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Thousands of Workers Say Their Jobs Are Unsafe as COVID-19 Cases Spike

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  • 1.5 million people filed for unemployment last week, though continuing claims fell by nearly 1 million.
  • But as the labor market stabilizes and more communities reopen, thousands of workers have filed complaints with the government alleging their workplaces are not safe to be in during the pandemic.
  • Workplace safety has become a major issue that is expected to grow as reopenings continue, especially because there are no enforceable federal laws that require employers to protect their workers during the pandemic.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. hit 2 million cases of coronavirus, and at least 20 states have reported increases in their numbers.

Concerns Over Worker Safety

Another 1.5 million people filed for unemployment, the government reported Thursday, marking the continued trend of decreasing claims over the last few weeks.

Perhaps even more notably, the number of continuing claims, which counts how many people filed two weeks in a row, fell to 20.9 million from 21.3 million last week. Economists now say that continuing claims are a better economic marker of how the U.S. labor market is doing as the pandemic continues.

The lower numbers are, at least in part, a reflection of the widespread reopenings that have taken place over the last several weeks. But as reopenings continuing and the number of people going back to work rises, so do the concerns about workplace safety in the pandemic.

Those concerns are due to one major reason: the fact that there are no rules for pandemic-related workplace safety on the federal level.

The federal government has issued guidelines for employers that reopen, but like the federal guidelines for states that reopen, they are not mandatory or enforceable.

While governors in some states have put worker protections in place under executive orders, there have been growing numbers of people who say they do not feel safe at their jobs and have filed formal complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

According to the official government data, OSHA has received thousands of workplace safety complaints related to COVID-19 over the last few months. Those complaints have risen significantly since states started reopening.

At the end of April, before states started reopening, OSHA reported just over 3,000 claims were filed at the federal level and 7,800 at the state level. But as of Wednesday, federal claims jumped to over 5,000 while state claims nearly doubled to more than 12,430.

With the growing claims, labor activists and unions have started putting more pressure on the government. In mid-May, the AFL-CIO, which one of the largest labor unions in the country, announced that it was suing OSHA to get it to implement mandatory national safety requirements during the pandemic.

At the same time, Republican congress members have been trying to pass legislation that would protect employers from being sued by their workers if they catch the virus— and idea that President Donald Trump has also said he supports.

Huge Spikes in States Reopening

But as states push forward with their reopenings, labor advocates are worried that without a codified national law the situation will only get worse, especially given massive spikes in coronavirus cases that have been reported in numerous states in recent days.

On Wednesday, the U.S. officially hit two million confirmed cases, and according to reports, new infections are now increasing in at least 20 states.

South Carolina, which had reopened most businesses by the end of last month, is now reporting more daily cases than ever— even higher than the state’s previous peak in April.

Florida, which was one of the first states to ease restrictions and has implemented one of the broadest reopenings, is also seeing a surge. On Saturday, more people in the state tested positive for COVID-19 than any other day in the past two months.

One of the biggest new hotspots is Arizona, where cases have increased 115% since its stay-at-home order ended on May 15. This week, the state also reported an average of over 1,000 new cases every day, making it the highest per capita infection growth rate in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Arizona’s health department said that only a quarter of the state’s ICU beds were available, which promoted the state’s health director to direct hospitals to activate coronavirus emergency plans for the first time since March. 

But Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has refused to put restrictions back in place, and the executive order he signed that lifted restrictions explicitly prohibits local officials from putting further restrictions in place to curb the virus in places where there are large outbreaks.

Ducey has also repeatedly claimed that the rise in cases is due to the increased number of tests that the state was administering— a claim disputed by numerous health experts.

“It’s very clear that it’s a real increase in community spread,” Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association told KJZZ. “It’s not some artifact of additional testing.”

Humble’s remarks were also echoed Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told the Post that positive test rates are outpacing the increased testing, which suggests Arizona’s enhanced testing is not the cause of the spike.

Ducey, however, is not the only governor that has made the argument about increased testing contributing to a rise in cases. Leaders in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and several other states have prompted similar claims in the last few weeks.  

But both public health experts and current data puts those claims in serious contention.

According to NPR, cellphone data collected by the Gleam Project suggest that “people in the U.S. are moving around at a level that’s up to about two-thirds of what it was before shutdown rules were implemented. This supports the idea that the new increases are real, not just a result of more testing.”

Governors Push Ahead

However, governors all across the country are still pushing ahead with easing more restrictions, including in some of the largest hotspots.

In Texas, where total cases shot up by one-third over the last two weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott still said he plans to move ahead with his plan reopen basically all businesses that have not already reopened by the end of the week.

When Texas set new records for coronavirus hospitalizations on three consecutive days this week, Abbott said the spike in cases is expected and “largely the result of isolated hot spots in nursing homes, jails, and meat packing plants.” 

But local health officials have said that is not true, and that there is a clear link between Abbott’s early and broad reopening. 

Other states are also pressing ahead with new openings despite significant rising cases.

In Arkansas infections rose by one third in a week and hospitalizations have also gone up nearly 90% since Memorial Day.

Despite that, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Wednesday he is still going to go ahead with phase two reopenings, arguing that the surges were not tied to his easing restrictions.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (Politico)

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What You Need To Know About the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause

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  • The CDC and the FDA have issued a joint recommendation to pause distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine amid reports that six women experienced “extremely rare” blood clots after receiving the single-dose shot.
  • The vast majority of the 6.8 million Americans who were given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have reported minor to no side effects, and no direct link has been established between the vaccine and blood clots at this time. 
  • The two agencies are expected to release updated guidance in the coming days.
  • Several states and cities are now automatically giving the two-dose Pfizer vaccine to people who were scheduled to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. 

CDC and FDA Recommend J&J Vaccine Halt

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, released a statement Tuesday recommending a pause on the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

So far, 6.8 million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, most with zero or only mild side effects.

The updated guidance comes after six women, all between the ages of 18 to 48, experienced what both agencies described as “extremely rare” blood clots six to 13 days after being vaccinated. One of those women has died and another is in critical condition.

Neither the CDC nor the FDA has confirmed that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the cause of these blood clots; rather, they said this guidance comes “out of an abundance of caution.”

That’s also in line with Johnson & Johnson itself, which said it’s aware of the reports but added that “no clear causal relationship has been established between these rare events.” As a precaution, Johnson & Johnson has also now delayed the rollout of its vaccine in Europe. 

What Happens From Here?

Principal Deputy Director of the CDC Anne Schuchat said further recommendations will come quickly.

FDA Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock echoed that statement, saying, “We expect it to be a matter of days for this pause.”

Wednesday, a CDC committee will convene to discuss the cases and assess their potential significance.

When asked if the government was overreacting to just six cases out of nearly 7 million vaccinations (a criticism made by some online), Schuchat said the CDC pulled its recommendation specifically because the type of blood clots seen in these 6 women requires special treatment, so “it was of the utmost importance to us to get the word out.”

In the meantime, both agencies are urging Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients to contact their doctors if they experience any combination of severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath. 

What If I Had A J&J Appointment?

Both agencies, as well as other health officials, are still urging unvaccinated people to take the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines when available in their area.

The White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator has said that 28 million doses of those vaccines will be made available this week. Notably, that’s more than enough for the country to continue giving 3 million shots a day. 

If you had an appointment scheduled to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’re likely not completely out of luck.

For example, while D.C. vaccination sites are canceling all Johnson & Johnson appointments between Tuesday and this Saturday, the health department there has said it’ll send out invitations on Wednesday to reschedule.

Similar situations were reported in Virginia and Maryland, though some vaccination sites in Maryland are still honoring existing appointments by automatically giving people Pfizer instead. That’s also a process that is now being conducted in places like New York State and Memphis.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (NBC News) (The Washington Post)

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Minnesota Protests Continue for a Second Night Over Police Killing of Daunte Wright

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  • Protests continued in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on Monday over the death of Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot by a police officer who allegedly thought she was using her Taser.
  • Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators violating the 7 p.m. curfew, as well as others who threw projectiles back at the officers. Several incidents of looting were reported, though law enforcement officials said they were minimal.
  • That same evening, police officials identified the officer involved in Wright’s death as Kimberly Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force, prompting many experts to flag numerous reasons an officer with her experience should have known not to confuse her weapon with a stun gun.
  • Wright tendered her resignation on Tuesday, as did Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon.

Second Night of Demonstrations 

Demonstrators clashed with police for the second night in a row Monday after an officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

Much like protests the day before, the events reportedly started out peaceful, with hundreds attending a vigil on the street where Wright was killed. Hundreds more gathered outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department.

The situation started to escalate after 7 p.m. when the curfew instituted across all four Twin City metro-area countries went into effect. According to reports, police began to warn people that they were in violation of the curfew, and shortly before 8 p.m., officers began firing rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. 

Some protesters reportedly retaliated by throwing water bottles, fireworks, and other projectiles. Later, police in riot gear pushed groups of demonstrators who had regrouped away from the police station.

Looters also broke into several businesses at a strip mall close by, including a Dollar Tree, where flames were reportedly later spotted, though law enforcement officials described the looting as limited.

During a press briefing just after midnight, officials said that 40 people had been arrested at the Brooklyn Center protest.

Officer Identified

Late Monday, state officials identified the officer who fatally shot Wright as Kimberly Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force. BCPD Chief Tim Gannon had previously said that the officer, who he refused to name, had intended to use her Taser, but accidentally used her gun.

Many social media users and experts questioned how someone with 26 years of experience could mix up a Taser and a gun, including one retired sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, who told The New York Times, “If you train enough, you should be able to tell.” 

The Times also noted that it is not common for officers to mix up their Tasers and guns, that most police forces — including BCPD — use a variety of protocols to prevent this from happening

Tasers are usually designed with specific features to distinguish them from guns, such as bright color-coating and different styles of grips. According to The Times, the BCPD manual cites three different pistol models as standard-issue, all three of which “weigh significantly more than a typical Taser.”

Those pistols also have a trigger safety that can be felt when touching them, while the Tasers do not. The outlet additionally noted that BCPD protocol requires officers to wear guns on their dominant sides and Tasers on the opposite to prevent exactly this kind of confusion.

Beyond that, Potter’s actions may have violated department policy even if she had used her Taser because the manual says it should not be used on people “whose position or activity may result in collateral injury,” including those “operating vehicles.” 

It also says that officers should make “reasonable efforts” to avoid using the stun gun on people in the “head, neck, chest and groin,” but Wright was shot in the chest. 

On Tuesday afternoon, it was reported that Potter and Chief Gannon have resigned from the force. The resignations come after Brooklyn Center leaders dismissed the city manager, a decision that could potentially give Mayor Mike Elliot the ability to fire the chief or officers in the department.

The resignations also come amid reports that Potter had been involved in another police-involved shooting in 2019, where she had been “admonished by investigators for allegedly attempting to conceal evidence after a police shooting that left a 21-year-old autistic man dead,” according to The Daily Beast.

Misinformation Spreads

As more information comes out surrounding the traffic stop that led to Wright’s death, several pieces of misinformation have also continued to spread on social media.

Most of the false information centers around the warrant for Wrights’ arrest that prompted police to attempt to detain him.

According to reports, court records show that a judge issued the warrant earlier this month after he missed a court appearance for two misdemeanor charges he was facing from last June for carrying a pistol without a permit and running from officers. 

Notably, Wright does have a number of past charges filed against him, including two for attempted sale of Marijuana and aggravated robbery. Despite claims by many social media users, those charges were for separate incidents, and the warrant was specifically for failing to appear in court for the June charge.

There has also been a viral video circulating Twitter and TikTok claiming court records show that the hearing notification was sent to the wrong address, seemingly in reference to a piece of mail that had failed to be delivered in his court records.

The mail, however, was actually for a different case and is not connected to the notification for the hearing he missed. While that video is incorrect and county officials maintain that they did send him notification, Wright’s public defender, Arthur Martinez, told reporters his client had never received the notice and that the court had not informed him either.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Minneapolis Star Tribune) (The Daily Beast)

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Protests Erupt in Minnesota After Police Shooting of Daunte Wright

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  • Protests erupted in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Sunday evening after police shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop.
  • Police officials said an officer had intended to use a stun gun on Wright as he was attempting to re-enter his vehicle, and in body camera footage, the unidentified officer can be heard threatening to use her Taser before discharging her gun and exclaiming, “Holy sh*t, I shot him.”
  • Peaceful demonstrations started almost immediately but later devolved into violence and looting as some began clashing with police, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
  • The shooting and subsequent demonstrations added to heightened tensions in the area, which is just miles away from where former officer Derek Chauvin is currently on trial for murder over the death of George Floyd.

Daunte Wright Shooting

Protests and violence broke out Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis, after police shot and killed a Black man during s traffic stop just miles away from the courtroom where Derek Chauvin is facing murder charges for the death of George Floyd.

Local officials confirmed Monday morning that the man was 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who had previously been identified by his family. In a press release Sunday, the Brooklyn Center Police Department said that officers had pulled his car over for a traffic violation around 2 p.m. and discovered that he had a warrant out for his arrest. 

According to the statement, Wright tried to re-enter his car while police were trying to take him into custody. One of the officers fired their gun, hitting Daunte, whose car traveled several blocks before striking another vehicle.

Officers and medical personnel “attempted life saving measures,” but he was ultimately declared dead at the scene. A female passenger, who Daunte’s family identified as his girlfriend, also “sustained non-life threatening injuries” and was transported to the hospital. The people in the other vehicle were not hurt.

In a press conference Monday, Police Chief Tim Gannon said the officer who fatally shot Wright had meant to Taser him instead. He played body-camera footage that showed two officers approach the vehicle from each side. A third office approached later as the two tried to handcuff Wright, who can be seen struggling.

The third officer threatens to Taser Wright before firing her weapon, and immediately after, she can be heard saying “Holy shit, I shot him,” seemingly to realize she had fired her gun weapon instead of her Taser. Gannon said the unidentified officer has been placed on administrative leave.

Gannon claimed police had initially stopped Wright because his registration had expired, but that account appears to contradict the account from his family. On Sunday, his mother, Katie Wright, told reporters that her son was driving a car his family had given him two weeks ago and called her when he was pulled over.

“He said they pulled him over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror,” she said, adding that she had asked Daunte to give his phone to a police officer so she could give them the car insurance information.

Protests Break Out

According to local reports, hundreds of protestors gathered at the scene in initially peaceful demonstrations. Officers in riot gear responded to secure the area, people reportedly jumped on police cars, and some threw concrete blocks.

Police fired nonlethal rounds to try to disperse the crowd, and Wright’s mother called for protestors to calm down over a loudspeaker.

Protestors regrouped later that night, with hundreds reportedly marching to the Brooklyn Center Police Department headquarters. Again, the demonstrations were initially peaceful, but according to local reports, at around 9:30, police declared an unlawful assembly and gave people ten minutes to disperse.

About 25 minutes later, they started firing less-lethal rounds and flash-bang grenades into the crowds that remained. The standoff continued to escalate through the night, with police reportedly firing rubber bullets and chemical agents at protesters, some of whom threw rocks, bags of garbage, and water bottles back at them.

National Guard troops arrived just before midnight and looters began targeting nearby stores, including a Walmart and shopping mall.  According to reports, several businesses were completely destroyed, and around 20 total were targeted.

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott ordered a curfew until 6 a.m., and the local school superintendent said the district would hold classes remotely “out of an abundance of caution.”

The commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety also said Monday that more National Guard troops will be deployed to the area this week, where some were already stationed as part of a public safety plan put in place during the Chauvin trial.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (The Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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