Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.
On the heels of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Speech, the White House issued a 96-page plan that says it has four goals:
- Protecting against and treating COVID-19
- Preparing for new variants
- Avoiding shutdowns
- Fighting the virus abroad
Biden mentioned a cornerstone strategy in the plan that he called “test and treat.” That idea calls for antiviral medications to be available to people as soon as they test positive for COVID-19. The plan says:
The Administration will put forth new educational efforts for the public and providers so that Americans can rapidly access treatments. The Administration will establish “One-Stop Test to Treat” locations at pharmacy-based clinics, community health centers, Long-Term Care Facilities, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities across the country. “One-stop” sites will be operational by March.
The plan calls for more government spending to increase production of COVID-19 tests and to make them less expensive by using the “Defense Production Act and other authorities, where warranted, to increase manufacturing capacity; and invest in innovation to make tests less expensive. These continued investments in testing will require additional funding from Congress.”
The plan asks Congress to approve funding that would expand the production of vaccines to a billion doses a year. That would be three doses for every person in America. It is a signal that there are more vaccines in the future and, based on the notion that the government wants to churn out a billion doses a year, it would appear that there will be multiple doses of vaccine in the future — not just a booster every year.
The plan calls for stockpiling testing, treatment and personal protective equipment supplies. The plan offers some details of what will be included:
America will stockpile new categories of supplies including at-home tests, antiviral pills, and masks for the general population for the first time. The Administration will also maintain a fully stocked Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) with an inventory of masks, ventilators, gloves, gowns, and hospital equipment. The U.S. government will be ready to deploy supplies to the American people to ensure adequate supply in times of surges, COVID-19 outbreaks, or new variants.
The plan calls for the development and production of a vaccine that would protect against future variants. The issue of how many shots a year you will have to take in the future may be determined by the effectiveness of the next generation of vaccines.
The plan calls for research capacity to spot new variants quickly. It points out:
Before January 2021, the federal government had insufficient data and sequencing capabilities and was ill-equipped to respond to new variants. Electronic case reporting was in place for only a handful of states in 2020 and the country could sequence only 3,000 viral isolates per week. America had no plan for responding to a new variant or standing up comprehensive efforts to respond to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The government says it can now sequence 90,000 samples per week and, “can now reliably detect variants that account for as little as 0.1% of all COVID-19 cases circulating in the United States.”
The plan calls for research to understand long COVID. It says:
In recognition of the wide-reaching long-term impacts of COVID-19 on in recognition of the wide-reaching long-term impacts of COVID-19 on our society, the President will direct the U.S. government to accelerate efforts to detect, prevent, and treat Long COVID; coordinate efforts to provide support to families who have experienced the COVID-related loss of a loved one; and attend to the mental health and well-being of our communities. The Administration will also propose to make new investments in health care workers to support their mental health and well-being.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said told reporters that the CDC is “not looking at revisiting” masking requirements for air travel and other mass transit. The current requirements expire March 18. Then she said “we will be revisiting” the order that requires masking for travel. It all seems to mean that the CDC is not going to end the mask order before March 18 but may or may not renew it then.
Reporters wanted to know “what is the science” that supports unmasking while not traveling but wearing masks on airplanes and trains. Walensky said it is a matter of how much control people have on travel corridors, meaning that you do not know as much about the level of viral infection while traveling compared to where you work, go to school or live.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told CNN Wednesday that the government is not eager to drop mask requirements for travel while new cases and hospitalizations continue. He said, “We have Americans in hospitals, we have Americans still contracting, we have to be careful.”
Game-changing COVID-19 pills now plentiful
Two antiviral pills that the Food and Drug Administration authorized in December to treat COVID-19 symptoms have been hard to find. But now, NBC News reports, the medications known as Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir have been sent to states. In all, HHS says 2.3 million doses have been shipped.
You can go here to see how many doses have been sent to each state.
This is an important development because these pills can be taken at home, whereas many other antiviral treatments require an infusion administered in a health care setting.
The antivirals are “not in every drugstore, but they’re a little bit easier” to find now, said Dr. Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association and a family physician in South Carolina.
He said only one pharmacy in his county had the Covid pills in stock last month, but now there are usually two or three pharmacies carrying them. Pill supplies were initially very limited, doctors had to hunt them down at pharmacies hours away or put the burden on sick patients to find the drugs themselves.
But deliveries of the drugs, which are meant to be taken early in the course of the disease and keep people out of the hospital, have gradually increased over several weeks, as the drugmakers ramped up production.
New coronavirus lineage found in Canadian deer
You know by now that viruses can move from one species to another, which is why scientists are interested in a mutated version of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic that showed up in Canadian deer. The study involved lab analysis of 300 deer killed in Ontario during hunting season late last year. 6% of the deer tested turned up positive for the virus.
The researchers say this version of the virus has 76 consensus mutations, including 37 previously associated with nonhuman animal hosts, 23 of which were not previously reported in deer. That is the level of mutations that can happen when a virus moves from one species to another.
The question that is unresolved is whether the newly mutated virus will move to other species, including humans. The researchers say it may already have happened.
This is the second report in a couple of weeks of virus variants showing up in deer.
What are ‘cluster munitions’ and ‘vacuum bombs?’
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., says Russia has used a “vacuum bomb” in Ukraine, and America’s United Nations ambassador told the U.N. General Assembly that Russia is also preparing to use “cluster munitions.”
Vacuum bombs are also called thermobaric, aerosol bombs or fuel air explosives and are considered to be the most powerful nonnuclear weapons on earth. They are called vacuum bombs because they create a super-heated explosion that sucks oxygen from the surrounding air that can vaporize human bodies and crush internal organs. The blast wave lingers longer than conventional weapon blasts. Russia has had these weapons since the 1960s and detonated one in 2007. Human rights organizations say Russia has a variety of these weapons, from smaller versions to massive ordnances.
The U.S. also has a version of the bomb, which was used in Afghanistan. They were referred to as “bunker busters.”
These bombs do two things. First, they spray fine carbon-based aerosol particles that seep into buildings or caves, for example. Then a second charge ignites that fuel cloud to create the fireball and shock wave.
A CNN crew photographed Russian thermobaric rocket launchers entering Ukraine but it has not been confirmed that they have been used. Launch vehicles may carry two dozen rockets carrying thermobaric bombs.
International rights groups say that Russia may have already cluster munitions in Ukraine, hitting a preschool in northeastern Ukraine and landing near a hospital. Cluster bombs are notoriously inaccurate and produce unexploded ordnance as they scatter pieces over a wide area. They explode high in the sky and shower bomblets below. The Russian versions are known in military circles as 9M79-series Tochka missiles with 9N123 cluster munition warheads. This gives you an idea of what they look like and the damage they did when used in Syria.
International groups helping the people of Ukraine
As I watch the news coverage from Ukraine, I keep an eye out for ways that everyday folks can help. Relief groups big and small are on the move. Some of the interesting ones include:
Airbnb, the vacation rental business, announced that Airbnb.org will offer free, short-term housing to up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine. The website says:
Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, Airbnb co-founder and Airbnb.org Chairman Joe Gebbia, and Airbnb Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk sent letters to leaders across Europe, starting with the leaders of Poland, Germany, Hungary and Romania, offering support in welcoming refugees within their borders. While Airbnb.org is committing to facilitate short-term housing for up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine, it will work closely with governments to best support the specific needs in each country, including by providing longer-term stays.
Over the past five years, Airbnb and Airbnb.org have connected more than 54,000 refugees and asylees – including from Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan – to temporary housing through Airbnb.org partners. Last year, Airbnb.org announced the creation of its Refugee Fund and has galvanized more than 4,000 donors to further support its work with refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.
Here is the financial disclosure for the Airbnb Refugee Fund.
Currently our work is focused on purchasing tactical medical supplies (for critical situations like blood loss etc. in the field) and medical supplies needed in hospitals. Thanks to having one of the largest and most active volunteer networks in the Ukrainian-American diaspora, we’ve been able to quickly build a procurement team that purchases life-saving supplies across the US and Europe. Additionally, thanks to our years of work with volunteers and organizations in Ukraine, we have a logistics team that’s able to transport our supplies from Warsaw, Poland to Ukraine.
Global Giving has a Ukraine Relief Fund that has collected $3.5 million and growing from 27,000 donors. Charity Navigator gives it four out of four stars for how it handles finances, accountability and transparency.
Doctors Without Borders says it has mobilized in Ukraine and in neighboring countries (Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.) The group says, “In the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, MSF teams have distributed medical kits to treat war-wounded people. We have also provided a telemedicine training for trauma care for 30 surgeons from eastern Ukraine.” (Read their annual financial report.)
José Andrés is calling from an area outside Lviv, Ukraine, where one of the world’s most famous chefs personally delivered flour to a bakery run by Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic charity that has partnered with Andrés’s relief organization, World Central Kitchen. Russia’s invasion has led to a flour shortage inside Ukraine, even though the country is one of the largest wheat producers in the world.
To get flour to the bakery, Andrés had to rent a car in Poland, where he is staying, drive it to the border, transfer the bags to another vehicle that he had rented inside Ukraine and then drive it to its destination. “The car companies, they don’t let you bring them into Ukraine for obvious reasons,” he told The Washington Post in an interview.
WCK is also financially supporting restaurants in five cities and two border crossings inside Ukraine, according to information supplied by the nonprofit. What’s more, the organization is establishing meal distribution points in other countries, including Hungary, Moldova and Romania.
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