Good morning! It’s Monday, June 21, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 505 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,233 days away.
America is facing a daunting obstacle in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic: the Delta variant. Public health officials are amplifying their warnings about the variant, attempting to turn around lagging vaccination rates in order to head off the challenge posed by the fearsome virus strain.
What makes this variant different? The Delta variant, also known as B.1.617.2, is the most contagious mutation of COVID-19 yet. According to a study by England’s top public health agency, Delta is 64% more transmissible than the Alpha variant (the variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which was previously dominant worldwide) — which was itself about 50% more transmissible than the original strain from Wuhan.
Delta also appears to be more severe: the risk of being hospitalized with the variant is about double the risk of being hospitalized with Alpha, according to a Scottish study published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal. It is also comprised of a distinctive mutation pattern, further separating it from the other variants that have been discovered.
As in other stages of the pandemic, the United States benefits from seeing how other countries have fared against the variant. Delta was first detected in India, where it contributed to a record-setting surge in cases and deaths. It has since taken hold in the UK, where it makes up 98% of all sequenced cases of the virus, according to the Financial Times. The rise in Delta cases has led to a third wave of the pandemic in England, overwhelming hospitals and pushing back the country’s scheduled reopening.
Now Delta has been declared a “variant of concern” by both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. According to the Financial Times estimates, 31% of sequenced COVID-19 cases in the United States now stem from the Delta variant, a quick rise from 10% just last week. It is likely to become the “dominant strain” in the U.S. soon, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recently warned.
Is America taking the warning to heart? Studies have found that the Delta variant may be slightly more resistant to vaccines than other variants, but that vaccinations are still incredibly effective against the variant: according to a study by the UK government, the Pfizer vaccine was 88% effective in preventing symptomatic disease from the Delta variant, compared to 93% effectiveness against the Alpha variant.
But vaccination rates are slipping across the U.S. at the same time as the threat from Delta grows. Vaccinations are particularly declining in conservative strongholds, leading to concerns that “two Americas” could emerge in the fight against COVID-19: one in liberal cities that are seeing vaccinations rise and cases of the virus tumble, and another in conservative areas experiencing the reverse. (A recent Washington Post analysis found that “states with higher vaccination rates now have markedly fewer coronavirus cases.”)
Biden administration officials are pointing to the Delta variant to sound the alarm about vaccinations. “The best way to protect yourself against these variants is to get vaccinated,” President Joe Biden declared on Friday.
Biden was celebrating a milestone in his vaccination campaign (300 million shots being administered in his first 150 days in office) but any mention of his own previously-established benchmark for the nation (70% of American adults having received at least one shot by July 4) was conspicuously absent from the speech.
According to a New York Times analysis, the U.S. is on track to fall just short of Biden’s Independence Day goal. If vaccination rates continue at their current pace, the Times found, 67.6% of adults are set to have had one shot by July 4.
The White House is deploying some of its top principals in an effort to turn those trends around. President Biden will be in North Carolina encouraging vaccinations later this week; First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Mississippi and Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff hit South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama between them last week. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci got in on the act, knocking on doors in Washington, D.C., to urge residents to get vaccinated.
“The Delta variant is a warning about the ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to adapt,” Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, wrote on Sunday, urging humans to also adapt in turn “by urgently expanding vaccination,” the most powerful tool in our arsenal for combatting the virus and its spread.
Policy Briefing: The week in economic news
Every Monday, Wake Up To Politics contributor Davis Giangiulio offers a briefing on the week’s economic news to know:
Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell said in a speech on Wednesday that inflation could be “higher and more persistent” than once thought. But Powell continued to state that he believes this inflation won’t be long-term. However, if it does continue, he made clear the Fed “wouldn’t hesitate to use [their] tools to address that.”
With inflation rising, the median member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) now forecasts two interest rate hikes by the end of 2023 — a change from March, when the median member saw no rate hikes over this period. This sent markets tumbling, as higher rates mean a bigger burden for businesses to borrow money, but they recovered from their lows as Powell cited “uncertainty” in the economy to cast doubt on the rate projections. Overall though, the fear of higher rates made the Dow have its worst week since October.
But the Fed’s acknowledgment of the inflation worries are leading some concerns to decline. Already inflation fears were falling: University of Michigan inflation expectations for the five to ten-year mark fell to 2.8% in June from 3%. One-year figures also declined from 4.6% to 4%. The announcement from the Fed only subsided these fears further, as Citibank said, “inflation expectations are trending down, especially after the hawkish FOMC meeting… after Powell embraced more hawkish projections.” A more alert Fed means that there are fewer concerns the reserve will not act on inflation if it gets out of hand.
It’s not just projections either, as market inflation indicators are falling too. Gold, which closely tracks with the Consumer Price Index measuring inflation, fell 6 percent last week, and now is at its lowest level since mid-April when the rally in its prices was just kicking into high gear.
Treasury yields also declined significantly after the Fed announcement. Typically, inflation leads people to sell their bonds since government debt becomes less valuable in these situations, and a bond sell-off means higher treasury yields. However, the 10-year Treasury note yield is at its lowest level since early March and the 30-year at its lowest since February. Overall, it’s giving economists a confusing picture: one where official data shows inflation surging, but also where market data and the Fed aren’t sold on it just yet.
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What drives Joe Manchin? That question is animating a lot of conversation in Washington these days. Two recent pieces that helped answer it for me — and each include detailed reporting on his family and background in West Virginia — came from the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The 3-3-3 Supreme Court. After Obamacare was upheld by the Supreme Court (again) last week, Politico takes an interesting look at the court since Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined and finds less evidence of the 6-3 conservative juggernaut that was expected and more of a 3-3-3 court, with stark divisions between the right-leaning justices.
A race to watch. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has served in the Senate since 1981. He has yet to say whether he will seek an eighth term in 2022, when he will be 88 years old. But a new Des Moines Register poll from the venerated Ann Selzer might give him pause: 64% of Iowa voters said they “think it’s time for someone else” to hold the seat, while just 27% in the Republican-leaning state said they would vote to re-elect Grassley.
- Bonus: Read my interview with Selzer from January 2020, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, for a refresher on why she’s seen as “the best pollster in politics.”
An inspiring story. Texas activist Opal Lee has been working for decades to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Last week, she was at the White House to watch the fulfillment of her longtime dream. Read more on Lee — “the grandmother of Juneteenth” from NPR.
Correcting the record
In the “Gabe’s Picks” section of Thursday’s newsletter, I included a story from Axios reporting that the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had become “the first national party committee to solicit crypto donations.”
Wake Up To Politics reader LaDonna Higgins, the chair of the St. Louis County Libertarian Party, wrote in to point out that the national committee for the Libertarian Party has accepted Bitcoin donations since April 2013. In the spirit of transparency, I wanted to note that correction here.
What’s happening in Washington today. (All times Eastern.)
→ President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:50 a.m. Later, at 1:45 p.m., he will meet with financial regulators for an update on “the state of the country’s financial systems and institutions.”
According to the White House, the meeting will “cover regulatory priorities including climate-related financial risk and agency actions to promote financial inclusion and to responsibly increase access to credit.”
→ Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At 12:35 p.m., she will deliver remarks on the Child Tax Credit, which was expanded in the $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed into law by President Biden earlier this year. (The Biden administration has designated today as Child Tax Credit Awareness Day.)
At 2:30 p.m., Harris will hold a roundtable as part of the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, which she leads. The vice president will be joined at both events by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
→ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold a press briefing at 12 p.m.
→ The Senate will convene at 3 p.m. Following Leader remarks, the chamber will consider the nomination of Christopher Fonzone to be General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. At 5:30 p.m., the Senate will hold a cloture vote to advance Fonzone’s nomination.
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