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Trump signs $900B pandemic relief bill

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion pandemic relief package Sunday, ending days of drama over his refusal to accept the bipartisan deal that will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown.

The massive bill includes $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies through September and contains other end-of-session priorities such as money for cash-starved transit systems and an increase in food stamp benefits.

The signing, at his private club in Florida, came after a day of vocal criticism from Republicans and Democrats over his objections to the bipartisan agreement, which passed the House and Senate by large margins with lawmakers believing they had Trump’s support. His 11th-hour demands, including a push for larger relief checks and scaled-back spending, had blindsided members of both parties. His subsequent foot-dragging resulted in a lapse in unemployment benefits for millions struggling to make ends meet and threatened a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic.

Signing the bill into law prevents another crisis of Trump’s own creation and ends a standoff with his own party during the final days of his administration.

It was unclear what Trump had accomplished with his delay, beyond empowering Democrats to push for the higher checks that his party opposes. In a statement, Trump repeated his frustrations with the COVID-19 relief bill for providing only $600 checks to most Americans instead of the $2,000 that his fellow Republicans rejected. He also complained about what he considered unnecessary spending by the government at large.

“I will sign the Omnibus and Covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” Trump said in the statement.

While the president insisted he would send Congress “a redlined version” with items to be removed under the rescission process, those are merely suggestions to Congress. The bill, as signed, would not necessarily be changed.

Lawmakers now have breathing room to continue debating whether the relief checks should be as large as the president has demanded. The Democratic-led House supports the larger checks and is set to vote on the issue Monday, but it’s expected to be ignored by the Republican-held Senate where spending faces opposition. For now, the administration can only begin work sending out the $600 payments.

Republicans and Democrats swiftly welcomed Trump’s decision to sign the bill into law.

“The compromise bill is not perfect, but it will do an enormous amount of good for struggling Kentuckians and Americans across the country who need help now,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “I thank the President for signing this relief into law.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the signing “welcome news for the fourteen million Americans who just lost the lifeline of unemployment benefits on Christmas Weekend, and for the millions more struggling to stay afloat during this historic pandemic and economic crisis.”

But others slammed Trump’s delay in turning the bill into law. In a tweet, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., accused Trump of having “played Russian roulette with American lives. A familiar and comfortable place for him.”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would offer Trump’s proposal for $2,000 checks for a vote in Senate — putting Republicans on the spot.

“The House will pass a bill to give Americans $2,000 checks. Then I will move to pass it in the Senate,” Schumer tweeted. “No Democrats will object. Will Senate Republicans?”

Democrats are promising more aid to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office, but Republicans are signaling a wait-and-see approach.

In the face of growing economic hardship, spreading disease and a looming shutdown, lawmakers on Sunday had urged Trump to sign the legislation immediately, then have Congress follow up with additional aid. Aside from unemployment benefits and relief payments to families, money for vaccine distribution, businesses and more was on the line. Protections against evictions also hung in the balance.

“What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “So many people are hurting. ... It is really insane and this president has got to finally ... do the right thing for the American people and stop worrying about his ego.”

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said he understood that Trump “wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks, but the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire.”

Toomey added: “So I think the best thing to do, as I said, sign this and then make the case for subsequent legislation.”

The same point was echoed by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who’s criticized Trump’s pandemic response and his efforts to undo the election results. “I just gave up guessing what he might do next,” he said.

Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said too much is at stake for Trump to “play this old switcheroo game.”

“I don’t get the point,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s being done, why, unless it’s just to create chaos and show power and be upset because you lost the election.”

Washington had been reeling since Trump turned on the deal. Fingers pointed at administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, as lawmakers tried to understand whether they were misled about Trump’s position.

“Now to be put in a lurch, after the president’s own person negotiated something that the president doesn’t want, it’s just — it’s surprising,” Kinzinger said.

Kinzinger spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Hogan and Sanders on ABC’s “This Week.”

New group home in Sunnyside brings hope, opportunity to homeless young adults
  • Updated

Preston Birch, 18, was on the verge of living on the streets when Rod’s House came to the rescue.

Staff at the Yakima drop-in center for youths helped Birch get to their new group home for homeless youths in Sunnyside in the Lower Valley.

Birch became homeless at 17 after he was sent to live with his dad in West Virginia. They didn’t get along, and Birch had friends here who told him to seek out Rod’s House.

Birch said he was temporarily staying with a friend of a friend, but was told to leave a short time later.

“The day that they could bring me here was the day I was getting kicked out,” the 18-year-old said while sitting at the group home. “I am insanely grateful that there are places like this willing to help.”

The group home — Rod’s House Sunnyside — opened Sept. 15 at 610 McClain Drive. It houses up to eight young adults ages 18 to 24.

The home is an extension of Rod’s House at 204 S. Naches Ave. in Yakima, a drop-in center for young people ages 13 to 24. There, youths and young adults were helped with food, clothing and finding jobs. They also could hang out, watch TV and visit with others during the day.

The center would serve upward of 60 youths a day. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic, however. Now services are delivered through a window.

For years, Rod’s House officials have wanted to offer youths overnight services. But the cost of liability insurance needed to house minors has been a sticking point for the nonprofit, in addition to finding a place large enough.

The group home is the first step in that direction, Rod’s House officials say. There are rules to follow at the group home and residents are required to follow a plan to become self-sufficient.

Four residents have already transitioned into long-term housing over the past three months.

“That may seem like a small number but it’s not when you think about what’s involved in moving a young adult out of homelessness and into long-term housing,” said Rod’s House interim executive director Lisa Wallace. “We’re really, really excited about it.”


Rod’s House has always concentrated on serving Yakima. That was until a former group home became vacant.

Rod’s House officials were aware of a growing homeless problem in the Lower Valley and decided to use the building as a young adult group home.

“I think it was a good opportunity to try something different,” Wallace said.

The group home features four large rooms, each with two beds and a bathroom. There’s a large kitchen, dining area and a few offices and a check-in window at the main entrance.

The opportunity emerged quickly, and Rod’s House officials have yet to establish a concrete budget, Wallace said.

But the organization isn’t flying blind either, she said, noting that a group home of that magnitude here would require an annual budget of about $500,000.

Rod’s House rents the building for $1,000 a month, plus utilities. The facility is staffed by a handful of staff and interns.

A combination of local and state grants coupled with local donations will fund the operation, Wallace said.

House rules

Residents have to help clean, take care of their rooms and participate in a weekly life skills program that teaches them how to manage anger, cook and build a resume.

They also get help finding jobs and going through the interview process.

“We make sure that they are ready for the interview and ready for the job market out there,” said program manager Asunción Márquez.

They cook their own breakfasts, help make lunch and dinner and clean up afterward. They also have to keep job and housing search logs.

Residents are helped with obtaining an identification card and connected to behavioral health services if needed, he said.

“So we look at all the barriers They may have and help them with those barriers,” Márquez said.


Most of the residents have been couch surfers, moving from place to place before entering the group home, Márquez said.

“From all paths,” he said. “Some have been kicked out of their home, some just can’t afford to live on their own.”

Birch said his path into homelessness began when his mother sold her home in Florida, where he was raised. He said he went to live with his father in West Virginia at age 17.

Birch said his father wasn’t very nice to him and he left for Washington state after a failed suicide attempt in June. That’s when his friends here told him about Rod’s House.

Some youths experience trauma while living on the streets, and unraveling that can be challenging, said Margarita Gutierrez, a Rod’s House intern who helps facilitate group stress management sessions and other behavioral health services at the group home.

“They come with a lot of stress, a lot of trauma, and three months is not very long to work through that,” she said.

Residents are placed on a plan to continue services through Rod’s House after the secure housing and leave the group home, Gutierrez said.

Birch, who likes to draw, has been working on a cartoon series about two boys who end up living in a fantasy world they created. Drawings dot the walls of his room.

Meanwhile, he’s been filling out job applications online and looking for an apartment.

“I just got told they might have an apartment for me soon,” he said.


City and school officials, police officers and church representatives have all visited the group home and have donated food, meals and Christmas presents.

On Wednesday, resident assistant Samantha Lafollette along with interns Brenda Lopez and Gutierrez worked in the kitchen making tamales for residents.

Presents filled the floor beneath a Christmas tree in the lounging area of the group home.

“The Sunnyside community has been great,” Márquez said. “I don’t even have words for it. The response has been awesome.”

Wars, instability pose vaccine challenges in poor nations

DAR MANGI, Pakistan — Arifullah Khan had just administered another polio vaccine when the gunfire blasted from the nearby hills.

“It happened so suddenly. There was so much gunfire it felt like an explosion,” he said, recalling details of the attack five years ago in Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border.

A bullet shattered his thigh and he fell to the ground. His childhood friend and partner in the vaccination campaign, Ruhollah, lay bleeding on the ground in front of him.

“I couldn’t move,” Khan said. “I watched him lying right in front of me as he took his last breath.”

In Pakistan, delivering vaccines can be deadly. Militants and radical religious groups spread claims that the polio vaccine is a Western ploy to sterilize Muslim children or turn them away from religion. More than 100 health workers, vaccinators and security officials involved in polio vaccination have been killed since 2012.

The violence is an extreme example of the difficulties many poor and developing countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America face as they tackle the monumental task of vaccinating their populations against COVID-19.

It’s not just the problem of affording vaccines or being at the back of the line behind wealthy countries in receiving them.

Poor infrastructure often means roads are treacherous and electricity is sporadic for the refrigerators vital to preserving vaccines. Wars and insurgencies endanger vaccinators. Corruption can siphon away funds, and vaccination campaign planners must sometimes navigate through multiple armed factions.

“The most challenging areas ... are conflict settings, where outbreaks of violence hinder vaccinations, and areas where misinformation is circulating, which discourages community participation,” said UNICEF’s deputy chief of global immunization, Benjamin Schreiber.

Many nations are relying on COVAX, an international system aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines, though it is already short on funding.

UNICEF, which runs immunization programs worldwide, is gearing up to help procure and administer COVID-19 vaccines, Schreiber told The Associated Press. It has stockpiled half a billion syringes and aims to provide 70,000 refrigerators, mostly solar powered, he said.

The agency aims to transport 850 tons of COVID-19 vaccines a month next year, double its usual annual monthly rate for other vaccines, UNICEF’s executive director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.

The situation can vary widely from country to country.

Mexico is expected to start immunizations soon. The military will handle distribution, and the government has promised free vaccines for Mexico’s nearly 130 million inhabitants by the end of 2021.

Meanwhile, Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, has yet to announce any vaccination plans. Health experts worry that widespread rumors could set back vaccinations — including claims that hospitals will give fatal injections to inflate COVID-19 death figures and receive more foreign aid.

The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is leading a continentwide effort to vaccinate Africa’s 1.3 billion people in 54 countries. The agency is coordinating efforts to obtain doses and seeking World Bank help in funding — estimating it will take $10 billion to acquire, distribute and administer the vaccines.

The aim is to vaccinate 60% of Africa’s population within two years — some 700 million people — more than the continent has done in the past, said John Nkengasong, director of the African CDC.

“The time for action is now,” said Nkengasong. “The West cannot defeat COVID-19 alone. It must be defeated all over the world, and that includes Africa.”

Congo underscores the obstacles the campaign faces.

The country has overcome Ebola outbreaks with vaccination campaigns. But it struggled in eastern Congo, where Allied Democratic Forces rebels stage frequent attacks and other armed groups vie for control of mineral riches.

Rough terrain and insecurity meant vaccinators had trouble getting to all areas. Some came under attack.

Rumors flew about the Ebola vaccines, including the idea they were meant to kill people, said Dr. Maurice Kakule, an Ebola survivor who worked in vaccination campaigns. Education programs overcame much of the resistance, but similar suspicions are spreading about the COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

In Beni, the area’s main city, Danny Momoti, a trader, said he would take the vaccine because of his work. “I need this COVID-19 vaccination card to be accepted in Dubai and elsewhere where I go to buy the goods for Beni,” he said.

Civil wars present perhaps the greatest obstacles.

In Yemen, the health system has collapsed under six years of war between Houthi rebels who control the north and government-allied factions in the south.

Yemen saw its first outbreak of polio in 15 years this summer, centered in the northern province of Saada. Vaccinators haven’t been able to work there the past two years, in part because of security fears, UNICEF said. Agencies rushed to give new inoculations in parts of the north and south in November and December.

Cholera and diphtheria have been rampant, and once again, Yemen faces a new surge in hunger. U.N. officials have warned of potential famine in 2021.

No plans for COVID-19 vaccinations have been announced yet, whether by the Houthis, southern authorities or WHO and UNICEF.

Only half of Yemen’s health facilities remain functional. Roads, power networks and other infrastructure have been devastated. The Houthis have hampered some programs, trying to wrest concessions from U.N. agencies, including blocking a shipment of cholera vaccines amid a 2017 outbreak.

“Even the mildest and normally preventable diseases can prove fatal due to a lack of health care access in a conflict setting,” said Wasim Bahja, the Yemen country director for International Medical Corps.

In Pakistan, public distrust was fueled when the CIA in 2011 used a scam vaccination program to identify the hideout of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, leading to the special forces raid that killed him.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries in the world where polio is still endemic. There have been 82 new polio cases this year alone, largely because vaccinations were suspended due to the pandemic, said Dr. Rana Safdar, who coordinates the polio vaccination campaigns.

The Bajaur region, where Khan was shot, remains one of the more dangerous areas, Safdar said.

Khan tried to explain the deep mistrust in his region. Deeply conservative tribal elders “believe the vaccine is the reason the young people who were given it as children are disrespectful and show little concern for Islamic traditions and values.”

“Everyone is scared” of COVID-19, he said. “But they are suspicious of Western things.”

Khan said he signed up to administer polio vaccines because he was paid the equivalent of $56 for just a few days’ work. “I needed to feed my family.”

He will likely sign up to deliver COVID-19 vaccines as well.

“But first I would check if there is any danger there,” he said.

Tribes try to shield elders and their knowledge from virus

As Monica Harvey watched, crowds flocked to a Sam’s Club in northern Arizona where she works, picking shelves clean of toilet paper and canned goods. Native American seniors couldn’t move fast enough, and Harvey saw their faces fall when they reached empty shelves.

The Navajo woman wanted to help tribal elders get household staples without leaving their homes and risking exposure to COVID-19, so she started Defend Our Community, a group that delivers supplies.

Tribes across the nation are working to protect elder members who serve as honored links to customs passed from one generation to the next. The efforts to deliver protective gear, meals and vaccines are about more than saving lives. Tribal elders often possess unique knowledge of language and history that is all the more valuable because tribes commonly pass down their traditions orally. That means losing elders to the virus could wipe out irreplaceable pieces of culture.

“When you lose an elder, you lose a part of yourself,” said Harvey, who lives in Leupp, Ariz., east of Flagstaff. “You lose a connection to history, our stories, our culture, our traditions.”

Harvey remembers her own grandfather explaining the stories behind Navajo songs and teaching her Navajo words from the songs. She often listened to her grandparents speaking Navajo while she practiced the words under her breath.

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation has increased food distributions to elders and offered financial aid to those who were struggling to pay rent or utilities. Concern for elders is also apparent in the tribe’s COVID-19 vaccine-distribution plans. Participants and workers in the tribe’s elder program are first in line for the shots, along with hospital workers and first responders. Next are those whose first language is Cherokee and others considered “tribal treasures,” an honor given to members who keep Cherokee art, language and other culture alive through their work.

An effort among the Blackfeet in Montana is helping the tribe’s 600-plus members connect with elders who need support. Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot Nation is providing its citizens with masks and telemedicine, delivering meals to their doors and organizing home visits to give flu vaccines.

“Elders are like libraries. Losing one is like a library burning down,” said Loren Racine, creator of a Facebook page offering help in the Blackfeet community.

Roy Boney Jr., who manages a Cherokee language program, said the vast majority of Cherokee speakers are elders. They make up a small pool of people the program relies on to teach the language he calls the “beating heart” of Cherokee identity.

“For decades our language has been taken from us through forced assimilation,” Boney said. “Elders hold our history and culture but also our language. ... Our elders are precious.”

Almost half of the Cherokee who received care from the tribe’s health services but died from the coronavirus were fluent Cherokee speakers. Losing even a handful of speakers can be devastating for language preservation and other cultural practices, Boney said.

“With them goes so much information in terms of language knowledge, dialect, specialized knowledge of medicine and traditional practices,” he said. “All these things we’re trying to revitalize and save, they’re the heart of all of it.”

Mashantucket Pequot elders shifted to a virtual format for the intergenerational gatherings where they tell traditional stories. An elders council also helps to organize Pequot language bingo nights and Schemitzun, the annual Festival of the Green Corn.

“When we heard how COVID-19 was spreading, we were immediately concerned for our elders and how losing them would affect the tribe, so we immediately started working to protect them,” said the tribe’s chief medical officer, Setu Vora.

The tribe has no known COVID-19 deaths.

Pequot elders play an important role in the effort to revive the tribe’s language, which is no longer widely spoken. Elders still remember relatives who spoke the language and can verify the definitions and context of certain words. A handful of the tribe’s 2,000 members are becoming somewhat proficient in Pequot as they research and reclaim new words, Vora said.

Karen Ketcher was among 28 Cherokee Nation elders who have died from the coronavirus. She was weeks shy of her 71st birthday and had decades of experience working for the tribe and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her knowledge was unmatched and invaluable, said her granddaughter, Taryn King.

“There’s so much at stake when this virus hits our communities,” said King, 31, of Stilwell, Okla. She described elders as “the glue that holds our communities together.”

At work, Ketcher was affectionately called “Granny.” She was the go-to person for questions about Cherokee policies, tribal governance and how to apply for grants. She also was the first stop for snacks, help mending holes in sweaters or questions about community relations.

One co-worker, Kamisha Hair, went into Ketcher’s office shortly before the tribe temporarily closed it in March because of the pandemic. She assured Ketcher things would be OK and implored her to pray.

The two hugged and said they loved each other. Ketcher died in April.

Relatives held a small outdoor service for her. When they returned to town, other Cherokees had lined the streets to pay their respects.

“Losing an elder like Granny is like losing a piece of your identity,” Hair said. “It dies with them, and you can never get it back.”