Health officials in Texas said they have asked the federal government for five mortuary trucks, as Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise in the state.
A fourth wave of infections in the US, driven by the Delta variant, has overwhelmingly hospitalized and killed the unvaccinated.
The Texas request comes at a complex stage of the pandemic, when about half of Americans are fully vaccinated, vaccine mandates are increasingly common and an official announcement about Covid booster shots is expected in days.
Texas officials said they requested the trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or Fema, as a “precaution”, given rapid and widespread Covid-19 transmission.
“We haven’t gotten any local requests but we want to be ready with the Covid cases in the state,” Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas health department, told NBC News. “We didn’t want to wait.”
Covid-19 deaths in Texas have tripled in the last two weeks, growing to 89 a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the pandemic’s worst peak in the January, Covid-19 killed 351 people in Texas on average a day. More than 54,000 people in Texas have died of Covid-19.
Here’s the Texas governor at a packed, unmasked indoor event yesterday:
The governor has faced sharp criticism as coronavirus cases and deaths in Texas began to swell in Texas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month recommended that even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors, he stood by his ban against mask mandates and issued an executive order banning local governments from issuing vaccine requirements.
Joe Biden spoke with Boris Johnson about Afghanistan, the White House said.
Per the White House:
They commended the bravery and professionalism of their military and civilian personnel, who are working shoulder to shoulder in Kabul on the evacuation of their citizens and Afghan nationals who assisted in the war effort. They also discussed the need for continued close coordination among allies and democratic partners on Afghanistan policy going forward, including ways the global community can provide further humanitarian assistance and support for refugees and other vulnerable Afghans. They agreed to hold a virtual G7 leaders’ meeting next week to discuss a common strategy and approach.
Until now, the president had not discussed the situation with any other world leaders since the Taliban took Kabul.
Texas governor who fought mask mandates tests positive for Covid-19
Texas governor Greg Abbott’s office announced that he has tested positive for Covid-19.
Governor Greg Abbott today tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The Governor has been testing daily, and today was the first positive test result. Governor Abbott is in constant communication with his staff, agency heads, and government officials to ensure that state government continues to operate smoothly and efficiently. The Governor will isolate in the Governor’s Mansion and continue to test daily. Governor Abbott is receiving Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment.
Governor Abbott is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, in good health, and currently experiencing no symptoms. Everyone that the Governor has been in close contact with today has been notified. Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott tested negative.
The announcement follows Abbott’s attendance at a packed, indoor GOP event, where an estimated 600 people were in attendance.
The governor has fought to maintain a ban against local mask mandates, even as coronavirus cases surge in his state. Several school districts and local governments have fought back, though the Texas Supreme Court temporarily upheld the governor’s ban.
Here’s more background on Abbott’s actions amidst the crisis in Texas:
Today so far
That’s it from me today. My west coast colleague, Maanvi Singh, will take over the blog for the next few hours.
Here’s where the day stands so far:
- Roughly 11,000 “self-identified” US citizens still need to be evacuated from Afghanistan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. The White House said earlier today that the Kabul airport is once again open and 3,500 US troops are now on the ground to assist evacuation efforts, after Taliban forces took control of the capital city.
- The state department encouraged American citizens still in Afghanistan to “shelter in place” until being contacted by the US embassy. Asked about US citizens who have had trouble getting to the Kabul airport due to safety concerns, state department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We tell them in our communications that their safety needs to be their top priority. If they feel that it is unsafe for them to make their way to the airport, they should not seek to do so.”
- The Pentagon said the speed of evacuation efforts “will pick up” in the coming days. Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters that the US military is looking to have a plane depart Kabul every hour, allowing for the evacuation of up to 9,000 people a day. According to Taylor, the US military has had “no hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban” as evacuation efforts continue.
- National security adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged the images coming out of Kabul over the past couple of days have been “heartbreaking”. Videos shared on social media have shown desperate Afghans trying to cling to US military planes as they leave the country. But Sullivan continued to defend Biden’s decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, saying, “We were clear-eyed going in when we made this decision that it was possible that the Taliban would end up in control of Afghanistan.”
- Senate Democrats are calling on Joe Biden to help evacuate women leaders from Afghanistan. Two Democrats on the Senate foreign relations committee, chairman Bob Menendez and member Jeanne Shaheen, organized a letter signed by 44 other senators of both parties. The letter calls on the administration to “create a humanitarian parole category specifically for women leaders,” as well as journalists and human rights defenders, among others.
Maanvi will have more coming up, so stay tuned.
The Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Menendez, is demanding a “full accounting” of how Taliban forces were able to take control of Afghanistan so quickly.
“After two decades of blood and treasure including thousands of American and Afghan lives, I am horrified and saddened by the chaos engulfing Afghanistan,” Menendez said in a new statement.
“I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal. We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures.”
The committee chairman acknowledged that the US government’s focus right now should be on “the immediate and vital necessity of evacuating Americans as well as those vulnerable Afghans, especially women, journalists, and civil society activists who spent the past twenty years advocating for a more democratic Afghanistan who the Taliban is targeting right now”.
He went on to say, “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will continue fulfilling its oversight role with a hearing on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, including the Trump administration’s flawed negotiations with Taliban, and the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal. The Committee will seek a full accounting for these shortcomings as well as assess why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed so quickly.”
Menendez’s statement comes one day after Mark Warner, the Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, pledged to “ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces”.
It had just started raining at the White House on Monday when a group of reporters, the Guardian included, were summoned and led past a Secret Service agent, along a red carpet in a windowless corridor, up a staircase and into the elegantly appointed East Room.
It was hardly the first Joe Biden speech on this spot but it was probably the most important. The president had flown back from Camp David to address the catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan after his decision to withdraw US forces.
What followed over 19 minutes was a robust defence of the strategic reasons America was ending its longest war – but rather less detail on how the departure was executed.
While he acknowledged the scenes in Afghanistan were “gut-wrenching” and said the collapse of its government “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated”, Biden was defiant, unabashed and certain of himself.
He declared that “the buck stops with me” but pointed the finger elsewhere, including at Afghans he said were unwilling to fight. There was little by way of contrition, humility or shades of grey.
It was proof again that the oldest American president ever elected still has the capacity to surprise.
US citizens in Afghanistan encouraged to ‘shelter in place’ until contacted by embassy
American citizens still in Afghanistan are encouraged to “shelter in place until and unless you receive a communication from the US Embassy,” state department spokesperson Ned Price said.
During his press briefing this afternoon, Price said the first group of American citizens were notified overnight with information about where and when to go to the Kabul airport to be evacuated back to the US.
A reporter noted that some US citizens have said they received information from the state department but were unable to get to the airport due to safety concerns, as the Taliban takes over Kabul.
“We tell them in our communications that their safety needs to be their top priority. If they feel that it is unsafe for them to make their way to the airport, they should not seek to do so,” Price said.
“We will continue to do all we can to — and we will continue to be in touch with them, I should say — to provide clear guidance about when and how they should make their way to the airport compound.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said today that there are about 11,000 “self-identified” US citizens who remain in Afghanistan as evacuation efforts continue.
The Guardian’s Sam Levine has more details on House Democrats’ new voting rights bill:
The new bill will also clarify Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Rep. Terri Sewell said, after a supreme court decision earlier this year that weakened the law.
A significant obstacle remains in the way to passing the bill – the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes before a bill can advance.
Democrats, who control 50 Senate seats, have been unable to advance voting rights legislation, but some believe they may be able to get either bipartisan support to pass the bill. I
If not, some say, denying landmark civil rights legislation could provide the impetus for getting rid of the filibuster. Sewell noted on Tuesday that Joe Manchin, a critical swing Democratic senator, had already publicly supported the legislation.
“We feel very confident that we will have the votes on the democratic side in order to pass it,” she said. “Frankly, if there’s any reason to revise or reform the filibuster it is to protect our democracy.”
House Democrats formally introduce new voting rights bill
The Guardian’s Sam Levine reports:
House Democrats on Tuesday formally introduced a long-awaited bill that would update critical provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The bill, which would place certain jurisdictions with repeated instances of voting discrimination under federal oversight, is expected to move quickly in Congress, with a vote in the US House next week.
The legislation would update a formula at the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring certain places in the US to get federal approval before they enact any election change.
The previous formula, which had been repeatedly reauthorized by Congress, was struck down by the US supreme court in 2013, when the court said it was outdated. Civil rights groups and voting experts have decried that ruling as extremely damaging to democracy, saying it gives a green light to states that want to discriminate.
The new formula would look at states and localities over the previous 25 years and put them under federal supervision if courts have found at least 10 voting rights violations, at least one of them on a statewide basis. If there are no statewide violations, states are allowed up to 15 violations. The idea is to keep preclearance, as the process is called, targeted towards states that are currently engaging in voter discrimination.
Rep. Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, unveiled the legislation at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the sight of the brutal Bloody Sunday March in 1965 that provided the impetus for the Voting Rights Act. The new bill has been formally named the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in honor of John Lewis, the voting rights icon who was nearly killed on Bloody Sunday.
Psaki: 11,000 ‘self-identified’ US citizens in Afghanistan
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that there are about 11,000 “self-identified” US citizens remaining in Afghanistan, who still need to be evacuated.
But Pentagon press secretary John Kirby had previously put that number somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000, demonstrating the interagency confusion within the Biden administration as Kabul evacuation efforts continue, a Politico editor noted.
Neither national security adviser Jake Sullivan nor White House press secretary Jen Psaki would offer a firm commitment on the US military continuing evacuation efforts past 31 August if some American citizens are still in the country.
When a reporter pressed Sullivan again on whether he could commit to getting all US citizens safely out of Afghanistan, he replied, “That’s what we’re doing right now. We have asked them all to come to the airport to get on flights and take them home. That’s what we intend to do.”
After Psaki took over the podium, a journalist again asked whether US troops would remain in Afghanistan past the end of the month if the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan allies has not been completed.
“Our focus right now is on doing the work at hand and on the task at hand, and that is day by day getting as many American citizens, as many SIV applicants, as many members of vulnerable populations who are eligible to be evacuated to the airport and out on planes,” Psaki said.
“And we’re going to do that in expeditious fashion. That is the focus of the president, of our secretary of defense, of our secretary of state and everybody on our national security team. So that is where we will keep our efforts.”
According to Psaki, there are currently about 11,000 “self-identified” US citizens remaining in Afghanistan, although she acknowledged that may not account for all Americans still in the country.
Joe Biden “has not yet spoken with any other world leaders” since the Taliban took Kabul on Sunday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Sullivan noted that he, secretary of state Antony Blinken and several other senior administration officials have been “engaged on a regular basis with foreign counterparts” and will continue to do so.
“Right now, the main issue is an operational issue. It’s about how we coordinate with them to help them get their people out,” Sullivan said.
Multiple reporters pressed Jake Sullivan on whether US troops will remain in Afghanistan past August 31 if there are still American citizens and vulnerable Afghans in the country.
Joe Biden had previously said that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of August, but the administration has now sent several thousands of troops to Kabul over the past several days to assist evacuation efforts.
“So I’m not going to comment on hypotheticals,” Sullivan said. “What I’m going to do is stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting as many people out as rapidly as possible. And we will take that day by day.”
A reporter followed up by asking, “So you can’t commit to bringing back every American?” Sullivan ignored the question and moved on.