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Illustration by Security Management

On Many Fronts, News on the Pandemic is Mixed

If you’re feeling a bit of COVID-news whiplash, then you are not alone.

In welcome news, studies on the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines corroborate the clinical trial findings that the vaccines are highly effective.

Yet in the press conference where U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky announced the encouraging news, she noted that new cases and hospitalizations in the United States had started trending in the wrong direction. “I’m going to pause here. I’m going to lose the script,” she said. “And I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”

And in Canada, the health ministry suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 55 until more information on the potential blood clot side effect is available.

News from Europe also has that yo-yo feeling. England and much of the rest of the United Kingdom made significant rollbacks in pandemic-related restrictions. Meanwhile, COVID-19 rages in France, where intensive care unit cases have surpassed the peaks reached in the last surge in November.

With that, here’s a rundown of some the pandemic-related news from the last few days, beginning with that encouraging news on vaccine efficacy.

The Vaccines Work

The U.S. CDC released its first study of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, focusing on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines because they were the first ones approved for emergency use in the United States. Clinical trials undertaken by the vaccine manufacturers indicated the vaccines were effective in preventing illness, particularly severe illness. The promising results led to the emergency authorization to being public use, but much was still unknown about the vaccine. The new study begins to answer some of the unknowns.

The study’s participants were generally healthcare workers and first responders as they were in the first cohort to receive the vaccine. For weeks after receiving the vaccine, 3,950 volunteers from six different U.S. states took daily nasal swabs of themselves and sent them along with saliva samples to labs.

The results confirm the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing serious illness. The findings also indicate that the vaccines are effective at preventing infection. This is important because previously it was unknown if vaccinated people could still carry the disease and infect others. The study shows that the vaccines are likely to be highly effective at curbing asymptomatic spread of the virus.

Vaccine Administration Broadens in United States Even While Progress on Virus Stalls

In three of the last four days, more than three million doses of vaccine were administered in the United States, reaching a high point of 3.4 million on Saturday. Several states have opened vaccines to all adults, and that number is expected to climb to 13 this week. New York will be added to the list next week.

In remarks on Monday, President Joe Biden said 90 percent of U.S. adults will be eligible for vaccinations by April 19 and will have a vaccination site within five miles of their home. He noted the number of pharmacies in the federal vaccine distribution program will increase from 17,000 to 40,000. However, at the same time he admonished governors who have eased preventive measures such as mask mandates and social gathering and distancing restrictions.

“I’m reiterating my call for every governor, mayor, and local leader to maintain and reinstate the mask mandate,” Biden said. “Please, this is not politics. Reinstate the mandate if you let it down. …If we let our guard down now we could see the virus getting worse, not better.”

Biden’s message reinforced the call from his CDC director, Walensky, who said: “The trajectory of the pandemic in the United States looks similar to many other countries in Europe, including Germany, Italy, and France looked like just a few weeks ago. … We do not have the luxury of inaction. For the health of our country, we must work together now to prevent a fourth surge.”

Many Nations Struggle to Vaccinate Their Populations

In EU countries, structural challenges are cited as the main reason why EU countries are behind the UK and the United States in vaccine coverage. For many other countries that are struggling, it’s access to vaccine doses. The African Union announced yesterday that it had made agreements with Johnson & Johnson to obtain 400 million doses of its vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is seen as critical in the continent’s goal of reaching herd immunity because it requires a single dose and is more easily handled than some of the other vaccines.

In other news, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has proposed that his country could pay for vaccines with oil.

World Leaders Call for a Worldwide Treaty on Pandemics

From Ukraine, Costa Rica, Germany, Korea, and Fiji—to name just a few of the dozens of countries that have signed on—comes a worldwide call for a new international treaty on pandemic preparedness and response.

“Today, we hold the same hope that as we fight to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic together, we can build a more robust international health architecture that will protect future generations,” said the letter signed by the leaders. “There will be other pandemics and other major health emergencies. No single government or multilateral agency can address this threat alone. …Together, we must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess, and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe.”

The leaders call for a treaty that will strengthen alert systems, data sharing, and research and will work toward equitable production and distribution of public health countermeasures such as vaccines, medicines, testing supplies, and personal protective equipment. The letter points out with subtlety the failures in these areas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two New Reports Show Devastating Social Effect Pandemic Is Having on Children

The Associated Press analyzed indicators from 36 U.S. states and found “that child abuse reports, investigations, substantiated allegations, and interventions have dropped at a staggering rate, increasing risks for the most vulnerable of families in the U.S.”

The AP cited experts who say the 18 percent decline most assuredly means that abuse and neglect is continuing, just without the interventions that can protect and support the victims, and that the decline in reports does not represent an actual decline in abuse.

Schools are a primary conduit for spotting and reporting potential abuse and neglect, and with most of the country having closed schools for much of the past 12 months, those reports dried up.

“The pandemic and the resulting isolation reminds us that we cannot rely solely on a system that only responds after a child is hurt,” said Kurt Heisler, who oversaw the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System during the Obama administration. “What happens when we don’t have mandated reporters in front of children? It reminds us that we need another way to support and reach these families.”

Meanwhile, Reuters confirmed the fears of educators and policy makers that the pandemic may have a long-lasting, substantial effect on education. According to a review of early data from multistate assessments, local media reports, state education departments, and 12 individual districts, “grades and test performance appear to have declined markedly around the country after school buildings closed—especially among students of color,” Reuters reported.

The study examined grades at severely of the largest school districts around the country. In addition, it found that the statewide standardized tests that were able to be administered during the pandemic also showed a decrease in scores.

“A December analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company of i-Ready test results, which assess math and reading skills for elementary school students in 25 states, estimated that white students were one to three months behind where their learning would have been in math, absent the pandemic,” Reuters reported. “The gap was three to five months for students of color.”

WHO: Cause of Vaccine Likely Animals, Not Laboratory

The Associated Press reported that a World Health Organization (WHO) confirms the long-held belief that the most likely original transmission of the virus that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic jumped from bats to humans through another animal, and not through a laboratory mishap. According to the AP, the WHO report does not conclusively identify the source. The WHO report is expected to be released today.