As state and federal officials prepare to lift the nearly three-year coronavirus state of emergency, troubling signs of a new COVID-19 wave have emerged in Bay Area wastewater. New data also is being reported that shows 4 in 10 U.S. households was affected by one of the three “tripledemic” viruses during the holiday season. And as culture and government wind down from the still-ongoing pandemic, Zoom, which made much of pandemic life possible, is laying off 15% of its workforce.

House votes to end vaccine requirement for foreign travelers

The GOP-led House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to end a requirement for foreign air travelers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, in a vote of 227 to 201. No Republicans voted against the bill. Seven Democrats joined them, even though the Biden administration said on Tuesday it strongly opposes dropping the mandate, which was put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was one of the last standing pandemic restrictions in the U.S. “The need for this requirement has long since passed, and we appreciate the bipartisan action by the U.S. House to end this outdated policy,” the U.S. Travel Association said in a statement supporting the vote. “The U.S. is the only country that has maintained this policy.”

Cancer patients may be at higher risk for long COVID

Cancer patients are likelier to experience the persistent symptoms associated with long COVID, new research shows. In a study published Monday in eLife, scientists from the University of Texas analyzed over 300 cancer patients who were infected with the coronavirus between March to September 2020, with follow-up surveys conducted for up to 14 months. They found that 60% developed persistent symptoms associated long COVID more than 30 days after their initial infection, with women being at especially higher risk. The most common symptoms reported included fatigue (82%), sleep disturbances (78%), myalgias (67%) and gastrointestinal symptoms (61%), followed by headache, altered smell or taste, dyspnea or labored breathing (47%) and cough (46%). The authors noted, however, that “most of the cancer patients with (post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection) were managed on outpatient basis with only 8.5% requiring a COVID-19 related re-admission.”

Pandemic caused more than 600 excess deaths among doctors, study finds

There were 622 more physician deaths in the U.S. than expected early in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. In an analysis of monthly death data from the American Medical Association from January 2016 to February 2020 among active and nonactive physicians aged 45 to 84 years, Stanford University researchers estimated the expected deaths from March 2020 to December 2021 to calculate the excess deaths. Of the 4,511 physicians who died from March 2020 to December 2021, the study found that 622 represented excess deaths among a monthly average roster of 785,631 physicians, and 43 excess deaths per 100,000 person-years. Of the physicians who died, 65.3% were men.

“There was no statistically significant excess mortality after April 2021,” the researchers wrote, noting the number dropped sharply once vaccines became available. They added that the rate of excess deaths was higher among nonactive physicians. “The findings suggest that personal protective equipment use, vaccine requirements, infection prevention protocols, adequate staffing, and other workplace-based protective measures were effective in preventing excess mortality.”

Biden administration to release transition roadmap this week, source says

The Biden administration plans to unveil a roadmap as early as Thursday detailing how the U.S. will move away from the COVID-19 public health emergency this spring. A source familiar with the forthcoming announcement who spoke to CNN said the plan will be for “the partners that have supported the response.” Last week, the White House announced that it plans to let the COVID-19 national and public health emergencies expire on May 11. During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden seemingly declared victory over the virus, though it is still taking nearly 3,500 American lives each week. “Let’s also recognize how far we’ve come in the fight against the pandemic itself,” the president said. “While the virus is not gone, thanks to the resilience of the American people, we have broken COVID’s grip on us. COVID deaths are down nearly 90%. We’ve saved millions of lives and opened our country back up. And soon we’ll end the public health emergency.”

No new variants emerged during surge in China, study says

Despite the high rate of infections reported across China after the country dropped its rigorous “zero COVID” policies in December, a study published Wednesday suggests no new coronavirus variants emerged. The Chinese government-funded study, published in The Lancet, found that of 413 sequenced infections in Beijing, all of the genomes belonged to the existing lineages of the virus, “showing there are no persistently dominant variants or novel lineages.” The samples were randomly selected from a group of 2,881 samples collected from Nov. 14 to Dec. 20.

The most common strains sequenced were omicron subvariants BA.5.2 and BF.7, which made up about 90% of infections. “Our analysis suggests two known omicron subvariants — rather than any new variants — have chiefly been responsible for the current surge in Beijing, and likely China as a whole,” George Gao, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Institute of Microbiology in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a news release. “However, with ongoing large-scale circulation of COVID-19 in China, it is important we continue to monitor the situation closely so that any new variants that might emerge are found as early as possible.”

Surge of severe strep in kids is a return to pre-pandemic levels, CDC says

The surge of severe strep infections in children matched levels of the disease seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an update published late last week. The steeply rising number of invasive group A streptococcal (iGAS) infections prompted the agency to issue a health alert to providers in early December. The latest update notes that the numbers merely marked a return to pre-pandemic levels. It also flags that last year the increase happened earlier in the season (September through November) than in a typical year (December through April). “During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States had very low numbers of iGAS infections in children,” the agency said. “This was likely due to the steps many people took during the pandemic to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases (e.g., school and workplace closures, masking, physical distancing). Based on preliminary 2022 data, iGAS infections in children have returned to levels similar to those seen in pre-pandemic years.”

4 in 10 households hit with “tripledemic” over holidays

More than a third of American households were impacted by the “tripledemic” during the holiday season and into January, according to the latest COVID Vaccine Monitor survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, despite a recent decline in hospitalizations for COVID-19, flu, and RSV. Nearly 4 in 10 (38%) U.S. adults report that their households had someone who was sick with at least one of these three viruses over the past several weeks.

About 3 in 10 (27%) adults say someone in their household was sick with the flu, and smaller shares experienced COVID-19 (15%), or respiratory syncytial virus (10%).Of that group, 75% of adults living in households sick with any of the three viruses said they tried to get over-the-counter medicines to treat their illness, with one in five of those in households reporting difficulty getting medicines. 

The survey states that as the coronavirus public health emergency order is set to end, at least a quarter of adults surveyed said they are worried about COVID-19, RSV, or the flu. Three in ten (31%) adults say they are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about seriously getting sick with COVID-19, a slightly larger share than those who said the same of the flu (26%) and RSV (25%). 

Wastewater reveals new COVID wave in parts of Bay Area

Coronavirus levels monitored in Bay Area wastewater reveal another COVID-19 wave is under way in several areas despite the low case rates reported on the local health department dashboards. The San Jose sewer shed in Santa Clara County shows a “high” level of the coronavirus gene per gram of waste solids, according to state data on viral counts in wastewater. Samples from the Alameda County, Marin County and San Francisco sewer sheds show similar upturns, with a sharp increase beginning in early February.

California’s health department dashboard shows cases at a plateau. But health officials say the wastewater data offers a better glimpse on pandemic trends than the official numbers. Government case counts do not capture the true proportion of the virus circulating in the community because a majority of people now use home tests, the results of which are not reported to public health authorities.“If the wastewater is up, put your mask on,” Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s health officer, said at a briefing last week. She noted that while cases have drifted down since their December peak they have recently leveled off at a relatively high rate.

The three other sewer sheds in Santa Clara County, the Bay Area’s most populous, show a “medium” level of viral particles in circulation. Public health officials say that higher levels of coronavirus in the sewer sheds typically appear before cases do. The wastewater also catches asymptomatic infections. The trend lines appear to mirror the rise in cases the Bay Area experienced before the COVID-19 surge in early December. COVID hospitalizations have also started rising again across the Bay Area: There were 490 patients admitted to hospitals with confirmed infections as of Tuesday, compared to 451 a week earlier.

Zooming to the unemployment office

Zoom, the San Jose video conferencing company that became ubiquitous and often indispensable 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.

Food insecurity an issue as end of government pandemic assistance looms

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.

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 motivator 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.

Vegas air travel surpasses pre-pandemic high

Vegas is back from pandemic doldrums — and the airport traffic shows it. Harry Reid 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.

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