Coronavirus Files: White House updates global COVID aid plan as WHO eyes pandemic’s end

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Amber Dance | Courtesy Photo

THE CORONAVIRUS FILES

By Amber Dance

Pandemic escalated crises for people affected by disasters

COVID-19 has compounded the economic and psychological struggles of people already affected by tropical storms, particularly for low-income homeowners and people of color.

A new study details the double whammy suffered by Texans who dealt with the pandemic in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey and 2019’s Tropical Storm Imelda. Those previous disasters left them more vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. 

The survey, spearheaded by the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative and published in Environmental Research, found that people who lost income due to the hurricane were four times more likely than others to lose income during the pandemic, too. People severely impacted by Harvey were also five times more likely to experience pandemic-related anxiety.

Black and Hispanic people were more than twice as likely as white survey respondents to report having trouble with rent or bills during the pandemic.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has also impeded recovery from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew and 2018’s Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, report Hannah Shoenbaum and Gary D. Robertson at AP NewsLabor shortages and supply-chain difficulties are slowing the rebuild effort, said officials.

The Children’s Environmental Health Initiative authors suggest emergency-response programs should consider how multiple crises can build on each other to affect health and wellness.

COVID worries decrease as WHO declares ‘end in sight’

As the U.S. case rate continues to decline, Americans’ concerns about the pandemic have dropped to all-time low, reports Julia Mueller at The Hill.

That’s according to the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, which found 57% of Americans are “at least somewhat concerned about COVID-19.” Nearly half of people surveyed said they’d returned to their pre-COVID activities, such as in-person gatherings and vacations.

In another sign that the focus on the pandemic is fizzling, Ipsos, which has been collecting data since March of 2020, says these latest polling data will be its last regularly scheduled installment.

“Most Americans have turned the page on the COVID pandemic,” Ipsos president of U.S. public affairs told Herb Scribner at Axios.

The COVID-19 Dashboard from Johns Hopkins also announced it will begin scaling back its work, mostly because fewer high-quality data points are available to aggregate. The dashboard will drop testing results, and while it will continue to update global case, death, and vaccination rates, it will do so daily instead of hourly.

Despite these changes, many Americans are still worried about catching COVID-19 at work, writes Zach Shonfeld at The Hill. New data from Gallup indicated that 33% of employed adults are very or moderately concerned about exposure at work, down just a bit from 36% last November.

Women, Democrats, and frontline workers reported the highest levels of concern.

World Health Organization statement last week also indicated the pandemic is waning. The worldwide death rate is at its lowest since March 2020, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “We are not there yet, but the end is in sight.”

He added, “Now is the time to run harder and make sure we cross the line and reap all the rewards of our hard work.”

There are still nearly 400 Americans dying of COVID every day — mostly people older than 75 — and it’s possible fall could bring an uptick in cases, notes Arielle Mitropoulos at ABC News.

About half of wastewater sites being monitored for the coronavirus have shown an increase over the past two weeks, Mitropoulos reports.

Commission report skewers worldwide pandemic response

The global COVID response was a “massive global failure,” according to a group writing in The Lancet after a two-year collaboration that culminated in the report on “lessons for the future from the COVID-19 pandemic,” released Sep. 14.

The problems they detail include World Health Organization delays in acknowledging the outbreak and airborne transmission of the virus; shortfalls in money and supplies for low- and middle-income nations; and lack of protection for vulnerable populations such as Indigenous people and people with disabilities.

“Over a year and a half since the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered, global vaccine equity has not been achieved,” said co-author Maria Fernanda Espinosa, former president of the UN General Assembly, in a press release. “In high-income countries, three in four people have been fully vaccinated, but in low-income countries, only one in seven.”

The authors recommend additional funding for the WHO and a “vaccination-plus” strategy that combines high vaccine coverage with public health measures.

However, the recommendations risk being overshadowed by the fact that the commission’s chairperson, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, has publicly supported the lab-leak theory of COVID origins, writes Dan Diamond at The Washington Post.

The report brings up “the possibility of a laboratory-related outbreak” in its second paragraph, and urges further investigation into both the lab-leak idea as well as a potential natural origin.

Most experts, including other commission members, say a natural origin for the virus is far more likely.

As for the role of the U.S. in the global response, the White House released a new framework last week to guide its efforts moving forward. The Biden administration plans to cooperate with other groups to further vaccination of people who are hard to reach or high risk; scale up testing and treatment; and prepare for future variants and viruses.

With these efforts, the government is aiming to bring an end to the “emergency phase” of the pandemic.

Will Novavax eliminate religious exemptions?

Since Novavax’s authorization, at least one employer is taking a new stance on religious exemptions to its vaccine mandate, signaling “a blow to vaccine holdouts in the workplace,” reports Sophie Putka at MedPage Today.

Many people who requested religious exemptions pointed to fetal material used to develop Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines, but this concern does not apply to Novavax’s protein-based shot.

Froedtert Hospital in Wisconsin has told people with previous exemptions to get vaccinated or resign, though employees may submit a new exemption application.

Anti-mandate advocates encourage people to raise other concerns, such “blood in the vaccines,” in their exemption applications. But these arguments are unlikely to hold up in court, experts told Putka.

Texas researchers report progress on variant-proof vaccine

Testing in small animals suggests a novel vaccine design from scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch could outsmart the ongoing evolution of the coronavirus’ spike protein, reports Corinne Purtill at the Los Angeles Times.

The team is using the same mRNA technology as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but with mRNA encoding two viral proteins: the spike, like other vaccines, plus a separate protein called the nucleocapsid. While the spike is constantly morphing, allowing new variants to evade immune responses, the nucleocapsid faces less pressure to evolve.

“We think of it as a one-time solution for all the COVID variants,” said senior author Haitao Hu.

Vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit, who wasn’t involved in the research, called it “a great idea.”

The researchers reported their results in Science Translational Medicine. Mice and hamsters immunized with their vaccine and then exposed to the coronavirus had less or no evidence of viral infection compared to unvaccinated rodents.

The vaccine, which is based on the original coronavirus, also showed evidence of working against the delta and omicron variants.

It’s unknown if the vaccine will work in people, and how long the immunity will last. The next step is to test it in non-human primates.

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