The Perfect Enemy | COVID in California: Availability of free tests coming to an end - San Francisco Chronicle
February 23, 2024

COVID in California: Availability of free tests coming to an end – San Francisco Chronicle

COVID in California: Availability of free tests coming to an end  San Francisco Chronicle

The Bay Area’s most populous county, Santa Clara, has been a leader in public health response to the coronavirus from the start — the first in the nation to declare a health emergency and one of the strictest in enacting protective measures. On Wednesday, it also put a capstone on the pandemic, saying it will wind down its state of emergency and shutter mass testing and vaccination sites. Also on Wednesday, the state gave up on delayed attempts to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on California schoolchildren. But reports elsewhere aren’t quote as rosy: Japan is experiencing a surge in deaths and retired U.S. health advisor Anthony Fauci cautions that “anything is possible” for the future of the pandemic.

Availability of free tests coming to an end

When the U.S. COVID-19 public health emergency expires on May 11, one of the most significant changes Americans will face is no longer having access to cost-free coronavirus tests. The current policy, which allows everyone with private insurance to get up to eight free tests a month, will end with the emergency declaration. That means most people will have to start paying out-of-pocket for rapid antigen tests and may even need a prescription to get a laboratory PCR test. The federal government said it will continue to make vaccines and treatments available while the current supply on hand lasts. “On May 12, you can still walk into a pharmacy and get your bivalent vaccine. For free. On May 12, if you get COVID, you can still get your Paxlovid. For free. None of that changes,” White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha tweeted on Thursday. The U.S. is currently averaging 537 COVID-19 deaths a day.

Anti-viral drug is creating new virus variants, study alleges

A preprint study contends that a COVID-19 drug may be accelerating the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants. The antiviral Lagevrio, or molnupiravir, produced by Merck & Co. was designed to kill the virus by inducing mutations in the viral genome, according to a report from the journal Science. The new research suggests some people treated with the drug can generate and spread novel viruses. “It’s very clear that viable mutant viruses can survive [molnupiravir treatment] and compete [with existing variants],” says virologist William Haseltine, chair of ACCESS Health International, a critic of the drug. “I think we are courting disaster.”

A Merck spokesperson disputed the claim that the drug has led to the emergence of widely circulating variants. “There is no evidence that any antiviral agent has contributed to the emergence of circulating variants,” they said. Other researchers also downplayed the significance of molnupiravir-caused mutations. “Right now, it’s much ado about nothing,” said Raymond Schinazi, a medicinal chemist at the Emory University School of Medicine, who noted that the virus is mutating at an expected pace in the wild.

The report was released the same day the U.S. Food and Drug Administration removed the need for a positive test to get a prescription for Merck’s Lagevrio pills, which were given emergency use authorizations in Dec. 2021 for patients with mild to moderate COVID who were at-risk of progressing to severe disease. Meanwhile, another study that appeared last week in the Lancet, found that among people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, molnupiravir offers limited benefits.

Japan reports biggest surge of deaths

Japan is no longer the best-performing wealthy nation when it comes to avoiding COVID-19 deaths, according to a report published Wednesday by Japan Times. A surge of omicron infections this winter has overwhelmed its health system and caused the country’s biggest outbreak of cases since the start of the pandemic. Japan’s daily COVID-19 death toll topped 500 on Jan. 14, based on national data, pushing Japan’s overall mortality rate above New Zealand’s, which now has the fewest deaths per capita of developed nations. Norio Ohmagari, head of the disease control and prevention center at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, and an adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, said the recent easing of restrictions — including opening the country’s borders to foreign visitors and a push to downgrade COVID to seasonal flu status — are contributing to the latest wave. “The number of infected people will likely increase at a faster pace than in other countries from now on,” Ohmagari said. “Japan is a super-aging society, which means the proportion of people with a greater mortality risk is high. In the long run, it’s possible that Japan will be among the countries with high mortality rates.”

Santa Clara County to close its mass testing, vaccination sites

Nearly three years after it became the first county in the Bay Area and nation to declare COVID-19 a public health emergency, Santa Clara announced Wednesday a plan to transition out of the emergency phase of the pandemic by the end of February. That includes the closure of all the county-run mass vaccination and testing sites. “We are still in the middle of a pandemic, but we are transitioning from a full-blown response where we have a sense of urgency every day to one where we are adapting to living with COVID,” Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s health officer, said at a Wednesday briefing. Read more about the county’s pandemic transition plan.

State to drop plan for schoolchildren vaccine mandate

California will drop its plan to require schoolchildren to get vaccinated against COVID-19 once the state’s pandemic state of emergency order ends on Feb. 28. “We continue to strongly recommend COVID-19 immunization for students and staff to keep everyone safer in the classroom,” the California Department of Public Health said in an email to EdSource, confirming the change. “Turnkey mobile vaccination services remain available for any K-12 school within the state.” The statement added that any changes to the list of required K-12 immunizations would need to go through the legislative process. There are no bills pending to mandate school vaccinations to include the COVID-19 vaccine. Last summer, state officials also withdrew a mandate that school staff be vaccinated or tested to remain on campus and lifted a universal masking requirement for classrooms.

Last year, California public health officials postponed the implementation of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus vaccine requirement in schools until at least July 1, 2023, pointing to the Food and Drug Administration’s lack of full approval for the vaccine for children of certain ages. The shots would have been required for students for the 2022-2023 school year, according to the plan.

Positive test no longer required for Paxlovid prescription

A positive coronavirus test is no longer required to get a prescription for the COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid. The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday changed its emergency use authorization to remove the requirement, although it recommended that providers use testing to help diagnose the disease. “We recognize that, in rare instances, individuals with a recent known exposure (e.g. a household contact) who develop signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19 may be diagnosed by their health care provider as having COVID-19 even if they have a negative direct SARS-CoV-2 test result,” the agency wrote in an email. “In such instances, their health care provider may determine that treatment with authorized therapeutics may be appropriate if the patient reports mild-to-moderate symptoms of COVID-19 and is at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19.” Newer subvariants of the virus, including the now dominant XBB.1.5, have become harder to detect by rapid antigen tests.

Post-retirement Fauci on future of pandemic: “Anything is possible”

Dr. Anthony Fauci has not stopped thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic since he stepped down as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in December, the same month he turned 82. In a post-retirement interview with WebMD published Wednesday, the White House’s former pandemic advisor said even as President Biden moves toward lifting the emergency health orders, the nation should stay on guard. “Anything is possible,” Fauci said. “One cannot predict, exactly, what the likelihood (is) of getting yet again another variant that’s so different that it eludes the protection that we have from the vaccines and from prior infection.”

He noted that each omicron sublineage appears to be progressively better at eluding immune response developed by the vaccines and prior infection. “But the one thing that’s good and has been sustained is that protection against severity of disease seems to hold out pretty well,” Fauci said, noting he does not anticipate seeing the return of the restrictions implemented during the early days of the pandemic when hospitals were overrun. “But you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

Fauci approved of the FDA’s idea for an annual COVID-19 vaccine, saying that “there’s no perfect solution to keeping the country optimally protected.” But he added that some people — such as older Americans or those who are immunocompromised — will likely need more than one shot a year. He said he still wears a mask when he is among crowds indoors, such as on an airplane, but is OK taking it off in situations where people are required to test before gathering. “When I’m unsure of what the status is and I might be in an area where there is a considerable degree of viral activity, I would wear a mask. I think you just have to use [your] judgment, depending on the circumstances that you find yourself in.”