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Capitol Rioters Plotted Publicly For Weeks, But Police Were Unready

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was stoked in plain sight. For weeks, the far-right supporters of President Donald Trump railed on social media that the election had been stolen. They openly discussed the idea of violent protest on the day Congress met to certify the result.

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Inside Trump And Barr’s Last-Minute Killing Spree

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In its hurry to use its final days in power to execute federal prisoners, the administration of President Donald Trump has trampled over an array of barriers, both legal and practical, according to court records that have not been previously reported.

Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases. They moved ahead with executions in the middle of the night. They left one prisoner strapped to the gurney while lawyers worked to remove a court order. They executed a second prisoner while an appeal was still pending, leaving the court to then dismiss the appeal as “moot" because the man was already dead. They bought drugs from a secret pharmacy that failed a quality test. They hired private executioners and paid them in cash.

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Trump Rushing Rules To Promote Deadly Pollution — And Federal Firing Squads

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Six days after President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notified food safety groups that it was proposing a regulatory change to speed up chicken factory processing lines, a change that would allow companies to sell more birds. An earlier USDA effort had broken down on concerns that it could lead to more worker injuries and make it harder to stop germs like salmonella.

Ordinarily, a change like this would take about two years to go through the cumbersome legal process of making new federal regulations. But the timing has alarmed food and worker safety advocates, who suspect the Trump administration wants to rush through this rule in its waning days.

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Most States Are Unprepared To Distribute Pfizer Covid-19 Vaccine

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

As the first coronavirus vaccine takes a major stride toward approval, state governments' distribution plans show many are not ready to deliver the shots.

The challenge is especially steep in rural areas, many of which are contending with a surge of infections, meaning that access to the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines may be limited by geography.

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Headlines GOP Fundraiser As Virus Surges

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie headlined a fundraiser for the North Carolina Republican Party last week, taking time away from his job leading the government's second-largest agency at a moment when COVID-19 cases are surging in VA hospitals.

Though legal, campaigning by cabinet secretaries is a departure from historical norms. Nevertheless, it's become standard practice in the administration of President Donald Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hit the campaign trail for Trump, and several other cabinet members recently visited Iowa. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is also campaigning in North Carolina. Trump himself has routinely blurred politics with official functions, most prominently by hosting the Republican convention on the White House lawn, and he's brushed off more than a dozen staff violations of the federal Hatch Act, which limits political activity by government employees.

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Why A Real Vaccine Won’t Arrive Before Election Day (Without A Miracle)

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

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.

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Trump’s Vaccine Czar Won’t Relinquish Stock In Drug Company Despite Blatant Conflict

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The former pharmaceutical executive tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the administration's race to a COVID-19 vaccine is refusing to give up investments that stand to benefit from his work — at least during his lifetime.

The executive, Moncef Slaoui, is the top scientist on Operation Warp Speed, the administration's effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine in record time. Federal law requires government officials to disclose their personal finances and divest any holdings relating to their work, but Slaoui said he wouldn't take the job under those conditions. So the administration said it's treating him as a contractor. Contractors aren't bound by the same ethics rules but also aren't supposed to wield as much authority as full employees.

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Now In Government Food Aid Boxes, A Letter From Trump

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

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.

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Richest GOP Donor In South Dakota Was Probed For Child Pornography

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

T. Denny Sanford, the richest man in South Dakota and a major donor to children's charities, was being investigated for possible possession of child pornography, according to four people familiar with the probe.

Investigators with the South Dakota attorney general's Division of Criminal Investigation obtained a search warrant as part of the probe, according to two of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said the case was referred to the Department of Justice for further investigation.

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How Sen. Collins Helped Big Hotel Chains Grab Small Business Funding

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In March, as lawmakers raced to put together a massive stimulus package to cope with the pandemic-related shutdowns sweeping the country, a New York company that invests in hotels deployed a Washington lobbyist for the first time. The lobbyist's mission was to secure an exception in the emerging relief program for small businesses so that hotel chains would become eligible.

The company, EOS Investors, had more than 500 employees, putting it above the limit in the original proposal by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), and Marco Rubio (R-FL). But if the cap for hotels were set for each location instead of companywide, then EOS could benefit at several of its properties, like the collection of resorts that EOS had recently acquired in Kennebunkport, Maine.

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Trump Family, Cronies Cleared For Millions In Bailout Funds

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Businesses tied to President Donald Trump's family and associates stand to receive as much as $21 million in government loans designed to shore up payroll expenses for companies struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal data released Monday.

A hydroponic lettuce farm backed by Trump's eldest son, Donald Jr., applied for at least $150,000 in Small Business Administration funding. Albert Hazzouri, a dentist frequently spotted at Mar-a-Lago, asked for a similar amount. A hospital run by Maria Ryan, a close associate of Trump lawyer and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, requested more than $5 million. Several companies connected to the president's son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, could get upward of $6 million.

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Trump’s Food Aid Program Swindles Hard-Hit Northeast States

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President Donald Trump's signature food aid program is sending less relief to New York and New England than other parts of the country, even though the Northeast has the most coronavirus cases. Some states — Maine and Alaska at least — have been left out completely so far.

The regional imbalances are an unintended side effect of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's strategy in hiring private contractors to distribute food, the agency said. It is now looking for ways to reach areas that were passed over.

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Relief Program Pays $100M To Unlicensed Operators, Harming Food Banks

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

A food relief program championed by President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka is relying on some contractors who lack food distribution experience and aren't licensed to deal in fresh fruits and vegetables.

The contractors on Friday began delivering boxes containing fresh produce to food banks and other nonprofits. Forty-nine out of the 159 contractors picked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deliver boxes containing produce don't have a requisite license from the same agency, according to a search of the USDA's database using the information released about the contractors.

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Trump Aiming To Cripple Bailout Oversight Board

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

In the wake of President Trump's move to push aside the official who was supposed to lead the coronavirus bailout watchdog group, four other members are just as vulnerable.

Trump was able to remove the panel's chosen head, Glenn Fine, by naming a new Defense Department inspector general and bumping Fine to the No. 2 job at the Pentagon watchdog office. No longer an acting inspector general, Fine was disqualified from serving on the panel he was supposed to lead.

Fine's removal sounded an alarm among Democrats in Congress, who had demanded that spending safeguards be built into the $2 trillion recovery package. House Democrats rushed out a proposed tweak that would stop further removals like Fine's by opening up eligibility to senior officials in IG offices, not just IGs themselves.

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How Tea Party Budget Mania Left America Vulnerable To Pandemic

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Dire shortages of vital medical equipment in the Strategic National Stockpile that are now hampering the coronavirus response trace back to the budget wars of the Obama years, when congressional Republicans elected on the Tea Party wave forced the White House to accept sweeping cuts to federal spending.

Among the victims of those partisan fights was the effort to keep adequate supplies of masks, ventilators, pharmaceuticals and other medical equipment on hand to respond to a public health crisis. Lawmakers in both parties raised the specter of shortchanging future disaster response even as they voted to approve the cuts.

"There are always more needs for financial support from our hardworking taxpayers than we have the ability to pay," said Denny Rehberg, a retired Republican congressman from Montana who chaired the appropriations subcommittee responsible for overseeing the stockpile in 2011. Rehberg said it would have been impossible to predict a public health crisis requiring a more robust stockpile, just as it would have been to predict the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's really easy to second-guess and suggest we didn't do as much," he said. "Why didn't we have a protocol to protect the Twin Towers? Whoever thought that was going to happen? Whoever thought Hurricane Katrina was going to occur? You tell me what's going to happen in 2030, and I will communicate that to congressmen and senators."

There were, in fact, warnings at the time: A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded report by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials urged the federal government to treat public health preparedness "on par with federal and state funding for other national security response capabilities," and said that its store of N95 masks should be "replenished for future events."

But efforts to bulk up the stockpile fell apart in tense standoffs between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans, according to administration and congressional officials involved in the negotiations. Had Congress kept funding at the 2010 level through the end of the Obama administration, the stockpile would have benefited from $321 million more than it ended up getting, according to budget documents reviewed by ProPublica. During the Trump administration, Congress started giving the stockpile more than the White House requested.

By late February, the stockpile held just 12 million N95 respirator masks, a small fraction of what government officials say is needed for a severe pandemic. Now the emergency stash is running out of critical supplies and governors are struggling to understand the unclear procedures for how the administration is distributing the equipment.

The stockpile received a $17 billion influx in the first and third coronavirus stimulus bills that Congress passed in March. But there had not been a big boost in stockpile funding since 2009, in response to the H1N1 pandemic, commonly called swine flu.

After using up the swine flu emergency funds, the Obama administration tried to replenish the stockpile in 2011 by asking Congress to provide $655 million, up from the previous year's budget of less than $600 million. Responding to swine flu, which the CDC estimated killed more than 12,000 people in the United States over the course of a year, had required the largest deployment in the stockpile's history, including nearly 20 million pieces of personal protective equipment and more than 85 million N95 masks, according to a 2016 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

"We recognized the need for replenishment of the stockpile and budgeted about a 10 percent increase," said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who served as the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. "That was rejected by the Republican House."

Republicans took over the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms on the Tea Party wave of opposition to the landmark 2010 health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The new House majority was intent on curbing government spending, especially at HHS, which administered Obamacare.

Congressional Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate and House Speaker John Boehner, leveraged the debt ceiling — a limit on the government's borrowing ability that had to be raised — to insist that the Obama administration accept federal spending curbs. The compromise, codified in the 2011 Budget Control Act, required a bipartisan "super committee" to find additional ways to reduce the deficit, or else it would trigger automatic across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration."

Even in the aftermath of the swine flu pandemic, the stockpile wasn't a priority then. Without a full committee markup, Rehberg introduced a bill that provided $522.5 million to the stockpile, about 12 percent less than the previous year and $132 million less than the administration wanted. "Nobody got everything they wanted," Rehberg said.

The Senate version of the funding bill offered $561 million for stockpile funding. Senators said they regretted the cuts even as they voted for the bill.

"In this bill we're now getting into the bone marrow," Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who then chaired the Senate appropriations committee, said at the markup. "Some of these cuts will be painful and unpopular."

In the bill's final version, Congress allocated a compromise $534 million for the 2012 fiscal year, a 10 percent budget cut from the prior year and $121 million less than the Obama administration had requested.

The next year, the "super committee" failed to secure additional savings demanded by the Budget Control Act, triggering the automatic, across-the-board cuts. This "sequestration" was an outcome that the leaders of both parties disliked — and blamed one another for.

"Did either party ever indicate sequestration was welcome, positive or desirable?" Dave Schnittger, Boehner's deputy chief of staff at the time, told ProPublica. "Sequestration was conceived — not by Republicans, but by a Democratic White House — as a crude mechanism to compel the super committee to do its job. Republicans consistently advocated for reductions in mandatory spending programs that would have prevented sequestration from ever happening." (Mandatory spending refers to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.)

McConnell's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama, pointed to numerous statements he made in 2013 urging Republicans to compromise, warning that the sequester would weaken economic recovery, military readiness and basic public services.

Gene Sperling, then a top Obama economic adviser, said Republicans focused attacks on the HHS budget, along with the Departments of Labor and Education, which are grouped under the same appropriations subcommittee.

"The Labor/HHS budget is where a significant number of progressive priorities are, from Head Start to (the National Institutes of Health) to the Education Department," Sperling said. "There's just so much in there, so it is often the hot spot for where conservative budget hawks who don't believe in public investment go hardest."

Under sequestration, the CDC, which managed the stockpile at the time, faced a 5 percent budget cut. In its 2013 budget submission, HHS decreased its stockpile funding request from the previous year, asking for $486 million, a cut of nearly $48 million. "The SNS is a key resource in maintaining public health preparedness and response," the administration said. "However, the current fiscal climate necessitates scaling back."

The decrease caught Rehberg's attention at a budget hearing to review the request.

"Disaster preparedness is something that has been very important to me," he said at the hearing. "I just would like to have you explain how such a large reduction can possibly not impact the national preparedness posture."

Then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius answered that the CDC would prioritize replacing expiring drugs such as smallpox vaccines and anthrax treatments.

The next year, the administration again proposed cutting the stockpile's funding from the 2012 funding level, but it warned that reduced funding could result in "fewer people receiving treatment during an influenza pandemic."

Congress did grant extra funding in response to emergencies, but even then, the stockpile was a small-ticket item. In 2014, the Obama administration asked for and received billions of dollars to respond to the Ebola outbreak, but only $165 million went to the CDC's public health emergency preparedness programs, including the stockpile. And in 2016, Congress granted emergency funding to respond to the Zika virus, but it gave the CDC less than half of what the Obama administration requested.

"It's clear that the administration prioritized the SNS in this (Zika) request and in the Ebola supplemental," said Ned Price, who was a spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama White House. "In the case of Zika, congressional Republicans sat on the request for the better part of a year."

The stockpile's mission has steadily expanded as it confronts new public health emergencies. With limited resources, officials in charge of the stockpile tend to focus on buying lifesaving drugs from small biotechnology firms that would, in the absence of a government buyer, have no other market for their products, experts said. Masks and other protective equipment are in normal times widely available and thus may not have been prioritized for purchase, they said.

"It just was never funded at the level that was needed to purchase new products, to replace expiring products and to invest in what we now know are the really necessary ancillary products," said Dara Lieberman, director of government relations at the Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy and research group.

The sequestration and strict budget caps ended with budget deals in 2018 and 2019 — a bipartisan rebuke to the earlier restraints. "It's a burden off our shoulders," Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters at the time. "In a troubled world, I think that was the wrong message."

Yet non-defense spending still hasn't fully recovered.

"One of the things that happened to public health preparedness was just the result of the general budget stringency we had," said David Reich, a consultant working on federal appropriations issues for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "We're still seeing the results of that."

During the Trump administration, the White House has consistently proposed cutting the CDC and the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which took over stockpile management from the CDC. Congress approved more stockpile funding than Trump's budget requested in every year of his administration, for a combined $1.93 billion instead of $1.77 billion, according to budget documents.

The White House budget request for 2021, delivered in February as officials were already warning about the dangerous new coronavirus, proposed holding the stockpile's funding flat at $705 million and cutting resources for the office that oversees it.

Lydia DePillis contributed reporting.

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Trump Fails To Mobilize VA Hospital Resources For Covid-19 Emergency

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

The Trump administration is leaving untapped reinforcements and supplies from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, even as many hospitals are struggling with a crush of coronavirus patients.

The VA serves nine million veterans through 170 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics, but it’s also legally designated as the country’s backup health system in an emergency. As part of the National Disaster Medical System, the VA has deployed doctors and equipment to disasters and emergencies in recent instances such as Hurricane Maria and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. The VA system has 13,000 acute care beds, including 1,800 intensive care unit beds.

But for the coronavirus pandemic, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told lawmakers this week that the agency won’t spring into action on its own. Instead of responding to pleas for help from states and cities, Wilkie said he’s waiting for direction from the Department of Health and Human Services or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And those calls, for the most part, haven’t come. HHS hasn’t asked the VA for significant help with the coronavirus pandemic. FEMA did not take a leading role in the government’s response until last Friday, and it has yet to involve the VA either.

“VA stands ready to support civilian health care systems in the event those systems encounter capacity issues,” press secretary Christina Mandreucci said. “At this time, VA has not received specific requests from FEMA for assistance.”

The White House referred questions to the VA. The VA referred a question about taking directions from HHS and FEMA to those agencies. HHS referred questions to FEMA, and FEMA referred questions to the VA.

The VA has fielded a handful of limited tasks. It asked 12 health technicians and nursing assistants to volunteer to help HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with coronavirus screenings for two weeks in February. The agency sent 14 medical technicians to help HHS with screenings at an Air Force base in California where evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship were being quarantined. And a spokeswoman for CalVet, the state’s veterans agency, told ProPublica that the VA emergency manager in the region has helped provide supplies such as N95 masks.

Lawmakers are frustrated to see the VA largely sitting on its hands as the crisis escalates.

“It is unconscionable that HHS has not utilized every tool it has to address the real suffering of individuals in this nation and called upon VA,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee, said in a March 25 letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “States, communities and patients are already suffering as a result of HHS’s inaction. Get them help now.”

According to the VA’s pandemic plan released on Friday, the agency’s role in the governmentwide response may include helping emergency responders with protective gear, screening and training; helping to staff FEMA’s operations teams; dispatching advisers to state and local public health authorities; supplying medicines and equipment; and helping with burials.

The stimulus deal that the Senate passed late Wednesday includes $27 billion for HHS to reimburse the VA for providing care to the general public. That’s on top of $20 billion to help the VA care for veterans.

Just a month ago, at a House budget hearing, Wilkie declined additional funding. “Right now I don’t see a need for us,” he said. “We are set.”

The VA held its first planning meeting on the coronavirus on Jan. 22, the day after the first case was confirmed in the U.S., according to the agency’s response to an inspector general report released Thursday. But the department did not implement measures until two days after the World Health Organization formally declared a pandemic, on March 11. The VA did not issue guidance on screening patients until March 16.

Wilkie abruptly fired his deputy last month and is under investigation by the VA’s inspector general for allegedly seeking damaging information about a congressional staffer who said she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. (He denies doing so.) Wilkie took time off in recent weeks and has taken a back seat at White House task force meetings. Since joining the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force on March 2, Wilkie has spoken publicly only once, on March 18. (Mandreucci said Wilkie has attended 20 task force meetings.) At that time, Wilkie said the VA was preparing to join the disaster response but had not yet engaged.

“We are the buttress force in case that FEMA or HHS calls upon us to deploy medical professionals across the country to meet crises,” Wilkie said. “We plan for that every day. We are gaming out emergency preparedness scenarios. And we stand ready, when the president needs us, to expand our mission.”

Wilkie told Politico the VA was preparing to deploy 3,000 doctors, nurses and other emergency workers but had no timeline.

The VA’s role as the country’s emergency medical backup was first established by Congress in 1982 and is known as the agency’s “Fourth Mission.” (The first three missions are sometimes identified as care, training and research, and other times as health, benefits and memorials.) This month, a description of this Fourth Mission was suddenly scrubbed from the website of the VA’s Office of Emergency Management. Mandreucci noted it appeared on a different page.

The VA’s ability to support FEMA could be limited by demands from its own patients, who are largely older and part of the demographic that’s most vulnerable to the coronavirus. As of Friday, the VA had 571 patients who tested positive and nine who have died.

The VA’s inspector general said in a report on Thursday that health center leaders reported concerns about running out of medicines and protective gear. Leaders at the VA hospitals in Durham, North Carolina, and Detroit said they needed more ventilators. The inspector general’s report said 43% of the facility leaders surveyed planned to share ICU beds or protective gear with local providers.

“That assistance is dependent upon the availability of resources and funding, and consistency with VA’s mission to provide priority services to veterans,” Wilkie said in a March 23 letter to lawmakers.

On Facebook, Far-Right Firefighters Call Coronavirus “A Hoax”

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

In a 27,000-member private Facebook group for first responders who support President Donald Trump, firefighters and paramedics have posted thousands of comments in recent weeks downplaying the coronavirus pandemic that they are responsible for helping to handle.

Posts in the group, which is called IAFF Union Firefighters for Trump and has been endorsed by Trump, scoffed at the seriousness of the virus, echoing false assertions by Trump and his allies comparing it to the seasonal flu. “Every election year has a disease,” read one meme, purporting to be written on a doctor’s office whiteboard. “This is a viral-pneumonia being hyped as The Black Plague before an election.”

As of Monday, there were 4,464 cases and 78 deaths in the U.S., according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

As confirmed cases and deaths expanded and officials began shutting down mass gatherings and public places, the posts intensified their attacks on Democrats and the media. “I believe this is all by design,” wrote a Texas firefighter whose identity was corroborated by ProPublica. “Democrats have wanted to slow down and even kill the economy. It’s the only hope they have of beating Trump. Sad and disgusting the depths of shit the Democrats will descend to in order to gain power.”

Posts containing factual information or firsthand experiences with the virus were met with more accusations of plots to harm Trump’s reelection. When a Florida firefighter said action was required now to prevent a crisis like is currently underway in Italy, where 27,980 have been infected and 2,158 have died, because the virus spreads at an exponential rate, the first reply was poop emojis and “Trump2020.”

Some comments promoted a baseless conspiracy theory that the virus is a biological weapon developed by the Chinese in collaboration with Democrats.

“By the Chinese to stop the riots in Hong Kong,” one member wrote.

“[Y]ou are absolutely correct,” another replied. “I said that in the beginning. Democrats saw an opportunity to use it against Trump and get rid of older people which they have been trying to do for a while.”

Commenters contacted by ProPublica declined to answer questions or didn’t respond to messages. ProPublica reviewed hundreds of screenshots provided by co-workers of members of the group who asked to be anonymous, fearing retaliation. Those people said the social media posts are not idle online venting — they reflect real-world attitudes that are leading some first responders to potentially shun special plans and protective equipment. That dismissiveness, the people said, could put first responders and others at risk as they attend to emergency calls with potentially infected people.

Leaders at the International Association of Fire Fighters are also concerned. “I’ve read the social media. I know there are going to be accusations that this is all hype,” Jim Brinkley, IAFF assistant to the general president for technical and information resources, said in a video that the union posted online. “If we ignore it, if we take it lightly, we will set a new standard in the wrong direction for infectious disease in this country.”

Firefighters and paramedics, who jointly respond to 911 calls in most places, are among those at the greatest risk of encountering the coronavirus, and their exposure could endanger others if they have to be quarantined and are no longer available to work. Dozens of firefighters who responded to the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, that was a hot spot of the outbreak had to be quarantined for weeks.

The private Facebook group was formed last year to protest the IAFF’s official endorsement of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. Trump encouraged his followers to join the Facebook group in May 2019.

The group’s founder, Kelly Hallman, told ProPublica he doesn’t speak for everyone who posts, but he can understand why many emergency professionals share his skepticism about the coronavirus. He said previous outbreaks such as SARS, the H1N1 “swine flu” and Ebola didn’t prompt such a big response, and he thinks the reason is politics.

“There’s never been this much hoopla given to the other things,” Hallman said. “They’re doing it to crash the economy and make Trump look bad.”

Hallman’s view hasn’t changed as Trump went from calling concerns over the coronavirus a “hoax” on Feb. 28 to declaring a national emergency on Friday. Hallman said Trump has had to address fears stirred up by the media.

“If you had to point a finger at why the leftist media and the left in general has a smile on their face about this whole thing, it’s the Dow,” Hallman said, referring to the historic decline in stock prices. “My wife and kids are scared, they’re believing what they’re seeing on TV. And I’m trying to tell them it’s not as bad as the media makes it out.”

Public health experts are unified in calling for drastic measures to contain and mitigate the spread in the U.S. “When you’re dealing with an emerging infectious diseases outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House press conference on Monday. “It will always seem that the best way to address it would be doing something that looks like it might be an overreaction. It’s not an overreaction. It’s a reaction that we feel is commensurate with what is actually going on in reality.”

The government’s guidelines, Fauci said, “will fail if people don’t adhere to them.”

IAFF spokesman Doug Stern said views like those expressed in the Facebook group reflect the minority of first responders, citing conversations with local leaders who are eager for more information about how to prepare for the coronavirus.

“Our leadership is aware of this issue, and we are taking it seriously because we know how important it is,” Stern said of COVID-19. Most important, Stern said, is for 911 callers to tell the dispatcher if anyone is experiencing flu-like symptoms so responders can wear protective gear and send a smaller team.

Caroline Chen contributed reporting.

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