Dr. Nurit Licht checks Simona Toledo’s abdomen during an appointment at Petaluma Health Center in Petaluma, Calif.
UCSF Chair of Medicine Dr. Bob Wachter has reached a new pandemic milestone: He’s ready to dine indoors and ditch his mask in uncrowded indoor settings. Some Stanford students criticized the university’s updated COVID-19 guidelines, which require those infected with the coronavirus to isolate in place in their dorms or apartments.
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American adults under the age of 65 should regularly be screened for anxiety, according to updated recommendations from an influential group of health experts. This marks the first time the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, an independent agency, has recommended regular screenings without symptoms. It also recommends depression screenings for adults and children. Its proposals were posted on its website on Tuesday and will remain open to public comment through Oct. 17. The research that went into the recommendation started before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the task force said the past two years have likely worsened issues such as social anxiety, excessive fear, and worry. “To address the critical need for supporting the mental health of adults in primary care, the task force reviewed the evidence on screening for anxiety, depression, and suicide risk,” said task force member Lori Pbert, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Massachusetts, in a statement. “The good news is that screening all adults for depression, including those who are pregnant and postpartum, and screening adults younger than 65 for anxiety can help identify these conditions early so people can be connected to care.”
Asked on Tuesday if the COVID-19 pandemic is indeed over, Dr. Anthony Fauci said “that’s a call that officially is made by the World Health Organization.” Speaking in a members-only Ted Talk over Zoom, the nation’s top infectious disease expert also shared his thoughts on President Biden’s controversial comments. “There’s a lot of misinterpretation about what the meaning of the word ‘over’ is,” Fauci said. “It means different things to different people.” He noted that the U.S. is no longer experiencing thousands of deaths a day due to the virus as it was during the “fulminant phase” of the pandemic. “We are much, much better off now than we were then,” Fauci said.
Like others, Fauci drew attention to the rest of Biden’s remarks. “As the president made very clear in the second half of his sentence is that we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “There’s still a challenge ahead. We’ve got to get people vaccinated. We still have a number of cases. We have 400 deaths per day. That’s an unacceptably high level.” He said that as far as declaring the end, he will leave that to the U.N. health agency that tracks case rates, mortality levels, and vaccination coverage globally. “Rather than try and give a definition, we should stick with what the WHO is saying,” Fauci said. “As Dr. Tedros said, we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on that.”
The number of deaths in England and Wales due to an irregular heartbeat saw a sharp increase in the first half of 2022, according to a report published Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics. Excess deaths due to cardiac arrhythmias were 37.1% above average in March and 23.1% in April, the data show. “Further work needs to be done to understand any link between the long-term effects of COVID and increasing cardiac deaths,” said Sarah Caul, the ONS head of mortality analysis. The total number of excess deaths due to all causes registered between March 2020 and June 2022 was 137,447. The agency’s report said that while COVID-19 accounted for many of these deaths, the higher-than-expected numbers “could be caused by a combination of factors.”
As California settles into a third year of pandemic, COVID-19 continues to pose a serious threat of death. But the number of people dying — and the demographics of those falling victim — has shifted notably from the first two years. The virus remained among the state’s leading causes of death in July, trailing heart disease, cancer, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease but outpacing diabetes, accidental death, and a host of other debilitating diseases. More non-Latino white people are dying now and fewer Latinos, while older people are still hit hardest. Read more about the changing profile of COVID’s victims in California.
Children between the ages of 5 and 11 years old could receive the new bivalent boosters targeted against the omicron COVID-19 sublineages BA.4 and BA.5 within weeks, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. If granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC said in its fall planning guide that it anticipates a recommendation for bivalent COVID-19 vaccine as a booster for pediatric age groups in early to mid-October. The agencies expect to green-light the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years old (people 12 and above are already approved) and the bivalent Moderna vaccine for children 6 to 17 years old within weeks. The bulletin said states can begin ordering the Pfizer shots as early as next week.
Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said people should put more focus on what President Biden said after he quipped “the pandemic is over.” During an interview with SiriusXM’s Zerlina Maxwell on Tuesday, Jha clarified the president’s comments: “He said, ‘but clearly it is not over. And we still have a lot of work to do on COVID.’ And that is absolutely right.” Jha told “Mornings With Zerlina” that there are about 400 Americans still dying every day due to the coronavirus. “That is an unacceptably high number by any metric,” he said. “If you annualize that, that’s like 130,000 to 140,000 deaths a year. To me, that’s intolerable. So we have got to drive that down. That’s priority number one.” He added that the nation also needs to “figure out how to get infections lower” and “how to reduce the burden of long COVID.” Jha said, “There’s a lot of work remaining to make sure we reduce the burden of this disease and that we leave the American people healthier and better off with it.”
Federal authorities charged 47 people in Minnesota with conspiracy and other counts on Tuesday in what they called the largest fraud scheme yet to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by stealing $250 million from a federal program that provides meals to low-income children, reports the Associated Press. Prosecutors say the defendants created companies that claimed to be offering food to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota, then sought reimbursement for those meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food nutrition programs. Prosecutors say few meals were actually served, and the defendants used the money to buy luxury cars, property and jewelry. “This $250 million is the floor,” Andy Luger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said at a news conference. “Our investigation continues.” Many of the companies that claimed to be serving food were sponsored by a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future, which submitted the companies’ claims for reimbursement.
Despite President Biden’s hopeful remarks on Sunday that the “pandemic is over,” COVID-19 is likely to remain a leading cause of death in the United States indefinitely, according to Dr. Bob Wachter. “It’s likely, when we think of the causes of death in our society, that COVID’s on the list probably forever,” the chair of UCSF’s department of medicine told NBC News. “Whether we call it a pandemic or not, it’s still an important threat to people.”
COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for the past two years, behind heart disease and cancer, according to provisional data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the past three months, the nation has averaged about 400 deaths per day due to the virus. Public health experts say if that trend holds, the U.S. will be tracking between 113,000 to 188,000 COVID deaths annually. By comparison, influenza kills between 12,000 to 52,000 people each year. Wachter interpreted the comments from the White House to mean that the nation has moved out of the crisis mode of the pandemic and into a more stable era for the virus. “They are feeling like we have to shift our mindset to the long game here,” Wachter said. “This is no longer an acute threat in the same way it was.”
Chinese scientists have developed a face mask with a built-in electronic sensor that can detect exposure to the coronavirus or influenza virus, according to a peer-reviewed report published Monday in the scientific journal Matter. The researchers at Tongji University in Shanghai said the “wireless bioelectric mask” can successfully detect airborne SARS-CoV-2, H5N1, and H1N1 influenza viruses within 10 minutes and send a notification to a smart device. They hope the development will “facilitate wireless and real-time monitoring for personal protection and prevent infectious diseases in advance,” they wrote.
Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told STAT News Monday that there was no science backing up President Biden’s claim Sunday that the COVID-19 pandemic “is over.” The infectious disease expert called the president’s remarks, filmed for an episode of “60 Minutes” at a Detroit auto show, “an unfortunate unforced error.” He worried that Biden’s words will hurt efforts to extend the nation’s public health emergency for COVID, which has been used to expand Medicaid coverage, telehealth services, enhanced payments to hospitals, and other pandemic measures.
Osterholm also thinks the comments “wounded” public health messaging telling Americans to stay up to date on their vaccinations against COVID. “The last thing you want to do is discourage people from getting their boosters,” he said, in reference to the updated bivalent shots that federal officials rolled out last week. “If I hear the president of the United States say the pandemic is over, why in hell would you want to get a booster?” Osterholm told CIDRAP News that pandemics aren’t declared over based on policy decisions, but rather a scientific consensus. With new omicron subvariants such as BF.7 and BA.2.75.2 gaining ground on BA.5, he said it’s better to let people know that the future of the COVID-19 pandemic remains uncertain.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams plans to drop the city’s requirement that private-sector workers get vaccinated against COVID-19. In a statement in which Adams and New York City health officials urged residents to sign up for a bivalent booster appointment, the mayor also said the city would encourage “private businesses to put in place their own vaccine policies after making the private sector vaccine mandate optional.” The private-sector mandate, put in place by former mayor Bill de Blasio, will expire on Nov. 1. 
Xavier Becerra, the U.S. health and human services secretary, said he supported President Biden’s comment Sunday on “60 Minutes” on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The president is correct,” he told Yahoo Finance Monday. “He’s made it clear that Americans are still dying in the hundreds every day from COVID, and so we have to stay at this. The vaccines are the most effective way for us to stay protected.” During an appearance on 60 Minutes, Biden said, “The pandemic is over.” Many senior officials in the White House were surprised by the remark, according to the Washington Post. But Becerra stood by the president. “I think the president was reflecting what so many Americans are thinking and feeling,” he said, noting that vaccines, tests and treatments have improved the outlook for many coronavirus patients. “I believe the president made it very clear — COVID is still here. We just have to make sure we’re smart.”
The value of stocks for the three primary COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers in the U.S. fell sharply on Monday after President Biden said during a “60 Minutes” interview that the coronavirus pandemic “is over.” Shares of Moderna fell 9.21%; Pfizer was down 1.81% and its partner BioNTech fell by 9.44%; while newcomer Novavax slipped 8.8%.
White House officials on Monday said there will be no change in the nation’s COVID-19 policy despite President Biden’s remark that “the pandemic is over.” On Monday, an administration official told CNN that there are no plans to lift the public health emergency, which has been in place since January 2020, and is up for renewal on Oct. 13. Officials fear that Biden’s comments could jeopardize the administration’s request for Congress to approve $22.4 billion in additional funding to continue offering testing, treatment and vaccines.
Adding to the chorus of public health experts reacting to President Biden’s off-the-cuff comment during a “60 Minutes” interview that “the pandemic is over,” Dr. Bob Wachter said he didn’t know for certain if the statement was true. “It’s a judgment call,” UCSF’s chair of medicine said in a tweet Monday. He elaborated, clarifying that the U.S. may be moving past crisis mode for COVID-19 to a more sustainable control phase for the coronavirus. “Clearly the threat is far lower than it was, people have the means to stay fairly safe (though many are choosing not to), & at some point, we need to shift from an emergency footing to a sustainable long-term strategy,” Wachter said. Diana Zicklin Berrent, the founder of the grassroots COVID advocacy group Survivor Corps, replied, “Maybe wait to declare victory until you actually know the pandemic is over? You know… Do no harm?” Paula Weston, another Twitter user, disagreed with the ambiguity of Wachter’s statement, “The CDC says that 358 people are dying each week from COVID in the U.S.,” she wrote
Students at Stanford are criticizing the university’s updated COVID-19 guidelines, which require those infected with the coronavirus to isolate in place in their dorms or apartments, potentially putting their housemates at risk. Johanna Flodint told the student newspaper The Stanford Daily that it was “unfair to force the non-sick roommate to find accommodation.” The university previously required individuals who were infected to isolate remotely. A spokesperson for the university said students without critical health conditions may also request temporary housing, but those will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Lizbeth Hernandez added, “I don’t believe [the new policy] is a solution at all. The risk of roommates contracting COVID will be even higher if they’re forced to stay in the same room.” Many students said the change will highlight disparity issues at Stanford, noting the new policy would most greatly impact low-income students. Alexander Worley said that “wealthier students can rent a hotel or otherwise make arrangements to avoid staying with their COVID-positive roommate. But low-income students who cannot afford this are forced to stay with their roommate and likely catch COVID.”
Aidin Vaziri is a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle.