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A Holiday Season With Vaccines, Boosters and Rising COVID-19 Infections

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Millions of Americans will return to the Thanksgiving table this week for the first time in two years, with vaccines and boosters in their arms and rapid tests at their disposal.

But as the holiday season kicks off and temperatures approach freezing across much of the nation, families are huddling indoors at a time COVID-19 is accelerating at a disturbing pace. After steadily dropping over the last months, the seven-day national average in new coronavirus cases has increased by 18%, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week.

Cases are surging in the frigid Upper Midwest, with hospitals in Michigan — where infections have increased by 67% in the last two weeks — nearing capacity. In New England, where vaccination rates beat the national average of 59%, outbreaks are appearing in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont as immunity wanes. In New Mexico, Santa Fe Public Schools went back to remote learning on Tuesday after an uptick in coronavirus cases. California is urging residents to not let their guard down despite the state having one of the lowest infection rates in the country.

Just a month ago, Americans were booking travel plans as infection rates across vast swaths of the nation were on a downward trend. Children ages 5 and older became eligible for their shots this month, and the CDC now recommends boosters for all adults. That news was encouraging, but a persistent 30% of the adult population refuses to get vaccinated even as new federal mandates will require it for millions of workers.

Health experts are worried about another season of death and sickness.

“I’m hopeful that it won’t be as bad as last winter, but it could still be really, really bad,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The people we are least worried about are the ones seeking out the vaccines. We know that boosters can cut down a vaccinated person’s risk even more. But if that’s all we focus on, we are still leaving dangerous gaps in immunity.”

Such gaps — highlighted by the country’s political divisiveness over the vaccine and just about everything else — will resonate through the holidays. Most Americans appear determined to move beyond the pandemic. But COVID-19 remains stubborn and, like its consequences, including clogged supply chains, masked faces and rising inflation, will be felt well into the new year.

Still, President Biden and his top pandemic advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have told the nation that it’s safe to celebrate Thanksgiving again.

“If you’re vaccinated — and hopefully you’ll be boosted too — and your family is, you can enjoy a typical Thanksgiving meal, Thanksgiving holiday with your family,” Fauci said this week on ABC, adding that the vaccinated can go unmasked. “There’s no reason not to do that.”

Travel data show Americans are heeding the call. According to the Transportation Security Administration, air travel this year is expected to approach 2019 levels.

In interviews, Americans said they were excited to again join extended family over the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving and ends with New Year’s Day. They also calculated risks and diverged in how much caution to take.

In Las Vegas, Marshall Thompson has invited dozens of guests — children, in-laws, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — to his home.

It’s a change from last year’s lonesome meal over Zoom.

“We’re eating on the patio and inside — deep-fried turkey — and everyone has to be vaccinated to get in the door,” Thompson said. “Everyone has to wear masks when they are not eating.” He said his guests were “scrambling to get their boosters” in a state where 54% of the population has been vaccinated.

Michelle Cromer, 61, is keeping her 20 guests in the backyard of her home in El Paso. She lives in a liberal pocket of a conservative state where the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has long opposed pandemic restrictions, including attempting to ban schools from enforcing mask mandates. About 54% of Texans are vaccinated.

“In October, I emailed invites and asked everyone to show me their vaccination card,” Cromer said. “The request eliminated some family members.”

Her brother, who is vaccinated, won’t be joining in person because his wife is unvaccinated. They’ll tune in via live video from Dallas.

In Binghamton, N.Y., Annie Sisk had plans to host a few of her daughter’s friends for Thanksgiving. That was before cases began increasing. In New York state, the number of infections has grown by 28% in the last week, reaching the state’s highest rate since April.

“We thought that, since we were vaccinated, we could loosen up just a little bit,” said Sisk, 55, who has hypertension and diabetes and lives with her 22-year-old daughter. The conditions increase her likelihood of more severe sickness if infected.

“We were going to ask people to take a test before coming over. Now, we’ll just have Cornish game hens by ourselves.”

Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who will be joining family in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said the risks are slim for those who are vaccinated and healthy. His dinner table will include his 95-year-old grandfather, who is vaccinated, and guests will also take rapid tests.

Still, Mina said the rising rates nationwide worried him.

“The cynical part of me is frustrated, as though we didn’t live through this during the holidays a year ago,” he said. “We should expect the patterns of history to continue to present themselves.”

There’s also another wrinkle, experts said. Seasonal flu cases, while still low, are beginning to climb, signaling that emergency rooms could quickly become overridden by the coinciding contagions. Health officials in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and California have warned of rising influenza infections. Early this month, a Los Angeles County man became the first to die in the region this season because of complications from the flu virus.

Even in California, where coronavirus infection rates are low, there’s caution. Visiting a San Francisco vaccination clinic this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested that the state could once again see wide infections and hospitalizations if residents acted without vigilance.

“States are struggling because people are taking down their guard or claiming ‘mission accomplished.’ … I don’t want to see that happen here in California,” Newsom said.

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Original Post: latimes.com

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself

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MEXICO CITY — 

Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Original Post: latimes.com

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe

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On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Source: latimes.com

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court

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Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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Article: latimes.com

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