Zooming to the unemployment office

Zoom, the San Jose video conferencing company that became ubiquitous and often indispensible during the pandemic, said Tuesday it is laying off 1,300 employees, or around 15% of its workforce. The cuts are the latest among Bay Area tech companies large and small that have slashed staff — many after going on hiring sprees during the past few years. In a message to employees posted on the company’s site, CEO Eric Yuan said like many other tech companies, Zoom staffed up during the pandemic to meet skyrocketing demand for its services, tripling in size. Read more about Zoom in the shifting culture of the pandemic.

Vegas air travel surpasses pre-pandemic high

Vegas is back from pandemic doldrums — and the airport traffic shows it. Harry Reiud International Airport airport handled a record 52.7 million passengers in 2022, up more than 2% from the previous record set in 2019, according to a year-end report made public Monday. Airport data followed reports last week showing that Nevada casinos set calendar-year records for winnings and Las Vegas-area visitor tallies nearly reached levels seen before business shut-downs in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In pre-pandemic 2019, the airport handled 51.5 million passengers, and 2021’s coronavirus-era dip stood at 32.6 million passengers.

People who know a COVID victim are twice as likely to get vaccinated, study finds

People who know someone who became ill with COVID-19 or died from the disease are twice as likely to receive a vaccine, according to a study led by Rutgers and Penn State University. The study published in the journal Vaccine surveyed about 1,200 people who were eligible for the shots in April 2021 to determine whether knowing of a friend’s or family member’s COVID-19 infection or death prompted them to get the shots shortly after the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use authorization of the mRNA vaccines. The authors found that hearing about the experiences of a trusted person was a more effective motivater than mandates. They also discovered that misinformation spread by an influential public figure or celebrity could have a similarly powerful but detrimental effect. “These findings should encourage people to share stories about their COVID-19 illness and bereavement experiences with their friends and family as well as through social media as it may motivate people to be vaccinated,” co-author Irina Grafova, a health economist at Rutgers School of Public Health, said in a press release

Pandemic saw a sharp decrease in arrests in California, report finds

Arrests in California declined dramatically for at least the first 16 months of the pandemic, according to a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California. They fell precipitously starting in early March 2020, after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a pandemic state of emergency, with declines of 5% for felony arrests and 40% for misdemeanor arrests until at least July 2021. The report authors say Californians staying home was a key driver of arrest trends during 2020, primarily due to reduced social interactions and police-public encounters.

The state’s largest local law enforcement agencies also made 35% fewer police stops until at least the end of 2020. Declines in arrests contributed to a 30% reduction in new admissions into jail and a 17% reduction in the jail population that persisted until at least December 2021. “While arrest patterns broadly resemble mobility patterns, it is possible that zero bail, cite-and-release orders, and early releases from jails and prisons simultaneously influenced arrests and re-arrests,” the authors write. “Further research that isolates the impact of these policies is needed.”

Food banks brace for spike in need as emergency assistance comes to an end

The looming end of government programs that provide extra pandemic-era food assistance has Bay Area food banks worried about meeting an expected increase in demand from households losing those benefits. Bay Area households receiving food assistance through California’s CalFresh program will see an average drop of $160 in monthly benefits as the emergency allotments end later this month, with final disbursements arriving in March. After that, some households will receive only the $23 monthly base benefit, which is based on the federal cost of living. Read more about the impact on Bay Area food banks and residents from the congressional decision to end pandemic allotments.  

State’s looser workplace pandemic rules take effect

The non-emergency COVID-19 prevention regulations that California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board voted to approve in December took effect on Feb. 3 and will remain in effect for the next two years. The revised rules largely include many of the stipulations outlined in the prior Cal/OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard but include new provisions aimed at “making it easier for employers to provide consistent protections to workers and allow for flexibility if changes are made to guidance in the future from the California Department of Public Health.”

According to the state website, the looser regulations do not require employers to provide exclusion pay to employees who are not allowed to work due to having COVID-19. They eliminate an employer’s obligation to provide no-cost COVID-19 testing for employees who are infected but were not exposed to the virus through close contact in the workplace. Employers are also permitted to end outbreak procedures if there are no new cases within 14 days, as opposed to no active cases. Additionally, COVID-19 workplace control measures can now be folded into existing injury and illness prevention programs, making a written COVID-19 prevention program optional for employers

Georgia senators vote to ban vaccine requirements

Georgia state senators voted Tuesday to permanently block schools and most state and local government agencies from requiring people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The measure, passed on a 31-21 vote, would make permanent what had been a one-year ban enacted in 2022, the Associated Press reports. State Sen. Greg Dolezal, a Republican sponsoring the measure, which still must pass the Georgia House, said the government should not force anyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine or refuse services to unvaccinated people. The state's current ban, part of a natiowide conservative backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, is set to expire June 30 if lawmakers don’t extend it. Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, said the extension if enacted would be tying the hands of government if COVID-19 again worsens.

“Less attractive” people more likely to keep masking, study claims

People who perceive themselves as “less attractive” were more likely to continue wearing masks once mandates were lifted, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology. For some individuals, wearing face coverings shifted “from being a self-protection measure during the COVID-19 pandemic to a self-presentation tactic in the post-pandemic era,” the researchers in South Korea said in the report. In a set of three studies, the authors did not dispute the effectiveness of masks in limiting the spread of the coronavirus. But in an online survey of less than 500 U.S. residents — with a median age of 33-34 — they found that in situations where study participants who had a negative self-image were motivated to make a good first impression — specifically, during a job interview — they relied on masks to give the impression of facial symmetry or hide some features they found unfavorable.

“Our results consistently demonstrated that self-perceived unattractive individuals were more willing to wear a mask, as they believed it would benefit their attractiveness,” they wrote. The study did not address other high-stakes scenarios such as blind dates, and authors noted that there could be more than one reason for masking. “Our results demonstrate that mask-wearing can serve two functions in the post-pandemic era: self-presentation and self-protection,” the study said. 

‘No evidence’ Chinese spy balloon used to spread COVID, congressman says

Addressing the latest COVID-19 conspiracy theory spreading rapidly online, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence said Monday that there is no evidence that China is using its surveillance balloons — such as the one the U.S. shot down on Saturday — to spread the coronavirus. “There is no evidence — no evidence whatsoever — that these balloons are in any way, shape or form involved in COVID,” Rep. Jim Himes or Connecticut, told a C-SPAN caller who suggested the balloons were used to fuel the pandemic in the U.S.

“The government is still working hard to understand the origins of the COVID pandemic, and it’s made harder, of course, by the Chinese unwillingness to share data, statistics,” Himes said. He acknowledged the coronavirus originated in China but rejected the tie to Chinese balloons. “I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that there’s absolutely no evidence that these balloons, as frightening as they may appear, are in any way, shape, or form involved with the pandemic or frankly with any other sort of weapon,” Himes said.  

Study pinpoints 7 distinctive symptoms of long COVID

Many ailments are associated with long COVID, but a recent study claims seven symptoms are distinctly associated with the long-term illness: heart palpitations, hair loss, fatigue, chest pain, difficulty breathing, joint pain and obesity. Researchers from the University of Missouri analyzed medical records from 122 U.S. health systems, including more than 17,000 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 before April 2022, and matched them with 17,000 patients diagnosed with the common cold, influenza, or viral pneumonia over the same period; as well as nearly 16,000 people with no record of COVID-19 or respiratory virus infection. They found that long COVID was associated with the seven diagnoses.

“We thought once you survived the acute infection, then everything would be over,” study co-author Dr. Adnan Qureshi, a neurologist at the University of Missouri Health Care, told Today. “Now that survival has improved a lot, it’s quite apparent that this is not a one-time thing for many.” The list of seven conditions is not definitive but a “work in progress,” he said. Other experts agreed, saying the study missed some of the most prominent long COVID symptoms -- including brain fog and autonomic nervous system disfunction -- due to a lack of data, especially from people who had experienced mild COVID and did not require hospitalization.

“My concern is that by missing some of the key characteristics of long COVID, we’d be doing patients a disservice,” said Dr. Lawrence Purpura. director of Columbia University's Irving Medical Center's long COVID clinic. Many clinic patients were vaccinated and had experienced mild COVID, and then developed a prolonged case of long COVID.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection, an estimated 1 in 5 COVID-infected people develops persistent aftereffects that include brain fog, chronic fatigue, erratic blood pressure, shortness of breath and many other conditions.

Americans no longer see pandemic as a top priority

Public concern about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has fallen off dramatically compared to worry about the economy and other issues, new Pew Research finds. People list the economy at the top of the list, with 75% of Americans say strengthening the economy should be a top priority this year, according to the Jan. 18-24 Pew Research Center survey of 5,152 U.S. adults. Dealing with the pandemic was listed a top priority for just 26% of people, down from 78% two years ago, and 60% last year. That is far behind issues listed after the economy as top concerns: reducing health care costs (60%), defending against terrorism (60%), reducing the influence of money in politics (59%), reducing the budget deficit (57%), reducing crime (57%) and improving education (57%).

About half of Americans (53%) said reducing the availability of illegal drugs, including heroin, fentanyl and cocaine, should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Similar shares listed dealing with immigration (53%), improving the energy system (52%) and improving the job situation (49%). Far down the list were climate change (37%), global trade issues (34%) and addressing issues around race (32%).  Just above the coronavirus --- which still claims the lives of 3,500 Americans each week -- the respondents gave lowest priority to dealing with the challenges facing parents (27%), and addressing issues around race (32%).  

Grammys rebound from pandemic viewer drought

An estimated 12.4 million people tuned in to watch the 2023 Grammy Awards on Sunday, as the ceremony returned to Los Angeles with a slate of pop music superstars including Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, Taylor Swift and Adele. The viewership numbers were stronger than for the broadcasts during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic — 8.8 million in 2021 and 8.9 million in 2022 — according to Nielsen. But they didn’t quite reach pre-COVID levels. Read more about how the Grammy awards show unfolded in the third pandemic year.

Marin County classrooms temporarily reinstate mask mandate

Four elementary schools in Marin County have temporarily reinstated indoor mask mandates in individual classrooms due to COVID-19 outbreaks, officials said Monday. Dr. Matt Willis, the county’s public health officer, told the Marin Independent Journal that the county also is tracking coronavirus cases at two other elementary schools where infections are spreading. “We should expect some normal waxing and waning of transmission within the general downward trend,” Willis said. “I think that’s what we’re seeing — since our wastewater levels continue to decline.” He did not name the schools that were experiencing the outbreaks. Marin County’s public school coronavirus dashboard.









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