China’s COVID storm

https://www.axios.com/2022/11/26/china-covid-outbreak-lockdown-economy

A new COVID calamity is hammering China, with a surge in infections prompting a return of lockdowns, including in some manufacturing areas that supply the West.

  • China reported a record number of infections this week, amid lockdowns and mass testing that are fueling unrest and darkening the country’s economic outlook. Schools in Beijing returned to online teaching.

Why it matters: In addition to the human misery for the world’s most populous country, the effects will be felt around the globe, Axios China author Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports from Taipei.

  • Supply chains are likely to be disrupted, causing prices to rise in an already rocky global economy.

Rare protests broke out today in China’s far western Xinjiang region. Crowds shouted at hazmat-suited guards after a deadly fire triggered anger by prolonged COVID lockdowns, Reuters reports.

  • “End the lockdown!” shouted protesters in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, where an apartment fire killed 10.

What’s happening: The moment of truth for China’s zero-COVID policy has finally come.

  • Either party leaders will need to plunge much of the country into draconian lockdowns, as we saw at the beginning of the pandemic — or they’ll decide it’s time to learn to live with COVID.

Reality check: China’s doctors have warned Xi Jinping that the healthcare system isn’t prepared for the huge outbreak likely to follow the easing of strict anti-COVID measures, the Financial Times reports.

  • Chinese-made vaccines, which don’t use the mRNA technology employed by many produced by the West, aren’t as effective compared to those made in the U.S. And China has worrisomely low vaccination rates among older people.
  • But the number of cases in China is actually still very low for anywhere but China.

The big picture: “Zero COVID” restrictions have damaged the economy and undermined people’s trust in government.

  • That’s a stark about-face from the height of the pandemic. Then, many Chinese people felt the tight central control had protected them better than any other governance model in the world.
  • But it’s that very model that has plunged China into its current predicament. Xi tied his reputation, and the party’s legitimacy, to the success of “zero COVID.”

Between the lines: Chinese leaders made a huge, politically motivated mistake. They resisted the import of Western-made mRNA vaccines (including Pfizer and Moderna) for its citizens. These vaccines were only recently made available to foreigners.

  • That’s likely because of Beijing’s big vaccine diplomacy push: Chinese officials touted their own vaccines as the best and safest.
  • It was politically unpalatable to admit “defeat,” and allow Chinese people to get more effective — but Western-made — jabs.

United States is ‘out of the pandemic phase,’ Fauci says

https://www.yahoo.com/news/united-states-pandemic-phase-fauci-094908627.html

The United States is finally “out of the pandemic phase,” the country’s top infectious disease expert said, as cases and hospitalizations are notably down and mask mandates are all but extinct.

While there are still new infections spreading throughout the country – an average of 50,000 per day as of Tuesday – the country is far from the heights of the pandemic, when daily case counts surpassed 1 million. Restrictions, too, are easing as many Americans appear to be putting the pandemic behind them. Masking requirements have been lifted across most of the country, and officials stopped enforcing a federal mask mandate in transportation settings after a judge struck down the requirement.

“We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase,” Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said Tuesday evening on PBS’s “NewsHour.”

Fauci said the United States was no longer seeing “tens and tens and tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. We are at a low level right now.”

During the pandemic’s darkest moments, many wondered when the country would officially declare itself past the nationwide disaster, which has killed nearly 1 million Americans.

Fauci’s comments are likely to fuel debate about whether this is truly the moment: New cases are on the rise in the United States, and deaths are down, though they often lag spikes in cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that as of the end of February, nearly 60 percent of Americans – including three out of every four children – have been infected with the coronavirus. But officials cautioned that the data did not indicate that Americans have widespread immunity against the virus because of their prior infections.

While previous infections are believed to offer some protection against serious disease for most people, health experts say the best protection against infection and serious disease or death from the coronavirus is vaccination.

The coronavirus will not be eradicated, Fauci said, but can be handled if its level of spread is kept “very low” and people are “intermittently” vaccinated, though he said he did not know how frequently. And Fauci echoed warnings from the World Health Organization and the United Nations this month that worldwide, the pandemic is far from over as vaccinations lag, particularly in developing nations.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, is appealing a ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge that struck down the federal mask mandate on transit, including on planes, though it is unclear whether they will be successful, and likely face an American public that could be unwilling to comply again.

And in a less-than-subtle reminder that the coronavirus is still hanging around, the White House on Tuesday announced arguably the nation’s highest-profile coronavirus infection since former president Donald Trump, saying that Vice President Kamala Harris had tested positive and was asymptomatic. She was not considered in close contact to Biden, the White House said.

Pandemic’s end could surge the number of uninsured kids

The formal end of the pandemic could swell the ranks of uninsured children by 6 million or more as temporary reforms to Medicaid are lifted.

Why it matters: Gaps in coverage could limit access to needed care and widen health disparities, by hitting lower-income families and children of color the hardest, experts say.

The big picture: A requirement that states keep Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled during the public health emergency in order to get more federal funding is credited with preventing a spike in uninsured adults and kids during the crisis.

  • Children are the biggest eligibility group in Medicaid, especially in the 12 states that haven’t expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act.
  • The lifting of the public health emergency, which was just extended to July 15, will lead states to determine whether their Medicaid enrollees are still eligible for coverage — a complicated process that could result in millions of Americans being removed from the program.

What they’re saying: The end of the continuous coverage guarantee puts as many as 6.7 million children at very high risk of losing coverage, per Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

  • That would more than double the number of uninsured kids, which stood at 4.4 million in 2019.
  • “It is a stark, though we believe conservative, estimate,” said Joan Alker, the center’s executive director. “There are a lot of children on Medicaid.”

Between the lines: Not all of the Medicaid enrollees who are removed from the program would become uninsured. But parents and their children could be headed down different paths if their household income has risen even slightly.

  • Adults who’ve returned to work may be able to get insurance through their employer. Others could get coverage through the ACA marketplace, though it’s unclear whether that would come the COVID-inspired extra financial assistance that’s now being offered.
  • Most kids would be headed for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Alker said — a prospect that can entail added red tape and the payment of premiums or an annual enrollment fee, depending on the state.

What we’re watching: Changes in children’s coverage could be most pronounced in Texas, Florida and Georgia — the biggest non-Medicaid expansion states, which have higher rates of uninsured children than the national average.

  • Congress could still require continuous Medicaid coverage, the way the House did when it passed the sweeping social policy package that stalled in the Senate over cost concerns.
  • CMS’ Office of the Actuary projects a smaller decline in Medicaid enrollment than some health policy experts are predicting — and the Biden administration continues to move people deemed ineligible for Medicaid onto ACA plans, Raymond James analyst Chris Meekins noted in a recent report on the unwinding of the public health emergency.