Coronavirus Files: Lab leak returns to headlines as California emergency expires

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THE CORONAVIRUS FILES

By Amber Dance

COVID surveillance created burdens, but little benefit, for low-income workers

Essential workers — mostly Black, Latino and low-income — faced all kinds of invasive surveillance during the height of the pandemic. Yet they weren’t given the most useful information that would allow them to monitor their own COVID-19 exposure, reports Ambar Castillo at STAT.

Castillo details a February report by the nonprofit research organization Data & Society. Researchers spoke with 50 workers from four industries — warehousing, manufacturing, grocery retail, and food processing and meatpacking — as well as experts in public health, occupational health, employment law and labor.

They found that employers used a variety of means to collect health data on workers, such as temperature scans and badges that beeped when another person was less than 6 feet away. 

For example, one meatpacker described how workers had to show up early — unpaid — to await temperature checks in a trailer, where they couldn’t socially distance.

Amazon introduced an intensive, real-time “Distance Assistant” system based on cameras and software. One Amazon worker described how ongoing notifications about her low social-distancing scores caused so much stress that she quit.

The Data & Society team found that all this information often wasn’t shared with the essential workers themselves. Positive COVID test results were often kept private due to protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many workers turned to their own informal networks to share information and keep safe.

The report authors called for workplace policies that give employees actionable health information while maintaining confidentiality, and suggested that worker health and safety committees can also be beneficial for sharing information and reporting safety violations among workers.

Pandemic-era food stamp benefits end as grocery prices skyrocket

Nearly 30 million Americans are seeing a cut to their food stamp benefits this month. A federal pandemic-relief program that upped payments in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, ended on March 1 in 32 states.

Eighteen other states had already suspended the added benefits. 

In contrast, New Jersey has stepped in to boost SNAP benefits for state residents to a minimum of $95 per month.

Nationwide, the average impacted household will lose out on $95 a month, but some will lose much more, reports Alexis Christoforous at ABC News.

This pandemic lifeline, always meant to be temporary, is estimated to have kept 4.2 million people, disproportionately Black and Latino peopleabove the poverty line.

The timing could hardly be worse: food prices have gone up 10% since last year.

“We’re really going to struggle,” Deanna Hardy, a mother of two in Marshfield, Wisconsin, told ABC. “We’re going to have to end up going back to cheaper items like noodles and processed stuff because the meat, the dairy, fruits and veggies — it’s expensive.”

Food pantries are stepping in to help, but they’re under “immense strain,” Vince Hall of the Feeding America network told JoNel Aleccia at AP News.

“Demand for help remains far above pre-pandemic levels,” writes Aleccia, “even as food banks face continued supply chain disruptions, higher food and transportation costs and lower food donations.”

California ends emergency declaration

As of February 28, California is no longer in a state of emergency over the coronavirus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom “now says California is finally ready to move forward,” reports Taryn Luna at the Los Angeles Times

The emergency, declared on March 4, 2020, gave Newsom broad powers to alter state regulations and direct state money.

By California law, health plans must still cover COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments until November.

Now only five states still have emergency declarations in place, reports Adam Beam at AP News: Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware, New Mexico, and Texas. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly extended the emergency because it allows him to prevent individual cities from implementing their own restrictions, such as mask or vaccine mandates.

Los Angeles County, where poverty and overcrowding created extra vulnerability to the coronavirus in many communities, will end its own emergency declaration March 31, report Luke Money and Rong-Gong Lin II at the Los Angeles Times.

“COVID is still with us,” said county supervisor Janice Hahn, “but it is no longer an emergency.”

Lab leak gets attention, but no smoking gun

COVID origins are on the Senate docket this Wednesday, when the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic will hold its first hearing on where and how the pandemic started.

The theory that the virus behind COVID-19 accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology captured headlines last week after a report from the U.S. Department of Energy said a lab leak is more likely than a natural spillover from a non-human animal host. Michael R. Gordon and Warren P. Strobel at The Wall Street Journal broke the story.

The DOE, previously in the undecided camp on COVID-19’s origins, categorized its latest conclusion as “low confidence.” At Vox, Joseph Cox lays out the meaning of “low confidence” as a conclusion based on “scant, questionable, fragmented” information, or on information that the intelligence community “has significant concerns or problems with.”

“There’s not much that is new and compelling on the scientific front,” notes Joel Achenbach at The Washington Post. “But this is such an explosive issue that incremental developments can generate big headlines.”

The DOE’s new opinion comes from its Z-Division, a team of experts that has previously investigated threats of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, the Post reports.

The recent report was apparently based on new intelligence, but the details of this intelligence has not been disclosed. Molecular biologist Alina Chan, of the Broad Institute, told AP News that intelligence most likely has to do with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“None of the follow-up stories about the new DOE conclusion have offered any new evidence in support of it, which makes the news less like a reversal or a revelation, justifying claims of vindication and bursts of recrimination, than one additional data point floating beside many others,” writes David Wallace-Wells in his New York Times newsletter.

The FBI has also come down on the side of a lab leak, its director Christopher Wray confirmed to Fox News. Four other U.S. agencies and a national intelligence panel think a natural origin is more likely; other agencies remain undecided.

No major U.S. agency thinks the virus was released intentionally; the lab leak theory describes an accidental release of research materials.

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