. Now we were discussing the role of propaganda and the media in trying to influence the re-election of Donald Trump by tying his leadership to a global pandemic. Propaganda in these cases seeks to diminish people’s view of a leader’s competence. The ultimate goal is to get you to vote him out.

     

    For those of you in the back holding up those tattered Bernie signs, God rest his soul, let’s start with the question of whether the media engaged in propaganda at all. Contrast the sense of panic in 2020 whipped into place with how things played out in 2009 under Obama. The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency that fall, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months of the disease, Obama had no Secretary of Health and Human Services or appointees in any of the Department’s 19 key posts. No Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no Surgeon General, no CDC Director. The gap at CDC was particularly important, as in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t enabled until later. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, not a medical doctor, lead the federal effort.

    The first real H1N1 cases appeared in Mexico. The border was not sealed, Mexicans were not forbidden to enter the U.S. Though CDC recommended against travel there, the primary danger cited was kidnapping for ransom. Yet 66 percent of Americans, supported by the media, thought the president was protecting them. Some 4,000 Americans were dead before a vaccine was first distributed.

    The emergency proclamation it took Obama seven months to declare was issued by Trump within 30 days of the current virus being found abroad. He announced a temporary suspension of entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals who pose a risk for the transmission of the coronavirus (CNN criticized “the travel ban could stigmatize countries and ethnicities.”) And yes, Trump encouraged everyone to wash their hands.

    Anybody here remember the media freaking out over Obama’s initial response, which was hand washing was pretty much what was needed? Anyone who did the reading find evidence of national panic throughout the crisis? No. Why did the media cover essentially the identical story so very differently for two presidents? The question is the answer.

     

    Look at the timing in 2020; the crisis came when the media decided it was time for a crisis. Though the virus dominated headlines in Asia since mid-January, American media first relegated the story to the business news. In late February the main “Trump” story was Russiagate II, the revelation (which quickly fell apart) the Russians were meddling again in the election. The Democratic debate at the end of February invoked Putin many times. The virus barely came up.

    Then the NYT sent up the Bat Signal for the new crisis on February 26, the day after the Democratic debate, with an article titled “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus” (subtlety is not required for propaganda.) An effort was born overnight to blame Trump personally for the virus, and essentially declare his chances of reelection done. The critical change was not anything to do with the virus itself, simply with the decision by the media to elevate the story from the business section to the front page. Even a week after that, with American sanity in a tailspin, only two Americans had died, and about half the known U.S. cases arrived with the evacuees from Japan. Of course the numbers quickly went up (that’s why we use the expression “going viral” for your Instagram blowups, kids) but imagine what a graph of actual cases would look like versus a graph measuring panic.

     

    You’ll see in your textbooks another example which shows how propaganda works, the reporting of initial problems with the CDC coronavirus test kits. One typical headline claimed “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as the stories were written; 15,000 testing kits were released within 48 hours of that story with plans to send out an additional 50,000. Each kit can test 700-800 patient samples.

    The follow-on stories screamed about Trump funding cuts to the CDC, most of which were actually only proposed. Then the stories were merged — Trump cut CDC funding and thus not enough kits were available. Not only were both pieces largely untrue individually (few cuts were made, kits were available), the merging of the two was grossly false. Instead of examining these things for lessons learned in the midst of an unfolding crisis, the media treated them as new bits to mock Trump with, like late night comedians trolling the news for material for their monologue.

    No room was left for people making errors in novel decisions under time pressure, just the jump to “Trump incompetence” instead of doing the real work of looking into the questions. The problem with the testing kits was a highly technical one involving chemical reagents and factory contamination. CDC is a massive institution. Who if anyone there made any “bungled” decisions? Would they have likely made a better decision with different funding? If so, then Congress can act and drop some money on that office. If not, move on, there is work to do. It is how the media acts when they seek to fix the blame, not the problem.

     

    The propaganda surrounding how the government initially handled the coronavirus was also obvious in the false “who is in charge” question the media asked. The vice president was given the role heading up the task force. This is the kind of thing VPs do, bring gravitas, make sure a whole of government approach has the bureaucratic firepower it needs, and so on. The propaganda instead hyper-focused on Mike Pence’s “disbelief in science,” itself more of a chanted mantra than anything established by fact. For “proof” the stories settled on Pence supposedly creating an HIV epidemic while governor of Indiana. The reality is much different. Pence took office opposed to needle exchanges. When dirty needles shared among opioid users in rural Scott County, Indiana were linked to 71 cases of HIV transmission, Pence responded to the new information (sad to see people die, but 71 deaths is all it was and many would have died from their drugs soon enough) by changing his policy and authorizing needle exchange in Scott and four other counties. The reality seems much closer to seeing an ideological stance changed by science than the opposite.


    Pence said at the time “I’m going to put the lives of the people of Indiana first. It’s a commitment to law and order, but it’s a commitment to compassion.”

    Meanwhile, the media largely ignored those Pence chose for the taskforce. One was Dr. Deborah Birx, a career medical professional nominated by Obama in 2014 as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. She also served as head of the global HIV/AIDS division at CDC, was an immunology researcher at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and an Army colonel. You want to inspire confidence you profile Dr. Brix; you want to sow discord you misrepresent Mike Pence’s decisions years ago.

     

    There’s so many more examples, but our class time is short. Here are a few.

     

    You can report on the elimination of Obama’s pandemic czar but leave out that the position was just a coordination job on the National Security Council with no real power. It sounds scary (one outlet called it sabotage) to see that job go, but in fact the coordination duties within NSC were reassigned to others.

    You can focus on every coronavirus case as proof efforts are failing while ignoring providing perspective by reminding 12,000 people died, with over 13 million infected, from the regular influenza (the one with the vaccine) between October 2019 and February 2020.

    You can focus on time will take to develop a full-on vaccine and ignore the treatments already now in human testing trials.

    You can purposefully confuse accelerating public health measures already underway with America’s lack of universal individual health care. We have plenty of the former, not enough of the latter. But the pandemic is not a solid argument for the latter as it is a problem of public health policy. That’s why even countries with good, free care systems are suffering the virus. Medicare for All would not have changed anything in 2020.

    You can cover the virus as you did Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Everyone was gonna die there until they didn’t. You can follow the now-standard Trump propaganda template: say he won’t do enough, then say what he does isn’t being done fast enough, predict everything will collapse (with Katrina references) and then move on to a new crisis as the reality of the response takes hold.

    You can report on panic selling on Wall Street, or explain how global supply chain problems are not caused by the virus, but by traders’ reaction to the unknowns of the virus. China’s factories closed because the government enforced social isolation, not because the workers were dead. Soon enough Apple products flowed back into our greedy hands, and the stock market found its way back to a new normal.

    You can report store closings, but not their reopenings. By March 1 Starbucks had reopened 85 percent of its stores in China. Apple, over 50 percent. You can emphasize how many Chinese factories were closed in February, or report on their reopenings in March.

    You can misrepresent the use of words like hoax to make the president appear weak.

    You can ignore the drop off in cases inside China. Only a few days after the first cases appeared in the U.S., new ones inside China dropped to 200.

    You can avoid reporting how viruses follow a bell curve. Case counts first rise quickly, the virus claims the “easy” deaths among the elderly, and then environmental factors (viruses must live inside a host; they have limited life outside on surfaces`, typically less and less as temperatures climb. This is why you can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat) and public health measures kick in. Treatment emerges and the virus fades. You can explain to calm people where they are in what looks like a 10-12 week cycle to or you can ignore it to stoke fear of the unknown.

    The bell curve template is clearly illustrated by a look-back to how HIV/AIDS went from a massive public health crisis in America to a manageable problem. As the virus became known, panic took hold. False reporting outran reality. But the bell curve took over; the virus’ transmission became well understood, better testing protocols developed, excellent preventive medicines became available, and treatment regimes now exist which ensure long lives in remission. Knowns displace unknowns. None of this is to minimize the suffering enroute to the current state, but to show there is an established path even for a virus far more deadly than corona.

    Class concluded.

    “Hey professor, is all this gonna be on the test?”

    “No, but it may influence an election. And don’t forget to wash your hands before lunch, something is going around.”
      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden