Homeless losing housing; nation divided along vaccination lines

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Amber Dance | Courtesy Photo

End of pandemic housing looms for homeless people

Programs to house homeless people in hotels during the pandemic are beginning to close down, forcing people back to group shelters or the streets, where many feel unsafe from the virus, violence, and other risks. Federal funding for emergency housing ends in September, and while additional dollars have been promised, it’s expected there will be a gap between the end of current efforts and the start of new programs, write Kelli Kennedy and Lisa Rathke at AP.

New York City, eager to house tourists in hotels again, is relocating about 8,500 people to shelters this summer — even though only 14% of the city’s homeless population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. “Once you take the vaccine, they’re going to use it as an excuse to put you in one of those congregate death traps,” said homeless advocate Shams DaBaron, who spent time at the Lucerne Hotel as part of nonprofit Project Renewal’s program in cooperation with the city’s Department of Homeless Services. DaBaron was speaking on behalf of several residents of the Four Points by Sheraton Midtown who’d locked themselves into their hotel rooms rather than leave. For many homeless people, moving from hotel to shelter is a backwards step, reports Rich Calder at The Wall Street Journal. “They were hoping their next move would be into permanent housing,” said Corinne Low of the aid group UWS Open Hearts.

Leaving hotel rooms is particularly risky for women and transgender people, writes Lauren Hepler at the San Francisco Chronicle. Up to 92% of homeless women had experienced some sort of violence in their lives before the pandemic. While local and state officials are planning permanent housing programs, Hepler reports, they aren’t incorporating gender-based housing that advocates say is crucial to protect women.

One nation, divided by vaccination status

When it comes to vaccinations, America is starting to look like two separate nations. COVID-19 cases are dropping in well-vaccinated urban and suburban communities, writes The New York Times’ David Leonhardt, but rising in rural areas, where just 54% of adults have received a vaccine. A CNN analysis finds ongoing disparities between the communities most likely to be fully vaccinated — white, older than 65 — and the populations most heavily affected by the coronavirus, including Black and Hispanic people, adults under 30, and Southerners.

“The biggest tragedy,” Leonhardt writes, “is that this situation is avoidable.” Vaccines have saved an estimated 279,000 American lives and prevented more than 1 million hospitalizations, according to an analysis by The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that also supports the Center for Health Journalism’s webinar program. Dr. Anthony Fauci told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that more than 99% of COVID deaths in June were among people who weren’t vaccinated.

Last Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced his latest push to vaccinate people, including door-to-door vaccinations, workplace clinics and, again, a request that employers offer paid time off for vaccinations. But many health experts say the time for polite entreaties has passed, and it’s now time for vaccine mandates at schools and businesses, report Michael D. Shear and Noah Weiland in The New York Times. About 6% of people will not get the vaccine unless it’s required, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation vaccine monitor. Global health law professor Lawrence O. Gostin of Georgetown University said, “We have to make being unvaccinated the hard choice, not the easy one.”

Vaccines beat delta, but by how much?

The highly contagious delta variant is now officially the dominant strain in the U.S. The three U.S.-authorized vaccines work against all variants tested so far, though their precise efficacy against delta is still uncertain. In Israel, where 60% of people have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, officials reported the vaccine’s efficacy against any variant of COVID-19 infection was down to 64%, and blamed the spread of delta. The vaccine’s ability to prevent severe disease and death remained high. However, data from the United Kingdom and Canada suggest efficacy against symptomatic infection of 79% to 88% after two doses of Prizer’s vaccine, and 72% from just the first dose of Moderna’s vaccine. It’s hard to nail down real-world numbers because populations and measurements vary, explains Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce at Business Insider. A new study indicates that both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine are crucial to prevent delta infection, yet the CDC says nearly 15 million people in the U.S. who got an initial Pfizer or Moderna shot missed their second dose.

Do you need a booster shot?

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also appears to confer immunity against delta in a test tube, but on-the-ground data are scarce. That’s led some infectious disease experts who originally got the “one-and-done” jab to get a second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce reports at Business Insider. Virologist Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan told The Washington Post that she did so — not because she worried she’d get sick herself, but out of concern that she might spread the disease to others or give the virus opportunity to evolve into a deadlier variant.

Is that necessary? “No one knows, actually,” tweeted UCSF infectious disease physician Dr. Monica Gandhi. Johnson & Johnson is conducting a trial of a two-dose schedule, but no results have been released yet, so the federal government has not made a recommendation about boosters. Gandhi told the Los Angeles Times that rates of breakthrough infections appear to be similar among people who got the three different vaccines. And in fact, it may be difficult for Americans who received the Johnson & Johnson shot to get another one right now, if records indicate they’re fully vaccinated, report Ben Guarino and Allyson Chiu in the Post.

Pfizer announced Thursday it plans to seek authorization for a booster shot, of the same formulation as its original vaccine. But the Department of Health and Human Services quickly shot back with a statement that “Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time.” Pfizer will also test a delta-specific booster starting in August.

Wealthy nations hoard vaccines

Although data so far indicate the current shots and dosing schedules provide lasting immunity, the European Union has already ordered more than a billion Pfizer doses that may be deployed as boosters in the next few years. Reuters reports that the U.K. and U.S. are also considering third-dose shots, and the U.K. may give third doses to vulnerable individuals starting in September, writes Ashley Furlong at Politico. Yet more than half the world’s citizens have yet to score their first shot. In low-income countries, only one in 100 people has received even one dose, reports T.V. Padma at Nature, and some may have to wait until 2023 for protection.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the way in which a few nations have scooped up vaccines “morally indefensible” at a press conference last Wednesday. “From a moral, epidemiological or economic point of view,” he said, “now is the time for the world to come together to tackle this pandemic collectively. As long as the coronavirus continues to circulate globally, the risk of new and more dangerous variants remains.

Amber Dance, Ph.D., is an award-winning freelance science journalist based in Southern California. She contributes to publications including PNAS Front Matter, The Scientist, and Nature. She also edits books on a variety of topics.

Amber Dance | Columnist

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