December 21, 2021 - PBS NewsHour full episode
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December 21, 2021 - PBS NewsHour full episode
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12/21/2021 | 56m 43s | Video has closed captioning.
December 21, 2021 - PBS NewsHour full episode
Problems Playing Video? | Closed Captioning
JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening.
I'm Judy Woodruff.
On the "NewsHour" tonight: fighting COVID.
The president announces plans to ship free COVID tests to millions of Americans and orders military medical personnel to help hospitals expecting a surge in patients.
Then: high stakes.
Democrats face an uncertain future, as their legislative priorities languish in a gridlocked Congress.
And the next stage.
One of the country's leading Black theater companies gives voice to racial equity issues through art.
LOU BELLAMY, Founder, Penumbra Theatre: These are not characters that are distant from us.
They are our parents.
They are our cousins.
We're a professional theater inside of a community.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All that and more on tonight's "PBS NewsHour."
(BREAK) JUDY WOODRUFF: President Biden is out tonight with new plans and new appeals to control COVID-19.
He spelled them out as the new Omicron variant sweeps largely unchecked across the country.
White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: President Biden's message was direct: Omicron is a clear and present danger, and the nation must act.
JOE BIDEN, President of the United States: We should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: At the White House, he laid out new measures that his administration is taking to combat a winter surge of coronavirus cases.
JOE BIDEN: Three weeks ago, I laid out a COVID-19 action plan for this winter that prepared us for this moment.
Today, we're making the plan even stronger.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Notably, the government plans to buy a half-a-billion at-home rapid test kits and mail them directly to Americans who request them.
The president said the free kits will be available to order in January.
And to cut down on long lines, President Biden announced new federal testing sites across the country.
The first one, in New York City, will open before Christmas.
Today, he defended his actions on testing.
Mr. President, what's your message to Americans who are trying to get tested now and who are not able to get tested and who are wondering what took so long to ramp up testing?
JOE BIDEN: It didn't take long at all.
What happened was, the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought.
If I had told you four weeks ago that this would spread by -- on a day-to-day basis, it would spread by 50, 100 percent, 200 percent, 500 percent, I think you would have looked at me and said, Biden, what are you drinking?
But that's what it did.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Other plans include deploying 1,000 military doctors, nurses and medics to hospitals under the most stress, adding pop-up vaccination clinics across the country, allowing surge pharmacy teams to easily move between states, and sending out ambulances and emergency medical teams to transport patients.
One point the president reiterated is that the federal government will not reimpose lockdowns.
JOE BIDEN: Another question that folks are asking is, are we going back to March 2020?
The answer is absolutely no.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Overnight, the White House confirmed President Biden himself had come into close contact with an aide who later tested positive.
The president has thus far tested negative and will take another test tomorrow.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are now having the same experience, as Omicron has officially surpassed Delta to become the dominant variant in the U.S.
In just the last week, Omicron's share of infections has increased sixfold.
The CDC estimates it accounts for 90 percent of new infections in the New York area, plus the Southeast, industrial Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
Being fully vaccinated and, especially with Omicron, having a booster, is the best way to remain protected.
In New York today, officials announced a new enticement.
BILL DE BLASIO (D), Mayor of New York: Get your booster shot,get $100 incentive.
It's going to make you feel a lot safer, a lot better that you got the booster, and you will have some more cash in your pocket.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And other holiday plans, for a second year, are changing.
A New Year's Eve party that was supposed to take place in Los Angeles' Grand Park will no longer have an in-person audience.
Sports are also adapting.
The National Hockey League has halted all games through Saturday, and announced its players will not take part in the Winter Olympics in China.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the president's plan to combat the Omicron variant, I spoke moments ago with Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
She is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Walensky, thank you very much for joining us again.
The president announced a number of moves today, but we also know Omicron is said to be spreading like wildfire across the country.
Are these steps going to come soon enough to blunt its impact?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC Director: You know, I know people are concerned that things are moving quickly, so let me step back and sort of tell you where we are.
So, we have announced today that we have about 73 percent of cases now are projected to be Omicron.
And we anticipated this because this is what we have been seeing, this rapid rate of rise in other countries.
And what the president announced today is really all of the preparation and work that we're doing right now to address what we're anticipating with the Omicron variant here.
So, increasing support for hospitals, increasing access to testing, increasing capacity to do vaccinations.
And what I really want to emphasize in this moment is that we have the tools we need to address the Omicron variant.
And those tools include what we have been saying.
You really do need to get vaccinated.
If you're eligible, you really do need to get boosted.
And you need to practice all of those prevention measures, including wearing a mask in public indoor settings, even if you're vaccinated and boosted.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Dr. Walensky, with regard to testing, I know 500 million sounds like a lot of tests, but there are 330 million Americans.
Who's going to be first in line?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Yes, this is a really important question.
The government is working together to do a lot in testing.
And we know we have more work to do, so, 500 million rapid at-home tests, but also 20,000 PCR sites are available now to do PCRs.
And we are actually ramping up and doing more federal testing sites.
And we're targeting those testing sites even right now in places that have increased demand.
And then, of course, as you noted, 500 million more rapid tests to be distributed to those who have had less access to testing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: As you know, there are questions being raised about whether testing was ramped up quickly enough.
We see what you're doing today.
The president said Omicron has come on so fast that it wasn't anticipated.
But there are people out there, there are critics who were saying the administration has known for months that there was going to be a need for more testing, and you should have done more, the administration should have done more sooner.
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Yes, and we have been ramping up that supply.
We have now eight FDA-approved -- well, eight FDA-approved at-home tests now available, and five more that have been authorized and are on the way.
Increasing accessibility to PCR testing, as well as these rapid testing, is a key part of what we're doing right now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, was the administration caught off-guard?
I heard you say a moment ago you knew this was coming.
But then the president said today that Omicron has come faster than anyone realized.
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Right, really important question.
We heard about Omicron in the last weeks of November, and since that time, we have been following carefully with our colleagues and other countries.
In those places, we have seen doubling times of this virus in a 1.5-to-three-day rate.
And with those doubling times, we anticipated that we would be seeing this kind of increase from 3 percent of cases to 73 percent of cases in around this period of time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you're saying you knew this was coming?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We have been following carefully the science, and we have been working hard as we anticipated this, because we knew Omicron had this capacity to increase at this rate.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about booster shots, Dr. Walensky.
We know people are advised to get them at the appropriate time.
But we're hearing from respected scientist Dr. Peter Hotez, who's a virologist.
I believe you know him.
He said today that people should look at getting another booster shot if it's been three months since their first Pfizer booster, in other words, a fourth -- a fourth shot.
What is the CDC saying about this?
What's the recommendation?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Yes, we currently don't have any data on that approach.
And that is not our current recommendation.
But let me tell you about our current recommendation, which really is to make sure that you have those two shots of your mRNA, your Moderna or your Pfizer vaccine, and if you are eligible, six months out, to get your booster shot.
What we know now is that, if you're unvaccinated, you have a 20 times' increased risk of death, compared to people who are actually boosted, a 10 times' increased rate of being a case if you're unvaccinated compared to if you're boosted, which is why right now, at this moment, with a variant that has so many mutations that really does need that extra layer of protection, now is really the time to go out and get your booster shot, especially for those who are more vulnerable, our older populations.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is the CDC looking at this question of fourth shot?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: So, we're working with pharmaceutical agencies, and we're also working with FDA.
And we haven't seen any data yet.
What we do know is, all the preliminary data suggests that, with your booster shot, that you are protected very well from severe disease and death even against the Omicron variant, which is why it's so important right now to get your booster shot.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And another -- and a question about masking.
We know the administration is recommending wearing masks in -- wherever there's a congregate setting and people who you don't know whether they're vaccinated.
But we also know that the N95 mask is considered safer.
Is the administration -- should the administration - - are you looking at whether you should be recommending that people N95s regularly, rather than just a typical surgical mask, which is what so many Americans are doing?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Yes, we want to make sure that people have access to really well-fitting masks.
Our guidance very much articulates that you need to have a mask that is well-fitting, snugly fit, that if -- it is two layers of cotton, at least, and that you often have a wire bridge around your nose to keep that snug fit.
If people want extra layers of protection, the KN95 or N95s do offer that.
But what I also want to really emphasize is that you need to be able to keep them on for -- when you're in those settings.
Those KN95 and N95s are often not as comfortable.
So, if you're going to take it off, the really important thing to do is make sure you're masking the entire time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Dr. Walensky, the president today emphasized again and again - - and you just have now -- to people who are not vaccinated to get vaccinated.
But we also know that something like 30 percent of all Americans still are not vaccinated, after the administration basically putting out this message day after day since the -- for the past year.
Do you see any evidence that this message is getting through?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We're working one person at a time, one vaccine at a time, one community at a time.
We certainly know that now, in our hospitals, the vast majority of people who are in them are unvaccinated people.
And our job is now the hard work of rolling up our sleeves and speaking to communities, speaking to individuals.
I have done so personally, and I will continue to do so to get the message out.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that's working?
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I consider every person that we vaccinate a success.
So, yes, one at a time it's working, and it's working slowly, but it's working.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who's the director of the Centers for Disease Control, thank you very much.
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In the day's other news: The pandemic has pushed U.S. population growth to its lowest rate since the country's founding.
The Census Bureau reports fewer than 400,000 people were added in the 12 months ending in July.
That's just a 10th of 1 percent.
Besides the death that it caused,the pandemic has curtailed immigration and it has delayed pregnancies.
President Biden voiced hope today that he can salvage his sweeping Build Back Better initiative.
He said he holds no grudges against Democratic Senator Joe Manchin for opposing the bill, which, in effect, dooms its chances in the evenly divided Senate.
But the president said today -- quote -- "Senator Manchin and I are going to get something done."
Republican Representative Scott Perry is refusing to cooperate with a U.S. House committee investigating January's assault on the Capitol.
The Pennsylvania congressman tweeted today that -- quote -- "This entity is illegitimate and not duly constituted."
The committee must now consider whether to subpoena a sitting member of Congress.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin blamed the West today for growing tensions in Eastern Europe and renewed his demands for security guarantees.
He spoke to his top military brass, defending a Russian troop buildup along Ukraine's border and complaining of NATO deployments in the region.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through translator): What they do now on Ukraine's territory, or they try to do, is happening at our gates.
That leaves us nowhere to retreat.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Putin insisted again that Russia wants legally binding security guarantees, and not just verbal promises.
In Afghanistan, hundreds of people marched to the closed U.S. Embassy to demand that the country's assets be unfrozen.
Billions of dollars in funds held abroad were blocked after the Taliban seized power last August.
International aid is also suspended, and aid groups are warning of humanitarian disaster.
Back in this country, federal prison inmates who were sent home last year due to the pandemic will not be returned to prison when the emergency ends.
The U.S. Justice Department announced the policy change today.
Criminal justice advocates argued for allowing inmates convicted of low-level crimes to continue in home confinement.
Global insurance claims for weather damage this year will top $105 billion after this month's U.S. tornadoes.
Reuters reports that it's the fourth highest total on record.
Insurance experts say the increase will also mean higher premiums.
Nearly 1,400 Kellogg employees have ratified a new contract, ending a strike of more than two months.
The cereal-maker said today that the five-year agreement includes cost-of-living adjustments and improved wages and benefits.
At one point, Kellogg threatened to bring in permanent replacements.
And on Wall Street, stocks stormed back from Monday's losses.
Major indexes gained 1.5 to nearly 2.5 percent.
The Dow Jones industrial average gained 560 points to close at 35492.
The Nasdaq rose 360 points.
The S&P 500 added 81.
Still to come on the "NewsHour": Europeans push back against restrictions amid yet another wave of COVID infections; Senator Tammy Duckworth discusses the air travel challenges faced by Americans with disabilities; one of the country's leading Black theater companies gives voice to racial equity issues; plus much more.
The search is on among congressional Democrats for a way to revive the Build Back Better legislative agenda, after Senator Joe Manchin said he would not support the bill in its current form.
Since Republicans have opposed the legislation from the start, Democrats will have to decide among themselves what parts of the Build Back Better plan can survive.
Joining us now is Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington state.
She is chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition in the House.
Congresswoman DelBene, thank you very much for joining us.
We know that Build Back Better has been a priority of President Biden from the beginning.
Now we know it's not going to pass this year.
Some people think it's dead.
What do you think?
REP. SUZAN DELBENE (D-WA): I think we need to find a way forward.
Our country faces too many challenges now.
And the cost of inaction is too high.
I think there are ways we can find a path to work together, and we're pushing to do that, and that's part of what our coalition is working on right now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how do you see it getting restarted after what's -- I mean, this has been months and months and months, and then to come up short here at the end of December.
How do you see it getting restarted?
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: Well, one thing we have always talked about is making sure we are focused, focused on doing things well for longer, and really picking what our top priorities are.
That's important because we want to make sure we have long-term, durable policy, and that folks understand the importance of what we have done in the Build Back Better Act.
So I think, as we make sure we look at how we focus, that's a potential path forward, because Americans want to see governance work.
They want to see us get things done, and we don't help anyone if we don't get legislation across the finish line.
So that's the work we need to do, focus, make sure we have strong, durable policy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's talk about some specifics.
I mean, there's been a lot of discussion around the child tax credit.
And we know this is something you have supported.
This is a bill, as it's now written, would provide something like $3,600 per child under the age of six, $3,000 for older children.
It would lift four million American children above the poverty line.
But Senator Manchin, the Republicans say the cost is too high.
Some are talking about reducing those numbers to something like $3,000 and $2,500, keeping it refundable for the poorest of Americans, but cutting the household income eligibility level to below $400,000 a year.
Is that something you would support?
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: Well, first of all, I think the child tax credit, the expanded child tax credit that we put in place in the American Rescue Plan, has already proven to have an incredible impact across the country, 3.8 million children lifted out of poverty since checks started going out in July.
Over three million families talking about being able to put food on the table, the families being able to afford to buy diapers, pay their bills, pay for housing, families talking about being able to go to work now that they have been able to afford child care.
This is critically important.
And I highlight that because this isn't a concept.
It's actually working right now and has been working since checks started in July.
So we need to keep it going.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But we know Senator Manchin said he cannot support child tax credit in that form.
And so my question is, are you looking at something that's either like what I described a moment ago or something similar to that?
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: Well, I think these are the ongoing talks that we're having, because this is so important, because the data is so strong.
He's talked about helping families address inflation.
The child tax credit helps families do just that.
We do get a great return on our investment, if you look at just the fiscal impact of the legislation.
And you talked about refundability, making sure that the families who need it most are getting access to that credit.
That would go away at the end of this year if we don't keep it going.
But I also think one thing that Senator Manchin mentioned was the length of the -- making sure we have long-term policy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: I think that -- I agree, and I think there's more we can do there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you name one or two programs that you think you could afford to drop out of this package for now and come back to them later?
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: Well, I'm the chair of the New Democrat Coalition.
We came out with our priorities in the very beginning, because we talked about numbers or process, but, really, what matters is, what's the substance of the bill?
Our priorities were the child tax credit, making sure we are -- have a large investment in fighting climate, and making sure that we deep the Affordable Care Act premium subsidies in place and address the coverage gap.
Those are three things right there that are top priorities.
Are there other things we can do?
But I think it's important for folks to come to the table and say what those top priorities are, so we can focus.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know that hasn't always been the case.
The White House, in reacting to what Senator Manchin said on Sunday when he announced he couldn't vote for it, their response was pretty sharply worded.
They called it a breach of his commitment.
Do you think that was a mistake?
Do you think that harms their ability to work with Senator Manchin in the 50/50 Senate, someone they're going to need for this and other issues?
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: When we talk about actually getting things done, which is what's so critical here, we need 218 votes in the House and we need 50 votes in the Senate.
That's what it takes.
So every one of those votes is critically important.
And to find that path forward means bringing folks together to gain that support.
That has to be our focus.
And we understand that that's going to be critical, because, again, we don't help anybody if we don't get policy done.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You think this can be done in January?
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: Well, I think that we have the opportunity to work together, to talk, to work specifically through issues.
But it's too important and too critical for our country, for families, for our communities.
I'm disappointed the child tax credit is expiring at the end of this year, and I would rather not see any type of gap in terms of checks going out.
But we got to make this happen.
So, we're at the table coming up with ideas to bring folks together and are going to keep pushing forward.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Suzan DelBene of Washington state, thank you very much.
We appreciate your joining us.
REP. SUZAN DELBENE: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Governments across Europe are scrambling to slow the spread of Omicron in countries that were already suffering major winter surges.
In the Netherlands, a full lockdown has been ordered, and, in neighboring Germany, citizens are being told to cancel big New Year's Eve parties.
But, in many places, authorities are being met with growing pushback, as fatigue and frustration over restrictions take an increasing toll.
From Berlin, special correspondent Trent Murray reports.
TRENT MURRAY: Winter has come early across much of Northern Europe, a pre-Christmas cold snap giving the German capital its first dusting of snow.
But while the temperatures are falling, concerns over COVID are once again rising.
With a resurgence of the virus showing little sign of slowing down, the threat of even tighter restrictions looms large here, as lawmakers grapple with how to untangle Germany from this latest health crisis.
Restrictions are unpopular amongst increasingly vocal groups across Europe, and anti-restriction protests are becoming more frequent, often in response to announcements about a renewal of pandemic-related rules.
Often described as Germany's answer to America's Dr. Anthony Fauci, epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach has now been appointed health minister by new Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
He's long been a vocal supporter of deploying tougher rules to fight the pandemic, and, with his new ministerial powers, has wasted little time putting those calls into action, pushing mandatory vaccination orders for medical workers through Parliament.
DR. KARL LAUTERBACH, German Health Minister (through translator): At the end of the second year of this pandemic, it is in no way acceptable, it is in no way acceptable that people who have entrusted their care to staff are dying unnecessarily in institutions because unvaccinated people work there.
We cannot accept this.
We will end it with this law.
(APPLAUSE) TRENT MURRAY: The partial mandate comes as the government prepares to introduce a much larger mandate next year, one that would require most of the population to get their shots.
It's a controversial decision that has left many Germans uneasy.
Jacob Kirkegaard is a senior analyst with the German Marshall Fund and says lawmakers are aware of the historical sensitivities of mandates, given some of the population's previous experience of state surveillance in the former communist East Germany.
JACOB KIRKEGAARD, German Marshall Fund: Not just about being vaccinated, having something stuck -- a needle stuck in your shoulder, but telling the government that you're not vaccinated.
There are obvious historical reasons for that.
TRENT MURRAY: While check-in apps, medical masks and vaccine passports have become part of daily life for millions of Europeans, other less visible regulations are also having far-reaching consequences.
Felipe Andre Lima is a Berlin-based music artist who makes a living performing around busy train stations.
But with transit authorities no longer issuing music permits because of the pandemic, he says he now has to be careful about where he chooses to perform.
FELIPE ANDRE LIMA, Musician: Authorities, they come -- sometimes, they come in a hard-core way, like really bad.
Like, where are your papers and things?
Sometimes, you play one eye looking to the people and the other eye looking if the police or something coming, you know?
TRENT MURRAY: And he's not the only one adjusting to strict rules on public transport.
New regulations require train and subway passengers to carry their COVID passes with them, indicating they have either been vaccinated, recently tested or previously infected.
Berlin Metro Authority spokesperson Jannes Schwentu, says security staff are monitoring compliance.
JANNES SCHWENTU, Berlin Metro Authority: For a couple of weeks now, we have had daily big controls at certain stations where everybody who is leaving a train or entering on a train is being asked to provide their certificate.
TRENT MURRAY: But some rights advocates argue the enforcement action is going too far, especially new regulations which force homeless people to provide a COVID pass if they are found to be sleeping inside subway stations.
JANNES SCHWENTU: We call for help.
We give them advice on where they could get maybe a test or a vaccination.
Some of them are vaccinated and tested.
And I said we will not kick anybody out, especially not in weather like this.
TRENT MURRAY: These difficult conversations about compliance concerns are now really happening right across Europe, as lawmakers grapple with striking a balance between convincing people to do the right thing and compelling them through enforcement orders.
But even in places where authorities have been more bullish in lifting restrictions sooner, the arrival of the Omicron variant is now causing a rethink.
Having abolished most COVID restrictions over the summer in a move dubbed Freedom Day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now backtracked, implementing his Plan B, which includes work-from-home directives and the limited use of vaccine passports.
But having given people a taste of so-called freedom, he is now facing some public pushback.
William Wragg chairs Parliament's powerful Constitutional Affairs Committee.
He's now broken ranks to voice concerns over the backflip.
WILLIAM WRAGG, British Parliament Member: From my perspective, the government's main challenge is to wait and see slightly how this situation evolves before overreacting to it.
TRENT MURRAY: Across Europe, health experts continue to plead for more patience, both from politicians and the public.
They say that if the hospital system can just withstand an expected winter surge, the new year should bring with it more medical countermeasures to support the fight against COVID-19, including antiviral medication and a variety of new vaccines.
But, in the meantime, the yo-yo effect of on-again/off-again social restrictions looks likely to remain, as authorities try to remind people that the pandemic is far from over, a message they hope isn't lost on a lockdown-weary public.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Trent Murray in Berlin.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Millions of Americans are traveling this week for the holidays.
But for passengers with disabilities, the challenges and problems of air travel can be significantly heightened.
People continue to report embarrassing security pat-downs, damaged and even lost mobility devices.
In July alone, there were 834 reported incidents of damaged wheelchairs or scooters, an average of 28 a day.
We're going to look at this tonight, beginning with some individual voices.
DR. OLUWAFERANMI OKANLAMI, University of Michigan: I am Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami.
I am the director of student accessibility and accommodation services at the University of Michigan.
I experienced a spinal cord injury in my third year of orthopedic surgery residency, which then left me paralyzed from my chest down with minimal use of my upper extremities.
MARY COREY MARCH, California: My name is Corey March.
And I have ME/CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome I can't actually sit upright for very long, so I'm in a reclining wheelchair that's like at this -- at this kind of angle, which makes it harder to get a loaner or replacement.
FLETCHER CLEAVES, Tennessee: My name is Fletcher Cleaves.
And my formal title is the Wheelchair Nomad.
I am a incomplete quadriplegic, C5-C6 vertebrae spinal cord injury.
I use a wheelchair 24/7.
ANDREA DALZELL, New York: My name is Andrea Dalzell, and I have transverse myelitis that caused me to be a wheelchair user from the age of 12 years old.
CHARLES BROWN, National President, Paralyzed Veterans of America: I'm Charles Brown.
I'm the national president for Paralyzed Veterans of America.
I was injured in 1986 in a diving injury while serving at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
You probably can't see it, but I'm in a power chair.
I am a quadriplegic, and I have been in a wheelchair for 35 years now.
DR. OLUWAFERANMI OKANLAMI: I'm afraid to say that I have not had probably any trips that I have gone on that have not resulted in some damage to my manual frame wheelchair.
FLETCHER CLEAVES: I was missing the back of my wheelchair.
You can see right here it was completely gone.
And I was like, excuse me.
This chair is not the condition I gave it to you in.
ANDREA DALZELL: I was on my way home from Florida.
Looking out of the window, I saw my chair sitting to the side of the steps of the gate.
And I'm like, OK, they will come get it.
And all of a sudden, I feel the plane move back.
I see the gate starting to move away.
And my chair is still sitting outside on the tarmac.
And I'm, like, pressing the stewardess button.
And she comes to me, and she's like: Can I help you?
We're about to take off."
And I'm like: "My legs are outside.
My legs are outside."
CHARLES BROWN: I have had several injuries, and I have had quite a few damaged wheelchairs over my time with traveling.
And it's not just me.
It's many people across the nation that suffer through this process.
MARY COREY MARCH: So, in the first year, my chair was damaged about four times.
I have since learned better ways of protecting my chair.
And part of what I do is, I put like a plea on my chair to the baggage handlers that say: "This chair gives me my life back."
FLETCHER CLEAVES: When airlines start getting fined and start losing money, that's when they typically tend to care, or getting negative exposure and negative press.
MARY COREY MARCH: In my case, it would be nice to have a dispensation like to pay for a regular ticket and be able to get the seat that functions for me, and to have some kind of penalty for the ground crews or some kind of penalty on the airline if they break a chair.
DR. OLUWAFERANMI OKANLAMI: People don't think that this is a serious concern and it's just a matter of finding space to put your wheelchair, like not having enough space for your luggage in the airplane.
They miss the fact that this is individuals' lives that are at stake.
CHARLES BROWN: I can tell you that, for a lot of people, air travel becomes a situation where they choose not to do it to prevent damage to their chairs or even their bodies.
ANDREA DALZELL: Congress needs to understand that these devices are not as easy as just going to your local Walgreens and picking up a wheelchair.
These devices are literally tailored for every single individual, and then making sure that each airline is held accountable and enforcing that they have the training and the educational resources that they need to be able to handle these devices.
JUDY WOODRUFF: These are just some of hundreds of stories that are almost exactly like what you just heard.
For more about the challenges and what can be done, I spoke recently with U.S.
Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois.
She's introduced legislation that would hold airlines accountable when a wheelchair is damaged, as well as improve traveling conditions for passengers with disabilities.
Senator Duckworth, thank you very much for joining us.
These stories we're hearing from travelers are just terrible.
How typical are they?
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-IL): They are very, very typical.
I probably see damage to my own wheelchair about every third flight that I take, so it is fairly frequent.
And imagine if it was a human being, somebody's leg.
Like, we were to say that, every third flight you took, the airlines broke your leg.
The response would be -- just people would be absolutely appalled.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator, this is on top of all the other issues that travelers with disabilities have to deal with in the first place.
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Yes.
Well, they are just general access issues.
A lot of the flights we're on, most people don't realize the bathrooms are not accessible.
A lot of the places, when you're on a smaller aircraft, the terminals are not even accessible.
And then to -- once you get on a flight, to, on the other end, have your wheelchair come back to you partially broken, or even completely broken, so that it was unusable, it's really devastating to a person who is trying to get on with their lives, whether they're working or traveling for leisure.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Explained to us, Senator Duckworth, what is the responsibility of the airlines right now to passengers with disabilities?
And what more do you think needs to be done to change that?
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, their only responsibility is to provide you access to get on the aircraft and to handle your wheelchair and not charge you extra baggage fees for handling your wheelchair.
But it should be so much more than that, because, right now, medical devices like wheelchairs or walkers are treated as luggage, when they're really complex devices.
My wheelchair are my legs.
You break my wheelchair, you have broken my legs, I can't get around, I can't move.
And so we really need to get the airlines to treat our medical devices as if they were part of our bodies and treat them not as just another piece of luggage to be tossed on top of a pile of other luggage, and who cares if it gets slightly damaged?
Well, I care.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, specifically, what would you be asking the airlines to do that they're not doing now?
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, I would ask the airlines to do specific training.
Right now, their baggage handlers don't get specific trainings on how to handle medical devices.
They don't have access on the aircraft itself.
This Air Carrier Access Amendment Act that I recently filed with Senator Baldwin would actually strengthen enforcement and would allow, for example, removal of access barriers on existing airplanes, would require new airplanes as they're being designed and put into the fleet to be -- to accommodate people with disabilities.
It would provide a provision so that there could be civil penalties for violations, which currently do not exist.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator, I mean, I have seen firsthand some of what you're speaking about.
I happen to have a grown son with disabilities who uses a chair.
When you have raised this with the airlines, had conversations with them, what do they say in response?
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: It's a range of things.
One of the things I hear a lot is, oh, that's not us that's handling it.
Those baggage carriers are contractors.
You need to go talk to the contracting company.
And I say, well, they're your contractors, so you -- it needs to be part of your contract that the people who handle the wheelchairs are trained.
And also the people who have the contract to help put you in an aisle chair and move you down the aisle and seated into an airplane, those folks need to be properly trained for how to handle a person with a disability without hurting them and harming them.
Then, some airlines have actually tried to do better.
They're trying to train their handlers.
And I will tell you that, until we passed the law in 2018, they really weren't doing much.
But now they actually have to report how many wheelchairs they damage every month, you see them trying to do better, but it's still nowhere near enough.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I see also one of the arguments I have made is that airplanes are not designed and gates are not designed to carry some of the heavy equipment.
They're pointing out the motorized wheelchairs, some of them can weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds.
And they're saying they're just not equipped to handle this kind of machinery.
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, that's why the Air Carrier Access Amendment addresses this issue, which will require that new airplanes are designed to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities, to include these wheelchairs.
And, yes, I can see in the past that airplanes that are in existence now were not designed that way.
But, moving forward, they -- if you're going to use that airplane for commercial - - to commercially carry people, then you need to be wheelchair-accessible.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think the prospects are, Senator, for the for the legislation that you're proposing?
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, I don't know it's going to pass on the first go-round.
I'm going to try as hard as I can.
But, also, the Wheelchair Rule Act, it took a couple years, but we were able to pass that.
I think just by nature of me introducing this legislation is putting the airlines on notice.
And I'm going to keep working on this until we do pass it, because we are in this country facing an aging of our population with the demographics of baby boomers, who are going to increasingly need more medical devices.
It's in the airlines' best interest to make sure that they're accessible to all.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, thank you very much for joining us.
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In the months since the police killing of George Floyd, cultural institutions nationwide have grappled with their identities and missions.
But for one theater just miles from the site of Floyd's murder, that reexamination began long before May of 2020.
Jeffrey Brown has this story, part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
JEFFREY BROWN: At the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity" has become a holiday season staple, performed here nearly every year for decades.
It was the opening show of the 45th season at Penumbra, one of the nation's largest and most renowned Black theater companies.
LOU BELLAMY, Founder, Penumbra Theatre: I wanted to provide a space where we could still plumb the human condition, but do it through the African American experience.
JEFFREY BROWN: Director Lou Bellamy founded Penumbra in 1976.
He's since handed the reins to his daughter Sarah.
Early on, he says, there were few opportunities for African Americans on stage.
You weren't seeing enough opportunities both for actors and directors and writers, but you also weren't seeing the stories.
LOU BELLAMY: That's the most important thing, the stories.
These are not characters that are distant from us.
They are our parents.
They are our cousins.
We're a professional theater inside of a community.
JEFFREY BROWN: Over the past 45 years, Penumbra has cemented its reputation, annually putting on well over 100 performances, discussions, film screenings and other events for more than 25,000 people.
LOU BELLAMY: We're responsible to these people.
I live next door to them.
When I do something on stage, they will tell me about it when I'm shopping or getting on the bus or whatever it might be.
There's an interaction that we intend to happen.
The theater becomes a tool that you can use to awaken people.
JEFFREY BROWN: But there have been challenges, including retaining top talent.
LOU BELLAMY: When we developed these actors and they people began to see these stories being told, we became almost a farm team for the larger theaters in town.
My challenge was then to raise the amount of support and the salaries and so forth for these actors, so they wouldn't have to subsidize our art.
You know, you don't want to ask another actor to take less to be Black.
JEFFREY BROWN: Still, Penumbra has helped launch the careers of numerous Black actors and playwrights, and had a renowned, long-running relationship with the late Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner August Wilson.
Talvin Wilks, now a successful playwright and director nationally, still works with Penumbra, giving it and other Black theaters all credit.
We met him last fall at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches.
TALVIN WILKS, Playwright: These institutions were my hope.
They were my reach.
They were, oh, yes, if I get to Penumbra, right, if I get to The Black Rep in St. Louis, if I get to Freedom, then that's a career.
When you're an undergraduate, you're led to believe that the world is full of opportunity for you once.
You make a very quick discovery that no, no, no, no, all places are not available to you.
But these places are.
That's why they're there.
SARAH BELLAMY, Artistic Director, Penumbra Theatre: Black theater built a world for Black folks where we could see ourselves lovingly, critically represented, and those worlds made it more and more possible for us to dream things that were yet to come.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sarah Bellamy took over as Penumbra's artistic director in 2017.
Growing up, she appeared in plays and held nearly every job at the theater.
She studied her father's leadership and creative style closely.
SARAH BELLAMY: As I came into the artistic directorship, I think one of the first things I learned is, oh, this isn't just about picking great plays, and I have to be an advocate, an activist.
I have to try to change the field.
JEFFREY BROWN: That part of the job took on new meaning in may of 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd in neighboring Minneapolis and the uprising that followed.
At the time, Bellamy was already years into planning a transformation for the theater to become the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, a place that combines the arts with programs to promote equity and wellness.
SARAH BELLAMY: We were in the process of doing an artist institute focused on racial healing.
The artists, there was no plan, but they knew what to do.
The trumpeter made music.
The dancers started moving in their apartments.
I mean, it was -- I'm getting chills talking about it.
It was so powerful.
It was a container to hold our grief, our rage, our deep frustration and fatigue of so many generations of this state-sanctioned violence, and it broke open.
JEFFREY BROWN: The theater officially announced its change in the summer of 2020.
The center will still include a full season of plays, but also activities like yoga and meditation.
And there will be a boost to the kinds of equity training that Penumbra has been putting on for companies, organizations and schools for well over a decade, like these monologues performed by Penumbra actors.
MIKELL SAPP, Actor: My dark skin, my voice, my style all makes me vulnerable.
Because you're afraid?
Can you just stop being afraid?
JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, Penumbra is getting national attention and support, including a $5 million dollar gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
SARAH BELLAMY: We have enough support now to actually realize, I think, the full imagination of what the artists always wanted.
This is not so very different from the founding of this space in general.
We just are going at it a little differently.
But I think art has to meet the moment, and this theater must meet its community.
And our community is in great need.
JEFFREY BROWN: The 45th season at the Penumbra Theatre runs through June.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in St. Paul, Minnesota.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to one group that responds to natural disasters here in the U.S. and around the world using food.
As founder of Mercy Chefs, Gary LeBlanc and his team have served more than 18 million meals to people affected by disasters, including to those impacted by the tornadoes that tore through the South and the Midwest earlier this month.
In this Brief But Spectacular take, he talks about how food does more than nourish the body.
It can create hope.
GARY LEBLANC, Founder, Mercy Chefs: Before Hurricane Katrina, I had never considered doing volunteer work or working in disaster relief.
It wasn't something I ever even thought of.
I was living comfortably in Virginia, and Katrina slams into New Orleans.
I have a grandmother that was evacuated and fell and broke a hip.
I lost her a few months later.
My daughter had a home with seven feet of water inside for five weeks.
I watched people standing on bridges waiting to be evacuated and began to recognize faces of people that I had worked with.
And I was compelled to go down and do something.
So, I went back to New Orleans and I did the only thing that I knew how to do that could contribute or help in that time.
And that was cook for people.
You know, I did my time in New Orleans after Katrina, and I cooked the very best meals that I could, but I'm also a student of anything that I do.
And when I got home, I began to think about the food that I saw served.
And, quite honestly, I got angry.
Now, the food that was served kept people alive, but I think there's more that needs to be done in a disaster.
And that's to create hope.
I was taught that food is love, and anything you serve should have that love in it.
I also thought that sanitation and food safety and time and temperature controls could be part of everything that was done.
Professional acumen needed to be brought to mass feeding in the aftermath of disaster.
And that anger about what I saw other people serve was the genesis of Mercy Chefs.
Mercy Chefs has served over 18.5 million meals.
If it's a major disaster, Mercy Chefs has been there.
We have been in tornadoes.
We have been in wildfires.
We have been in earthquakes.
We have been in floods.
We have been in hurricanes.
We have been in situations where there was civil unrest or an industrial explosion.
We put our love, we put our heart and soul into every meal that we create.
But there are those meals that we have done that people are startled by.
We had the opportunity while we were just in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida we were able to do steak dinners two different nights.
And the car line is coming through.
And we're handing the bags of groceries through your window to folks.
And they'd go to pull away.
And they're always curious, what's for dinner tonight?
And we had multiple cars that would see the steak in there.
They'd stopped the car and they put it in park.
They leap out the car and they would run back and hug somebody.
They just couldn't believe that disaster food was a steak.
I think the most important thing for people that want to become involved, people that are moved to help their neighbors is to just start.
Step in at the first opportunity, be bold, be fearless and be fully committed, but just start.
My name is Gary LeBlanc, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on food is love.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What a wonderful story.
And you can -- and it's real life.
And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.
And online right now: The chronic unpredictability of the pandemic has consequences for working parents, especially women and their careers.
On Instagram, we illustrate one economist's take on the stresses moms are facing.
And later this evening on PBS, tune in for "In Performance at the White House" hosted by actress Jennifer Garner.
The holiday special features musical performances by Billy Porter and Andrea and Matteo Bocelli, among others.
(SINGING) JUDY WOODRUFF: "In Performance at the White House: Spirit of the Season" premieres at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.
Check your local PBS station listings.
And that's the "NewsHour" for tonight.
I'm Judy Woodruff.
Join us online and again here tomorrow evening.
For all of us at the "PBS NewsHour," thank you, please stay safe, and we'll see you soon.