The Weekly Pulse: Tracking New COVID Strains; Biden Rescinds Global Gag Rule; Vaccine Updates

The Weekly Pulse: Tracking New COVID Strains; Biden Rescinds Global Gag Rule; Vaccine Updates
(Clockwise from top left: Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons / @CNNPolitics / @TerryReintke)

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 edition, we’re bringing you the most up-to-date information on the new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus; a look at the challenges to vaccine distribution; an update on President Biden’s health-related executive orders; and as always, a rundown of the current wins and losses in the fight to protect reproductive rights.

Pandemic Updates: Experts Monitor Emergence of More Contagious Coronavirus Strains

+ Worldwide, there have now been more than 100 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. With more than 2 million deaths, the fatality rate of the disease sits slightly above 2 percent.

+ In the U.S., January was the most deadly month of the pandemic so far, and the CDC’s current projections show the number of U.S. deaths could reach 514,000 by February 20. In the U.S., more than 425,000 people have died and the number of infections accounts for 25 percent of the world’s cases.

+ Public health officials are continuing to monitor more contagious strains of coronavirus that have emerged in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced preliminary evidence shows the new strain (known as B.1.1.7) is possibly more deadly than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, although the evidence is still being assessed by the British government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. The strains originating in South Africa (B.1.351) and Brazil (B. do not seem to be more deadly, but they do spread more rapidly

+ In response to the emergence of new viruses, President Biden reinstated a travel ban on countries where the new strains are widespread. Additionally, the CDC will continue to require all air passengers entering the U.S. to have a negative COVID-19 test or documentation of recovery from COVID-19. It’s unclear how much the travel ban will help, given that it only applies to certain U.S. non-citizens and some of the strains have already been reported in a number of U.S. states. 

+ Experts say upgrading or doubling up on masks can further help prevent the spread of the more contagious variants—as well as the continued use of current prevention measures, like limiting trips outside the home, washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face.

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Supply Issues Slow Vaccine Rollout: “Worse Than We Imagined”

+ Across the country, state officials in charge of vaccine distribution are frustrated by the lack of information surrounding vaccine distribution. The Biden administration entered office without the benefit of inheriting any meaningful vaccine distribution plans or infrastructure from the Trump administration, so they more or less must start from scratch.

Jeff Zients, the new administration’s COVID-19 czar, described the obstacles during a call with reporters: “What we’re inheriting from the Trump administration is so much worse than we could have imagined. We don’t have the visibility that we would hope to have into supply and allocations.”

While the White House remains committed to its goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, President Biden expressed hope that the U.S. will potentially be able to administer as many as 1.5 million vaccinations per day.

The Weekly Pulse: Tracking New COVID Strains; Biden Rescinds Global Gag Rule; Vaccine Updates
Army Spc. Angel Laureano holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD / Lisa Ferdinando)

+ Vaccine supply issues remain a major hurdle to mass inoculation. Even in states like West Virginia that have done a relatively good job of organizing vaccine distribution, the lack of vaccine supply is slowing down vaccination efforts. The Biden administration is negotiating with vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer to buy 200 million more doses, but they may not be available until summer.

+ The two vaccines authorized in the U.S. have so far been as safe as pre-authorization clinical trials showed them to be, according to a CDC report released on January 27 composed of data collected through the CDC’s “v-safe” after vaccination heath checker program, which allows those who’ve received the vaccine to report their symptoms via text message. 

The v-safe data shows that among those who reported symptoms within seven days of receiving at least one dose, roughly 70 percent reported pain, 33 percent fatigue, 30 percent headaches and 23 percent muscle pain. Approximately 11 percent reported chills, fever or swelling, while 10 percent reported joint pain and less than 9 percent reported nausea.

+ While experts generally expect the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine to offer some degree of protection against new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they are closely monitoring the situation. Both companies are working on tweaking their vaccine or creating a booster shot to better protect against the more contagious strains.

+ Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine also seems to offer protection against different variants, but at a lower rate: an efficacy rate of 72 percent in the U.S. versus 57 percent in South Africa, where a more contagious strain is fueling the majority of cases.

+ There is still conflicting advice about whether or not those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) does not currently recommend vaccinating pregnant people—unless they are at high risk of exposure—because there is not enough data on how the vaccines might affect pregnancy. 

In contrast, the CDC does recommend pregnant people get the vaccine, since they seem to be at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness and the possibility of adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth. “Based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant,” the CDC website says. Similarly, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine issued a joint statement criticizing the WHO’s recommendation against vaccinating pregnant people. 

Repro Rundown

+ On Thursday, President Biden rescinded the global gag rule (also known as the Mexico City Policy)—a regulation barring U.S. foreign aid from being used to both perform and promote abortion services. 

“The global gag rule has had a sweeping effect on lifesaving health care in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, (D-NH)—the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is shameful that the Trump administration chose to not only implement but exponentially expand this ill-conceived policy to historic proportions.”

+ The Polish government has announced that a contentious ruling imposing a near total-ban on abortion will soon come into effect. Abortion will only be allowed in cases of rape, incest or the pregnant person’s life being in danger.  This comes three months after the original ruling gave rise to the largest protests in the country’s recent history—and protestors began gathering once again in Warsaw and other Polish cities late Wednesday. 

+ Oklahoma senator Nathan Dahm has filed three anti-abortion bills for the 2021 legislative sessions to prohibit abortion procedures and limit state Planned Parenthood funding. 

  • Senate Bill 612 would create a new law making abortion illegal in the state unless it is required to save the life of the pregnant person in a medical emergency.
  • SB 723 would classify violation of the Heartbeat Informed Consent Act as unprofessional conduct for doctors and prohibit them from obtaining or renewing their medical license in the state if they do violate the act.
  • SB 584 would make it illegal for state funds to go to Planned Parenthood or any of its affiliates. 

+ In Kentucky, a bill requiring medical providers to “do all that they can” to preserve the life of a “born alive infant” has become law. This is the first abortion-related bill Gov. Andy Beshear hasn’t vetoed—and he allowed this one to become law without his signature officially attached. 

Senate Bill 9 requires that the abortion provider “take all medically appropriate and reasonable steps to preserve the life and health of a born-alive infant,” as well as providing any nourishment, medical care, medical treatment and/or surgical care that they deem medically appropriate.

+ Republicans in the Iowa House have advanced a bill requiring physicians to provide patients seeking medication abortions information about reversing the pill’s intended effects. This information is unproven and scientifically disputed. 

“It is unethical and dangerous for politicians to require medical professionals to share inaccurate information to promote a political agenda,” Jamie Burch Elliott, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa, said in a statement. 

+ In a 166-7 vote, Thai lawmakers have decided to legalize abortion procedures up to 12 weeks in the pregnancy. This decision does not remove penalties for later terminations. 

+ Earlier this week, the Montana House advanced four bills that would limit abortion access within the state. 

Three of the four bills are repeats of similar legislation vetoed by former Gov. Steve Bullock, a democrat, before the election of Gov. Greg Gianforte, a republican who has promised to “defend life.” They are:

  • House Bill 136—a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation;
  • HB 140—a requirement that providers give patients the opportunity to view an ultrasound before the procedure;
  • HB 171—a requirement that abortion pills be administered in-person;
  • HB 167—asking voters to approve a requirement that babies “born alive” during abortion procedures receive medical care. 

+ On Monday, the Supreme Court voided past rulings from a lower court that upheld a near total ban on abortions in Texas from early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. The order from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ended during summer 2020 and allowed abortions to resume, but Planned Parenthood noted that leaving the rulings on the books would set an extremely harmful legal precedent. 

+ Two lawmakers in Utah are pushing for menstruating prisoners to continue receiving contraceptives while incarcerated within the state. If approved, prisons would be required to provide inmates the option to continue their medically prescribed method of contraception. 

“If the medication is stopped, when the individual is released, the protection of the medication is gone and won’t be regained for at least another month back on the closing,” House Bill 102 sponsor Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost wrote on Twitter. “There are literally dozens of health conditions, besides pregnancy prevention, for which hormonal contraceptives are used.”

+ Last year in Missouri, new restrictions caused a drop in abortions performed at the state’s only provider. No surgical abortions were performed in December 2020, with only seven in November. During those months in 2019, the numbers were nine and five.  The Missouri Department of Health and Human Services also said that only 39 surgical abortions occurred within the state from January 1 through November 15, 2020. In 2019, that number was 1,362. 

+ Senators in South Carolina have discreetly added exceptions for rape and incest to a bill that attempts to ban almost all abortions within the state. The state bill aims to outlaw abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detectable which is around the eighth week of pregnancy—a time when many still do know if they are pregnant. The bill would also fine doctors $10,000 for failing to check if there is a fetal heartbeat, or performing the abortion with knowledge of a heartbeat. 

President Biden Tackles Public Health and Other Issues Through Executive Actions

+ President Biden issued a record number of executive orders during his first week in office, many of which have a direct impact on public health. Some of the key actions include:

  • An executive order aimed at tackling the climate crisis. The order puts the climate crisis at the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security. It also commits to a government-wide approach to the climate crisis, including an emphasis on conservation efforts, public health, an economic transition to create green energy jobs and pursuing climate justice.

  • An executive order that strengthens Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in order to make “high-quality healthcare accessible and affordable for every American.” The order reopens the ACA’s federal exchanges and directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to consider instituting a special enrollment period to help people enroll in health insurance during the pandemic. 

  • A memorandum acknowledging how discriminatory housing practices by the federal government have contributed to “ongoing legacies of residential segregation and discrimination.” These practices created “systemic barriers to safe, accessible, and affordable housing for people of color, immigrants, individuals with disabilities, and [LGBTQ+] individuals.” The memorandum signals the Biden administration’s commitment to “applying and enforcing Federal civil rights and fair housing laws.”

  • A memorandum “on restoring trust in government through scientific integrity and evidence-based policy making.” We’ve already seen the effects of the Biden administration’s commitment to a science-based approach. In contrast to the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, scientists and public health officials like Dr. Fauci are being allowed to speak honestly and openly to the American public. 

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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.