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Vaccine success: 50m jabs given out – and one life lost

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Biden’s call for the vaccinated to drop their masks draws mixed results

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WASHINGTON — A day after President Joe Biden, barefaced and smiling, announced that fully vaccinated Americans can shed their masks — a major move past one of the most visible effects of the pandemic — the reaction at the White House and across the federal government was mixed, as workers adjusted to a policy that took many by surprise.

Inside the White House, the change came as an abrupt about-face for many staffers after months of pleas from the president and senior officials to wear masks as they habitually did so. Two White House officials said only a few senior staff members were made aware of the new mask guidelines the day before they were announced.

Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden leave together after speaking on updated guidance on mask mandates in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday.Evan Vucci / AP

By Friday morning, no staffers were seen wearing masks around the West Wing, and during the daily press briefing press secretary Jen Psaki and economic adviser Cecilia Rouse entered the briefing room without masks on before a group of mostly mask-less reporters.

But it was a different scene for the Secret Service agents posted around the White House on Friday, who continued to wear masks. A Secret Service official said there was no change to their internal mask policy as the agency reviews the new guidance. It will likely have an update by next week, the official said.

Even first lady Jill Biden didn’t seem to have fully transitioned into mask-less life.

She arrived for a visit to the National Museum of African American History on Friday morning with a mask around her wrist. “Isn’t it great? Don’t you feel good without it?” she told NBC News.

But after her remarks, she was seen putting her mask back on as she toured the building as did the Secret Service agents accompanying her.

While the president pointed to science as the driving force behind the new guidelines, getting millions of Americans to drop their masks has political ramifications for him as well, as he tries to demonstrate that he is moving the country back to some semblance of normal life — and to encourage many more people to get vaccinated as a way to safely return to a pre-pandemic existence.

The new guidance also undercuts a frequent Republican attack on Biden for his emphasis on wearing masks and mask mandates put in place by Democratic governors. The day before the mask guidance change, GOP commentators mocked the White House for a photograph showing the president and congressional leaders wearing masks during an Oval Office meeting even though they had all been vaccinated.

On Capitol Hill, about half of House members and aides were still wearing masks on Friday, with both Republicans and Democrats appearing hesitant to make the change. Masks are still required on the House floor.

While Republicans appeared particularly quick to embrace the new guidelines — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., proclaimed “free at last” and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, waved her mask in the air in celebration when the news broke — a number of Republicans staffers were still wearing masks Friday.

Some Hill staffers seemed unsure of what to do, showing up at work with a mask on then taking it off when they saw their colleagues without one. But many U.S. Capitol Police officers were seen without masks on the Hill, with one encouraging an NBC reporter to take hers off.

At the Pentagon, where masks have been required in public areas, employees were notified Friday morning that fully vaccinated Department of Defense personnel are no longer required to wear a mask indoors or outdoors at department facilities. By lunch time, the hallways were filling up with mask-less faces. Roughly a third of service members, including activity duty, reserve and National Guard, are fully vaccinated.

Journalists, masked and unmasked, attend the daily press briefing at the White House on Friday.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Across other federal agencies, the Biden administration is amending an executive order it issued on Day One when it comes to a federal workforce mask and distancing mandate to reflect the latest CDC guidelines, said a White House official.

“The Federal Workforce EO requires compliance with CDC guidelines on masking and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that includes the new guidance issued today. Agencies should follow current CDC guidance,” the official said in a statement.

Psaki said that the White House is working to implement the new guidelines across the federal government and that it may take a couple of days to make the updates for federal lands and federal properties.

The Office of Management and Budget sent a memo obtained by NBC News instructing all federal agencies and their employees that fully vaccinated staff can ditch their masks, but stating that its policy on “maximum telework and workplace occupancy limits” remains in place.

And so, with many federal employees still working remotely, the effect of Biden’s announcement on the federal workforce at the end of the week remained muted — and the political effect remained to be seen.

Courtney Kube, Mosheh Gains, Julie Tsirkin and Haley Talbot contributed.



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Biden admin discussed using military fuel stockpile, National Guard to respond to Colonial Pipeline hack

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WASHINGTON — Before Colonial Pipeline Co. announced Wednesday it would restart operations, the Biden administration discussed calling in the U.S. military to help.

In the immediate aftermath of the ransomware attack and shutdown of the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., the White House was so concerned about widespread, prolonged gas delivery disruptions and shortages that officials solicited a broad range of options from agencies across the government to try to mitigate the crisis, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

Among the options was the possibility of using the military to assist, including potentially relying on its stockpile of fuel or mobilizing the National Guard, these people said. Ultimately, White House officials concluded they didn’t need to take such steps for now, opting instead for some less drastic measures and setting a deadline of early next week for when they believe the crisis will be largely resolved, the people familiar with the discussions said. The options presented by the Pentagon could be reconsidered if the crisis persists well beyond then or a new threat emerges, they added.

The Colonial Pipeline shutdown was the result of one of the most disruptive cyberattacks in history, halting fuel deliveries along the East Coast and leading to widespread panic buying and empty pumps.

Speaking about the Colonial Pipeline shutdown from the White House this week, President Joe Biden warned it could be several days before gas stations are restocked, saying “It’s not like flicking on a light switch.” He said he expects gas supplies to recover in the next few days. “I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation.”

One senior administration official said there were discussions about deploying the National Guard, but they were never serious.

But one of the people with knowledge of the conversations at the White House said that if this crisis had continued into next week, the military could have been called in to assist.

A motorist peers from his truck as he waits in a line of vehicles queuing up to enter a gasoline station in Durham, North Carolina, on May 12, 2021.Jonathan Drake / Reuters

In a statement, a Pentagon spokesperson said, “The president has not directed the Department of Defense to assist with gas shortages in relation to the Colonial Pipeline shutdown.”

In response to the growing gasoline shortages, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas approved a temporary waiver of the Jones Act, which lifted a restriction that required oil that is moved between U.S. ports to be carried by ships built in the U.S. and staffed by U.S. crews.

“This waiver will help provide for the transport of oil products between the Gulf Coast and East Coast ports to ease oil supply constraints as a result of the interruptions in the operations of the Colonial Pipeline. The decision to approve the waiver was made after careful consideration and consultation with interagency partners across the federal government,” Mayorkas said in a statement.

“Earlier this week, President Biden directed a whole of government response to address the impacts of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. This limited waiver is part of that effort,” the statement said.

Colonial Pipeline operates the country’s largest fuel pipeline, supplying near half of the fuel consumed on the East Coast. The company shut down its operations last Friday after a Russian criminal element known as DarkSide infected their financial networks with ransomware, shutting Colonial out of their own systems and demanding payments to restore access.

Colonial restarted operations five days later, but the disruption caused gasoline outages and price spikes. A U.S. official familiar with the matter tells NBC News that Colonial paid the cyber criminals nearly $5 million in ransom.



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Mississippi Supreme Court overturns voter-approved medical marijuana initiative

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The Mississippi Supreme Court on Friday struck down a medical marijuana initiative that was approved by voters in November — and the ruling is likely to doom other voter initiatives in the state as well.

In a 6-3 ruling, the state’s high court held the medical marijuana initiative that passed with 73 percent of the vote in November had to be struck down because of an odd flaw in the state constitution’s voter initiative process.

Passed in the 1990s, the measure called for a percentage of signatures to come from each of the state’s five congressional districts to get on the ballot. But, the judges noted, the state lost one of those congressional districts thanks to the 2000 U.S. Census, and now only has four districts.

Opponents of the ballot measure argued “that four (the number of districts) multiplied by twenty (the maximum percentage of signatures that may come from any one congressional district) equals only eighty.”

“Therefore, Petitioners assert, it would have been impossible for the petition seeking to place Initiative 65 on the ballot to be properly certified,” the judges noted — and agreed.

“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters” of the provision “wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court,” Justice Josiah Coleman wrote in the majority decision.

Three judges dissented, and said their colleagues effectively did amend the constitution by “stepping completely outside of Mississippi law” in order “to employ an interpretation that not only amends but judicially kills Mississippi’s citizen initiative process.”

“[T]hrough its actions, not only is this particular initiative dead, but so is Mississippi’s citizen initiative process,” Justice James Maxwell wrote in his dissent.

Organizers had hoped to get other initiatives, including one that would require counties to offer a certain number of days of early voting and another for Medicaid expansion, causes not likely to be championed by politicians in the conservative state, on the ballot in 2022.

In his ruling, Coleman noted that state legislators have been aware of the problem with voting initiative provision, section 273, but have failed to fix it.

“From 2003 to 2015, at least six attempts were made by individual legislators to amend section 273 to reflect the new reality of four congressional district. None made it out of committee,” his ruling noted.

The marijuana measure, Initiative 65, was opposed by Gov. Tate Reeves and other top officials.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler filed suit to block it before the election. Butler said she opposed it because it limits a city’s ability to regulate the location of medical marijuana businesses, and told The Associated Press she was happy with the court’s decision.

“Our case was about the constitutional separation of powers,” Butler said in a statement. “The city is pleased that the Supreme Court followed the plain language of the Mississippi Constitution and recognized that, unfortunately, the current voter initiative process is broken.”

The Associated Press contributed.



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