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Covid-19 Live Updates: BA.2 Variant, Global Cases and the Latest

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Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

An airport-based coronavirus surveillance program in the United States for travelers arriving from abroad detected the first known US case of the highly contagious Omicron subvariant BA.2 in December, according to a new study.

The results, which have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, suggest that pooled testing of international travelers may be an effective and efficient way to keep tabs on new variants and pathogens.

“Travelers are really an important population when tracking new and emerging infectious diseases because they’re mobile, they have the potential for exposure to disease during travel and they can spread disease from one place to another,” said Dr. Cindy R. Friedman, chief of the Travelers’ Health Branch at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the study’s lead investigator.

The program actually detected the first known US cases of two Omicron subvariants, BA.2 and BA.3, which are similar to, but genetically distinct from, BA.1 and B.1.1, the versions of Omicron that drove a winter surge in US cases.

The voluntary program, which screened more than 16,000 travelers this fall and winter, was conducted by the CDC and two commercial partners: the XpresSpa Group, which offers testing in airports, and Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company with a testing initiative and a network of laboratories across the country. The program combined nasal samples from multiple people arriving from the same country or on the same flight — an approach, known as pooled testing, that allows scientists to search for the virus in multiple people at once.

The program was not the first to catch every version of Omicron; BA.1, the subvariant that was initially most prevalent worldwide, did not show up in one of the airport samples until Dec. 1, the same day that officials announced that another team of researchers had found the first US Omicron case.

The researchers hope to expand the traveler surveillance program and are also preparing to launch a pilot study that will search for signs of the virus in the wastewater from airplane bathrooms, Dr. Friedman said.

The program began in late September, focusing on travelers on selected flights from India to three major US airports: John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and San Francisco International Airport in California. In late November, after Omicron emerged, the program was expanded to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and to people arriving from South Africa, Nigeria, Britain, France, Germany and Brazil.

(Omicron prompted the Biden administration to tighten travel rules. It temporarily banned travelers from eight African countries — the restrictions did not apply to US citizens or permanent residents — and required international passengers to present evidence that they had tested negative for the virus within a day before departure. Previously, travelers could test within three days of departure. As of Nov. 8, only vaccinated foreign travelers were allowed into the country.)

Eligible travelers could volunteer to provide a self-collected nasal swab at the airport. Swabs from five to 25 travelers — from the same flight or country — were added to a single tube and then tested for the virus using PCR testing. Positive samples were then sequenced to determine which version of the virus was present.

Between Sept. 29 and Jan. 23, 10 percent of 161,000 eligible travelers enrolled in the study, and 1,454 sample pools were tested for the virus. Despite the preflight testing requirement, more than 15 percent of the pools were positive.

This relatively high positivity rate may indicate that travelers were early in the course of their infections — and thus had viral loads too low for some tests to detect — when they took their predeparture tests, or that they contracted the virus in the time between being tested and landing in the United States, the researchers say. People may also have submitted fraudulent test results.

Before Nov. 28, nearly all of the positive sample pools contained the Delta variant, the researchers found. (The only exception was a positive sample whose exact genetic lineage could not be determined.)

After that, however, Omicron quickly came to dominate; from Nov. 28 to Jan. 23, two-thirds of the positive samples were Omicron. Most of the Omicron samples were the BA.1 subvariant, which was initially the most prevalent version worldwide. BA.1 remains the most common lineage in the United States, although BA.2 has been gaining ground and now accounts for 35 percent of infections, according to CDC estimates.

But the researchers found the BA.3 subvariant in a pool of samples collected from travelers arriving from South Africa on Dec. 3. They reported the finding in GISAID, an international repository of viral genomes, on Dec. 22 It was the first reported case of BA.3 in the United States; it would be more than a month before the next was reported.

The airport program also detected the first known US case of BA.2, in samples collected from South African travelers on Dec. 14. The researchers reported the finding a week before the next US case of BA.2 was reported.

“This is a new tool in the CDC tool kit that works, and we’ve shown it’s effective and it can be layered with all of our other mitigation measures,” Dr. Friedman said.

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New report shows quality of nursing home care spiked during COVID-19

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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) – A new report shows the quality of care afforded to residents of long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic spiked significantly.

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living says it released a new report on Thursday, March 26, which details data on the quality of care in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

AHCA/NCAL said the data highlights the commitment of dedicated caregivers to raising the standard of care for the benefit of residents during an unprecedented global public health crisis. The report follows data the organization issued which highlights improvements over the last decade.

The Association said the report found long-term residents in nursing homes were hospitalized 15% less during the pandemic than they were before while 8% of short-term patients saw functional improvement during the same time period.

AHCA/NCAL also aid the report found 72% of more than 110,000 infection control focused inspections of nursing homes conducted during the pandemic were deficiency-free.

The organization said the report acknowledges the devastating effects of the pandemic had on nursing home residents, however, the tragic loss of life was due to the nature of the virus, not because of inadequate care from caregivers.

Thanks to life-saving vaccines and treatments, as well as enhanced infection control, AHCA/NCAL said nursing home residents are much safer from the virus. Specifically, it said nearly 60% of nursing home resident deaths due to the virus happened during the first 7 months of the pandemic – before vaccines were available.

The Association also said COVID uniquely targets elderly patients and those with underlying health conditions, with the risk of death for those 85 and older being 340 times higher than for those ages 18 to 29.

The report also found independent research from various academic institutions overwhelmingly found a high spread of the virus in the community is correlated with outbreaks in nursing homes. At the height of the Omicron surge in mid-January, it said nursing home residents were more likely to die of complications from the virus compared to the height of the winter surge in 2020 – before the availability of vaccines.

Lastly, the report found over 730,000 nursing home residents have recovered from COVID-19.

“Our heroic long-term caregivers never wavered from our commitment to our residents during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of AHCA/NCAL. “Nursing homes should be recognized for their efforts during this once-in-a-lifetime global crisis, and as we continue to focus on improving the quality of life for our residents, lawmakers and health policy officials must also work with us to implement lasting change by providing resources necessary to further enhance care.”

AHCA/NCAL said it also released a report which highlights federal data indicating the quality of care in nursing homes has risen over the past decade before the pandemic. It said the two quality reports underscore the significant strides providers have made and the continued commitment to better the lives of residents – no matter the challenges providers face.

To read the full Nursing Home Quality Improvement During COVID report, click HERE.

Copyright 2022 WIBW. All rights reserved.

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Select Kroger pharmacies join national “Test to Treat” COVID-19 Initiative

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CARMEL, Ind. — A spokesperson for Kroger says 12 locations are now ready to participate in the Biden Administration’s “Test to Treat” initiative.

“Any store that has the “Little Clinic” sign with the pharmacy next door, basically,” said Eric Halvorson, a Kroger spokesperson.

White House officials announced the “Test to Treat” program earlier this month during President Biden’s State of the Union address. Back then, officials had said hundreds of COVID-19 treatment pills would be shipped out to pharmacies nationwide by the end of March.

“This is something that was created by the federal government and medical experts who were saying we needed another option to reduce the spread of COVID,” said Halvorson. “We’re making it available as quickly as we can to as many people as we can.”

Friday, Halvorson said select locations had finally received enough supplies to launch the program in their stores.

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That means Hoosiers can now go to a participating Kroger location, get a rapid COVID test, and then immediately get a COVID-19 treatment pill if they are eligible and their result comes back positive.

“If they have symptoms, they can come in and find out: Are they sick? Do they need something to reduce the severity? Because that’s ultimately another element of this is to make sure that the people who have the greatest risk of a severe condition get the treatment they need,” said Halvorson.

All 12 participating Kroger locations will carry either the Pfizer or the Merck COVID-19 treatment pill.

“That will be up to what’s delivered to the pharmacy. And everything we’re seeing right now indicates we will have plenty of supply. No reason to indicate that we would have to worry about any of that,” said Halvorson.

Officials with Kroger said only those who are considered high-risk would be eligible to get the treatment.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), conditions and factors that may place someone at high risk for severe COVID include, but are not limited to:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Dementia or other neurological conditions
  • diabetes
  • Down syndrome
  • Heart conditions
  • HIV
  • Immunocompromised state
  • Mental health conditions
  • obesity
  • pregnant
  • Sick cell disease
  • tuxedo
  • Organ or blood stem cell transplant recipient
  • stroke
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • tuberculosis

“Providing the anti-viral agents through our Kroger pharmacy is another way that we can help reduce the spread of COVID and fight it in a different way to make people healthier and safer from the pandemic,” said Halvorson. “We just want to make sure that people have access to another treatment, another option to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors.”

Halvorson said he strongly recommends Hoosiers call ahead to check the availability of their store before they arrive. He also urged suspected patients to book an appointment online in advance.

Lastly, if you are unable to make it in for an appointment in person, Halvorson said Kroger is also offering virtual appointments.

“If somebody isn’t able to make it into the clinic, they can go to Kroger Health online and do a telehealth visit. There will be an expert on the other end of the screen who can guide them through doing the test at home and then they would be advised about getting a prescription from there,” said Halvorson.

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Covid-19 Cases, Treatments and Omicron News: Live Updates

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Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

The surge of Covid cases across China, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, is straining hospitals and prompting lockdowns of neighborhoods in Shanghai, which until recently had been held up as a crown jewel in the government’s strategy for fighting the pandemic.

Shanghai, China’s largest city, has seen few cases until recently. Now, it is reporting more than 1,500 a day, and many residents are expressing anguish and dismay about China’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus.

On Friday, anger and grief welled up online after a Shanghai hospital confirmed reports that a nurse who worked there, Zhou Shengni, had died from an asthma attack after finding the doors of its emergency department shut because of Covid restrictions.

“Due to pandemic prevention needs, the emergency department of our hospital’s southern campus had been temporarily closed,” Shanghai East Hospital said on its website. Ms. Zhou’s family rushed her to another hospital, but she died late Wednesday after “attempts to save her failed,” Shanghai East said.

“Just think, this happened in Shanghai, and it was a medical worker treated like this,” read one of many comments about Ms. Zhou’s death on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform. “What about regular folks? Not just in Shanghai, but other parts too.”

The outbreak has fanned a rising debate in China over whether the government should rethink its stringent “zero Covid” strategy of eliminating all infections with relentless force, rather than finding a way to cope with higher levels of infection, as most countries have.

But officials across China have given no indications that the government is reworking its strategy. Instead, they insist that any easing of restrictions could exacerbate the surge of infections and further strain the medical system.

“We hope that everyone slows down their life at this time, cutting down on outings and moving around,” Wu Jinglei, the director of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference on Thursday. “Pandemic prevention in our city has entered the most critical stage.”

On Friday, Shanghai’s health commission reported that it had identified 1,609 Covid cases the previous day, 1,580 of which were asymptomatic. China has recorded over 29,000 cases so far in March. That represents a significant spike for the country, which has kept cases low since quashing the world’s first outbreak, which began in the city of Wuhan, in 2020.

The current outbreak has strained Shanghai’s medical system as hospitals and isolation hotels are crowded with patients, residents have said on social media. The city government has started issuing a daily list of hospital clinics that have suspended outpatient and elective treatments and surgeries in order to cope with the Covid cases.

Zhang Wenhong, one of Shanghai’s leading infectious disease experts, told residents on Thursday to be patient while the authorities worked to curb the outbreak.

“All of a sudden medical resources are under strain” in Shanghai, Dr. Zhang wrote in a long post on Weibo. “If we don’t counter its speed with our own, we won’t have a chance to beat the Omicron race,” he wrote, adding that the government would need to ramp up its vaccination campaign.

Beneath his post, many commenters insisted that China rethink its approach to the virus.

“Exhausting social resources, degrading the quality of life and existence, dragging down economic development and urban vitality — where’s the sense in this pandemic prevention,” one commenter wrote. “The zero-infection strategy needs thinking over.”

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