The Weekly Pulse: Red States See COVID Surge; 20 Dead in Miami Condo Collapse; WHO Advises Masks to Fight Delta Variant Spread

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 search continues for survivors after the Champlain Tower South Condominium collapse in Miami; Bill Cosby has been released from prison due to an error made by prosecutors; the reproductive and disability rights communities react to Britney Spears’s forced IUD; and states with lower vaccination rates are reporting a surge in COVID-19 cases amidst the Delta outbreak.

Miami Condo Collapse

+ As of Friday afternoon, 17 adults and three children have been found dead in the wreckage of the Miami condo collapse—with as many as 128 people still missing. More than 300 emergency personnel teams, including some from Mexico and Israel, are working hard to find survivors.

The 12-story building was built in 1981 and contains 136 apartment units. There are several theories as to why the building collapsed, but experts are focusing on a spot on the lowest part of the condominium, possibly below the parking garage. A structural failure that low could result in an avalanche, like what occurred last Wednesday. In October 2018, an engineering report flagged concerns about “major structural damage” but at the November board meeting of the Champlain Tower South Condominium Association, an official said, “The building is in very good shape.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the president supports a federal investigation into the building’s collapse.

Bill Cosby Released From Prison

The March Against Rape Culture and Gender Inequality in March 2012 in Boston. (Chase Carter / Flickr)

+ Bill Cosby has been released from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his conviction. The conviction was overturned due to errors made by prosecutors.

In 2018, Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of sexually assaulting Temple University employee Andrea Constand. Justice David Wecht of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote in the majority opinion:

“In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor D.A.s to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights… There is only one remedy that can completely restore Cosby to the status quo ante. He must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred.”

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty questioned the ethics of Trump lawyer Bill Castor’s deal with Cosby in the dissenting opinion. “If district attorneys had the power to dole out irrevocable get-out-of-jail-free cards at will and without judicial oversight, it would invite a host of abuses,” Dougherty wrote.

Let it be clear that Cosby is not being released from jail because he is innocent: He was convicted of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand and allegedly assaulted 60 women in total. Cosby is a perfect case study on how the justice system fails victims, and how powerful people, especially powerful men, are able to weasel their way out of the consequences.

In her full victim impact statement read at the sentencing, Constand read: “Bill Cosby took my beautiful, healthy young spirit, and crushed it. He robbed me of my health and vitality, my open nature, and my trust in myself and others.”

Repro Rundown: The Fight to Secure Our Rights and Free Britney

+ The State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee (SFOPS) excludes the Helms Amendment, for the first time in 40 years, from the fiscal 2022 spending bill. The Helms Amendment prohibits foreign assistance funds from going to abortion services—a policy that pushes the American political agenda on foreign countries and controls the reproductive health of low-income women abroad.

The policy changes will help 218 million people worldwide who have an unmet need for contraception and help prevent the estimated 299,000 women who die annually of pregnancy-related causes largely because they cannot access the care they need. In an official statement, Bethany Van Kampen, the senior policy manager at Ipas, said:

“By omitting the Helms Amendment from the SFOPS appropriations bill, the Subcommittee has taken an essential, life-saving step to promote comprehensive sexual and reproductive health, including abortion care, and to protect the bodily autonomy of millions of people living thousands of miles from the U.S.  We encourage the Appropriations Committee and the U.S. House to fight any effort to restore this harmful provision.”

+ A new report by the Guttmacher Institute details the impact of U.S. international family planning assistance in 2021. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States works to increase access to voluntary family planning services in over 30 countries. USAID tackles child marriages, gender-based violence, the integration of family planning services into maternal and child health interventions and HIV programming. USAID also collaborates with The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a multilateral organization that specializes in family planning services and maternal and child health care.

In the federal fiscal year (FY) 2021, Congress allocated $607.5 million in U.S. assistance to family planning programs overseas, including $32.5 million for UNFPA. If Congress were to increase its investment in family planning programs to $1.17 billion in FY 2022, the estimated number of unintended pregnancies averted would increase from 12 million to 22.5 million, and the number of maternal deaths averted would increase from 19,000 to 36,000. These numbers indicate the incredibly influential role the United States has played in mitigating reproductive health issues abroad.

+ The House passed two pieces of legislation to promote credit fairness for LGBT-owned businesses and ensure veterans can access birth control through their healthcare without copays. The second bill, providing birth control coverage to veterans without copays, passed 245-181, with 26 Republicans joining Democrats in support. Some Republicans, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, argued incorrectly that emergency contraception such as Plan B effectively amounted to abortion: “Contraception stops a woman from becoming pregnant. The Plan B pill kills a baby in the womb once a woman is already pregnant,” said Greene—a medically inaccurate statement, since emergency contraception stops the release of an egg and prevents fertilization, meaning emergency contraception cannot be likened to abortion. Furthermore, emergency contraception does not work if someone is already pregnant.

+ Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) signed a bill into law that would immediately outlaw all abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. The so-called trigger law is not the first of its kind with states like Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and more enacting similar laws. Under the ban, Texas doctors could face life in prison or a $100,000 fine if they perform abortions. There are no exceptions for risk of suicide or instances of rape or incest, but the bill does make exceptions for women who face death or “substantial impairment of major bodily function.”

+ North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill that would ban abortions based on a prenatal diagnosis of down-syndrome. On Monday, House Republicans put the bill back on the agenda for a vote to override the governor’s veto, but the vote was bumped to July 21.

North Carolina Republicans need 30 votes in the Senate and 72 votes in the House to override the governor’s veto. This would not be the first time the North Carolina legislature overturned the governor’s veto. In April 2019, Governor Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 359, a born alive policy that requires doctors to save a fetus if it shows signs of vitality post-abortion, and the North Carolina legislature overturned the governor’s veto. In his veto statement, Cooper said:

“This bill gives the government control over what happens and what is said in the exam room between a woman and her doctor at a time she faces one of the most difficult decisions of her life.”

+ The 2021 Ohio budget includes a harmful anti-abortion provision that requires abortion care providers to practice within 25 miles of a hospital or medical facility. The provision also includes language that allows a medical professional, health care institution or health care payer to “decline to perform, participate in, or pay for any health care service that violates the practitioner’s, institution’s, or payer’s conscience as informed by the moral, ethical, or religious beliefs or principles” they hold. Kersha Deibel, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood for the Southwest Ohio region, said:

“There is no medically necessary reason for this amendment and for all of these amendments. This amendment aims to shut down all abortion providers in Southwest Ohio and push essential health care out of reach for already struggling communities.”

+ On Tuesday, the Rhode Island Senate unanimously passed a bill that would make period products free in schools. “We all know how necessary feminine hygiene products are, but what many people do not realize… is that a lack of access to these products can cause students to miss crucial school days,” said state Senator Valerie Lawson, who sponsored the bill.

+ The reproductive rights community reacts to Britney Spears’s forced IUD. Spears has been under a court-ordered conservatorship for 13 years and is now speaking out against the oppressive acts committed by her family. According to Spears, she was forced to keep her IUD despite wanting another child: “I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby.”

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood tweeted: “We stand in solidarity with Britney and all women who face reproductive coercion,” and NARAL Pro-Choice America tweeted: “The freedom to choose if, when, and how to start or grow a family is the core of reproductive freedom.”

Disability activists have also commented on the parallels between Spears’s story and the lived experiences of people with disabilities. “They’re using her mental illness as a means to control her right to her body,” said disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley. “The choices she makes, the labor that she does or does not provide—in this case the labor that she’s being forced to provide—and she’s not able to make a single decision, on a daily basis, about her life without having it approved.”

+ After being the victim of revenge porn, former representative Katie Hill is asking her congressional colleagues to make the sharing of intimate pictures without consent a federal crime. Currently, 48 states and the District of Columbia have laws against revenge porn, but charges range from misdemeanor to felony depending on the state.

Hill was elected to the house in 2018 but resigned one year into her term when intimate pictures of her were leaked online. At the same time, Hill was under a House Ethics Committee investigation for allegations of an improper sexual relationship with a congressional staffer. Hill denied having a sexual relationship with a congressional staffer but did admit to having a relationship with a female staffer which she later called “inappropriate” and “against her better judgment.”

+ The Supreme Court will not hear arguments over a transgender bathroom dispute. The Supreme Court declined to take the case of transgender boy Gavin Grimm, who has been at the center of a long legal battle with Gloucester County, Virginia. The principal originally gave Grimm permission to use the boys’ bathroom, but the school board later adopted a policy that said restrooms were “limited to the corresponding biological genders.”

By declining the case, the Supreme Court has sided with the appeals court decision to affirm Grimm’s bathroom rights. “Being forced to use the nurse’s room, a private bathroom, and the girls’ room was humiliating for me, and having to go to out-of-the-way bathrooms severely interfered with my education,” Grimm said. “Trans youth deserve to use the bathroom in peace without being humiliated and stigmatized by their own school boards and elected officials.”

COVID-19: The Race to Vaccinate

+ In early June, top health officials began to voice their concerns about U.S. vaccination rates. Now that the Delta variant has arrived in the U.S., poorly vaccinated regions are seeing a surge in COVID cases. States with less than 50 percent of their eligible population vaccinated are experiencing an influx of hospitalizations. One influential model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicts an overall increase in hospitalizations and deaths by the fall, but poorly vaccinated areas will be hit the hardest.

The Washington Post suggests there is a clear trend between political affiliation and vaccination rates. Rural areas are often dominated by Republicans, where many are refusing to get the vaccine. Comparatively, bluer states like Vermont have vaccinated more than 80 percent of their eligible adult population, and the state has recently hospitalized just two people for COVID-19—compared to Arkansas, which has hospitalized 291 people.

(Washington Post)

Dr. Fauci has continuously said vaccines are the only solution to stopping the spread of the Delta variant: “There is a danger—a real danger — that if there is a persistence of a recalcitrance to getting vaccinated, that you could see localized surges, which is the reason why I want to emphasize what all four of us have said: All of that is totally and completely avoidable by getting vaccinated.”

+ New data from Israel reveals fully vaccinated people are still susceptible to the Delta variant. The Washington Post reports that about half of the people infected during the Delta variant outbreak in Israel were fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. Despite the surge of new cases, the Israeli government is confident that vaccines will prevent severe illness and hospitalizations.

+ The Delta variant is more contagious but not necessarily more dangerous. The variant has mutated to make itself better at latching onto cells in our bodies, thus making it more contagious, but there is not enough evidence to determine if the Delta variant is making people sicker. The CDC has doubled down on their mask guidance, asserting that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks amidst the Delta outbreak. On Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, “If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States.”

Recently, the WHO issued new mask guidance, advising people to wear masks amidst the Delta outbreak. But it is important to remember that the World Health Organization makes guidelines for the world, which is largely unvaccinated compared to the United States.

“At this point, thinking about wearing a mask is a little like dressing for the weather,” said Linsey Marr, a professor at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s leading experts on viral transmission. “You need to consider the caseload and vaccination rates wherever you’re going, what activity you’ll be doing, and your own health.”

+ Evidence suggests the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could trigger an immune response that lasts for years. For months now, the CDC and FDA have floated around the idea of booster shots—additional shots that would bolster a person’s immune response against COVID-19. The latest study, led by Ali Ellebedy, an immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, found the virus and its variants do not evolve too much beyond their original form, meaning the immune system will continue to recognize the virus and be able to fight off infection.

“Everyone always focuses on the virus evolving,” said Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, “[but] this is showing that the B-cells are doing the same thing. And it’s going to be protective against ongoing evolution of the virus, which is really encouraging.”

+The pandemic has only exacerbated the United States’ ongoing opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, synthetic opioid fatalities rose by 55 percent over 12 months ending in September 2020. One study from the CDC found that 13 percent of survey participants began using drugs or alcohol to cope with the pandemic. Drug use also puts people at an increased risk for COVID-19 because drug users tend to be less healthy overall and are reluctant to seek medical care.


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About

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.