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What Happened: September 1, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Top FDA officials resign in protest; Ida’s destruction; Scroll exclusive

The Scroll
September 01, 2021

The Big Story

Two senior Food and Drug Administration officials responsible for vetting COVID-19 vaccine applications are resigning in what’s reported to be a protest of the agency’s lack of control over vaccine-related decisions. The final straw for FDA Deputy Director Phil Krause and Marion Gruber, director of the agency’s Office of Vaccines Research & Review, was “the White House getting ahead of FDA on booster shots,” according to Endpoints News, a publication covering the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. The two officials will leave their jobs this fall, an FDA spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

The departure of the two veterans “comes at a particularly crucial moment, as boosters and children’s shots are being weighed by the regulator,” according to Endpoints News, which also notes that the announcement is happening just “as the administration has recently jumped ahead of the FDA’s reviews of booster shots, announcing that they might be available by the week of Sept. 20.” As reported here yesterday, Israel provides a sobering example of the limited effectiveness of rushing out COVID-19 booster shots: Despite being one of the most vaccinated countries in the world and aggressively distributing booster doses of vaccines, Israel had its most ever COVID-19 cases recorded in a single day this week. The latest resignations come after three scientists resigned from an FDA advisory committee in June to protest the agency’s approval of a controversial Alzheimer’s drug that was pushed to market despite “no good evidence” showing that it worked, according to one of the three.

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The Rest

• At least five people have died due to Hurricane Ida, which unleashed winds up to 150 mph across the Gulf Coast over the weekend. With hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana still without power on Wednesday, the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, warned residents who had been evacuated that “life-supporting infrastructure” had not been restored yet and instructed them not to return to their homes. The City of New Orleans imposed a curfew Tuesday night, after many residents spent the day without power in the sweltering heat. Total damages and economic losses from Ida are expected to cost between $70 billion and $80 billion, according to AccuWeather’s Dr. Joel N. Myers.

• Talking to reporters Wednesday, the top two U.S. military commanders, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, left open the possibility of the United States cooperating with the Taliban in the future. Milley called the Taliban, which the United States relied on over the past month to provide perimeter security at the Kabul airport, “a ruthless group,” but added, “In war, you do what you must.” Milley said, “It’s possible” that the United States will work with the Taliban to target the Islamic State Khorasan, the terrorist group also known as ISIS-K, which the Pentagon blames for an attack last week that killed 13 American troops and almost 200 Afghan civilians. 

• Sign o’ the Times is the name of the 1987 double record put out by Prince that stands as the genius of Paisley Park’s magnum opus. My favorite song on the record is the sweet and dreamlike tune, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” But the times change and the signs change with them, and the omens right now are disturbing.

Lots to say about this, but IMO the assumption that exposure to a COVID-unvaccinated caregiver is obviously worse for a child than being deprived of a parent is very much a sign of the times

— Mason 🏃‍♂️✂️𐃏 (@webdevMason) August 31, 2021

• In a televised speech from the White House Tuesday night, President Biden called the United States’ departure from Afghanistan an “extraordinary success.” 

• In a phone conversation from July 23 between President Biden and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Biden pushed Ghani to change the perception that the Taliban was winning the fight against the Afghan security forces, despite what the U.S. president maintained was the Afghan military’s clear strength advantage. A transcript of the 14-minute phone call was leaked to Reuters, which published part of it on Wednesday. “You clearly have the best military,” Biden told Ghani. But he urged the Afghan leader to take steps that would change the view of the conflict. “I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden said on the call.
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• I have no information about this video except that I found it on Reddit; it reminds me of what I’ve always loved about New York City, and, judging by the storefronts, was shot in Harlem.
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• A law banning most abortions took effect in Texas on Wednesday. The Supreme Court declined to block the law, which prohibits abortions after cardiac activity becomes detectable, which is roughly at six weeks, before most abortions are performed. The law also allows individuals to sue both abortion providers and private citizens who provide any support to the woman getting the abortion.

• The U.S. State Department employs a genuine article antisemite by the name of Fritz Berggren. In addition to his government job as a foreign service officer, Berggren runs a blog called, where, among other colorful opinions, he wrote last October that “Jewish ideas poison people” and referred to Jews as “the seed of the Serpent, that brood of vipers.” Harsh, man, but at a not-so-deep-down level, about an inch below the scabby surface, all antisemites are insecure people taking recourse in fantasy. That’s what distinguishes antisemitism, which is a conspiracy theory about supernatural Jewish power, from mere anti-Jewish prejudice. More than 70 State Department employees have signed a letter calling on their boss Secretary of State Antony Blinken to fire Berggren, who has been publishing similar material under his own name since 2017.
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• Starting in October, Netflix will be streaming all nine seasons and 180 episodes of Seinfeld, a show that, come to think of it, could have had some fun with a guy like Fritz Berggren.

BPThe Back Pages

The Alex Gutentag Interview

Alex Gutentag started writing about COVID-19 lockdowns because she saw firsthand how they were hurting students in the Oakland public school system where she worked as a teacher. Her writing has been clear-eyed and admirably direct, focused on the human impact of COVID-19 policies and the underlying class dynamics that have made the rich vastly richer since the start of the pandemic and the poor still poorer. No surprise, then, that she was suspended from Twitter last month for the grave crime of pointing out that there are other COVID-19 treatments available besides government-backed vaccines. Now Gutentag is preparing to step down from the job as a special education teacher that she loved, rather than enforce rules like making her students wear masks that she believes would be damaging to them. This is an exclusive early excerpt for Scroll readers from the interview with Gutentag that will be published on Tablet later this week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to question the expert consensus on lockdowns and on COVID-19 more generally?

When the schools closed in March 2020, I thought that if they’re doing that, then it must be really serious. I didn’t question it because I remembered the previous year we had been on strike, and every day the school district was acting like losing a single day of learning was a huge deal for kids. So I thought, well, if they’re closing for two weeks, there must be an emergency. But once the two weeks turned into two months, I started to be concerned about what the learning outcomes for kids would be because they didn’t have a plan at that time. Even when we passed out computers, a lot of kids didn’t have internet, so we still had a huge proportion of kids unable to access school for the last two or three months [of that year]. Then I thought that people would realize it was a mistake and we would move on, but it became clear in fall 2020 that we weren’t going back and that there weren’t going to be any special accommodations for really high-need kids. In another more affluent district nearby, kids with severe disabilities have been getting special education services in person, but where I was in Oakland, we weren’t planning any in-person services for them. It didn’t make sense to me because in California, we could be doing school year-round outside, especially for high-need groups. We could split them up into smaller groups, hire more staff, do a lot of things. There’s plenty of outdoor space. And it didn’t seem like any efforts were being made to do that. It was all or nothing.

One reason I was interested in having this conversation with you is because I got this wrong early on, and I want to understand why I made certain errors of judgement. I don’t think the risks from COVID-19 were minimal, and I can still see the need for some kind of lockdown through April 2020 in the “triage” phase of the pandemic response. But I fell for the pitch that “emergency measures” would be tied to specific temporary conditions like “flattening the curve.” What’s clear to me now is that lockdowns and other restrictions are a feature, not a bug. Any technology of social control that’s justified by an emergency, if it’s effective, becomes permanent. That’s as true of lockdowns as it was of the surveillance justified by the Patriot Act.

Did you have a change of course, or were you skeptical from the beginning?

I really wasn’t skeptical at the very start. Before the lockdown, it seemed like it was going to be another SARS. You know, just a media issue—something scary that was never really going to materialize. Once we went into lockdown, I thought what everyone else thought at first. It was in the second week that I had doubts, not just about the kids but about the panic buying that was happening and the crowded supermarkets. I remember I went to the store to buy something at the beginning of lockdown, and there was this old woman who was really struggling to get stuff and get in line, and it just seemed very counterproductive for her to be in an extremely crowded place under an immense amount of stress. Things like that started to come together for me and create some doubt, and then I read a little bit about what was going on in Northern Italy. That was when some stronger issues came because they had been privatizing their hospital system for a long time and downsizing and had really bad flu seasons for the past few, and that wasn’t really brought up to the public when we were shown images from there of crowded hospital ICUs and stuff like that.

Why do you think the national teacher’s unions were so resistant to reopening schools?

Some of it is the sunk cost fallacy, but it’s also because they’re responding to concerns from the teachers themselves. On a higher level, there has been some documentation of wrongdoing on the part of union officials in terms of their meddling with the CDC in those emails that got released, but it’s not just that. I see people saying that the teachers don’t support what the leadership is doing, and I don’t think that’s completely accurate. Online, what you see is everyone hates Randi Weingarten, but it depends where you are. In heavily blue cities, the teachers themselves feel scared or think that school opening is an issue and believe in having kids wear masks. It’s tempting to just purely blame leadership, but I think that it’s reflected also in what membership wants.

If you’re in a position of leadership, you’re responsible for the communication that you give to people in a lower position. But I’ve been in meetings where I’ve said to people, “Look, this is what the data says,” and they’ve responded, like, “We don’t care about the data.” And I’ve looked for teachers who have similar views, and it’s extremely difficult to find them. I only say this because I think that what’s happened to kids is something that everyone needs to reckon with in terms of their role in it. I feel really bad as well. I wish I had done more. In terms of holding people responsible on a national level, yeah, the union leadership is responsible, but in terms of people introspecting on what went wrong … I think everyone needs to look at their own actions as well.

Aside from getting banned from Twitter, have you dealt with any social costs for the positions you’ve taken?

I’ve always worked in low-income, high-need areas, and those are the schools that tend to have the most vacancies, so that has given me a little bit of leeway. The problem for me is that I’m not sure I can keep teaching because of what’s happened. Right now I don’t have plans to teach again in the fall. I’m not sure if I can psychologically go back because of what’s continuing to happen. And because of what’s happened.

We went back for the last six weeks in the spring, and I was really excited. It was great for kids to be back. But I can’t be in the role of telling kids to pull their mask up or—even if I was to ignore it and not enforce it—representing the institution that’s telling them to wear a mask. It feels too much to me like following orders, you know? And I feel like I can’t be the person that says I was just following orders on this one. It’s hard to explain because before all of this happened, I really loved teaching. I was obsessed with my job. But over the year that we were out of school, during that time, there are things that happened. Like I had a former student who died in a gun violence incident, and I just couldn’t help but feel that we killed him, you know; that we had kind of created the circumstance where he should have been in school and he wasn’t. This was a student that had an intellectual disability and was not in school. It feels too difficult to continue to be part of an organization or institution that is conducting itself in this way.

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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