Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Cameron Hood, Newsletter EditorJonathan Lambert
Public Health Reporter
Welcome to Grid Health, bringing you stories on the intersections of health and politics, technology, climate change, misinformation and more. In today’s email:  
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The third holiday season of the pandemic is kicking off, and as my colleague Dan Vergano reports, signs are pointing to yet another post-holiday covid surge.  

Already, case counts are up more than 50 percent nationwide over the past couple weeks — likely five to 20 times higher, given underreporting. Hospitalizations ticked up 10 percent in the past week, and about 350 people are dying each day of covid in the U.S., mostly those aged 65 and older. Public concern about the pandemic and willingness to take precautions like testing or masking is
lower than ever, which could allow the coronavirus ample opportunity to spread as people gather indoors to celebrate. 

“We don’t have to have a big winter surge. But right now, we are on track to,” Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Grid. 

The impact of this surge will likely be different than those in previous years, however. As a whole, we have a lot more immunity to SARS-CoV-2, since just about everyone has been infected, vaccinated or both. That will likely lessen the average severity of any individual case. But even a smaller surge still threatens to overwhelm hospitals, many of which are
hanging on by a thread as they grapple with flu, RSV and other viruses. There’s a lot we can do to ease that burden, starting with increasing booster uptake — especially among the most vulnerable. 

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found that
just 45 percent of nursing home residents and 22 percent of staff are up to date on their covid vaccines. Among all ages, omicron booster coverage is still abysmal, with only 13.5 percent of the population having gotten the shot, according to the CDC. Increasing those numbers would go a long way to reducing the death toll of any winter surge.  

As in previous years, testing before gathering with others can help nip a possible super-spreader event in the bud, and rapid tests are much easier to come by this year than last. Wearing high-quality KN95 or N95 masks can
help cut down transmission too, and protect elderly or immune-compromised folks who might be at your holiday gatherings.  

Read Dan’s full report on the current situation and how to stay safe here


💠 When AI isn’t intelligent: To most people, the world of scientific literature is a vast black box stuffed with millions upon millions of jargon-filled studies. A new AI-powered search engine, Consensus, promises to simplify the process of finding authoritative answers from scientific literature, write Science Reporter Dan Vergano and Climate Reporter Dave Levitan. But experts say that this AI provides answers that can range from wrong to incoherent. Grid’s own tests show that in some cases, the results are not only misleading but potentially dangerous — suggesting that the anti-malaria drug ivermectin is effective against covid or that vaccines cause autism, for instance. 

China’s covid outbreak, by the numbers: At a local and nationwide level, authorities in China are moving at long last to relax lockdowns, quarantine rules, testing protocols and other measures that have been in place, on and off, for nearly three years. It’s a stunning turnaround; for much of this year, the omicron variant had been treated as a grave threat, to be met with all the harsh rules that came with China’s “zero-covid” strategy, report Global Editor Tom Nagorski, Data Visualization Reporter Anna Deen and China Reporter Lili Pike. Grid offers a data-based look at covid in China and some perspective as to just how different the experience of the pandemic has been inside the country.  

Is covid like the flu now? It’s been asked often since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, three years into the pandemic and one year after omicron burst onto the scene, it’s worth tackling this question. In the latest installment of our “No Dumb Questions” video series, I approach this question and why it’s critical for both public health officials and policymakers in the current phase of the pandemic and for future planning. Watch the episode


One of the most talked-about and likely consequential Supreme Court cases on the docket this term is whether a Colorado web designer can legally refuse to provide a service to potential customers because of their sexual orientation — something Colorado state law currently prohibits — under the First Amendment.  

Notably, there is still no full protection against discrimination for LGBTQ people on the national level. The Supreme Court case highlights the
patchwork of state protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity, shown here using data from the independent nonprofit Movement Advancement Project

Read the full story here.  


👋 Thanks for reading. Until next week, take care. – Jon

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