The Weekly Pulse: “A Superspreader Event on Top of a Domestic Terrorist Attack”; Biden’s Vaccine Rollout

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.

In this week’s installment, we catch readers up on the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic; help maneuver vaccine rollout; and, run down the national state of reproductive health, rights and care.

Repro Rundown: SCOTUS Squashes Safe Abortion Care

+ Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a Trump administration request requiring that patients visit a hospital or clinic in-person to obtain mifepristone—a drug used in medication abortions. The court’s decision lifts a previous order suspending the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule requiring in-person visits earlier in the coronavirus pandemic. 

The case was brought before the court by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists—along with tens of thousands of other physicians—to challenge the FDA’s rule. Even with COVID cases rising and the question of lifting requirements in the face of this deadly pandemic at hand, Chief Justice John Roberts said he “do[es] not see a sufficient basis here for the District Court to Compel the FDA to alter the regimen for medical abortion.”

Julia Kaye, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project, called the decision “chilling”; it “needlessly” endangers “even more people during this dark pandemic winter.”

+ A North Dakota bill is looking to make performing an abortion a felony Unless the procedure is done to save the life of the pregnant person, House Bill 1313 states that anyone found to have performed an abortion would be guilty of a Class AA felony, punishable by life in prison without the possibility of parole. Anyone found aiding or facilitating the procedure could be found guilty of a Class C felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. 

+ A former Army intelligence analyst is blaming the four months she spent at a toxic former airbase for her chronic reproductive health issues—among other female veterans. 

Elba Barr, 41-year-old mother of two, claims that during her time in the Middle East and Africa following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she spent time at the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Soviet base in Uzbekistan. A CBS News investigation revealed that soil near the base was saturated with jet fuel, oil and lubricants, radiation warnings and evidence of chemical agents.  Barr is one of more than 200 female K2 veterans who flooded a Facebook page to discuss contamination and health issues.

The nonprofit that tracks K2 cases says 40 percent of former women service members who were at the base self-report at least one miscarriage, eight percent report breast or uterine cancers and 30 percent report ovarian cancer or related issues. 

+ On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving free speech outside of a Pittsburgh abortion clinic. Their decision to dismiss leaves a 2-19 appeals court decision to remain in place, upholding a Pittsburgh ordinance that creates a 15-foot “buffer zone” between protestors and entrances to health care facilities. 

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he agreed with the court’s decision not to take up this particular case because it “involves unclear, preliminary questions about the proper interpretation of state law.” 

+ In a study of nearly 700 individuals seeking pregnancy tests at health centers in two states, an overwhelming majority expressed interest in a “missed period pill” that would terminate a pregnancy after a missed period if they were, in fact, pregnant. 

“It’s no surprise that many people facing a possible unwanted pregnancy would prefer missed period pills over confirming a pregnancy and opting to have an abortion.” Wendy R. Sheldon and Beverly Winikoff said in Ms

(Read more: Could “Missed Period Pills” Be the Future of Reproductive Health Care?)

+ Opponents of the new Ohio law regarding the disposal abortion remains say it created yet another undue burden for patients by necessitating a public record of anyone in the state who received an abortion. Senate Bill 27 requires that any fetal tissue from a surgical abortion be buried or cremated; and, according to the Ohio Department of Health, the remains require the creation of a death certificate. That information would then be available to anyone looking to access it. 

+ The United Kingdom has removed their five percent “tampon tax” from menstrual products.

The U.K. government acknowledge this change was made possible by the end of the Brexit transition period and freedom from a European Union (EU) law mandating a value-added-tax (VAT) be added to sanitary products. 

“I’m proud that we are today delivering on our promise to scrap the tampon tax,” said UK finance minister Rishi Sunak, who committed to the change in his March budget. “Sanitary products are essential so it’s right that we do not charge VAT.”

+ According to a recent study from Oregon State University, following the state’s 2014 Medicaid expansion, more individuals were able to receive insurance coverage for abortion services and avoid paying out-of-pocket.  The expansion increased eligibility for anyone earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level and granted coverage to roughly 77,000 individuals on childbearing age. 

Oregon’s total number of abortions did not rise; rather who financed the care did. Researchers found that the Medicaid-financed share of total abortions increased 18 percent in 2014, then 7 percent in both 2015 and 2016. 

“According to the literature, there was a 1 percent decline in the abortion rate in Oregon between 2014 and 2017. During the pre-expansion period women were having to pay for abortions out of pocket, which was taking a lot of money out of their incomes that could have been going to food or clothing or caring for their children,” said Lisa Oakley, study co-author and postdoctoral researcher at OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Services. “What the expansion of coverage did was reduce the financial burden for women in this low-income group.”

+ On Tuesday, Kansas Republicans reintroduced an amendment to the state’s constitution allowing the legislature to impose restrictions on abortion services and care. The “Value them Both” amendment would be voted on by a statewide ballot. Proponents of the amendment believe it can protect both the pregnant person and the fetus; however, opponents warn it could lead to unnecessary regulations or bans on abortion care.

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Amidst Political Turmoil, Pandemic Reaches its Most Deadly Phase to Date

+ While the main focus of the news this week has been on the violent insurrection on the U.S. capitol by domestic terrorists, the pandemic continues to take more lives than ever before. In the first two weeks of the new year, more than 3,000 people in the U.S. died each day on average—the highest of any two-week period during the entire pandemic. 

It’s likely that the death toll will likely exceed 400,000 before President-Elect Biden’s inauguration next week. 

+ Researchers predict the average life expectancy—an indicator of overall population health—for Americans will be reduced by 1.13 years due to the pandemic. It’s crucial to point out, however, that life expectancy will impact racial groups differently due to systemic disparities in health care, housing and labor.

While white people on average will see a reduction in life expectancy of .68 years, life expectancy for Black people overall will be shortened by 2.1 years and for Latinos by 3.05 years. Like so many other studies have made clear, the pandemic is disproportionately impacting people of color, and it will require targeted policy measures to address these structural economic and health inequities both now and in the future.

+ Los Angeles County—the most populous county in the U.S.—remains one of the hardest-hit places in the country. During the first months of the pandemic, California saw some of the lowest rates of infection thanks to adherence to mask mandates, social distancing and lockdowns. But now, LA County is averaging one death from COVID-19 every six minutes. An estimated one in three LA county residents have been infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

ICU capacity is alarmingly low across California, with some emergency rooms being forced to close their doors to ambulances trying to offload new patients. Mirroring the challenges faced at the height of the pandemic in New York and New Jersey, officials in LA are having a hard time finding space to store dead bodies.

Experts attribute the crisis in LA to a combination of pandemic fatigue coinciding with the holidays, leading people to engage in riskier behaviors such as traveling and hosting gatherings with non-household members. 

+ The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 is being seen as a super-spreader event due to the indoor gathering of rioters (many without masks). Even more worrisome is the fact that many Republican members of Congress put their colleagues and staff at risk by refusing to wear masks as lawmakers huddled together in hiding while the riot took place. Since the attack on the capitol, three Democrats tested positive for COVID-19.

“Too many Republicans have refused to take this pandemic and virus seriously, and in doing so, they endanger everyone around them. Only hours after President Trump incited a deadly assault on our Capitol, our country, and our democracy, many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask in a crowded room during a pandemic—creating a superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) 

On Tuesday, the House voted to fine members who refuse to wear a mask on the House floor during Congressional sessions. There will now be a $500 fine for the first offense and a $2,500 fine for the second offense.

Using the Biden Administration’s Strategy as a Blueprint, Trump Administration to Release all Available Vaccine Doses

+ This week, President-Elect Joe Biden received the second and final dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine this week, setting an example for the public in contrast to the current president’s approach. Biden also announced Dr. David Kessler, a former head of the FDA under both Republican and Democratic administrations, will be the chief science officer of the federal government’s COVID-19 response. Biden called the current administration’s handling of vaccine distribution “a dismal failure thus far.”

+ According to the CDC, more than 11 million vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S.—but that’s only 35 perceent of the doses that have been distributed. Following the Biden-Harris administration’s prior announcement that they planned to release almost all of the available doses of vaccines (rather than holding second doses aside for those who’ve received their first), the Trump administration announced it would begin doing the same. 

The Biden-Harris administration’s strategy was borne out of a desire to quickly expand the vaccine’s availability. The incoming administration plans to use the Defense Production Act in order to produce more vaccines and make sure people receive their second dose.

+ Officials across the country are currently ramping up vaccine efforts, utilizing event spaces like sports stadiums and even Disneyland as vaccination sites. In the meantime, however, the vaccine effort currently remains inefficient largely due to the Trump administration’s reported lack of urgency in finalizing distribution plans.

Health care providers, in addition to burnout, lack much-needed resources to administer vaccines. Plus, their job is made even harder because both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine have a short six-hour shelf life. As one Twitter user aptly described the current state of vaccine efforts:

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About and

Corinne Ahrens is a recent graduate of The American University where she studied Political Science with a specialization in Gender, Race, & Politics as well as Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Corinne has been writing for Ms. since October 2019 and is a former Ms. editorial intern. She currently works at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy in their Philadelphia office.
Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.