US: Pelosi wins re-election as House speaker with slim majority

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Sunday was re-elected to her leadership position despite a shrinking Democratic majority in the House.

With Democrats holding a smaller majority than the prior Congress, Pelosi could only afford to have a small handful of lawmakers peel off and opt to write-in someone else. The final count was 216, with just two Democrats — Reps. Jared Golden, D-Maine, and Conor Lamb, D-Pa. — choosing someone other than Pelosi and three others voting present. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy received 209 votes from members of his own party.

Sunday also marked the swearing-in of the 117th Congress. In a letter to colleagues Sunday morning, Pelosi said the new Congress will convene “during a time of extraordinary difficulty.”

“Each of our communities has been drastically affected by the pandemic and economic crisis: 350,000 tragic deaths, over 20 million infections, millions without jobs — a toll almost beyond comprehension,” she said. “Thank you for your generosity of spirit and patriotism to take on this challenge For The People.”

“I am enormously grateful for the trust that Members have placed in me,” she added. “I am confident that the Speaker’s election today will show a united Democratic Caucus ready to meet the challenges ahead.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the vote for speaker— which must be conducted in person— looks different than in past years. Members will be broken up into separate groups rather than having all of the elected representatives gathered on the floor at once. The roll call vote, which began shortly after 2 p.m. ET, is ongoing.

A handful of members were not expected to be present for the vote, including Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who is battling pancreatic cancer, and Rep. David Valadao, R-Ca., and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., who recently tested positive for Covid-19.

In a statement Sunday afternoon, Dr. Brian Monahan, Congress’ attending physician, announced the setup of an area above the House floor for members exposed to Covid-19 but who have tested negative so they can vote in person while remaining quarantined A Capitol official said two Democrats and one Republican are utilizing this option. It is not yet known which members are doing so.

“The highest possible safeguards have been implemented including separate, enhanced ventilation in this space and separate holding facilities for any Members utilizing Gallery 4,” Monahan said. “This step will only be necessary until proxy voting resumes as an option for impacted Members.”

Pelosi won the prior vote for speaker by a 220 to 192 edge over House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Senators were also sworn in on Sunday. The ceremonies marked the end of David Perdue’s term in office. Perdue left his Georgia seat vacant until either he or Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff is certified as the winner of one of Tuesday’s widely-watched Senate runoff in that state. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., is also facing a runoff on Tuesday, but she remains in her seat through the election because she was earlier appointed to continue a term that does not expire on Sunday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., kicked off the new year by acknowledging the “challenging time” ahead. McConnell is facing a growing contingent of Republican senators who plan on contesting the Electoral College results on Wednesday as Congress convenes to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s win.

“From political division to a deadly pandemic to adversaries around the world, the hurdles before us are many and they are serious,” said McConnell, who has been urging senators against challenging the results. “But there’s also plenty of reason for hope.”

The Senate now stands at 51 Republican senators and 48 Democrats following the swearing-in ceremonies. Should Democrats prevail in the Georgia runoffs, that split would become 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote, giving Democrats the majority.

Earlier Sunday, a number of Republican senators and Republican members of the House, released separate statements opposing the challenging of the election that colleagues have planned for Wednesday.

“To take action otherwise — that is, to unconstitutionally insert Congress into the center of the presidential election process — would amount to stealing power from the people and the states,” seven House Republicans — including some of the body’s most conservative members — said in their statement. “It would, in effect, replace the electoral college with Congress, and in so doing strengthen the efforts of those on the left who are determined to eliminate it or render it irrelevant.”

Prisons shut down in U. S. States as guards contract Covid- 19

Local jails and state prison systems around the U.S. on Saturday commenced shutting down completely and transferring their inmates elsewhere, due to the ravaging wave of coronavirus infections and deaths in prisons.

The New York Times reported that officials resorted to this decision as a drastic strategy to keep the virus at bay as so many guards have fallen ill with the virus and cannot work.

“From California to Missouri to Pennsylvania, state and local officials say that so many guards have fallen ill with the virus and are unable to work.

”Thus, abruptly closing some correctional facilities is the only way to maintain community security and prisoner safety,” said the Times report.

The paper quoted experts as saying that the fallout is easy to predict because jails and prisons that stay open will probably become even more crowded.

They will also be unsanitary and disease-ridden, and the transfers are likely to help the virus proliferate both inside and outside the walls.

There have been more than 480,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and at least 2,100 deaths among inmates and guards in prisons, jails and detention centres across the nation.

According to an NYT database, among those statistics are the nearly 100,000 correctional officers who have tested positive and 170 who have died.

“Early in the pandemic, some states tried to ward off virus outbreaks by releasing some offenders early and detaining fewer people awaiting trial in order to reduce their populations.

”However, those efforts often met with resistance from politicians and the public,” said the report.

More recently, as arrests in many areas have increased, jail populations have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

This is according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based non-profit research and policy group.

“That fact, combined with widespread infections among correctional officers, staffing shortages stretching back many years and strains on prison medical facilities, have pushed states.

This is as the pandemic progresses toward more concentration and crowding, rather than less, in part through closure of strained facilities,” said the Times report.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States topped 20 million as of Friday as the discovery of a highly contagious new virus strain in the country has increased pressure to speed up the vaccination process.

The U.S. reported over 20.1 million cases and more than 347,000 related deaths as of Friday afternoon, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

The country, which makes up about 4 per cent of the world’s population, now accounts for nearly one-quarter of over 83.8 million cases.

The U.S. also accounts for about 19 per cent of the 1.8 million deaths reported worldwide, according to the university’s data.

New strain of Covid- 19 tripled infections despite UK lockdown, report says

The new, more contagious strain of Covid-19 that first emerged in the southeast of England was already spreading rapidly even during the nation’s second lockdown in November, according to a report published Thursday by scientists at Imperial College London.

A report by scientists at Imperial College London released on December 31 estimated that the new coronavirus strain tripled its number of infections in England during the November lockdown while the number of new cases caused by the previous variant decreased by a third.

The new strain registered a higher reproduction (R) rate – which determines how contagious a disease is based on the number of people infected by each infected person – of 0.7 versus 0.4 for the previous strain, even with the “high levels of social distancing” during the pre-Christmas lockdown.

An rate must be less than 1 for the number of new cases to start falling. The British government’s latest estimate of the R rate for the UK as a whole, published on December 23, was between 1.1 and 1.3.

The emergence of the new Covid-19 strain prompted more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on the UK in late December, many of which were subsequently lifted. France reported its first case of the new variant on its soil on December 25.

“There is a huge difference in how easily the variant virus spreads,” Axel Gandy, a statistician at Imperial College London and a co-author of the report, told the BBC. “This is the most serious change in the virus since the epidemic began,” he said.

The Imperial College research also found the new strain was initially spreading most rapidly among people under 20 years of age but it then started spreading to other age groups.

“The early data was collected during the time of the November lockdown where schools were open and the activities of the adult population were more restricted,” Gandy said. “We are seeing now that the new virus has increased infectiousness across all age groups,” he continued.

The government reimposed lockdown measures on areas covering 78 percent of the English population on Wednesday while regional authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also brought back confinement measures.

Intensive care units in London and the surrounding southeast region exceeded their capacity on December 29, with occupancy reaching 114 and 113 percent respectively, according to NHS data leaked to specialist publication the Health Services Journal. In response, the government activated one of its Nightingale Hospitals – designed to deal exclusively with Covid-19 patients, thereby taking the pressure off overburdened hospitals – in London on December 31.

The Imperial College report suggested that keeping schools closed after the Christmas holidays will help contain the virus’s spread: “A particular concern is whether it will be possible to maintain control over transmission while allowing schools to reopen in January.” The government has extended the Christmas holidays until January 11, when secondary schools in England are scheduled to resume classroom attendance. Pupils will return to English primary schools on January 4, except in the most severe virus hotspots including London.

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