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 of The Pulse, we’ll be running down all you need to know about the current vaccination effort in the U.S.; the state of school reopenings; health and safety in the wake of winter storms; and a look at the ever-changing landscape of reproductive health rights and legislation.
Winter Storm Woes
+ This week, as the nation faced record-low temperatures paired with snow and ice storms, millions were left without electricity or heat. So far, 59 deaths ranging from carbon monoxide poisoning to car crashes to hypothermia have been confirmed and linked to the disaster.
+ In the chaos of the storms, Texas hospitals attempting to care for patients faced an array of issues and barriers due to freezing indoor temperatures, power outages, a scarcity of generators, water shortages and a spike in visits to the emergency room.
“There is nowhere to put anyone,” Dr. Sarah Olstyn Martinez, an emergency room doctor in an Austin hospital said on Facebook. “I don’t want to incite panic but I also want people to understand the severity of the situation in hopes that people will stay at home,” Martinez added. “We are bunking patients [two] to a room and boarding patients in hallways.”
Roberta L. Schwartz, an executive vice president and the chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist, reported that hospital workers were “hauling in water on trucks in order to flush toilets” and even “collected the rainwater” to deal with the shortage.
+ With excessive amounts of snow and ice accumulating, these winter storms have caused brutal road conditions and delayed the delivery of hundreds of thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccines across the country.
“We’re going to just have to make up for it: namely do double time when this thing clears up,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top pandemic adviser to President Biden.
White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki said the Biden administration was working closely with manufacturing and shipping companies to assess weather conditions and resume deliveries. On Thursday, the Houston Health Department said it would resume scheduled second-dose vaccinations over the weekend and schedule additional first and second-dose appointments in the following week.
Aside from Texas, states including New York, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Florida and California have acknowledged delays in vaccine rollout because of shipping delays.
Republicans in state legislatures across the country are waging an “all-out assault” on the rights of women and pregnant people to make their own decisions on abortion. According to NARAL, “In recent weeks, Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, Idaho and Mississippi, have all introduced or advanced extreme bans on abortion, state constitutional amendments to roll back the right to abortion, or other restrictions on reproductive freedom.” (Read more on these efforts below.)
These efforts could not be more out-of-touch: Seventy-seven percent of Americans, across party lines, support the landmark abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade, and 78 percent support abortion in at least some circumstances—solidifying a decisive outpouring of support for legal abortion.
STATE-LEVEL REPUBLICANS WAGE “ALL-OUT ASSAULT” ON ABORTION
+ SOUTH CAROLINA: The South Carolina House overwhelmingly approved a bill that will likely ban almost all abortions in the state—and Gov. Henry McMaster just signed it. The South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act has already passed in the Senate and House Judiciary Committee.
+ INDIANA: An anti-abortion bill requiring providers to share “unproven and unethical” information about medication abortion reversal has just passed in an Indiana House Committee and is moving to the House floor. HB 1577 also bans the medications for a chemical abortion to be ordered through tele-health.
“Abortion reversal is not safe, and it should not be offered to patients,” said Dr. Tracey Wilkinson, an Indiana pediatrician.
“HB 1577 would severely intrude into the doctor-patient relationship and in fact force clinicians to act highly unethically in providing both untrue and potentially dangerous information to their patients,” said Indiana ob/gyn Dr. Caitlin Bernard.
+ TENNESSEE: Two Tennessee lawmakers have introduced legislation that would allow a father to deny an abortion without the pregnant person’s consent. Republican Sen. Mark Pody and Rep. Jerry Sexton say this would be possible after the father petitions the court for an injunction against the procedure.
“This unconstitutional legislation demonstrates the condescending mindset underlying this bill: that men should control women’s bodies,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. “Women are not chattel and this bill needs to be stopped in its tracks.”
+ IDAHO: An Idaho state senate committee signed off on a bill that makes performing an abortion illegal after a fetal heartbeat can be detected—about five to six weeks into a pregnancy, well before many people even know they are pregnant. SB 1085 does have an exception for rape or incest that requires a court, police or a doctor to attest to the rape, but excludes medical emergencies where the pregnant person’s life is at risk.
+ UTAH: In a 7-4 vote, lawmakers in Utah rejected legislation that would have changed the state’s health and sexual education curriculum to include consent and the prevention of unwanted sexual behavior. According to Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange, the defeat of HB 177 was a small part of a larger “conservative pushback” with politicians falsely arguing that adding consent to the curriculum would teach students that is okay to have sex.
SOME MUCH-NEEDED GOOD NEWS
+ On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of legislators led by House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced legislation giving pregnant workers new accommodations and protections against retaliation from employers. “There’s a reason the [Pregnant Workers Fairness Act] passed last Congress with such overwhelming bipartisan support—not only does it keep workers and children healthier and safer, it makes our economy stronger and American businesses more productive,” Nadler said in a statement.
The Vaccine is Working. But Who’s Getting It?
+ As the country nears 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, the Biden administration said it has secured enough doses of vaccine to cover all Americans. This week, the Biden administration is pushing to deliver 2 million doses of the vaccine to the states, a 57 percent increase in the number of doses delivered weekly since President Biden took office. Nevertheless, the pace of vaccinations continues to face supply shortages and logistical challenges, prompting Dr. Fauci to push back his original vaccine timeline.
“It’s not like making shoes,” Dr. Fauci told ProPublica in an interview. “And the reason I use that somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy is that people say, ‘Ah, you know what we should do? We should get the [Defense Production Act] to build another factory in a week and start making mRNA.’ Well, by the time a new factory can get geared up to make the mRNA vaccine exactly according to the very, very strict guidelines and requirements of the FDA … we already will have in our hands the 600 million doses between Moderna and Pfizer that we contracted for. It would almost be too late.”
Dr. Fauci now believes the general public will be able to access the vaccine by late May or early June, although President Biden suggested the process of vaccinating so many people won’t near completion until the end of July. Additionally, Biden made it clear that the Trump administration’s lack of planning for vaccine distribution is making the process go much slower than it would have otherwise.
“While scientists did their job in discovering vaccines in record time, my predecessor—I’ll be very blunt about it—did not do his job in getting ready for the massive challenge of vaccinating hundreds of millions,” Biden said.
+ There was a 94 percent drop in symptomatic cases of COVID-19 among a group of 600,000 people in Israel who’ve received both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. The study confirms the high efficacy of Pfizer’s vaccine found during clinical trials. The group was also 92 percent less likely to have a severe case of COVID-19.
+ Public school teachers are still not eligible to get the vaccine in some states, and in others they’re having trouble accessing them. The debate surrounding school reopenings has been largely framed as parents against teachers, but the reality is more complicated.
Understandably, teachers are wary about whether or not adequate safety upgrades—like installing upgraded ventilation systems in classrooms—will come to fruition. Many parents, especially mothers, are at their breaking point when it comes to trying to juggle a career and helping their kids with online learning. At the same time, some parents are worried about their children returning to in-person learning. A CDC study found parents of color “were more concerned about some aspects of school reopening, such as compliance with mitigation measures, safety and their child contracting or bringing home COVID-19.”
During a town hall, President Biden said his goal is to have kindergarten through eighth grade students back at school within his first 100 days in office. He noted that getting high schoolers back to learning fully in-person would be more difficult because they are more susceptible to contracting and transmitting the virus.
Biden also said teachers should move up the vaccine priority list, but he has limited control over the issue because those decisions are decided on a state and local level. Previously, the CDC director said vaccinating teachers is “not a prerequisite” for reopening schools. Similarly, child care workers are having trouble getting the vaccine, despite their inclusion in Tier 1b of the CDC’s vaccination rollout recommendations.
+ Vaccine eligibility based on age seems like a logical and fair way to administer the vaccine. But in reality, age-based eligibility requirements are an example of systemic racism because Black and Hispanic Americans are less likely to be as old as white Americans. For example, just over 5 percent of people vaccinated against COVID-19 between December 14, 2020 and January 14, 2021 were Black, despite the fact that Black people make up around 13 percent of the population in the U.S. and are overrepresented in essential work.
Virus Variants Threaten Downward Trend of COVID-19 Cases
+ Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are less effective against new strains of the coronavirus, but Dr. Fauci emphasized that’s not a reason to avoid vaccination. While scientists consider creating updated versions of the vaccine, it’s still important to vaccinate the public as quickly as possible because, regardless of the strain, the vaccines do reduce the risk of severe illness and death when someone is infected. “You need to get vaccinated when it becomes available, as quickly and as expeditiously as possible throughout the country.” Dr. Fauci said.
+ With the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. dipping below 100,000 for the first time since early November, states including California and New York are set to reopen some businesses. However, scientists warn that reopening too quickly could cause a resurgence in cases, especially as more contagious strains of the coronavirus spread throughout the country.
Still, it’s unclear just how widespread the variants are because the U.S. lacks a well-funded national genomic surveillance program. Genomic surveillance refers to the practice of gathering genetic information about the virus from testing samples of people who have COVID-19. Using the genetic information, scientists can track where and how different strains of the virus are spreading.
“Genomic surveillance builds on the idea that when the virus is passed from person to person over a few months, it can acquire random variations in the sequence of its genetic material. These unique variations serve as distinctive genomic ‘fingerprints.’
When COVID-19 starts circulating in a community, researchers can fingerprint the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 obtained from newly infected people. This timely information helps to tell whether that particular virus has been spreading locally for a while or has just arrived from another part of the world. It can also show where the viral subtype has been spreading through a community or, best of all, when it has stopped circulating.”— Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health
Preliminary research suggests the U.K. variant of SARS-CoV-2 might be more lethal than other strains of the virus and it could be the most dominant strain in the U.S. as soon as March. The Biden administration recently announced it would allocate 200 million dollars for genomic surveillance. Additionally, a bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives includes 1.75 billion dollars for genomic sequencing.
+ Johnson & Johnson applied for emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its single-dose vaccine. While the White House said only “a few million” doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be available at first, the federal government contracted the company to deliver 37 million doses by the end of March and 100 million doses by the end of June. In clinical trials, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 72 percent effective in the U.S., although it was less effective against the South African strain of the virus.
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