Coronavirus Files: Long COVID advocates protest Biden’s declaration of pandemic’s end

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Amber Dance | Courtesy Photo

THE CORONAVIRUS FILES

By Amber Dance

Protesters demand action on long COVID

President Joe Biden may consider the pandemic “over” — as he controversially said on CBS’ 60 Minutes — but those words stung for people with long COVID, some of whom protested outside the White House last Monday.

They joined forces with people who have myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, another condition scientists suspect is triggered by infection. ME/CFS can leave people unable to work or bedbound. Many of those who showed up expected to spend days in bed recovering from the exertion of the protest.

“Millions of us are being disabled by post-viral disease, and we need urgent action from our government,” said Ben HsuBorger, advocacy director for protest organizer MEAction, in a statement from the group. “We are calling on President Biden to declare ME/CFS and long COVID a national emergency.”

The group is calling for more public education, research, economic support and access to treatments.

Protesters also requested that anti-pandemic measures, such as federal funding for testing and vaccinations, continue.

Long COVID is particularly challenging for people of color, due to inequities in health care access and medical discrimination, writes Troy Farah at Scientific American. (Farah’s reporting was undertaken as a CHJ 2022 California Fellow.)

If scientists and physicians had paid more attention to ME/CFS in the past, they might have been better prepared for the millions of Americans who have long COVID now, argues Brian Vastag, a former Washington Post science reporter who has ME/CFS, at WebMD.

While the National Institutes of Health has been given more than $1 billion to fund long COVID research, progress has been sluggish, notes Jamie Ducharme at Time.

Bills to advance research and support for individuals have stalled in Congress.

Unless something changes, long COVID advocate and patient Charlie McCone told Ducharme, the virus will “continue taking folks out like fish in a barrel.”

COVID aid slashed poverty rates

Thanks to two years of federal pandemic aid, there are nearly 50% fewer poor children in the U.S. and overall poverty rates are at the lowest level ever recorded, according to the Census Bureau.

The extra child tax credit, along with other measures adding up to trillions of dollars, are behind the change, write Lydia DePillis and Jason DeParle at The New York Times.

Food insecurity among children also dropped in 2021, according to the USDA.

Overall, health coverage also changed for the better, with about 1.1 million more people insured in 2021 than in 2020. That’s mostly because people were able to stay in state Medicaid programs without being forced to requalify during the pandemic, report Selena Simmons-Duffin and Jennifer Ludden at NPR’s All Things Considered.

But with aid programs expiring and inflation skyrocketing, many families are facing financial difficulties anew. The expanded child tax credit ended in December 2021.

When the U.S. public health emergency declaration ends, more than 15 million people might lose Medicaid, many due to difficulties with renewal paperwork rather than lack of eligibility, according to a government report. The emergency declaration is next up for renewal in October.

“Americans wonder if the government can shape successful policies that address poverty,” Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan told the Times. “This offers incontrovertible evidence that it can.”

Dozens charged in Minnesota pandemic aid fraud case

Federal prosecutors charged 47 people with stealing $250 million meant to feed needy children during the pandemic, in what the Justice Department says is the largest COVID fraud scheme to date.

An additional person was arrested, after the announcement, before boarding a one-way flight to Ethiopia.

According to the charges, the defendants conspired to claim government funds for more than 125 million fake meals through a network of charities, restaurants and individuals connected to a Minnesota nonprofit called Feeding Our Future. They allegedly then spent the money on luxuries including jewelry, automobiles and international real estate.

“Authorities say the defendants took advantage of loosened eligibility rules — and a lack of oversight — due to the pandemic,” writes Ken Dilanian at NBC News.

The conspirators allegedly generated random names and ages for imaginary children being served. One red flag was found in reimbursement forms that said the program consistently served 2,500 meals every weekday, with none of the supposed children missing a single day, reports Amy Forliti at AP News.

One participant allegedly claimed to serve 5,000 children daily out of a second-story apartment, reports David A. Fahrenthold at The New York Times. The neighbor across the hall said she hadn’t observed thousands of children entering the address.

When the Minnesota Department of Education sought to verify the aid, Feeding Our Future director Aimee Bock responded with a lawsuit accusing the state of racial discrimination, reports Kevin Johnson at USA Today.

Bock has pleaded not guilty.

The government has so far recovered $50 million, reports AP.

This is one among many such fraud cases. “Virtually every day lately, the Department of Justice has announced at least one case of fraud related to COVID-19 funds,” writes Poynter’s Al Tompkins at his Covering COVID-19 newsletter.

The Labor Department has opened 39,000 investigations, and the Small Business Administration is analyzing 2 million loan applications that may be fraudulent, reports Farhernthold at The New York Times.

Biden comments could complicate ongoing pandemic response

President Joe Biden set off a spate of headlines last week when, during an appearance on 60 Minutes, he appeared to casually downgrade the COVID-19 crisis to a thing of the past.

“The pandemic is over,” Biden said.

To many, it seemed a premature declaration of victory. More than 400 people in the U.S. are dying of COVID every day. The CDC still recommends that more than one-third of the population consider wearing masks due to local hospitalization and case rates. Few young children have received the vaccines they’ve been eligible for since June, and only about a third of Americans have received a single booster shot.

Biden himself later clarified that he meant the situation “basically is not where it was.”

His remarks could interfere with his administration’s ongoing efforts to secure additional pandemic funding from a Congress that has declined to open its purse for months now, writes Dan Diamond at The Washington Post.

Administration officials also told Diamond that Biden’s comments would make it harder to persuade people to get the latest round of boosters, which have been updated to target the omicron variant currently in circulation.

The impromptu declaration inspired reporters to discuss when exactly a pandemic can be declared over.

“There are no accepted metrics or defined international rules that tell us when we can call the code on this horrible event,” writes Helen Branswell at STAT. Experts told her that in a sense, a pandemic ends when people stop taking extra protective measures and get back to their normal lives.

In that case, writes Branswell, “the pandemic is done like dinner.”

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