Wednesday, December 21, 2022
Cameron Hood, Newsletter EditorJonathan Lambert
Public Health Reporter
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The holidays are almost here, and covid cases and hospitalizations continue ticking up across the country. The Biden administration last week unveiled its “covid winter preparedness plan,” aimed at forestalling the sort of major winter surges we’ve seen the last two years. But the new strategy also reflects the White House’s lowered ambitions at this point in the pandemic.

For much of the year, Congress has denied the administration’s requests for more covid funding – and there is little hope that will change with the spending deal expected later this month, despite the White House making a case for $9 billion in additional aid. Without more funds, many pandemic programs, such as those that provide free tests or vaccines, will run out of money in 2023.

But it’s not just Congress — the more limited plan also reflects the administration’s more relaxed approach to covid since
President Joe Biden suggested the pandemic was over earlier this fall. The public health emergency that’s been in effect since 2020 will likely end in sometime in early 2023, meaning that the federal government will stop acting as the country’s main purchaser of covid vaccines, tests and treatments, relinquishing influence over these tools to the market. That shift that will fall hardest on those with the least means.

Here’s what the administration is planning:

Testing: is back up and running after shutting down this fall. Households can get four free rapid tests via snail mail through the site. The administration also plans to distribute tests to community hubs like schools, food banks, community health centers and over 6,500 HUD-assisted rental housing properties serving seniors. Overall, it’s a stark change from last winter, when rapid tests were much harder to come by.

Vaccinations and treatment: Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra
sent a letter asking governors to take actions like setting up more vaccine sites (including mobile ones), surge testing sites and test-to-treat programs to distribute antiviral drugs. These are all helpful goals for boosting vaccine uptake and treatment access, but it’s doubtful that a letter will do much to change governors’ minds.

The administration is also allocating $125 million to support community-based organizations in “aging and disability networks” to get more seniors and people with disabilities vaccinated via clinics, in-home vaccinations and other support services.

Focus on highest risk Americans: This is the most important part of the plan, in my view, given the relatively poor booster uptake among older Americans. Only 45 percent of nursing home residents, and 22 percent of staff, are
up to date with their covid vaccines, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, leaving the most vulnerable more susceptible to serious illness and death.

To support those at highest risk, the administration will release a “winter playbook” for nursing homes and long-term care facilities that highlights actions they should take to boost vaccine uptake, improve indoor air quality and ease access to tests and treatment. At this point, such plans are vague, but one concrete change is that nursing home staff, providers at home health agencies and emergency medical technicians will now be able to administer vaccines.

Biodiversity talks end with major step forward

A couple weeks ago,
I previewed this month’s big biodiversity meeting in Montreal, highlighting the public health impact of negotiations. That meeting wrapped up early Monday morning as about 190 nations (but not the U.S.) agreed to a sweeping plan to stem the loss of species and ecosystems.

Many environmental advocates are praising the deal, which, while imperfect, represents the most ambitious international conservation plan yet. Countries pledged to conserve 30 percent of land and sea by 2030 — a key target in the lead up. The delegates also agreed to spend $200 billion per year on conservation by 2023, including $20 billion a year from rich countries to poorer ones. That’s less money than many hoped, but a start.

Go deeper: For a nice summary of the agreement,
check out this Vox explainer. For a deeper dive, head to Carbon Brief’s report.


💠 Flu who?: This year’s flu season got off to an alarming start, with hospitalization rates more than 10 times those of past years’ seasons. But as Americans travel for the holidays this week, new data show an encouraging downturn in flu activity in some parts of the country, Data Visualization Reporter Alex Leeds Matthews writes. Some experts believe that this means this current flu season may be unique only in its timing, not its severity. Normally, the peak arrives in February, making this season two months ahead of schedule. Still, in some places, flu cases remain high, and a second peak of flu cases, from another variant, wouldn’t be unprecedented, especially as Americans gather over the next couple weeks for the holidays.

Immigration in flux: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts granted the immigration system a brief reprieve as it looks toward its biggest challenge at the southern border since the pandemic began, Misinformation Reporter Khaya Himmelman writes. On Monday, Roberts temporarily blocked the termination of Title 42, a Trump-era policy put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop the spread of covid-19. Roberts’ order follows a legal effort by 19 Republican state leaders who say the end of Title 42 would cause an “enormous disaster” on the U.S.-Mexico border.

China's brewing covid surge: Zero-covid is ending in China; instead of “zero,” the country may soon be looking at a case load in the millions. And many experts fear the coming wave of infection and death will overwhelm the country’s ill-prepared healthcare system, China Reporter Lili Pike and I write. Already, major cities including Beijing and Guangzhou are seeing a surge of cases. Because China recently stopped mass testing, the exact number is unclear, but social media posts, government statements and other indicators point to a sharp increase.

More Twitter fallout: Elon Musk says preventing child exploitation and child sexual abuse material on Twitter is one of his top priorities, beyond the site’s legal responsibility to remove and report such material. But interviews with former Trust and Safety Council members, a group of organizations that advised the company on products and policies, and outside observers suggest that it’s unlikely that Twitter can keep up with the abuse posted on its platform after weeks of company shake-ups, Technology Reporter Benjamin Powers finds.


About 73 percent of U.S. adults believe they’d be more productive in their job if they worked four days a week instead of five, according to Grid’s exclusive data from the Harris Poll.

Labor reformers and other influencers have been batting around the idea since the turn of the 20th century, when union efforts reduced the six-day workweek to a five-day one — and invented the weekend in the process, Data Visualization Reporter Anna Deen writes.

According to Gallup polling, U.S. workers who work four days a week, instead of five or six, are more likely to report a thriving well-being and less likely to report burnout.

Read the full story.


👋 Thanks for reading. – Jon

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Cameron Hood, Anna Deen and Lillian Barkley also contributed to this edition of Grid Health.
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