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Sign of the times in this divisive political season

On the south side of a typically leafy, well-lived-in street in Flagstaff’s lovely Cheshire neighborhood sits a house whose inhabitants make their political positions clear right there in the front yard.

“Black Lives Matter,” one sign reads.

“Trump Lies Matter,” reads another.

“Coexist,” declares a bumper sticker on a green Honda in the driveway.

Directly across the street, on the north side, a resident has staked out his polar opposite political positions with a series of signs and flags (the Gasden “Don’t Tread On Me;” the Betsy Ross 13 stars in a circle) and slogans.

“Trump: Keep America Great 2020,” one sign reads.

“No Socialism,” reads another.

“We Support Law Enforcement Officers,” declares yet another nailed to a fence post.

In this divisive, polarizing presidential campaign, in which the country seems riven by animus and rancor on both sides of the political spectrum, the dueling yard signs on a quiet street in the shadows of the San Francisco Peaks could be viewed as an unfortunate microcosm of the current state of incivility sweeping across the land.

But there’s a refreshing twist in the narrative, one that shatters the assumption of superficial sloganeering and political posturing and actually gives some hope that, despite differences, people can get along.

At both houses, affixed to each mailbox facing the street, is another sign:

“Please don’t vandalize my neighbor’s signs, flags, or yard.”

These neighbors, though wildly divergent in ideology, have banded together to protect each other’s property from acts of theft and vandalism that have befallen both in recent weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election.

Dee and Joe Wegwert, who live on the south side of the street and identify as liberal, have had two flags attached to their garage stolen — a rainbow flag and a Black Lives Matter flag — have awakened some mornings to trash and dog feces bags strewn across their yard and have had a BLM sign pilfered.

Their north-side neighbor Nick, who identifies as conservative and declined to give his last name for fear of retribution, has had pro-Trump signs stolen or defaced three times since July. His mailbox also has been tampered with. He has installed three surveillance cameras and has video showing five masked people (“Like the Purge films, not medical masks,” he said) ransacking his yard, one wielding a foot-long machete.

Both families denounce the destruction of their neighbor’s property. Nick has offered to turn his cameras toward the Wegwert’s house to try to catch the scofflaws, an offer the Wegwerts politely declined. And the Wegwerts, in a show of unity, offered Nick the sign asking people not to vandalize the property, which he politely accepted.

They may abhor each other’s politics, but they respect the other’s right to express their views. Free speech is not a one-way street, after all. And while the Wegwerts and Nick are by no means close and do not socialize together, they are friendly and exchange waves and small talk in the way many townsfolk do.

“We have been heartened,” Joe said, “that our neighbor has shown concern for our safety.”

“He and his family are great people,” Nick said, “and I’m glad to have them as neighbors.”

Ordinarily, this would not be news. Neighbors who get along! Film at 11! But these are not ordinary times.

“It’s strange that peaceful disagreement has become so uncommon that it’s newsworthy,” Dee said. “I grew up thinking peaceful disagreement was the standard in our culture. We have gotten to the point where peaceful disagreement is the exception and, quite frankly, I think we should be worried about that.”

On that, if little else, Nick agrees.

“Politically, I’m sure we disagree about most things,” Nick said. “However, neither of us choose our politics as our master status. Identity politics is a poison. Joe and his family are my neighbors first, my fellow Americans first. Their right to free speech is as important to me as my own right.”

Reaction from neighbors on this sleepy street has ranged from bemusement to amusement, with some safety concerns creeping in.

Chuck Roth, who lives about five houses east on the street, said he often walks his dogs past the two residences and has noted the “progression of politics” at play in the front yard but is heartened by the mutual show of support about the vandalism.

“I know it’s a bad pun, but I think they are the poster people for what America should be,” Roth said. “To me, it’s the way it should be. You don’t have to respect them, but you respect their right to an opinion. It shows there are people of good spirit out there.”

Neither the Wegwerts nor Nick want so-called credit for tolerance in reaching across the political chasm. They consider civility simply part of the social contract.

Some people on the block, Dee said with a smile, call them the “Hatfields and McCoys,” the legendary feuding families.

“People assume we don’t get along,” Joe said, shaking his head.

“In fact,” Dee added, “sometimes people stop and assume we are willing to speak disparagingly (about Nick). We don’t go down that road.”

Joe is an associate professor of education in the department of teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University; before that, he spent years as a social studies teacher in middle school and high school in the Midwest. His doctoral thesis examined citizenship. So, civility, or lack thereof, is something to which he’s given considerable thought.

“I don’t believe personal property is sanctified; there are times historically, when there’s been destruction of personal property can be justified,” Joe said. “But in this context — not another context, just this context — it  seems not right. We’ve gotten to the point where peaceful disagreement is so uncommon that you’re sitting here in the driveway speaking to us.”

When asked whether the fact that Nick flies both the Gasden and Betsy Ross flags — both linked to the nation’s history of slavery, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — and sports smaller signs such as “I am Q,” referencing the widely debunked far right QAnon conspiracy, troubles him, Joe paused and then said he’d not noticed the QAnon sign.

Choosing words carefully, Joe reiterated that he and Dee hold polar opposite views than Nick. But …

“Other than the fact that I disagree with them (the signs), there’s nothing there that scares me,” he said. “And, in fact, one of the things that I appreciate about him in the very brief time we’ve talked, is that he’s very concerned with security, but at the same time, he expresses that concern on (our) behalf.”

Joe added, though, that free expression doesn’t give people cart blanche to “express horrible, horrible things” and that “we have obligations to consider the impact of our expression.”

Nick, for his part, feels under siege by those who have defaced or stolen his signs. Showing a bit of humor, he now has hammered his Trump signs to plywood and set the posts in concrete “to secure my constitutional right to free speech.” Underneath the affixed Trump signs, he added a wry note to potential vandals he theorizes may be Antifa members: “When you try to steal this … don’t get an Anti-Hernia.”

Nick has lived in Flagstaff 31 years and said the city has changed, and not for the better.

“Too many people have moved here from out-of-state and brought their big city blue state problems and attitudes with them,” he said. “In fact, I would bet the vandals and thieves of late have lived fewer years than I have (in Flagstaff) and for that matter paid less in total income and property taxes than I have.”

Neighbors other than the Wegwerts have not been supportive to his freedom of expression, Nick said.

“One neighbor down the street who always rides his bike gives me or my property the finger religiously every day,” he said. “I think hate has become the left’s religion, somehow justifying in their minds that violence and destruction are now OK if done against Trump supporters.”

The Wegwerts, too, said they felt their free speech rights were violated when vandals stole their BLM and rainbow flags. At the time, the couple’s son and girlfriend, who is African-American, were living with them. Joe and Dee asked the young woman if she comfortable with them putting up a BLM sign, and they said she was. After it got stolen, “that felt pretty personal,” Dee said.

Joe does not regret putting up the signs and stands behind the decision.

“I pressed for this because — well, this was before John Lewis died — but it was a way to make 'Good Trouble.’”

Nick remains troubled by the wider reaction to his signs, though heartened by Joe and Dee’s support.

“… There’s a lot better things to talk about with our neighbors and community members than politics,” he said. “We live in the greatest country on this planet. Let’s celebrate that. Those who hate it are free to leave.”

Astronomers see hints of life in Venus's clouds

Astronomers have found a potential sign of life high in the atmosphere of neighboring Venus: hints there may be bizarre microbes living in the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of the hothouse planet.

Two telescopes in Hawaii and Chile spotted in the thick Venusian clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is only associated with life, according to a study in Monday's journal Nature Astronomy.

Several outside experts — and the study authors themselves — agreed this is tantalizing but said it is far from the first proof of life on another planet. They said it doesn't satisfy the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"  standard established by the late Carl Sagan, who speculated about the possibility of life in the clouds of Venus in 1967.

"It's not a smoking gun," said study co-author David Clements, an Imperial College of London astrophysicist. "It's not even gunshot residue on the hands of your prime suspect, but there is a distinct whiff of cordite in the air which may be suggesting something."

As astronomers plan for searches for life on planets outside our solar system, a major method is to look for chemical signatures that can only be made by biological processes, called biosignatures. After three astronomers met in a bar in Hawaii, they decided to look that way at the closest planet to Earth: Venus. They searched for phosphine, which is three hydrogen atoms and a phosphorous atom.

On Earth, there are only two ways phosphine can be formed, study authors said. One is in an industrial process. (The gas was produced for use as chemical warfare agent in World War I.) The other way is as part of some kind of poorly understood function in animals and microbes. Some scientists consider it a waste product, others don't.

Phosphine is found in "ooze at the bottom of ponds, the guts of some creatures like badgers and perhaps most unpleasantly associated with piles of penguin guano," Clements said.

Study co-author Sara Seager, an MIT planetary scientist, said researchers "exhaustively went through every possibility and ruled all of them out: volcanoes, lightning strikes, small meteorites falling into the atmosphere. … Not a single process we looked at could produce phosphine in high enough quantities to explain our team's findings."

That leaves life.

The astronomers hypothesize a scenario for how life could exist on the inhospitable planet where temperatures on the surface are around 800 degrees with no water.

"Venus is hell. Venus is kind of Earth's evil twin," Clements said. "Clearly something has gone wrong, very wrong, with Venus. It's the victim of a runaway greenhouse effect."

But that's on the surface.

Seager said all the action may be 30 miles above ground in the thick carbon-dioxide layer cloud deck, where it's about room temperature or slightly warmer. It contains droplets with tiny amounts of water but mostly sulfuric acid that is a billion times more acidic than what's found on Earth.

The phosphine could be coming from some kind of microbes, probably single-cell ones, inside those sulfuric acid droplets, living their entire lives in the 10-mile-deep clouds, Seager and Clements said. When the droplets fall, the potential life probably dries out and could then get picked up in another drop and reanimate, they said.

Life is definitely a possibility, but more proof is needed, several outside scientists said.

Cornell University astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger said the idea of this being the signature of biology at work is exciting, but she said we don't know enough about Venus to say life is the only explanation for the phosphine.

"I'm not skeptical, I'm hesitant," said Justin Filiberto, a planetary geochemist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston who specializes in Venus and Mars and isn't part of the study team.

Filiberto said the levels of phosphine found might be explained away by volcanoes. He said recent studies that were not taken into account in this latest research suggest that Venus may have far more active volcanoes than originally thought. But Clements said that explanation would make sense only if Venus were at least 200 times as volcanically active as Earth.

David Grinspoon, a Washington-based astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute who wrote a 1997 book suggesting Venus could harbor life, said the finding "almost seems too good to be true."

"I'm excited, but I'm also cautious," Grinspoon said. "We found an encouraging sign that demands we follow up."

NASA hasn't sent anything to Venus since 1989, though Russia, Europe and Japan have dispatched probes. The U.S. space agency is considering two possible Venus missions. One of them, called DAVINCI+, would go into the Venusian atmosphere as early as 2026.

Clements said his head tells him "it's probably a 10% chance that it's life," but his heart "obviously wants it to be much bigger because it would be so exciting."

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Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union shares early pandemic findings

The first case of COVID-19 in Arizona was successfully contained and it was not until mid-February that the strain leading to community transmission entered the state, according to a recent report from the Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union.

The ACGU was formed in April to track the movement of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and includes representatives from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, who together use supercomputers to sequence the virus’s RNA genome in positive patient samples and search for different lineages with origins in areas throughout the world.

The group’s findings on the early pandemic in Arizona were published in the scientific journal mBio this month. Representatives from participating organizations held a virtual press conference Tuesday to share more details on the results of their research and their next steps.

As noted in the report, by sequencing the genomes from 84 COVID-19 patient samples collected early in the Arizona outbreak, scientists determined there was no widespread transmission in Arizona until early March, more than a month after a student returning from Hubei, China, the province where the disease originated, became the state’s first case — and later, the ACGU’s first sample.

Through the sequencing process, scientists look for mutations in the virus, which occur naturally as it reproduces, and compare them to other Arizona cases and an international database recording different strains of the virus.

The ACGU did not detect cases in Arizona related to the first case. Although scientists admitted in the report they could not rule out the possibility that other cases did result from this case, it “did not play a substantial role in fueling the ongoing pandemic” because of contract tracing and isolation efforts.

Instead, scientists discovered 11 different introductions of the virus to the state in February and March and more than 80% of analyzed samples showed strains that initially circulated widely in Europe, though the majority of Arizona sequences were likely introduced through domestic travel. The first reported case of community transmission descended from the strain that had been circulating in Washington state in February.

“A lot of instances of completely identical viral genome sequences [were] present on multiple different continents,” said Jason Ladner, assistant professor at NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI). “What this speaks to is the fact that people were traveling all over the world at high relative frequencies and moving this virus around quite a bit.”

TGen has now sequenced about 3,000 COVID-19 samples from state, county, tribal and private healthcare groups. Jolene Bowers, assistant professor at TGen, said this process is getting faster, though, with TGen now sequencing 1,000 genomes a week. She expects to reach 10,000 total samples in the next month. In comparison, GISAID, the international database used to search for different lineages of the virus, currently has more than 100,000 samples.

The ACGU is now looking at samples from this summer, the time of peak transmission in Arizona, to determine the effectiveness of public health measures like it did in its analysis of the first Arizona COVID-19 case. Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order is of particular interest.

“The hypothesis going into it is that, when we were sheltering in place, the transmission would have occurred primarily within county, but then after shelter-in-place was lifted, what we would expect to see is that there was a lot more transmission across the different counties and also across different states and Arizona, as well,” said Crystal Hepp, assistant professor in NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems.

The team plans to work with county, state and federal health officials to tie its findings with ongoing public health initiatives to not only tell the story of the virus in Arizona, but also to guide responses going forward.

“As the vaccine rolls out, we’re still going to be here, we’re still going to be watching this virus. The good news is, if something starts to change, we can help direct the altered response to those changes,” said PMI Executive Director Paul Keim.

Trump contradicts health experts

WASHINGTON — Openly contradicting the government's top health experts, President Donald Trump predicted on Wednesday that a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus could be ready as early as next month and in mass distribution soon after, undermining the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and calling him "confused" in projecting a longer time frame.

Trump also disagreed with Dr. Robert Redfield about the effectiveness of protective masks — which the president recommends but almost never wears — and said he'd telephoned Redfield to tell him so.

Earlier in the day, the CDC sent all 50 states a "playbook" for distribution of a vaccine to all Americans free of cost when one is proven safe and effective — which is not yet the case. Redfield told a congressional hearing that health care workers, first responders and others at high risk would get the vaccine first, perhaps in January or even late this year, but it was unlikely to be available more broadly, again assuming approval, before late spring or summer.

Redfield, masked at times in a Senate hearing room, spoke emphatically of the importance of everyone wearing protective masks to stop the pandemic, which has killed almost 200,000 Americans.

"I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine."

CDC sent a planning document on Wednesday to U.S. states, territories and some big cities. Adding to logistical complications, vaccines likely will have to be given in two doses spaced weeks apart and will have to be refrigerated.

Redfield said states are not ready to deal with the demand for such a distribution and some $6 billion in new funding would be needed to get the nation prepared.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump parachuted into the coronavirus aid debate, upbraiding his Republican allies for proposing too small of a relief package and encouraging both parties to go for a bigger one that would include his priority of $1,200 stimulus checks for most Americans.

But his top GOP allies — who worked for weeks with the White House to construct the very aid package Trump criticized — shrugged off the president’s mid-morning tweet.

All the key players in the entrenched impasse over a COVID-19 rescue package instead focused their energies on finger-pointing and gamesmanship, even as political nervousness was on the rise among Democrats frustrated by a stalemate in which their party shares the blame. There remained no sign that talks between the White House and congressional Democrats would restart.

The smaller bill from Senate Republicans that Trump criticized did not include $300 billion for a second round of Trump-endorsed stimulus checks, which the White House said is a top priority.

Meanwhile, a drug company said Wednesday that partial results from a study testing an antibody drug give hints that it may help keep mild to moderately ill COVID-19 patients from needing to be hospitalized. Eli Lilly's results have not yet been published or reviewed by independent scientists.

The drug missed the study’s main goal of reducing the amount of virus patients had after 11 days, except at the middle of three doses being tested. However, most study participants, even those given a placebo treatment, cleared the virus by then, so that time point now seems too late to judge that potential benefit, the company said.

Other tests suggest the drug was reducing virus sooner, and the results are an encouraging “proof of principle” as this and other studies continue, Lilly said.

The entire vaccine enterprise faces continued public skepticism. Only about half of Americans said they'd get vaccinated in an Associated Press-NORC poll taken in May.  Since then, questions have only mounted about whether the government is trying to rush treatments and vaccines to help Trump's reelection chances.

Redfield said that the "scientific integrity" of his agency's reports "has not been compromised and it will not be compromised under my watch." He also rejected questions about whether the CDC's timeline for states to be ready for a vaccine by Nov. 1 was politically motivated.

"The worst thing that could happen is if we have a vaccine delivered and we're still not ready to distribute," Redfield told Senate lawmakers. "There was absolutely no political thinking about it."

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee's top Democrat, said political interference from HHS had damaged public trust in the government's health information.

"The Trump administration needs to leave the science to the scientists immediately," Murray said.