Omicron Is About To Make Americans Act Immorally, Inappropriately

A friend called me for medical advice two weeks ago. He’s single, in his thirties and generally healthy, but he’d developed a dry cough with mild congestion. After a self-administered Covid-19 test turned up negative results, he remained suspicious he could be infected.

He was set to fly west in a couple of days for a conference and dreaded the thought of infecting other passengers. I recommended a PCR test if he wanted to be more certain. When the lab results came back positive, he spent the next five days at home alone (per CDC guidance).  

If you were in his shoes, chances are you, too, would make a reasonable effort to avoid infecting others. In the near future, that won’t be the case.

Americans are playing it safe—for now

A whopping 91% of Americans no longer consider Covid-19 a “serious crisis.” Social distancing has reached a low point as public-health restrictions continue to ease up.

Yet, there’s still one aspect of the pandemic Americans are taking very seriously.

As a society, we still expect people who test positive for Covid-19 to stay home and minimize contact with others. As a result of these expectations, 4 in 10 workers (including 6 in 10 low-income employees) have missed work in 2022. Overall, the nation’s No. 1 concern related to Omicron is “spreading the virus to people who are at higher risk of serious illness.”

Most Americans are eager to move on from the pandemic, but those who are sick continue to avoid actions that may potentially spread the virus.

Call it what you will—group think, peer pressure or the fear of violating cultural taboos—people don’t want to put others in harm’s way. That’s true, according to polls, regardless of one’s party affiliation or vaccination status.

What’s immoral today will be appropriate tomorrow

Don’t get used to these polite and socially conscious behaviors. All of it is about to change in the not-distant future. Let me paint a picture of tomorrow’s new normal:

  • A factory worker tests positive over the weekend for Covid-19 and comes to work on Monday without a mask, informing no one of his infection. 
  • A vacationer with mild Covid-19 symptoms refuses to postpone her spa weekend, availing herself of massages, facials and group yoga classes.
  • A couple plans an indoor wedding for 200-plus, knowing the odds are likely that dozens of people will get infected and that some of those guests will be elderly and immunosuppressed.

These actions, which seem inappropriate and immoral now, will become typical. It’s not that people will suddenly become less empathetic or more callous. They’ll simply be adjusting to new social mores, brought about by a unique viral strain and an inevitable evolution in American culture

A crash course in a unique virus

To understand why people will behave in ways that seem so unacceptable today, you must understand how the Omicron variant spreads compared to other viruses.

Scientists now know that Omicron (and its many decimal-laden strains: BA.2, BA.2.12.1, BA.4, BA.5, etc.) is the most infectious, fastest-spreading respiratory virus in world history. The Mayo Clinic calls this Covid-19 variant “hyper-contagious.”

“A single case could give rise to six cases after four days, 36 cases after eight days, and 216 cases after 12 days,” according to a report in Scientific American. As a result, researchers predict that 100 million Americans will become infected with Omicron this year alone—via new infections, reinfections and vaccination breakthroughs. 

In addition to Omicron’s high transmissibility, the virus is also season-less. Whereas influenza arrives each winter and exits in the spring, Americans will continue to experience high levels of Covid-19 infection year-round—at least for the foreseeable future.

With its 60-plus mutations, immense transmissibility and lack of seasonality, Omicron is an exceptional virus: one that will infect not only our respiratory systems but also our culture.

Over time, Omicron’s unique characteristics will drive Americans to deny and ignore the risks of infection. In the near future, they’ll make decisions and take actions that they’d presently deem wrong.

A culture shock is coming

Culture—which comprises the shared values, norms and beliefs of a group of people—doesn’t change because someone decides it should. It evolves because circumstances change. 

The pandemic has no doubt been a culture-changing event and, as the circumstances of Covid-19 have changed, so too have our underlying values, beliefs and behaviors.

If 100 million Americans (one-third of the population) were to become infected with Omicron this year, we can expect that everyone will know someone with the disease. And when dozens of our friends or colleagues say they’ve had it, we will begin to see transmission as inevitable. And since, statistically, most Americans won’t die from Omicron, people will see infection as relatively harmless and they’ll be willing to drop their guard.

We’ll see more and more people going to work even when they’re infected. We’ll see more people on trains and planes, coughing and congested, having never taken a Covid-19 test. And we’ll see large, indoor celebrations taking place without any added safety measures, despite the risks to the most vulnerable attendees.

Amid these changes, health officials will continue to urge caution, just as they have for more than two years. But it won’t make a difference. Culture eats science for breakfast. Americans will increasingly follow the herd and stop heeding public-safety warnings.

The process of change has begun

Cultural shifts happen in steps. First, a few people break the rules and then others follow.

Recall my friend, the one who took two tests out of an abundance of caution. Next time, perhaps he’ll decide he’d rather not miss the conference. Perhaps when he returns home, he will tell his friends that he felt sick the whole trip. Perhaps they’ll ask, “Do you think you might have had Covid?” And perhaps he will reply: “What difference would it have made? I’m fully vaccinated and boosted.

And so, it will go. The next time someone in his social circle feels under the weather, he or she won’t even bother to do the first test.

This change process has already begun. Take the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, for example. Last year, the event was cancelled. This year, guests had to show proof of vaccination or a negative same-day test. However, that rule didn’t apply to staff at the hotel who worked the event. Unsurprisingly, several high-profile attendees got Covid-19 but, so far, no reports of anyone being hospitalized. A year from now, assuming no major mutations cause the virus to become more lethal, we can expect all restrictions will be dropped.

Culture dictates how people behave. It influences their thoughts and actions. It alters their values and beliefs. The unique characteristics of Omicron will lead people to ignore the harm it inflicts. They won’t act with malicious intent. They’ll just be oblivious to the consequences of their actions. That’s how culture works.

NYC Nears High Covid-Alert Level, May Consider Requiring Masks

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-16/nyc-may-reach-high-covid-alert-level-consider-requiring-masks

  • City strongly recommends masks in public indoor places for now
  • About 8% of people tested for Covid in city have been positive

New York City is preparing to hit a high Covid-transmission level in the coming days that would have it reconsidering mask requirements in public places.

“If NYC’s Alert Level is raised to High, the City will consider requiring face masks in all public indoor settings,” according to guidance on the city health department’s website.

New cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days surpassed 300 citywide, with Staten Island the highest at 390, followed by Manhattan at about 366. A month ago, the citywide rate was less than 200 per 100,000. About 8% of people tested for Covid-19 over the last seven days have been positive. 

Earlier in May the city moved to a medium alert from low.

“New York City is preparing to potentially enter a high COVID-19 alert level in the coming days and strongly recommends that all New Yorkers mask up in public indoor settings to protect themselves and others,” according to a statement Monday from Mayor Eric Adams’s office.

A high level is reached when new Covid hospital admissions over seven days surpass 10 per 100,000 and the percentage of staffed inpatient beds occupied by Covid-19 patients is greater than 10%, according to guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Masks Indoors

New York City’s new admissions are at 9.2 per 100,000 and increasing, while 3.85% of inpatients beds were occupied by Covid-19 patients as of May 10.

Under a high alert level, in addition to masking indoors, New Yorkers are recommended to limit gatherings to small numbers and get tested if they have symptoms, were exposed, traveled or were at a large event. 

The city is distributing 16.5 million at-home Covid tests over the next month in an effort to prepare for another wave. The increase in tests will bring the total amount distributed to more than 36 million.

Most of the US remained at a low Covid community transmission-level as of May 12, with medium and high alerts mostly concentrated in the northeast, CDC data show. The nationwide case rate is 185 per 100,000 in the past seven days, up from 66 a month earlier. The rate surged to more than 1,700 per 100,000 during the omicron surge in January. 

Covid deaths no longer overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated as toll on elderly grows

Unvaccinated people accounted for the overwhelming majority of deaths in the United States throughout much of the coronavirus pandemic. But that has changed in recent months, according to a Washington Post analysis of state and federal data.

The pandemic’s toll is no longer falling almost exclusively on those who chose not to or could not get shots, with vaccine protection waning over time and the elderly and immunocompromised — who are at greatest risk of succumbing to covid-19, even if vaccinated — having a harder time dodging increasingly contagious strains.

The vaccinated made up 42 percent of fatalities in January and February during the highly contagious omicron variant’s surge, compared with 23 percent of the dead in September, the peak of the delta wave, according to nationwide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed by The Post. The data is based on the date of infection and limited to a sampling of cases in which vaccination status was known.

As a group, the unvaccinated remain far more vulnerable to the worst consequences of infection — and are far more likely to die — than people who are vaccinated, and they are especially more at risk than people who have received a booster shot.

“It’s still absolutely more dangerous to be unvaccinated than vaccinated,” said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies covid-19 mortality.“A pandemic of — and by — the unvaccinated is not correct. People still need to take care in terms of prevention and action if they became symptomatic.”

A key explanation for the rise in deaths among the vaccinated is that covid-19 fatalities are again concentrated among the elderly.

Nearly two-thirds of the people who died during the omicron surge were 75 and older, according to a Post analysis, compared with a third during the delta wave. Seniors are overwhelmingly immunized, but vaccines are less effective and their potency wanes over time in older age groups.

Experts say they are not surprised that vaccinated seniors are making up a greater share of the dead, even as vaccine holdouts died far more often than the vaccinated during the omicron surge, according to the CDC. As more people are infected with the virus, the more people it will kill, including a greater number who are vaccinated but among the most vulnerable.

The bulk of vaccinated deaths are among people who did not get a booster shot, according to state data provided to The Post. In two of the states, California and Mississippi, three-quarters of the vaccinated senior citizens who died in January and February did not have booster doses. Regulators in recent weeks have authorized second booster doses for people over the age of 50, but administration of first booster doses has stagnated.

Even though the death rates for the vaccinated elderly and immunocompromised are low, their losses numbered in the thousands when cases exploded, leaving behind blindsided families. But experts say the rising number of vaccinated people dying should not cause panic in those who got shots, the vast majority of whom will survive infections. Instead, they say, these deaths serve as a reminder that vaccines are not foolproof and that those in high-risk groups should consider getting boosted and taking extra precautions during surges.

“Vaccines are one of the most important and longest-lasting tools we have to protect ourselves,” said California State Epidemiologist Erica Pan, citing state estimates showing vaccines have shown to be 85 percent effective in preventing death.

“Unfortunately, that does leave another 15,” she said.

‘He did not expect to be sick’

Arianne Bennett recalled her husband, Scott Bennett, saying, “But I’m vaxxed. But I’m vaxxed,” from the D.C. hospital bed where he struggled to fight off covid-19 this winter.

Friends had a hard time believing Bennett, co-founder of the D.C.-based chain Amsterdam Falafelshop, was 70. The adventurous longtime entrepreneur hoped to buy a bar and planned to resume scuba-diving trips and 40-mile bike rides to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

Bennett went to get his booster in early December after returning to D.C. from a lodge he owned in the Poconos, where he and his wife hunkered down for fall. Just a few days after his shot, Bennett began experiencing covid-19 symptoms, meaning he was probably exposed before the extra dose of immunity could kick in. His wife suspects he was infected at a dinner where he and his server were unmasked at times.

A fever-stricken Bennett limped into the hospital alongside his wife, who was also infected, a week before Christmas. He died Jan. 13, among the 125,000 Americans who succumbed to covid-19 in January and February.

“He was absolutely shocked. He did not expect to be sick. He really thought he was safe,’” Arianne Bennett recalled. “And I’m like, ‘But baby, you’ve got to wear the mask all the time. All the time. Up over your nose.’”

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, said the deaths of vaccinated people are among the consequences of a pandemic response that emphasizes individuals protecting themselves.

“When we are not taking this collective effort to curb community spread of the virus, the virus has proven time and time again it’s really good at finding that subset of vulnerable people,” Salemi said.

While experts say even the medically vulnerable should feel assured that a vaccine will probably save their lives, they should remain vigilant for signs of infection. As more therapeutics become available, early detection and treatment is key.

When Wayne Perkey, 84, first started sneezing and feeling other cold symptoms in early February, he resisted his physician daughter’s plea to get tested for the coronavirus.

The legendary former morning radio host in Louisville had been boosted in October. He diligently wore a mask and kept his social engagements to a minimum. It must have been the common cold or allergies, he believed. Even the physician who ordered a chest X-ray and had no coronavirus tests on hand thought so.

Perkey relented, and the test came back positive. He didn’t think he needed to go to the hospital, even as his oxygen levels declined.

“In his last voice conversation with me, he said, ‘I thought I was doing everything right,’” recalled Lady Booth Olson, another daughter, who lives in Virginia. “I believe society is getting complacent, and clearly somebody he was around was carrying the virus. … We’ll never know.”

From his hospital bed, Perkey resumed a familiar role as a high-profile proponent for vaccines and coronavirus precautions. He was familiar to many Kentuckians who grew up hearing his voice on the radio and watched him host the televised annual Crusade for Children fundraiser. He spent much of the pandemic as a caregiver to his ex-wife who struggled with chronic fatigue and other long-haul covid symptoms.

“It’s the 7th day of my Covid battle, the worst day so far, and my anger boils when I hear deniers talk about banning masks or social distancing,” Perkey wrote on Facebook on Feb. 16, almost exactly one year after he posted about getting his first shot. “I remember times we cared about our neighbors.”

In messages to a family group chat, he struck an optimistic note. “Thanks for all the love and positive energy,” he texted on Feb. 23. “Wear your mask.”

As is often the case for covid-19 patients, his condition rapidly turned for the worse. His daughter Rebecca Booth, the physician, suspects a previous bout with leukemia made it harder for his immune system to fight off the virus. He died March 6.

“Really and truly his final days were about, ‘This virus is bad news.’ He basically was saying: ‘Get vaccinated. Be careful. But there is no guarantee,’” Rebecca Booth said. “And, ‘If you think this isn’t a really bad virus, look at me.’ And it is.”

Hospitals, particularly in highly vaccinated areas, have also seen a shift from covid wards filled predominantly with the unvaccinated. Many who end up in the hospital have other conditions that weakens the shield afforded by the vaccine.

Vaccinated people made up slightly less than half the patients in the intensive care units of Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California hospital system in December and January, according to a spokesman.

Gregory Marelich, chair of critical care for the 21 hospitals in that system, said most of the vaccinated and boosted people he saw in ICUs were immunosuppressed, usually after organ transplants or because of medications for diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

“I’ve cared for patients who are vaccinated and immunosuppressed and are in disbelief when they come down with covid,” Marelich said.

‘There’s life potential in those people’

Jessica Estep, 41, rang a bell celebrating her last treatment for follicular lymphoma in September. The single mother of two teenagers had settled into a new home in Michigan, near the Indiana border. After her first marriage ended, she found love again and got married in a zoo in November.

As an asthmatic cancer survivor, Estep knew she faced a heightened risk from covid-19, relatives said. She saw only a tight circle of friends and worked in her own office in her electronics repair job. She lived in an area where around 1 in 4 residents are fully vaccinated. She planned to get a booster shot in the winter.

“She was the most nonjudgmental person I know,” said her mother, Vickie Estep. “It was okay with her if people didn’t mask up or get vaccinated. It was okay with her that they exercised their right of choice, but she just wanted them to do that away from her so that she could be safe.”

With Michigan battling back-to-back surges of the delta and omicron variants, Jessica Estep wasn’t able to dodge the virus any longer — she fell ill in mid-December. After surviving a cancer doctors described as incurable, Estep died Jan. 27. Physicians said the coronavirus essentially turned her lungs into concrete, her mother said.

Estep’s 14-year-old daughter now lives with her grandparents. Her widower returned to Indianapolis just months after he moved to Michigan to be with his new wife.

Her family shared her story with a local television station in hopes of inspiring others to get vaccinated, to protect people such as Estep who could not rely on their own vaccination as a foolproof shield. In response to the station’s Facebook post about the story, several commenters shrugged off their pleas and insinuated it was the vaccines rather than covid causing deaths.

Immunocompromised people and those with other underlying conditions are worth protecting, Vickie Estep said. “There’s life potential in those people.”

A delayed shot

As Arianne Bennett navigates life without her husband, she hopes the lesson people heed from his death is to take advantage of all tools available to mitigate a virus that still finds and kills the vulnerable, including by getting boosters.

Bennett wore a music festival shirt her husband gave her as she walked into a grocery store to get her third shot in March. Her husband urged her to get one when they returned to D.C., but she became sick at the same time he did. She scheduled the appointment for the earliest she could get the shot: 90 days after receiving monoclonal antibodies to treat the disease.

My booster! Yay!” Bennett exclaimed in her chair as the pharmacist presented an updated vaccine card.

“It’s been challenging, but we got through it,” the pharmacist said, unaware of Scott Bennett’s death.

Tears welled in Bennett’s eyes as the needle went in her left arm, just over a year after she and her husband received their first shots.

“Last time we got it, we took selfies: ‘Look, we had vaccines,’” Bennett said, beginning to sob. “This one leaves me crying, missing him so much.”

The pharmacist leaned over and gave Bennett a hug in her chair.

“He would want you to do this,” the pharmacist said. “You have to know.”

Methodology

Death rates compare the number of deaths in various groups with an adjustment for the number of people in each group. The death rates listed for the fully vaccinated, the unvaccinated and those vaccinated with boosters were calculated by the CDC using a sample of deaths from 23 health departments in the country that record vaccine status, including boosters, for deaths related to covid-19. The CDC study assigns deaths to the month when a patient contracted covid-19, not the month of death. The latest data published in April reflected deaths of people who contracted covid as of February. The CDC study of deaths among the vaccinated is online, and the data can be downloaded.

The death rates for fully vaccinated people, unvaccinated people and fully vaccinated people who received an additional booster are expressed as deaths per 100,000 people. The death rates are also called incidence rates. The CDC estimated the population sizes from census data and vaccination records. The study does not include partially vaccinated people in the deaths or population. The CDC adjusted the population sizes for inaccuracies in the vaccination data. The death data is provisional and subject to change. The study sample includes the population eligible for boosters, which was originally 18 and older, and now is 12 and older.

To compare death rates between groups with different vaccination status, the CDC uses incidence rate ratios. For example, if one group has a rate of 10 deaths per 100,000 people, the death incidence rate would be 10. Another group may have a death incidence rate of 2.5. The ratio between the first group and the second group is the rate of 10 divided by the rate of 2.5, so the incidence rate ratio would be 4 (10÷2.5=4). That means the first group dies at a rate four times that of the second group.

The CDC calculates the death incidence rates and incidence rate ratios by age groups. It also calculates a value for the entire population adjusted for the size of the population in each age group. The Post used those age-adjusted total death incidence rates and incidence rate ratios.

The Post calculated the share of deaths by vaccine status from the sample of death records the CDC used to calculate death incidence rates by vaccine status. As of April, that data included 44,000 deaths of people who contracted covid in January and February.

The share of deaths for each vaccine status does not include deaths for partially vaccinated people because they are not included in the CDC data.

The Post calculated the share of deaths in each age group from provisional covid-19 death records that have age details from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. That data assigns deaths by the date of death, not the date on which the person contracted covid-19. That data does not include any information on vaccine status of the people who died.

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.

Feds poised to fight to preserve mask mandate for travel

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is appealing a Florida judge’s Monday decision to strike down the mask requirement for public transportation. Federal judge Kathryn Mizelle ruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exceeded its authority under the Public Health Service Act of 1944. Meanwhile, giddy passengers and flight crew have been discarding their face coverings as airlines, the Transportation Safety Administration, several local transit authorities, Uber and Lyft, all removed their mask requirements.  

The Gist: Despite DOJ’s appeal, which appears to be aimed at preserving its own authority to act during health crises, rather than reinstating the current mask requirement (which was set to expire in two weeks anyway), the tone of the Biden administration is clearly shifting. Earlier this week President Biden told reporters that the decision to wear a mask is “up to them,” meaning individual Americans. 

In the bumpy transition out of the emergency phase of the pandemic, we now have a patchwork of rules for masking. This is even true within healthcare facilities: some, including Houston Methodist and Iowa-based UnityPoint Health, are no longer requiring masks for visitors or employees who are not involved in patient care. 

With COVID cases now rising in 41 states as mask mandates fall, the next month will prove critical in determining whether “endemic” COVID remains manageable, or once again stresses the healthcare system and other critical infrastructure.  

Coronavirus has infected majority of Americans

But officials caution that people should not presume they have protection against the virus going forward.

Before omicron, one-third of Americans had been infected with the coronavirus, but by the end of February, that rate had climbed to nearly 60 percent — including about 75 percent of kids and 60 percent of people age 18 to 49according to federal health data released Tuesday.

The data from blood tests offers the first evidence that over half the U.S. population, or 189 million people have been infected at least once since the pandemic began — double the number reflected in official case counts. Officials cautioned, however, that the data, in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not indicate people have protection against the virus going forward, especially against increasingly transmissible variants.

“We continue to recommend that everyone be up to date on their vaccinations, get your primary series and booster, when eligible,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing.

Kristie Clarke, the CDC official who authored the report, said by February, “evidence of previous COVID-19 infections substantially increased among every age group, likely reflecting the increase in cases we noted as omicron surged in this country.”

Clarke said the greatest increases took place in those with the lowest levels of vaccination, noting that older adults were more likely to be fully vaccinated.

The largest increases were in children and teenagers through age 17 — about 75 percent of them had been infected by February, based on blood samples that look at antibodies developed in response to a coronavirus infection but not in response to vaccination. That’s about 58 million children.

The blood test data suggests 189 million Americans had covid-19 by end of February, well over double the 80 million cases shown by The Washington Post case tracker, which is based on state data of confirmed infections. Clarke said that’s because the blood tests captures asymptomatic cases and others that were never confirmed on coronavirus tests.

With the omicron surge, officials had expected there would be more infections. “But I didn’t expect the increase to be quite this much,” Clarke added.

Separately, CDC is about to publish another study that estimates three infections for every reported case, she said.

Sutter Health: Nurses who staged 1-day strike must wait 5 days to return to work

Sacramento-based Sutter Health said nurses who went on strike April 18 will not be allowed to return to work until the morning of April 23, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The strike affected nurses and healthcare workers at Sutter Health facilities in Northern California. The nurses are members of the California Nurses Association, and the other workers are members of the Caregivers and Healthcare Employees Union, an affiliate of the California Nurses Association.

More than 8,000 registered nurses and healthcare workers were expected to participate in the strike, according to an April 18 news release from the unions.

In a statement shared with Becker’s, Sutter Health said the organization conducted strike contingency planning, which included “securing staff to replace nurses who have chosen to strike, and those replacement contracts provide the assurance of five days of guaranteed staffing amid the uncertainty of a widespread work stoppage.” 

“As always, our top priority remains safe, high-quality patient care and nurses may be reinstated sooner based on operational and patient care needs,” the statement said.

The California Nurses Association described Sutter Health’s decision as retaliatory, as well as “completely unnecessary and vindictive.”

“Nurses who are regularly scheduled to work during this lockout period will lose those days of pay,” the union said in a statement shared with Becker’s. “We urge Sutter to respect the nurses’ strike and let all nurses return to work.”

Sutter Health workers authorized a strike in March, and union officials announced an official strike notice April 8. Union members cited lack of transparency about the stockpile of personal protective equipment supplies and contact tracing as a reason for the strike. They also said they seek a contract that will help retain experienced nurses and provide sufficient staffing and training.

Nurses have been in contract negotiations since June. 

Fauci says COVID-19 cases will likely increase soon, though not necessarily hospitalizations

https://www.yahoo.com/gma/fauci-says-covid-19-cases-100200293.html

Over the next few weeks, the U.S. should expect an increase in cases from the BA.2 variant, Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News, but it may not lead to as severe a surge in hospitalizations or deaths.

“I would not be surprised if in the next few weeks we see somewhat of either a flattening of our diminution or maybe even an increase,” Fauci told ABC News’ Brad Mielke on the podcast “Start Here.”

His prediction is based on conversations with colleagues in the U.K., which is currently seeing a “blip” in cases, Fauci said. The pandemic trajectory in the U.S. has often followed the U.K. by about three weeks.

However, he added, “Their intensive care bed usage is not going up, which means they’re not seeing a blip up of severe disease.”

The BA.2 variant, a more transmissible strain of omicron, now represents around 23% of all cases in the U.S., according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while Fauci predicted that the BA.2 variant will eventually overtake omicron as the most dominant variant, it’s not yet clear how much of a problem that will be.

“Whether or not that is going to lead to another surge, a mini surge or maybe even a moderate surge, is very unclear because there are a lot of other things that are going on right now,” Fauci said.

Similar to the U.K., much of the U.S. has recently relaxed mitigation efforts like mask mandates and requirements for proof of vaccination. At the same time, people who were vaccinated over six months ago and still haven’t gotten a booster shot, which is about half of vaccinated Americans, according to the CDC, are facing continuously waning immunity.

It’s also not yet clear how long immunity from prior infection will last, Fauci said.

Taken together, it’s why Fauci and other experts, including CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, have increasingly predicted that elderly people will need a second booster shot soon. The Food and Drug Administration began reviewing data from Pfizer on the safety and efficacy this week, and its advisory panel will debate if and when the additional booster shot is necessary in the coming weeks.

At the same time, Fauci urged Americans who haven’t yet gotten their first booster, which would be their third shot in a Pfizer or Moderna series, to do so.

A resurgence of cases could also mean Americans are asked to wear masks again, which Fauci predicted would be an uphill battle.

“From what I know about human nature, which I think is pretty much a lot, people are kind of done with COVID,” Fauci said.

Still, he defended the CDC decision to loosen its mask recommendations earlier this month by shifting to a strategy that focused more on severe outcomes, like hospitalizations and deaths, rather than on daily case spread.

“You can go ahead and continue to tiptoe towards normality, which is what we’re doing, but at the same time, be aware that you may have to reverse,” Fauci said.

And if the U.S. does continue to make its way back toward normal times, Fauci himself has a personal choice to consider. At 81 years old, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is “certainly” thinking about retirement.

“I have said that I would stay in what I’m doing until we get out of the pandemic phase and I think we might be there already, if we can stay in this,” Fauci said, referring to the falling cases and hospitalizations in the U.S.

“I can’t stay at this job forever. Unless my staff is gonna find me slumped over my desk one day. I’d rather not do that,” he said, laughing.

While he doesn’t currently have retirement plans, the recent hire of Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, to be White House coronavirus coordinator, could alleviate some of his pandemic response duties and give him a window.

But Fauci, who has dedicated his career to public health, primarily studying HIV and AIDS, and worked under seven U.S. presidents, said he doesn’t have any particular hobbies waiting for him in retirement.

“I, unfortunately, am somewhat of a unidimensional physician, scientist, public health person. When I do decide I’m going to step down, whenever that is, I’m going to have to figure out what it is I’m going to do,” he said.

“I’d love to spend more time with my wife and family. That would really be good.”

A covid surge in Western Europe has U.S. bracing for another wave

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/16/covid-ba2-omicron-surge/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&carta-url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F36559b9%2F62320b1e9d2fda34e7d4e992%2F5b63a342ade4e2779550ca1b%2F9%2F73%2F62320b1e9d2fda34e7d4e992

A surge in coronavirus infections in Western Europe has experts and health authorities on alert for another wave of the pandemic in the United States, even as most of the country has done away with restrictions after a sharp decline in cases.

Infectious-disease experts are closely watching the subvariant of omicron known as BA.2, which appears to be more transmissible than the original strain, BA.1, and is fueling the outbreak overseas.

Germany, a nation of 83 million people, saw more than 250,000 new cases and 249 deaths Friday, when Health Minister Karl Lauterbach called the nation’s situation “critical.” The country is allowing most coronavirus restrictions to end Sunday, despite the increase. The United Kingdom had a seven-day average of 65,894 cases and 79 deaths as of Sunday, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center. The Netherlands, home to fewer than 18 million people, was averaging more than 60,000 cases the same day.

In all, about a dozen nations are seeing spikes in coronavirus infections caused by BA.2, a cousin of the BA.1 form of the virus that tore through the United States over the past three months.

In the past two years, a widespread outbreak like the one now being seen in Europe has been followed by a similar surge in the United States some weeks later. Many, but not all, experts interviewed for this story predicted that is likely to happen. China and Hong Kong, on the other hand, are experiencing rapid and severe outbreaks, but the strict “zero covid” policies they have enforced make them less similar to the United States than Western Europe.

A number of variables — including relaxed precautions against viral transmission, vaccination rates, the availability of antiviral medications and natural immunity acquired by previous infection — may affect the course of any surge in the United States, experts said.

Most importantly, it is unclear at this point how many people will become severely ill, stressing hospitals and the health-care system as BA.1 did.

Another surge also may test the public’s appetite for returning to widespread mask-wearing, mandates and other measures that many have eagerly abandoned as the latest surge fades and spring approaches, experts said.

“It’s picking up steam. It’s across at least 12 countries … from Finland to Greece,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, who recently posted charts of the outbreak on Twitter. “There’s no question there’s a significant wave there.”

Topol noted that hospitalizations for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, are rising in some places as well, despite the superior vaccination rates of many Western European countries.

At a briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about 35,000 cases of BA.2 have been reported in the United States to date. But she offered confidence that “the tools we have — including mRNA vaccines, therapeutics and tests — are all effective tools against the virus. And we know because it’s been in the country.”

Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an email Tuesday that “although the BA.2 variant has increased in the United States over the past several weeks, it is not the dominant variant, and we are not seeing an increase in the severity of disease.”

The seven-day average of cases in the United States fell 17.9 percent in the past week, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, while the number of deaths dropped 17.2 percent and hospitalizations declined 23.2 percent.

Predicting the future course of the virus has proved difficult throughout the pandemic, and the current circumstances in Europe elicited a range of opinions from people who have closely tracked the pathogen and the disease it causes.

In the United States, just 65.3 percent of the population, 216.8 million people, are fully vaccinated, and only 96.1 million have received a booster shot, according to data tracked by The Post. In Germany, nearly 76 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins data, and the United Kingdom has fully vaccinated 73.6 percent.

That lower vaccination rate is very likely to matter as BA.2 spreads further in the United States, especially in regions where it is significantly lower than the national rate, several experts said. And even for people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, research data is showing that immunity to the virus fades over time. Vaccine-makers Pfizer and BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday for emergency authorization to offer a fourth shot to people 65 and older.

Any place you have relatively lower vaccination rates, especially among the elderly, is where you’re going to see a bump in hospitalizations and deaths from this,” said Céline Gounder, an infectious-diseases physician and editor at large for public health at Kaiser Health News.

Similarly, as the public sheds masks — every state has dropped its mask mandate or announced plans to do so — another layer of protection is disappearing, several people tracking the situation said.

“Why wouldn’t it come here? Are we vaccinated enough? I don’t know,” said Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and an expert on aerosol transmission at the University of California at San Diego.

“So I’m wearing my mask still. … I am the only person indoors, and people look at me funny, and I don’t care.”

Yet BA.2 appears to be spreading more slowly in the United States than it has overseas, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Debbie Dowell, chief medical officer for the CDC’s covid-19 response, said in a briefing Saturday for clinicians sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“The speculation I’ve seen is that it may extend the curve going down, case rates from omicron, but is unlikely to cause another surge that we saw initially with omicron,” Dowell said.

One reason for that may be the immunity that millions of people acquired recently when they were infected with the BA.1 variant, which generally caused less-severe illness than previous variants. Yet no one really knows whether infection with BA.1 offers protection from BA.2.

“That’s the question,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Better yet, how long does it provide protection?

Topol said the United States needs to improve its vaccination and booster rates immediately to protect more of the population against any coming surge.

“We have got to get the United States protected better. We have an abundance of these shots. We have to get them into people,” he said.

Biden administration officials said that whatever the further spread of BA.2 brings to the United States, the next critical step is to provide the $15.6 billion in emergency funding that Congress stripped from a deal to fund the government last week. That money was slated to pay for coronavirus tests, more vaccines and antiviral medications.

“That means that some programs, if we don’t get funding, could abruptly end or need to be pared back, Psaki said at Monday’s briefing. “And that could impact how we are able to respond to any variant.”

More than 90% of the U.S. population lives in an area with a “low” or “medium” risk of COVID-19

More than 90% of the U.S. population lives in an area with a “low” or “medium” risk of COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced yesterday. Last week, the CDC changed the way it assesses county-level COVID-19 risk, using data on hospitalizations and health care capacity in addition to case counts. The CDC now recommends universal indoor masking only for counties that are at “high” risk under this system—which means that the vast majority of Americans are not currently advised to wear masks inside.