A somber milestone on the path to brighter days ahead

https://mailchi.mp/05e4ff455445/the-weekly-gist-february-26-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

U.S. tops 500,000 COVID-19 deaths | PBS NewsHour

Although the nation reached a grim and long-dreaded milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 lives lost to COVID—more than were killed in two World Wars and the Vietnam conflict combined—the news this week was mostly good, as key indicators of the pandemic’s severity continued to rapidly improve.

Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations for COVID were down 30 percent, deaths were down 22 percent, and new cases declined by 32 percent—the lowest levels since late October. This week’s numbers declined somewhat more slowly than last week’s, leading Dr. Rachel Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to caution people against letting their guard down just yet: “Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.” Of particular concern are new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in numerous states, including one in New York and another in California, that may be more contagious than the original virus.
 
The best news of the week was surely a report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluating the new, single-shot COVID vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (J&J), showing it to be highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death caused by COVID, including variants. On Friday, a panel of outside experts met to assess whether to approve the J&J vaccine for emergency use, which would make it the third in the nation’s arsenal of COVID vaccines. If approved, the vaccine will be rolled out next week, according to the White House, with up to 4M doses available immediately.

The sooner the better: new data show that since vaccinations began in late December, new cases among nursing home residents have fallen more than 80 percent—a hopeful glimpse at the future that lies ahead for the general population once vaccines become widely available.

Enthusiasm for getting Covid vaccine is growing

More than half of adults in the U.S. (55%) say they’ve already gotten one dose of Covid-19 vaccine or they’re eager to get one as soon as they can, an increase in acceptance from January (47%), a new poll reports. About 1 in 5 people are waiting to see how the vaccine rollout goes, but don’t rule out vaccination. Another 1 in 5 people are more reluctant: 7% would get vaccinated only if required by work, school, or some other activity, and 15% say no to vaccine under any circumstance. The increase in eagerness spans all demographic groups, but Black adults and young adults under age 30 were most likely to say they want to wait and see.

Where the pandemic has been deadliest

Image result for Ratio of COVID-19 deaths to population Map: Michelle McGhee and Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In the seven states hit hardest by the pandemic, more than 1 in every 500 residents have died from the coronavirus.

Why it matters: The staggering death toll speaks to America’s failure to control the virus.

Details: In New Jersey, which has the highest death rate in the nation, 1 out of every 406 residents has died from the virus. In neighboring New York, 1 out of every 437 people has died.

  • In Mississippi, 1 out of every 477 people has died. And in South Dakota, which was slammed in the fall, 1 of every 489 people has died.

States in the middle of the pack have seen a death rate of around 1 in 800 dead.

  • California, which has generally suffered severe regional outbreaks that don’t span the entire state, has a death rate of 1 in 899.
  • Vermont had the lowest death rate, at 1 of every 3,436 residents.

The bottom line: Americans will keep dying as vaccinations ramp up, and more transmissible variants of the coronavirus could cause the outbreak to get worse before it gets better.

  • Experts also say it’s time to start preparing for the next pandemic — which could be deadlier.

What happens after a year without the flu?

https://mailchi.mp/85f08f5211a4/the-weekly-gist-february-5-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

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Doctors and scientists have been relieved that the dreaded “twindemic”—the usual winter spike of seasonal influenza superimposed on the COVID pandemic—did not materialize.

In fact, flu cases are at one of the lowest levels ever recorded, with just 155 flu-related hospitalizations this season (compared to over 490K in 2019). A new piece in the Atlantic looks at the long-term ramifications of a year without the flu. 

Public health measures like masking and handwashing have surely lowered flu transmission, but scientists remain uncertain why flu cases have flatlined as COVID-19, which spreads via the same mechanisms, surged.

Children are a much greater vector for influenza, and reduced mingling in schools and childcare likely slowed spread. Perhaps the shutdown in travel slowed the viruses’ ability to hop a ride from continent to continent, and the cancellation of gatherings further dampened transmission.

Nor are scientists sure what to expect next year. Optimists hope that record-low levels of flu could take a strain out of circulation. But others warn that flu could return with a vengeance, as the virus continues to mutate while population immunity declines. 

Researchers developing next year’s vaccines, meanwhile, face a lack of data on what strains and mutations to target—although many hope the mRNA technologies that proved effective for COVID will enable more agile flu vaccine development in the future. 

Regardless, renewed vigilance in flu prevention and vaccination next fall will be essential, as a COVID-fatigued population will be inclined to breathe a sigh of relief as the current pandemic comes under control.

“I got the vaccine…now what can I do?”

https://mailchi.mp/85f08f5211a4/the-weekly-gist-february-5-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

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A family member in her 70s called with the great news that she received her first dose of the COVID vaccine this week. She mentioned that she was hoping to plan a vacation in the spring with a friend who had also been vaccinated, but her doctor told her it would still be safest to hold off booking travel for now: “I was surprised she wasn’t more positive about it. It’s the one thing I’ve been looking forward to for months, if I was lucky enough to get the shot.” 

It’s not easy to find concrete expert guidance for what it is safe (or safer?) to do after receiving the COVID vaccine. Of course, patients need to wait a minimum of two weeks after receiving their second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to develop full immunity.

But then what? Yes, we all need to continue to wear masks in public, since vaccines haven’t been proven to reduce or eliminate COVID transmission—and new viral variants up the risk of transmission. But should vaccinated individuals feel comfortable flying on a plane? Visiting family? Dining indoors? Finally going to the dentist?
 
It struck us that the tone of much of the available guidance speaks to public health implications, rather than individual decision-making. Take this tweet from CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. A person over 65 asked her if she could drive to visit her grandchildren, whom she hasn’t seen for a year, two months after receiving her second shot. Walensky replied, “Even if you’ve been vaccinated, we still recommend against traveling until we have more data to suggest vaccination limits the spread of COVID-19.” 

From a public health perspective, this may be correct, but for an individual, it falls flat. This senior has followed all the rules—if the vaccine doesn’t enable her to safely see her grandchild, what will? It’s easy to see how the expert guidance could be interpreted as “nothing will change, even after you’ve been vaccinated.”

Debates about masking showed us that in our individualistic society, public health messaging about slowing transmission and protecting others sadly failed to make many mask up.

The same goes for vaccines: most Americans are motivated to get their vaccine so that they personally don’t die, and so they can resume a more normal life, not by the altruistic desire to slow the spread of COVID in the community and achieve “herd immunity”. 

In addition to focusing on continued risk, educating Americans on how the vaccinated can make smart decisions will motivate as many people as possible to get their shots.

Turning the tide in the battle against the virus

https://mailchi.mp/85f08f5211a4/the-weekly-gist-february-5-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

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The national COVID indicators all continued to move in the right direction this week, with new cases down 16 percent, hospitalizations down 26 percent, and deaths (while still alarmingly high at more than 3,000 per day) down 6 percent from the week prior.

More good news: both nationally and globallythe number of people vaccinated against COVID now exceeds the total number of people infected with the virus, at least according to official statistics—the actual number of coronavirus infections is likely several times higher.

On the vaccine front, Johnson & Johnson filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an Emergency Use Authorization for its single-dose COVID vaccine, which could become the third vaccine approved for use in the US following government review later this month. The J&J vaccine is reportedly 85 percent effective at preventing severe COVID disease, although it is less effective at preventing infection than the Pfizer and Moderna shots.

Elsewhere, TheLancet reported interim Phase III results for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine trials, showing it to be 91 percent effective at preventing infection, and a new study found the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be 75 percent effective against the more-contagious UK virus variant.

Amid the positive vaccine news, the Biden administration moved to accelerate the vaccination campaigninvoking the Defense Production Act to boost production and initiating shipments directly to retail pharmacies. With the House and Senate starting the budget reconciliation process that could eventually lead to as much as $1.9T in stimulus funding, including billions more for vaccines and testing, it feels as though the tide may be finally turning in the battle against coronavirus.

While the key indicators are still worrisome—we’re only back to Thanksgiving-week levels of new cases—and emerging variants are cause for concern, it’s worth celebrating a week that brought more good news than bad.

Best to follow Dr. Fauci’s advice for this Super Bowl weekend, however: “Just lay low and cool it.”

Cartoon – Specimens used for Covid-19 Testing and Experimentation

Letters to editor for Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020

There’s (still) a fungus among us

https://mailchi.mp/2c6956b2ac0d/the-weekly-gist-january-29-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Candida auris actively shed in the healthcare environment - Outbreak News  Today

Remember 2019, when the scariest “new” pathogen was Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungus that was creeping into hospitals and nursing homes, often proving fatal to elderly and immune-compromised patients who came in contact with it? C. auris proved difficult to eliminate from infected facilities, sometimes requiring drywall to be ripped out of patient rooms in order to fully decontaminate. 

With all of our attention focused on COVID-19, C. auris and other drug resistant bacteria and fungi have been making a resurgence, according to a recent New York Times report. In Los Angeles County alone, 250 facilities now report C. auris infection, up from just a handful before the pandemic.

Unlike COVID-19, these pathogens cling relentlessly to surfaces, so protocols allowing the reuse of protective equipment in order to conserve resources inadvertently provided a mechanism for these bugs to spread. 

Steroids used to treat COVID-19 patients suppress the immune system, making patients more vulnerable. According to one expert, the spread of these drug-resistant infections shows the danger of “seeing the world as a one-pathogen world”.

Providers have had a laser focus on preventing the aerosol spread of COVID—now is the time to double down on surface decontamination and infection mitigation procedures to make sure we don’t meet the end of the pandemic with the rise of other classes of “superbugs”.