Welcome back to Week 56 of my weekly reports analyzing the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on the country and higher education, and Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers. For those of you reading this on my blog, Off the Silk Road, I have also launched a newsletter, where these reports can be sent directly to your email each week. Click here to subscribe.
Last week, we looked at the state of vaccinations as India battles a crisis of monstrous proportions. This week, we will discuss President Biden’s new vaccination strategy as incentives and other strategies are needed to vaccinate more Americans.
A national look
In the U.S., it’s vaccinations up and cases down as daily cases are now at the lowest levels in seven months. In India, it is the polar opposite. The country continues to record case and death counts as oxygen shortages persist. CNN’s Clarissa Ward traveled to Varanasi, India’s holiest city, where she saw nonstop cremations and wood shortages for the funeral pyres. Brown University School of Public Health Dean Dr. Ashish Jha estimates that the true number of infections tops 2-5 million daily and the death toll tops 25,000 daily. “India’s problem is now the world’s problem,” Drs. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write in The New York Times, as the country was due to play an oversized role in global vaccine production. Cases in India’s neighboring countries are also spiking as Nepal grapples with the beginnings of a hospital bed shortage. For most of the world, the pandemic is currently showing no signs of stopping.
The U.S. continues down the road to recovery as vaccinations increase. An article published Monday in The New York Times quoted multiple experts saying that herd immunity will not be reached in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Regardless of whether this will turn out to be true or not, we must understand that we do not need to reach herd immunity for the pandemic to end. High vaccination rates are key and immunity levels may vary on a community by community basis.
Let’s take a look at some of the latest scientific developments:
- Coronavirus infections could be driven to low levels and the pandemic at least temporarily throttled in the U.S. by July if the vast majority of people get vaccinated and continue with precautions against viral transmission, according to new modeling by the CDC.
- A year in, the CDC finally updated public guidance about how the coronavirus spreads, emphasizing that transmission occurs by inhaling very fine respiratory droplets and aerosolized particles, as well as through contact with sprayed droplets or touching contaminated hands to one’s mouth, nose or eyes.
- The birthrate declined for the sixth straight year in 2020, the federal government reported on Wednesday, early evidence that the coronavirus pandemic accelerated a trend among American women of delaying pregnancy.
- An Oregon church sued the state over Covid-19 restrictions last month. Now, an outbreak there has sickened 74.
- A new study from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington concludes that Covid-19 has caused more than 905,000 deaths in America and more than double the number of global deaths that have been reported.
- The observation of faster logistic growth of the P.1 variant compared to B.1.1.7 suggests that P.1 may have a transmission advantage over B.1.1.7 in the U.S. and may continue to gain ground even as B.1.1.7 is currently the dominant strain.
- Preliminary evidence suggests that, to date, the B.1.526 variant (first found in New York) does not lead to more severe disease or increased risk for infection after vaccination.
- According to a study published in JAMA, although testing rates improved somewhat over last summer, timely coronavirus test results were sought and received by only 25.9% of people who reported a fever at the end of the study analysis period in late October 2020.
- Dutch researchers have trained bees, which have an unusually keen sense of smell, to identify samples infected with Covid-19.
- Researchers in the UK are closely monitoring B.1.617.2, a new variant which has high transmissibility and has now been upgraded to a variant of concern.
- A new study published in JAMA found a positive correlation between Gini coefficients and county-level Covid-19 cases and deaths during the study period. The association between income inequality and Covid-19 cases and deaths varied over time and was strongest in the summer months of 2020.
Before we move on to our discussion on vaccinations, we must devote a small paragraph to Tucker Carlson, this week’s Covidiot of the Week. In his worst anti-vaccine segment yet, Tucker Carlson claimed on his show this week that dozens of people are dying every day from the Covid-19 vaccine. They are not. His dangerous lies are not worth repeating here, as Fox News has now turned into America’s biggest vaccination threat. Here are the facts: Poll after poll shows that Republicans (many of whom may be among the 3.4+ million viewers who watch Tucker every night) are among the most hesitant to take the Covid-19 vaccine — 45% in this poll said they’d avoid it altogether. A study published this week found that conservative media consumption predicted an increase in conspiracy beliefs: “Use of conservative media in March predicted reduced intentions to vaccinate in July.” And so the question remains: When will those in power at Fox News speak up against dangerous and deadly lies that will cause unnecessary deaths in the coming months? And when, if ever, will Tucker Carlson acknowledge his harmful words and actions?
The pace of vaccinations in the U.S. continues to decline, with the 7-day average now dropping to below 2 million shots per day. In many places, vaccinations are already having a profound effect on cases. States with high vaccination rates (blue) are seeing decreasing new case counts (yellow). It’s not just New England. Minnesota, with over 45% of its population with 1+ doses, is seeing decreases. North Dakota is not. You can explore your state’s vaccination rates and case counts here.
This week, President Biden set new vaccination goals: 70% of adults with at least one dose and 160 million people fully vaccinated by July 4. This is the administration’s most challenging goal yet — around 88 million shots will need to be administered in the next 60 days. You can track the administration’s progress with my new dashboard here.
After a stagnant pace this time last week, we are now seeing an uptick in Johnson & Johnson doses being administered since the pause was lifted. On Thursday and Friday, over 100,000 Johnson & Johnson doses were recorded each day. Daily administrations of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are up 167% nationally this Friday compared with last Friday. Some states have ramped up administration more quickly than others. Vermont, for example, has seen an 841% increase in J&J doses compared with last week.
The latest edition of Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor brings optimistic news: The share of Republicans who say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated decreased from 29% in March to 20% in April but remains substantially larger than the share among Democrats or independents. However, there are increasing signs that we are reaching the vaccine enthusiasm frontier. As Pfizer is on the cusp of issuing an EUA for its vaccine for teens, data show many parents will wait and see before they vaccinate their own children.
This month’s Vaccine Monitor includes the top 10 vaccination concerns among respondents. We must have a solutions-focused mindset and see that all these concerns can be addressed. Here’s a table with proposed solutions.
In an effort to vaccinate more Americans, some states have turned to carrots and sticks — forms of incentives. In Detroit, $50 prepaid debit cards are being offered to drivers who take a city resident for a shot. In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont rolled out a campaign where some restaurants will give a free drink. “When people are clamoring for vaccines in India and in Brazil, it just makes us look like a nation of sulky adolescents…so if it’s absolutely necessary, sure, although it’s tough to swallow,” Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Peter Hotez told CNBC. Survey results published in The New York Times found that on average, relaxing the mask and social distancing guidelines increased vaccine uptake likelihood by 13 points. The largest gains came from Republicans, who reported an 18-point increase in willingness to get vaccinated.
A few other updates on vaccines:
- According to reporting from Kaiser Health News, there have been >182,874 wasted doses nationally, 70% of which (128,500) have been from CVS and Walgreens. According to CVS, “nearly all” of its wasted doses have occurred from the long-term care pharmacy program.
- This week we saw a major change in vaccine allocation: The White House will steer unordered vaccines by states into a federal bank available to other states. Those states will be able to order up to 50% above their weekly allocation, on a week-by-week basis.
- A matched study (2,195 vaccinated to 21,950 unvaccinated) found the J&J vaccine had an effectiveness of 76.7% in preventing infection >14 days after vaccination.
- A survey of over 18,000 adults found that vaccine hesitancy did not increase after the J&J pause and may actually have decreased, because some were vaccinated in April. While most people were aware of the pause, it did not have a negative effect.
- According to a study in The Lancet, 2 doses of an mRNA vaccine for 72% of all adults in Israel reduced infections by 92%.
- Data from Qatar’s mass vaccination campaign found high efficacy levels of the Pfizer vaccine against the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants.
- Moderna announced its booster vaccine candidate targeting the B.1.351 variant achieved higher neutralizing antibody titers against that strain than the original vaccine booster.
- Pfizer has submitted an application to the FDA for full approval of its vaccine. Emory’s Dr. Jesse O’Shea has laid out a predicted timeline with Pfizer’s expected developments.
- Black residents are 29.8% of Chicago’s population, but account for only 18.7 percent of residents who have received their first dose. In many places, the issue is still access — residents lack access to the internet and having walk-in appointments near them are critical.
- So what helps change the minds of the hesitant? From a Frank Luntz focus group: A Hopkins doctor on C-SPAN, a requirement to show proof of a vaccination to go to a Yankees game, fear of a vulnerable child/family member getting sick were all reasons for people to get vaccinated.
- As of April 25, about 5% — or 570,399 — of Texans who had received the first dose were 43 days or more past due for their second dose.
- Sesame Street has released its own Covid-19 vaccine ads.
- With 60% of its population fully vaccinated, the Seychelles has now seen a massive surge in cases. Tourists were allowed to return and this may be a case study in vaccine efficacy — as the Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines were used (which have slightly lower efficacy in trials than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines).
- A study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases modeled that every 1% increase in coverage can avert an average of 876,800 (217,000–2,398,000) cases, varying with the number of people already vaccinated.
- A World Health Organization panel announced Friday that it would authorize emergency use of a coronavirus vaccine made by Chinese firm Sinopharm.
- A new preprint provides optimistic news: Antibodies were detected in upper respiratory tract (nose) specimens following vaccination. This may lead us to understand more about how vaccines slow transmission.
- Moderna said its Covid-19 vaccine is 96% effective in kids ages 12 to 17.
- A new Gallup poll shows support, even among Republicans, of requiring proof of vaccination for a number of activities — the most common being traveling by airplane or attending large events. Pushing the message of traveling may help increase vaccine enthusiasm.
Let’s move on to our discussion of higher education.
Here’s a roundup of this week’s higher ed news:
- The Chronicle of Higher Education has now identified 237 campuses which have announced requirements for proof of vaccination by the fall, including Harvard University.
- At the University of Vermont, 605 Johnson & Johnson doses were administered at an on-campus clinic.
- Columbia University advises vaccinated students and faculty they don’t have to mask up in most outdoor situations, and adds this helpful note: “The choice to wear a mask should be respected with no assumptions about why an individual is observing masking.”
- As reported by U.S News and World Report’s Chelsea Cirruzzo, — the Prevent COVID U vaccine trial has suffered from low enrollment among college students. Had the study been timed earlier, when vaccines were not widely available, it may have been more successful (half of the participants receive the Moderna vaccine now and the other half four months later — which now is not so appealing).
- After 90% of the student body received at least one dose, cases at Notre Dame have dropped dramatically.
- Last month, Nova Southeastern University became the first school in Florida to require Covid-19 vaccinations. Following the state’s “vaccine passport” ban, the university is now only recommending it.
- Some colleges have welcomed back the Class of 2020 for graduations.
- Rowan University is offering up to $1,000 for many students who get the Covid-19 vaccine.
- Over 700 University of Michigan instructors are calling on the university to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations for all students attending in-person classes next fall, as well as all employees, according to a petition that began circulating Wednesday.
- The family of at least two UMass Amherst students are fighting back after they say the school kicked the students out this spring, after a photo of them without a face covering off-campus surfaced.
- According to a survey by The Williams Record, 96% of students living on campus have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The Good Stuff
Let’s roll the clips of the good stuff. In my usual tradition, I feature my favorite stories from the week. Here are my Top 10.
- Rest in peace to Bo Obama, the Obamas’ beloved Portuguese water dog. In the words of the former president, Bo “had a big bark but no bite.”
- NPR celebrated its 50th birthday earlier this week.
- Even the CEO of Zoom says he has Zoom fatigue.
- The Washington Post published a list of all-time worst coronavirus predictions.
- Reporter Olivia Messer wrote about the extreme burnout Covid-19 reporters have experienced over the last year and a half — essential reading.
- Back from his vacation, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong wrote about the surprisingly complex inner lives of cicadas.
- After a long year, high school seniors are sharing their college acceptances online.
- A state senator in Ohio might have fooled anyone who watched a state board meeting this week into thinking he was attending from home if not for one thing: the seatbelt strapped across his chest.
- The pandemic is causing some people to bathe less frequently.
- The world was captivated yesterday by the possibility of a Chinese rocket crashing into Earth, and it seemed to have landed in the Indian Ocean.
The U.S. continues to see excellent results from the impact of vaccinations in states with high percentages of their populations vaccinated. However, the virus will continue to spread among the unvaccinated, especially in some states in America’s Southeast. Creative strategies and increasing access will be critical to achieving high vaccination uptake. With doses sitting on shelves in the U.S., the rest of the world is scrambling for vaccine supply. The U.S. must continue to commit to vaccinating the world out of this pandemic.
I’d like to thank all the student journalists with whom I have the pleasure of working. In the next weeks and months ahead, they will become vital in chronicling their colleges’ paths forward for the spring and beyond. Support their work by reading it.
My best to all for good health.
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