The Perfect Enemy | COVID in California: Be wary of virus transmission this holiday week, experts warn
December 9, 2022
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Social Security office closures during pandemic left millions without help

When the Social Security Administration closed almost all in-person operations during the coronavirus pandemic— with 1,230 field offices closed for two years — millions of the nation’s most vulnerable people were left without help in applying for benefits, a new government report finds. For many of these disabled and poor elderly people, there was no online option, according to the Government Accountability Office’s report.

Social Security expanded its telephone, video, and online services, but “The public filed fewer SSA benefit claims during the pandemic—especially disability claims and claims by certain vulnerable populations,” the report said. “This may be in part because some benefit applications can’t be submitted online, including those in Spanish. Also, SSA doesn’t have a coordinated process for addressing lessons learned from COVID-19 or a plan for handling higher future workloads.”

“As a result, SSA cannot fulfill its mission to ensure that its services are equitable and accessible, and some eligible individuals may not apply for benefits,” the report that was issued last week found. It added, “Some SSA offices have assessed specific service delivery changes, but the agency does not have a coordinated process for assessing lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and taking related corrective actions, which could leave SSA vulnerable to other crises in the future.”

The GAO said Social Security administrators have agreed to its recommendations to develop detailed plans for online benefit applications, evaluate feasibility of Spanish-language online applications, and assess and incorporate “lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Be wary of virus transmission during Thanksgiving activities, experts say

As the week of Thanksgiving travel and family gatherings kicks off, Bay Area health experts warn that it’s no time to slack off on precautions against spread of COVID-19. They caution that with coronavirus cases in California on the upswing, a winter surge is possible amid the potential for a “tripledemic” with COVID, flu and RSV cases straining local hospitals. Recommendations — in addition to staying home if you are sick — include testing for COVID ahead of holiday travel and indoor group gatherings without masks. That’s especially important for people who: have symptoms or have been in contact for more than 15 minutes with someone who tests positive; will attend gatherings with older, unboosted or immunocompromised guests or relatives; or are returning from unmasked gatherings and live with unboosted and elderly or immunocompromised household members, according to the experts. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings. And anyone who tests positive for COVID should not travel, but should isolate and stay home for five days, even if they are symptom-free, the CDC says. Read more on what you should know about COVID this holiday season.

Hong Kong’s leader infected, just met with world leaders

Hong Kong leader John Lee tested positive for COVID-19 after meeting with other regional leaders the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Thailand, the city government said Monday. Lee tested negative throughout his four-day stay in Bangkok but positive upon his arrival at Hong Kong’s airport Sunday night, a government statement said. Lee is now in isolation and will work from home, according to a spokesperson. Officials from is office who went to Thailand with Lee all tested negative. Lee’s aim at the forum was to promote Hong Kong’s image as it reopens to the world after imposing severe COVID-19 restrictions for much of the pandemic. During his trip, Lee met various leaders from the region. In some closed-door sessions, he sat next to Chinese President Xi Jinping, where both leaders were seen without masks.

UCSF stopping use of lifesaving drugs that don’t work against new virus strains

Use of two monoclonal antibody drugs for immunocompromised COVID patients is being discontinued at UCSF. Evusheld and bebtelovimab are not  effective against the newer, aggressive virus variants, according to a memo issued Friday. “With new subvariants, these agents are no longer effective,” Dr. Bob Wachter, UCSF’s chief of medicine, tweeted. The now dominant omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are “extremely immune evasive,” according to Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the hospital.

In place of the lifesaving treatments, UCSF is encouraging individuals to stay up-to-date on their vaccinations, use high-quality masks when indoors, and avoid contact with individuals who show signs of respiratory illness. “When new therapeutics become available we will notify you immediately,” the UCSF memo said.

In October, the Food and Drug Administration advised health care providers to inform Evusheld patients of increased risk for getting COVID-19 when exposed to newer coronavirus variants that can evade neutralization. Evusheld is currently the only protection option for use in immunocompromised individuals who may not mount an adequate response to COVID-19 vaccination, and for individuals who have adverse reactions to COVID vaccination.

Oregon governor tests positive

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says she and her husband Dan have tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from Vietnam. “We are recuperating at home and, while this changes our Thanksgiving plans, we are grateful for effective vaccines and boosters that are helping ensure our symptoms don’t become serious,” she said Saturday afternoon on Twitter. Brown was overseas for the Vietnam-United States Trade Forum.

China reports its first COVID death in almost half a year

China on Sunday announced its first new death from COVID-19 since late May, as the country imposes strict new measures to fend off new outbreaks. The death of the 87-year-old Beijing man brings the country’s total death toll to 5,227. China on Sunday announced 24,215 new cases detected over the previous 24 hours, the vast majority of them asymptomatic. China’s overall vaccination rate has more than 92% of people with at least one dose, but the rate is much lower among the elderly — particularly those over age 80 — where it falls to just 65%. The Chinese health commission did not give details on the vaccination status of the latest deceased. That vulnerability is considered one reason why China has mostly kept its borders closed and is sticking with its rigid “zero-COVID” policy that seeks to wipe out infections through lockdowns, quarantines, case tracing and mass testing, despite the impact on normal life and the economy and rising public anger at the authorities.

Philly orchestra calls it quits, cites pandemic impacts

Officials for the Philly Pops say the decades-old orchestra will cease operations after the current 2022-23 season, partly because of the “devastating” effects of the pandemic. In a post on its website, the organization said the “difficult” decision was due to a combination of circumstances including the the COVID-19 pandemic. Longtime president Frank Giordano told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the organization had faced mounting vendor debt and depressed ticket sales since the end of the pandemic shutdown. “The Pops used to have subscriptions that were in the ascendancy, and now subscriptions are down,” he said. “I’m told it’s this way nationally, that these people are just not coming back period.”
Programs already announced for this season will go on, although possibly with fewer performances, Giordano said.

Government sees slowdown in tribal uptake of vaccines, pushes new effort

The Indian Health Service has a new vaccine strategy for a population that has had some of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates across the nation but now has been slowing down in uptake. Indigenous people are especially vulnerable to vaccine-preventable illness, and officials recently noticed fewer were getting vaccines for COVID-19. Monkeypox is now an additional health concern, and the government’s new system will offer all tribal members covered by the federal agency a vaccine at every appointment when appropriate. Patients in the system are also beginning to fall behind in more routine inoculations, such as jabs for childhood diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, as well as shingles shots for older adults.

“With time passing, we are seeing some COVID fatigue, and we feel we aren’t where we need to be,” Dr. Loretta Christensen, IHS chief medical officer, said before the announcement was posted online Thursday. “With our vulnerable population, it is critical to reenergize our staff to get everyone the vaccinations they need.”