How the Tea Party’s war with Obama left the federal medical stockpile unprepared for coronavirus – ISAAC ARNSDORF – YEGANEH TORBATI APRIL 4, 2020 4:59PM (UTC)

Fiscal cuts imposed by Republicans in Congress during the Obama administration left the U.S. unprepared

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.

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“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.”

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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 reportpublished by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“We recognized the need for replenishment of the stockpile and budgeted about a 10% 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% 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% 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 numerousstatements 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, faceda 5% 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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The gender-fluid history of the Philippines | France Villarta Apr 3, 2020

In much of the world, gender is viewed as binary: man or woman, each assigned characteristics and traits designated by biological sex. But that’s not the case everywhere, says France Villarta. In a talk that’s part cultural love letter, part history lesson, he details the legacy of gender fluidity and inclusivity in his native Philippines — and emphasizes the universal beauty of all people, regardless of society’s labels.

Japan Is Racing to Test a Drug to Treat Covid-19 – JOSHUA HUNT 04.04.2020 07:00 AM

Avigan was originally developed to treat influenza and approved by Japanese regulators in 2014.PHOTOGRAPH: AKIO KON/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

IN LATE FEBRUARY, executives at Fujifilm’s Tokyo headquarters scrambled to coordinate with a team of 100 employees who would be responsible for a task unprecedented in its 86-year history: Japan’s health minister, Katsunobu Kato, had enlisted the camera and imaging company’s help to fight Covid-19. At that point only some 130 people in the country were infected. But a pandemic was in sight.

With the outbreak spreading fast and no vaccine or treatment on the horizon, Kato hoped to find an existing drug that could be used to treat the wave of patients that was sure to come. One candidate was an anti-influenza drug called Avigan, which had been developed decades earlier by the Fujifilm subsidiary Toyama Chemical.

In the weeks that followed, the Fujifilm team managed more than some governments could claim to have done in response to the spread of Covid-19: Working from different offices and factories, members of the group made contingency plans for ramping up production of the drug, advised clinical researchers throughout Japan, and helped get the drug to hospitals where its use had been approved by the government as an emergency measure to treat dozens of Covid-19 patients. On March 28—last Saturday—Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that his government had begun the formal process for designating Avigan as Japan’s standard treatment for Covid-19.

A critical step in that process involves clinical trials, one of which will conclude at the end of June. And while there is not yet any detailed data supporting Avigan’s effectiveness as a Covid-19 treatment, there are some reasons for optimism. One of them arrived on March 17, when Zhang Xinmin, an official at China’s ministry of science and technology, said that Favipiravir, the generic version of Avigan, had proved to be effective in treating Covid-19 patients at hospitals in Wuhan and Shenzhen.

It was, Zhang said, “very safe and clearly effective” for treating Covid-19 patients. And while the data and methodology behind Zhang’s claims have not been made public, he did announce some of the conclusions doctors had drawn from them: At a hospital in Shenzhen, Zhang claimed Covid-19 patients treated with Favipiravir tested negative for the virus after a median of four days, rather than the 11 days it took for members of the study’s control group to test negative; in another study carried out in Wuhan, patients taking the drug allegedly recovered from fever nearly two days earlier than those who did not take the medication.

Such results, preliminary and unconfirmed as they are, would seem to conform with the way Favipiravir works. Unlike most other influenza treatments, which inhibit the spread of the virus across cells by blocking the enzyme neuraminidase, Favipiravir works by inhibiting the replication of viral genes within infected cells, thereby mitigating the virus’s ability to spread from one cell to another.

What this means, in practical terms, is that patients who take the drug while their viral load is low or moderate may prevent it from making them any sicker. And there is some evidence that Favipiravir can achieve these same effects in viruses other than influenza. Prime Minister Abe seems to be among the believers, and last weekend announced that Japan will “start to boost production and proceed with clinical research in cooperation with those countries that wish to join us.” He also said that many countries had already expressed an interest in the drug.

Though Abe did not mention any of those countries by name, one of them seems to be the United States. According to a recent report in Politico, Fujifilm has discussed with the FDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services the possibility of Avigan trials in the US, and it is seeking research funding from the US government. After Abe spoke to President Trump by phone about Avigan, the report says, the White House National Security Council began pressuring the government to accept a donation of Avigan from Japan, and asking the FDA to authorize its use on an emergency basis.

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Why Wisconsin Is Fighting So Hard Over Its Tuesday Primary Akela Lacy April 3 2020, 12:51 p.m.

Daniel Kelly, the incumbent judge appointed in 2016 by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker is facing a liberal challenge in his first election from Dane County Circuit Court Judge and former prosecutor Jill Karofsky. In Wisconsin, Supreme Court justices run in nonpartisan elections for 10-year terms, and conservative judges have held the majority since 2008. They currently hold the court 5 to 2, and a win by Karofsky could pave the way for liberals to retake the court in 2023, when the conservative Chief Justice Pat Roggensack will be up for reelection.

Karofsky, who was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday, is a former assistant attorney general who focused on cases involving domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as a former executive director of the Wisconsin Office of Crime Victim Services. She has spoken about the need for criminal justice reform in the state, while Kelly — who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump — has minimized the need for reform and portrayed Karofsky as “soft on crime.” On Friday, Karofsky filed a lawsuit trying to block the state’s Republican Party from airing ads with false claims about her prosecutorial record.

One of the most consequential decisions delivered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority in recent years was a 2014 ruling upholding a controversial 2011 law that gutted public workers’ collective bargaining rights, a huge blow in a traditionally union-friendly state. The court has ruled againstthe rights of criminal defendants, including a 2017 decision overturning a ruling that had set a precedent for the rights of convicted people to test DNA evidence relevant to their case. In the court’s 2018-2019 term, according to an analysis from Alan Ball, a history professor at Marquette University who runs the blog SCOWStats, the court ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the prosecution in 14 of 16 criminal cases. In another 2017 case, Kelly authored an opinion invalidating a Madison transit agency rule barring people on public buses from carrying concealed firearms.

The Coronavirus CrisisRead Our Complete CoverageThe Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted 15 states to postpone their elections so far. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who initially insisted the election go forward as planned, has moved slowly in response to calls from state Democratic Party leaders and voting rights groups, as well as Sanders, to postpone the election. Former Vice President Joe Biden declined to take a position, saying that it was up to the state. On Thursday, Biden said voting in a polling place was different than “a convention having tens of thousands of people in one arena,” referencing the decision to postpone the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. (The Democratic National Committee announced this week that it would postpone the convention, which was scheduled for July, to the week of August 17.) Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said Wednesday that the state should postpone elections, as called for by local mayors and civil rights groups. The same day, a lawyer representing the state party and the DNC said during a court hearing that both groups supported postponing Tuesday’s election.

Under mounting pressure, Evers on Friday called on the legislature to take up a measure allowing for an all-mail election, asking them to send ballots to all registered voters by May 19 and extend the deadline to receive those ballots to May 26. On Friday, one day after extending absentee voting, a federal judge ruled that Wisconsin could not release election results until April 13, the new deadline for submitting absentee ballots. On Thursday, the judge said that he didn’t have the power to postpone the elections but that it was unsafe to hold voting, criticizing Evers and the state legislature for not acting on their own.


How to Know If You Should Vote in Person

Evers, a Democrat, has been challenged by the state’s Republicans ever since his 2018 election, when, before his swearing-in, the GOP under Walker moved swiftly to strip power from the incoming governor and other Democratic officials.

The governor said in a statement Wednesday that he couldn’t change the election date without violating state law. In response to reports of a massive shortage of poll workers, he agreed this week to have members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard to work polls on Tuesday.

The Democratic Party has made Wisconsin a priority this cycle, as the state’s voters helped Trump win the 2016 presidential election, flipping the state’s electoral college vote red for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s win in 1984.

In addition to postponing Tuesday’s elections, Sanders said the state should also extend early voting and try to move entirely to a vote-by-mail system. “People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote, which is why 15 states are now following the advice of public health experts and delaying their elections,” Sanders said in a statement.

Watch Seven Medieval Castles’ Digital Reconstruction – By Theresa Machemer SMITHSONIANMAG.COM MARCH 31, 2020

Architects and designers restored royal ruins across Europe to their former glory

The COVID-19 pandemic has put millions of people’s travel plans on hold, but thanks to digital technology, anyone with an internet connection can virtually traverse continents, cultures and even time periods.

London-based creative agency NeoMam Studios recently released animated images of seven medieval-era castle ruins digitally restored to their prime. Working on behalf of Australian insurance company Budget Direct, the design team created the images with input from architects who studied old blueprints, paintings and other miscellaneous documents, reports Isaac Schultz for Atlas Obscura. Read on for Smithsonian magazine’s roundup of the resurrected fortresses’ fascinating histories.

Samobor Castle

Samobor Castle was first built in the mid-1200s for Otakar II of Bohemia. (Courtesy of Budget Direct)

The first of the seven is a castle overlooking Samobor, a small town 15 miles outside of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. All that remains of Samobor Castle’s original 13th-century structure are the ruins of the fortress’ guardhouse.

Otakar II of Bohemia built the castle in the mid-1200s while fighting Hungary for control of Styria, a state in modern-day Austria. The king seized Styria in 1260 but proceeded to lose much of his acquired land during the 1270s.

The castle remained in use and was even expanded in the 16th century, but it eventually fell into ruin. The town of Samobor bought the property in 1902, per Mental Floss’ Ellen Gutoskey.

Menlo Castle

Menlo Castle is located off a path near the National University of Ireland, Galway. (Courtesy of Budget Direct)

Menlo Castle in western Ireland was built in the 16th century as an estate for the Blake family of English nobles. Though it wasn’t a military fortress, Menlo was equipped with a cannon for defense—just in case. Tragically, a fire destroyed the historic home in 1910, claiming the life of Eleanor, daughter of Sir Valentine Blake.

Today, the castle’s ruins, located off a trail near the National University of Ireland in Galway, are covered in ivy that makes them easy to miss at first glance. Interested parties can view the estate’s front gates in 3-D via Sketchfab.

Olsztyn Castle

Olsztyn Castle was built in place of a wooden hill fort to better protect the region from armed raiders.
Olsztyn Castle was built in place of a wooden hill fort to better protect the region from armed raiders. (Courtesy of Budget Direct)

The ruins of Olsztyn Castle—including a gothic tower, several white walls and remnants of pillars—sit on a hill overlooking Poland’s Łyna River. Built in the 1300s to protect the region against incursions by armed raiders from Bohemia and Silesia, the fortification was incrementally renovated over time, with additions including an octagonal brick structure erected at the top of the western tower. Swedish forces ransacked the castle during the mid-1600s, and by 1729, workers had partially demolished its ruins in order to use the building materials for construction of a church.

Spiš Castle

A fire in 1780 destroyed the structure, and subsequent neglect led to its ruin. (Courtesy of Budget Direct)

Unesco world heritage site Spiš Castle, originally placed to mark the edge of the Hungarian kingdom, was built in Slovakia during the 12th century. In the mid-1400s, the king gave the castle to brothers Stefan and Imrich Zápolský, who, despite having more than 70 other castles in the family, chose it as their main seat and revived its architecture in the Gothic style. A fire in 1780 destroyed the structure, and subsequent neglect led to its ruin.

Poenari Castle

Poenari Castle was once the clifftop fortress of Vlad the Impaler.
Poenari Castle was once the clifftop fortress of Vlad the Impaler. (Courtesy of Budget Direct)

Poenari Castle sits atop a Romanian cliff at an altitude of more than 2,600 feet. Once the home of Vlad the Impaler, the ruthless 15th-century ruler who inspired fictional vampire Count Dracula, the fortress is partially built into the earth and features a maze of passageways designed to ensure easy escape.

Legend suggests that Vlad spotted the fortress while hunting and recognized its potential. When aristocratic boyars refused to fund the renovations he desired, Vlad forced them to build it personally instead.

Dunnottar Castle

The British government seized Dunnottar from the Keith family in 1715.
The British government seized Dunnottar from the Keith family in 1715. (Courtesy of Budget Direct)

Dunnottar Castle is perhaps best known as the fortress that William Wallace and his Scottish forces reclaimed from English occupation in 1297. But the site’s foundations were first set in Pictish times, or between the fifth and seventh centuries A.D., per the Scottish Field’s Kenny Smith.

The earliest stone structures still standing today were built in the 1300s by Sir William Keith. But the British government seized the castle from the Keiths in 1715, when Earl Marischal George Keith was convicted of treason for taking part in a failed uprising, and in 1717, its new owners, the York Mining Company, removed everything of value from the property.

Château Gaillard

The castle’s name has alternately been translated as “saucy,” “cheeky” and “defiant.
The castle’s name has alternately been translated as “saucy,” “cheeky” and “defiant.”(Courtesy of Budget Direct)

Toward the end of the 12th century, England’s Richard I—also known as Richard the Lionheart—built Château Gaillard in just two years. The castle’s name, Gaillard, has alternately been translated as “saucy,” “cheeky” and “defiant,” as it was built to challenge the French and protect England’s rule over the Duchy of Normandy.

France’s Philip II captured the castle six years after it was built. Following an eight-month siege, French forces collapsed part of the structure and entered the main fortress via its latrines.

The castle changed hands several times throughout the Hundred Years’ War. Left in ruins by the late 1500s, Gaillard was eventually demolished by Henry IV of France, who believed it could be a dangerous rallying point if ever restored.

Luckily, the digital restoration poses no such threat.

A Festival for Black Skiers in Idaho Became a Coronavirus Nightmare – By Dan Frosch and Ian Lovett April 4, 2020 5:30 am ET

The coronavirus hit Ketchum, Idaho, during the annual gathering of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. SAMANTHA ISOM

More than 100 skiers who traveled to celebrate together would ultimately fall ill, likely carrying the virus to their homes around the country

On a Sunday afternoon in the resort community of Ketchum, Idaho, more than 600 African-American skiers paraded into the town square, dancing to Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ For Jamaica.” A DJ shouted the names of dozens of black ski clubs, each sporting matching parkas to signify the different cities from which they hailed.

Several days after the summit ended on March 7, Stephanie Harris anxiously drove her husband to a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., emergency room with a worsening cough and fever. That same week, Ben Finley, one of the group’s founders, was taken to a University of California, Los Angeles, hospital, struggling to breathe. Soon after, Sandy Henderson, president of Black Ski Inc. in Washington, D.C., collapsed on her bathroom floor.

This year’s weeklong gathering of the National Brotherhood of Skiers was supposed to be a celebratory landmark in the group’s 47-year existence: The organization’s two founders were going to become the first African-Americans ever inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame later that month.

More than 600 skiers from the NBS paraded into the Ketchum town square to kick off their annual event.

Photo: Samantha Isom

Instead, more than 100 attendees developed symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Numerous members have tested positive, some have been hospitalized in intensive care, and at least two have died.

“I was not thinking this could happen to me, especially because we were going to Idaho,” said Brian Grimes, who became sick after returning to Chicago from the summit. More than half the members of his Sno-Gophers Ski Club who attended also developed symptoms of coronavirus.

Though attendees had no way of knowing it, the NBS summit happened at the worst possible time, when the virus was whipping around the country but hadn’t yet been detected in most places. Had it been held a week earlier, they might have escaped infection. A week later, the summit might have been canceled.

Counties with the most Covid-19 cases per100,000Source: Johns Hopkins University (cases); U.S.Census (population)Note: Through April 3. Orleans, La., refers to OrleansParish, which is coterminous with New Orleans.Louisiana is by parish.
Blaine, IdahoRockland,N.Y.Westchester,N.Y.Orleans, La.Nassau, N.Y.Suffolk, N.Y.New YorkCitySt. John theBaptist, La.Dougherty,Ga.Orange, N.Y.0 per 100,0005001,0001,5002,000

With tourists shuttling in and out from around the world every day, ski towns throughout the Rockies became deadly way stations for coronavirus last month. Blaine County, Idaho, which includes Ketchum, had the country’s highest rate of coronavirus infection as of Friday, with more than 400 cases in a county of just 23,000.

During this year’s NBS summit, conventions of wilderness doctors and trauma doctors—as well as skiers from Seattle and California, early hot spots of coronavirus—converged on Ketchum and neighboring Sun Valley.

“You have this perfect synergy for the problem we are now seeing,” said Terry O’Connor, Blaine County’s emergency medical services director.

Some in the black ski group have worried they would be blamed for spreading coronavirus in Blaine County. A local newspaper detailed how residents had interacted with summit attendees before coming down with Covid-19, which members felt unfairly singled them out.

Last week, the organization posted an open letter on Facebook, signed by its president and the mayors of Ketchum and neighboring Sun Valley, saying any accusations that they had brought the virus to Idaho were baseless.

“I don’t know how we got it. I know we didn’t bring it,” Henri Rivers, the president of NBS, said.

NBS co-founders Art Clay, left, and Ben Finley at the Idaho summit in March. Mr. Finley later tested positive for coronavirus.

Photo: Samantha Isom

NBS summits have been landmark events for black skiers since 1973, when the first one was held in Aspen, Colo. Mr. Finley, an aerospace engineer who helped organize that first summit, said the National Guard was put on alert before the group’s arrival, anticipating trouble.

Within a few years, resorts were competing for NBS’s business, though skiers still occasionally got quizzical looks on the mountain. Conference registration fees go toward helping young black skiers and snowboarders develop, with the goal of getting one onto the U.S. Olympic team.

After arriving for this year’s summit, members took photos and exchanged stories about children and grandchildren at a welcome party on Feb. 29. Gary Garrett, a 6’5” retired fire captain from Stockton, Calif., had been waiting for the summit all year.

“This group was as important to him as being a firefighter,” his wife, Elena King-Garrett, said. “They are like brothers and sisters.”

After the parade on Sunday, NBS members crowded into a local bar, Whiskey Jacques’ , where a DJ played old school funk and the latest line dance hits. It would be nearly two weeks before public-health officials began pushing social distancing across the country.

“It was packed,” said Miles Maxey, a 65-year-old retired technical expert forGeneral Motors who had come from Detroit with about 60 others from the Jim Dandy Ski Club. “Townspeople were coming and hugging us, saying ‘thanks for coming.’”

Ski and snowboard races began Tuesday. Wednesday, the group picnicked on the mountain. Thursday was game night. Friday, a trophy was presented to the Jim Dandys, who won the most races. DJ Jazzy Jeff, the hip-hop artist who worked with Will Smith, played a set that night at Whiskey Jacques’.

Mark Toliver, tending to his skis in Idaho, struggled for three days to get tested for coronavirus.

Near the end of the week, Ms. Harris’s husband, Mark Toliver, a retired FedEx IT worker, felt unusually tired, at one point returning to his room for a three-hour nap. Others recalled their bodies aching more than usual. But they chalked it up to the skiing, the partying and the altitude.

“We were talking about it when we were out there,” Ms. Harris said of the virus. “But we were talking about it as if it was not there.”

When Mr. Grimes got home to Chicago on March 7, he collapsed into bed, where he spent the next three days with chills and body aches, his sense of smell gone. Then texts began coming in from club members. Others were sick, too.

In Florida, Mr. Toliver was feverish on March 9, and had drenched his sheets with sweat. His wife, Ms. Harris, spent the next three days struggling to get him tested for coronavirus.


Did you take part in any large gatherings before anyone knew how far the virus had reached? What has been the result? Join the conversation below.

“Somebody has to help me. I will call 911, I don’t care. But somebody needs to help me,” she said she told an emergency room receptionist at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale before driving her husband there. Mr. Toliver was ultimately placed in isolation and diagnosed with pneumonia in his left lung; he tested positive for the virus.

Ms. Harris emailed their ski club’s president, Ms. Henderson, on March 18, telling her Mr. Toliver had Covid-19. Ms. Henderson wished them a speedy recovery.

But Ms. Henderson and her partner hadn’t been feeling well themselves. The next day while brushing her teeth, Ms. Henderson fainted. The morning of March 20, barely able to walk, she drove them both 20 minutes to a hospital in Greenbelt, Md. The couple tested positive for Covid-19 and were placed in separate critical-care rooms.

Members of the Jim Dandy Ski Club at the event’s opening ceremony.

“It was like somebody had taken a lemon and just squeezed every single ounce of liquid out,” Ms. Henderson said of how she felt.

In Stockton, Mr. Garrett was hospitalized for 10 days, including two in the ICU.

In all, at least one in six people who attended the black ski summit came down with symptoms consistent with coronavirus, according to organizers.

Back in Blaine County, Idaho, meanwhile, local officials were dealing with their own outbreak at the same time NBS attendees were getting sick.

On March 12, St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum had its first patient test positive for coronavirus, according to Dr. O’Connor, the county emergency medical services director, who works at the hospital.

Over the next few weeks, the emergency room saw dozens of coronavirus cases. Nearly 25 percent of the hospital staff have spent time in quarantine, and two emergency room doctors have tested positive. Two county residents have died from Covid-19.

Sun Valley ski resort closed March 15. Hotels are closed, except those offering rooms to health-care workers. The roads in Ketchum are “deathly quiet,” said Mayor Neil Bradshaw, who gave a speech welcoming NBS to town just a few weeks ago.

Many of the NBS skiers now are in the process of recovering—both physically and from the shock that their week of celebration had turned tragic.

DJ Jazzy Jeff’s Instagram post. He had performed at Whiskey Jacques’ in Ketchum.

Mr. Finley, the 81-year-old NBS co-founder, was released from the UCLA medical center, after testing positive for coronavirus and spending three days in the ICU. His hall of fame induction ceremony, previously set for late March, has been delayed to December.

Mr. Toliver got better after about two weeks of illness, his wife said.

DJ Jazzy Jeff posted on Instagram on Monday that he was recovering from pneumonia in both lungs and had lost his senses of smell and taste, a hallmark of coronavirus.

Ms. Henderson, who has since recovered with her partner, said hearing about so many fellow black skiers from NBS falling ill felt as if the virus had struck her family. Walking around Washington, D.C., other black people often react with surprise when she tells them she skis. But on the mountain, at the summit, she is home.

“If someone had told me one of those days I was out there that I would come back to this, I would never have believed it,” she said.

On Monday, a skier who attended the summit, from the Blade Runners Ski Club in the Los Angeles area, died from the virus, his club announced. Two days later, the son of another skier who was stricken with Covid-19 posted an update on Facebook. His father had died.