Category Archives: Health

Study: Fossil fuel air pollution kills one in five


The fossil fuels we consume to maintain our modern industrial world aren’t just sending global temperatures soaring; they’re literally killing us, according to a new scientific study.

From the Independent:

Air pollution from fossil fuels could account for nearly one in five deaths globally, a new study suggests.

The research finds air pollution from fossil fuel burning accounted for around 10 million premature deaths in 2012 – with China and India seeing the largest number of lives cut short.

The number of deaths associated with air pollution from fossil fuels fell to 8.7 million in 2018, the study estimates, as a result of significant improvements to air quality in China. This figure represents around 18 per cent of the total number of deaths recorded in 2018, the researchers say.

Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study focuses specifically on deaths attributable to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution.

“PM2.5 can penetrate deep into our lungs,” Karn Vohra, study lead author and a PhD student in environmental health sciences at University of Birmingham, told The Independent. 

Corporate capture of agriculture and its woes


As with ao much else in life, agriculture, perhaps most revolutionary force in the evolution of modern civilization, is now controlled by a handful of corporate giants.

And therein lies the rub.

From Farm Aid:

A handful of corporations control our food from farm to fork. Their unbridled power grants them increasing political influence over the rules that govern our food system and allows them to manipulate the marketplace – pushing down the prices paid to family farmers and driving them out of business. For eaters, extreme consolidation leaves fewer choices in the grocery aisle and higher prices, while corporate-written policies are sparking growing food safety concerns and less transparency in the marketplace. In sum, our corporate controlled food system damages rural communities, local economies, public health and the soil and water needed to sustain food production.

U.S. agriculture suffers from abnormally high levels of concentration, meaning just a handful of corporations control nearly all of our food production, processing, and distribution In a healthy economy, multiple firms can sell their goods to multiple buyers in an open, competitive market.

Most sectors of the U.S. economy have concentration ratios around 40%, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40% of the market. If the concentration ratio is above 40%, economists believe competition is threatened and market abuses are more likely to occur: the higher the number, the bigger the threat. Almost every sector in agriculture is well above these levels.

Unchecked corporate power distorts markets and leaves farmers and ranchers vulnerable to abuse and unfair practices. Because farmers rely on both buyers and sellers for their business, concentrated markets squeeze them at both ends.

Big Agra’s power destroys lives

For years, Monsanto was America’s premiere agricultural multinational, a creator a, among other things, Agent Orange, the carcinogenic, birth defect-inducing weed killers the U.S. military sprayed over Vietnam to deny ground cover to insurgents fighting the American-backed government of South Vietnam.

But the bulk of the profit came form creating crop genetically engineered to resist patented Monsanto herbicides that killed everything else to ensure weed-free fields.

Ignacio Chapela, photograph by esnl.

Research by UC Berkeley microbiologist [and friend of the blog] Ignacio Chapela [previously] and David Quist, established that genes inserted in corn seeds by profit-hungry corporations could spread to the native cultivars, the fountain from which all modern varieties of maize have sprung.

But publication of those findings resulted in a campaign of ad hominem attacks on Chapela and Quist backed by covert Monsanto funding led to an unprecedented retraction by Nature of their published findings, followed by the rejection of tenure for Chapela, despite the overwhelming endorsement of his fellow faculty.

After protests that we covered while reporting for the Berkeley Daily Planet and a subsequent lawsuit, Chapela gained tenure. And it is now widely accepted in plant biology that genes can jump from genetically engineered crops across species lines into other plants — a phenomenon resulting in rapid spread of so-called superweeds resistant to the same herbicides the GMO crops were designed to withstand.

Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide most of Monsanto’s genetically modified crops were designed to resist, was initially touted as safe, though it’s since been linked to some cancers, drawing fierce backlash in the U.S. and Europe as well as costly lawsuits.

Monsanto, one of America’s oldest companies, threw in the towel in 2018, selling itself to German giant Bayer for $63 in addition to an agreement to pay over $12 billion dollars in litigation damages incurred by suits over the controversial plant killer.

A deep look at corporate agricultural power

Early in life I learned there were three basic requisites of life in affition to the air we breather and the waterwe drink: Food, clothing, and shelter, always taught in that order.

Food is the stuff of life, and the earliest form of sacrifice to the gods.

Without it, we can live only a few weeks.

And while early humans ate from the bounty of nature, the discovery of agriculture changed the way we live, leading to the rise of villages, cities, states, and formal government.

But agriculture changed with the first the adoptiion of slavery, and later with the instruments and machines produced y the Industrial Revolution, enabling the creation of massive corporations devoted to both supplying the tools and seeds for farming and buying, processing, and marketing the crops farms produced.

Monsanto was just one example of the corporate Big Agra, a cartel comprising a handful of corporations controlling much of the world’s foods.

In an examination of Big Agra for the plain language, open access academic journal The Conversation, Philip H. Howard, Associate Professor of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, and Mary Hendrickson, Associate Professor of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia, loo at 21st Century corporate agriculture and its costs to us, we who live off its bounty:

Corporate concentration in the US food system makes food more expensive and less accessible for many Americans

Agribusiness executives and government policymakers often praise the U.S. food system for producing abundant and affordable food. In fact, however, food costs are rising, and shoppers in many parts of the U.S. have limited access to fresh, healthy products.

This isn’t just an academic argument. Even before the current pandemic, millions of people in the U.S. went hungry. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that over 35 million people were “food insecure,” meaning they did not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Now food banks are struggling to feed people who have lost jobs and income thanks to COVID-19.

As rural sociologists, we study changes in food systems and sustainability. We’ve closely followed corporate consolidation of food production, processing and distribution in the U.S. over the past 40 years. In our view, this process is making food less available or affordable for many Americans.

Fewer, larger companies

Consolidation has placed key decisions about our nation’s food system in the hands of a few large companies, giving them outsized influence to lobby policymakers, direct food and industry research and influence media coverage. These corporations also have enormous power to make decisions about what food is produced how, where and by whom, and who gets to eat it. We’ve tracked this trend across the globe.

It began in the 1980s with mergers and acquisitions that left a few large firms dominating nearly every step of the food chain. Among the largest are retailer Walmart, food processor Nestlé and seed/chemical firm Bayer.

Between 1996 and 2013 Monsanto acquired more than 70 seed companies, before the firm was itself acquired by competing seed/chemical firm Bayer in 2018. Click on the image to enlarge.

Some corporate leaders have abused their power – for example, by allying with their few competitors to fix prices. In 2020 Christopher Lischewski, the former president and CEO of Bumblebee Foods, was convicted of conspiracy to fix prices of canned tuna. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison and fined US$100,000.

In the same year, chicken processor Pilgrim’s Pride pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges and was fined $110.5 million. Meatpacking company JBS settled a $24.5 million pork price-fixing lawsuit, and farmers won a class action settlement against peanut-shelling companies Olam and Birdsong.

Industry consolidation is hard to track. Many subsidiary firms often are controlled by one parent corporation and engage in “contract packing,” in which a single processing plant produces identical foods that are then sold under dozens of different brands – including labels that compete directly against each other.

Recalls ordered in response to food-borne disease outbreaks have revealed the broad scope of contracting relationships. Shutdowns at meatpacking plants due to COVID-19 infections among workers have shown how much of the U.S. food supply flows through a small number of facilities.

With consolidation, large supermarket chains have closed many urban and rural stores. This process has left numerous communities with limited food selections and high prices – especially neighborhoods with many low-income, Black or Latino households.

In 2006, the Community Grocery Store in the small town of Walsh, Colorado, avoided going out of business by selling stock to residents. The store is still in business in 2021.

Widespread hunger

As unemployment has risen during the pandemic, so has the number of hungry Americans. Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, estimates that up to 50 million people – including 17 million children – may currently be experiencing food insecurity. Nationwide, demand at food banks grew by over 48% during the first half of 2020.

Simultaneously, disruptions in food supply chains forced farmers to dump milk down the drain, leave produce rotting in fields and euthanize livestock that could not be processed at slaughterhouses. We estimate that between March and May of 2020, farmers disposed of somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 hogs and 2 million chickens – more than 30,000 tons of meat.

What role does concentration play in this situation? Research shows that retail concentration correlates with higher prices for consumers. It also shows that when food systems have fewer production and processing sites, disruptions can have major impacts on supply.

Consolidation makes it easier for any industry to maintain high prices. With few players, companies simply match each other’s price increases rather than competing with them. Concentration in the U.S. food system has raised the costs of everything from breakfast cereal and coffee to beer.

The combined share of sales for the top four firms (CR4) for selected U.S. commodities, food processing/manufacturing and distribution/retail channels. Family Farm Action Alliance, CC BY-ND

As the pandemic roiled the nation’s food system through 2020, consumer food costs rose by 3.4%, compared to 0.4% in 2018 and 0.9% in 2019. We expect retail prices to remain high because they are “sticky,” with a tendency to increase rapidly but to decline more slowly and only partially.

We also believe there could be further supply disruptions. A few months into the pandemic, meat shelves in some U.S. stores sat empty, while some of the nation’s largest processors were exporting record amounts of meat to China. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., cited this imbalance as evidence of the need to crack down on what they called “monopolistic practices” by Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS and Smithfield, which dominate the U.S. meatpacking industry.

Tyson Foods responded that a large portion of its exports were “cuts of meat or portions of the animal that are not desired by” Americans. Store shelves are no longer empty for most cuts of meat, but processing plants remain overbooked, with many scheduling well into 2021.

Toward a more equitable food system

In our view, a resilient food system that feeds everyone can be achieved only through a more equitable distribution of power. This in turn will require action in areas ranging from contract law and antitrust policy to workers’ rights and economic development. Farmers, workers, elected officials and communities will have to work together to fashion alternatives and change policies.

The goal should be to produce more locally sourced food with shorter and less-centralized supply chains. Detroit offers an example. Over the past 50 years, food producers there have established more than 1,900 urban farms and gardens. A planned community-owned food co-op will serve the city’s North End, whose residents are predominantly low- and moderate-income and African American.

The federal government can help by adapting farm support programs to target farms and businesses that serve local and regional markets. State and federal incentives can build community- or cooperative-owned farms and processing and distribution businesses. Ventures like these could provide economic development opportunities while making the food system more resilient.

In our view, the best solutions will come from listening to and working with the people most affected: sustainable farmers, farm and food service workers, entrepreneurs and cooperators – and ultimately, the people whom they feed.

Climate-fueled wildfires threaten mental health


As we discovered soon after we first started reporting in the Golden State, three stories are perennials on the West Coast, catastrophes certain to recur throughout a journalist’s career: Wildfires, earthquakes, and mudslides.

And of the three, it’s wildfires that are getting worse as the wildfire season has lengthened by nearly a month since the 1960s as climate change makes California hotter and drier.

Consider this telling graphic from the 4 December San Francisco Chronicle:

Wildfires spur chronic mental health woes

For various newspapers where I’ve worked, I’ve had many opportunities to interview people impacted by disasters, and the one thing most of them talk about after recounting their relief at surviving as a deep sense of loss, a loss inclusive of both material possessions and psychological security.

The loss of photo albums and mementos is literally a loss of the past, and a loss of the sense of security that comes with the loss of home and all its comforting associations can be devastating.

And now a new study reveals that, for many, the psychic loss from California wildfires continues long after the flames have been extinguished,

From the University of California — San Diego:

Poorer Mental Health Smolders After Deadly, Devastating Wildfire

In 2018, a faulty electric transmission line ignited the Camp Fire in Northern California, ultimately consuming 239 square miles and several communities, including the town of Paradise, which was 95 percent destroyed. At least 85 people died.

Structures have been rebuilt, but some things are worse. In a paper published February 2, 2021 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, scientists at University of California San Diego, with colleagues elsewhere, describe chronic mental health problems among some residents who experienced the Camp Fire in varying degrees.

Direct exposure to large-scale fires significantly increased the risk for mental health disorders, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, the scientists wrote.

“We looked for symptoms of these particular disorders because emotionally traumatic events in one’s lifetime are known to trigger them,” said senior author Jyoti Mishra, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of the Neural Engineering and Translation Labs at UC San Diego. Pre-existing childhood trauma or sleep disturbances were found to exacerbate mental health problems, but factors like personal resilience and mindfulness appeared to reduce them.

“We show climate change as a chronic mental health stressor. It is not like the pandemic, in that it is here for a period of time and can be mitigated with vaccines and other measures. Climate change is our future, and we need immediate action to slow down the changes being wreaked upon the planet, and on our own wellbeing.”

Mishra, with collaborators at California State University, Chico and University of South Carolina, conducted a variety of mental health assessments on residents who had been exposed to the Camp Fire six months after the wildfire and those much farther away. Roughly two-thirds of those tested were residents who lived in or around Chico, a Northern California city located approximately 10 to 15 miles of the center of the Camp Fire. The remaining third were San Diego residents living approximately 600 miles from the wildfire and presumably unimpacted.

The researchers found that the Northern California residents experienced measurable increases in PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders, which were worsened by proximity and exposure to the Camp Fire or by previous adverse experiences involving childhood trauma, such as abuse and neglect.

Chronic mental health problems fanned by the wild fire were ameliorated, however, by physical exercise, mindfulness and emotional support, all of which may contribute to personal resilience and the ability to bounce back after stressful life events.

The worrisome thing is that stressful life events like the Camp Fire are becoming more frequent, due to climate change, said study co-author Veerabhadaran Ramanathan, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

“Since the 1970s, fire extent in California has increased by 400 percent,” said Ramanathan. “While a faulty transmission line may have lit the Camp Fire in 2018, it is part of an overall disastrous multi-decadal trend fueled by human-caused climate warming. Through evaporative drying of the air, the soil and the trees, warming acts as a force multiplier. By 2030, the warming is likely to amplify by 50 percent. This surprising, if not shocking, study identifies mental illness as a grave risk for the coming decades.”

Not just in California, but the world, write the authors.

“Unchecked climate change projected for the latter half of this century may severely impact the mental wellbeing of the global population. We must find ways to foster individual resiliency,” wrote the study authors.

Co-authors include: Saria Silveira and Gillian Grennan,

Now add the impact of a lethal pandemic, and we suspect conditions are significantly worse than for the period covered by the study.

Study: Climate change role in COVID proposed


Did climate change play a role in spawning the coronavirus pandemic?

Quite possibly, according to a new study from Cambridge university which examines the role of global warming in driving populations of bats, known spreaders of coronaviruses, into densely populated South China.

A map from their study shows major shifts in bat populations sine the early years of the 20th Century [click on the image to enlarge]:

Estimated increase in the local number of bat species due to shifts in their geographical ranges driven by climate change between the 1901-1930 and 1990-2019 period. The zoomed-in area represents the likely spatial origin of the bat-borne ancestors of SARS-CoV-1 and 2.

From Cambridge University:

Climate change may have driven the emergence of SARS-CoV-2

A new study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment provides the first evidence of a mechanism by which climate change could have played a direct role in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study has revealed large-scale changes in the type of vegetation in the southern Chinese Yunnan province, and adjacent regions in Myanmar and Laos, over the last century. Climatic changes including increases in temperature, sunlight, and atmospheric carbon dioxide – which affect the growth of plants and trees – have changed natural habitats from tropical shrubland to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland. This created a suitable environment for many bat species that predominantly live in forests.

The number of coronaviruses in an area is closely linked to the number of different bat species present. The study found that an additional 40 bat species have moved into the southern Chinese Yunnan province in the past century, harbouring around 100 more types of bat-borne coronavirus. This ‘global hotspot’ is the region where genetic data suggests SARS-CoV-2 may have arisen. 

“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in the southern Chinese Yunnan province suitable for more bat species,” said Dr Robert Beyer, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and first author of the study, who has recently taken up a European research fellowship at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany.

He added: “Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

To get their results, the researchers created a map of the world’s vegetation as it was a century ago, using records of temperature, precipitation, and cloud cover. Then they used information on the vegetation requirements of the world’s bat species to work out the global distribution of each species in the early 1900s. Comparing this to current distributions allowed them to see how bat ‘species richness’, the number of different species, has changed across the globe over the last century due to climate change.

“As climate change altered habitats, species left some areas and moved into others – taking their viruses with them. This not only altered the regions where viruses are present, but most likely allowed for new interactions between animals and viruses, causing more harmful viruses to be transmitted or evolve,” said Beyer.

The world’s bat population carries around 3,000 different types of coronavirus, with each bat species harbouring an average of 2.7 coronaviruses – most without showing symptoms. An increase in the number of bat species in a particular region, driven by climate change, may increase the likelihood that a coronavirus harmful to humans is present, transmitted, or evolves there.

Most coronaviruses carried by bats cannot jump into humans. But several coronaviruses known to infect humans are very likely to have originated in bats, including three that can cause human fatalities: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) CoV, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) CoV-1 and CoV-2. 

The region identified by the study as a hotspot for a climate-driven increase in bat species richness is also home to pangolins, which are suggested to have acted as intermediate hosts to SARS-CoV-2. The virus is likely to have jumped from bats to these animals, which were then sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan – where the initial human outbreak occurred. 

The researchers echo calls from previous studies that urge policy-makers to acknowledge the role of climate change in outbreaks of viral diseases, and to address climate change as part of COVID-19 economic recovery programmes. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous social and economic damage. Governments must seize the opportunity to reduce health risks from infectious diseases by taking decisive action to mitigate climate change,” said Professor Andrea Manica in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was involved in the study. 

“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions,” added Professor Camilo Mora at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, who initiated the project.

The researchers emphasised the need to limit the expansion of urban areas, farmland, and hunting grounds into natural habitat to reduce contact between humans and disease-carrying animals.

The study showed that over the last century, climate change has also driven increases in the number of bat species in regions around Central Africa, and scattered patches in Central and South America.

This research was supported by the European Research Council.

Native Americans hardest hit by COVID


In a nation stolen from it’s original inhabitants by self-righteous European misfits armed with imported diseases and death-dealing firearms, it should come as no surprise that peoples of those original Americans should be paying the deadliest price of the coronavirus pandemic.

From the Guardian:

Covid is killing Native Americans at a faster rate than any other community in the United States, shocking new figures reveal.

American Indians and Alaskan Natives are dying at almost twice the rate of white Americans, according to analysis by APM Research Lab shared exclusively with the Guardian.

Nationwide one in every 475 Native Americans has died from Covid since the start of the pandemic, compared with one in every 825 white Americans and one in every 645 Black Americans.

The true death toll is undoubtedly significantly higher as multiple states and cities provide patchy or no data on Native Americans lost to Covid. Of those that do, communities in Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas have been the hardest hit.

The findings are part of the Lab’s Color of Coronavirus project, and provide the clearest evidence to date that Indian Country has suffered terribly and disproportionately during the first year of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Native Americans have suffered 211 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 121 white Americans per 100,000.

Brain-damaging metals found in baby foods


A new Congressional report has found alarming levels of heavy metal contamination in the nation’s most popular baby foods, a fact known to by suppressed by the Trump administration.

From Reuters:

U.S. congressional investigators found “dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals” in certain baby foods that could cause neurological damage, a House Oversight subcommittee said in a report released on Thursday.

The panel examined baby foods made by Nurture Inc, Hain Celestial Group Inc, Beech-Nut Nutrition and Gerber, it said, adding that it was “greatly concerned” that Walmart Inc, Campbell Soup Co and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The report said internal company standards “permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and documents revealed that the manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels.”

Campbell said in a statement on its website that its products are safe and cited the lack of a current FDA standard for heavy metals in baby food. The company said it thought it had been “full partners” in the study with congressional researchers.

The Washington Post added more:

“Exposure to these toxic heavy metals affects babies’ brain development and nervous system, it affects their behavior, permanently decreases their IQ and, if you want to boil it down to dollars, their lifetime earnings potential,” says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked on lead in food for 25 years.

The committee launched the investigation after learning of high levels of arsenic in some baby foods in a study by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of nonprofit organizations aimed at measurably reducing babies’ exposure to toxic chemicals.

“What they did was take food off store shelves and test it. We said we should go straight to the companies and ask for their materials,” [subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi D-Illinois] Krishnamoorthi said. “For the companies that didn’t participate, it raises the concern that they might possess information that indicates the toxic metals in their foods might be even higher than their competitors.”

Some alarming words from the report

Here’s the conclusion of Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury, the report from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform:

The Subcommittee’s investigation proves that commercial baby foods contain dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium. These toxic heavy metals pose serious health risks to babies and toddlers. Manufacturers knowingly sell these products to unsuspecting parents, in spite of internal company standards and test results, and without any warning labeling whatsoever.

Last year, the Trump administration ignored new information contained in a secret industry presentation to federal regulators about toxic heavy metals in baby foods. On August 1, 2019, FDA received a secret slide presentation from Hain, the maker of Earth’s Best Organic baby food, which revealed that finished baby food products contain even higher levels of toxic heavy metals than estimates based on individual ingredient test results. One heavy metal in particular, inorganic arsenic, was repeatedly found to be present at 28-93% higher levels than estimated.

The time is now for FDA to determine whether there is any safe exposure level for babies to inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury, to require manufacturers to meet those levels, and to inform consumers through labels.

Teresa Murray, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog, issued the following statement:

“This is unconscionable on two levels: First, companies that manufacture baby food should adhere to the highest of high standards. Second, we expect the federal government to adopt stricter standards to protect babies and the rest of us from food-borne dangers, and do a better job of alerting the public when there is a possible problem.

“The Food and Drug Administration knows from its own research these toxic metals are harmful to everyone, but especially babies and children. It’s time for the FDA to step up and set meaningful standards for heavy metals in baby food, and also require manufacturers to disclose on food labels how much toxic, heavy metals are in their baby food. Of course, baby food producers should ban toxic ingredients even before they’re forced to do so.”

Rice presents the greatest threat

The New York Times noted that the highest levels of heavy metal were found in rice products and added some advice:

Parents can protect babies by not feeding them infant rice cereal or other products like snacks made with rice flour. Healthy-sounding snacks like Nurture Happy Baby’s apple and broccoli puffs, or its strawberry and beet puffs, contained high levels of arsenic, according to the report.

Though rice cereal is often one of a baby’s first foods, both white and brown rice contain levels of inorganic arsenic that are up to six times higher than some other cereals made from grains like barley, oatmeal, organic quinoa, wheat or buckwheat, according to the nonprofit group Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

The group issued a report in 2019 on heavy metals in baby foods. It also recommends that parents not use teething biscuits that can contain heavy metals and cause tooth decay.

Parents should not give babies juice to drink, the group says, and should provide a variety of fruits and vegetables, so as to minimize exposure to carrots and sweet potatoes, which may be high in lead and cadmium.

We can’t help but wonder if a lot of anti-regulatory Republicans will change what they’re feeding the babies?

We suspect that, despite their ceaseless demonization of regulations, a smidgen of ommon sense remains when it comes to those nearest and dearest to them.

Rich nations get vaccinated, poor lands suffer


Following a sad historic precedent, the world’s richest nations are hoarding COVID vaccines, while poor nations struggle with the ravages of a global pandemic.

A sobering report in Der Spiegel looks in depth at vaccine inequality, and the hypocrisy of their gestures to the suffering lands of the global South, finding two lessons in their research:

First: Wealthy nations like Canada are perfectly willing to share their vaccines, but on terms set by the rich. Second: Once again, it might not be the people who most urgently need a remedy who get it first, but rather those who are willing to pay the most for it.

The coronavirus isn’t the first recent pandemic that has exposed inequality between the rich and the poor. During the deadliest phase of the HIV pandemic in the mid-2000s, 2 million people were dying per year, most of them in southern Africa. It took many years for life-saving drugs to make their way to the continent. One of the reasons: The Western pharmaceutical companies that developed the medications are eager for profits, and those drugs frequently cost as much as 10,000 a year per patient 20 years ago.

H1N1 followed in 2009. A swine flu vaccine was available just seven months after the first outbreak. But rich countries bought up the drug. The pandemic had already ended by the time poorer countries got access to the vaccine.

Things were supposed to be fairer this time. The international community established Covax, a consortium of private and government funders to distribute the vaccine. Under the tutelage of WHO, the Gavi vaccine alliance and the research alliance Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Covax began its work in April 2020. The aim is to deliver 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021. Almost every country on the planet has joined the initiative, with the United States as the most recent addition. “No one is safe, unless everyone is safe,” reads the initiative’s slogan.

But nine months later, there are few signs of solidarity. According to the Duke Global Health Institute, 16 percent of the world’s population has secured 60 percent of the available vaccines. Instead of relying solely on Covax, the European Union, Britain and Canada have ordered large quantities directly from manufacturers, thus blocking the market for now. Prices are rising. And now that the vaccination campaigns in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere are being met with setbacks, few are particularly concerned about sharing at the moment.

AG: N.Y. fudged nursing home COVID deaths total


It wasn’t just the Republican Trump administration that misled the public about the true scope of the coronavirus pandemic; the Democratic administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did something very similar, according to a scathing new report from that state’s Attorney General.

From the Associated Press:

New York may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents by thousands, the state attorney general charged in a report Thursday that dealt a blow to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s oft-repeated claims that his state is doing better than others in protecting its most vulnerable.

The 76-page report found an undercount of more than 50%, backing up the findings of an Associated Press investigation last year that focused on the fact that New York is one of the only states in the nation that count residents who died on nursing home property and not those who later died in hospitals.

Such an undercount would mean the state’s current official tally of 8,711 nursing home deaths to the virus is actually more than 13,000, boosting New York from No. 6 to highest in the nation.

“While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves,” Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

The report from a fellow Democratic official undercut Cuomo’s frequent argument that the criticism of his handling of the virus in nursing homes was part of a political “blame game,” and it was a vindication for thousands of families who believed their loved ones were being omitted from counts to advance the governor’s image as a pandemic hero.

Politics is, after all, a numbers game, and it’s a game played on both sides of the Red/Blue divide.

Left and right both protest Bolsonaro over COVID


As President, Donald Trump had a lot in common with his Brazilian counterpart: Both are hard Right nationalists given to inflammatory rhetoric; both downplayed the coronavirus; and both led nations that became leading global COVID hotspots during their administrations.

Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro remains in office, but his hold on power is slipping, evidenced by massive protests over the weekend decrying his handling of the raging pandemic.

From MercoPress:

Brazilians took the streets over the weekend calling for the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro, who is under fire for his government’s handling of COVID-19, which has raged through the country claiming more than 216,000 lives and 8,9 million contagions.

Cars with claxons paraded through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and a dozen or more other cities as other protesters marched on foot, some calling, “Get out Bolsonaro!”

Sunday’s protests were called by conservative groups that had once backed the president, while those on Saturday had come from left groupings.

Sunday protestors complained about their disappointment, and now with the situation in Manaus, capital of Amazon state, where hospitals have run out of oxygen for the interned with the virus.

However Thomaz Favaro, a political analyst at consultancy Control Risks, said Bolsonaro faces little risk of impeachment, though that could change if his allies lose a Feb. 2 vote for leadership of the lower house. “Bolsonaro’s base in congress is unstable, but it is robust,” he said, though it could be dented by the president’s flagging popularity.

What’s peculiar about these latter-day nationalist leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro is their failure to learn from history of successful fascists of the past.

Take the case of Adolf Hitler, a man who implemented massive public health campaigns, including a drive against smoking and funding for medical research on cancer cures.

Nationalist leaders cast themselves as heroes, and what could be more heroic than fighting for the health of the citizens of the nation?

But Trump and Bolsonaro are also narcissists, and admitting that a pandemic might happen on their watch, especially a pandemic that might inconvenience the masses on whose adulation they crave, would have been tantamount to an admission of weakness, of failure. And narcissists are incapable of that,

Chart of the day: A COVID death partisan divide


From the Pew Research Center, a look at COVID deaths in congressional districts, divided along the partisan divide:

From their report:

Democrats and Republicans in Congress represent dramatically different constituencies, and these differences track with the changing impact of the coronavirus outbreak over the past nine months. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to represent urban and diverse constituencies – the places hardest hit early in the pandemic.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to represent rural areas and districts with higher shares of White residents – the same places that have seen cases and deaths grow in the past three months.

While the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Democratic districts remains higher overall, new deaths have been higher on average in Republican-controlled districts since the end of July. New deaths in Republican controlled districts began increasing in mid-October while they were still falling somewhat overall in Democratically controlled districts. However, since November, deaths have been rising in both Republican and Democratic districts.

Note that the shift in death rates occurred as the Presidential race was heating up. One has to wonder if the rising deaths in Republican districts may have shifted enough votes to assure Trump’s defeat.

Pandemic work loss 4x greater than crash of 2009


From COVID-19 and the world of work, a new report from the UN’s International Labor Organization:

In terms of the pandemic’s overall impact in 2020, the new ILO annual estimates confirm that it caused massive disruptions in the world of work. In 2020, 8.8 per cent of global working hours were lost relative to the fourth quarter of 2019, equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs (assuming a 48‑hour working week). These losses were global and unprecedented.

While the disruption was global, there was substantial variation between regions. Working‑hour losses in 2020 were particularly large. These averages, which refer to all people aged 15 to 64 years, are not comparable to the full-time equivalent (FTE-48) estimates presented elsewhere in this edition of the ILO Monitor. The FTE-48 estimates refer only to employed people aged 15 and above.in Latin America and the Caribbean, Southern Europe and Southern Asia. In contrast, Eastern Asia and Central, Western and Eastern Africa experienced relatively smaller working‑hour losses, reflecting less stringent lockdown measures in these subregions.The labour market disruption in 2020 far exceeded the impact of the global financial crisis of 2009.

Over the 15 years before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average hours worked per person of working age (aged 15 to 64) fluctuated between 27 and 28 hours per week. This then dropped sharply by 2.5 hours from 27.2 hours per week in 2019 to 24.7 hours per week in 2020. In contrast, when the global financial crisis hit the labour market, average working hours declined by just 0.6 hours between 2008 and 2009. The effect of the COVID-19 shock on global working hours has therefore been approximately four times greater than that of the global financial crisis [emphasis added].

This map from the ILO shows where the losses hit hardest, with countries shaded according to the relative proportions of working hours lost to the pandemic:

More from Aljazeera:

Global labour income fell by an estimated $3.7 trillion in 2020, or 4.4 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) of 2019, according to the International Labour Organization’s report on COVID-19 and the world of work (PDF).

“Last year was a jobs crisis of unprecedented magnitude – around four times larger than what happened during the global financial crisis,” Sher Verick, head of the Employment Strategies Unit at the ILO’s Employment Policy Department, told Al Jazeera.

The ILO estimates that the global decline in employment was around 114 million in 2020 compared to 2019.

It also underscores that millions of more people suffered a substantial cut in their working hours, causing a crisis of income. In other words, while millions of workers around the world are still technically employed, their working hours have been curtailed so severely that they struggle to make ends meet and afford the basics like food and shelter.

See? Canada’s rich are just like those in the U.S.


They both act like laws aren’t made for them.

From CBC News:

The former president and CEO of a Canadian casino company and his wife are the couple accused of breaking Yukon COVID-19 rules and chartering a plane to the small community of Beaver Creek to receive doses of the Moderna vaccine. 

Rodney Baker, a 55-year-old who resigned from the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation on Sunday, and Ekaterina Baker, a 32-year-old aspiring actress, both received tickets at the Whitehorse airport on Jan. 21, according to court records. 

Yukon Community Services Minister John Streicker told CBC Monday the couple arrived in Whitehorse on Jan. 19. However, instead of completing a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period, the Bakers on Jan. 21 chartered a flight to Beaver Creek, a community of about 100 people roughly 450 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse near the Alaska border. 

There, according to Streicker, they took advantage of a mobile vaccination clinic that was administering the first doses of the Moderna vaccine to locals, claiming that they were new employees at an area motel.

The pair are accused of violating the territorial Civil Emergency Measures Act (CEMA) by failing to self-isolate and failing to adhere to entry declarations. 

COVID: Rich recover, poor get decade-long losses


As a global pandemic rages and new, even deadlier strains of the coronavirus emerge, a new report from Oxfam reals that billionaires have gained wealth during the siege, while the world’s poor will take at least a decade to recover to their pre-pandemic levels.

Their survey, based on interview with the world’s leading economists, paints a picture of a world in which class divisions deepen and women bear the harshest effects of income losses.

From Oxfam [emphases added]:

Mega-rich recoup COVID-losses in record-time yet billions will live in poverty for at least a decade

The 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months, but it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, reveals a new Oxfam report today. ‘The Inequality Virus’ [open access] is being published on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Davos Agenda’.

The report shows that COVID-19 has the potential to increase economic inequality in almost every country at once, the first time this has happened since records began over a century ago. Rising inequality means it could take at least 14 times longer for the number of people living in poverty to return to pre-pandemic levels than it took for the fortunes of the top 1,000, mostly White male, billionaires to bounce back

A new global survey of 295 economists from 79 countries, commissioned by Oxfam, reveals that 87 percent of respondents, including Jeffrey Sachs, Jayati Ghosh and Gabriel Zucman, expect an ‘increase’ or a ‘major increase’ in income inequality in their country as a result of the pandemic.

Oxfam’s report shows how the rigged economic system is enabling a super-rich elite to amass wealth in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression while billions of people are struggling to make ends meet. It reveals how the pandemic is deepening long-standing economic, racial and gender divides.

The recession is over for the richest. The world’s ten richest men have seen their combined wealth increase by half a trillion dollars since the pandemic began —more than enough to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone and to ensure no one is pushed into poverty by the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has ushered in the worst job crisis in over 90 years with hundreds of millions of people now underemployed or out of work.

Women are hardest hit, yet again. Globally, women are overrepresented in the low-paid precarious professions that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. If women were represented at the same rate as men in these sectors, 112 million women would no longer be at high risk of losing their incomes or jobs. Women also make up roughly 70 percent of the global health and social care workforce − essential but often poorly paid jobs that put them at greater risk from COVID-19.

Inequality is costing lives. Afro-descendants in Brazil are 40 percent more likely to die of COVID-19 than White people, while nearly 22,000 Black and Hispanic people in the United States would still be alive if they experienced the same COVID-19 mortality rates as their White counterparts. Infection and mortality rates are higher in poorer areas of countries such as France, India, and Spain while England’s poorest regions experience mortality rates double that of the richest areas.

Fairer economies are the key to a rapid economic recovery from COVID-19. A temporary tax on excess profits made by the 32 global corporations that have gained the most during the pandemic could have raised $104 billion in 2020. This is enough to provide unemployment benefits for all workers and financial support for all children and elderly people in low- and middle-income countries.

Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said: “We stand to witness the greatest rise in inequality since records began. The deep divide between the rich and poor is proving as deadly as the virus.”

Rigged economies are funnelling wealth to a rich elite who are riding out the pandemic in luxury, while those on the frontline of the pandemic —shop assistants, healthcare workers, and market vendors— are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table.

Women and marginalized racial and ethnic groups are bearing the brunt of this crisis. They are more likely to be pushed into poverty, more likely to go hungry, and more likely to be excluded from healthcare.”

Billionaires fortunes rebounded as stock markets recovered despite continued recession in the real economy. Their total wealth hit $11.95 trillion in December 2020, equivalent to G20 governments’ total COVID-19 recovery spending. The road to recovery will be much longer for people who were already struggling pre-COVID-19. When the virus struck over half of workers in poor countries were living in poverty, and three-quarters of workers globally had no access to social protections like sick pay or unemployment benefits.

“Extreme inequality is not inevitable, but a policy choice. Governments around the world must seize this opportunity to build more equal, more inclusive economies that end poverty and protect the planet,” added Bucher.

“The fight against inequality must be at the heart of economic rescue and recovery efforts. Governments must ensure everyone has access to a COVID-19 vaccine and financial support if they lose their job. They must invest in public services and low carbon sectors to create millions of new jobs and ensure everyone has access to a decent education, health, and social care, and they must ensure the richest individuals and corporations contribute their fair share of tax to pay for it.

“These measures must not be band-aid solutions for desperate times but a ‘new normal’ in economies that work for the benefit of all people, not just the privileged few.”

COVID-related loss of smell nearly kills Texas family


A Texas family discovered another way coronavirus can kill you, and the only reason they survived is because one family member hadn’t caught COVID.

From NBC News:

A Texas teenager pulled her family to safety after a raging blaze tore through their home in Waco, Texas, last week.

Bianca Rivera, 19, quickly evacuated her family, who didn’t realize the house was on fire after losing their sense of smell due to Covid-19. Rivera, who didn’t have the virus, said she was awake early in the morning on Jan. 15 when she smelled burning plastic.

“I ran out of my room, and I was hit with a bunch of smoke in our hallway, and as soon as I turned around, the whole front of the house was in flames,” Rivera told NBC News. “That’s when I knew I had to get everyone out.”

Some 86 percent of patients with mild forms of Covid-19 lose their sense of taste and/or smell, compared with 4 to 7 percent of those with moderate to severe cases, according to a study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine.

And if you think that even if you’ve lost your sense of smell, you’ll be about the hear the alarm from your smoke detector, don’t rest easy.

COVID can also reduce your ability to hear.

Trump’s despicable healthcare pardons


As President, Donald Trump did everything he could to corrupt the nation’s healthcare system, nowhere more flagrantly than in his denigration of and lies about the deadliness of the COVID pandemic, which he consistently downplayed because it didn’t look good for his reelection chances.

By treating the illness as a “mild flu” and refusing to wear a mask, the one basic precautionary measure aimed at stemming the rate of infections, he spurred on massive anti-mask protests which, naturally, proved to be hotbeds of infection.

So given his own role as the nation’s preeminent healthcare fraudster, it comes as no surprise that some of Trump’s last-minute pardons were handed out to some of the country’s most outrageous healthcare criminals.

From Kaiser Health News:

Trump’s Pardons Included Health Care Execs Behind Massive Frauds

At the last minute, President Donald Trump granted pardons to several individuals convicted in huge Medicare swindles that prosecutors alleged often harmed or endangered elderly and infirm patients while fleecing taxpayers.

“These aren’t just technical financial crimes. These were major, major crimes,” said Louis Saccoccio, chief executive officer of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, an advocacy group.

The list of some 200 Trump pardons or commutations, most issued as he vacated the White House this week, included at least seven doctors or health care entrepreneurs who ran discredited health care enterprises, from nursing homes to pain clinics. One is a former doctor and California hospital owner embroiled in a massive workers’ compensation kickback scheme that prosecutors alleged prompted more than 14,000 dubious spinal surgeries. Another was in prison after prosecutors accused him of ripping off more than $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid through nursing homes and other senior care facilities, among the largest frauds in U.S. history.

“All of us are shaking our heads with these insurance fraud criminals just walking free,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. The White House argued all deserved a second chance. One man was said to have devoted himself to prayer, while another planned to resume charity work or other community service. Others won clemency at the request of prominent Republican ex-attorneys general or others who argued their crimes were victimless or said critical errors by prosecutors had led to improper convictions.

Trump commuted the sentence of former nursing home magnate Philip Esformes in late December. He was serving a 20-year sentence for bilking $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid. An FBI agent called him “a man driven by almost unbounded greed.” Prosecutors said that Esformes used proceeds from his crimes to make a series of “extravagant purchases, including luxury automobiles and a $360,000 watch.”

Esformes also bribed the basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania “in exchange for his assistance in gaining admission for his son into the university,” according to prosecutors.

Fraud investigators had cheered the conviction. In 2019, the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association gave its annual award to the team responsible for making the case. Saccoccio said that such cases are complex and that investigators sometimes spend years and put their “heart and soul” into them. “They get a conviction and then they see this happen. It has to be somewhat demoralizing.”

Tim McCormack, a Maine lawyer who represented a whistleblower in a 2007 kickback case involving Esformes, said these cases “are not just about stealing money.”

“This is about betraying their duty to their patients. This is about using their vulnerable, sick and trusting patients as an ATM to line their already rich pockets,” he said. He added: “These pardons send the message that if you are rich and connected and powerful enough, then you are above the law.”

The Trump White House saw things much differently.

“While in prison, Mr. Esformes, who is 52, has been devoted to prayer and repentance and is in declining health,” the White House pardon statement said.

The White House said the action was backed by former Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey, while Ken Starr, one of Trump’s lawyers in his first impeachment trial, filed briefs in support of his appeal claiming prosecutorial misconduct related to violating attorney-client privilege.

Trump also commuted the sentence of Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who had served four years in federal prison for fraud. That case also ensnared U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was acquitted in the case and helped seek the action for his friend, according to the White House.

Prosecutors had accused Melgen of endangering patients with needless injections to treat macular degeneration and other unnecessary medical care, describing his actions as “truly horrific” and “barbaric and inhumane,” according to a court filing.

Melgen “not only defrauded the Medicare program of tens of millions of dollars, but he abused his patients — who were elderly, infirm, and often disabled — in the process,” prosecutors wrote.

These treatments “involved sticking needles in their eyes, burning their retinas with a laser, and injecting dyes into their bloodstream.”

Lots more after the jump. . .

Continue reading

Study: Living near parks is good for blood vessels


As cities and counties struggle with tax cuts and the associated pressure to develop new buildings to raise property taxes, parks often pay the price.

Consider Berkeley, where was last covered community news for a locally owned newspaper.

Berkeley’s most famous bit of green space, People’s Park, is being developed for a new student housing complex, one that will raise no new tax revenues because it’s land already owned by a public university.

No only will the city lose most of a contentious landmark, but folks who live nearby will also lose a major asset contributing to the health of their circulatory systems, a benefit highlighted in a significant new study reported by the American Physiological Society:

Living near Trees May Prevent Vascular Damage from Pollution

Living near an abundance of green vegetation can offset the negative effects of air pollution on blood vessel health. The first-of-its-kind study is published ahead of print in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

Studies have shown that proximity to green space—trees, flora and other vegetation—can lower blood pressure levels and the risk of heart disease. A number of environmental factors may come into play, including increased opportunity for outdoor exercise, reduced mental stress and socioeconomic status. However, the relationship between vascular (blood vessel) health, green space and air pollution has not been fully explored.

In a new study, researchers looked at the arterial stiffness of adult volunteers with co-occurring conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, that put the volunteers in the moderate-to-severe risk category for heart disease. Using the participants’ residential addresses and data from the U.S. Geological Survey and local Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations, the research team analyzed environmental factors where the volunteers lived, including:

● vegetation index, including the amount of and variation in greenness levels within 200 meter and one-kilometer (0.62 miles) radii around each volunteer’s home;

● particulate matter, which are tiny toxic particles invisible to the naked eye, in the air; and

● levels of ozone, a colorless, toxic gas and significant air pollutant.

During times when the particulate matter and ozone levels were high, participants had higher levels of arterial stiffness, however, those who lived in areas with more flora had better blood vessel function. Trees and other greenery offset vascular dysfunction that air pollution causes, the researchers explained.

Previous work from the same research group found that “individuals who live in areas of high greenness show lower exposure to volatile chemicals and that they have greater household income.” In the current study, they explored the relationships between greenery, air pollution and arterial stiffness and found a similar correlation between the U.S. Geological Survey’s normalized difference vegetation index and average household income. Even when adjusting for self-reported lifestyle habits such as exercise and smoking—70% of the volunteers were nonsmokers—the researchers found that “the effects of green spaces on hemodynamic function are largely independent on median household income, physical activity levels and tobacco use.”

“These findings indicate that living in green areas may be conducive for vascular health and that the [favorable] effects on greenness may be attributable, in part, to attenuated exposure to air pollutants such as [particulate matter] and ozone,” the researchers wrote.

Read the full article, published ahead of print in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

Map of the day: COVID vaccination rates


From Bloomberg, graphic evidence that the world’s coronavirus vaccination program is off to a very slow starts, with vaccination rates low or non-existent in all countries:

From their report:

The biggest vaccination campaign in history has begun. More than 42.2 million doses in 51 countries have been administered, according to data collected by Bloomberg. The latest rate was roughly 2.43 million doses a day, on average.

<snip>

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has now been cleared for use across North America, Europe and the Middle East, and vaccination campaigns have begun in at least 51 countries. That shot and the vaccine from Moderna were both found to reduce coronavirus infections by 95% in trials of tens of thousands of volunteers. A vaccine by AstraZeneca Plc and University of Oxford got its first major authorization, by the U.K., on Dec. 30.

Other countries got a head start on vaccinations. China and Russia authorized their own shots in July and August, before they’d been fully tested. Since then, the countries have administered millions of doses, though they provide less frequent updates on their progress.

With the start of the global vaccination campaign, countries have experienced unequal access to vaccines and varying degrees of efficiency in getting shots into people’s arms. Israel’s rate of innoculations dwarfs the efforts of other nations, with 25.9 doses administered for every 100 people. Most countries haven’t yet given their first shots.

Chart of the day: COVID effects can last for months


Graphic evidence of long-lasting health impacts of COVID reported long after the infection ends, via The Economist:

From their report:

Recent research, published in the Lancet, a medical journal, offers more insight into how long those severely afflicted with covid-19 suffer. The study followed 1,733 patients hospitalised in Wuhan between January and March 2020. It found that, six months on, 76% were still experiencing at least one symptom. Fatigue and muscle weakness were the most common (63%), followed by sleep disturbances (26%), hair loss (22%) and problems with the sense of smell (11%). Problems with anxiety and depression were also reported. Those most unwell during their time in hospital also exhibited signs of impaired lung function; chest imaging detected abnormalities, which could indicate organ damage. Old age increases vulnerability to covid-19. But the median age of people in the study was 57, meaning that half were working-age adults.

The study is the largest investigation into the long-term impact of covid-19 in patients discharged from hospital, according to its authors. It suggests that such patients may require specialised care, something that is starting to be recognised, as indicated by the creation of clinics dedicated to “long-haulers” in Britain and America.

It does not, however, explain why such protracted impacts are felt, nor how they might be prevented. Long-term symptoms are often seen in patients who are ill enough to spend time in intensive-care units for other ailments or injuries. But only 4% of the respondents in Wuhan had been admitted to intensive care. Hospitals everywhere are bursting with coronavirus patients: in Britain alone, more than 37,000 people are currently hospitalised with the disease. If a large proportion of them are susceptible to prolonged symptoms, that leaves a lot of people not returning to normal. And that is in addition to the long-lasting symptoms seen among people who were never hospitalised in the first place. A study published in October, based on data from a symptom-tracking app used in several countries (including America, Britain and Sweden), estimated that 2.3% of people who contracted covid-19 were still unwell three months after first showing symptoms. All were younger and less severely ill than the patients followed in Wuhan. Experts don’t yet know why this happens. A year on from the first case of covid-19, medical understanding of the disease is still woefully incomplete.

Cal COVID surges: New strains found, anti-vax fears


From the State of California’s coronavirus dashboard, the latest pandemic numbers from the Golden State:

New virus strains widespread and established

As the COVID pandemic continues its burn through California, researchers have detected new strains of the rapidly evolving virus have been spreading rapidly in recent weeks.

From the Los Angeles Times:

As the total number of coronavirus infections in California approaches 3 million, health officials said Sunday that a new strain — different from a highly contagious variant first identified in the United Kingdom — is popping up more frequently across the state.

Researchers have identified the strain in a dozen counties and have linked it to several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County. The California Department of Public Health said it’s not yet clear whether the variant is highly contagious or is just being identified frequently as lab work becomes more sophisticated.

Santa Clara County laboratories studying changes in the virus’ genome sequence found the strain in samples from community testing sites and from outbreaks where “very high numbers of people exposed contracted the virus,” officials said.

“This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County health officer and director of the Public Health Department, in a prepared statement.

More from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Scientists identified L452R in Denmark early in the pandemic, but cases remained rare and isolated until November, when it was found in parts of California, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF.

<snip>

Dr. Erica Pan, the state epidemiologist, said in a statement that while it’s too soon to know whether L452R will spread faster than other variants, “it certainly reinforces the need for all Californians to wear masks and reduce mixing with people outside their immediate households to help slow the spread of the virus.”

The L452R variant has been discovered in at least 13 other states and several other countries. In California, it was found in Santa Clara and San Francisco counties in the Bay Area, along with Humboldt, Lake, Los Angeles, Mono, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties.

Officials don’t know how prevalent the variant is because genomic sequencing is not happening equally across the country or the state.

L.A. breeds its own new strain

While Northern California battles its own new strain, yet another strain has emerged in Southern California, spreading in a few weeks to the point where it now accounts for a third of new cases in the Los Angeles Basin.

More from the Los Angeles Daily News:

More than one-third of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles may have been caused by a new, locally-distinct strain of the coronavirus, researchers from Cedars-Sinai said on Monday, Jan. 18. They believe it may have contributed to the virus’ devastating resurgence in recent weeks, but don’t yet know for sure.

Researchers designated the strain CAL.20C, a Monday evening news release said. Their “findings did not indicate whether the strain is more deadly than current forms of the coronavirus.”

<snip>

This strain is distinct from another new strain of the coronavirus identified in Britain as B.1.1.7, which has been found in the United States, including scattered cases in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino counties. It’s typically thought to be more transmissible than the standard variant of the virus.

Researchers can’t yet say the same about CAL.20C, which they found in 36.4% of the sample group. That includes 192 Cedars-Sinai patients who tested positive for the coronavirus in Los Angeles between Nov. 22 and Dec. 28, the news release says, plus a sample pool of 4,337 coronavirus gene profiles obtained from Southern Californian patients, available in a public database.

Researchers sequenced the virus’ genome to discover the new variant, finding it for the first time in July — just one of 1,230 virus samples in Los Angeles County at the time — and it wasn’t detected again until October.

Vaccine campaign hits a conspiratorial wall

A second Los Angeles Times story focuses on a region of the Golden State where vaccination efforts are running into strong opposition, further complicating efforts to stifle the pandemic:

In the battle against COVID-19, health officials in Northern California face the daunting task of vaccinating more than 683,300 people spread across a mountainous, heavily forested region where calamity — either from illness or physical trauma — can mean hours-long drives to the nearest medical facility.

Among their biggest obstacles: overcoming widespread skepticism that the virus is a serious threat in far-flung towns, fear that the new vaccine is unsafe, and open rebellion against health orders. The pushback in rural parts of California is emblematic of the challenge in many parts of the United States, particularly outside more liberal urban centers.

“We’re getting very frustrated here in Northern California,” said Dr. Richard Wickenheiser, the Tehama County health officer. “We have a lot of anti-vaxxers and a lot of independent people who just feel that COVID was a hoax, that it was going to go away when the election was over. And that didn’t happen. … The excuses just go on and on.”

Anti-vax groups bailed out by Trump program


In the middle of a deadly pandemic, the Trump administration bailed out fringe groups opposing vaccinations for coronavirus.

Why are we not surprised?

From the Washington Post:

Five prominent anti-vaccine organizations that have been known to spread misleading information about the coronavirus received more than $850,000 in loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, raising questions about why the government is giving money to groups actively opposing its agenda and seeking to undermine public health during a critical period.

The groups that received the loans are The National Vaccine Information Center, Mercola Com Health Resources LLC, Informed Consent Action Network, Children’s Health Defense Co., and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a U.K.-based advocacy group that fights misinformation, which conducted the research using public documents. The group relied on data released in early December by the Small Business Administration in response to a lawsuit from The Washington Post and other news organizations.

Several of the Facebook pages of these organizations have been penalized by the social network, including being prohibited from buying advertising, for pushing misinformation about covid-19.

Vaccines are largely considered safe and effective, and clinical trials for both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines did not raise serious safety concerns. But many Americans hold skeptical attitudes about vaccination, attitudes public health experts have said are attributable in part to misinformation. Nearly 40% of Americans say they definitely or probably would not get the vaccine, according to a December survey by Pew Research Center. Certain groups, including Republicans and Black Americans, are even more skeptical, Pew found.