Overnight Health Care: US surpasses 600K COVID-19 deaths | Federal watchdog to examine NIH grants, likely including Wuhan funding

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Welcome to Tuesday’s Overnight Health Care. The U.S. is one step closer to adding another federal holiday to the calendar after the Senate approved via unanimous consent making Juneteenth a legal holiday. 

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Today: The U.S. passed 600,000 deaths from the coronavirus. A federal watchdog is launching an investigation into NIH grants, and a new study shows the coronavirus was circulating in five states before their earliest cases had been confirmed.

We’ll start with the death toll:

US surpasses 600,000 COVID-19 deaths

More than 600,000 people in the U.S. have now lost their lives to COVID-19, a staggering toll that comes even as new infections and deaths steadily decline and much of the country attempts to return to pre-pandemic normal life.

The rate of severe illness and death has fallen dramatically as more and more people get vaccinated, but hundreds of people are still dying daily, offering a striking contrast with the joyous scenes of reopening.

Worldwide, more than 176 million people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker, and more than 3.8 million have died from it.

Progress: The U.S. in late February became the first country to surpass a half-million coronavirus deaths. That it has taken more than three months to reach 600,000 deaths is a testament to the slowing pandemic — it took just a month for the U.S. to jump from 300,000 to 400,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Remaining risk largely for the unvaccinated: The virus is still circulating, and new variants pose an even greater threat to the remaining people who are unvaccinated. Nationally, 64.5 percent of people in America above age 18 have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Read more here.

CDC labels highly transmissible delta strain a ‘variant of concern’ 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is labeling the highly transmissible delta strain of the coronavirus a “variant of concern” amid growing concerns about the strain fueling outbreaks among unvaccinated people in the United States.

The delta variant, first identified in India, is believed to be about 60 percent more transmissible than a previous variant known as alpha, according to British researcher Neil Ferguson. The delta variant has become dominant in the United Kingdom.

Health experts also say the delta variant could cause more severe disease and an increased risk of hospitalization.

The good news, vaccines work against it: The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both mRNA vaccines, are about 88 percent effective against the delta variant after two shots.

It’s on the rise: Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Sunday said the delta variant is doubling in prevalence in the U.S. every two weeks.

“I think in parts of the country where you have less vaccination, particularly in parts of the South, where you have some cities where vaccination rates are low, there’s a risk that you could see outbreaks with this new variant,” Gottlieb told CBS News.

Read more here

Federal watchdog to examine NIH grants, likely including Wuhan funding

A federal watchdog is opening a review into the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) oversight of grants to support research conducted outside the United States.

The Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced the review as part of its updated work plan.

Approximately 80 percent of NIH funding goes to support research grants, including grants and subawards to support research conducted outside the United States. 

The OIG said it has previously identified NIH’s oversight of grants to foreign applicants as a potential risk to the program’s goals, as well as the appropriate use of federal funds.  

Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman for the HHS OIG, told The Hill that the office will run an audit “reviewing how NIH monitored selected grants and how the grantees and subgrantees used and managed federal funds between years 2014 through 2021.”

Follows: The announcement comes amid renewed questions about the origin of the coronavirus, and efforts by Republicans to show grants from the NIH were funneled into illegal research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Republicans have focused on the relationship between NIH and the global nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, claiming that the NIH, and subsequently Anthony Fauci, were responsible for funding controversial research in Wuhan, China, that led to the creation of the novel coronavirus.

What’s next: The OIG said it will review NIH’s monitoring of selected grants, as well as grantee use and management of NIH grant funds in accordance with federal requirements. A report is expected in 2022.

Read more here.

Study: People had antibodies in five states before first coronavirus cases were confirmed

A government study released on Tuesday found that several people in five states had COVID-19 antibodies before those states confirmed their first cases of the virus last year.

The study, published as an accepted manuscript in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, determined that people in Illinois, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Mississippi had COVID-19 antibodies before the states confirmed any cases. 

Researchers analyzed blood samples from more than 24,000 people that were collected as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) All of Us study.

The blood samples, taken between Jan. 2 and March 18, 2020, underwent two COVID-19 antibody tests that identified whether certain antibodies that appear at least two weeks after infection were present. Researchers considered the samples to have antibodies if both tests returned positive results. 

Results: Nine people total tested positive for antibodies, including the seven whose positive tests came before the first confirmed case in their state. Seven of the nine were from minority populations.

What it means: The presence of these antibodies in some participants suggests that they were infected with COVID-19 several weeks before their blood sample was taken. 

“This study allows us to uncover more information about the beginning of the U.S. epidemic and highlights the real-world value of longitudinal research in understanding dynamics of emerging diseases like COVID-19,” Josh Denny, CEO of All of Us and an author of the study, said in a release.

Read more here.

Study finds a quarter of people with COVID-19 sought care for new medical problems 

A quarter of people who had COVID-19 sought care for new medical problems at least a month after their diagnosis, according to a large study published on Tuesday, indicating the prevalence of long-haul COVID-19.

The research conducted by nonprofit FAIR Health determined from private health insurance claims that 23.2 percent of COVID-19 patients — amounting to more than 450,000 people — sought care for at least one post-COVID-19 symptom at least 30 days after diagnosis.

The study analyzed health records from almost 2 million people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 between February and December 2020 and tracked whether they developed new symptoms until February 2021. 

FAIR Health said the research is the largest to its knowledge looking into long-haul conditions among COVID-19 patients. 

Results: The most common new post-COVID-19 condition reported by the hundreds of thousands of patients was pain — including nerve inflammation and aches and pains — with more than 5 percent, or almost 100,000, reporting the symptom.

Patients did not have to have symptomatic COVID-19 to develop these conditions, as 19 percent of people who said they were asymptomatic reported these symptoms at least a month after diagnosis. Almost 50 percent of patients who were hospitalized later reported post-COVID-19 conditions, as did 27 percent of those who reported mild or moderate symptoms. 

Read more here.

What we’re reading

Why Asia, the pandemic champion, remains miles away from the finish line (The New York Times)

New Alzheimer’s drug could be ‘devastating’ for Medicare (Politico 

Biden administration moves to axe Trump 340B rule targeting community clinics (STAT)

State by state

‘A momentous day’: New York lifts most virus restrictions (The New York Times)

State scrambles to redistribute COVID-19 vaccines, as more than 500K doses set to expire in August (Detroit Free Press)

‘California is turning the page.’ Reopening celebrated with dancing after midnight and baseball bobblehead giveaway (CNN

Op-eds in The Hill 

Mandated vaccinations have historic — and legal — precedent

Ending sickle cell disease is a matter of racial justice

Tags Anthony Fauci

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