COVID19 🦠 Newsbites
When will the pandemic be over?
Many people around the world are pinning their hopes on the vaccine, but even that isn't a quick fix. It will likely take years to vaccinate the majority of the world's population -- something that would be necessary to stop the spread -- and polls show that some people may not be willing to be vaccinated. Even if they are, the vaccine isn't a silver bullet. It's likely that even when vaccination is widespread, we might still have to live with the virus. After all, only one virus in human history has been declared eradicated by a vaccine -- smallpox.

Record Covid-19 hospitalizations in US could soon force health experts to ration care
The US reported 121,235 patients hospitalized with coronavirus Monday, the highest that figure has been since the start of the pandemic. Intensive care Covid-19 patients have increased from 16% in September to 40% last week, and health experts anticipate holiday travel could mean a "surge on top of a surge."At this rate, health experts warn they may have to ration nurses, respirators and care, Madeline Holcombe reports.

Amid the bad news, health experts say vaccinations need to be speeded up. So far, about 2.1 million vaccine doses have been administered in the US and more than 11.4 million doses have been distributed as of Monday, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite these developments, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said Monday that the US is falling behind countries like Israel and Canada in the pace of its vaccination efforts. "We really do have to ramp this up," he said. "Things are in a crisis."

Armando Manzanero, legendary Mexican singer and composer, dead at 85
Manzanero, who was 85, died at a hospital in Mexico City, Mexico's Society for Authors and Composers confirmed to CNN. He was hospitalized in mid-December after testing positive for Covid-19, CNN reported at the time.

Manzanero was a prolific composer, with more than 600 songs to his name, according to the society. His songs were interpreted by artists from around the world, including Elvis Presley, Dionne Warwick, Perry Como, Spanish singer Raphael, and fellow Mexican star Luis Miguel.

Why picking your nose isn't just gross — it's dangerous in the time of coronavirus
Most of us pick our noses -- some 91% according to the only (small and old) study that seems to have ever been done on the subject, perhaps revealing how little even scientists want to think about it.

Not only are you spreading your own bacteria and viruses onto everything you touch after a bout of digging for gold -- but you also "transfer germs from your fingertips into the nose, which is the exact opposite of what you want," said infectious disease specialist Dr. Paul Pottinger, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. That means that you can spread coronavirus to others from your nose-picking session, and you are also more likely to bring that virus, along with others like influenza or rhinovirus (the common cold), directly into your body.

The first confirmed U.S. case of the more contagious British variant has been found in Colorado.
A case of the more contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain was found in Colorado on Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis said. It is the first confirmed case of the variant in the United States.

The variant was detected in a man in his 20s with no travel history, Mr. Polis said. The man was in isolation in Elbert County, southeast of Denver, he said.

“There is a lot we don’t know about this new Covid-19 variant, but scientists in the United Kingdom are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious,” Mr. Polis said in a statement. “The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority and we will closely monitor this case, as well as all Covid-19 indicators, very closely.”

Scientists are worried about these variants but not surprised by them. It is normal for viruses to mutate, and most of the mutations of the coronavirus have proved minor.

“This should not be cause for panic,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. “But it is cause to redouble our efforts at preventing the virus from getting the opportunity to spread.” ... There’s no evidence that an infection with B.1.1.7 is more likely to lead to a severe case of Covid-19 or increase the risk of death. But the speed at which the variant seems to spread could lead to more infections — and therefore more hospitalizations.

You’re Infected With the Coronavirus. But How Infected?
Knowing the amount of virus carried in the body could help doctors predict the course of a patient’s illness.

As Covid-19 patients flood into hospitals nationwide, doctors are facing an impossible question. Which patients in the E.R. are more likely to deteriorate quickly, and which are most likely to fight off the virus and to recover?

As it turns out, there may be a way to help distinguish these two groups, although it is not yet widely employed. Dozens of research papers published over the past few months found that people whose bodies were teeming with the coronavirus more often became seriously ill and more likely to die, compared with those who carried much less virus and were more likely to emerge relatively unscathed.

The results suggest that knowing the so-called viral load — the amount of virus in the body — could help doctors predict a patient’s course, distinguishing those who may need an oxygen check just once a day, for example, from those who need to be monitored more closely, said Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease physician at Columbia University in New York.

Tracking viral loads “can actually help us stratify risk,” Dr. Griffin said. The idea is not new: Managing viral load has long formed the basis of care for people with H.I.V., for example, and for tamping down transmission of that virus.

Little effort has been made to track viral loads in Covid-19 patients. This month, however, the Food and Drug Administration said clinical labs might report not just whether a person was infected with the coronavirus, but an estimate of how much virus was carried in their body.

This is not a change in policy — labs could have reported this information all along, according to two senior F.D.A. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Still, the news came as a welcome surprise to some experts, who have for months pushed labs to record this information.

“This is a very important move by the F.D.A.,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I think it’s a step in the right direction to making the most use of one of the only pieces of data we have for many positive individuals.”

... The omission of viral load from test results was a missed opportunity not just to optimize strained clinical resources, but also to better understand Covid-19, experts said. Analyzing the viral load soon after exposure, for example, could help reveal whether people who die from Covid-19 are more likely to have high viral loads at the start of their illnesses.

... An uptick in the average viral load throughout entire communities could indicate an epidemic on the rise. “We can get an idea of whether the epidemic is growing or declining, without relying on case counts,” said James Hay, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Mina’s lab.

Fortunately, data on viral load — or at least a rough approximation of it — is readily available, built into results from the P.C.R. tests that most labs use to diagnose a coronavirus infection.

New Data Triples Russia’s Covid-19 Death Toll
The statistics agency said 230,000 more people died through November of this year than did in 2019, a hike attributable to the virus. Russia could jump to third among countries by number of Covid deaths.

... From the start of the pandemic early this year, the health crisis has been enveloped and, say critics, distorted by political calculations as President Vladimir V. Putin and Kremlin-controlled media outlets have repeatedly boasted of Russian successes in combating the virus and keeping the fatality rate relatively low.

The new data, issued on Monday by the state statistics agency Rosstat, would raise Russia from eighth to third in a ranking of countries by the number of deaths from the pandemic.

But the release of the data received little coverage on state media and the news was crowded out by upbeat reports ahead of a lengthy national holiday to celebrate the new year. State television focused on what it said was the eagerness of foreign countries, especially Belarus, to roll out a vaccine developed in Russia.

The government, ignoring the new figures from the statistics agency, has left unchanged its low Covid-19 death count. There was no sign Tuesday that the new numbers would create a scandal in Russia, as would be expected in many countries following a sudden, threefold increase in the number of dead.

The official death count, which undercounts coronavirus fatalities, is based on a narrow definition of who has died from the virus and has frequently diverged from the real number reflected in figures issued by the statistics agency.

... The gap between the official death rate and the real one is largely explained by Russia’s practice of recording a death as coronavirus-related only in cases where an autopsy has confirmed the coronavirus as the main cause. Critics say this has allowed the authorities to massage the numbers.

Instead of comforting the population, however, juggling with statistics has only fed the deep mistrust that many Russians have toward their government, even among those who vote for Mr. Putin, and its reassuring statements.