The Weekly Pulse: Delta Variant Arrives in U.S.; Naomi Osaka Speaks Out on Mental Health; VA to Provide Gender Confirmation Surgery

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: The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving to provide gender confirmation surgery through its health-care coverage; the U.S. Conference of Bishops plans to withhold communion from Biden due to his stance on abortion; two Americas emerge as the Delta variant spreads; and new study suggests there is no cure for aging.

Repro Run Down: U.S. Bishops Deny Biden Communion Over Abortion

+ Groups within the reproductive rights community urge Congress to pass the Global HER Act, a bill that would prevent future presidents from enacting the global gag rule. The global gag rule not only prohibits U.S. foreign aid for abortion care; it also prevents foreign organizations from using their own, non-U.S. funds to provide abortion services, information, counseling, referrals or advocacy. Since its creation in 1984, the policy has been repeatedly issued by Republican presidents and rescinded by Democratic presidents.

Contrary to many Republican talking points, evidence suggests the global gag rule is not effective in decreasing the number of abortions in the most affected countries. Biden rescinded the global gag rule at the beginning of his administration, but a Republican president could easily reinstate the policy if elected in the next presidential election.

+ The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving to provide gender confirmation surgery through its health care coverage. The VA’s current relationship with transgender active and non-active-duty service members differs greatly from the Trump administration, which banned transgender people from joining the armed forces and penalized transgender active-duty members for not presenting as the gender they were assigned at birth.

The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates approximately 134,000 transgender veterans and 4,000 veterans who would be interested in this surgery. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said, “This time will allow VA to develop capacity to meet surgical needs that transgender veterans have called for and deserved for a long time,” and describes the prevalence of suicidal ideation amongst transgender veterans, “suicidal thoughts and mental illnesses are experienced at a far higher rate for LGBTQ veterans than those outside of the community… We’re making these changes not only because they’re the right thing to do but because they can save lives.”

+ The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to move forward with a process that could potentially deny President Biden from receiving communion due to his stance on abortion. This decision comes after Biden implemented a series of pro-abortion polices like rescinding the global gag rule, reversing the HHS stance on mailing abortion pills, and most recently, excluding the Hyde Amendment from his 2021 budget proposal. Biden is only the second Catholic to be elected as president, the first being JFK. When Kennedy ran for president, many were concerned about his ability to govern independently from the Catholic Church. In his famous address to the Houston gathering of Southern Baptist clergy, Kennedy said, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Nearly 60 years later, similar concerns are circling about President Biden. It is unclear whether the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will withhold holy communion from President Biden, because they are receiving significant pushback from the Vatican.

The Weekly Pulse: Delta Variant Arrives in U.S.; Naomi Osaka Speaks Out on Mental Health; VA to Provide Gender Confirmation Surgery
Then-President-Elect Joe Biden at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on September 15, 2019—56 years after a bombing that killed four young girls. (Adam Schultz / Biden for President)

+ Across the country, Republican governors are signing laws that effectively criminalize abortion at six weeks of pregnancy. Republicans insist “heartbeat bans” are not a complete ban on abortion, but a new article from Insider explains how getting an abortion at six weeks of pregnancy is nearly impossible. First, faulty pregnancy tests are not uncommon, and some women may want to schedule an appointment with their ob-gyn to confirm the results. But it can take weeks to schedule an appointment with an ob-gyn. Dr. Stephanie Ross, an ob-gyn and maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of South Florida, said, “I think the biggest point to make here is that in the U.S., 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned.”

Women not actively trying to get pregnant do not always track their menstrual cycles. Many women naturally experience irregular periods and anything from stress to exercise can affect a woman’s period. Secondly, most embryos at the six-week mark are “barely noticeable” on an ultrasound. So, if a woman does manage to schedule an appointment and they perform an ultrasound, a simple medical error could trick a woman into thinking that she is not pregnant. Finally, finding an abortion provider can be very difficult, especially in Southern states—like Texas—which have implemented laws to drive abortion clinics out of business.

The Delta Variant Arrives in America

The Weekly Pulse: Delta Variant Arrives in U.S.; Naomi Osaka Speaks Out on Mental Health; VA to Provide Gender Confirmation Surgery
The Delta variant now accounts for 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the United States (Creative Commons)

+ Navajo Nation leads the United States in vaccination efforts with 60 percent of its total population vaccinated. Dr. Loretta Christensen, acting chief medical officer of the Indian Health Service (IHS) who is also the chief medical officer for IHS operations on the Navajo Nation (NAIHS), attributes their success to their adaptability and community commitment.

The Navajo Nation was hit hard by the pandemic, with cases surpassing that of New York in late May. Indigenous communities outside of the Navajo Nation are also seeing similar vaccination rates. Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, an Indigenous-led group that aims to increase visibility for Native nations, told Al Jazeera, “Native peoples are choosing to get vaccinated to protect and care for our community—something that is deeply ingrained in our Indigenous values. Native leadership and Native-led solutions are critical, it’s time that this country prioritizes bringing more Native leaders to the table.”

+ The White House will donate 41 million vaccine doses to COVAX—an international vaccine fund supported by the Word Health Organization, 14 million doses to countries in Latin America, 16 million doses to Asia and 10 million doses to Africa. But Biden’s goal of shipping these vaccine doses by the end of the month will likely go unmet due to logistical challenges. Biden committed to donating 55 million vaccine doses for global use at the G7 summit, in an attempt to rebuke criticism that the United States has been unfairly hoarding vaccine supply and information. 

+ Top health experts cast doubt on the lab leak theory, and ask the international community to explore other theories. The lab leak theory was popularized by the Trump administration after the intelligence community began to question the origins of COVID-19. The lab leak theory suggests the virus escaped a virology lab in Wuhan, China. China vehemently denied those allegations and retaliated with accusations that the virus was somehow created by the United States.

In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent a team to interview researchers at the virology lab in Wuhan, China, but did not perform a forensic investigation. The lack of attention from the World Health Organization (WHO) is likely due to China’s unwavering disapproval of any formal investigation. On May 28, Mike Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said the WHO had been placed in an “impossible position to deliver the answers that the world wants.”

+ Israeli study suggests people with vitamin D deficiencies are more likely to die from COVID-19. The study conducted in a Galilee hospital found that 26 percent of vitamin D deficient coronavirus patients died, whereas only 3 percent of non-vitamin D deficient patients died. The principal investigator, Dr. Amiel Dror said, “In short, after conducting this study I would say to people that during this pandemic, you certainly want to make sure that you have adequate vitamin D, because if you contract the coronavirus, it will help you.”

+ For years now, the American public has questioned the ethics of the U.S. prison system due to its inhumane treatment of prisoners, and living conditions. The pandemic has only exasperated existing issues. In the first week of June alone, there were 310 new COVID-19 cases in prisons in the United States. One study found that holding people in jail for just a few hours or days was strongly associated with an increase in COVID-19 cases.

When the pandemic emerged, prisons failed to adequately decrease their population, leading to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Prisons could have decreased their numbers considerably if they had responded to compassionate release requests, but the wardens failed to do so. Under federal guidelines, prisons can order the release for terminally ill prisoners if they do not pose a danger to the community. Compassionate releases are rare, and each state has different rules, but if there were ever a time to initiate compassionate release orders it would be during a global pandemic.

There are also ongoing issues with vaccinations. On March 30, a New York judge ordered Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) to give vaccines to incarcerated people, after prisoners spent two months petitioning the courts. Overwhelmingly, states are failing to vaccinate their incarcerated populations—and none are more affected than juvenile detention centers and immigration centers.

+ Biden set a goal to vaccinate 70 percent of the U.S. population by July 4, but with one week left, vaccination rates are not improving. States are desperate to vaccinate as many people as possible before the Delta variant becomes the dominant strain of COVID in the United States.

Some states have gone as far as to implement an incentive program but, “People aren’t buying it. The incentives don’t seem to be working—whether it’s a doughnut, a car or a million dollars,” said Irwin Redlener at the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University.

Currently, the Delta variant accounts for 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the United States. The Delta variant is more contagious and deadlier than other strains of COVID-19. Public health professionals and pandemic researchers are concerned that “two Americas” will emerge—the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Polling suggests that only 52 percent of Republicans said that they were either partially or fully vaccinated whereas 77 percent of Democrats said they were vaccinated. Unvaccinated people risk severe illness and an increased chance of death if they contract the Delta variant.

+ Nearly half of the country has been fully vaccinated against the country, but some states are falling behind. States like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wyoming have fully vaccinated less than 35 percent of residents. Addressing the Delta variant and an uptick in cases, Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said, “Connecticut, for example where I am, shows no upsurge of infection, but Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, show very substantial upsurges of infection. That’s based entirely on how much population wide immunity you have based on vaccination.” Right-wing extremists have politicized COVID-19 vaccines and continue to spread misinformation about the pandemic to their own detriment. Vaccines are only to protect against the Delta variant.

+ Japan announces new COVID-19 restrictions for the Summer 2021 Olympic Games. Local spectators will be allowed at the games, but capacity has reduced by 50 percent—meaning up to 10,000 domestic fans will be able to attend any sporting game. However, if the pandemic worsens, Japan has threatened to cancel all crowds. One Ugandan Olympic coach made headlines after testing positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Japan. 

New Research and Culture

+ Medicaid enrollment hits a new high during the pandemic as people suffer job losses and pricey hospital fees. From February 2020 to January alone, 9.7 million people enrolled in Medicaid. Part of this Medicaid boom has to do with the expansion of Medicaid in last year’s COVID relief package. The law offered financial incentives to states that failed to expand Medicaid coverage in the past.

“We’ve really seen how important Medicaid is to ensuring the overall health of our country and have seen this through the pandemic,” said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator.

+ Better sit down for this one Twilight fans: A new study suggests that immortality is unattainable. Humans have long struggled with their own mortality, hence their obsession with sparkly vampires who do not appear to age. The beauty industry has made billions of dollars exploiting this insecurity—selling anti-aging creams, and rejuvenating face masks—but it all appears to be in vain.

The study found that we cannot slow the rate at which we are due to biological constraints. Researchers suggest that humans are experiencing longer lifelines because we have adopted healthier lifestyles, not because we are on the precipice of cracking the immortality code.

“More and more people get to live much longer now. However, the trajectory towards death in old age has not changed. This study suggests evolutionary biology trumps everything and, so far, medical advances have been unable to beat these biological constraints,” said José Manuel Aburto from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.

+ In late May, famous tennis player, Naomi Osaka, walked away from the French Open after being fined $15,000 for not speaking to the press. Osaka explained that she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking engagements. Osaka’s story adds to an on-going issue of mental health within the sporting world. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 42 percent of Americans are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. That is nearly half of the country, and yet athletes are being held to a different standard. Olympian Michael Phelps, made national headlines when he talked about his battle with depression and the importance of therapy. Serena Williams, an Olympian and winner of 23 Grand Slam tournaments, has recently spoken out about her experience with postpartum depression. It is important for more athletes like Osaka, Phelps, and Williams, to raise awareness and end the stigma associated with mental health. It is equally important for the institutions that profit off of athletes to provide them with the resources and support they need.

+ In Our Own Voice and a coalition of Black women’s organizations released the Black Reproductive Justice Policy Agenda, which outlines policy solutions to address challenges faced by Black women through a reproductive justice lens. “Too often, policies are formulated and written into law without a full understanding of how those policies may impact the everyday life of real people,” said In Our Own Voice president and CEO Marcela Howell. “This Black policy agenda presents proactive solutions grounded in a human rights framework and Black feminist theory, which we believe provides a clearer view of the needs of Black communities.”

+ SisterSong launches Catching Light, an online photography and audio exhibit that features Black midwives and birth workers, with the goal “preserving” their stories and addressing the unique challenges Black pregnant women face. 

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Kristen Batstone is a senior at American University studying women, gender, sex and sexuality studies with a specialization in social sciences. She is currently the health policy intern for the National Women's Health Network in Washington, D.C.