The Weekly Pulse: An “All-Out Assault” on Abortion; House Passes Equality Act; Virus Variants Threaten Pandemic Progress

A May 2018 protest in Chicago against Trump’s imposition of the gag rule. (Charles Edward Miller / Flickr)

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.

This week, the CDC director is warning Americans to continue to take the pandemic seriously as virus variants threaten progress on the pandemic; the latest on the “all-out assault” being waged on abortion rights; and other pieces of health news you should know.

CDC Director: B.1.1.7 Variant “Looms Ready To Hijack Our Successes To Date”

+ COVID cases and deaths have been on a relatively steady decline since January, when the daily average for new cases was 250,000. However, heading into March the case numbers are starting to plateau at around 65,000 cases daily. Public health officials are worried that our progress against COVID-19 could become undone, as the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant spreads and some states relax restrictions on restaurants, mask mandates and in-person gatherings

During a briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned, “Cases in the country are leveling off at rates just on the cusp of potential to resurge,” and the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant “looms ready to hijack our successes to date.” At a press briefing on March 1, President Biden warned against rolling back public health measures too soon, saying “we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.” 

He added, “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close… continue wearing your well-fitted mask and taking the other public health prevention actions that we know work.”

+ In an effort to bolster mask compliance, President Biden’s coronavirus response team announced it will be delivering 25 million masks to food banks and community health centers. The masks are free and available in both adult and child sizes. 

+ This week, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, announced he would let the state’s mask mandate expire on March 10. He also sad Texas would “100 percent reopen” next week. Texas is the most populous state yet to lift a previously established mask mandate, joining Montana, North Dakota, Iowa and Mississippi. A number of other states never instated a statewide mask mandate to begin with. 

Governor Abbott’s decision is drawing sharp criticism. Dr. Anthony Fauci called the decision, “inexplicable.” President Biden called out politicians easing restrictions, calling it “Neanderthal thinking” to believe that “everything’s fine.”

+ A new report by the CDC found state mask mandates led to a “statistically significant” decline in COVID-19 cases. The same report also pointed out that dining on a restaurant’s premises was associated with a county-level increase in COVID-19 cases. Some businesses in Texas—including Target, Walmart and Kroger—say they’re committed to keeping mask mandates for customers, but it remains to be seen how well the rules will be enforced.

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Vaccine Rollout: A Vaccine for “Every Adult in America by the End of May”

+ Following the FDA’s emergency use authorization of the single-dose COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson and a manufacturing deal with Merck, President Biden declared, “We’re now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May.” But even once the United States is able to manufacture enough vaccines for all Americans, there are still the logistical issues of delivering and administering the vaccine. It could still take several months to administer all those doses.

The news is not only good for Americans, but for people across the globe because, as a Johnson & Johnson press release states, the vaccine “is compatible with standard vaccine storage and distribution channels with ease of delivery to remote areas.” Unlike other COVID-19 vaccines, the J&J vaccine only requires standard refrigeration, unlike other COVID-19 vaccines which need to be kept extremely cold—posing a barrier to delivery in rural places and developing nations. 

+ Vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. poses a challenge to vaccinating enough people to reach herd immunity. In the past, Dr. Fauci estimated between 75 and 80 percent of people in a population need to be inoculated in order to reach herd immunity. A study published by Johns Hopkins University last month found COVID-19 vaccine acceptance during the last two weeks of January fell both in the United States and globally. 

In an effort to address vaccine hesitancy—which is especially high in the Black community due to systemic racism in medicine—the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Black Coalition Against COVID launched a campaign called THE CONVERSATION: Between Us, About Us. The campaign is creating a “living video library” of Black doctors, nurses and health care workers answering questions about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Repro Rundown

+ Republicans in state legislatures across the country are waging an “all-out assault” on the rights of women and pregnant people. In just the first two months of 2021, eight abortion restrictions and bans have been enacted:

  • South Carolina: a ban on abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy (has been temporarily blocked in court).
  • Kentucky: a law that grants additional authority to the state’s attorney general to penalize and close abortion clinics.
  • Arkansas: a program with two restrictions requiring those seeking an abortion to call a state-supported hotline for information on pregnancy resources and services; and abortion providers are required to document the hotline call in the patient’s medical records and with the state.
  • Ohio: a ban on the use of telemedicine for prescribing medication abortion.
  • Kentucky and South Dakota: laws that penalize physicians for not taking “medically unnecessary” actions for an aborted fetus, despite both states having existing laws that provide legal protections for a fetus delivered after an abortion.
  • Kansas: an initiative for the August 2022 ballot that, if supported by voters, would amend the Kansas constitution to explicitly exclude abortion rights.

+ Leaders of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus and the Democratic Women’s Caucus joined seven Democratic senators in calling upon President Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from the fiscal 2022 budget. These restrictions include the Hyde Amendment, the Helms Amendment and the Weldon Amendment. 

“The pandemic yet again showed the long-standing structural racism and inequities in our health care system, with communities of color, particularly those in the Black, Latinx, and Pacific Islander communities, and Indigenous people facing high rates of infection and death from COVID-19,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are ready to work with the Biden Administration to undo harmful abortion access policies that have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

+ While many joked that the increased closeness of widespread COVID-19 lockdowns would create a new “baby boom,” the opposite seems to be true as we enter a “baby bust.” Twenty-nine state health departments provided CBS News with provisional birth rate data that shows a roughly 7.3 percent decline in births in December 2020. 

Even though birth rates have been steadily falling for almost a decade, Phil Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, remarked that December’s drop was the largest he’s seen since the “baby boom” ended in 1964. 

“The scale of this is really large,” Cohen said in an interview. “Regardless of whether you think it’s good or bad to have a lot of children, the fact that we’re suddenly having fewer means things are not going well for a lot of people.”

+ In Arkansas, a bill to ban nearly all abortions in the state is heading to the governor’s desk after being approved by lawmakers on Wednesday. The legislation bans all abortions except those required to save the life of the pregnant person in case of emergency and does not include any exceptions for rape or incest. 

+ As Venezuela begins its eighth year of economic crisis, millions of people with uteruses are no longer able to find or afford contraceptives, forcing many into unplanned pregnancies. With the cost and availability of birth control out of reach, individuals are increasingly turning to abortions, which are illegal and often dangerous. 

This is especially difficult at a time when people “can barely feed the children they already have,” Julie Turkewitz and Isayen Herrera report for the New York Times.

House of Reps Passes Equality Act

+ In a vote of 224-206, the House passed a bill that would preserve and solidify LGBTQ+ protections in U.S. labor and civil rights laws. 

The Equality Act amends existing civil rights laws to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identification as protected characteristics, and extends protections to employment, housing, loan applications, education, public housing and other areas, the Associated Press reports. 

“The LGBT community has waited long enough,” said Rep. David Cicilline, the bill’s lead sponsor and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. “The time has come to extend the blessings of liberty and equality to all of Americans regardless of who they are and who they love.”

Other Health News

+ During the first two weeks of an extended enrollment period ordered by President Biden, over 200,000 Americans signed up for Affordable Care Act health plans.

+ A new study from the WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) has highlighted the urgent need to promote healthy eating habits among children in all European countries.

“A healthy diet includes high consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, daily breakfast consumption and discouraging routine consumption of nutrient-poor foods that are high in sugars, saturated fats, trans fats and salt,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, ad interim Program Manager, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity for WHO/Europe.

According to their findings, 78.8 percent of children eat breakfast, 42.5 percent have fresh fruit daily and 22.6 consume vegetables each day. Researchers also found that 10.3 percent of children have sweets each day and 9.4 percent have soft drinks daily.

+ In Michigan, legislation to “lower and cap” the cost of insulin has been approved by the House Health Policy Committee. House Bill 4346, sponsored by State Rep. Sara Cambensy, would create an insulin copay cap of $50 for a 30-day supply.

“Today was a great day for type-1 diabetics in Michigan who are enrolled in Michigan’s state sponsored healthcare plans,” said Cambensy. “Even though legislators do not have the authority to regulate all private or state employee health insurance plans, Medicaid or Medicare, my bill will give relief to almost 200,000 Michiganders struggling with the high cost of insulin. No one should have to risk their life rationing their insulin supply because the cost has more than quadrupled over the last two decades.”

+ According to a recent report from Fair Health, mental health insurance claims for U.S. teens roughly doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study found that mental health claims for patients aged 13 to 18 jumped 97 percent in March and 103.5 percent in April. Researchers also found that mental health claims were at least 19 percent higher in 2020 than 2019. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental health,” the authors of the report wrote. “Infection-related fears, bereavement, economic instability and social isolation have triggered and exacerbated mental health issues.”

“The findings in this report have implications for all those responsible for the care of young people, including providers, parents, educators, policy makers and payors,” the report said. “Fair Health hopes that these findings will also be starting points for further research in the field of pediatric mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

+ A new study indicates that concussions can increase the long-term risk of a wide range of sleep disorders. Researchers “found that people with [traumatic brain injury] had an increased risk of insomnia, sleep apnea, sleep-related movement disorders and excessive daytime sleepiness.” 

“Since sleep disorders affect people’s quality of life and their rehabilitation process, it will be important to develop strategies to identify these disorders early as well as prevent them from occurring after traumatic brain injuries to improve people’s overall health and quality of life,” said study author Dr. Yue Leng, an epidemiologist and sleep researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

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.