By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
August 6, 2021
DR. ALEX JAHANGIR RETURNS TO INSIDE POLITICS AS COVID-19 SPIKES YET AGAIN; AS A FOURTH COVID WAVE SPIKES, MIXED LEADERSHIP, MIXED MESSAGES AND CONTROVERSY CONTINUE; THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO A BI-PARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE BILL PASSING THE SENATE; METRO COUNCIL SEES THE DIFFICULT SIDE OF NASHVILLE’S GROWTH
DR. ALEX JAHANGIR RETURNS TO INSIDE POLITICS AS COVID-19 SPIKES YET AGAIN
COVID-19---It’s been the bane of this country’s…indeed the entire world’s… existence since the early months of 2020.
Almost a year and a half later, where do we stand with a fourth wave of the virus, including the highly contagious Delta variant, increasing across Tennessee and Nashville, as well as other states and communities with low covid vaccination rates?
What needs to be done to bring this pandemic finally under control?
And is there any kind of time frame when that will happen?
To bring us his insights and wisdom on those topics, we welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS, the chair of the Metro Nashville Board of Health, Dr. Alex Jahangir.
We thank Doctor Jahangir for coming back on the program.
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AS A FOURTH COVID WAVE SPIKES, MIXED LEADERSHIP, MIXED MESSAGES AND CONTROVERSY CONTINUE
It is our fourth wave of COVID-19. Yet, our local, state, federal and world leaders continue to respond to this greatest ongoing public health crisis in our history, with mixed leadership and messages.
Locally, with virus numbers up 70% in the last week and 440% in the last month, Nashville Mayor John Cooper on Wednesday announced he is reinstating a mask mandate in all Metro buildings. Willl that be enough? Will he be forced to reinstate a broader mask mandate across the board as did earlier in the pandemic? And what about requiring proof of vaccinations or a negative covid test to eat indoors at a restaurant, attend a concert or other events? New York City, with vaccination levels close to Nashville is moving towards doing something similar to that.
Two Nashville performance ventures are already requiring proof of vaccination for admission.
Metro Nashville school leaders on Thursday voted to change their policy and once again require all students, staff, teachers and visitors to wear masks in the classroom and on buses when schools begin next week. You could the change coming for universal mask wearing in Metro Schools. First, the special school board meeting was announced followed by Mayor Cooper’s mask announcement the next day. Then the Metro Schools Director announced her support for a mask mandate on Wednesday while the MNEA teachers association released survey results strongly backing the move.
But it appears Metro Nashville, Shelby County and Hancock County schools in Upper East Tennessee are the only public-school systems statewide doing a mask mandate. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville announced late Thursday all its schools will require everyone to wear masks indoors until at least Labor Day. Many other school systems are recommending wearing masks but making it optional. It seems, as always during this pandemic, what do about schools remains a flashpoint of controversy.
At the beginning of the week, with Governor Bill Lee looking on in agreement, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton this week threatened to call a special session of the General Assembly to strip educators of their powers if school systems require masks.
He says it is up to parents to decide what their children wear, and that mask wearing is not a health protector but is rather a deterrent to children learning. But the latest news reports indicate the growing case count and the science indicate COVID-19, with its Delta variant, is a growing health problem for children.
On Thursday, State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey went even further to undermine the House Speaker’s and her boss, the Governor Lee’s position on COVID-19 not being a serious threat to children’s health. The Commissioner says at the current pace of the disease with the Delta variant, children’s hospitals in the state will be full by end of next week! It should be noted there are other child related viruses that are also have unusual spikes at the same time helping to fill pediatric beds.
While at this point no educators are advocating closing schools or going back to virtual classes, the Tennessee House Speaker is so stirred up on the matter, he is also threating to defund schools that do so. He would try to do that by passing a new voucher bill that would allow parents to take their tax dollars away from public schools and spent them to educate their kids with private education. Note that Speaker Sexton did not vote for the state’s current voucher law which is still in a legal battle in the courts.
But the next day after Speaker Sexton made his threats, a lot of the political power behind his demands got deflated. That happened when his counterpart, Senate Speaker and Lt. Governor Randy McNally said he has no plans to call a special session and that he has full confidence in local school boards to make the right decisions.
The seeming disagreement between the two top leaders of the Republican Supermajority marked the second time in as many weeks state GOP lawmakers have issued different statements about the state’s covid response. Last week, a majority of the Senate Republicans urged everyone to get vaccinated while House members continued to raise concerns about the vaccines especially marketing shots to teens.
While the argument over masks in schools continued to rage, there was another, much more critical covid- related education issue that was in the news this week. As expected, and predicted, the learning loss due to the pandemic was bad. Maybe so bad, it is worse than expected.
In another question of leadership, in terms of getting everyone their shots, does the Lee administration value cows over people? This Associated Press story will make you wonder.
For whatever reason (maybe a growing fear and realization that, finally, being unvaccinated is not a good idea?), Tennessee’s percentage of those getting shots continues to increase. In fact, it has nearly doubled in the last month. But unfortunately, vaccinations are not increasing fast enough to match how much the virus is growing.
In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper announced another covid shot incentive plan this week. The new one seems to rely on referrals and resulting peer pressure from family and friends looking to win a chance for prizes. Some of the prizes are pretty good ones such as Predator, Titans and Sounds season tickets.
In a somewhat unrelated leadership issue, this was yet one more week when the Lee Administration was sued over another of the wrong-headed, discriminatory bills targeted against the transgendered community. These are measures the Republican Legislature passed, and Governor Lee signed into law.
The state varied better in another lawsuit in the courts. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tennessee's 48-hour abortion waiting period is constitutional and will remain in effect. The 2015 law requires a patient seeking an abortion first to be counseled by a doctor in-person and then wait at least 48 hours before returning for an abortion procedure. The law had been overturned by a lower court.
On the national level, after a weekend of finger pointing the Biden administration has gotten the Centers for Disease to issue another moratorium on evictions, after the last one expired the end of July. It left millions, who are months behind on their rent, in danger of being tossed out into the streets.
The new CDC moratorium is limited in time and more focused. It applies only to areas with a high spread of COVID-19, That would seem to cover most of the nation, including Nashville and Tennessee. But apparently it may not cover Tennessee due to an earlier federal appeals court ruling.
The new moratorium expires October 1. But will it be approved by other courts? Some rulings held the CDC doesn’t have the power to issue any kind of moratorium in this area.
Nashville officials say they are still ahead compared to other cities in getting out the billions of dollars Congress has appropriated to pay back due rents. But the need remains great. Will local judges observe the eviction moratorium?
Getting back to the virus, there were renewed calls and studies released this week from two of the vaccine manufacturers. They say that even through the current serums are still highly effective, there will be a need in next few months (this fall) for people to get a booster shot. Some health experts believe approval for boosters, for usage among some age groups, could come this fall.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) says everyone should hold off on booster shots until more of the (less developed) world get their access to the serums. It is an important point. Unless we make the whole world safe from the virus, it will just continue to grow, and create still more variants, including ones the current vaccinations may not be effective to stop.
One last leadership question to pose. When will the FDA give final approval to the current vaccines? Those who oppose or are hesitant to get their dabs express a fear that the serums have only emergency use approval. With hundreds of millions of Americans having received the vaccines with few
side effects, the safety of the shots is apparent. It appears the hold up on final approval is about auxiliary issues surrounding manufacturing, etc. These are not unimportant, but a quick move by federal officials on this would be wise. If for no other reason than to take away yet one more excuse to avoid getting protection from COVID-19, as if catching the disease, being hospitalized and dying isn’t enough.
Late in the week, in the wake of rising virus cases, it seems hospital capacity may be becoming an issue. In Nashville, Vanderbilt Medical Center ran out of beds for a time on Wednesday and is limiting some surgical procedures. Hospital official said in a memo until more people are “willing to get vaccinated” this situation could continue to occur.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO A BI-PARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE BILL PASSING THE SENATE
It is not a done deal yet.
Senators have been wading through a mountain of amendments (called a vote-a-rama) that could stall or gum up the works on both of the infrastructure bills now pending in the Senate.
But it appear, the full Senate is now poised to approve a $1.1 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill that will give President Joe Biden a major legislative win. The measure could get even more Republican support than thought when last week 17 GOP members approved starting debate on the bill. It seems some Republicans think this will be a good government program to run for re-election on, too. A final vote could come as early as this weekend.
But one item, already all but eliminated in the final bi-partisan bill, would cut 95% of the funding for a program to assist cities where road projects severely damaged and cut off neighborhoods from the rest of the community. Nashville officials, including Congressman Jim Cooper, were looking to utilize the program to heal 50-year plus scars remaining from I-40 being built through Jefferson Street and North Nashville in the 1960s.
Is there a plan B for Nashville to fund this effort?
As for the bi-partisan infrastructure bill in the House, House Speaker Pelosi wants the Senate to pass a second “human” infrastructure measure as well, before the lower chamber acts when it returns September 20. This second $3.5 billion bill is being done under the budget reconciliation process, meaning no Republican support is needed in either House. But without the Senate acting first, Democratic progressives say they won’t support the bi-partisan infrastructure bill either.
And if things aren’t complicated enough, the nation faces another spending limit crisis, putting the country in danger of defaulting on its debts, unless the spending cap is raised. GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says his members won’t vote to raise the debt level if Democrats insist on pushing through their $3.5 billon infrastructure measure under reconciliation. The Democrats are looking for a way to force their Republican colleagues to join them in dealing with the debt issue, a problem both parties have helped create over the years.
By the way, this debt ceiling vote is for existing debt not any new debt that might be created by any pending legislation. One other late challenge to passing the bi-partisan infrastructure bill cropped up Thursday night when the Congressional Budget Office gave its estimate of how much new debt the bricks and mortar plan would create. It says it would be $256 billion over 10 years.
It’s a long and winding road indeed on Capitol Hill.
President Biden got a lot of good economic news this week. On Thursday, the latest survey found new and continuing jobless claims fell and layoffs are at their lowest level in 21 years. On Friday, that translated into a jobs report which found the economy added 943,000 jobs in July and unemployment saw a big decline to 5.4%!
METRO COUNCIL SEES THE DIFFICULT SIDE OF NASHVILLE’S GROWTH
It is clear that Nashville’s economy is strong.
In fact, throughout the pandemic, requests for land use rezoning have been high.
Last Tuesday’s Metro Council meeting had 33 such requests on the agenda.
Going through public hearings on those bills took the lion’s share of an over 5 1/2 hour Council session that ended just after midnight.
One rezoning in the Dickerson Road area in East Nashville near (but not a part of) the massive new Oracle development, concerned several councilmembers so much they were still reflecting on it, hours later in the moments before the Council adjourned.
What bothers them were the heart rendering appeals they heard from residents of a trailer park which would be sold to developers as a part of the rezoning. These folks, who spoke to the Council in both Spanish and English, are unhappy the trailer park owner has given them just two months- notice or until august 31st to vacate their homes, even though they are up to date on their rents and have valid leases. Some are also upset the owner sold them trailers in just the last few months when they say he likely knew he was going sell and vacate the trailer property. These residents want more time to relocate and be compensated for their move, as they claim they would be, if they were in single family homes being acquired.
It is not clear what state law allows on compensation, but the Council was outraged by what they heard. It should be added the trailer park owner was not present to give his side of the story. The Council approved the district councilmember Shaun Parkers’s request the zoning bill be deferred until October. Some council members wanted to defer the matter indefinitely and made it clear they plan to delay the matter even beyond October if the residents are not satisfied going forward.
Council members say this is not the way Nashville should do business and they don’t want to do anything to assist behavior like this. But what had council members still reflecting on this matter after midnight were comments from some of its African American members including Jonathan Hall.
He told his colleagues: “I…see the exact same thing happening everywhere else, or in multiple places in this city, not getting the same attention or reaction from this (Council). That’s wrong. That’s inconsistent. And we’ve got to do a better job about that.”