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 edition: how to stay safe this Super Bowl season; a look at the Biden administration’s plan to reopen schools; updates on vaccine development; the future of post-pandemic travel; and, where we win and lose in recent reproductive health news.
What Does a COVID-Era Super Bowl Look Like?
With Super Bowl LV right around the corner, many wonder: What will a COVID-era Super Bowl look like?
+ Tampa Mayor Jane Castor expects Sunday’s face-off between the Buccaneers and the Chiefs to bring thousands of fervent fans to the area. “We are making sure this is a safe event for everyone,” said Castor at a press conference.
According to the NFL, the event’s host venue, Raymond James Stadium, will have “an abundance of safety protocols” and spacing “to allow a 20-foot buffer between fans and team personnel.”
The official attendance for the game will be 25,000 fans and 30,000 cutouts. Among the fans in the stands will be 7,500 vaccinated health care workers enjoying an all-expense paid trip as a ‘thank you’ for all their hard work fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and the NFL will recognize health care workers during the game.
+ Aside from those lucky few able to attend the game in-person, health experts are advising against Super Bowl parties for at-home spectators.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says this is “absolutely not” the time for Super Bowl parties or gatherings. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky reiterated this, saying, “Please watch the Super Bowl safely, gathering only virtually or with the people you live with.”
+ If these warnings are not enough, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has reported it is “highly likely” that watch parties and celebrations outside the Staples Center for the Lakers’ NBA Finals win contributed to the city’s COVID-19 spike.
“It is impossible to determine the exact exposures that contributed to this increase,’’ the agency said. “However, it is highly likely that gatherings to watch and/or celebrate the Lakers, along with any other gatherings that occurred 2-3 weeks ago where people weren’t wearing face coverings and were in close contact with each other, contributed to the rise in LA County cases.’’
Biden Administration Pushes for Schools to Reopen
+ For parents of school-age children across the U.S., school reopenings are a source of great frustration. According to a Washington Post survey conducted last summer, half of working parents said it would be “harder” or “impossible” to continue working if schools only provided online instruction during the fall. Online school has also been tough emotionally for children—and research shows the academic losses of pandemic learning have been the highest among children of color and children with disabilities.
On the other hand, some educators worry that reopening schools requires them to risk their own safety. Teachers are currently only eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in about half of U.S. states. There have been a string of clashes over reopenings between various teachers unions and school boards in recent weeks.
+ Reopening schools is a main focus of the Biden administration’s pandemic response plan, although the president empathized with a Chicago teacher’s strike. In one of his first executive orders, President Biden called on The Secretary of Education and The Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop guidelines for the safe reopening of schools.
Researchers at the CDC found that reopening schools with proper precautions is not significantly dangerous. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the CDC, said during a press briefing this week. President Biden’s pandemic relief proposal includes $130 billion in funds for K-12 schools, but the counter proposal—backed by ten Republican legislators—only includes $20 billion for K-12 schools.
“Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission (eg, restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants). In addition, all recommended mitigation measures in schools must continue: requiring universal face mask use, increasing physical distance by dedensifying classrooms and common areas, using hybrid attendance models when needed to limit the total number of contacts and prevent crowding, increasing room air ventilation, and expanding screening testing to rapidly identify and isolate asymptomatic infected individuals. Staff and students should continue to have options for online education, particularly those at increased risk of severe illness or death if infected with SARS-CoV-2.”— Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Infection
A nationwide study conducted in the fall by Tulane University found mixed results on whether or not school reopenings increased hospitalization rates in the local area. According to the lead researcher, Douglass Harris, the results support school districts making decisions based on local case rates and hospitalizations—rather than trying a national approach to reopening.
New Vaccines Show Promise for Global Fight Against COVID-19
+ Johnson & Johnson asked the FDA for emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine this week. In clinical trials the vaccine was 66 percent effective at preventing moderate and severe disease, and provided “complete protection against COVID-related hospitalization and death,” according to Johnson & Johnson. Unlike the vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer, the Johnson & Johnson shot only requires a single dose and can remain stable with normal refrigeration for up to three months. These characteristics give experts hope that the vaccine will help ease vaccination efforts worldwide.
+ According to a study by Oxford researchers, the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford protects against the more-contagious strain of the virus which originated in the U.K. (known as variant B.1.1.7). The study found “efficacy of [the AstraZeneca vaccine] against the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-CoV-2 is similar to the efficacy of the vaccine against other lineages.” While this is welcome news, it highlights the crucial need to vaccinate as much of the global population as possible before the virus mutates into a variant the current iteration of vaccines can’t protect against.
+ Nearly two months after the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved for emergency use in the U.S., less than 2 percent of Americans have been vaccinated. According to Dr. Fauci, between 70 and 85 percent of the U.S. population needs to be vaccinated before the country can return to normal. Until then, public health experts are stressing the importance of the public continuing to wear masks and practice social distancing because researchers have not yet concluded whether or not those who are vaccinated can still transmit the virus to others.
+ Despite efforts to vaccinate people disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, white and wealthy populations are being vaccinated at higher rates in many cities. This reality is yet another instance of the pandemic laying bare the consequences of the massive wealth disparities that exist in the U.S.
Elderly people are also having trouble getting vaccinated, despite being prioritized as high risk. Many of the online vaccination appointment websites are glitchy and difficult to navigate, favoring those who are computer savvy.
+ The pandemic caused heavy disruptions to international travel as many countries, including the U.S., placed restrictions on foreign travelers in an effort to control the spread of the virus. With the end of the pandemic in sight (at least for wealthy nations), those in the travel industry predict governments will soon require foreign travelers to have a “vaccine passport.”
The basic idea of a “vaccine passport” is for travelers to present some sort of universally-adopted documentation proving they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recovered from the disease. However, the idea raises questions about privacy, accessibility, and discrimination. Some worry that a “vaccine passport” opens the door for places such as restaurants and bars to require patrons to present proof of inoculation, but proponents of the idea say it could help speed up economic recovery.
Worrisome. Already access to COVID19 vaccines is very limited for developing countries and it will remain a challenge in the coming years.— María Gabriela Ayala (@magabrielaayala) February 4, 2021
A vaccine passport will only increase this inequality gap and limit migration rights.
+ Last Friday, researchers reported that antibodies that protect individuals against the coronavirus are often passed from the pregnant person to the infant during pregnancy.
Dr. Dustin Flannery, newborn specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, studied over 1,400 people who had given birth, and their newborns. The team found that the protective antibodies (IgG) were transferred across the placenta in 72 out of 83 infected or previously pregnant pregnant people studied.
“Our findings demonstrate the potential for maternally derived SARS-CoV-2 specific antibodies to provide neonatal protection from coronavirus disease 2019,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Pediatrics.
+ In the Iowa House, a bill with the potential to make contraceptive medications available to adult menstruating people without a prescription is now eligible for debate.
If the measure becomes law, Representative Ann Meyer (R-Fort Dodge) says persons “who show a photo ID to a participating pharmacist could get a three-month supply of contraceptive medications from behind-the-counter, then another year’s worth after that.”
+ On Tuesday, the Utah House passed a bill requiring prisons to continue giving contraceptive medication received prior to incarceration to menstruating inmates. This would include oral and injectable contraceptives, as well as intrauterine devices.
According to bill sponsor Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost (D-Salt Lake City), House Bill 102 would help prevent “poor outcomes” for pregnant people and children, “as well as save the state money incurred by Medicaid for complicated deliveries.”
“Current law is that all things that are medically necessary that an inmate is on should be continued when they go in the jail,” Rep. Ray Ward, (R-Bountiful), a medical doctor, told members of the House.
“Contraception is just a medicine. It’s medically necessary like other medicines,” Ward said. “My hope is today that we would think about that medicine as being the same as any other medicine.”
+ Republican legislators in Kansas have put a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution on the ballot for their August 2022 primary election. The Senate’s 28-11 vote overturns a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision declaring abortion access a “fundamental right” under the state’s bill of rights.
+ South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham reintroduced an act that would ban abortions in the state after 20 weeks.
+ In a 30-13 vote, senators in South Carolina passed a bill that would outlaw almost all abortions in the state. The measure requires doctors try to use an ultrasound to detect a fetal heartbeat if they believe the pregnant person to be at least eight weeks along. If a heartbeat is detected, the abortion may not be performed.
This action comes right after lawmakers discreetly added exceptions for rape and incest to a bill that attempts to ban almost all abortions within the state—continuing to make reproductive care inaccessible in South Carolina.