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Trump’s Lame-Duck Status Leaves Governors to Wing It on COVID

Not long after the world learned that President Donald Trump had lost his reelection bid, states began issuing a new round of crackdowns and emergency declarations against the surging coronavirus.

Taking action this time were Republican governors who had resisted doing so during the spring and summer. Now they face an increasingly out-of-control virus and fading hope that help will come from a lame-duck president who seems consumed with challenging the election results.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised a more unified national effort once he takes office on Jan. 20, and pressure is building on Congress to pass a new financial relief package. But with record hospitalizations and new cases, many governors have decided they can’t afford to wait.

“I don’t know any governor who’s sitting there waiting for the knight to come in on the horse,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former senior health official in President George W. Bush’s administration. “There’s no way for these guys to just sit and wait. The virus and the crisis is getting worse hour by hour, day by day.”

As new measures trickle out across states, public health policy experts worry many don’t go far enough. For those states attempting to impose meaningful restrictions, their success depends on cooperation from a population with pandemic fatigue. And people may be reluctant to curtail their holiday gatherings.

Residents of many conservative states don’t acknowledge the depth of the health problem, especially given Trump and some of his allies have stressed the crisis is being overplayed and will end quickly.

The bottom line is that many people just aren’t sufficiently scared of the virus to do what must be done to stop the spread, said Rodney Whitlock, a health policy consultant and former adviser to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

“You’re dealing with folks there who definitely put liberty over everything else because they’re not afraid enough,” Whitlock said. “Even in the face of cases, even in the face of people around them getting it. They’re just not afraid.”

Among the first governors to act was outgoing Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. The day after The Associated Press called the presidential election for Biden on Nov. 7, the Republican announced Utah’s first-ever statewide mask mandate and clamped down on social gatherings and other activities until Nov. 23.

“All of us need to work together and see if there’s a better way,” Herbert said in a news conference.

Republican and Democratic governors alike followed with measures of their own in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and other states. Strategies included partial lockdowns, limits on crowds, canceling in-person classes for schools and reducing hours and capacity for bars and restaurants.

Health policy experts largely agree that the virus’s spread, not the end of the election, is what’s driving these changes — though the end of the campaign season does take political pressure off governors inclined to issue COVID-preventive policies.

“It’s much easier to act when you don’t have attention on you than when you do, but I would hope that the action is taking place regardless of what the political circumstances are,” Chen said.

No state has yet resorted to the sort of full lockdowns enacted in the spring, which resulted in mass business closures and layoffs and sent the economy crashing.

Christopher Adolph, an associate professor at the University of Washington, and his team with the university’s COVID-19 State Policy Project have been studying states’ responses to the pandemic. Some states have made a show of taking action, without much substance behind it, he said. For example, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, declared an emergency on Nov. 12 — but only recommended, not ordered, that people wear masks and maintain social distance.

Other governors first took small steps only to follow up with tighter restrictions. In Iowa, for example, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who opposed mask mandates during the presidential campaign, initially announced that all people over age 2 would be required to wear masks at gatherings of certain sizes. On Nov. 16, she issued a simpler but stricter three-week statewide mask mandate.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, also ordered mandatory face coverings for the first time. Hospitals there have been reporting they have more patients than capacity, and the state has been leading the country in new per capita COVID cases.

At the very least, each state should make it clear that people must not gather indoors, Adolph said. Restaurants, bars, gymnasiums and large indoor events should be closed, he said, and gatherings inside people’s homes should not happen.

“We’re not seeing enough clear, broadly communicated, well-stated, unambiguous policies,” Adolph said.

An exception is Herbert, one of two governors who will leave office in January. The two-term Utah governor will turn over the reins to his current lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, who has been a part of the state’s response to the pandemic since the beginning. Both Republicans have promised a smooth, seamless transition between administrations.

The nation’s other lame-duck governor is Montana’s Steve Bullock, a Democrat. But unlike Herbert, the term-limited Bullock will be replaced by a governor from a different party. Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte defeated Bullock’s lieutenant governor, Mike Cooney, in the Nov. 3 election. And Bullock lost his bid for the U.S. Senate.

Bullock said in a Nov. 12 news conference that he would not take additional COVID-intervention measures without a federal aid package to blunt the economic fallout. Five days later, he reversed himself to expand a previous mask requirement and limit capacity and hours in bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues.

Gianforte has not directly answered whether he would continue Bullock’s restrictions. When asked, the governor-elect has spoken instead of personal responsibility and reopening the economy while protecting the most vulnerable people. In July, he referenced the unfounded hope that the virus would be slowed by the U.S. reaching “herd immunity” by the end of the year.

Another obstacle is that a district judge essentially ruled Bullock’s mask mandate unenforceable. State health department lawyers had asked District Judge Dan Wilson to enforce the mandate against five businesses accused of flouting the measure.

“The businesses and the owners have been put on the front line of implementing a state policy that has more exceptions than directives and would be about as effective in bailing water from the leaky boat of our present health circumstances as would a colander,” the judge said in denying the request.

That leaves Bullock with the task of managing a crisis in his final weeks of office with local officials already looking past him to a new administration.

In Flathead County, where the five businesses were sued for violating the mask mandate, local leaders were already chafing from what they saw as Bullock’s heavy hand.

“He has angered a lot of people in Flathead County,” County Commissioner Randy Brodehl, a Republican, said of Bullock. “He didn’t come here, he didn’t talk to us.”

Bullock’s troubles show that even if governors take measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, they may still have a difficult time persuading people to go along with them. That’s particularly an issue in the Upper Midwest and the Rocky Mountains, libertarian-leaning COVID hot spots where the medical infrastructure is already strained.

Some Trump supporters have followed the president’s lead in downplaying the virus and others are fatigued after months of isolation and precautions, said Whitlock.

In rural and conservative areas, people protest that COVID measures come at the expense of their personal freedom and their ability to earn a living, and some feel as though they’re being talked down to by mask advocates and public health officials, Whitlock said.

It’s going to take smart and consistent messaging to change attitudes — but that means more than Biden telling people to wear masks once he takes office, Whitlock added.

“Everybody has to own it,” he said. “You have to scream at the top of your lungs at the protests, at the celebrations, at the football games, at the concerts. It has to be, ‘Stop it!’”

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Family Mourns Man With Mental Illness Killed by Police, Calls for Change

Rulennis Muñoz remembers the phone ringing on Sept. 13. Her mother was calling from the car, frustrated. Rulennis could also hear her brother Ricardo shouting in the background. Her mom told her that Ricardo, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five years earlier, wouldn’t take his medication.

Within an hour, Ricardo Muñoz, 27, was dead. Muñoz, who had a knife, was killed by a police officer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The incident has striking similarities to the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia six weeks later but has received far less national attention.

According to a Washington Post tracker, as of Nov. 18, police had killed 987 people in the U.S. in the past 12 months. Like Muñoz and Wallace, almost a quarter of those people had a diagnosis of a serious mental illness.

Two Sisters, Two Different Calls for Help

Ricardo Muñoz lived with his mother in Lancaster, but earlier on that September Sunday he had been across town at his sister Rulennis Muñoz’s house. Rulennis recalled that her brother had been having what she calls “an episode” that morning. Ricardo became agitated because his phone charger was missing. When she found it for him, he insisted it wasn’t the same one.

Rulennis knew her brother was in crisis and needed psychiatric care. But she also knew from experience that there were few emergency resources available for Ricardo unless a judge deemed him a threat to himself or others.

After talking with her mom, Rulennis called a county crisis intervention line to see if Ricardo could be committed for inpatient care. It was Sunday afternoon. The crisis worker told her to call the police to see if the officers could petition a judge to force Ricardo to go to the hospital for psychiatric treatment, an involuntary commitment. Reluctant to call 911, and wanting more information, Rulennis dialed the nonemergency police number.

Meanwhile, her mother, Miguelina Peña, was back in her own neighborhood. Her other daughter, Deborah, lives a few doors down. Peña started telling Deborah what was going on. Ricardo was becoming aggressive; he had punched the inside of the car. Back on their block, he was still yelling and upset and couldn’t be calmed. Deborah called 911 to get help for Ricardo. She didn’t know her sister was trying the nonemergency line.

The 911 Call

recording and transcript of the 911 call show that the dispatcher gave Deborah three options: police, fire or ambulance. Deborah wasn’t sure, so she said “police.” Then she went on to explain that Ricardo was being aggressive, had a mental illness and needed to go to the hospital.

Meanwhile, Ricardo walked up the street to where he and his mother lived. When the dispatcher questioned Deborah further, she mentioned that Ricardo was trying “to break into” his mom’s house. She didn’t mention that Ricardo also lived in that house. She did mention that her mother “was afraid” to go back home with him.

The Muñoz family has since emphasized that Ricardo was never a threat to them. However, by the time police got the message, they believed they were responding to a domestic disturbance.

“Within minutes of … that phone call, he was dead,” Rulennis said.

Ricardo’s mom, Miguelina Peña, recalls what she saw that day. A Lancaster police officer walked toward the house. Ricardo saw the officer approach through the living room window, and he ran upstairs to his bedroom. When he came back down, he had a hunting knife in his hand.

In video from a police body camera, an unidentified officer walks toward the Muñoz residence. Ricardo steps outside, and shouts “Get the f–k back.” Ricardo comes down the stairs of the stoop and runs toward the officer. The officer starts running down the sidewalk, but after a few steps, he turns back toward Ricardo, gun in hand, and shoots him several times. Within minutes, Ricardo is dead.

After Ricardo crumples to the sidewalk, his mother’s screams can be heard, off-camera. Police made the body camera video public a few hours after Ricardo’s death, in an effort to dispel rumors about Ricardo’s death and quell rioting in the city. The county district attorney has since deemed the shooting justified, and the officer’s name was never made public.

Spotty Care, Dangerous Crises

Across the U.S., people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than the overall population to be killed by police, according to one study from the mental health nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

Miguelina Peña said she tried for years to get help for her son.

Among the problems, the family couldn’t find a psychiatrist who was taking new patients, she said. Additionally, Peña speaks little English, and that made it difficult to help Ricardo enroll in health insurance, or for her to understand what treatments he was receiving. Ricardo got his prescriptions through a local nonprofit clinic for Latino men, Nuestra Clínica.

Instead of consistent medical care and a trusted therapeutic relationship, Ricardo got treatment that was sporadic and fueled by crisis: He often ended up in the hospital for a few days, then would be discharged back home with little or no follow-up care. This happened more times than his mother and sisters can recall.

“There was an occasion where a judge was involved, and the judge determined that he should be released home,” Peña said. “And my question is, why would the judge allow him to go home if he wasn’t doing well?”

Immediate Threats and Escalation

Laws in Pennsylvania and many other states make it difficult for a family to get psychiatric care for someone who doesn’t want it; it can be imposed on the person only if he or she poses an immediate threat, said Angela Kimball, advocacy and public policy director at the National Alliance on Mental illness. By that point, it’s often law enforcement, rather than mental health professionals, who are called in to help.

“Law enforcement comes in and exerts a threatening posture,” Kimball said. “For most people, that causes them to be subdued. But if you’re experiencing a mental illness, that only escalates the situation.”

People who have a family member with mental illness should learn what local resources are available and plan for a crisis, Kimball advised. But she acknowledged that many of the services she frequently recommends, such as crisis hotlines or special response teams for mental health, aren’t available in most parts of the country.

If 911 is the only option, calling it can be a difficult decision, Kimball said.

“Dialing 911 will accelerate a response by emergency personnel, most often police,” she said. “This option should be used for extreme crisis situations that require immediate intervention. These first responders may or may not be appropriately trained and experienced in de-escalating psychiatric emergencies.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness continues to advocate for more resources for families dealing with a mental health crisis. The group says more cities should create crisis response teams that can respond at all hours, without involving armed police officers in most situations.

There has been progress on the federal level, as well. Kimball was happy when President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan congressional bill, on Oct. 17, to implement a three-digit national suicide prevention hotline. The number — 988 — will eventually summon help when dialed anywhere in the country. But it could take a few years before the system is up and running.

Rulennis Muñoz said the family never got to see how Ricardo would have responded to someone other than a police officer.

“And instead of a cop just being there, there should have been other responders,” Rulennis said. “There should have been someone that knew how to deal with this type of situation.”

This story comes from a reporting partnership with WITF, NPR and KHN.

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