Solving COVID
April 20, 2021

Johnson & Johnson is set to resume shipments of its COVID-19 vaccine in Europe as the pause in the U.S. continues.

The European Medicines Agency on Tuesday said that "unusual blood clots" should be "listed as very rare side effects" of Johnson and Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, but it determined the vaccine's benefits "outweigh the risks of side effects," Axios and The New York Times report.

The agency, after reviewing eight cases of rare blood clots among the millions of people in the United States who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, found a "possible link" between the vaccine and the blood clots, but it said the "risk of having this side effect is very low."

"Healthcare professionals and people who will receive the vaccine should be aware of the possibility of very rare cases of blood clots combined with low levels of blood platelets occurring within three weeks of vaccination," the agency also said.

U.S. health officials last week called for a pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while they examined these rare blood clotting cases. Johnson & Johnson says it will now resume shipment of its vaccine in the European Union, Norway, and Iceland. Meanwhile, the Times notes that an expert panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is set to meet later this week, and Dr. Anthony Fauci has predicted the vaccine's pause won't extend beyond this Friday. Brendan Morrow

May 13, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off Wednesday on administering Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 12 to 15, paving the way for vaccinations in this younger cohort to begin as soon as Thursday. President Biden hailed the move "as one more giant step in our fight against the pandemic." The "bottom line" is that the vaccine is "safe, effective, easy, fast, and free" for 12- to 15-year-olds, he said. "So my hope is that parents will take advantage of the vaccine and get their kids vaccinated."

Some states have already lined up vaccination drives for Thursday and Friday in anticipation of the decision, and Biden said 15,000 pharmacies are ready to start vaccinating adolescents as early as Thursday. He said children will be able to get their second Pfizer-BioNTech shot in a different location if they move around in the summer. Vaccinating kids and teens 12 and older is seen as a critical part of the effort to tame the pandemic and get schools fully reopened next fall. The U.S. has about 17 million adolescents age 12 to 15, representing 5.3 percent of the population, the Kaiser Family Foundation says.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave the final green light hours after the CDC's independent Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 14-0, with one recusal, to endorse the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents 12 to 15. The Food and Drug Administration had authorized emergency use of the vaccine in that age group on Monday.

Pfizer studied its vaccine in more than 2,200 kids age 12 to 15, and there were zero cases in the half that got the vaccine, versus 16 in the placebo group. Side effects were similar to what adults experience, but the children developed higher antibody levels than adults. At least 127 adolescents have died from COVID-19 this year, and as more adults get vaccinated, the 12-15 age group's share of infections has risen, hitting 9 percent of all cases in April, the CDC says. Peter Weber

May 12, 2021

The U.S. was administering an average of 3.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses a day in mid-April, and then, to the alarm of public health officials, the numbers started steadily declining, dropping to a seven-day average of 1.98 million doses a day on May 8. Since then, the numbers have started rising again, hitting an average of 2.2 million daily doses administered by Wednesday, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data tabulated by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Andy Slavitt, a White House COVID-19 adviser, gave the slight uptick a thumbs-up on Tuesday.

About 44.7 percent of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, including 71.6 percent of people 65 and older, the Journal reports, though those numbers vary from state to state. Connecticut, for example, has fully vaccinated 56.3 percent of all adults, while Alabama has vaccinated 33.2 percent. The overall vaccination rate is primed for a bump as adolescents age 12 to 15 become eligible, likely later this week.

The U.S. recorded its fourth straight day of fewer than 40,000 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday — Johns Hopkins University recorded 33,000 new cases, down from Monday's 36,898 cases. The last time the seven-day average of new cases — 38,826 as of Monday, the Journal reports — was that low was back in the mid-September trough between two waves of infections. Another 684 Americans died of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the recorded U.S. pandemic total to 582,800 deaths. Peter Weber

May 11, 2021

Numerous companies have developed combination tests that simultaneously look for influenza and COVID-19, which could be especially useful as the flu potentially makes a return this fall, The New York Times reports.

A "quad test" that can detect COVID-19, two types of influenza, and the respiratory syncytial virus is now available "at thousands of hospitals and clinics around the country," one of a number of similar tests, the Times writes. Though the Times notes that the flu season was "nonexistent" last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Washington in Seattle's Dr. Geoffrey Baird said it could re-emerge in the fall, and combination tests would help determine whether a person has the flu or the coronavirus.

"We in the laboratory are preparing for another big boom in testing," Baird added.

The Times also notes that the Sanford Health system, which includes over 40 South Dakota hospitals, plans to replace its antigen tests with "quad tests," with senior executive director of laboratories Rochelle Odenbrett telling the Times, "It's just amazing how the technology has evolved."

Oxiris Barbot, former New York City health commissioner, wrote in response to the Times' story about combo tests, "This stands to be a game changer for this coming fall's flu season." Read more at The New York Times. Brendan Morrow

May 11, 2021

President Biden on Tuesday announced that Uber and Lyft will offer all Americans free rides to and from COVID-19 vaccination sites beginning on May 24 through July 4, the day Biden has targeted for the U.S. reaching a 70 percent vaccination rate.

While the U.S. vaccine rollout has been swift for the most part over the last few months, demand is dwindling. Some of that is due to general hesitancy, but access is still an issue. The free rides from the ride-sharing companies, Biden said, are aimed at making sure "transportation is less of a barrier."

The president praised the companies' initiative. "I think that's really stepping up," he said. Tim O'Donnell

May 10, 2021

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents age 12 to 15.

Pfizer has said clinical trials show its COVID-19 vaccine to be 100 percent effective in this age group. The vaccine already has been approved for people age 16 and up.

The approval sets the stage for many middle schoolers and young high school students to be vaccinated before the next school year. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must also approve the authorization before vaccinations for the age group can begin. The Week Staff

Opinion
May 10, 2021

The United States is "turning the corner" on COVID-19, Jeff Zients, President Biden's pandemic coordinator, said on CNN Sunday. Case and death rates are way down as vaccines become increasingly accessible. Rules are relaxing — but what about mask mandates?

As of this writing, 25 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and some cities and counties within the other 25 states still mandate public mask use. Many of those mandates are open-ended, but five states — Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia — have hit upon a metric that could be the political sweet spot.

That metric is 70 percent adult vaccination. It looks a little different in each state. In Michigan, the mask mandate will be lifted two weeks after 70 percent of residents age 16 and older are fully vaccinated. In Minnesota, the mandate ends at 70 percent of Minnesotans 16 and older or July 1, whichever comes first. (It will probably be the vaccination goal.) In Pennsylvania, it's 70 percent of residents 18 and up. In Vermont, it's at least one dose for 60 to 70 percent of all Vermonters and 70 to 85 percent of Vermonters 16 and up. And in West Virginia, it's partial vaccination for 70 percent of residents 16 and older.

This number is a little bit arbitrary from a public health perspective, because there's no firm scientific consensus on how much of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity for COVID-19. However, 70 percent is about average for expert estimates on this, and of course it will be supplemented by natural immunity in the millions who already survived the virus.

But politically, the 70 percent metric (especially the single-dose version) is a great idea. It's not my first choice for an endgame, but it's good and should be acceptable even in more cautious blue states and cities. It should allay fears of recklessness while also encouraging vaccination among the casually vaccine hesitant. Polling recently reported by The New York Times showed the ability to go maskless is a strong incentive for vaccination for many Americans — and after last month's pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson shot apparently scared many fence-sitters away from vaccination, a strong incentive is what we need. Bonnie Kristian

May 8, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated its public COVID-19 guidance to explicitly state that the coronavirus can be transmitted via aerosols — smaller respiratory particles that can float — that are inhaled at a distance greater than six feet from an infected person. The risk is higher while indoors, bringing ventilation practices to the forefront. The new language marks a change from the federal health agency's previous stance that transmission of the virus typically occurs through "close contact, not airborne transmission."

Infectious disease experts have warned that the CDC and the World Health Organization (which has also updated its guidance) were overlooking evidence of airborne transmission during the pandemic, The New York Times notes, and some have stressed the need for the CDC to strengthen its recommendations for preventing exposure to aerosolized virus, especially in indoor workplaces like meatpacking plants.

Good ventilation should be one of the primary things to focus on, Dr. David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington School of Public Health and the head of the Occupation and Safety Health Administration during the Obama administration, told the Times. Dr. Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech, explained that "if you're in a poorly ventilated environment, virus is going to build up in the air, and everyone who's in that room is going to be exposed."

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has long been pushing for such a change, called it "one of the most crucial scientific advancements of the pandemic" that should provide a lot of clarity about what is and isn't safe going forward. Read her Twitter thread on the issue here and learn more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

May 7, 2021

The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech could become the first in the United States to receive full FDA approval.

The companies announced Friday they have initiated an application seeking full approval of the vaccine for people 16 and over from the Food and Drug Administration, CNN reports. The vaccine is now being administered under an emergency use authorization, a "mechanism to facilitate the availability and use of" vaccines "during public health emergencies," per the FDA.

Receiving full FDA approval requires six months of safety and efficacy data, as opposed the two months required for the emergency use authorization, according to NBC News. CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta stressed Friday this isn't to suggest that data didn't already show the vaccine to be safe and effective or that the process to get the emergency authorization wasn't rigorous, but the "bar of data that you now have to show" to get full approval is even higher, he said on New Day.

With that in mind, experts have said full FDA approval could help reduce vaccine hesitancy and further demonstrate that the vaccines are safe. Former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams wrote in The Washington Post that "many people who are lower risk" have expressed uncertainty over whether the "benefits justify taking a medication that has not received the full and traditional FDA stamp of approval." So full approval might provide a "boost of confidence to people who were on the fence about getting vaccinated," Brown University School of Public Health dean Ashish Jha said.

If the vaccine is fully approved, Pfizer can also start marketing and distributing it. Another key difference, CNN writes, is that full approval could "have an impact on vaccine mandates," as "some organizations say they expect to require the vaccine, but have opted not to while it's authorized and not yet fully approved." ABC News reports it's likely to take "several months" for the FDA to make a decision. Brendan Morrow

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