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GOP's Move to Force Through Trump's EPA Pick Is 'Outrageous'

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Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have suspended their panel's rules to force through Scott Pruitt's nomination to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The maneuver was made only one day after all 10 Democratic members of the committee announced a boycott over President Donald Trump's EPA pick. The boycott was sparked over their serious concerns of the Oklahoma attorney general's stances on climate change, pollution regulation and unanswered requests to provide official documents or emails that would shed light on his ties to the energy industry.

After temporarily suspending the committee's rules—which requires at least two minority members to meet quorum—committee Republicans unanimously approved Pruitt by a 11-0 vote at a Thursday hearing. This means Pruitt's nomination will go to the full GOP-controlled Senate, where he is likely to be approved.

Committee Democrats have called the move today by their Republican colleagues "irresponsible."

"I am disappointed that our majority has decided to ignore our concerns and those of the American people, and break the committee's rules in an effort to expedite Mr. Pruitt's nomination, but we have to stand our ground in our pursuit of the truth and in fulfillment of our Constitutional duty with respect to nominations," ranking member Tom Carper (D-DE) said in a statement.

"He's dodged our questions, ignored our letters, and told us go to the back of the line and make open records requests to get the information we are entitled to," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The pattern follows a similar move by the GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee, who altered committee rules to approve the nominations of health secretary nominee Tom Price and treasury pick Steven Mnuchin. They also move to the full Senate without a Democratic vote.

"We took this extraordinary step because the minority members of the committee took the extraordinary step of boycotting the business meeting to approve an EPA administrator for an incoming administration," said environment committee Chairman Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) after the vote.

"The minority has put us in this, unchartered waters. Never before in the history of the EPA has a new president's incoming administration nominee been boycotted."

However, as The Hill pointed out, "Barrasso and his Republican colleagues boycotted a 2013 vote to confirm Gina McCarthy as administrator, though they eventually gave in."

Barrasso countered that their boycott was different because Trump deserves special treatment for his first Cabinet.

"Elections have consequences, and a new president is entitled to put in place people who will advance his agenda, the agenda that the people voted for when they elected him president," Barrasso said.

Environmental groups have strongly criticized this play by the Senate environment committee Republicans.

"It's outrageous that Republicans jammed Scott Pruitt's nomination through the Environment Committee," said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that Pruitt has "blatantly obstructed a thorough review of his record."

Suh urges the full Senate to reject Pruitt's nomination because he's "uniquely unfit for the job."

"Pruitt has spent a career colluding with polluters trying to prevent the EPA from fulfilling its central mission—protecting public health and our environment," she continued. "He has opposed clean air rules that would save thousands of lives, and he embraces discredited, fringe views on climate science. He's dodged and given evasive answers to question after question about his record, one that is rife with conflicts-of-interest."

The Center for Media and Democracy, which has filed six public unfulfilled record requests to Pruitt's office, also spoke out against the vote.

"With today's vote on Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency is now one step closer to being placed in the hands of an avowed climate denier with close ties to major fossil fuel companies," said Nick Surgey, a researcher at the center. "Pruitt's track-record as Oklahoma Attorney General and chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association leaves us convinced he has serious conflicts of interest that make him woefully unfit to lead the EPA."

"Pruitt shows contempt for the Senate's responsibility to properly vet President Trump's appointees. He refuses to discuss his deep connections to companies he would oversee as EPA Administrator. And his office has failed to respond to six public record requests filed by the Center for Media and Democracy, including one filed more than two years ago seeking his communications with coal, oil and gas companies," Surgey continued. "His office has identified more than 3,000 documents in response to this request, but has yet to release any. In fact, Pruitt's office appears not to have responded to any record requests filed in the past two years. It increasingly looks like he has something to hide. As families and communities from Flint to Houston to Florida work to reduce pollution and stop damage to the climate, they deserve the facts behind whose interests Pruitt really serves."

Sierra Club's Climate Policy Director Liz Perera criticized the committee's vote as well.

"It is deeply disappointing that the committee that is supposed to put the environment and public first has approved a climate change-denying fossil fuel ally as head of the Environmental Protection Agency," Perera said. "Scott Pruitt is dangerously unfit to lead the EPA and has far too many conflicts of interest that should be a red flag for all Americans. He's collected hundreds of thousands from dirty fuel interests and sued the very agency he now wants to lead eight times, all to weaken public health protections."

"Committee Democrats understandably have questions about Pruitt's troubling conflicts of interest and whether he is committed to putting the public first," she added. "These questions remain unanswered by the nominee and Democrats rightly refused to be complicit in pushing forward such an unacceptable nominee, so Republicans rewrote the rules so that Pruitt can seize control of the EPA and throw critical clean air and water rules out. That is why it is more important than ever that the full Senate must reject Scott Pruitt's confirmation in order to do right by American families."

Similarly, Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard said the GOP's votes in favor of Pruitt are akin to a "vote for poisoned air, polluted water, and an unstable climate."

"While reassuring to see many Senators resist Pruitt's confirmation, the lawmakers who swung open the doors for the fossil fuel takeover of environmental protection should be ashamed of themselves," Leonard said. "When the next Flint, Michigan crisis happens in the districts of these representatives, they will have themselves to blame. The powerful movement that has risen to stop the worst of the Trump administration, including the nomination of Pruitt, will only grow stronger as we fight to protect what is right."

Lastly, Environmental Working Group president and co-founder Ken Cook said that President Trump has found just the man to carry out his vision of dismantling the EPA.

"By any measure, the president could hardly have found—and the committee could not have approved—a worse nominee to be in charge of public health and environmental protection," Cook said. "As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt's crusade of more than a dozen lawsuits filed against the EPA to stop efforts aimed at reducing air and water pollution to protect Americans is unmatched. Time and time again, Pruitt said 'no' when policies were proposed or rules implemented that would save lives, including initiatives specifically intended to protect children."

"Now, Pruitt is poised to take control of the very agency he's repeatedly attacked. If approved by the full Senate, he will start on day one as the worst EPA administrator in history. Mark my words: His record and his evasive testimony to the committee indicate he will move quickly to decimate the agency's ability to protect the health of Americans and our irreplaceable natural resources," he continued.

"Those on the committee who voted for Pruitt have tarnished the legacy of an agency—established by a GOP administration—that for almost 50 years has worked to keep our water pure, our air clean and our families safe. We commend the senators who stood against this disgraceful nominee and pledge to fight any attempt by Pruitt and the Trump administration to return to the days when smog choked our cities, our rivers caught on fire and polluters were free to use our land as toxic waste dumps," Cook concluded.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.