The Weekly Pulse: Will We Need COVID Booster Shots?; Low-Vaccine States Hit Hard by Delta Variant; Texas GOP Continues Crusade Against Abortion

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:

  • Pop star Olivia Rodrigo joins President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in a campaign to boost youth vaccination rates;
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) calls for a special legislative session to restrict voting and abortion rights;
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduce legislation for parental paid leave for miscarriages;
  • the FDA and CDC say fully vaccinated people do not need booster shots;

… and more!

Olivia Rodrigo to Fans: Vaccines, They’re Good 4 U

+ On Wednesday, pop star Olivia Rodrigo joined President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House to address the importance of youth vaccination. Rodrigo, who gained popularity on Disney shows like Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, shot into mainstream stardom earlier this year with the release of her song “Driver’s License” and album SOUR.

Standing at the presidential podium, Rodrigo spoke candidly about youth vaccination: “I’m in awe of the work of President Biden and Dr. Fauci have done and was happy to help lend my support to this important initiative. It’s important to have conversations with friends and family members encouraging all communities to get vaccinated, and actually get to a vaccination site, which you can do more easily than ever before, given how many sites we have and how easy it is to find them at”

To help the Biden administration’s effort to increase vaccination rates, Rodrigo will record a series of videos and answer questions about vaccines. Currently, only 37 percent of teenagers ages 16 to 17 have been fully vaccinated, and that number drops to 25 percent for children ages 12 to 15— the lowest rate of all age groups eligible for the vaccine.

Repro Run Down: A Battle is Brewing Between State and Federal Abortion Polices

+ Thursday, July 8, marked the start of a 30-day special legislative session in Texas. The agenda for the session—set by Gov. Greg Abbott (R)—is considered by many to be a Republican wishlist, tackling wedge issues like voting rights, trans rights and medication abortion.

In protest, on Monday, July 12, Texas Democratic state legislators decamped to Washington, D.C. Even though the move has effectively derailed extreme legislation in the House for now, the Texas Senate is rounding the bend on passage of many Republican priorities for the special session. One bill that passed through the Texas Senate on Friday, Senate Bill 4, bans medication abortion after seven weeks and is seen by many as a de facto ban on medication abortion—which accounts for about 40 percent of abortions performed annually.

+ Abortion rights groups—including the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and regional abortion providers—have sued the state of Texas over a mandate that allows private citizens to sue abortion patients and providers. The lawsuit attempts to block Senate Bill 8, a new six-week abortion ban in Texas set to take effect on September 1.

“The state has put a bounty on the head of any person or entity who so much as gives a patient money for an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Worse, it will intimidate loved ones from providing support for fear of being sued.”

+ Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced he will appeal an April decision from a Kansas state court that permanently struck down a ban on the standard method of abortion after 14 to 15 weeks of pregnancy. “This ban made it a crime for doctors to use their best medical judgment. This is not about medicine, it’s purely political,” said Northup.

The Kansas Supreme Court first acknowledged the right to abortion when they struck down the law in 2019. The court wrote. In 2021, a Kansas state court permanently blocked the State’s ban on abortion after 14 or 15 weeks of pregnancy. Unmoved by the courts’ decisions, Attorney General Schmidt still seeks to restrict abortion rights in Kansas.

+ Reversing a Trump-era policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will no longer detain pregnant, nursing and postpartum individuals for deportation. The policy is more expansive than the Obama-era policy, which previously prohibited the deportation of pregnant women. Biden has denounced critics who claim he is abandoning his responsibility to enforce immigration laws, by asserting that he is simply making immigration a more humane process. Both the Biden and Trump administrations have received criticism for the treatment of women and children at the border.

“ICE is committed to safeguarding the integrity of our immigration system and preserving the health and safety of pregnant, postpartum, and nursing individuals,” acting ICE director Tae Johnson said in a statement. “Given the unique needs of this population, we will not detain individuals known to be pregnant, postpartum, or nursing unless release is prohibited by law or exceptional circumstances exist.”

+ For the first time in 40 years, House Democrats have advanced a spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services without the Hyde Amendment. This comes after Biden excluded the Hyde Amendment from his 2022 budget proposal.

Within the U.S., the Hyde Amendment essentially bars federal abortion coverage through Medicaid. Proposed as a response to Roe v. Wade, Hyde is known for its devastating impact on millions of low-income women and families.

“Regardless of the original intent of Hyde, it has disproportionately impacted women of color, and it has ultimately led to more unintended pregnancies and later riskier, and more costly abortions,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), House Appropriations Committee chair.

+ On Tuesday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that calls for employers to include at least three days of paid leave for workers who experienced a miscarriage. “Pregnancy loss should be met with care, compassion and support,” said Pressley. “Our bill sends a message to families that they are not alone, and would support those experiencing the loss of a pregnancy by providing them with the resources, workforce support, and care necessary to recover and heal.”

COVID-19: Do We Need Booster Shots?

+ The global COVID death toll reaches 4 million as vaccine gaps continue to grow. Rich countries with high vaccination rates are returning to brunch and booking flights to all-inclusive resorts—while poor countries are struggling to obtain vaccine doses and ventilators.

“Vaccine nationalism, where a handful of nations have taken the lion’s share, is morally indefensible and an ineffective public health strategy against a respiratory virus that is mutating quickly and becoming increasingly effective at moving from human-to-human,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

+ In India, less than 4 percent of the adult population has been fully vaccinated and nearly 17 percent more men than women have received a shot. Sexism and misinformation are largely to blame for the discrepancies in gender vaccination rates. Some women have been told that vaccines can lead to infertility and interruptions in the menstrual cycle. Although some women have reported heavier menstrual flows, and symptoms after the shot appear to affect women more than men, there is no evidence to suggest that the vaccine negatively affects a woman’s reproductive system.

In high-COVID burden states, like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, the male-female vaccination gap is over 10 percent. (UNDP India / Flickr)

There is also a gender-based assumption that women spend more time in the home and therefore do not face a high risk of exposure to the virus—which is not true. Women are just as likely to contract the virus as men and therefore need to be vaccinated with the same urgency. In recent years, the women’s health sector has evolved in India but there continue to be problems with accessibility. Language barriers, health illiteracy and hospital deserts continue to create problems barriers for accessible healthcare.

“When women have access to health services and can lead healthy lives, the whole country benefits,” said Karina Gould, Canada’s minister of international development. “By now, we all know that no one is safe until all of us are safe.”

+On Sunday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged G20 members to increase their share of vaccines abroad:

“We are concerned about the Delta variant and other variants that could emerge and threaten recovery. We are a connected global economy; what happens in any part of the world affects all other countries. We, therefore, recognize the importance of working together to speed the process of vaccination and have the goal of wanting to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population next year.”

+ Tennessee will halt youth vaccine outreach for COVID-19 and other diseases, due to pressure from Republican lawmakers. Staff at the Department of Health are being instructed to strip the department’s logo from any information on vaccines and COVID-19 vaccine events on school property are canceled. The Department of Health will also stop sending postcards to teens, reminding them to get their second vaccine dose.

With the Delta variant circulating, unvaccinated Tennessee youths are soon to be at an increased risk for infection and severe illness. Tennessee is one of many Southern states experiencing a spike of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the top vaccine health official in Tennessee, has been fired by the Department of Health. In an official statement, Fiscus said:

“I will not sit quietly while our public health infrastructure is eroded in the midst of a pandemic. … I have been terminated for doing my job because some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign rather than taking the time to speak with the medical experts. They believe what they choose to believe rather than what is factual and evidence-based. And it is the people of Tennessee who will suffer the consequences of the actions of the very people they put into power.”

+ On Thursday, July 8, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control issued guidance that fully vaccinated people will not need to get booster shots. At the same time, Pfizer announced it is seeking U.S. authorization for a third dose of its vaccine and claims that an additional shot administered 12 months later will boost immunity. So what’s true? Will fully vaccinated people need to get a booster shot?

Some health experts suggest Pfizer is seeking authorization prematurely and others suggest it is unfair to discuss additional vaccines for U.S. residents when the rest of the world is still struggling to access vaccines. Pfizer’s request for a third dose comes after the Israeli government released data on the Pfizer vaccine and the Delta outbreak—the initial data suggests that Pfizer vaccines are only 64 percent effective at stopping breakthrough infection but 93 percent effective in preventing severe illness.

Experts caution people from taking these numbers at face value because the research from Israel has yet to be peer-reviewed. “Pfizer doesn’t get to decide when we need boosters; the FDA, CDC and other regulatory agencies do that,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University. “If you’ve been vaccinated, you don’t need to worry about boosters.”

While it is important for health agencies to investigate the effectiveness of booster shots, there is no evidence to suggest that boosters are necessary in the near future.

+ Burnt out from a year indoors and separated from loved ones, Americans are desperate to return to normal life. But with surging COVID cases, and the rise of the Delta variant, normal life continues to be out of reach. All states are seeing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases but states with low vaccination rates are being hit the hardest. Parts of Missouri, Arkansas and Nevada are becoming hot spots and hospital workers are once again overwhelmed by the number of patients. Larry Bergner, the director of the Newton County Health Department in Missouri, voices many of our fears when he says, “It does give, I guess, some depression to think that we thought we were coming out of it, now here we go again, how high are we going to get.”

+ New reports from the Food and Drug Administration warn that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine can lead to a slightly increased risk of a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome—a condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the nerves, resulting in tingling and numbness in the hands and feet. In aggressive cases, it can lead to paralysis.

Chances of developing the condition are low but regulators found that people inoculated with the J&J vaccine appear to be three to five times more likely to develop Guillain-Barré syndrome. The syndrome has been linked to other vaccines, including the 1976 swine flu vaccine.

This is a new installment in the Johnson and Johnson vaccine controversy. Earlier this year the vaccine was linked to increased risk for blood clots in the brain and one Johnson and Johnson manufacturing plant in Baltimore contaminated a batch of 15 million vaccine doses. Addressing these new developments, the Food and Drug Administration admitted “the available evidence suggests an association” but “it is insufficient to establish a causal relationship.”

+ At the beginning of the pandemic, lactating and pregnant individuals expressed their concerns about vaccine safety. Now evidence suggests that protective antibodies can pass from the pregnant person to the fetus through the placenta and through breast milk for newborns. “All pregnant individuals with vaccine-induced antibodies passed these antibodies through the placenta to their babies’ cord blood and to breast milk. So it’s likely that there is some benefit to baby from maternal vaccination, “ said Dr. Kathryn Gray, the attending physician in the department of maternal-fetal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

It is less clear whether or not pregnant individuals infected with COVID-19 passed on antibodies as well. One study led by Dr. Carolyn Dude suggested that only 25 percent of newborns received protective antibodies from mothers who contracted the virus.

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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.