September 19, 2020

CP Online Health

Eat Well, Life Well

Hiya! I’m Lauren Olsen, your new Newsletter Editor. That’s right — the totally official, no more fill-ins, always-here-for-you Newsletter Editor. As the replacement for editor extraordinaire Brianna Labuskes, I’m here to tackle all your health news needs.

Why yes, you’re right — a pandemic is a heck of a time to take over this job. I’d argue, however, that it’s the best time, because who doesn’t need a hand sorting out all this craziness? So far, 2020 has been like trying to paint the “Mona Lisa” while riding a unicycle in a rainstorm — in other words, a sloppy mess teetering on disaster — but, with any luck, when it’s done we might all manage to smile.

In the meantime, I won’t Louvre you in the lurch. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Be sure to read each day’s top health news headlines in KHN’s Morning Briefing, compiled by yours truly. Please subscribe, if you haven’t already — and tell your colleagues and friends, too. Have a comment about the Briefing or the Breeze? Send me an email at [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you.

A Gift for You, My New Friend

Because we’ve just met, I’d like to offer you a token of friendship: Today’s Breeze will do its best to have a positive spin. Things are dreary enough in the world right now — you don’t need me to blow more gray clouds your way. In the words of Helen Keller, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

What’s Donald Up To?

Today, let’s play a game called “What’s Donald Up To?” You won’t win any points or money. What you will win is the knowledge that there are 180 days until Inauguration Day! (I suppose your real prize will be if “your guy” wins, whether it’s President Donald Trump, Joe Biden or Kanye West.)

So what is Donald up to? He began his busy week of tweeting, mask-wearing and name-calling with a feisty interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday. In it, he lamented increased COVID testing (“I’m glad we do it, but it really skews the numbers”), called Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s infectious diseases superstar, an “alarmist,” boasted about the sagging U.S. economy (“I built the greatest economy in history, I’m now doing it again”), reasserted his opinion that the virus will “disappear” and downplayed the potentially devastating physical effects of COVID-19 by saying some people just have the “sniffles.” When asked about the nearly 1,000 deaths a day in the U.S., Trump said it “is what it is.” On the positive side? Well, the interview was only about an hour.

The critiques rolled in, and for most of the week we saw a kinder, gentler version of Trump. Maybe it was because he was happy he supposedly aced the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a test that detects early signs of dementia. Or maybe it was because he’d passed “multiple” COVID tests a day, according to his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. (“I don’t know of any time I’ve taken two in one day,” he clarified a few hours later.) Or perhaps he was simply feeling generous, providing $5 billion for struggling nursing homes, resuming COVID task force briefings, renewing the national public health emergency and even (gasp!) tweeting a pic of himself wearing a mask. But I think the real reason may have been because two White House cafeterias closed this week after a staffer tested positive for the coronavirus — providing another excuse for him to keep eating McDonald’s. (Just a theory.)

Even so, Trump’s good mood subsided by the end of the week, probably because he had to cancel the GOP convention in Jacksonville, Florida, amid the state’s rising COVID cases. (Not to mention that the Duval County sheriff did warn him about not being able to provide security.)

Wondering what Biden, Trump’s probable Democratic rival in November, was up to? Well, this week he released his massive “caregiving plan” for Americans — $775 billion over 10 years. (That certainly would buy a lot of Care Bears.)

California and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

California, the most populous state, on Wednesday surpassed New York as the worst-hit state for cases (tallying 413,576 as of that day). The increase of 12,112 was the biggest single-day increase since the pandemic started. At the national level, there have been 4 million cases — it took only 15 days to jump from 3 million to 4 million — and the death toll stands at 144,000. Unfortunately, the rise in cases is outpacing the rise in testing, with The New York Times explaining: “About 21,000 cases were reported per day in early June, when the positive test rate was 4.8 percent. As testing expanded, the positive test rate should have fallen. … Instead, the positive test rate has nearly doubled.”

The number of COVID cases is likely 10 times higher than what we thought, experts now say. On Saturday, the FDA approved the use of pooled testing, essentially allowing the testing of many more people using fewer tests. But the White House, not to be outdone, announced it would push to phase out funding for testing from the COVID-relief bill in Congress. (More on that in a minute.)

In the “oops” category, 113 people in Rhode Island, about 90 in Connecticut, 26 in Kentucky and dozens in New York were told they had COVID-19 when in fact they had tested negative. (Does that qualify as positive news? I’m not sure, but I’m happy those folks are fine.) Conversely, in The Villages, Florida, one of America’s biggest retirement communities known for its golf and rockin’ house parties, is seeing a spike in positive cases, jumping from the single digits last month to at least 29 last week.

Scientists delved into the big question this week: Can you get reinfected with COVID? And the absolute, no-doubt-about-it answer was: Um, not sure. But it’s unlikely, they say. Scientists did determine that mosquitoes most likely don’t spread COVID, and they’re testing whether UV light, which can kill many nasty germs, can kill this virus, too. As a bonus, the CDC now says that if you do get sick, you should isolate for 10 days, not 14. (But severely ill patients should isolate for 20 days.)

So Much for Vacation

Congress returned from a two-week summer recess Monday to begin work on the fifth COVID-relief bill of the year, and it played out like a real-life version of Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” starring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as Clark Griswold, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the Ferrari-driving Christie Brinkley and Trump as the security guard at Walley World who basically ends their fun. (My goodness, can’t you just envision it?)

Republicans had a $1 trillion agenda that included funds for schools and COVID testing, a payroll tax cut, direct checks for individuals and $600-a-week stipends for laid-off workers. Senate Republicans seemed near a deal with the White House on Wednesday as the Griswold family station wagon chugged along. But the car crashed Thursday when the two groups failed to reach an agreement on the unemployment issue. (Mind you, the Democrats haven’t even gotten involved yet.) Republicans vowed to have a new deal next week. As all this was going on, smooth-driving Pelosi left tire tracks all over Trump while speaking on CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Tuesday, calling the coronavirus the “Trump virus.”

Let’s Make a Deal: Which Vaccine Is Behind Door No. 1?

Am I the only person who can’t keep track of all the vaccines and treatments in play? Chinese group Sinopharm said it will have a vaccine ready for the public before the end of the year. (Woohoo!) British pharmaceutical firm Synairgen announced a breakthrough nebulizer treatment that reduces the severity of COVID-19, and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine AZD1222 showed promising results in human trials, too. Meanwhile, behind Door No. 2, the Russians are insisting they didn’t try to steal British coronavirus vaccine research.

Back in the good ol’ U.S. of A., five pharmaceutical giants testified to Congress on Tuesday that they wouldn’t cut corners when developing a vaccine. And Wednesday, as if on cue, Pfizer and German firm BioNTech made an unusual $1.95 billion deal to supply 100 million doses of a not-yet-finished vaccine to the federal government, which plans on giving it to Americans at no cost. (Not to nitpick, but there are 330 million people in America. I’m not great a math, but still …)

Meanwhile, behind Door No. 3, the Department of Justice indicted two Chinese nationals this week on charges that they hacked and stole research from companies working on COVID vaccines in the U.S., the U.K., Sweden, Spain, Australia and other nations.

The REALLY Important Questions

Sure, all of that stuff has big implications. But here in the real world, we’re worried about simpler stuff. For example, when can I watch NFL football? (Not for a while.) Has baseball started? (Yes!) Can I travel to the Bahamas (no), Niagara Falls (yes) or New York (maybe)? If I live in California and need a haircut, where can I get one? (Outdoors.) Should I buy my teen some condoms? (It’s up to you, but more adolescents are improvising with plastic wrapshudder.) Does it hurt to get shot with a less-lethal projectile? (Um, HECK YES.) Should I wear a mask in Atlanta, at a Marriott hotel or when buying jeans at the Gap? (Yes.) How about at the bank? (Yes, as long as you promise not to rob the joint.)

That about wraps it up for me. Hope you enjoyed my inaugural Breeze. Keep smiling! Until next week,

— Lauren

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.