Federal Employees News Digest

Amid all the COVID unknowns, one certainty: We need cool heads

Lots of experts and not-so-expert "authorities" have plenty of opinions about where the COVID-19 pandemic came from and who is to blame -- a  part of modern life.  They’re authorities on why New Zealanders did such a good job containing the virus, whereas Americans not so much.  They are still trying to work out how the virus functions, when (if ever) the first vaccines will be ready, and when the pandemic will end.  Some predict that these in fact may be the good old days -- as in, it could get worse. 

What a thought. And yet, it is worth considering if you want the truth rather than a back rub.

I was talking to a doctor with the National Institutes of Health the other day, and he said the virus might never end -- it may be with us for decades, even forever. While we are in the midst of the pandemic, he said, we are by definition too close to it. We don’t know what we don’t know, what we should know or what we should ignore or discard. 

Think about this:

The average American today was about 19 when terrorists stunned the world by hijacking airliners and attacking and destroying the World Trade Centers in New York City, smashing into the Pentagon and being forced to crash in Pennsylvania while on their way to an undetermined D.C.-area target.  At the time, the East Coast’s air defense consisted of two fighters from the Virginia Tidewater area. 

I was a lot older than 19.  I watched the Pentagon burn from my office in the Cathedral Heights section of D.C. It’s one of the highest points in the city that is home to the Naval Observatory (aka the vice president’s home), the Russian embassy and the National Cathedral.  From there, you look down, literally, on the U.S Capitol and the 555-foot tall Washington Monument.  It was a great place to watch a horrible event that still affects us today. 

Do you remember getting on an airplane with just a ticket? No ID? No body search? No VIP security passes?  Some of us do, but many don’t. Do you remember personal lockers you could rent at airports and bus stations and leave stuff? 

So many things that we once took for granted, loved or hated are gone because of 9/11. 

For most of us, the worst of the 9/11 fallout -- wars, deaths, terror attacks -- happened somewhere else.  Some Americans have served in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or places in Africa we can’t pronounce or identify.  Most of us have only a faint idea of the location, size, climate, population or society of the world’s hotspots. They are problems -- horrible and dangerous to be sure – seen from afar.

Yet this guy, COVID-19, is with us all 24/7 for the duration, changing everyday life even more than 9/11 did, has or will.

Which made the front page of the Aug. 12 Washington Post especially interesting.  Most stories were hot news:  Biden picks running mate, Lebanon tries to explain the Beirut explosion, college football conferences decide to nix the fall season.

Then there was the least-prominent story, running at the bottom of the page -- below the fold, as we old-timers who still read printed newspapers call it. Not the first thing to catch your eye, but still….

It was about one of your people. The unlikely headline read: “The fate of a U.S. coronavirus vaccine lies with an FDA civil servant.”  Bland enough, yet powerful.  Peter Marks,  a cancer doctor and researcher, may be, as the Washington Post said, “sitting on the hottest of hot seats.”  He is part of the team, maybe the key player, who will greenlight (or not) any new vaccine. 

Of course we don’t know how this will play out.  But I was reminded of a similar situation a long, long, time ago when a stubborn employee of the Food and Drug Administration, a career civil servant like Marks, sat in a similar hot seat.

There was this miracle drug was the toast of Europe -- thalidomide. It helped with morning sickness in pregnant women.  Many Americans -- pregnant women, drug companies and politicians -- wanted it approved for U.S consumption.  The FDA scientist, Frances Kelsey, said, “Not so fast.” She wanted more tests, more study.

Opponents did everything but dynamite her office, despite the fact that thousands of pregnant women, mostly in Northern Europe, who took it delivered children with flippers instead of arms or legs -- horrible but true. 

Kelsey held fast. And the media backed her. 

Think of the consequences if she hadn’t been so stubborn, fearless ... and right.

As the saying goes, not bad for government work!

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