The Weekly Pulse: CDC Urges Vaccines During Pregnancy as Delta Surges; U.N.’s Reality Check on Climate Crisis

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 U.S. Senate passes a $1 trillion infrastructure bill in rare showing of bipartisanship; in a new U.N. climate report, climate scientists say there are known measures we can take to protect the world, but we must be brave enough to act; Senate subcommittee passes the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act; CDC issues new vaccine guidance for pregnant people; and active-duty service members and teachers may face a vaccine mandate. 

U.S. Senate Passes $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill

+ On Monday, Aug. 10, after months of negotiations, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill in a 69–30 vote. Though the package falls short of the $2.25 trillion plan originally proposed by President Biden, it includes $550 billion in new spending.

When it comes to roads, bridges and neighborhoods, the bill:

  • Invests $110 billion for roads, bridges and major infrastructure projects. 
  • Includes $40 billion for bridge repair, reconstruction and replacement.
  • Allocates an additional $16 billion towards major infrastructure projects that have yet to be disclosed by the White House. 
  • Provides $11 billion towards transportation safety. The money will be funneled into a program that attempts to minimize the number of crashes and fatalities. 
  • Contains $1 billion to reconnect disproportionately Black neighborhoods that were divided by highways or lack accessible transportation. 

For public transportation, airways and climate change, the bill:

  • Invests $39 billion to modernize public transit and provides $66 billion to modernize passenger and freight rails. 
  • Allocates $17 billion towards port infrastructure and $25 billion to address maintenance backlogs and reduce congestion at airports. 
  • Invests $21 billion to clean up and reclaim abandoned mine land and cap orphaned gas wells. 

Next up is Democrats’ $3.5 trillion package, which moves beyond traditional infrastructure like bridges and roads to invest in “human” infrastructure, including universal pre-K and extensions to the child tax credit, free community college, expanded in-home caregiving for the disabled and elderly, further mitigating threats posed by climate change, lowering child care, health care and prescription drug costs, and reducing taxes on middle and working-class families.

In an overnight vote early Wednesday, all 50 Senate Democrats overcame 49 Republican votes to move the budget resolution forward, a crucial first step. Leaders in the House say the body will cut its summer recess short, returning the week of Aug. 23, to pass the budget measure.

“Human infrastructure is intertwined with our physical infrastructure,” said Biden, who plans to pay for the package by raising the corporate income tax rate from 21 to 28 percent.

Code Red for Humanity: The U.N. Climate Report

A rally against climate change in 2021. (Ivan Radic / Flickr)

+ Climate change is one of the most pressing threats facing humanity and the 3,500-page document released by the United Nations shows things are only getting worse. The warming of the planet of has exceeded projections by 1.5 degrees, heat waves—like the ones seen in Northwest America and Canada—are five times more likely to occur, severe droughts are now occurring 70 percent more frequently, heavy downpours have increased by 30 percent and by 2,100 once-in-a-lifetime coastal floods will occur once per year.

Scientists warn some changes are now irreversible, like the melting of the polar ice caps and rising sea levels. But the heating of the earth can be stabilized through by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Humanity is teetering on the brink of possible devastation, and there are known measures that we can take to protect the world; we just need to be brave enough to act. 

“Humanity can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter,” write Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain in the New York Times. “Doing so would require a coordinated effort among countries to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050, which would entail a rapid shift away from fossil fuels starting immediately, as well as potentially removing vast amounts of carbon from the air. If that happened, global warming would likely halt and level off at around 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report concludes.”

Repro Run Down: Pregnant Women Gain New Workplace Protections … Finally?

In 2014, advocates and members of Congress rallied outside the Supreme Court as the Justices decided a pregnancy discrimination case. (Jeffrey Martin / National Women’s Law Center)

+ The Senate subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions greenlighted the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act—a bill that would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees. The bill, which already passed the House in April, outlines protections not included in the Americans with Disabilities Act or Pregnancy Discrimination Act such as taking bathroom breaks, light duty or sitting on a stool for workers who stand all day.

“No expectant mother should ever face barriers that prevent her from fully participating in the workplace and providing for herself and her family,” said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) after the bill left the committee. “I’m very pleased this bipartisan bill, which would help prevent pregnancy discrimination and ensure expectant mothers can access reasonable workplace accommodations, cleared a key committee hurdle today. I’ve championed this bill for years, and I urge lawmakers across the aisle to support this important legislation to protect pregnant women.”

+ On Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy (N-N.J.) signed a law that guarantees new parents in New Jersey can receive a free home visit from a nurse within the first two weeks of postpartum. The first two weeks after birth are a critical time for both the mother and infant. New Jersey is currently ranked 47th in the nation for maternal health and Black infants are three times more likely to die than their white counterparts. According to the data from the Commonwealth Fund, 40 percent of maternal deaths occur within the first six weeks of delivery.

“Research has shown that these programs not only decrease infant and maternal mortality, but also improve mental health, increase child educational attainment, decrease abuse and neglect, and strengthen family success and economic growth,” said Murphy during the bill-signing ceremony.

+ On Thursday, a state judge blocked a lawsuit challenging a new Louisiana law that limited abortion access for minors. In Bellotti v. Baird (1979), the Supreme Court ruled that judges can grant a judicial bypass to a minor seeking an abortion if they fail to get permission from their parents. A judicial bypass acts as legal permission for the minor. The Louisiana law prohibits minors from filing for an abortion without parental consent. If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice and Lift Louisiana, a women’s rights advocacy group, challenged the new law because they believed it violated the Louisiana state constitution and the standards set by the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the judge sided with the state. 

+ A temporary halt to abortions in 2020 at the only abortion clinic in South Dakota led to a drop in abortion cases, but that does not mean women were not seeking abortions elsewhere. More than 450 South Dakota women traveled out of state to receive an abortion, more than seen in previous years. The closure has furthered exposed existing disparities between white and Indigenous women in South Dakota, who experience higher rates of rape and face additional financial barriers to access an abortion.

“Historically, we know people are going to get abortions whether it’s available or not, whether it’s legal or not,” said Kim Floren, a board member of the Justice Empowerment Network. “There’s no reason people should have to risk their health and safety to have bodily autonomy in 2021. Everybody should have the right to decide what to do with their body regardless of where they live.”

(Courtesy of Justice Empowerment Network) 

COVID-19: Here Come the Vaccine Requirements

+ The Pentagon seeks to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for the 1.3 million active-duty service members. On Monday, The Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin III said in a memo, “I want you to know that I will seek the president’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon. I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the president if I feel the need to do so.” This decision is unsurprising considering the communal setting of military bases, and the precedent set by other departments like Veterans Affairs. 

+ After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) banned mask mandates in all schools, school districts in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio are pushing back. Despite the governor’s order, four of Texas’s largest school districts are imposing their own mask requirements for students.

+ Top U.S. Health officials call for vaccine mandates as COVID cases continue to climb in August. In an interview with ABC on Sunday, National Institute of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins said, “For me, as a non-political person, as a physician, as a scientist, the compelling case for vaccines for everybody is right there in front of you. Just look at the data. And certainly, I celebrate when I see businesses deciding that they’re going to mandate that for their employees … I think we ought to use every public health tool that we can when people are dying.”

+ Dr. Anthony Fauci is leaning towards vaccine mandates for teachers despite criticism from one of the largest teachers’ unions. In an interview with USA Today published on Sunday, Fauci reflected on the obligation teachers have to ensure the safety of their students. “I absolutely lean strongly toward when people are in those positions, if they don’t want to get vaccinated, I would mandate that they get vaccinated,” Fauci said. The National Education Association has yet to endorse a vaccine mandate, and the NEA’s president, Becky Pringle, said, “There are often complex medical issues at play, and we don’t presume to understand them all.”

+ The CDC has updated its COVID-19 recommendations for pregnant people to get vaccinated. The previous guidance said, “If you are pregnant, you can receive a COVID-19 vaccine.” Now the CDC recommends pregnant people get vaccinated against the COVID-19 vaccine. Pregnant women are at an increased risk for severe illness if infected with COVID-19, and no evidence suggests that there are safety concerns from vaccinated pregnant people. The CDC website reconfirms this claim: “There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men.” 

+ Last week, we reported that the CDC compared the Delta variant to the chicken pox in a leaked document; but now scientists are saying that comparison is inaccurate. The Delta may not be as contagious as chicken pox but it is still highly contagious. 

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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.