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Coronavirus Files: Pfizer vax succeeds in little kids; monkeypox tests global health response

Coronavirus Files: Pfizer vax succeeds in little kids; monkeypox tests global health response

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Money to combat health disparities remains unspent

In May 2021, the CDC awarded $2.25 billion in grants to health departments of every state and dozens of large cities and counties. The purpose was to improve health and limit COVID-19 spread in minority groups and rural populations.

A year later, much of that money hasn’t been used, according to a Kaiser Health News review of 12 of those grants.

Missouri’s health department, for example, hasn’t spent a cent. Other states spent fewer than 2% of their grants. Of the nine states analyzed by KHN, the one that had invested the most was Montana, which has spent nearly a quarter of its grant amount.

The money is supposed to spent on programs such as improved data collection or expanded COVID-related health services.

“Because the term ‘health disparities’ encompasses challenges facing all kinds of population groups, the money can be applied to almost anything that affects health,” write Phil Galewitz, Lauren Weber and Sam Whitehead for KHN.

Republican lawmakers have cited unspent COVID disbursements as a reason not to approve any more federal funds for the pandemic, but the unspent grant dollars don’t mean the money isn’t needed.

Public health agencies said it’s time-consuming to get approval for specific spending projects, hire new staff, initiate collaborations with nonprofit organizations, and set up programs.

“The money is terribly needed, but we need to consider that these health departments have long been overburdened and they don’t really have enough people to handle it,” said Dr. Usama Bilal of Drexel University.

The CDC, which initially required grantees to use the money by May 2023, recently said states could apply for extensions.

Third shot's the charm for Pfizer's vaccine in youngest kids

Pfizer’s long-awaited trial data for the youngest Americans arrived last week, with positive results: Three doses of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine, for children ages 6 months to 5 years, produced an antibody response on par with that seen in young adults.

After Pfizer’s two-dose protocol failed to pass muster, the company tried a third dose, which was provided at least two months after the second.

The company also reported preliminary efficacy data, suggesting the vaccine was 80.3% effective against symptomatic disease during the omicron wave. That’s based on 10 symptomatic cases among study participants so far, and Pfizer needs to document more cases to firm up that efficacy rate.

The FDA’s external vaccine review committee is expected to meet on June 14 to review Moderna’s submission for ages 6 through 17 years , and on June 15 to discuss applications from both Moderna and Pfizer for younger kids.

The committee is also tentatively scheduled to meet June 7 on Novavax’s vaccine; and June 28 to discuss what versions of the coronavirus the vaccines should target in the fall.

Vaccine may not stymie long COVID as much as thought

The CDC now says that at least one in five people who’ve had COVID-19 have developed some lingering health condition that might be due to the virus, reports Jamie Ducharme at Time.

For people 65 and older, that proportion rises to one in four.

That’s based on a study of health records of more than 350,000 adults for at least a year following a COVID-19 diagnosis.

The long-term conditions included heart disease, respiratory problems, and neurologic conditions.

People who had COVID-19 were twice as likely to develop respiratory symptoms or blood clots in their lungs during the study period as those who didn’t get infected.

Being vaccinated has been thought to lower the odds of getting long COVID, but according to a separate study of more than 13 million veterans, the risk is only 15% less than it is in unvaccinated people.

This is a much lower reduction in risk than suggested by earlier, smaller studies, notes Sara Reardon at Nature.

The data are from before omicron dominated U.S. infections.

“We’re now literally solely reliant, not almost exclusively, on the vaccine to protect us and to protect the public,” said study author Ziyad Al-Aly. “Now we’re saying it’s only going to protect you 15% [from long COVID]. You remain vulnerable, and extraordinarily so.”

The vaccines did reduce the risk for some of the most serious long COVID symptoms such as lung disorders and blood-cutting problems, by 50% or more.

Experts told NBC’s Kaitlin Sullivan that boosters are unlikely to do much against long COVID.

These latest numbers suggest the nation can expect a continuing wave of people disabled by long COVID, some severely so.

The Biden administration says long COVID can be considered a disability, but individuals must clear a series of hurdles to get that status under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Activists affected by the lingering symptoms told a House committee their employers are not making the accommodations they need, reports Joseph Choi at The Hill.

For example, being able to work from home or sit down at work could help some with long COVID.

Even the altered sense of smell that some people have after COVID can make going into an office a horrifying experience, reports Andrea Ball at USA Today.

A new virus offers chance to apply lessons from COVID

When the world locked down to halt the spread of COVID, a host of other viruses were also unable to reach new hosts. Now they’re coming back to a population with unusually low immunity — and they’re not always behaving like they used to, writes Helen Branswell at STAT.

For example, hospitalizations for flu surged in May, and a common stomach virus may be causing serious liver disease in kids.

Monkeypox, normally limited to West and Central Africa, has recently caused more than a dozen outbreaks and hundreds of cases in Europe and North America. In the U.S., there are at least 14 cases across eight states.

The virus, caused by a relative of smallpox, is thought to circulate regularly among rodents with occasional spillovers into people. Symptoms can include fever and painful lesions.

The new outbreaks provide “a test of the lessons the world has (or hasn’t) learned from COVID,” writes Ed Yong at The Atlantic.

The timing of its arrival, on the heels of the coronavirus, also influences responses. “Because the U.S. catastrophically underestimated COVID,” Yong writes, “many Americans are panicking about monkeypox and reflexively distrusting any reassuring official statements.”

Already, there are hints of the communication confusion that has dogged the government throughout the pandemic. Experts told STAT’s Branswell that their earlier warnings to watch out for the disease went unheeded.

And while a CDC representative told CNN, “The general public should not be concerned,” President Joe Biden said, “it is something that everybody should be concerned about.”

The good news is that monkeypox is a very different beast from the virus behind COVID, and it’s one that scientists already understand well.

For instance, monkeypox requires close contact to move from person to person, rather than floating through the air. And people aren’t typically infectious if they don’t have symptoms.

A vaccine, should it be needed, is already approved and on order. There are also approved treatments for smallpox that might help.

From the Center for Health Journalism

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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team.

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What we're reading

  • “Hard hit by COVID-19, Black Americans are recovering slowly,” by Rodney A. Brooks, National Geographic
  • “COVID derailed learning for 1.6 billion students. Here’s how schools can help them catch up,” by Helen Pearson, Nature
  • “Alcohol-related deaths have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic,” by Jeffrey Kluger, Time
  • “Rebound COVID is just the start of Paxlovid’s mysteries,” by Rachel Gutman, The Atlantic

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