The Weekly Pulse: House Passes COVID Relief as U.S. Surpasses 500k Deaths

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, we observe the half a million American lives lost to COVID-19, update you on vaccination efforts both globally and domestically, and take a look at the state of reproductive rights.

U.S. Surpasses 500,000 COVID-19 Deaths: “For God’s Sake, Wear a Mask”

+ On Monday, President Joe Biden gave a speech at the White House to honor the more than half a million lives lost due to COVID-19 in the United States. It was only the day before President Biden’s inauguration when the U.S. marked 400,000 deaths. In his speech, Biden pointed out that more Americans have died in this pandemic than during World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. He urged the public “to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” and to make sure to “care for the living and those left behind.” 

+ The president had a message of hope just days later when he announced 50 million doses of vaccine had been administered since his inauguration. In his speech, Biden also noted the decreasing rate of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. However, he warned that case numbers could begin increasing again—especially as more transmissible variants of the virus spread and states ease restrictions

Even with the vaccine’s rollout, the U.S. is expected to surpass 574,000 deaths by June 1 based on a model created by researchers at the University of Washington. Biden warned, “This is not a time to relax. We must keep washing our hands, stay socially distanced, and for God’s sake—for God’s sake, wear a mask … the worst thing we could do now is let our guard down.”

COVID-19 Response:

J&J Vaccine Expected to Receive FDA Approval

+ According to an FDA analysis of the safety and efficacy of the single-shot vaccine developed by the company Johnson & Johnson, the vaccine is safe and effective—moving it one step closer to receiving emergency use authorization from the FDA. The approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will help increase the pace of vaccinations—both by increasing our supply of vaccines and because it only requires one dose, unlike the vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.  

Vaccination Efforts Rebound After Winter Storm

+ After a delay in vaccinations across the country due to winter storm Uri, the U.S. is administering more than 1.5 million doses of vaccine per day. But according to health experts, that’s not enough. The U.S. would need to reach a rate of vaccinating 3 million people per day within the next month in order to reach herd immunity by mid-summer.

Vaccinating people as quickly as possible is also crucial to preventing more vaccine-resistant strains of the virus from developing. More contagious strains of the virus are already circulating in the U.S. and early research shows the current iteration of vaccines are slightly less effective against certain variants.

We don’t yet know for certain the extent to which vaccines can reduce transmission of the virus—which is why you should continue to wear a mask even after being vaccinated. However, we do know being vaccinated means a person is much less likely to be infected in the first place. Therefore, health experts stress that people should get whichever vaccine becomes available to them first, even though there are different rates of efficacy associated with each company’s vaccine. 

House of Reps Passes COVID Relief 

+ The House of Representatives approved a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, and it’s now headed to the Senate. The bill includes direct economic relief, funding for combating the pandemic and billions of dollars in aid for state and local governments. The bill would provide support for reopening schools, which is an important step towards helping parents who’ve dropped out of the labor force due to a lack of childcare—usually mothers—get back to work.

To the disappointment of many activists, a key Senate official determined raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour cannot be included in the bill. Still, the bill provides a direct payment of $1,400 to Americans earning $75,000 or less, or $2,800 for couples earning $150,000 or less, plus a payment of $1,400 per dependent.

Democrats are pushing for the bill to be passed before federal unemployment benefits expire on March 14.


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The COVAX Crisis

+ When looking at the global vaccination effort, it’s clear that richer countries have used their wealth to buy up large reserves of COVID-19 vaccines, while poorer countries have been left behind. In order to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable populations receive vaccinations, global organizations came together to create COVAX

The initiative—formed by the World Health Organization, vaccine alliance GAVI and CEPI, a coalition for epidemic innovations—is intended to facilitate deals to buy vaccines in bulk from drug companies and allow shots to be donated from rich countries. They hope to deliver two billion doses worldwide this year. 

+ On Wednesday, Ghana became the first country to receive COVID vaccine through COVAX—600,000 doses! When the plane carrying the vaccines landed, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation journalist Abdul Hayi-Moomen declared: “The flight carrying the vaccines that we so much look forward to receiving, I believe hope has arrived.”

https://twitter.com/WHOAFRO/status/1364487485842161664?s=20

+ On Friday, Côte d’Ivoire became the second country to receive a shipment of the vaccine—504,000 doses!

“Today is an important first step towards achieving our shared vision of vaccine equity, but it is only the beginning,” said Jean-Marie Vianney Yameogo, the WHO Representative in Côte d’Ivoire, before adding, “we are proud that Côte d’Ivoire is among the first countries in Africa to receive the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine through the COVAX Facility.”

+ As we celebrate these first vaccine shipments making their way to countries in need, it’s important to note wealthier countries have continued to buy up more vaccines and undermine the COVAX program—prolonging the pandemic by stockpiling the scarce supply.

A recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that parts of Africa, South America and Asia will not achieve widespread immunization until at least 2023. “This is not a matter of charity. It’s a matter of epidemiology, ” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, head of the WHO.

Repro Rundown

+ A group of Democratic senators has called upon the Biden administration to establish an Office of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Wellbeing as part of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. According to a letter sent by the group, they believe the office is necessary in order to “more holistically address ‘the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy.’”

“Reproductive justice for all means addressing issues of health care access; economic inequality; discrimination based on race, gender identity, and sexual orientation; food security; housing stability; environmental justice; immigrant’s rights; disability rights; and so much more,” read the letter, which was led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, and signed by four additional Senate Democrats. 

+ During a midyear meeting on Monday, the ABA House of Delegates passed a resolution opposing the criminal prosecution of anyone who receives an abortion or experiences a miscarriage or stillbirth. Resolution 107A also encourages jurisdictions to repeal and oppose laws that criminalize people for terminating a pregnancy and make sure existing laws may not be used to prosecute anyone who has an abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. 

+ While testifying before the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday, Xavier Becerra (Biden’s pick for Health and Human Services secretary) was grilled on his health care experience and support for abortion. mUtah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney questioned Becerra’s decision to vote against a ban on partial birth abortion. Becerra responded that, “As attorney general, [his] job has been to follow the law and make sure others are following the law.”

+ A report published by the Guttmacher Institute found that Congress could prevent 19 million unsafe abortions globally by rescinding the Helms Amendment—a 1973 law prohibiting American foreign aid from being used to pay for abortions.  Researchers reported that the overall number of maternal deaths from unsafe abortions would decrease by 98 percent in the 33 countries effected by the Helms Amendment. They also found that there would be 17,000 fewer maternal deaths each year and 12 million fewer patients requiring medical treatment due to abortion-related complications. 

+ New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that every school in New Zealand will be stocked with free period products for menstruating students to address period poverty

“Young people should not miss out on their education because of something that is a normal part of life for half the population,” said Ardern on Tuesday. “Providing free period products at school is one way the government can directly address poverty, help increase school attendance, and make a positive impact on children’s wellbeing.”

+ A new study out of the U.K. offers the “first real-world evidence in a national population that no-test telemedicine abortion is just as safe and effective as in-person abortion health care,” Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D. reports. 

“We have now robust evidence that providing early medication abortion using a model that has no clinical tests and is done by telemedicine is just as safe and effective as a fully in-person model,” said the study’s lead author, Abigail Aiken, assistant professor in LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “That is particularly significant because we have so many state laws here in the U.S. that are set up to prevent exactly that type of a model from being put into place. This study is showing us that there is really no reason in terms of safety, or effectiveness, or indeed patient acceptability not to go ahead with that kind of model.”

+ The Supreme Court announced they will hear an appeal over a Trump administration policy that keeps taxpayer-funded clinics from referring patients for abortions. The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals previously struck down the rule, in a lawsuit filed by the city of Baltimore. An 11-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it.


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About and

Corinne Ahrens is an undergraduate student at American University studying 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 Ms. editorial intern.
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.