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Coronavirus Files: White House takes criticism as omicron appears to crest in Northeast

Coronavirus Files: White House takes criticism as omicron appears to crest in Northeast

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Home testing creates new challenge for blind people

The massive winter wave has just about everyone who can get ahold of a home COVID test dreading that thin line of positivity. But not everyone can see the line, reports Amanda Morris at The New York Times.

It’s the latest in an ongoing series of challenges for blind people during the pandemic, as several writers have noted. “The isolation of the pandemic is exponentially worse for me than it is for a sighted person,” wrote Dorianne Pollack at HuffPost. “Unlike sighted people who have learned to navigate in a socially distanced world, we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.”

Some blind people haven’t been able to get to a PCR testing site either, fearing their presence on public transportation or interaction with a driver could spread their infection to others.

It’s also hard to find the line to get into a store, or maintain six feet of distance from other shoppers, when one can’t see the queue. “Friends aren’t volunteering as many favors,” wrote Lila Seidman at the Los Angeles Times. “Sighted strangers who may have previously lent a hand are more skittish to approach.”

Guide dogs, Pollack points out, can’t understand the arrows that direct consumers down specific aisles of a grocery store or figure out which bus seats have been marked off-limits.

One study found that more than half of people with visual impairment had trouble maintaining physical distance, and 44% said it made the less willing to set out for essential errands. Pollack wrote that some blind people aren’t getting enough food because they’re unwilling to go out for it and aren’t able to order delivery.

And while many people have been hesitant to touch shared surfaces, like doorknobs and elevator buttons, people who rely on their sense of touch and signs in Braille to navigate the world have no choice, as BBC News pointed out at the pandemic’s onset.

The situation is more challenging for people who are both deaf and blind, meaning touch is their primary mode of interaction with the world.

In 2020, The Daily Moth reported that Gallaudet University, which enrolls deaf and hard of hearing students, temporarily suspended support staff who work with its deaf and blind students. Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas described one student who was forced to crawl along the floor to find a package of water marked with his name, using his limited vision because he couldn’t touch the packages that weren’t his.

Getting COVID and being in the hospital is the biggest fear for many who worry they won’t be able to communicate their needs, or will be given lesser care due to their disability, noted Devin Dwyer and Jacqueline Yoo at ABC News.

There are some solutions, writes Morris at The Times. Assistants on video call apps such as Be My Eyes and Aira can walk clients through the steps of testing. “But these interactions are difficult,” she notes, “And not everyone who is blind owns a smartphone.”

Some entrepreneurs are also working on tests that would deliver results in a different manner, perhaps by a series of bumps or with a temperature change.

Even providing an option to access audio instructions would be helpful, noted Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind.

Fast-moving omicron wave may soon subside

The number of people in hospitals with COVID has surged to record-breaking levels and Dr. Anthony Fauci now believes that omicron “will ultimately find just about everybody.”

Last Thursday, 19 states were down to 15% or less of their ICU beds available, noted Travis Caldwell and Jason Hanna at CNN; the number was below 10% for Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and New Hampshire.

Many hospitals are asking employees who are COVID-positive but symptom-free to continue working. Some schools have made the same request of teachers.

But there are already signs the worst of the surge may be starting to wane. “Omicron is more like a flash flood than a wave,” said former CDC director Tom Frieden in The Washington Post. Data suggest infection rates are ticking down in the northeast, write Post reporters Fenit Nirappil and Hannah Knowles. COVID levels in sewage samples are sharply dropping in Boston.

In fact, when University of Washington researchers estimated all the infections that haven’t gone into official counts, they calculated the wave crested on Jan. 6 with 6 million infections, report AP’s Maria Cheng and Carla K. Johnson. Whenever that peak did or does occur, “It’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” University of Washington health metrics scientist Ali Mokdad told AP.

But if projections hold, the peak is only at the surge’s the halfway point, Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman told The Post: “There’s still a lot of infections that are going to happen and that means a lot of people going to the hospital, a lot of work disruption, a lot of school disruptions still.”

For example, Manhattan Borough president Mark D. Levine told The Post that hospitals there will likely be under intense pressure until February.

Biden administration suffers legal setback, criticism

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt the White House a blow on Thursday when it blocked the mandate for vaccination — or testing and masking — for employees of large businesses.

Conservative judges wrote that the administration overstepped with the rules, while liberal dissenters argued the decision should be left to health experts rather than legal ones.

“The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and for private businesses to implement their own requirements,” note Mark Sherman and Jessica Gresko at AP.

The court did consent, 5-4, to a vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Federal officials also endured criticism from Congress during a hearing last Tuesday, when senators accused them of several missteps.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina complained that “testing’s broken,” while demanding a full account of where $80 billion earmarked for COVID testing has gone.

Others grilled the NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci about research on long COVID and complained to CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky that the CDC’s COVID Tracker hasn’t been updated for the better part of two months.

“We’re doing the best we possibly can,” said Fauci.

Meanwhile, even some of Biden’s former health advisors criticized the administration last week in three articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“They called for Mr. Biden to adopt an entirely new domestic pandemic strategy geared to the ‘new normal’ of living with the virus indefinitely,” writes Sheryl Gay Stolberg at The New York Times. “The authors say they wrote them partly because they have not made headway talking directly to White House officials.”

Dr. Leana Wen, who was not part of that group, told NBC News, “In terms of the communication and the trust in the CDC, it feels like we have gone backwards.”

Biden spoke Thursday to announce additional measures in response to omicron. The administration will send 1,000 military medical workers to help hospitals in six states. It will also make N95 masks — which CDC now officially says offer the best protection — available for free.

Details of that plan have not yet been announced, but the nation has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95s, reports Deke Miller at AP.

That works out to about three masks per U.S. adult. While the masks can be reused, they don’t last indefinitely.

In addition, Biden will double the U.S.’s order for at-home COVID tests to 1 billion tests. The website COVIDtests.gov will start taking orders Jan. 19; a telephone number will also be available for ordering. "The White House said tests will usually ship within seven to 12 days of ordering," reports Brian Naylor at NPR, "meaning most Americans won't receive them until the end of January.

There still seem to be some mixed messages coming from the government: While acting FDA head Dr. Janet Woodcock told Congress that “most people are going to get COVID,” Biden stuck to the oft-criticized line that this is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

AP deemphasizes case counts

The official case counts reporters have been citing as key indicator of the pandemic’s spread are starting to lose their cachet.

As rapid tests proliferate, those case numbers are increasingly inaccurate because they don’t include people who test positive at home.

And the rising number of mild, breakthrough infections means raw case numbers are no longer the best metric to gauge the pandemic’s toll.

In response, AP took the step recently of telling editors and journalists to downplay case rates. “That means, for example, no more stories focused on a particular country or state setting a one-day record for number of cases,” writes David Bauder.

Hospitalization and death rates are often considered to be more reliable, but even hospitalization rates are imperfect because they count people hospitalized with incidental COVID in addition to those seeking care for COVID.

Other media outlets are also being more cautious with the statistics they use, Bauder reports.

“We don’t want people to eliminate mention of case counts,” said AP news editor Josh Hoffner. “We definitely wanted people to go a little deeper and be more specific in reporting.”

From the Center for Health Journalism

Webinar: How two top reporters navigate COVID confusion

Award-winning journalists Helen Branswell of STAT and Katherine J. Wu of The Atlantic will provide tips, insights and fresh ideas on the omicron story: Which thinkers do they follow? How do they handle the flood of preprints? How do they find balance between being overly alarmist or too complacent?

Jan. 19, 11 a.m.-12 p.m. PT Sign-up here!

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What we're reading

  • “How soon will COVID be ‘normal’?” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker
  • “The COVID generation: how is the pandemic affecting kids’ brains,” by Melinda Wenner Moyer, Nature
  • “Is Covax finally going to vaccinate the world?” by Muizz Akhtar, Vox
  • “Open-source vaccines got more funding from Tito’s Vodka than the government,” by Ella Fassler, Vice
  • “What’s the benefit of a fourth COVID vaccine?” by Amanda D’Ambrosio, MedPage Today

Events and Resources

  • Propublica offers databases on federal pandemic spending and loans to individual organizations.
  • Visit the Society for Professional Journalists’ Toolbox for recently updated resource collections on vaccines, safe field reporting and more.
  • Burbio tracks school-related information including closures, mask policies and staff vaccine mandates.

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