July 29, 2021

A day after new mask recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re still trying to figure out exactly where we are when it comes to COVID-19 and masks and vaccines.

Are vaccinated people still relatively safe? How dangerous is this delta variant? Why do vaccinated people need to wear masks indoors? Is it just to protect the unvaccinated? If not enough people get vaccinated, is all this — mask-wearing, breakthrough cases, COVID-19 variants — the new normal?

And, of course, as much as the conversation revolves around science, politics also are a part of the discussion. For example, Christina Pushaw, the press secretary for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, told Fox News that the latest recommendation for masks “isn’t based in science. There is no indication that areas with mask mandates have performed any better than areas without mask mandates. In fact, this policy could actually backfire.”

DeSantis has come out opposed to the recommendation that schoolchildren should wear masks.

That leads me to a powerful segment on Wednesday’s “CNN Newsroom with Ana Cabrera.” Cabrera interviewed Dr. Murtaza Akhter, an emergency room physician at Florida International University in South Florida. Akhter painted a terrifying picture.

“It’s actually, quite frankly, pretty terrible,” Akhter said about conditions in Miami.

“It was horrid in the ER last night,” Akhter said. “It was an extremely stressful shift. Lots of COVID cases. It reminded me of last summer in Arizona (where Akhter worked then).”

Akhter noted that emergency rooms also are being filled by those coming in with other kinds of health concerns, whereas a year ago, the same type of patients were staying home because of COVID-19.

“Now all those other people seem to think life is back to normal,” Akhter said. “It’s almost a double whammy.”

Akhter said one patient he saw was in agony, but said she would rather die of COVID-19 than get the vaccine.

“That was utterly ironic to say the least,” Akhter said. “To come to the ER looking for help, but refusing to get the most effective treatment possible, and really the only treatment, makes us at a loss for words. … We have basically a miracle drug, we have something that can prevent the infection and, especially, prevent severe infection and yet people refuse to get it. They come in begging for help, but also refusing the vaccine. It’s utterly ironic. It’s, quite frankly, anger-inducing. And, honestly, it backs up care for everybody else who is trying to do the right thing. It’s very selfish.”

Then CNN showed jaw-dropping video of people outside of a school board meeting in Ft. Lauderdale burning masks. The video showed a man wearing a shirt that said, “Not Vaccinated” setting a pile of masks on fire. It also showed a little girl — with a rainbow backpack, holding the hand of a woman who had a sign that said “Masks = Child Abuse” — dropping her mask in the pile.

Akhter said, “By the time you’re at the level of burning masks, there’s probably little I can do to convince you. I have no idea what burning a mask does other than being a political trigger point. Clearly, there’s nothing about science that says you should burn a mask, whatever your opinion is on it. There has been very good evidence about masks preventing transmission. … To burn a mask is just completely pointless, especially when it’s something that can help save so many lives.”

Akhter then added there are parts of the world that “actually basically defeated the pandemic even without the vaccine. They did it by masking and distancing. We refuse to do that. We got a blockbuster drug … and we refuse to take those as well.”

Then Akhter added, “Other countries are looking at us and saying, ‘What is wrong with you guys?’ And I’m with them. This is ridiculous that we’re helping spread the disease, not only in our country, but the rest of the world also.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy joined MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” and said, “I know we don’t want to go back to wearing masks again, but these masks are a layer of protection that will help us prevent spread at a time where we are seeing cases rise.”

He continued, “What (Tuesday’s) announcement doesn’t do is, it doesn’t erase extraordinary progress we have made. And this extra layer of protection with a mask is just going to help us reduce the spread of Delta, which, again, is an extraordinarily contagious version. But the bottom line is, we are safer today than we were last year because we can get vaccinated. That’s why we still need people to get vaccinated.”

Reaction to the Simone Biles news

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, center, talks to teammate Alec Yoder as they watch the artistic gymnastic men’s all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Wednesday in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

A day after dropping out of the team competition at the Tokyo Olympics, American gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from today’s individual all-around competition to concentrate on her mental health.

Two quick thoughts. First, if there’s one thing that we can never fully understand, it’s what is going on inside of another human being. Heck, most of us aren’t even sure what is going on inside our own heads, which is why we turn to therapists or partners or pastors or friends to help us better understand our feelings and emotions.

Secondly, as disappointed as many of us are that Biles is not competing, let’s remind ourselves that no one has committed more energy, time and sweat to Simone Biles’ Olympic dreams than … Simone Biles.

Some of the usual professional trollers are criticizing Biles’ decision — middle-aged white guys such as conservative talk show host Clay Travis, Trump activist Charlie Kirk and Piers Morgan. Meanwhile, Fox News had on J.D. Vance, who is seeking the Republican nomination for Senate in Ohio next year, and teed him up to criticize the media for applauding Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health. (Although, it should be noted that Fox News’ medical contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier supported Biles’ decision on “Outnumbered,” as did host Harris Faulkner and panelist Dagen McDowell.)

But, mostly, Biles seems to be getting support.

The headline on a smart Candace Buckner column in The Washington Post: “For exceptional Black women like Simone Biles, greatness is never enough.” Buckner wrote, “Whenever Biles pulls on her leotard, it’s as though she’s tightening a cape around her neck. She’s the hero tasked with saving a sullied sport, embodying some trite belief in American dominance — and also carrying a gender and an entire race. That’s a heavy cape, and it chokes. But it’s one that exceptional Black women, and women of color, are told to wear. Because simply being great isn’t good enough.”

Buckner added, “They have to be superlative, as well as trailblazers. They have to be avatars of progress and change, and also fulfill a deeper societal responsibility as role models who break glass ceilings while breaking records. But here’s the thing: It’s okay for Biles just to be amazing. Let her greatness stand on its own. We can be wowed and celebrate her without also expecting her to single-handedly revive gymnastics after a sexual abuse scandal, while also leading little Black girls to balance beams all over the nation.”

A few other worthwhile pieces about the Biles story:

The New York Times’ Jeré Longman: “Simone Biles Rejects a Long Tradition of Stoicism in Sports.” And, in the Chicago Tribune, Darcel Rockett with “Simone Biles stepped back from the Olympics for her own self-care. The world should pay attention.” And The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay with “What Simone Biles Was Saying.”

Oh, and here’s a good piece about the Olympic setup from The New York Times’ John Branch: “Tick, Tick, Tick: Athletes’ Grueling Wait for an Olympic Moment.”

The return of Gawker

Gawker is back. Essentially shut down for nearly five years, the gossip, pop culture and news site cranked back up Wednesday under the Bustle Digital Group, which was founded by CEO Bryan Goldberg. Gawker, formerly owned by Nick Denton, was basically knocked out of business after a lawsuit by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. Goldberg bought the assets of Gawker in a 2018 bankruptcy auction for $1.35 million.

New editor Leah Finnegan wrote a letter to readers Wednesday, saying, “When Bustle Digital Group first approached me to revive Gawker last year, I said absolutely no way in hell. Who in God’s name would want to edit a website that was cratered by an evil tech lord and sullied by a botched relaunch? The Gawker name was toxic, but also weirdly revered; an intractable combination. It could not be brought back because it could never be what it once was, and also because what it once was was sued out of existence by a professional wrestler five years ago.”

Finnegan changed her mind, eventually, and wrote, “In closing, I ask you to approach this new iteration of Gawker with an open mind and an open heart. … We are here to make you laugh, I hope, and think, and do a spit-take or furrow your brow.”

Variety’s Todd Spangler has all the details on the new Gawker.

Right and wrong

(Courtesy: NBC News)

In the latest “Chuck Toddcast” podcast, NBC News’ Chuck Todd interviews pollsters Bill McInturff, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, and Jeff Horwitt, senior vice president at Hart Research, to talk about political polling, what the NBC News polls got right and wrong in the 2020 election, and what they’ve learned since the election.

McInturff told Todd, “What happened is, Donald Trump said that polls are baloney, that they’re out to get him, that this is false facts, and you shouldn’t participate. And so, after this election, people said, clearly, what must have happened is, the core Trump voters were unwilling to cooperate with surveys, that changes the sample composition, and they’re underrepresented. That makes sense. However, the polling group you mentioned looked at literally 1,000, 2,000 surveys. And in our work, we looked really carefully at people who terminate during the calls, people we can’t reach in our calls. And all the work that’s been done has not been able to demonstrate that we are missing a part of the electorate, or systematically missing Trump voters.”

Horwitt added, “I think that’s something in 2020 in particular, the challenge was that precisely the voters that the Trump campaign and Republicans needed to turn out were not only infrequent voters, but voters who were even harder to reach, perhaps by traditional polling calls or other ways that pollsters reach these audiences.”

Sad news of the day

And I say, “Hey!”
What a wonderful kind of day
Where you can learn to work and play
And get along with each other

Come on, there is no better, more uplifting TV theme song than Ziggy Marley’s classic “Believe in Yourself” for the PBS show “Arthur.” But today is not a wonderful kind of day. PBS confirmed Tuesday that the show featuring the 8-year-old bespectacled aardvark, Arthur, his little sister D.W. and their friends will come to an end next year after 25 years on air.

Actually, it turns out the show — based on the book series written and illustrated by Marc Brown — stopped production quite a while ago. In an interview for the podcast, “Finding D.W.” about the show, “Arthur” writer Kathy Waugh said, “‘Arthur’ is no longer in production. We had our wrap party two years ago.”

Waugh added, “I think Arthur should come back. I know I’m not alone in thinking they made a mistake.”

In a statement, the show’s executive producer, Carol Greenwald, said, “Arthur is the longest-running kids animated series in history and is known for teaching kindness, empathy and inclusion through many groundbreaking moments to generations of viewers.” Greenwald said the show will continue to air on PBS Kids, and offered a bit of optimistic news by adding, “producer GBH and PBS KIDS are continuing to work together on additional ‘Arthur’ content, sharing the lessons of ‘Arthur’ and his friends in new ways.”

In a story for The New York Times, Isabella Grullón Paz wrote, “News of the show’s cancellation set off mourning on social media, reflecting the show’s popularity across generations. Scattered among the posts lamenting the cancellation were memes inspired by its always-relatable images: One showed Arthur clenching his fist in frustration, another showed his sister, D.W., holding and looking through a chain-link fence, sunglasses on but still expressing sadness.”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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