Frequently Asked Questions abut COVID-19 — June 15, 2022

“Shared expectations lead to predictability.”

561.  The long-term status of Covid-19 is uncertain, but the summer looks good.

         QAre we finally over the problems with Covid-19?

         A:  On June 6, the New York Times published an article projecting the outlook for Covid-19 in the future.  The overall situation will most likely improve into the summer, said Dr. Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But that trend could also be temporary on a national basis.  As summer ramps up, the latest U.S. Covid wave seems to be spreading west, even as it has begun to recede in the Northeast.  In Vermont, for example, hospitalization numbers have dropped by more than 40 percent in the past two weeks.  Hospitalizations have also declined over 20 percent in Massachusetts and roughly 10 percent in Maine, Connecticut, and New York. Case numbers in the region have also declined significantly.  Every other U.S. region is seeing a rise in hospitalizations, particularly the southern states of Alabama and Louisiana, where hospitalizations have risen by at least 70 percent.

So what do these numbers tell us about the outlook for the summer?  Unfortunately, interpreting Covid data has become much more complex than it was in previous waves when more cases usually led to more hospitalizations and deaths.  The shift to more widespread home-testing means that many cases are no longer being logged by health officials. The result is that official case counts are becoming an increasingly unreliable measure of the virus’s true toll.  Hospitalization data, while better, is also not perfect. More than 29,000 people were recently hospitalized with Covid-19 across the country, an increase of 16% over the previous two weeks. But that figure includes patients who are admitted for other reasons, testing positive on arrival.

So the conclusion is a good possibility that by autumn, there could yet be another rise in cases.  But this is not a certainty.  Experts advise staying prepared.  Get vaccinated and boosted when you are eligible, and enjoy the months ahead.

562.  We are in the midst of a cultural shift.  Working in an office or at home?

         Q:  Will working at home continue once the pandemic is over?

         A:  If some corporate leaders get their way, there will be a new test for workplace loyalty — and anyone who opts for remote work will get a failing grade.  This past week, Elon Musk issued an ultimatum to Tesla and SpaceX employees: Return to the office for at least 40 hours per week — or lose your job.  Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JP Morgan, said last month that working from home wasn’t for people who wanted “to hustle.”  And Mayor Eric Adams of New York City recently announced a strict policy of in-person work for city employees as he aimed to revive the city’s tax base.  But for all of the power wielded by Musk, Dimon and Adams, they may be fighting a culture shift that is larger than any single company or city.

There are signs that the work-from-home trend is actually accelerating. One recent survey published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that employers said they would allow employees to work from home an average of 2.3 days per week — up from 1.5 days in the summer of 2020.  For decades or even longer, America’s definition of an “ideal worker” has been a person who prioritizes the job above all else and has no outside commitments.  “For many C.E.O.s and managers, that’s how they worked. That’s how they succeeded and that’s the only way they know,” said Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab program at the think tank New America. “All of this was completely false; it was totally a fake story we’ve been telling ourselves.”  Progress means change.  If changes caused by the pandemic outlast the changes requiring a return to where we were before, there will be an interesting cultural shift.

563.  Congress’s lack of funding has caused the White House to shift funds.

         Q:  Will we have to pay for Covid vaccines and treatment after federal funding runs out? 

         A:   The White House said a week ago it is cutting funds from some areas of its COVID-19 response in order to shift money to vaccines and treatments, given that new funding remains stalled in Congress.  The administration is cutting money from areas like testing and research on next-generation vaccines in order to move that into buying more vaccines and treatments.  In the shift, $5 billion will go towards buying updated vaccines for the fall, $4.9 billion will go towards buying an additional 10 million courses of the Pfizer treatment Paxlovid and $300 million will go towards buying more monoclonal antibody treatments.  The White House lamented that it had to cut some areas of its response, saying that Congress should simply provide the funding needed.  Even with the shift in funds, there will still not be enough money to buy updated vaccines for all Americans for the fall, unless Congress provides more funding, the White House said.

564.  There has been a shift in the Covid death rates between Black and White people.

         Q:  Are more Black Americans still dying from Covid-19 than White people?

         A:  David Leonhardt, a reporter for the New York Times, reported on June 9 that the Covid death rate for White Americans has recently exceeded the rates for Black, Latino and Asian Americans.  He stated that one of the defining characteristics of the pandemic’s early stages was its disproportionate toll on Black and Latino Americans.  During Covid’s early months in the U.S., the per capita death rate for Black Americans was almost twice as high as the white rate and more than twice as high as the Asian rate. The Latino death rate was in between, substantially lower than the Black rate but still above average.  These large racial gaps seemed as if they might persist throughout the pandemic, especially because white and Asian Americans were initially quicker to receive vaccine shots. Black and Latino Americans, by contrast, had less convenient access to the shots and many were skeptical of them.  But these large racial gaps in vaccination have not continued — and as a result, neither have the gaps in Covid death rates.  Instead, Covid’s racial gaps have narrowed and, more recently, even flipped. Over the past year, the Covid death rate for white Americans has been 14 percent higher than the rate for Black Americans and 72 percent higher than the Latino rate, according to the latest C.D.C. data.

Why? For one thing, the rapid increase in vaccination among Black and Latino Americans since last year. Today, the vaccination rate for both groups is slightly higher than it is for white Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s surveys.  For another, the share of white Americans who have received a Covid vaccine shot has barely budged since last summer. The main culprit is politics.  Only about 60 percent of Republican adults are vaccinated, compared to about 75 percent of independents and more than 90 percent of Democrats, according to Kaiser. And Republicans are both disproportionately white and older. Together, these facts help explain why the white death rate has recently been higher than the Asian, Black, or Latino rate.  This is quite a turnaround.

565.  Animals in Sweden have a coronavirus, but so far it is not a threat to humans.

         Q:  Are there any threats to humans from animals having a coronavirus infection?

         A:  Rodents like rats, mice, and voles can also carry viruses that are sometimes capable of jumping over to our own species.  Among Sweden’s red-backed bank voles, researchers have now identified a widespread and common coronavirus they’ve called the Grimsö virus, after the location of its discovery.  From a recent study published in the journal Viruses, “We still do not know what potential threats the Grimsö virus may pose to public health. However, “based on our observations and previous coronaviruses identified among bank voles, there is good reason to continue monitoring the coronavirus amongst wild rodents,” says virologist Åke Lundkvist from Uppsala University in Sweden.  Bank voles are some of the most common rodents found in Europe. Their paths often cross with our own species, and they are known hosts of the Puumala, which causes a hemorrhagic fever known as nephropathia epidemica in humans.  When seeking refuge from adverse weather conditions, voles are known to shelter in human buildings.  This increases the risk of people contracting a disease they carry into our households.  The new vole virus hasn’t been caught jumping over to humans just yet, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need increased surveillance of wildlife disease to prevent further outbreaks.