Overnight Health Care — COVID-19 deaths pass peak from delta surge
Welcome to Wednesday’s Overnight Health Care, where we’re following the latest moves on policy and news affecting your health. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.
Masks come to the Super Bowl: Fans attending the big game next month will be given KN95 masks.
Despite omicron being less severe on average, the sheer number of cases has driven deaths past the peak from last year’s delta surge.
Let’s get started.
The average number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths this week surpassed the height of the delta surge earlier this fall and is at its highest point since last winter, when the nation was coming out of the peak winter surge.
The seven-day average of deaths hit 2,166 on Monday, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Average daily deaths in mid-September before the omicron variant was discovered peaked at around 1,900.
While increasing evidence shows omicron may be less likely to cause death or serious illness than delta, the sheer infectiousness and the speed at which it spreads has overwhelmed hospitals, primarily with people who have not been vaccinated.
The U.S. saw the highest numbers of deaths in the pandemic just over a year ago, before vaccines were widely available, when the daily average reached 3,400. The last time the U.S. topped 2,000 deaths was last February, as the country was slowly coming down from the January peak.
Caution urged: Infections are falling in states that were hardest hit earlier, as well as broadly across the nation. Hospitalizations are also falling, but deaths are a lagging indicator and are still increasing. CDC Director Rochelle Walsenky said deaths have increased about 21 percent over the past week.
The fact that the omicron variant tends to cause less severe disease on average also helped avoid an even greater crisis that would have occurred if it was as severe as the delta variant.
US has shared 400M vaccine doses globally
The United States has shared 400 million coronavirus vaccine doses with the global population, more than any other nation, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients announced the milestone during a public health briefing on Wednesday, saying that 400 million vaccine doses have been sent to 112 countries “for free, with no strings attached.”
The U.S. sent roughly 3.2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Bangladesh and 4.7 million doses to Pakistan this week, according to a White House official, bringing the total doses shared to 400 million. The vaccine doses are being shared through COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed initiative to vaccinate lower-income countries.
But, according to the Financial Times, COVAX is almost out of money, and can’t accept any new donations that don’t come with needed accessories like syringes.
Infectious disease doctor Peter Hotez tweeted the 400 million dose number is “nothing to brag about” and repeated a warning that failing to adequately vaccinate the world will lead to even more variants spreading out from under-vaccinated nations and prolonging the pandemic.
HHS SECRETARY UNDER FIRE
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra is under fire for what critics say is a lack of leadership as the Biden administration wrestles with the direction of its COVID-19 response.
Tasked with running the sprawling agency primarily responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the day-to-day administration of the nation’s unwieldy health system, Becerra is supposed to corral the differing health factions into a unified message on the pandemic.
But outside health experts and former officials said he’s taken a back seat, ceding his authority to others, including the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Of all the HHS secretaries we’ve had, at least in the last multiple administrations, we’ve never had one that was a ghost when it came to a public health crisis. That’s what we have now: an invisible HHS secretary. Just when we need that person the most,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.
Becerra’s spokesperson, Sarah Lovenheim, the assistant secretary for public affairs, disputed the assertion that Becerra has not been a leader during the pandemic.
The secretary is “tackling a wealth of issues, with COVID being the focus,” Lovenheim said. “The secretary drives agency operations to support carrying out the mission, whether he’s coordinating our agencies to make booster doses accessible, authorizing the distribution of vaccines, or determining how to get masks in the hands of people in need of them.”
How you may get long COVID-19
Long COVID-19 has had an air of mystery around it for months. Doctors have struggled to explain or understand why some people who contract COVID-19 end up having lingering symptoms like fatigue, difficulty thinking clearly, or shortness of breath weeks or even months later.
A new study published in the journal Cell helps shed some light on the condition, for the first time identifying four factors that can help predict whether someone will develop long COVID-19.
“Being able to identify the factors that can cause the disease, cause the chronic condition, is the first step towards defining that it actually is a condition that can be treatable,” Jim Heath, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, and an author of the study, said in an interview. “And then some of these factors also are in fact the kind of things one can imagine developing treatments for.”
The most important factor the study identified in predicting long COVID-19 is the presence of certain kinds of antibodies called autoantibodies, which mistakenly attack healthy parts of the body. Autoantibodies are associated with autoimmune diseases, like lupus, where your immune system attacks your own body.
But someone does not have to have an autoimmune disease to have autoantibodies present and be at higher risk for long COVID-19, Heath said.
Still, he said one practical application of the study is that lupus treatments could be “worth exploring” as treatments for long COVID-19.
RESEARCH: 10 MINUTES OF DAILY EXERCISE COULD EXTEND LIFE
New research suggests just 10 minutes of daily exercise for those above the age of 40 could extend life expectancy.
In a study published by the JAMA Internal Medicine journal on Monday, researchers found 10 minutes of exercise a day could have saved the lives of around 110,000 people aged 40 to 85 per year.
An increase to 20 or 30 minutes of exercise a day could save even more lives, with the authors saying this is the first study they know of using accelerometer-based measurements to estimate the number of lives that could be saved through physical activity.
They used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to study the activity levels of those in their age range and when they died through the end of 2015.
“We know exercise is good for us. This study provides additional evidence of the benefits at the population level: if all adults in the United States (over age 40) were to exercise just a bit more each day, a large number of deaths could be prevented each year,” epidemiologist Pedro Saint-Maurice, the study’s first author, told CNN.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- The Biden administration used billions in hospital Covid-19 funds to pay drugmakers (Stat)
- It’s Time for an Independent Review of the Health Care System (Real Clear Policy)
- What to Do if You’ve Lost Your Covid-19 Vaccination Card (The New York Times)
STATE BY STATE
- Utah reports record high COVID-19 hospitalizations, nearly 7,500 new cases (Salt Lake Tribune)
- New COVID-19 hospitalizations, cases in Iowa decline over past week; reported deaths on the rise (Des Moines Register)
- COVID hospitalizations in children reaches pandemic high in Oregon (Oregon Live)
That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s health care page for the latest news and coverage. See you Thursday.
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