Facebook showed this ad almost exclusively to women. Is that a problem?

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In 2019, Facebook settled a lawsuit with civil rights organizations following the revelation that advertisers could use the targeting options on its platform to exclude many specific demographic groups from seeing its ads. It’s now more difficult for an unscrupulous advertiser to use Facebook’s platform to discriminate.

However, even when you remove human bias from the system, Facebook’s ad delivery algorithms can result in biased outcomes. According to researchers at Northeastern University, Facebook sometimes displays ads to highly skewed audiences based on the content of the ad.

By purchasing ads and inputting neutral targeting options, the researchers found that the algorithmically determined audience for job ads for cleaners, secretaries, nurses, and preschool teachers was mostly women. The job ads for fast food workers, supermarket cashiers, and taxi drivers skewed toward Black users.

As we show in the video above, this research shows that by targeting “relevant” users, these systems can reinforce existing disparities in our interests and our opportunities. Users who are comfortable with being stereotyped for their taste in shoes or music might not feel the same way about being stereotyped for job ads or political messages.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And join the Open Sourced Reporting Network to help us report on the real consequences of data, privacy, algorithms, and AI.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.


Roads closed in Desert Hot Springs as police investigate collision, shots fired

Desert Hot Springs Police have closed Flora Avenue between Mesquite Avenue and Verbena Drive while investigating a collision that resulted in a serious injury and that occurred soon after a report of shots fired in the area, according to Deputy Chief Steven Shaw. 

The passenger in the vehicle sustained a serious head injury when the vehicle collided with a parked car, Shaw said.

Shaw said no one was injured in the shots fired incident and the department has not determined if the two incidents are related.

This developing story will be updated. 


The NYPD unit that snatched a protester off the street has been accosting people for years

A silver minivan had been driving just ahead of a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Manhattan Tuesday night when it came to a sudden stop. Five men in plain T-shirts and cargo shorts came pouring out of the vehicle and grabbed a young woman in the crowd off of her skateboard. They then violently placed her into the van, driving off, leaving surrounding protesters confused and upset about what just happened.

To some observers, it looked like a kidnapping; in video clips, protesters are seen surging forward, trying to intervene. Then, immediately, a group of about a dozen uniformed police on bikes encircle the van to push people away.

The men in the van, it turns out, were plainclothes officers from the New York Police Department’s Warrant Squad, and they were detaining a young woman who was later identified as 18-year-old homeless trans girl Nikki Stone. An NYPD spokesperson, Sergeant Jessica McRorie, told Vox, “The NYPD had probable cause to arrest her for five previous crimes,” which included allegations of vandalizing police cameras with stickers and paint around City Hall Park in Manhattan.

The NYPD said that while officers were detaining Stone, protesters assaulted them by throwing rocks and bottles. But video of the incident shows only one bottle rolling around on the ground in the aftermath. Protesters who witnessed the incident disputed the police narrative.

“None of that happened whatsoever,” Clara Kraebber, a 20-year-old Oxford student told Gothamist. “We literally turned the corner and were met with a line of police who attacked us without warning.”

The incident left many asking why a violent police abduction was necessary over alleged vandalism. It has also prompted new questions about police abuse in the wake of federal officers in Portland, Oregon, similarly snatching protesters off the street.

Several New York City elected officials decried Stone’s arrest on Twitter. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted, “There is no excuse for snatching women off the street and throwing them in unmarked vans.” House Judiciary Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) also shared video of the Tuesday arrest on Twitter, calling it “terrifying” and “unacceptable” while demanding an explanation.

New York City Council member Carlina Rivera, who tweeted the following morning that Stone had been released from police custody, said that she would be exploring legislation to change the NYPD’s use of plainclothes officers in unmarked cars making arrests. A GoFundMe to assist Stone, whose nickname is “Stickers,” has raised over $42,000 as of Friday morning to help her find housing.

However, the unit that made the arrest — the NYPD Warrant Squad — was not created out as some new policing tactic in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the nation in recent months. It’s a shadowy group of plainclothes officers who have been detaining persons of interest in the city for decades. Until Tuesday night’s arrest, many New Yorkers were unaware of the squad’s existence, and yet bundling suspects into unmarked vehicles — especially in Black and brown communities — has been a longtime tactic of the squad, legal experts and advocates say.

The NYPD Warrant Squad is a remnant of the department’s expansion into counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11 under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. These days however, according to several people with knowledge of the squad’s tactics, it focuses less on counterterrorism and more on rounding up persons of interest for the department.

Like the incident seen in the video of Stone, officers from the squad typically operate in plainclothes, with nothing identifying them as police, and utilize unmarked vehicles. At its inception, the original plan was for the squad to be a tactical unit meant to apprehend the city’s most dangerous wanted criminals. The plainclothes added to the element of surprise when taking down a potentially armed and wanted suspect. (An NYPD spokesperson did not respond to Vox’s request for comment regarding the purpose and actions of the squad.)

Nearly every precinct in the city has its own warrant squad, which are typically part of a precinct’s detective squad, Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney for the Cop Accountability Project at the Legal Aid Society, told Vox. Over the past 15 years, the warrant squad, along with the NYPD’s anti-crime unit, have developed a reputation in the city’s Black and brown neighborhoods for using plainclothes and unmarked vehicles to disappear or accost people off the street. The anti-crime unit’s reputation was so bad that last month NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea disbanded them, reassigning officers to other units. And both units’ secretive tactics are so common that lower income neighborhoods have developed a nickname for these officers: “jump out boys.”

“Jump out boys is a term that describes undercover non-identifiable cops,” said writer and criminal justice organizer Josmar Trujillo, who lives in Spanish Harlem. “But you know that they’re cops [by] the cars that they drive and what they look like, usually with the cargo shorts and the Under Armor and the steroid arms. They just jump out on people.”

According to Trujillo, the squad has strayed far from its original purpose. “The problem with the warrant squad is that oftentimes they’re framed as catching really dangerous people,” he told Vox. “But most of the warrants in New York City historically have been for low-level misdemeanor [crimes] and under.”

Several years ago, the city revealed that the NYPD had over a million open warrants. With so many open warrants, the police couldn’t possibly arrest everyone, so Trujillo said sometimes the police would round people up just to meet an arrest quota.

After years of speculation from critics of the police, in 2015 the New York Daily News reported that Staten Island officers were in fact given arrest quotas to meet. A 2015 VICE report detailed how the Warrants Squad frequently raids homeless shelters, seemingly to meet those quotas, waiting until the middle of the night when potential detainees must be inside the facility for the night or they lose their spot.

“You’re disoriented and angry,” Jonathan Allen, who sometimes stayed in the city’s Wards Island shelter, told VICE at the time about his experience with the squad. “You’re asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Then they crush you into the vans like sardines.”

Maryanne Kaishian, senior policy counsel and staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, told Vox that defense attorneys would often meet with clients and ask about how they were detained, and the response is that the “jump out boys” appeared suddenly and physically pulled them into an unmarked car. And they don’t even necessarily need a judge-signed warrant to do so.

“Often what happens is people are arrested on mechanisms called [Investigation Cards or I-Cards]. This is not an arrest warrant. It is not signed by a judge,” said Kaishian. I-Cards are issued for persons of interest to investigators, but Kaisian said they also present an opportunity for police to detain people and get around the hassle of getting a judge to sign off on a legitimate warrant.

“It’s an internal piece of information that’s shared amongst the members of the NYPD describing the person to be arrested and saying that another cop has probable cause to make the arrest, which then they argue confers probable cause to any officer that might encounter that person.”

But Wong wasn’t sure how often the squad picks up people based on I-Cards. “The warrant squad should only be effectuating arrest if there’s actually a warrant,” she said. “So it could be a bench warrant from criminal court or an arrest warrant. They almost never have an arrest warrant. It’s usually just for bench warrants.”

Bench warrants are issued if a person misses a court date without an excuse, while an arrest warrant is signed by a judge and allows police to arrest and detain a suspect accused of a specific crime. (An NYPD spokesperson also did not respond to a question from Vox over whether they had a warrant for Stone’s arrest or whether the officers detained her based on an I-Card.)

There are the protocols for the Warrant Squad’s arrests that are shaky, advocates say, then there are the tactics. The prospect of plainclothes officers roaming the city and disappearing people off the street without potential judicial oversight raises serious constitutional issues.

The squad’s lack of clear, observable identifiers may help them capture unsuspecting persons of interest, but a sudden, potentially violently arrest is often disproportionate to the crime they are wanted for. And any physical reaction to what amounts to a kidnapping can draw charges of resisting arrest or assaulting an officer.

“When a person is accosted by surprise, they have a natural reaction. Someone will run, they’ll fight, they’ll yank their arms away from someone who’s trying to pull them into a car,” said Kaisian. “These acts were often charged as resisting arrest or obstructions of governmental administration. So in addition to the charge for the warrant or the I-Card that was issued, even if they caught the wrong person, the person that they grabbed would be subjected to additional charges simply for responding to that terrifying situation.”

The practice of law enforcement officers snatching protesters off the street most recently gained widespread attention earlier this month in Portland, Oregon. Over the course of several days of intense protests, federal agents were caught on camera “disappearing” protesters into unmarked vans before whisking them away to detention.

To be released by federal agents, ProPublica reported Tuesday, protesters were forced to sign an order which stated they were not allowed to engage in further protests.

The practice was widely denounced by Democratic elected officials across the country — including by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who first won office in 2014 promising criminal justice reform.

But when faced with his own police department using the very same “secret police” tactics in his own city, de Blasio waffled. “I think it was the wrong time and the wrong place to effectuate that arrest,” he said of Stone’s arrest at a press conference Wednesday. “Anything that even slightly suggest that is, to me, troubling and it’s the kind of thing we don’t want to see in this city. … This is not Portland.”

The mayor promised to discuss the arrest with NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea but also said he would not push to discipline the officers involved. However, the Stone incident was not a one-off and the Warrant Squad’s tactics have been used for decades in the city’s Black and brown neighborhoods. It’s only just now, when a white woman was grabbed on camera in midtown Manhattan, that more people took notice of the squad.

“People have created the space for you now to question the validity of policing at a more fundamental level,” said Trujillo. “If the NYPD is willing to do this to someone who’s participating in an organized demonstration, what do you think that they’ve been doing for years when no one’s been looking in housing projects in the Bronx? If you’re outraged over the things you’re seeing on video right now, that’s that’s just like a fraction of it.”

But creating systemic change within the NYPD has proven difficult through the years. Often, “reform” has simply meant changing the name of a historically abusive unit who can then just continue on until the public discovers it again and calls for more reform. A report by The Intercept last month detailed the NYPD’s “shell game” of disbanding units only to replicate them later with a new name.

“You can say ‘abolish the warrant squad’ or disband it, kind of like the anti-crime unit was disbanded,” said Trujillo. But he also points out that before the anti-crime unit became notorious for gestapo-style tactics, the city’s street crime unit was operating in a similar way. The street crime unit was disbanded in 2002 while it was tied up in litigation over the Amadou Diallo shooting, a 23-year-old immigrant who was shot 41 times by NYPD officers in 1999, only to be revived again within the anti-crime unit.

The issue is these units — and their tactics — are baked into the city’s legal system. When de Blasio or Shea decline to discipline officers, it’s tacit approval for abuses of power, advocates say. When district attorneys decline to prosecute abusive officers, it only reinforces the NYPD’s impunity.

In other words, there’s plenty of political blame to go around. “This isn’t just Portland inspired,” Eliza Orlins, candidate for Manhattan district attorney and a career public defender, told Vox. “This is something that has been going on for years and that’s because the Manhattan DA Cy Vance has let the cops run wild without any accountability.” (Vance’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Vox.)

Wong agrees that prosecutors in the city are complicit with condoning abusive police tactics. “While there may be individual prosecutors who take their ethical obligations very seriously about disclosing everything you need to know about officers and these kind of tactics, my overwhelming experience with this office is that their prosecutors are going to hide that information for as long as possible,” she said. “They are going to, in a way, be willfully ignorant about it so they have plausible deniability.”

This is why advocates are calling for defunding the police, or at least reimagining what the police does. And it’s clear to Trujillo that abolishing police units cannot be a one-time deal; it has to be a long-term process to make sure that police and prosecutors don’t just reinvent the wheel when everyone stops paying attention.

“It’s important to have baseline demands [like abolishing the warrant squad], but it’s also important to keep challenging ourselves,” he said. We need to “make sure that, if the police are trying to be two steps ahead of us, we have to be three steps ahead of them.”

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.


Two Cardinals Test Positive for COVID-19, Friday’s Game Is Postponed

click to enlarge Today's game will not go on as planned. - DOYLE MURPHY

  • Today’s game will not go on as planned.

This afternoon’s scheduled game between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers has been postponed after two members of the Cardinals tested positive for COVID-19.

The MLB confirmed the postponement, and the positive tests, in a statement Friday morning.

“Today’s scheduled game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals at Miller Park has been rescheduled as part of a traditional doubleheader on Sunday, August 2nd at 1:10 p.m. (CT),” the statement reads. “The rescheduling as a result of two positive COVID-19 tests in the Cardinals’ organization is consistent with protocols to allow enough time for additional testing and contact tracing to be conducted.”

Though the names of the players who tested positive have not been released, Mark Saxon, a sports reporter for the Athletic, says in a tweet that both are pitchers.

“Source informed me of the names of the two #Cardinals positives,” Saxon writes. “The Athletic has a policy of not outing positive cases without their approval, so I will honor those players’ privacy. We feel comfortable sharing this: both are pitchers.”

The Cardinals are currently self-isolating in their hotel in Milwaukee, the Post-Dispatch reports, while further testing and contact tracing is conducted. The team last played on Wednesday in Minneapolis against the Twins, who have since hosted the Cleveland Indians, presumably in the same clubhouse.

The positive tests and postponement come as the league is struggling with a outbreak of positive tests in the Marlins organization as well. Yahoo Sports reports that eighteen players and two coaches for the Miami team have tested positive for the virus since Monday after their opening weekend of games against Philadelphia. On the Phillies’ side, two ballpark clubhouse attendants and a coach have tested positive as well.

The ripple effect of those positive tests has led to schedule changes for the Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and the Washington Nationals. So far, COVID-19 has affected the schedules of eight teams in just the first nine days of play.

The Cardinals-Brewers game on Saturday is, as of this moment, still scheduled to go on as planned. Today’s game will be made up on Sunday as part of a double-header.

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States are scrambling to stop a slow-motion 2020 election disaster

President Donald Trump escalated his false claims about vote-by-mail in the November 3 election on Thursday, going so far as to suggest that the election be delayed outright.

Trump has been attacking vote-by-mail for months, suggesting a well-established method of voting used for years by Democratic and Republican voters alike is “fraudulent” and “inaccurate.” Rather than focusing on the federal government’s dismal response to the Covid-19 pandemic or the stagnant American economy, Trump is questioning the outcome of an election that hasn’t happened yet.

While he does not have the authority to actually cancel or delay the election (Congress has more authority in this matter than the president does, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser explained), he still wields enormous power. As the incumbent president, he has influence over federal coronavirus aid to help state officials prepare for unprecedented election circumstances, and oversees federal agencies like the US Postal Service, on which many Americans will rely to deliver their absentee ballots. Perhaps most importantly, Trump appears committed to sowing doubt about the election’s integrity months before it happens — which could influence the behavior of his supporters and foster doubt about the election’s outcome.

“He has more influence than any other political figure in the world over the US election; there’s no other way to put it,” Stanford Law School professor Nate Persily told Vox in a recent interview.

Trump’s tweets are one thing, but state officials are staring down myriad other issues in the runup to November — when they’ll have to both try to coronavirus-proof their in-person elections and offer a vote-by-mail option.

The summer primaries have painted a worrisome picture: Many states are woefully underprepared for a 2020 general election in the age of Covid-19. Even worse, many of these states are finding themselves in dire economic straits due to the coronavirus crisis — and Congress has yet to pass more federal funds to help them prepare for the election.

“They almost have to run two elections instead of just one. It’s quite the challenge,” said elections expert Ned Foley, a constitutional law professor at the Ohio State University Moritz School of Law. “Looking at the primaries, unfortunately they show we have serious capacity challenges we are not yet ready for and we are really running out of time.”

States across the country are scrambling to get ready for a likely high-turnout presidential election in the middle of a pandemic.

States that have had universal vote-by-mail or no-excuse absentee voting in prior years should be in a better position to handle turnout. But it will be more difficult for states that are moving to no-excuse absentee voting for the first time to get up to speed and hold safe in-person elections by November 3.

The summer primaries have shown many states have a lot of work to do on both fronts, each with its unique challenges. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Washington, DC, many voters waited in line hours to cast their ballots as some cities drastically reduced the number of polling places. In Atlanta, lack of training and broken voting equipment caused a massive bottleneck of voters waiting in line at some polling places, a New York Times report found. While there have been allegations of voter suppression, especially when these things happen in communities of color, elections experts told Vox it can also be chalked up to the challenges of conducting an election in the middle of a pandemic.

“What we’re seeing in much of the current primary election season … has less to do with intentional suppression than the difficulty of running a successful election in a pandemic,” said elections expert Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California Irvine.

With in-person voting, the main challenges have to do with staffing and physical space. Poll workers tend to be older or retired, and some are choosing not to volunteer at their polling place for fear of contracting Covid. This has caused some states and municipalities to close certain polling locations, which results in long lines at the places remaining open. Experts say elections officials need to start recruiting younger poll workers as soon as possible, to train them and get them up to speed on the process.

“The lesson out of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia is try to plan in advance to get extra poll workers, assume your older poll workers may not want to work on Election Day, and have a backup plan,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former Federal Election Commission chair.

Besides staffing polling locations, another challenge is physical space. When a lot of small polling places close due to staff shortages, it’s very difficult to rout excess voters through one smaller location. Some states have solved this issue by allowing early voting and opening massive polling places, in sports arenas and exposition centers. These allow more voters to cast their ballots at once, while maintaining social distancing and other safety measures.

When you get to voting by mail, there are even more challenges. It can take years to successfully implement a robust vote-by-mail system, and many states are trying to set it up over a few months — at the same time as there is huge demand for mailed ballots. In the 2016 presidential primary, Georgia saw about 45,000 requests for absentee ballots, according to a Brennan Center report. In the 2020 primary, it was nearly 1.5 million requests, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office. Other states are dealing with similar spikes in requests.

“When you’re dealing with that kind of capacity for the first time, especially in high-stakes elections, of course things are going to go wrong,” Hasen said.

States trying to adapt to vote-by-mail systems in a short amount of time need to secure contracts with third-party vendors to print ballots, envelopes, and instructions for voters. States that are new to vote-by-mail may also need to purchase costly equipment to scan and count votes in a timely manner because they simply don’t have enough people to process a crush of returned ballots.

“It would take something like 500 people all day just to open a million ballots,” Persily said. “You’ve got to automate the process if you can.”

Worries abound about the state of the US Postal Service, which is chronically in debt due to a 2006 law mandating it prepay its employees’ retiree benefits, and has asked for financial help to no avail. Elections experts fear that recent changes to the USPS mail delivery times ordered by Trump donor and new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy could cause further delays for Americans casting their ballots absentee.

“For tens of millions of Americans, they’ll have their ballot handed to them by a postal worker, not a poll worker,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser on elections at the nonpartisan foundation Democracy Fund. “They’re not getting the same sort of support from Congress and from the administration that we’re seeing fast-food restaurants get or some of these other service providers and markets.”

These changes are causing many experts to plead with voters to not wait until the last second to request or cast their ballot, and to put their ballots in the mail at least a week before Election Day. If they arrive late — even if they are postmarked on time — some states have rejected them.

As the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman recently wrote, high rates of rejected absentee ballots could have a profound impact on the election. If Democratic voters use mail-in ballots more than Republicans during the 2020 election, they run the risk that more of those ballots could be rejected if they’re not received on time — which could be problematic for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Wasserman writes:

For a moment, imagine a swing state where 42 percent of ballots are cast by mail and Biden carries them 80 percent to 20 percent, while Trump carries all other ballots 70 percent to 30 percent. If every ballot were to count, Biden would win the state 51 percent to 49 percent. But if eight percent of absentees were ruled invalid for various reasons – and the invalidated votes were reflective of the overall absentee pool – Trump would prevail by two hundredths of one percent.

The biggest message election experts have to voters casting an absentee ballot: Mail in your ballot as early as possible to make sure it’s counted.

“Don’t wait to register to vote, don’t wait to request a ballot on the deadline,” Patrick said. “You’re never going to get that ballot in time.”

Many of these problems could be helped with additional federal funding for states, but Congress has been slow to act on an additional coronavirus stimulus package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants Congress to appropriate $4 billion to prepare for the election, but Senate Republicans have balked at the cost of Democrats’ coronavirus package and proposed a much smaller bill. With jockeying priorities, election funding may not make it into a final bipartisan package.

The primaries have laid bare the issues with voting capacity, but the US Congress has done little to act. And even with some primaries seeing historic turnout levels, general election turnout in November will likely exceed the summer primaries.

“2020 turnout may not be significantly higher than 2016 or previous years, but it’s the combination of this being a presidential year with high levels of interest with the Covid challenges, which is the perfect storm,” Foley said.

In a pre-Covid world, most elections experts worried about the prospect of foreign hacking or meddling. Those fears still linger, but much more present and worrisome is the prospect of many other things going wrong due to the pandemic and the constraints it has placed on in-person voting.

“It is a sign of our through-the-looking-glass times that I can now be nostalgic for the moment when all we needed to fear was foreign takeover of the U.S. electoral system or widespread voter-targeted disinformation,” Persily wrote in a recent article.

For many election experts, the nightmare scenario for the November 3 general election starts with a too-close-to-call contest between Trump and Biden.

If a major swing state like Pennsylvania or Florida experiences delays and problems counting ballots on election night or the days or weeks after, it could give Trump an opening to call the results into question — especially if there’s a noticeable partisan split between in-person and absentee ballots. We don’t yet know if Republican voters will listen to Trump and eschew mail-in ballots, but some experts wonder if the president will accidentally undercut his own turnout.

“He’s risking his own voters,” Hasen said. “Whether that’s a deliberate strategy on Trump’s part … or simply Trump flailing about and seeing something he thinks will work to his advantage, I don’t know, but either way, it’s very problematic.”

If the election is too close to call for days or weeks, experts fear Trump will use that time to continue to call the results into question — especially if he loses. The consequences could be a crisis of democracy around the legitimacy of an election if the losing party refuses to concede defeat.

“If it takes two weeks to know the result, we ought to be able to land with a result we’re confident with,” Foley said. “The system goes off the rails when the losing candidate doesn’t accept defeat after all the votes are counted — or recounted.”

No matter which candidate wins, it has to be a blowout for the sake of American democracy, experts said. With Trump already railing about a stolen election, there’s not much evidence the president would actually accept defeat.

In the meantime, there’s still an inordinate amount of work state elections officials must do to attempt to make sure the 2020 presidential election goes as smoothly as possible in incredibly trying circumstances.

“Things are going to go wrong, there’s no question about it,” said Hasen. “The biggest question is how close the margin is. If it’s a blowout, the public will look past many of the problems.”

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.


South St. Louis Fender Bender Ends in Carjacking, Police Say

Friday, July 31, 2020

Posted By Doyle Murphy on Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 10:09 AM

A man says he was rear-ended and then carjacked in south St. Louis. - RFT FILE PHOTO

  • A man says he was rear-ended and then carjacked in south St. Louis.

A man tells police he was carjacked early this morning by a driver who rear-ended him in south St. Louis.

The 26-year-old was driving about 3 a.m. on Carondelet Boulevard, nearing Interstate 55 in the Boulevard Heights neighborhood, when he was hit from behind, police say.

The man tells police he got out to check on his vehicle, a 2013 Chevrolet Impala, and the other driver and a passenger from the other vehicle also got out. One of the men asked if he was OK, and then they started punching him, he says. The 26-year-old sprinted away.

He claims the men fired shots at him as he ran and then jumped in his Impala and drove away. The 26-year-old tells police he wasn’t injured and declined medical attention. Police are still investigating.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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Tags: St. Louis, Carjacking, Crime, Boulevard Heights, Gun, Police, Image


Community rallies to help Desert Rose Playhouse relocate to Palm Springs

Since its founding in 2012 by Jim Strait and Paul Taylor, the Desert Rose Playhouse has sought to produce quality LGBTQ-positive plays in their Rancho Mirage location, a former restaurant known as The Commissary. Its inaugural production, Tom Orr’s Broadway parody “Dirty Little Showtunes!”, was so popular it ran for 24 weeks, setting a longevity record for a local nonprofit theater company.

When they retired in 2018, Strait and Taylor named actor-singer-director Robbie Wayne as their successor. As the new producing artistic director, Wayne wanted to expand operations; in addition to mounting significant plays, he envisioned opening the venue to local artists who needed a place to perform. Rather than community theater, he wanted the Desert Rose Playhouse to be “the community’s theater.”

Then came COVID-19 and its resulting shutdowns. Three out of the season’s six shows had to be canceled, ticket refunds had to be given and any money spent on the aborted productions went essentially down the drain. Worse yet, the nonprofit had to continue paying rent on a space they weren’t permitted to use. Wayne wanted to find a better solution.

Enter the property at 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, formerly occupied by Zelda’s, which closed its doors in May 2019.

It was Wayne’s fiancé, Matthew McLean, who came up with the idea to rent the space, thinking the former nightclub would make a perfect theater. The two made an appointment to take a look, and Wayne immediately recognized it as a dream come true; in addition to being a terrific venue, it came with many additional perks: “All the equipment, all the lighting, all the machinery — the ice machines, the electronics — everything came with the lease at no extra charge.”

It seemed perfect. All they had to do was find the money, which was a daunting concept since the Desert Rose had been closed since March 10 with no incoming revenue.

Undeterred, Wayne and McLean came up with the idea to launch a fundraising campaign on Facebook. It was a bold move, but it worked: “We announced on a Saturday that we needed $20,000 in order to sign the lease, put down a deposit, change the utilities and get moving vans,” Wayne says, “and within nine days we had raised that.

“We had almost 200 people respond, with donations ranging from a few dollars to $5,000 — and we were grateful for all of it. Those who weren’t able to offer money offered their services. We even had a pickup truck donated from PS Underground.”

Wayne and McLean were overwhelmed — and at times shocked — by the outpouring. “We heard from a gentleman in L.A. who had never seen one of our shows,” Wayne says. “He called and asked me some questions about what we were doing and what our goals were, and the next day we had [a significant amount of] stock in our account that he had donated.”

The Desert Rose Playhouse is no stranger to charity, though it is normally on the giving-back side. From the beginning, the theater has been an active member of the LGBTQ community and a generous one, donating tickets to local organizations such as Desert AIDS Project, Bloom in the Desert Ministries, AIDS Assistance Program and the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus, as well as sharing their performance space for worthwhile causes. In 2014, Palm Springs Pride named the company Organization of the Year, and in 2016, the playhouse raised more than $7,000 for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.

Within two weeks of its fundraising announcement, the Desert Rose Playhouse had signed the lease, and on July 27 they began moving in. Best of all, thanks to the building’s supportive owner, the nonprofit is not obligated to pay any rent until spring, which will provide plenty of time to get the space ready.

Wayne is excited about the possibilities. “Our new stage is huge — about 30 feet deep and more than 20 feet wide. And the room is 6,000 square feet, which will allow us to have much larger productions and give more people an opportunity to get on stage. Plus, it’s right in the heart of Palm Springs. You can walk to it from restaurants and bars. It seems perfect.”

While many businesses and local theater companies face uncertain futures due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Desert Rose Playhouse appears to be on a good path, all thanks to locals who stepped up to the plate, and Wayne is extremely grateful to each and every one of them: “I’m completely at a loss for words to properly express the gratitude we feel, the excitement we feel and how humble we feel. I am so proud to be a part of this community.”

For more on the Desert Rose Playhouse, visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Winston Gieseke is the philanthropy and special sections editor at The Desert Sun. Reach him at [email protected]


Scientists have ruled out the worst-case climate scenario — and the best one too

The basic mechanics of climate change are simple: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. More carbon dioxide means more heat is trapped across the Earth, causing it to warm up.

But scaled up over the entire planet, these physical processes interact in a myriad of complex and sometimes unexpected ways. The Arctic reflects sunlight back into space. Clouds in some circumstances trap heat, and in others, they cool the region beneath them. Forests store a big chunk of carbon, but they’re being burned, cut down, and dying off from warming. The ocean soaks up a huge amount of heat and carbon dioxide, but it can’t absorb it forever. And these effects are not all linear; some may taper off as the planet heats up while others may suddenly accelerate.

That’s why scientists for decades have struggled to answer the basic question of how much the earth will eventually warm up for a given amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The term for this parameter is equilibrium climate sensitivity. The classic way of framing it is asking what happens if we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared to levels prior to the industrial revolution. Back in the 1800s, it was about 280 parts per million. Today, it’s about 413 ppm. Some estimate it could reach 560 ppm as soon as 2050 without major mitigation steps.

A team of 25 scientists from around the world recently took a stab at answering the question of how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to carbon dioxide and came up with range of possibilities. Their results, published July 22 in Reviews of Geophysics, showed that the planet would most likely warm on average between 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 7 degrees Fahrenheit (2.6 degrees Celsius and 3.9 degrees Celsius) if atmospheric carbon dioxide were to double.

This is still a wide span, but it’s much smaller than prior estimated range of 2.7 and 9.1 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius) that had been the reigning benchmark for decades.

The new, narrower estimate for climate sensitivity has huge implications, not just for climate science, but for how humanity prepares for a warming world. It shows that the worst-case-scenario is not as dire as previously thought, but also that the best possibilities are still quite grim. In particular, it means that it will be almost impossible to hit the main target of the Paris climate agreement, limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, by chance; it will require aggressive action to reduce emissions with even less margin for delay.

In 1979, the National Research Council put together a report looking at the ways increasing carbon dioxide emissions would impact the world. The researchers behind the report understood even then that it would be a complicated task.

“In order to address this question in its entirety, one would have to peer into the world of our grandchildren, the world of the 21st century,” they wrote. “A complete assessment of all the issues will be a long and difficult task.”

It was this report that came up with the climate sensitivity range between 2.7 and 9.1 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius). Now that we’re in the 21st century, how much has our understanding of climate science improved?

On many fronts, the gains in climate science have been vast and substantial. New measurements from ice cores, satellite monitoring, and sophisticated computer models have yielded new insights in the the climate of the past, present, and future. Scientists are even getting close to being able to see carbon dioxide emissions in real time.

Aerial photo taken on Sept. 1, 2017 shows flooded houses after Hurricane Harvey attacked Houston, Texas
Scientists have found that the record flooding in Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was worsened by climate change.
Yin Bogu/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

However, until recently, the estimates of climate sensitivity barely budged. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a team of scientists assembled by the United Nations, came up with the same estimate climate sensitivity in 2014 as the National Research Council came up with in 1979. But not for lack of trying.

“There have been a number of research studies over the years that have looked at the climate sensitivity range,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois and an author of the 2014 IPCC report who was not involved in the new paper, in an email. “The best of those studies had not been able to reduce this sensitivity from the range much differently than the traditional range of 1.5-4.5 C.”

Such a wide range for climate sensitivity makes it much harder to plan for the future, from how much oceans will rise, to where we can grow crops best, to what places will become too hot to inhabit.

So a new smaller climate sensitivity range is significant. Since it’s a foundational parameter of climate models, it can yield a more precise range for what to expect as the world continues warming.

Then how did this team of researchers chip away at a problem that has vexed climate scientists for more than 40 years?

It wasn’t any one finding in particular. Rather, the team took the colossal body of research that has built up in the intervening decades to create their sensitivity estimate. They drew on paleoclimate records dating back 3 million years, observational temperature records over the last 150 years, and a new generation of climate models.

“The single biggest factor was the ability to combine estimates from these three independent lines of evidence,” explained Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute and a coauthor of the new paper.

Baked into these lines of evidence is a better understanding of underlying phenomena like how albedo — the reflectiveness of the earth’s surface — changes as the air warms, how aerosols form and reflect sunlight, and how natural variability in the climate factors in.

Hausfather added that in recent years, scientists have gained to insight into feedback loops in the climate that can enhance warming. That means that over time, greenhouse gas emissions will pack a bigger punch for the climate.

“We’d expect a bit more warming, all things being equal, in the future from emissions than we have today,” he said.

The resulting estimate of climate sensitivity — 4.7 degrees to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (2.6 degrees Celsius and 3.9 degrees Celsius) — may seem small, but it represents a drastic shift from the world as we know it today. In an editorial in the Hill, Hausfather pointed out that during the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the planet was on average 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) cooler than today. That led to so much ice across the planet that global sea levels were 300 feet lower than they are today.

Members of the “Ice Memory project” extract an ice core piece out of a drill machine, on August 25, 2016.
Scientists examine an ice core drilled from a glacier. These sample provide a window in the past climate of the planet.
Philippe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images

It’s also important to remember that the climate is already changing, providing some real-world results for how the climate system responds to carbon dioxide. The world has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Sea levels have risen more than 8 inches since 1880, and the rate is accelerating.

Even if humanity were to halt emissions now, there is still inertia in the climate system and the planet would likely continue warming by a certain amount.

And while much of climate discussions center on changes in average temperatures, those shifted averages obscure the fact that there can be drastic increases in the extremes. Scientists have found signals of human caused emissions in the growing intensity of hurricanes, the frequency of heat waves, and the drying of some forests, a key ingredient in wildfires.

Could scientists narrow the boundaries of climate sensitivity even more?

“It’s difficult,” Wuebbels said. “I would expect though that after another decade (or so) of climate changes and the observations of climate relevant processes that the range should be able to be reduced further.”

However, the world can’t wait another decade for better information to act, and Ploy Pattanun Achakulwisut, a climate scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said the new findings are a call to action.

“This study is an important milestone for the climate science community, and only serves to strengthen what the public and policymakers have known for decades: that we need to transition away from fossil fuels,” she wrote in an email. Achakulwisut added that the results emphasize the need for leaders to create policies to speed up the move toward low-carbon energy.

While the new climate sensitivity estimate gives the world a clearer vision of the future, it is a future that can still be altered by our actions.

Indeed, the biggest factor shaping the future of the climate, and the greatest source of uncertainty, is what humans will do about it in the coming years. Power plants, farms, aircraft, trucks, buildings, deforestation, and other human-sources collectively spew carbon dioxide into the air at a rate of 2.6 million pounds per second, making humans the dominant source of changes in the climate over the past 50 years. And that rate is accelerating: More than half of all human greenhouse gas emissions occurred in just the last 30 years.

The question is how long this will continue and when the curve of carbon dioxide emissions will bend. However, like climate sensitivity, there has been some narrowing of what to expect in recent years. Current human greenhouse gas emissions are now much less likely to follow the most pessimistic trajectory, which assumes unchecked growth of fossil fuel combustion and little to no efforts to limit climate change.

Protestor with “Our future in your hands” written on their hands.
Student call for action on climate change at protest in Brussels, Belgium.
Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

The dirtiest sources of energy are now declining, and some parts of the world are making progress to cut emissions while others have signed onto aggressive targets. But emissions are still rising, and limiting climate change demands cutting them drastically, and soon.

A 2018 report from the IPCC examined what people would have to do to meet the more aggressive target under the Paris climate agreement, limiting warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report concluded that the world’s greenhouse gas emissions need to be half of where they are now by 2030, zero by 2050, and thereafter emissions would actually have to be removed from the atmosphere to stabilize the climate.

That goal is almost certainly out of reach. The emissions gap between where the world is and where it needs to be is only getting wider.

And now with the latest estimate of climate sensitivity, the low-end estimate of climate sensitivity has gone up, meaning there’s virtually no chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius of warming if carbon dioxide concentrations reach 560 ppm. Even with the inherent uncertainties of these forecasts, these factors point toward a need for more concerted action to curb greenhouse gases.

“When it comes to climate, uncertainty is not our friend because the damages of climate change increase non-linearly,” Hausfather said. “Because there are some uncertainties we are never really going to be able to get rid of, it really suggests we need to be cautious about our emissions.”

The problem of dangerous levels of global warming can still be solved, but the easiest options are off the table, and the longer we wait, the harder it gets.

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Testing delays are ruining America’s chances of stopping Covid-19

In late June, an Austin, Texas, man with a runny nose and sore throat got a Covid-19 test and was told it could take up to 10 days for his results to come back. While he waited, he shrugged off his symptoms as a cold and continued with his plans, which included attending a wedding outside Dallas.

Several days after the wedding, however, he felt much worse, with shortness of breath and a cough. So he went to the ER, where his physician, Natasha Kathuria, ordered a rapid Covid-19 test. It came back positive.

“If he had a test turnaround of 24 to 48 hours, he would have had a sustained sense of urgency, likely quarantined, and avoided infecting up to 150 people at a wedding,” Kathuria, who is also on the board of Global Outreach Doctors, a humanitarian nonprofit, tells Vox. Though Kathuria isn’t sure whether the patient infected anyone at the wedding, she says four or five of his friends have tested positive since. (It’s not clear if they caught it at the wedding or if they had been infected earlier, as “they had also been socializing quite a bit in the same group,“ she says.)

Although some Covid-19 results can be delivered within hours, 10-day wait times are now not unusual for results from the most common test — the kind that uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to look for an active infection — when patients who are not isolating can go on to infect others. While testing failures have been a blight on the US response since the beginning of the pandemic, the latest delays reveal a strikingly uneven system that hasn’t been able to scale up to meet spiking demand, stymying efforts to stop the virus’s spread.

It’s not just the new people with symptoms — and those with known exposure to the virus — who are stretching testing capacity, but also people who want assurance that they won’t infect others before traveling, socializing, or going back to work or school. And with the school year starting soon, the demand for testing is set to surge even more.

“There is a continuing, insatiable demand for testing that is expanding, from symptomatic patients to anyone interested in having a test performed,” Gary Procop, medical director of clinical virology at Cleveland Clinic and a board member of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, told Vox.

Quest Diagnostics, which has run about one in five US Covid-19 tests, for example, currently has an average wait time of a week or more for most people, with some waiting up to two weeks, it said in a statement.

While the federal government and others have been focused on the number of tests performed and encouraging more people to get tested, the backlog has been piling up.

If people at a high risk for spreading the disease — such as essential workers — are facing the same delays as someone at a low risk, it’s not a terribly efficient system and makes the prospects for getting control of the virus fairly grim. “The idea of just telling people to go get tested I think is the real challenge,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Waits of longer than a day, other experts agree, severely hinder our ability to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the US. Delays “really undercut the value of testing, because you do the testing to find out who’s carrying the virus and then quickly get them isolated so they don’t spread it around,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on Meet the Press July 19.

Indeed, a paper, published July 16 in The Lancet Global Health, argues that if test results were provided the same day — and comprehensive contact tracing happened right away — about 80 percent of new transmissions could be prevented, effectively stopping the spread of the virus.

But if test results take a week — and even if contact tracing is quick and effective — we’re only stopping about 5 percent of onward transmissions, the researchers concluded. They didn’t even bother to extrapolate to longer wait times than a week, which plenty of people in the US are experiencing.

The ideal turnaround for test results would be no longer than 24 hours and preferably less, say experts. And many hospitals, clinics, and academic institutions can meet this time frame. But if results take longer than three days, as they do in many communities, particularly underprivileged, hot spot areas, “they’re totally useless,” says David Lubarsky, a physician and CEO of UC Davis Health.

Why are these delays getting so bad? “We don’t have enough test kits to test everybody, or enough labs or enough machines or enough trained personnel,” says Lubarsky.

Number of Covid-19 tests performed each day in the US.
Our World in Data

But it’s also about how tests, and results, are or aren’t getting prioritized.

Hospitalized patients typically get rapid results, often within a matter of hours. But when people in the community get a test — whether because they feel sick or because they are hoping to go on vacation — labs often aren’t being told whose tests to analyze first. So that leads everyone’s results to get delayed, including those who are most likely to be spreading the virus.

Though experts are adamant that community transmission must come down to alleviate some of the pressure on the testing system, they’re also calling on the government to approve rapid tests — and offer clearer guidance on who needs their results back first. Let’s dive in.

To understand what’s behind the disastrous delays in Covid-19 test results, it helps to look first at the labs, which are struggling to maintain adequate levels of basic testing supplies, much as they did earlier in the pandemic.

The American Clinical Laboratories Association, whose members include Quest, LabCorp, BioReference, the Mayo Clinic, and others, says labs are facing high demand for key materials for the testing process, from the test kits themselves to essential chemicals, like reagents, and even the PCR machines used to run the tests.

And the near future doesn’t look much better. “The global supply chain remains constrained,” Louise Serio, a spokesperson for the association, wrote to Vox in an email. As production and international trade remain slow, and demand continues to surge, many components remain hard to come by. “We anticipate continued shortages of the supplies and equipment.”

Other labs are finding basic plastic components, like pipette tips and plates, in short supply, Procop says, for the same reasons. And deliveries for many materials “are not always consistent.”

Academic labs are also struggling. UC Davis Health, for example, has invested $3 million in the past few months to build up its testing capabilities, and now has the capacity to run more than 2,000 tests per day, providing results in less than 12 hours. But the labs aren’t able to get enough reagents to run more than 250 tests per day. “So we’re at about 12 percent of our current capacity,” Lubarsky says. “It’s just not right.”

As one Harvard public health expert put it recently in Time: “America’s testing infrastructure is collapsing.”

EMT Luis Chavez secures Covid-19 tests for delivery to a lab for processing on July 30, 2020, in Encino, California.
Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

One of the biggest challenges in containing this coronavirus is that it frequently spreads before people develop any symptoms. In fact, an estimated 40 percent of people who get the virus may catch it from someone without symptoms. And others might be carrying — and spreading — the virus without ever getting sick. Which all makes it very challenging for people to make decisions, like avoiding all contact with others while waiting for test results, based on how they are feeling.

This presymptomatic and asymptomatic spread makes catching early cases particularly difficult, and essential, in high-risk settings like an assisted living facility. Lubarsky points out that delays in getting test results to prevent or stop outbreaks in these settings are especially harmful. If a facility can pinpoint infected individuals within a day of their test, they can quickly isolate them, find their contacts, and prevent much further spread. But, says Lubarsky, if results are trickling in over several days or a week, the virus has likely spread to other people, and the old results are, as he says, “absolutely useless.”

The long delays can also disincentivize even those with symptoms or with a known Covid-19 exposure from getting tested, says Osterholm. If people know they might have to wait more than a week for results that may no longer be relevant, they are more likely to figure, “why should I go get tested?” he says.

People might be especially reluctant to go in for testing if they know they will be in this limbo for a week or more. “One of the greatest impediments to viral containment is human impatience,” Lubarsky says. If you add to that people’s work realities and behavior, substantial testing lags “are just not acceptable and will not contain spread.”

The delays are also a reminder of the disparities between those who can more easily quarantine while waiting for results and those who cannot. For example, if you work a job that requires you to be physically present and doesn’t offer paid leave, it could be particularly hard to decide to miss work for 10 days as a precaution while you wait.

Additionally, many essential workers in relatively low-wage jobs who don’t get paid sick leave also regularly interface with the public. “So not only do they have a higher risk because of increased exposure, but they also increase the exposure to all of us,” Lubarsky says. “And while they might make a reasonable living, they don’t make the kind of living to take two weeks [off] waiting to find out if they’re positive.”

This is one of the big factors Lubarsky sees as contributing to the disproportionate spread of Covid-19 in underserved communities, including agricultural workers he sees in the Sacramento area. It’s also showing up in the preliminary scientific literature. One early report, cited in a recent Health Affairs article, found that in a mixed-income San Francisco neighborhood (the Mission District), Latinx people made up 95 percent of positive Covid-19 tests — and 90 percent of those who tested positive were unable to work from home.

As Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, put it in a Tuesday CNBC interview, “You need to make sure that low-income communities that are most at risk, that they’re getting those results back within 24 hours.”

On the other end of the spectrum, many universities are proposing to test their students and staff on a regular basis with quick-turnaround on-site processes. Harvard University, for example, is already testing faculty and plans to test all residential students and staff every three days starting in the fall semester. MIT is planning to test students living on campus with a similar frequency — twice a week — providing results within 24 hours. Both can do so because their tests can be processed at the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center that converted its genomics facility into a test processing center.

“I think it’s important to recognize the disconnect between the turnaround time and testing in different places in our community,” Sarah Fortune, an immunologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said on a call with reporters this week. Those working in labs on campus are already getting at least weekly tests, results for which they get back in less than a day. But if someone else in the Cambridge area were to get a standard test, they wouldn’t see results for upward of a week, she noted. “So there’s an enormous discrepancy.”

As people wait additional days and weeks before getting their Covid-19 test results back, their memories naturally get hazier about whom they could have spread the virus to. And because mobile phone-based coronavirus tracking is not widely used in the US, we are still relying on people to tell contact tracers whom they remember being in contact with — a task that gets harder with each passing day.

Even if we all had perfect memories though, a delay in getting a positive result means that not only could that person be out infecting others, but also that those contacts could now also be spreading the virus.

For example, if the average symptom onset is about five days after infection, but people have the highest amount of virus in their system about a day before they start feeling sick, that means a delay of a week in getting results for one not-yet-symptomatic person could have sent the virus into two or so additional generations of patients. And with this virus’s exponential spread, if everyone infected goes on to infect an average of two other people, that means eight additional people now have the virus by the time contact tracing can even begin for the first individual.

And if the contacts face similar delays for their own test results, the new cases quickly pile up. (The number of new infections could be much higher if any of those people fails to physically distance and mask up in crowded places. This is also based on the assumption that people self-isolate once they start to feel sick.)

If that first person could have received their positive results in the same day, they could have reasonably been instructed to self-isolate, halting any forward transmission from them, and immediately informing any contacts to isolate and test, stopping spread there as well.

The authors of the new paper in The Lancet Global Health also map out how especially crucial rapid test results are for areas that are not using mobile app technology for tracing contacts.

The team found that viral spread could still be contained (reducing the average number of new infections from each person — known as the “R0” ratio — to below 1) with test result delays of about two and a half days, if 100 percent of the population were using a mobile contact tracing platform. If about half of a population were using the platform, test results could still come back after a day and a half. But with a conventional (person-based) contact tracing system, as we are relying on in the US, their model suggests test results would need to come back in less than a day to get the virus under control.

And not only is this not happening, but as cases spiral in certain areas, like they are in Florida and Texas, the budding contact tracing system gets overwhelmed, decreasing their ability to efficiently track every case. Or as Osterholm puts it: “It’s kind of like trying to plant pansies in a Category 5 hurricane — it’s not easy.”

One thing that could improve the speed of getting results is, of course, using faster testing methods. The current PCR-based tests typically send tests to a lab for processing, which involves specialized supplies, machines, and personnel — not to mention the transport time and handling logistics. Some facilities, such as many hospitals, are able to do quick testing on site. (This is important, Lubarsky notes, because not only does that prevent the spread of Covid-19 from patients, but also every hour caring for someone who is potentially Covid-positive means another hour of staff using full PPE, yet another still-limited resource in some places.)

There are also other technologies we could be using to test for the coronavirus.

Many companies are at work on rapid at-home tests, which “would be tremendously helpful” if they are accurate enough, Osterholm says. (They would also need to be linked to the health department for tracking and communication back to the individual, he notes.)

There are concerns about robust accuracy in many rapid tests that are being developed — and some that have already been deployed. Although some experts argue that we shouldn’t, as they say, let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” in this case.

“We need the best means of detecting and containing the virus, not a perfect test no one can use,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston University, asserted in an opinion piece in the New York Times. “Simple at-home tests for the coronavirus … could be the key to expanding testing and impeding the spread of the pandemic.”

Others make the case that such rapid testing would also help us find more people who are infectious and let them know to isolate before they can spread the virus to others.

An interim step is “pooled” or “batch” PCR testing of samples. In mid-July, the Food and Drug Administration gave Quest emergency authorization to start using this process, in which some material from up to four tests is mixed together and run through the full PCR testing procedure. (LabCorp received a similar authorization in late July to pool up to five samples.) If the pooled result is negative, they were able to consolidate what would have been four or five analyses down to one. If the analysis picks up evidence of the virus, each one of the samples is then tested individually to determine which one (or ones) was positive.

With about 91.5 percent of tests coming back negative in the US right now, there is a good chance many batches will come back without signs of the virus, clearing all of the pooled individuals and freeing up that additional testing capacity for those who need it most.

A Quest Diagnostics aircraft is loaded at the Reading Regional Airport in Bern Township, Pennsylvania, to transport medical samples to testing laboratories on April 2, 2020.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

To slow the spread of Covid-19, should we actually be testing fewer people right now?

Many experts say what we really need right now is not more, broader testing but instead to be stricter — or, as they say, “smarter” — about who gets tested in the first place.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently provides rough guidance on the use of testing. But Osterholm and his colleagues put together a much more robust hierarchy for “smart testing” when resources are limited. They lay out the order of who should get tests when resources are lacking:

  1. Hospitalized patients with symptoms
  2. Symptomatic health care workers, first responders, essential workers, and those who work in high-risk facilities (like long-term care institutions or homeless shelters)
  3. Symptomatic people in the community
  4. People without symptoms who live in high-risk facilities

“That’s where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” Osterholm says of making sure testing resources are used for these groups and in this order. This strategy “would cut down on a lot of unnecessary tests,” he says, “so we could do more with the tests that we currently have, which would speed things up — less volume and more high-impact outcomes.” And, of note, when basic testing capabilities are limited, as they are now, they specifically recommend not testing in schools, most workplaces, or the general community.

California has instituted a statewide prioritization hierarchy, which has four distinct levels for testing. The first groups include hospitalized patients with Covid-19 symptoms and people who have been identified as a part of an outbreak. Only in the last group for testing — which are conducted if results in the state are taking less than 48 hours — fall people who are asymptomatic but think they might have been infected and people getting routine workplace testing.

This is already playing out in the general community, which might be frustrating for many people but might be conserving testing resources for those with the very highest risk.

Some of the trouble nationwide, multiple experts said, is that many labs are not able to tell what category a person might fall into and thus are not always able to prioritize correctly.

Quest said that as of late July, it was stratifying “priority” and “other” patients, providing the former with a faster turnaround. But for the week of July 20, its average turnaround time for priority patients was still more than two days (versus one day the previous week). LabCorp also reported it was providing faster turnaround times for hospitalized patients.

UC Davis Health uses an algorithm to decide which tests to prioritize based on the risk of a person spreading the virus. “If there is a migrant worker who has suggestive symptoms, who lives in a multigenerational home, who’s about to get on a bus with 30 other workers, we want to know that now — as opposed to a 38-year-old executive who lives alone who has the sniffles,” Lubarsky says. “What’s gumming up the work is we’re testing all the worried well and don’t have a tiered system” for the country.

Those representing major testing labs want this sort of direction, too. “Now is the time to decide what kind of testing is needed, at what levels, and where to ensure we’re deploying these tools where they’re most needed,” says Serio of the ACLA. “For example, we recently received guidance [from the Department of Health and Human Services] to prioritize samples from nursing home patients in certain hot spots. Continued clear direction [like this] is critical to better manage demand.”

And without more widespread rules, the testing giant Quest has been requesting individual health care providers themselves be the gatekeepers for who gets tested and how many tests they send to the company’s laboratories “so that we can direct our capacity to patients most in need,” it said in a statement.

But, in general, the federal government seems to be moving in the opposite direction of more targeted testing. In late July, the FDA authorized the first test specifically to screen people without symptoms or any reason to suspect they might have been infected. The test from LabCorp, which has been in use for suspected Covid-19 cases since March, requires the same PCR process and equipment as other current tests.

The currently limited PCR resources, Osterholm and others say, should instead be deployed for the most actionable cases.

Otherwise, we will continue to overwhelm the testing system, and localities will continue to need to reinstitute shutdowns to keep the virus in check.

But the other big piece of the testing puzzle is actually using our other methods — masking, physical distancing, etc. — to decrease the spread of the virus so we don’t have to test as much. “We’ve got to drive these case numbers down,” Osterholm says. “If we only needed to test one-tenth the number of clinical cases, we can start matching supply with actual need. Right now, our caseload outstrips supply capacity.”

Procop suggests we could still be in the early days of this challenge, especially as some people call for regular testing of school students and staff, which could add a massive burden to testing laboratories.

All of this means, however, in absence of more organized guidance about who should be getting tests right now, it is up to people to make that decision on their own, Procop says. “Individuals visiting friends or going on vacation should not use precious testing resources and deny these to individuals in need,” he says. “They need to mask, respect social distancing as much as possible, and wash their hands frequently.”

This could help reduce wait times for those at real risk of spreading the virus. We have to stop the virus as much as we can now, Osterholm says, because this fall, “things are only going to get worse.”

Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance science journalist and author of Cultured and Octopus! Find her on Twitter at @KHCourage.

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St. Louis Restaurant Openings and Closings July 2020

9 Mile Garden, the city's first food truck park, was open for three weeks before it temporarily shuttered because of COVID-19. - COURTESY OF 9 MILE GARDEN

  • 9 Mile Garden, the city’s first food truck park, was open for three weeks before it temporarily shuttered because of COVID-19.

If you want a window into the abject hell COVID-19 has wreaked upon the food and beverage industry, consider 9 Mile Garden. Perhaps the highest profile — or at least most exciting — opening of the year, the food truck park opened with much fanfare on July 3rd as a vibrant, outdoor dining and entertainment venue. With its outdoor environment and commitment to sanitation and social distancing, 9 Mile Garden seemed like the perfect solution for folks desperate to eat and imbibe outside of their homes, but concerned about doing so in a public space. And yet, earlier this week, the venue announced that it would be temporarily shuttering in an effort to help the community tamp down the surge in COVID-19 cases.

This is the state of the restaurant business: Highs and lows, openings and closings, optimism and pessimism. Every day, a different restaurant (or, more likely, multiple restaurants), closes its dining room as owners and employees struggle to navigate the uncertainty. Fortunately, most of these are temporary; July only has one confirmed permanent closure. But as restaurants face a situation that is stably bad at best and worsening at worst, one has to wonder what the scene will look like by the end of this nightmarish year.

However, if the openings on this list are any indication, this industry has a lot of fight still left in it. We’re rooting for you, fam.

Mike’s Hot Dogs,
7293 Olive Boulevard, University City

Olive + Oak (moved), 216 W. Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves
9 Mile Garden Food Truck Park (temporarily closed), 9375 Gravois Road, Affton
The Parkmoor, 220 W. Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves
Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Creamery (additional location), 20 Meadows Circle Drive, Suite 208, Lake St. Louis
Corner Pub and Grill O’Fallon (additional location), 2921 State Hwy K, O’Fallon
Vegan Deli and Butcher, 524 S. Main Street, St. Charles
The Bullock Rooftop Bar, 799 Clark Avenue, Ballpark Village
Freddie G’s Chicken and Waffles, 1435 Salisbury Street

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]

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