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As millions get vaccinated, FDA battles to make safety oversight system work

“It’s great for routine tasks, but when it comes to safety oversight, it’s all about size,” said Dr Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins University and former federal vaccine official. “The bigger it is, the faster you get a response. Eventually, the VSD will get a really good answer – probably one of the best answers from anyone because they’re so good at doing it. But in a pandemic, time is not on our side.

So far, few serious problems have been reported through these channels, and no deaths have been conclusively linked to the vaccines. The 30-year initiative, known as the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, is based on self-reported cases by patients and healthcare providers.

Health officials say so far the two vaccines already cleared for use appear to be fairly safe. There have been a few severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, but they are treatable and considered rare. The rate at which anaphylaxis has occurred so far – 4.7 cases per million doses of vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, and 2.5 cases per million from Moderna’s vaccine – is consistent with what is happening. passes with other widely used vaccines.

Bruising and bleeding caused by low platelet count have also been reported, but it is not known whether they are vaccine-related or coincidental. A total of 9,000 adverse events were reported, of which 979 were serious and the rest classified as non-serious, according to the latest available report from the CDC.

In interviews, public health experts, including current and former FDA and CDC officials, expressed the need to improve the old “passive” surveillance, which relies on self-reporting. They said funding shortages, turf wars and bureaucratic hurdles had slowed the readiness of BEST, officially called the Biologics Assessment Safety Initiative, to monitor Covid vaccines.

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Millions of counterfeit N95 masks have been purchased in 5 states, according to US

Millions of counterfeit masks have been purchased by hospitals, medical institutions and government agencies in at least five states – and some of them have been used by healthcare workers in Washington state, announced Wednesday federal authorities by announcing an investigation.

Many of the masks were smart counterfeits, stamped with the 3M logo and shipped in boxes marked “Made in USA,” even though they were not made in the United States or by 3M, federal investigators say. .

Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said fraudulent masks are dangerous because they may not offer the same level of protection against the coronavirus as legitimate N95 masks made by 3M.

“We don’t know if they meet the standards,” said Brian Weinhaus, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.

News of the investigation came as the intelligence arm of the Department of Homeland Security separately warned law enforcement on Wednesday that dark web criminals had since December sold counterfeit coronavirus vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration for “hundreds of dollars per dose.”

The assessment, produced by the Office of Homeland Security Intelligence and Analysis and obtained by The New York Times, said transnational criminal organizations in Latin America were probably best placed to take advantage of a vaccine shortage. legitimate to distribute counterfeit and stolen vaccines, was unclear whether they had done so.

Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said about two million counterfeit N95 masks could have been brought into the state. Hospitals in Washington state have purchased hundreds of thousands of fraudulent masks and the association itself has purchased 300,000 for its members, she said.

The masks were “very good fakes,” Ms. Sauer said, noting that they included a 3M logo, secure straps, a metal bar on top and a foam strip on the nose.

“They look, they feel, they’re okay and they breathe like a 3M mask,” she says. But they weren’t made by 3M, she said, and officials don’t know enough about them to know how protective they could be.

Many counterfeit masks have not been used in Washington, Ms. Sauer said, noting that around 60,000 masks purchased by the hospital association are still in a warehouse. But some healthcare workers used them before the association received bulletins from 3M and the federal government and started alerting hospitals to the fraud on Friday night, she said.

“It’s incredibly disheartening – really, really frustrating to find out that we have these masks,” Ms. Sauer said.

“This is reprehensible, depravity,” added Ms. Sauer. “We are horrified.”

June Altaras, senior vice president and head of quality, safety and nursing at MultiCare Health System, which includes 10 hospitals in Washington, said some of the workers in her network had used counterfeit N95 masks.

She said officials spent the past weekend collecting fakes and replacing them with legitimate masks. She said the organization had recommended that staff members who had treated Covid-19 patients be tested for the coronavirus.

“There is a special place in the afterlife for people who would do this,” Ms. Altaras said, adding that the fraudulent masks have created anxiety and fear among frontline healthcare workers. .

“Trying to make money out of this situation is really very frustrating,” Ms. Altaras said. “These clinicians have suffered enough.”

Credit…U.S. Immigration and Customs, via Associated Press

Coronavirus fraud has been a problem since the start of the pandemic, with unscrupulous businesses seeking to exploit the health crisis by selling fake test kits, treatments and personal protective equipment. Law enforcement has seized more than 10 million counterfeit respirators and hundreds of shipments of banned drugs and medical supplies, according to 3M and Homeland Security Investigations.

But the investigation into counterfeit masks, which had previously been reported by The Associated Press, shows how these deceptive products have become increasingly sophisticated, officials said.

“We are all very careful and try to verify our sources and be wary of them,” said Shane McGuire, general manager of Columbia County Health System in Washington. “But the bottom line is that the easiest to detect frauds have started to go away, and now you’re starting to see much, much better construction and much more difficult to detect PPE ”

Mr. Weinhaus, the special agent, said companies claiming to be medical suppliers buy N95 imitators, usually in China, and sell them as legitimate 3M masks. Many masks feature a reflective seal with the word “Peru,” which 3M has said it does not use outside of Latin America. Mr Weinhaus said the agency was trying to trace the respirators to the source and stop them at the border.

3M said it has helped Washington, Minnesota and other states confirm that respirators purchased from non-3M distributors were not genuine 3M products. While the company said it had increased production of N95 respirators, it also said it had also launched a global effort to fight fraud and price abuse.

“As part of this effort, 3M is working with law enforcement and customs agencies to prevent the sale and manufacture of counterfeit 3M respirators,” the company said.

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Millions of people intended for public health threats have been diverted elsewhere, Watchdog says

WASHINGTON – A federal watchdog has found that the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which gained national attention last year when the Trump administration sacked its director, has been used for the past 10 years as a ” slush fund ”to cover expenses unrelated to its main mission of combating health threats such as Ebola, Zika and the coronavirus.

The 223-page report, released Wednesday by the Office of the Special Advisor, found that the Department of Health and Human Services embezzled millions of taxpayer dollars intended for BARDA to fund vaccine research and preparedness for an pandemic to other government activities, and failed to notify Congress – a potential violation of federal law.

Non-related activities included moving office furniture, administrative expenses, news subscriptions, legal services and salaries of other ministry employees. Investigators found that the practice of embezzlement was so common that the employees had a name: “BARDA Bank”.

The report focuses on the actions of the Deputy Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the head of the health department who oversees BARDA and is responsible for its budget. The Deputy Secretary is responsible for leading the federal response to pandemic threats like the novel coronavirus. Its last occupant was Dr Robert Kadlec; President Biden has not named a successor.

“I am deeply concerned by the apparent misuse by ASPR of millions of dollars in funding intended for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the Covid-19 pandemic,” wrote Henry J. Kerner, the special advisor, in a letter to Mr. Biden, using the acronym of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

“Equally concerning,” Kerner added, “is the spread and awareness of this practice for nearly a decade.”

The report does not specifically say how much money was embezzled. But about $ 25 million was taken from BARDA programs and provided to the deputy secretary’s office as recently as fiscal 2019, the office found. And between fiscal years 2007 to 2016, the assistant secretary did not record $ 517.8 million in administrative expenses, according to the report.

It also suggests that a senator, Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, who drafted the legislation that created BARDA and is considered its champion in Congress, got involved in internal funding disputes. The whistleblower told investigators that “restrictive wording” was added to the 2016 appropriation bill at the request of Mr Burr and his “pet project” – an apparent reference to BARDA.

A spokesperson for the senator made no comment.

BARDA was established by Congress in 2006. Its mission is to fund new research into vaccines, therapies, diagnostics and other “medical countermeasures” to combat natural and biodefense threats. It operated in relative obscurity until April, when Dr Kadlec sacked its director, Dr Rick Bright.

Dr Bright then said he was removed from his post and reassigned to a smaller post at the National Institutes of Health after pushing for stringent monitoring of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug adopted by President Donald J. Trump as a treatment for the coronavirus, and that the administration had put “politics and cronyism before science”.

Days later, he filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Advocates, an independent federal oversight agency. He has since left the federal government and recently advised Mr Biden on the coronavirus during the transition.

But the report released on Wednesday fails to respond to Dr Bright’s claims. Rather, it covers the Obama and Trump administrations, and grew out of an investigation into a 2018 complaint by an anonymous whistleblower whose allegations primarily concerned Dr. Kadlec’s predecessor, Dr. Nicole Lurie. The whistleblower accused Dr Lurie of “reporting false information to Congress” in his monthly reports to lawyers.

Dr Kadlec and Dr Lurie have denied any wrongdoing. In a brief interview on Wednesday, Dr Lurie said she had not been interviewed for the investigation. The results were reported earlier by the Washington Post.

“We left the country stronger than we found, including with a pandemic handbook,” Dr Lurie said of his time overseeing the agency. “All spending was routinely done and approved through multiple layers of rigorous budget processes. No expenses were incurred unilaterally. “

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement it would review how the assistant secretary allocated money from fiscal years 2015 to 2019 to determine whether a law had been broken.

A lawyer for Dr Bright, Debra S. Katz, called the findings “scandalous”. While the special advocate said last spring that he had “reasonable grounds” to believe Dr Bright’s impeachment was a return on his investment and called for his reinstatement, Ms Katz said the investigation into his complaint was progressing slowly because the Trump administration had not cooperated.

“These people used BARDA as their own piggy bank – both to run the contracts with their buddies and to do the special projects they wanted, to the detriment of American public health and safety,” she said. declared.

In a statement, Kerner urged Congress and the health department to “take immediate action to ensure that funding for public health emergencies can no longer be used as a slush fund for unrelated expenses.”

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She is a Chinese pop star with millions of fans. His latest success concerns domestic violence.

– Extract from the song “Xiao Juan” about women victims of domestic violence

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Tan Weiwei is a Chinese pop star, but his latest song is not about relationships or the search for love. It focuses on women victims of domestic violence.

“Know my name and remember it. When can we end the tragedy? Ms. Tan sings in “Xiao Juan”. The name is the Chinese equivalent of Jane Doe in the United States, given to women victims of unknown or unidentified crimes.

Since its release in December, the song has resonated with millions of women in China. On a video site popular with young Chinese internet users, Bilibili, the video for the song has been viewed over 1.1 million times.

The lyrics – which were written by Yin Yue, Ms. Tan’s collaborative partner – unleash a litany of references to horrific cases of domestic violence that have captured China’s attention in recent years.

A line about the use of fists, gasoline and sulfuric acid nods to the September murder of Lhamo, a Tibetan farmer whose ex-husband is accused of spraying her with gasoline and set it on fire. A line on being flushed down the drain, “from the marriage bed to the riverbed,” refers to the July discovery of a woman’s dismembered remains in a communal septic tank. Another sentence – “Put my body in a suitcase and put it in a refrigerator on the balcony” – refers to a shocking murder case in 2016, when a man in Shanghai killed his wife and hid her remains in a refrigerator for more than 100 days.

Although China passed an anti-domestic violence law in 2015, it is not well enforced, especially in small towns and rural areas, and cases continue to occur. According to Beijing Equality, a women’s rights group, Chinese media have reported the deaths of more than 900 women killed by their partners since the law was enacted in 2016, but the actual number is likely much higher.

Tan Weiwei, also known as Sitar Tan, is one of the few musicians to address the taboo subject in China – and certainly no other Chinese musician has done so directly or for such broad interest. Chinese authorities have actively suppressed feminism and the Me Too movement; and culturally, it is not considered appropriate to speak openly about these matters: many Chinese consider it a family affair, observing the phrase that “the shame of a family should never be shared outside. “. In Chinese pop culture, musicians usually don’t criticize social issues.

But the song – one of 11 tracks from Ms. Tan’s album dedicated to the lives of ordinary Chinese women – sparked a wave of discussion about domestic violence on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and posts. with the hashtag “Tan Weiwei’s words are so bold” have now been viewed over 360 million times.

Feng Yuan, professor and coordinator of the Center for Women’s Studies at Shantou University, said the song revealed the inequality and sexism that are ingrained in China’s highly patriarchal society.

“It resonates with many people and also causes discomfort in many people,” Ms. Feng said in a telephone interview. “She put these extreme stories in front of you. You cannot avoid them; you have to look at them directly. “

After the song’s release, women started sharing their own stories of gender-based violence on social media platforms. Then come stories of grandmothers, mothers and sisters who had been abused by their partners.

“Her song has become a symbol and a platform for people to release their emotions and thoughts about gender-based violence,” said Chen Junmi, 24, who works in an LGBTQ + rights group in Beijing. “I think it’s very powerful. This is the first time that a mainstream pop singer has spoken out about gender-based violence. It’s very brave of him to do that.

But the singer herself didn’t call it courage: “It’s not bravery but just a sense of responsibility,” she writes on Weibo.

In an interview with New Weekly, a Chinese lifestyle magazine, Ms. Tan said, “For many Xiao Juan [Jane Does] what was hidden was not only their names, not only their sufferings, but also their dignity as human beings, the joys and sorrows of their lives, their longing and longing for love.

Ms. Yin, the lyricist, said in the same interview that she was inspired by Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name” book, a memoir about surviving sexual assault. Ms. Yin said that it only took her three hours to finish writing the lyrics because these thoughts and feelings had been with her for years.

Ms. Yin and Ms. Tan first collaborated in 2016 on a song for the movie “X-Men: Apocalypse” in China – Ms. Yin wrote the lyrics and Ms. Tan put on the music. They decided to make an album exploring the identity of women after their first collaboration, according to People, a Chinese magazine.

But the song seems to have landed at the right time, as Chinese women have spoken out more about their rights. As part of the Me Too movement in China, Chinese women, many of whom are students, have pledged to accuse prominent men of sexual harassment in the media industry, universities and religious institutions. A stand-up actress poked fun at men’s egos and started a heated debate on social media last month. And in 2018, an adaptation of the music video for the American musical “Chicago” featuring six revenge stories of Chinese women on gender violence went viral on the Internet.

“Only when this kind of pain is truly and widely seen, heard, recognized and accepted, and when these issues are openly addressed and discussed, will there be the possibility of ending the tragedy in the future.” Ms. Yin said in the interview with New Weekly.

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Ticket brokers agree to pay millions of dollars in scalping settlements

Federal officials announced on Friday that three New York City ticket brokers had agreed to pay $ 3.7 million in civil penalties to settle allegations that they bought tens of thousands of tickets to events and resold them to customers at inflated prices.

The companies – Just in Time Tickets, Concert Specials and Cartisim Corp., all of Long Island – have been accused of violating the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, which seeks to prevent brokers from circumventing set ticket purchase limits. by online ticket sellers like Ticketmaster. It also prevents the resale of tickets obtained by knowingly engaging in such practices.

The regulations are the first enforcement action the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission initiated under legislation passed in 2016.

“Those who break the BOTS law deceive fans into paying exorbitant prices to attend concerts, theatrical performances and sporting events,” said Seth D. DuCharme, the acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in a press release. “This office will spare no effort to ban deceptive practices that harm consumers.”

Lawsuits against the three companies, brought by federal prosecutors on Long Island, had accused brokers of reselling thousands of illegally obtained tickets for millions of dollars in revenue between Jan. 1, 2017 and today, often to significant increases.

The companies are accused of creating accounts in the name of fictitious family, friends and individuals and of using hundreds of credit cards to take top seats at sporting events and concerts.

They are also accused of using ticket robots, or automated software, to evade safeguards designed to prohibit non-human ticket purchases and to conceal the IP addresses of the computers they used.

All three companies were given higher civil penalties as part of the settlement, with Concert Specials agreeing to pay the larger settlement of $ 16 million. But each was released from paying full penalties if they agreed to pay amounts ranging from $ 1.64 million to $ 499,000 and meet certain additional conditions, including submitting compliance reports to the government.

The New York attorney general’s office had previously reached deals worth $ 2.76 million in 2016 with six ticket brokers, following report revealing widespread abuse in the ticketing industry At New York. The report found that bots were widely used, with a high-tech scalper buying more than 1,000 tickets in less than a minute for a U2 show at Madison Square Garden.

Resale brokers must be licensed by the state, but the report reveals that many do not.

A lawyer who represented the three companies declined a request for comment.

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Millions of people flock to telegrams and signals as fears grow over big tech

Neeraj Agrawal, spokesperson for a cryptocurrency think tank, typically used the Signal crypto messaging app to chat with privacy-conscious colleagues and peers. He was therefore surprised on Monday when the application alerted him to two new users: mom and dad.

“Signal still had a subversive luster,” said Mr. Agrawal, 32. “Now my parents are on it.”

On Telegram, another encrypted messaging app, Gavin McInnes, founder of far-right group Proud Boys, had just announced his return. “Dude, I haven’t posted here in a while,” he wrote on Sunday. “I will post regularly.”

And on Twitter, Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, also weighed in last week with a two-word endorsement: “Use Signal.”

Over the past week, tens of millions of people have downloaded Signal and Telegram, making them the two most popular apps in the world. Signal allows messages to be sent with “end-to-end encryption,” which means that no one other than the sender and recipient can read its content. Telegram offers some encrypted messaging options, but is widely popular for its group chat rooms where people can discuss a variety of topics.

Their sudden surge in popularity was spurred by a series of events last week that stoked growing anxiety over some of the big tech companies and their communications apps, like WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. Tech companies including Facebook and Twitter deleted thousands of far-right accounts – including President Trump’s – after the Capitol storm was stormed. Amazon, Apple and Google have also discontinued support for Parler, a social network popular with Trump fans. In response, the Conservatives searched for new applications where they could communicate.

At the same time, privacy concerns have grown over WhatsApp, which last week reminded users in a pop-up notification that it shares some of their data with its parent company. The notification sparked a wave of anxiety, fueled by viral channel messages falsely claiming that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages.

The result has been a massive migration which, if it lasts, could weaken the power of Facebook and other big tech companies. Telegram said on Tuesday it had added more than 25 million users in the previous three days, bringing it to over 500 million users. Signal added nearly 1.3 million users on Monday alone, after averaging just 50,000 downloads a day last year, according to estimates from Apptopia, an app data company.

“We’ve had peak downloads before,” Pavel Durov, Telegram chief executive, said in a post on the app on Tuesday. “But this time it’s different.”

Carl Woog, a spokesperson for WhatsApp, said users’ privacy settings had not changed and the rumors about the data being shared were largely unfounded.

“What does not change is that private messages to friends and family, including group chats, will be protected with end-to-end encryption so that we cannot see them,” he said. -he declares.

The rise of Telegram and Signal could ignite the debate over encryption, which helps protect the privacy of people’s digital communications, but can cripple authorities in criminal investigations because conversations are hidden.

Any move to apps by far-right groups in particular has worried US officials, some of whom are trying to follow the planning of what could turn out to be violent rallies on or before the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“The proliferation of crypto platforms, where law enforcement cannot even monitor rhetoric, allows groups with bad intentions to plan behind the curtain,” said Louis Grever, head of the Association of national criminal investigation agencies.

Telegram has been particularly popular with those on the far right as it mimics social media. So after Facebook and Twitter limited Mr. Trump to their services last week and other companies began withdrawing support for Parler, far-right groups on Parler and other fringe social networks posted. links to new Telegram channels and urged people to join them.

Within four hours of Talking Monday going offline, a group of Proud Boys on Telegram gained over 4,000 new subscribers.

“Don’t trust the Big Tech,” read a post on a Proud Boys group on Speak. “We will have to find safer spaces.”

On Signal, a Florida-based militia said Monday it was holding its city-by-city small-group talks limited to a few dozen people each, according to messages seen by The New York Times. They warned not to let in anyone they did not know personally, to prevent the police from spying on their conversations.

The flow of users from Dubai-based Telegram and Silicon Valley-based Signal goes well beyond the American far right. Mr Durov said that 94% of the 25 million new Telegram users are from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. Apptopia data showed that while the United States was the # 1 source for new Signal users, downloads of both apps have increased in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.

Fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies have boosted the popularity of Telegram and Signal. While there hasn’t been a significant change in the way WhatsApp treats user data, people immediately interpreted the app’s privacy notice last week to mean that it was infiltrating all kinds of things. personal information – like personal chat logs and voice calls – and shared that data with businesses.

WhatsApp was quick to say people got it wrong and couldn’t see anything inside the encrypted conversations and calls. But it was too late.

“The whole world now seems to understand that Facebook doesn’t create apps for them, Facebook builds apps for their data,” said Moxie Marlinspike, Founder and CEO of Signal. “It took that little catalyst to push everyone past the change.”

The fervor was such that on Tuesday Moses Tsali, a rapper from Los Angeles, released a music video for his song, “Hit Me On Signal”. And Mr. Musk’s endorsement of Signal last week sent publicly traded shares of Signal Advance Inc., a small medical device maker, from a market value of around $ 50 million to over $ 3 million. billions of dollars. (The company has no connection with the messaging app.)

Some world leaders have also urged people to join them on the apps. On Sunday, the Twitter account of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico spoke about his new group on Telegram. As of Wednesday, it numbered nearly 100,000 members.

Eli Sapir, chief executive of Apptopia, said that while people’s concerns about Facebook’s data collection are correct, WhatsApp actually uses more secure encryption than Telegram. “It’s like going from something high in sugar to corn syrup,” he said, adding that Signal was the safest of the three.

Meyi Alabi, 18, a student in Ibadan, Nigeria, said she was surprised this week when her mother invited her to join Signal. Her mother had downloaded the app at the request of a friend worried about WhatsApp.

“I was in shock because she had it before me,” she says. “We usually talk to our parents about new apps. Now, all of a sudden, we’re the ones informed.

Mr. Agrawal, the cryptocurrency worker, said his parents have long been active in several WhatsApp group chats with college friends and relatives in India. He said they told him they joined Signal to follow many of these threads moving there as some of the attendees were concerned about WhatsApp’s new policy.

He said he knew the dangers of WhatsApp politics were exaggerated, but a large part of the public does not understand how their data is handled.

“They hear these key things – data sharing, Facebook, privacy,” Mr. Agrawal said, “and that’s enough for them to say, I have to get rid of it.”

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For millions of unemployed, Christmas is a season to experience, not to celebrate

Nicole Craig, an unemployed Pittsburgh mother of two, will not have Christmas presents for her two children, and the ham she bought with food stamps will be far less than their usual holiday dinner. Months behind on her rent and utility bills, she struggled to purchase infant formula and diapers. But there is one thing she couldn’t give up: a little Christmas tree and the trimmings to go with it.

Ms Craig spent the last 7 dollars in her bank account on garlands, a light-in-the-dark symbol of 2020. “It’s my baby’s first Christmas,” she says. “I wanted him to be able to see a Christmas tree.”

Although Ms Craig, 42, lost her job as an at-risk youth counselor through no fault of her own, she can’t help but blame herself when she sees Christmas decorations and other holiday reminders that she can hardly celebrate. “I don’t even want to think about it because I feel so bad for my kids,” she says. “It makes me feel like such a failure.”

For Ms. Craig, and millions of other Americans who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a holiday season more to experience than to savor. With the exhaustion of unemployment benefits and a ruthless job market with few places, many will remember this Christmas for painful sacrifices, not the joy of exchanging gifts and having festive meals with the family.

The arrival of vaccines and the approval of a new federal relief program offer hope, but they come too late to save this year’s celebration – especially with the prospect that this winter could bring the most days of the year. gloomy pandemic.

“I’m really scared of what’s going to happen,” Ms. Craig said.

The long delay in reaching a Congressional deal on an aid bill has meant fewer freebies under the tree even as the pandemic has separated families and shifted the holiday cheer this year to reunions of video chat.

And for many families, the stimulus payments of $ 600 per person approved by Congress are already earmarked for rent and other necessities.

In the meantime, unemployed Americans like Monica Scott of Lakeland, Florida, look to the past for comfort.

“This year the only thing I can do is talk about memories,” said Ms Scott, who was five months pregnant and had to quit her job at an Amazon warehouse due to the risk of miscarriage from loading and unloading. unloading of heavy packages. “The past year has been great – so many toys, clothes and shoes.”

Ms Scott, 34, wants to cook a Christmas dinner with her three boys – 14, 10 and 8 – but food will be limited as it will depend on food stamps and lack of cooking. Ms Scott lives in a motel after being evicted from her apartment last spring, but hopes to find permanent accommodation soon.

“It’s just a bedroom with a bathroom,” she says. “The rent is due and I don’t know where it will come from. I could move in with my sister, but she has her kids and it’s just not comfortable.

Ms Scott and others will also look to food banks to prepare Christmas dinner.

“We usually do rib roast, Martinelli apple cider, a few desserts,” said Jessica Hudson, a full-time student and mother of two from Millbrae, Calif. “We won’t be able to do any of that this year. “

Ms Hudson and her partner, who is unemployed, do their best to make Christmas as merry as possible: They bought stockings and candy at the dollar store, and they have spent the last few weeks searching the local streets. more nicely decorated. so they can take their children by car to see them on Christmas Day.

Ms. Hudson’s 13-year-old Marleigh only had one thing on her Christmas list this year: a family camping trip to Yosemite National Park. Ms. Hudson struggled to find a way to say no. “She’s basically getting an iou for Christmas, that when the pandemic is over and we’re able to travel, we’ll take her,” Ms. Hudson said. “But the truth is, we just can’t afford to do something like this right now.”

Jamie Snyder, who lives in Grayling, Michigan, bought his kids some big-ticket items last Christmas: a new TV for his daughter, an Xbox for his son. But since her husband was fired in June and then accepted a job with a $ 20,000 pay cut, money has been tight.

To buy simple gifts for the kids – a video game, a new sweater – Ms. Snyder used the money she would have spent on the electric bill. When this payment comes due on January 10, she worries that her electricity will be cut.

“We just want them to have something to look forward to,” Ms. Snyder said. For Christmas dinner, she will rely on a program from her daughter’s school that provides meals to families in need.

There is a touch of Dickens in this year’s celebrations, except that the relevant story is not “A Christmas Carol” but “A Tale of Two Cities”. Even as the stock market hits record highs and waiting lists grow for luxury items like Peloton exercise bikes, around 20 million workers were receiving unemployment benefits through state programs or federal governments at the end of November, according to the Department of Labor.

Some of the lucky ones try to give back. Sterling Beau Schecter, a machinery and equipment appraiser, received a 20% pay rise in October and increased his charitable donations to a local church accordingly.

“I am very grateful for the blessing of having a job and I try not to take it for granted,” he said. Mr Schecter, 26, lives in Chicago but was able to return home to Fort Worth for Christmas.

In a typical year, around 30 members of his extended family get together on Christmas Eve. This year, to comply with pandemic guidelines, only his immediate family will be spending time together indoors.

Nonetheless, her mother is cooking up a Christmas treat – with turkey, mashed potatoes, and rolls. Mr Schecter and his friends plan to rent a local movie theater this week for a private screening of a Christmas movie.

Workers like Mr. Schechter have generally been more resilient in the pandemic recession than those in the service sector with fewer skills and lower pay. Although the unemployment rate fell to 6.7% in November from 14.7% in April, the pace of hiring has slowed. At the same time, new claims for state unemployment benefits amount to nearly a million per week.

Many of the unemployed come from industries like hospitality, travel, dining and entertainment, which were still suffering from the initial pandemic strike in the spring when a new round of lockdowns and restrictions arrived this fall.

At 10.2 million, restaurant employment is down more than two million from February and fell again in November after rebounding in the spring and summer.

Few experts expect these sectors of the economy to experience a significant recovery until mass vaccination takes hold and consumers feel comfortable eating indoors again. – or, in places like New York and California, are even allowed to do so. Likewise, stadiums, airports and amusement parks will likely remain dormant until temperatures rise and the virus is repelled by herd immunity induced by inoculation next year.

One of those people on hold is Tresa Watson, 44, who worked as a server and host for four and a half years in the premium suite at Fiserv Forum, home of the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks. Until she was laid off in March, she was making $ 35,000 to $ 40,000 per year, enough to buy a $ 199 car seat last year for her new grandson, Khalil. .

This year, she gives him a laptop, stuffed animals and a broom and dustpan set from Melissa & Doug, the maker of children’s toys. Most importantly, she focuses on vacation experiences that are priceless, like spending time with Khalil, and feeling grateful that she can pay the rent and keep the lights on for now.

“I will offer love, hope and prayer,” she said. “And keep hope that that too will pass.”

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Unemployed scam using inmate names costs California hundreds of millions

Part of the problem, the task force wrote, was that, unlike at least 35 other states, California lacks the technology to cross-check its prisoner lists and UI claimant lists.

About two weeks ago, however, the group received a cross-check from the US Department of Labor between federal unemployment insurance claims data and a list of California prison inmates that federal officials had subpoenaed from there. ‘State.

The more than 35,000 payments sent on behalf of state prisoners alone, they found, totaled more than $ 140 million between March and August, with nearly half a million dollars disbursed on behalf of 133 convicts. to death. Among the most important: a claim for $ 19,676 paid on behalf of a death row inmate and another for $ 48,600 on behalf of another criminal.

The cross-checking did not include the state’s 58 county jails, state hospitals where sexually violent predators are held, and mentally disordered inmates or other facilities where people are held civilly.

However, Ms Schubert said in an interview, the task force’s investigation revealed fraudulent claims filed under the names and Social Security numbers of inmates at all levels of the correctional system, including most prisons, all the more than 30 prisons in the state. and thousands of federal prisoners.

“The volume of frauds as well as the types of detainees involved is staggering,” the task force wrote to Newsom, adding that many claims filed under the names of detainees were paid to beneficiaries in other states.

“This needs to be stopped,” Ms. Schubert said. “We are paying hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of serial killers, rapists and child molesters. We have to turn off the tap. “

Ben Casselman contributed reporting from New York.

Travel News

Millions of votes are in the hands of postal workers. Here is their story.

Millions of votes are in the hands of postal workers. Here’s their story: What this year’s politically charged mail-order election looks like for USPS field workers.Photographs by Philip Montgomery

Travel News

Astronaut Kate Rubins voted from space, joining millions of early voters.

About 250 miles above Earth, circling the planet at 17,500 miles an hour aboard the International Space Station, American astronaut Kathleen Rubins voted in the election, joining millions of others across the country who voted early.

“If we can do it from space, then I think people can do it from the ground too,” she said in a video posted to the NASA website.

Astronaut and marine biologist Ms. Rubins, who passes by Kate, was the first person to sequence DNA in space on a mission in 2016. As part of her current mission, she is conducting experiments related to the cardiovascular system.

In fact, Ms. Rubins might have had an easier time voting from space than if she were back on Earth.

In New York City, where early voting began on Saturday, tens of thousands of voters waited hours to vote, queues stretching for blocks outside polling stations. Similar scenes have been reported in other states.

As Election Day is still eight days away, more than 60 million Americans have already voted, beating the turnout record in early 2016.

Astronauts have been voting from space since 1997, when lawmakers in Texas put in place a technical process for them to vote. Many astronauts choose to enroll in Texas because they train at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Ms Rubins skipped the lines, but had to take a few extra steps to vote from space. First, before her rocket launched, she signaled her intention to participate in the election by filling out a federal postcard application, the same form filled out by military personnel serving outside the United States, NASA said in a post on their website.

The next step, like most things at NASA, involved a trial run. The county clerk sent a ballot to a team at the Houston Space Center, where officials checked if they could fill out the ballot and return it.

After the test, the space centre’s mission control center linked Ms. Rubins’ ballot. From space, she cast her ballot, which officials downlinked and emailed back to the county clerk’s office.

Ms Rubins’ vote, cast last week, came well ahead of the 7 p.m. election day deadline for astronauts.