Inside the fall of the CDC

At 7:47 a.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Jay Butler pounded out a grim email to colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Butler, then the head of the agency’s coronavirus response, and his team had been trying to craft guidance to help Americans return safely to worship amid worries that two of its greatest comforts — the chanting of prayers and singing of hymns — could launch a deadly virus into the air with each breath.

DOJ frees federal prosecutors to take steps that could interfere with elections, weakening long-standing policy

The Department of Justice has weakened its long-standing prohibition against interfering in elections, according to two department officials.

Avoiding election interference is the overarching principle of DOJ policy on voting-related crimes. In place since at least 1980, the policy generally bars prosecutors not only from making any announcement about ongoing investigations close to an election but also from taking public steps — such as an arrest or a raid — before a vote is finalized because the publicity could tip the balance of a race.

A real vaccine before the election? It’d take a miracle.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. Despite President Donald Trump’s promises of a vaccine next month and pundits’ speculation about how an “October surprise” could upend the presidential campaign, any potential vaccine would have to clear a slew of scientific and bureaucratic hurdles in record time. In short, it would take a miracle. We talked to companies, regulators, scientific advisers and analysts and reviewed hundreds of pages of transcripts and study protocols to understand all the steps needed for a coronavirus vaccine to be scientifically validated and cleared for public use.

Now in government food aid boxes: A letter from Donald Trump

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. Millions of Americans who are struggling to put food on the table may discover a new item in government-funded relief packages of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat: a letter signed by President Donald Trump. The message, printed on White House letterhead in both English and Spanish, touts the administration’s response to the coronavirus, including aid provided through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative to buy fresh food and ship it to needy families. The letter is reminiscent of Trump’s effort to put his signature on stimulus checks and send a signed letter to millions of recipients.

Facebook’s political ad ban also threatens ability to spread accurate information on how to vote

Facebook this week said it would bar political ads in the seven days before the presidential election. That could prevent dirty tricks or an “October surprise” and give watchdogs time to fact-check statements. But rather than responding with glee, election officials say the move leaves them worried.

Included in the ban are ads purchased by election officials — secretaries of state and boards of elections — who use Facebook to inform voters about how voting will work. The move effectively removes a key communication channel just as millions of Americans will begin to navigate a voting process different from any they’ve experienced before.

“Every state’s elections office has a very small communications office that is doing everything that they can to get the word out about the election,” said Gabe Rosenberg, the communications director for Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill (who is not related to this reporter). “This just makes it a little bit harder, for, as far as I can see, no real gain.”

They know how to prevent megafires. Why won’t anybody listen?

What a week. Rough for all Californians. Exhausting for the firefighters on the front lines. Heart-shattering for those who lost homes and loved ones. But a special “Truman Show” kind of hell for the cadre of men and women who’ve not just watched California burn, fire ax in hand, for the past two or three or five decades, but who’ve also fully understood the fire policy that created the landscape that is now up in flames.

“What’s it like?” Tim Ingalsbee repeated back to me, wearily, when I asked him what it was like to watch California this past week. In 1980, Ingalsbee started working as a wildland firefighter. In 1995, he earned a doctorate in environmental sociology. And in 2005, frustrated by the huge gap between what he was learning about fire management and seeing on the fire line, he started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Since then FUSEE has been lobbying Congress, and trying to educate anybody who will listen, about the misguided fire policy that is leading to the megafires we are seeing today.

ICE guards “Systematically” sexually assault detainees in an El Paso detention center, lawyers say

Guards in an immigrant detention center in El Paso sexually assaulted and harassed inmates in a “pattern and practice” of abuse, according to a complaint filed by a Texas advocacy group urging the local district attorney and federal prosecutors to conduct a criminal investigation.

The allegations, detailed in a filing first obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, maintain that guards systematically assaulted at least three people in a facility overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — often in areas of the detention center not visible to security cameras. The guards told victims that no one would believe them because footage did not exist and the harassment involved officers as high-ranking as a lieutenant.

ICE is making sure migrant kids don’t have COVID-19 — then expelling them to “Prevent the spread” of COVID-19

Since March, the Trump administration has pushed thousands of migrant children back to their home countries without legal screenings or protection, citing the risk that they could be carrying COVID-19 into the United States.

But by the time the children are boarded on planes home, they’ve already been tested for the virus — and proven not to have it.

Agonizing lag in coronavirus research puts pregnant women and babies at risk

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. In late June, after three months of near silence on the topic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally weighed in on a question of critical importance to millions of American women and families: How dangerous is the coronavirus for pregnant women and new mothers? The CDC had been asserting that pregnant women don’t seem to be at higher risk for severe complications from the virus. As recently as late May, a spokesperson told ProPublica, “Current evidence shows pregnant women have the same risk of severe illness from COVID-19 as adults who are not pregnant.”

Then, the agency abruptly changed its tone.

FEMA ordered $10.2 million in COVID-19 testing kits it’s now warning states not to use

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has warned states not to use COVID-19 testing supplies it bought under a $10.2 million contract after a ProPublica investigation last week showed the vendor was providing contaminated and unusable mini soda bottles. A FEMA spokeswoman said the agency is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze test tubes filled with saline and sold to the government by Fillakit LLC, whose warehouse is near Houston. “Out of an abundance of caution, we recommend this media not be used at this time,” spokeswoman Alex Bruner said.