For The Weekly Pulse (a revisit of an old Ms. column!), we’ve scoured the most trusted journalistic sources—and, of course, our Twitter feeds—to bring you this week’s most important news stories related to health and wellness.
This week, we’re tracking the tightening pandemic restrictions as cases and deaths break records in the U.S.; taking a look at the logistical challenges of vaccine distribution; the repro rundown; and, a roundup of other health news you should know.
Pandemic Updates: 3,000 COVID-19 Deaths Per Day in U.S.
+ The number of daily coronavirus cases and deaths continues to skyrocket, shattering records from just a week ago. What’s more, we have not yet seen the complete consequences of millions of Americans traveling and gathering on Thanksgiving, say public health experts.
+ On Wednesday alone, more than 3,000 people in the U.S. lost their lives to COVID-19—a higher number than the pandemic’s previous peak in the spring. Since the pandemic began, 291,000 Americans have died and we are on track to pass another grim milestone of 300,000 deaths before next week. Among the hospitals collectively serving approximately one-third of Americans, only 15 percent of intensive care unit beds are open, according to a New York Times analysis.
+ The pandemic continues to shine a light on inequality in the U.S. New research shows the rate of infection and death due to coronavirus is disproportionately high in Black and Hispanic communities due to long standing social and environmental inequities which put minorities at a higher risk of exposure. In other words, there are no innate biological reasons that Black and Hispanic folks are suffering disproportionately during the pandemic.
On average, people of color tend to live in more crowded households, use public transportation and work jobs requiring more physical contact with other people. People of color also frequently lack access to quality healthcare, contributing to higher rates of underlying medical conditions among this population.
+ Food banks are struggling to keep up with the increased demand for meals during the pandemic. One in five Black and Latino adults with children said they “sometimes or often did not have enough to eat”— double the rate compared to their white and Asian counterparts.
“To me, these results make it clear that the disparities in mortality that we see are even more appalling,” Jon Zelner, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times. “[The toll on Black and Hispanic Americans] could easily have been ameliorated in advance of the pandemic by a less threadbare and cruel approach to social welfare and health care in the U.S.”
+ Republicans and Democrats in Congress are still negotiating a coronavirus relief package, even as millions of Americans remain unemployed and behind on bills. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s staff said it’s unlikely that enough Republican senators will agree to the $908 billion bipartisan relief package introduced last week. Doctors and nurses are calling on governors to offer more relief to overworked health care workers and under resourced hospitals.
+ Many governors have issued new mask mandates and restrictions on businesses—including California, whose Regional Stay at Home Order is triggered when ICU capacity in a given region falls below 15 percent. Currently, three of the five California regions (home to more than 30 million people) are under the order, which lasts at least 3 weeks.
The order is one of the strictest in the country, as it requires businesses like bars, restaurants, and nail salons to shut down all indoor service, while retail stores are allowed to operate at 20 percent capacity. Many small businesses are close to being permanently shuttered, and business owners are pleading for the government to provide immediate financial relief.
Additionally, California joined four other states and the District of Columbia by launching a coronavirus tracking app. The app uses Bluetooth to alert users when they’ve previously been in close proximity to someone who later tests positive for COVID-19. While the app could help bolster contact-tracing efforts, it remains to be seen how many people will actually use the app, given the public’s concerns over privacy and government surveillance.
Biden Plans to Vaccinate 100 Million Americans During His First 100 Days
+ President-Elect Joe Biden recently announced his plan to ask the public to wear a mask for 100 days after he takes office.
He will also mandate masks where he has the authority, such as in federal buildings and during interstate travel on buses, trains and planes. Biden also set a goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans within his administration’s first 100 days.
“My first 100 days won’t end the Covid-19 virus. I can’t promise that […] But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly, it’s going to take some time. But I’m absolutely convinced that in 100 days we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better.”— President-Elect Joe Biden
+ Navigating the logistics of vaccine distribution will not be easy. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer is expected to receive emergency authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine from the FDA soon. The Pfizer vaccine has already been approved in the U.K. Moderna, another biotech company with promising vaccine trials, is also expected to receive emergency authorization for their vaccine soon.
However, Pfizer says they will not be able to provide the U.S. with a substantial number of vaccines, beyond the 100 million doses the federal government bought earlier in the year, until midsummer. The vaccine requires two doses, so 100 million doses will only cover 50 million people.
Even with vaccine rollout around the corner, there’s a question of which groups should be prioritized to receive a vaccine:: health care workers, who are risking their lives on the front lines, or the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Furthermore, vaccine trials on kids and pregnant people will likely not begin until January.
+ For those who have already contracted COVID-19, experts say it’s safe and likely beneficial to get a vaccine.
+ Besides the logistical nightmare of vaccinating hundreds of millions of people, the U.S. also faces the rampant spread of anti-vaccination misinformation. Twenty percent of Americans claim they are “pretty certain” they will not get a COVID-19 vaccine. (Check out Ms.’s tips for spotting and stopping COVID misinformation.)
Experts point to Facebook as one of the main places where misinformation spreads. On Dec. 3, the social media platform announced it would remove posts containing COVID-19 vaccine claims that have already been debunked by public health experts. However, Claire Wardle, U.S. director of the non-profit First Draft News, said during an interview with NPR that she’s skeptical that the strategy will work as intended.
“So talking about Facebook’s decision, yes, there are false claims that they’re taking down, but there’s a lot of people who are just asking questions. Facebook can’t take those down […] if somebody’s raising the question to say, I think the media is in cahoots with Big Pharma, you know, to control us, if you’re a content moderator, do you take that down? If somebody says, you know, my family member was part of the vaccine trial and they had a terrible reaction, is Facebook going to take that down? […]
I think one of the things that we argue [in our research] is that there’s a lot of emphasis on individual posts. And what we’re missing is the daily drip, drip, drip, drip, drip of low-level vaccine misinformation, none of which would break Facebook’s barrier. But we don’t know what this looks like if over a couple of years, you see this kind of content that’s questioning the government, is questioning the CDC, is questioning Dr. Fauci. None of those posts, you know, would pass that test [to qualify it for removal].
However, what does it look like if that’s what you see every single day? And we have almost no research that allows us to understand that longitudinal impact of misinformation.”
Repro Rundown: Argentina Set to Legalize Abortion
+ Argentina is expected to become to first major Latin American country to legalize abortion. On Thursday, lawmakers in Argentina’s lower house passed a bill that, under most circumstances, would legalize abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy.
The bill, that is backed by President Alberto Fernández, was approved in a 131-117 vote (with six abstentions), but still needs approval from the Argentine senate before the president can sign.
“We are convinced that this offers a concrete answer to an urgent and structural public health problem,” said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, the government’s women, gender and diversity minister, as she opened the session. “The time has come to stop looking the other way.”
+ During Tuesday’s House hearing on “The Impact on Women Seeking an Abortion but are Denied Because of an Inability to Pay,” Dr. Jamila Perritt (Physicians for Reproductive Health’s president and CEO) spoke about the harm caused by abortion coverage restrictions like the Hyde Amendment.
“As an obstetrician and gynecologist, and a front-line provider of health care, I see what happens when women don’t have access to health care services because they lack coverage and cannot afford to pay. Abortion services are no different. The Hyde Amendment denies my patients the ability to make decisions about their bodies and their pregnancies entirely because of where they live and how much money they make.”
+ A federal court upheld its block on a rule requiring in-person visits to obtain medication abortion care. The rule aimed to require that patients visit health care providers in-person to get the pills needed for medication abortion—something the FDA does not require.
“Particularly in light of the substantial spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks that increases the risk of all travel,” Judge Theodore D. Chuang, of the US District Court for the District of Maryland, wrote Wednesday, “the Court does not find that any changes to economic conditions or access to medical facilities, childcare, or transportation since the issuance of the (prior block on the rule) have been so favorable as to constitute changed circumstances” warranting alteration.
+ Monday marked the beginning of a bench trial for Planned Parenthood’s challenge to predatory Wisconsin abortion laws.
The lawsuit was filed in January of 2019 by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin—as well as its medical director and three nurses—and aims to contest state laws that only allow doctors to perform two types of abortions as well as the requirement that patients seeking medication abortion pills see the same doctor two separate times.
+ Ohio’s House of Representatives has recently approved a bill requiring fetal remains from abortion procedures be cremated or buried.
The ACLU has spoken out against the bill saying it would put a new, unnecessary burden on both providers and patients. Those receiving abortion care will have to formally decide how to handle the remains, and if they opt out of the decision, the responsibility falls upon the provider. The ACLU of Ohio is in opposition of the bill as “it serves no legitimate medical purpose.”
According to ACLU of Ohio lobbyist Gary Daniels, the bill is “nothing more than legislative harassment” and “is an obvious attempt to inconvenience patients, shut down abortion providers, and imprison doctors who do not comply with the numerous nonsensical regulations found in this bill.”
In Other News…
+ On Monday, President-Elect Joe Biden selected California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. If confirmed, he would be the first Latino to lead the department.
“Becerra will lead an agency that will play a crucial role in overseeing a massive immunization effort and help manage a bolstered federal response to tackle the worsening Covid-19 crisis,” Representative Filemon Vela said. “He will also help shape the Biden administration’s efforts to build on the Affordable Care Act.”
+ Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on mental and physical health.
According to recent survey results published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, nearly 65 percent of people working from home had reported ailments including “tech neck” and lower back pain, and 74 percent of respondents said they had acquired a new mental health issue, including anxiety or depression. Risks were heightened among women and parents of young children.
“The shift to work from home was abrupt when COVID-19 first hit, and no one was truly prepared,” said study author Burcin Becerik-Gerber, co-director of the Center for Intelligent Environments at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
+ As NASA gears up to send humans back to the moon through their new program Artemis, they promise that men won’t be the only one’s making the journey as the first woman to step foot on the moon will be aboard the program’s inaugural flight.
During a meeting of the National Space Council, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Vice President Mike Pence announced the names of the 18 astronauts selected for training—nine of which are women.
“To us, it isn’t really a personal achievement for us, it is paying homage and tribute to the generations of women and other minorities that really were the boundary-pushers that truly broke those glass ceilings to let us be here today,” Jessica Meir, one of the astronauts selected for training, said. “The great thing for us now is it just seems normal: We’re all going to go together to the moon.
+ A mystery illness found in Andhra Pradesh, a southern Indian state, has infected hundreds and killed at least one person, according to reports by United Press International.
The root cause of the illness has yet to confirmed; however, with COVID on the brain, many feared this could be a new virus. Though, according to initial reports, experts say this is unlikely.
In a preliminary report from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, researchers found traces of heavy metals, like lead and nickel, in at least 10 blood samples collected from infected patients. “Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programs as part of COVID-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” said Krishna Srinivas, Andhra Pradesh health minister.