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Coronavirus Files: White House weighs summer boosters

Coronavirus Files: White House weighs summer boosters

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School lockdowns reversed progress for Latino education

The negative impact of the pandemic on Latino students threatens to erase three decades’ worth of academic progress, according to a new report released by UnidosUS.

Prior to COVID-19, Latino performance on standardized tests, graduation rates, and college enrollment had been rising.

When the pandemic arrived, Latino students were more likely to attend impoverished schools that used remote learning for an extended time, which has been equated to loss of about half a year’s worth of instruction in math and reading.

Now, 28% of Latino students say they are “very” or “extremely” worried about falling behind due to the pandemic, compared to 19% of Black and 11% of non-Hispanic white students, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Consequences could be long-lasting because education and future earnings are tightly correlated, writes Mark Kreidler in a Capital and Main article on how the pandemic worsened education inequities in California. A person’s lost earnings over a lifetime could add up to millions of dollars.

“I’m not going to say it’s a lost generation, because it’s only a couple of years,” said California teacher and union leader Steve McDougall. “But it did happen across all grades. There will be a significant cost, no question.”

Between 2020 and 2021, Latino enrollment in college dropped by nearly 8%. Students put off or dropped college plans to take care of family members or because it was no longer affordable. Latino enrollment began to rebound in 2022, but remains 4% lower than in spring 2020.

The UnidosUS report offers several policy recommendations to support Latino, and all, students going forward. These include increased funding to support English learners and larger federal grants for higher education.

It also emphasizes the importance of breaking down barriers so that Latino families can be more involved in the education system. Many parents lack the time, knowledge, or English fluency to engage effectively. Nearly half of Latino parents surveyed in 2021 said they didn’t know how to start a conversation with an educator about their child’s learning challenges.

WH deploys familiar tools against BA.5 wave

With COVID-19 hospitalizations ticking back up, the White House is again warning that the pandemic is not yet over, as much as we’d like it to be. The administration released a strategy against BA.5 last Tuesday.

“The plan didn’t cause much of a stir because it is pretty much the same as the old plan,” notes Al Tompkins at Poynter’s Covering COVID-19 newsletter. The White House continues to emphasize access to vaccines and masks, tests and medication.

The administration is considering one additional salvo: allowing all adults a second booster shot, The Washington Post reported last Monday.

At this time, only people 50 years or older and younger people who are immunocompromised are eligible for second boosters.

Just a few weeks ago, the FDA decided to hold off on fall boosters until vaccine-makers can produce doses tailored to the wildly infectious BA.4/5 variants. If this summer round of boosting were to go forward, it would not impact that planned fall vaccine campaign; people could get a booster now and then an updated one in the fall.

White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha and the NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci reportedly support the additional boosters this summer, but the decision will be up to the FDA and CDC.

This potential new plan reflects leaders’ worries about the burgeoning omicron BA.4/5 wave. Together, the pair now make up more than 80% of U.S. cases. While reported case rates are hovering just above 100,000 per day, the actual number could be up to 10 times as high. Hospitalization rates have doubled since May.

“The whole country is virtually one big hot spot,” writes Tompkins.

Boosters for all adults were authorized last fall, so immunity has surely waned for many of those who got that first booster — about half of the eligible population. And BA.5 is often able to evade immune systems trained on earlier variants, making infections after vaccination or previous infection more likely.

That said, even an original-formula vaccine could help fight omicron. CDC data indicate that a second booster for those eligible cut urgent care and emergency department visits by 62%, and hospitalizations by 80% during the months BA.2 was dominating. Data from Israel and from the NBA back up the idea that today’s boosters can protect against omicron.

But boosting could backfire, said Dr. Paul Offit of Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, who has argued against “booster mania.” He told The Post it’s possible that extra boosts with the original-coronavirus vaccine could make it harder for a person’s immune system to adapt to new variants. There is no specific evidence this is happening with COVID vaccines.

And the boosters only do good if people want them. So far, fewer than 30% of older adults eligible for a second booster have gotten one.

The wait for Novavax is nearly over 

The CDC’s vaccine advisory committee will meet Tuesday to discuss their recommendations for Novavax’s COVID vaccine.

After numerous delays caused by manufacturing woes, the vaccine was authorized by the FDA last Wednesday. The authorization applies to the initial, two-dose series — not any potential booster.

“The company hopes that its protein-based shot, a vaccine technology that has been widely used for decades, will appeal to Americans who declined to be vaccinated with shots using messenger RNA technology,” write Rebecca Robbins and Carl Zimmer in The New York Times.

Nearly 22% of people in the U.S. haven’t yet been vaccinated; and about 10% of unvaccinated adults said they’d probably or definitely seek a protein-based vaccine.

The Biden administration says it’s ready to ship enough doses to cover 1.6 million people.

The company intends to seek authorization for boosters soon, and it may find a greater audience among those who initially got an mRNA vaccine but want to try a new option.

Side effects are reportedly less severe than for the mRNA shots, and Novavax presented promising data about the ability of its booster to protect against omicron in an FDA meeting last month.

BA.2.75: Waiting in the wings?

By the time vaccines targeting BA.5 arrive this fall, a different coronavirus variant could already be dominating the pandemic. One possible threat is BA.2.75, first observed in India in May and now in at least 10 other countries.

There have been at least three BA.2.75 cases in the U.S.

Since May, the highly contagious variant has spread to account for one-quarter of cases, and it appears to be outcompeting BA.5 in India, writes epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina on her blog.

BA.2.75 and the BA.4/5 pair sprang from the same parent, the BA.2 strain. BA.2.75 sports several mutations shared by BA.4/5, but also contains its own set of genetic changes. These mutations are concentrated in the parts of the spike protein that the most effective antibodies stick to, which could help it evade immunity from vaccines or previous infections. The mutations could also impact how transmissible the variant is.

The new strain’s ability to evade immunity may be impacted by a person’s past experience with coronavirus variants, notes the laboratory of Jesse Bloom, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, on Twitter. The antibodies produced by previous infection with omicron BA.1 might be better able to fight off BA.2.75.

It's not yet known how BA.2.75 disease severity compares to other variants.

“To have such unique mutations at this stage of the pandemic when the virus has mutated into hundreds, even thousands of competing strains is astounding,” writes public health scientist William A. Haseltine at Forbes. “These mutations likely have health officials on high alert.”

Superbugs ran rampant during pandemic

While all eyes were on the coronavirus, another set of infectious agents was slowly gaining ground, according to a new CDC report. Superbugs, bacteria largely impervious to antibiotics, wreaked extra havoc in U.S. hospitals during the pandemic’s first year.

Infections and deaths due to serious pathogens rose by about 15% between 2019 and 2020.

The pandemic pushed clinics and communities “near their breaking points,” wrote CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in the report. This unraveled much of the progress that drove down hospital deaths due to drug-resistant infections by almost 30% between 2012 and 2017.

Several factors allowed superbugs to reclaim a significant foothold. For example, sicker patients needed more medical devices, such as catheters and ventilators, that can break down the skin barrier, creating openings for opportunistic infections.

Early in the pandemic, clinicians treated many COVID patients with antibiotics — an approach that was not only ineffective against the virus, but could have helped train bacteria to resist those drugs.

Meanwhile, shortages of staff and personal protective equipment created an ideal environment for superbugs to sneak past the usual precautions.

“This setback can and must be temporary,” Michael Craig, head of the CDC’s antibiotic resistance unit, said in a press statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has unmistakably shown us that antimicrobial resistance will not stop if we let down our guard; there is no time to waste.”

The CDC identified several approaches to beat back the superbugs, including expanded data collection on antibiotic use and antimicrobial resistance, and accelerated research on new medicines.

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What we’re reading

  • “Many try to return to normal from COVID, but disabled people face a different reality,” by Shruti Rajkumar, NPR
  • “Is BA.5 the ‘Reinfection Wave’?” By Ed Yong, The Atlantic
  • “How many people have long COVID? The statistics are ‘pretty scary’,” by Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder, U.S. News & World Report
  • “25 million kids missed routine vaccinations because of COVID,” AP News
  • “Why remote work will win this fall,” by Gleb Tsipursky, Fortune
  • “Long COVID is an elusive target for Big Pharma,” by David Wainer, The Wall Street Journal

Events & Resources

  • July 19, 7 a.m.–noon PT: Watch the CDC’s vaccine advisory committee discuss Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine.
  • CDC’s COVID Dashboard now includes data from a study of long COVID, illustrating how many people report a variety of symptoms in the months following infection (h/t COVID-19 Data Dispatch).
  • Moderna’s latest data indicates its bivalent booster, encoding spike protein from the original virus and the omicron BA.1 strain, is more effective against BA.4/5 than the original shot alone. Find expert commentary on these results at the Science Media Centre.
  • Track hospitalization hotspots with regularly updated charts from NBC News.
  • Read a new chapter on misinformation at the KSJ Science Editing Handbook.
  • Peer into the ethics of vaccine decision-making at the WHO in a comment in Nature.

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