The Perfect Enemy | A COVID death plateau?, monkeypox missteps: 5 Things podcast
August 11, 2022

A COVID death plateau?, monkeypox missteps: 5 Things podcast

A COVID death plateau?, monkeypox missteps: 5 Things podcast  USA TODAY

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On today’s episode of the 5 Things podcast: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s support sets up the Inflation Reduction Act

The bill addresses debt, climate and more. Plus, health reporter Adrianna Rodriguez talks about a COVID death plateau, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wraps up her Asia trip amid Taiwan tensions, patient safety reporter Karen Weintraub has a monkeypox update and Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in Russian prison.

Taylor Wilson:

Good morning. I’m Taylor Wilson and this is 5 Things you need to know Friday, the 5th of August, 2022. Today the Inflation Reduction Act takes a possible step forward, plus a disturbing plateau of COVID deaths and more.

Here are some of the top headlines.

  1. Three more ships carrying grain have left Ukraine and are headed to Turkey for inspection, a UN-backed deal is working to export Ukrainian grain that has been trapped by Russia’s invasion.
  2. Four Louisville police officers connected to the killing of Breonna Taylor have been charged with civil rights violations. Taylor was 26 when Louisville officers knocked down her door and shot her to death while executing a search warrant.
  3. And the Biden administration has declared monkeypox a public health emergency. Stay tuned for more later in the show.

Taylor Wilson:

Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced late yesterday that she would move forward to support fellow Democrats on the Inflation Reduction Act they’re looking to pass this week. The bill is a sweeping package of initiatives to fight climate change, lower drug prices, and reduce the deficit. Sinema was the last Democrat holdout on the bill, and said she negotiated the removal of a provision to increase taxes on carried interest, targeting wealthy investors. That resolved a major difference, previously holding back her support. Her shift now sets up a final version of the bill to be introduced tomorrow. Democrats hope to pass the bill on a party line vote through budget reconciliation. That process would allow approval with a simple majority, and avoid the 60-vote threshold to overcome a Republican filibuster. It would need the votes of all Democrats and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The bill would raise nearly three quarter of a trillion dollars in tax revenue. Offsetting less than half a trillion in proposed new spending, it would decrease the federal deficit by more than $100 billion over the next decade. The bill includes billions in tax credits for clean energy to address climate change, and it would also allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, something long opposed by the pharmaceutical industry. Additionally, it would extend affordable CARE Act subsidies through 2025. For more of the bill’s details, head to USATODAY.com.

The pace of COVID-19 deaths has remained relatively steady since May, despite an uptick last month. And experts are calling this late stage of the pandemic a “horrible plateau.” Health Reporter Adrianna Rodriguez and Producer PJ Elliott have more.

Adrianna Rodriguez:

With COVID deaths, they pretty much, throughout the pandemic, had followed transmission and COVID infections. So when there was a peak in COVID transmission and infections, usually there would be a lag of a couple of weeks, and we’d see a peak in hospitalizations and then another peak in deaths. And that happened in the omicron wave as well. But then after the omicron wave, in the spring, we see an increase in cases. We believe that and experts believe that COVID cases are likely higher than what is being reported because of at-home tests, but we’re not really seeing a rise in deaths. But that’s not to say that COVID deaths are not concerning right now because they’re still at a pretty high level. They’re just at this high level for longer than we had expected. So basically, they’re at around 200 to 400 deaths a day since May, and have been steady on that “horrible plateau” all the way through.

PJ Elliott:

So we know that vaccines work and they’re doing their jobs, but what about the antivirals? What role do they play in all of this?

Adrianna Rodriguez:

Right. So we know from experience in this pandemic that immunity from vaccines and prior infection wanes, and especially in those who have vulnerable immune systems, those who are immunocompromised, and those whose immune systems aren’t working as well, like those over 65 years old. What we’re seeing in COVID deaths is that we’re seeing it primarily target those who are over 75, whose immune systems are not working as well as those who might be younger. And so that’s where antivirals and other therapies come in because they are supposed to be able to prevent severe disease in those populations. And that’s why it’s really important for them to seek out those antivirals and medications before it’s too late because you can only take antivirals within the first week of COVID diagnosis. And once that window is closed, it’s closed for good. So it’s really important that those who might have a compromised immune system, or whose immune system isn’t working so well to see their provider within the first week of their diagnosis, or within the first week of their symptoms, to seek out care.

Taylor Wilson:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is wrapping up her tour of Asia today with a stop in Tokyo. She met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for breakfast. He said that Chinese military exercises near Taiwan this week, prompted by Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, represent a grave problem that threatens regional peace and security. Five ballistic missiles launched as part of the drills landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Pelosi was the first House Speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years. But she said her trip was not intended to change the status quo for the island, but instead to maintain peace in the region. Her visit though infuriated China who views Taiwan as part of its territory. Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign country. Pelosi spoke on Taiwan again in Tokyo.

Nancy Pelosi:

The Chinese have tried to isolate Taiwan, keeping them most recently from the World Health Organization, by not even letting their participation be on the agenda of the World Health Agency, whatever, that makes these determinations. They may try to keep Taiwan from visiting or participating in other places, but they will not isolate Taiwan by preventing us to travel there. We’ve had high-level visits, senators in the spring, a bipartisan way, continuing visits, and we will not allow them to isolate Taiwan. They are not doing our travel schedule. The Chinese government is not doing that. Our friendship with Taiwan is a strong one. It is bipartisan in the House and in the Senate, overwhelming support for peace and the status quo in Taiwan.

Taylor Wilson:

Pelosi has been traveling Asia with five other members of Congress. She previously said in Taipei that the US commitment to democracy on the island remains strong, though US officials have said they do not support Taiwan independence. China’s missile strike training near Taiwan could be its biggest since the mid-1990s. As for Japan, it’s been pushing for new security and economic frameworks in the Indo-Pacific region and in Europe, to counter China’s growing influence. Yesterday, Pelosi held talks in South Korea as well, though that country stayed away from the Taiwan issue, apparently to avoid upsetting China.

After repeating early COVID mistakes, the US now has the world’s biggest monkeypox outbreak. Producer PJ Elliott chatted with patient safety reporter, Karen Weintraub, who says the story of monkeypox now feels to experts like a frustrating replay of the first months of the COVID pandemic in 2020.

Karen Weintraub:

Right now, we know of about 6,600 cases of monkeypox in the United States since mid-May. What we don’t know about are how many cases we don’t know about. So there’s a data collection problem right now, and also a communication problem, where a lot of cases are being missed. The states don’t have to report them to the federal government, and a lot of people who have some symptoms aren’t figuring out, or their doctors aren’t figuring out, that monkeypox is the cause of that. So we really don’t have a handle on the full extent of this outbreak at the moment.

PJ Elliott:

Karen, how are we not prepared for another outbreak as a country? How do we go from a pandemic immediately to something like monkeypox two years later?

Karen Weintraub:

Right. So as somebody said to me, we know what to do. We didn’t throw out the instruction book, this is not rocket science. We know the process and what needs to happen. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen again with monkeypox the way it didn’t happen with COVID. And the things that didn’t happen are in particular early diagnosis. So testing was not widely available at first, it was difficult, complicated to do, again, with monkeypox as it was with COVID. We had vaccines and treatment for monkeypox right away, which we did not have for COVID. But they’ve been in short supply and hard to access, again, because of bureaucratic red tape and some other issues. And communication has been a big problem here as well. I think the public health officials didn’t want to be the bad guys again, telling people what not to do. And so they hesitated at saying what kind of behavior changes could have made a difference.

Unclear whether that would’ve changed the outcome, but that’s been a factor here. And we can’t ignore the fact that public health has been underfunded in the US for years, if not decades. And so the same people who have been working 12-hour days for two and a half years to fight COVID are now trying to fight monkeypox, and they’re just overwhelmed and exhausted. And there aren’t enough resources for them to really handle this, in the way that they know how to handle.

PJ Elliott:

So what does the announcement from the White House on Thursday mean by declaring it a federal emergency?

Karen Weintraub:

So declaring this a federal emergency hopefully will open up the possibility for speeding up vaccine production, among other things. The outbreak so far has been contained primarily to men who have sex with men. So obviously, if that behavior were totally stopped, this might not spread as much, but we don’t want to tell people not to enjoy themselves. So with widespread vaccination, people could continue with their lifestyle and not feel hampered by the restrictions. Unfortunately, there are not enough vaccines to do that at this point. The other point I want to make is that the general public is not at high risk at this point for monkeypox. But A, monkeypox is not deadly in the vast majority of cases. We’ve had 26,000 cases worldwide since the spring and only five people have died, none of whom got adequate medical care. So, this is not smallpox, this is not going to kill you, and even if the outbreak is much bigger than we know, it’s still a small, small percentage of the population. This is not COVID, this is not going to get you at the grocery store or in casual contact. The people I spoke with compared it more to HIV, where it didn’t go away, it’s still simmering, but it’s not a daily threat to people’s lives.

Taylor Wilson:

For Karen’s full story, click the link in today’s episode description.

American basketball star, Brittney Griner, was convicted yesterday in Russia of drug possession and smuggling, and sentenced to nine years in prison. Griner’s been in custody since being stopped at a Russian airport in February, where officials said they found vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. Russia has drug laws that are considered draconian by much of the world, but most Russians possessing small quantities of drugs get at most five years in prison, according to lawyers. Griner’s case has been politically charged though, from the start. She was arrested just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there have been talks of a prisoner swap between the US and Russia. The US reportedly offered to trade Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, nicknamed the Merchant of Death, for Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction. Griner’s lawyers said they were not part of prisoner swap discussions but are exploring other possibilities. Her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina.

Maria Blagovolina:

Very upset, very upset, very stressed, and she is… Well, she can hardly talk, honestly, so it’s difficult time for her.

Taylor Wilson:

Griner has had little contact outside of Russia, but occasionally has spoken with press looking on during the trial.

Brittney Griner:

I pled guilty to my charges, I understand everything that’s being said against me, the charges that are against me. And that is why I pled guilty. But I had no intent to break any Russian laws. I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, Ekaterinburg, the fans, and the city of Ekat, for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought onto them. I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the rest of the population, I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.

Taylor Wilson:

President Joe Biden called the verdict and sentence unacceptable, and said he would continue to work to bring her and Paul Whelan home. Griner, a 31-year-old, is a two-time Olympic champion and eight-time All-Star in the WNBA. She’s also played professionally for years in Russia during the WNBA off-season.

Thanks for listening to 5 Things. You can find us every day right here, wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to PJ Elliott for his great work on the show, and I’m back tomorrow with more of 5 Things, from USA TODAY.