COVID19 🦠 Newsbites
Italy prepares for an Easter lockdown as Covid-19 cases grow exponentially
Half of Italy's 20 regions, which include the cities Rome, Milan and Venice, will be entering new coronavirus restrictions from Monday, March 15. The measures will be effective through April 6, according to a decree passed by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi's cabinet on Friday.

In regions demarcated as "red zones" people will be unable to leave their houses except for work or health reasons, with all non-essential shops closed. In "orange zones," people will also be banned from leaving their town and their region -- except for work or health reasons -- and bars and restaurants will only be able to do delivery and take-away service.

Affected regions will be labelled red or orange, depending on the level of contagion. Regions that report weekly Covid-19 cases of more than 250 per 100,000 residents will also automatically go into lockdown, meaning that other regions could also be affected during this time period.

The health ministry said that the aim of the measures is to get the R rate -- the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus onto -- down to 1.

Additionally, over Easter weekend, the entire country will be considered a "red zone," and will be subject to a national lockdown from April 3 to 5.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said new coronavirus measures are "necessary" because "we are unfortunately facing a new wave of infections" one year after the start of the pandemic.

The country's R rate is now at 1.6 with coronavirus variants increasing the spread of the virus, according to the health ministry.

The variant B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, is also now prevalent in the country, according to the health ministry, who also said that they are worried about the presence of small clusters of the Brazilian variant.

The UK variant was originally found to be more easily transmissible -- and new data published in the medical journal, the BMJ, supports claims from UK officials, based on preliminary data, that the variant may be more deadly, as well.
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Italy Imposes Another Lockdown

Italy began to enter strict regional lockdowns on Monday, as the government moved to halt an increase in coronavirus infections just one year after the country became the first in Europe to impose a national lockdown.
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Cough more hazardous to Covid-19 medical workers than intubation, research suggests
Those performing such "aerosol-generating" procedures, often in an intensive care unit, got the best protective gear even if there wasn't enough to go around, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. And for anyone else working with covid patients, until a month ago, a surgical mask was considered sufficient.

A new wave of research now shows that several of those procedures were not the most hazardous. Recent studies have determined that a basic cough produces about 20 times more particles than intubation, a procedure one doctor likened to the risk of being next to a nuclear reactor.

Other new studies show that patients with covid simply talking or breathing, even in a well-ventilated room, could make workers sick in the CDC-sanctioned surgical masks. The studies suggest that the highest overall risk of infection was among the front-line workers — many of them workers of color — who spent the most time with patients earlier in their illness and in sub-par protective gear, not those working in the covid ICU.

The growing body of studies showing aerosol spread of covid-19 during choir practice, on a bus, in a restaurant and at gyms have caught the eye of the public and led to widespread interest in better masks and ventilation.

Yet the topic has been highly controversial within the health care industry. For over a year, international and U.S. nurse union leaders have called for health workers caring for possible or confirmed covid patients to have the highest level of protection, including N95 masks.

But a widespread group of experts have long insisted that N95s be reserved for those performing aerosol-generating procedures and that it's safe for front-line workers to care for covid patients wearing less-protective surgical masks.

Such skepticism about general aerosol exposure within the health care setting have driven CDC guidelines, supported by national and California hospital associations.

The guidelines still say a worker would not be considered "exposed" to covid-19 after caring for a sick covid patient while wearing a surgical mask. Yet in recent months, Klompas and researchers in Israel have documented that workers using a surgical mask and face shield have caught covid during routine patient care.

... New research by Harvard and Tulane scientists found that people who tend to be super-spreaders of covid — the 20% of people who emit 80% of the tiny particles — tend to be obese or older, a population more likely to live in elder care or be hospitalized.

When highly infectious, such patients emit three times more tiny aerosol particles (about a billion a day) than younger people. A sick super-spreader who is simply breathing can pose as much or more risk to health workers as a coughing patient, said David Edwards, a Harvard faculty associate in bioengineering and an author of the study.
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Here's what Covid vaccines are worth to Big Pharma
Despite being priced at less than $20 per dose, Pfizer (PFE) expects sales of the vaccine it developed with BioNTech (BNTX) to total about $15 billion by the end of this year, with a profit margin of nearly 30%.

Vaccines are typically not the most profitable products in the Big Pharma catalog, especially compared to drugs used to treat chronic conditions.

"Flu vaccines on balance are a lower margin business," said Seamus Fernandez, senior managing director at Guggenheim Securities. There are of course exceptions — including the Prevnar vaccine that protects the elderly from pneumococcal pneumonia, which Fernandez describes as "extremely lucrative" for Pfizer. And the drug maker's Covid vaccine is likely to be an even a bigger money maker.

Developing the vaccines was a gamble for the all the companies that tried, even with most drug makers accepting government grands.

"It would have been a terrible business if the vaccine had failed. It would have been a write off," Fernandez said. "Obviously for Pfizer and Moderna (MRNA) and Johnson & Johnson, it succeeded pretty spectacularly."

Although Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) has said it will provide the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis as long as the world continues suffering from the pandemic, that doesn't mean the company won't ever make money from it.

That's because there is an assumption among experts and executives at the drug companies that, even after the pandemic has passed, people will need to receive booster shots to protect themselves from new variants.

"Genetic mutations occur naturally during virus replication and spread," Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in his most recent call with analysts. "There is an increasingly probable scenario when it could become necessary within the next few years to boost COVID-19 vaccinated patients with a vaccine encoding the spike variant."

That will mean even more sales — and more profits — from the vaccine.

... But whether they add billions or nothing to the bottom lines of individual companies, one thing is clear; the vaccines are a PR boon for the industry unlike any ever seen.

Typically not even patients taking a drug on a daily basis know which drugmaker produced it. At best, they know the brand name of the drug, said Tinglong Dai, business professor at Johns Hopkins Unversity. The coronavirus vaccines, on the other hand, have given drug makers their best brand development to date, he said.

"There really has been a sea change in the way people perceive them," Dai said. "They're not greedy drug companies charging outrageous prices. They're saving the world. It's really brilliant PR."

In fact, vaccine development could even help quiet the recent talk about government action to drive down drug prices, he said.
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Duke University undergrads ordered to stay in place all week as Covid-19 cases spike
In a letter sent to students on Saturday, officials at the Durham, North Carolina, university said that more than 180 students have tested positive for Covid-19 and are in isolation, while another 200 are under in quarantine based on contact tracing.

The spike in cases is "principally driven by students attending recruitment parties for selective living groups," the letter said. This is the largest one-week total of positive cases and quarantines since the pandemic began, officials said.

All courses will shift to remote learning and students living on campus must stay in their room or apartment at all times outside of essential activities, such as getting food or for health or safety reasons. Off-campus students are not permitted on campus other than to participate in surveillance testing, seek medical care or to pick up food orders.

The Duke outbreak is a fresh example of the pandemic's ongoing danger, even as daily new Covid-19 cases continue to decline and millions get vaccinated. The outbreak has even reached into the storied men's basketball team, which withdrew from the ACC tournament on Thursday after a positive case in the program.

"If this feels serious, it's because it is," the letter says. "The restriction of student movement -- coupled with a renewed dedication to following social distancing, masking, symptom monitoring and other public health guidelines -- gives us the best path toward curtailing further spread. Violations of these requirements will be considered a violation of the Duke Compact and will be treated as such; flagrant and repeated violations will be grounds for suspension or withdrawal from Duke."

... The letter says the ability to finish the semester and have a commencement for those graduating is "hanging in the balance."
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Tanzania's Prime Minister dispels rumors about President Magufuli's health after Covid-19 speculation
Kassim Majaliwa said he was surprised people were questioning the President's whereabouts, adding that the leader was "fine and continuing with his daily activities," as he spoke during a Friday prayer session at a mosque in the country's Njombe region, according to state broadcaster Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation.

President Magufuli, who makes weekly public appearances at Sunday church services, hasn't been seen since February 27, fueling speculation that he is ill and was being treated abroad.

Unconfirmed reports have appeared in regional media outlets suggesting the leader had been admitted to Nairobi Hospital for Covid-19 this week. CNN has been unable to confirm the status of the President.

Over the course of the pandemic, Magufuli had downplayed its dangers, previously claiming that Tanzania had defeated Covid-19 through prayer and insisting the virus was not a threat to the East African nation. He has questioned the safety of foreign Covid-19 vaccines and made no plan to procure any vaccines for his country, instead pushing for the use of herbal medicine and steam treatments.

Tanzania hasn't reported Covid-19 figures since April 2020, prompting the World Health Organization to call for Tanzania to publish data on the coronavirus and ramp up public health measures. Last month, the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam warned that Covid-19 cases had been surging since January.
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10 common mistakes in fighting 'coronasomnia' -- the inability to fall and stay asleep
We humans weren't doing a good job of getting enough shut-eye even before the arrival of a deadly new virus that shook us to our core.

"Sleep problems constitute a global epidemic that threatens health and quality of life for up to 45% of the world's population," according to the World Sleep Society, a nonprofit organization of sleep professionals dedicated to advancing "sleep health worldwide."

Now, "there are multiple stresses with the pandemic -- financial, health care related, social isolation -- all of which can impact sleep," said Dr. Bhanu Prakash Kolla, a sleep medicine specialist in the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Unfortunately, experts say, people may turn to activities during the pandemic that seem to help, but actually hinder their ability to fall and stay asleep.

Here are 10 of the top sleep mistakes you might be making:
  • 1) Too much screen time
  • 2) You're becoming a night owl
  • 3) You're hitting the snooze button
  • You're napping
  • 5) You're staring at the ceiling
  • 6) You're checking the time
  • 7) You're taking a tipple
  • 8) You're not getting exercise (or exercising at the wrong times)
  • 9) You're relying on sleeping aids
  • 10) You lack 'sleep hygiene'
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Biden Stimulus Package Helps Mass Transit Avoid Doomsday Cuts
For nearly a year, public transportation systems across the country have teetered on the edge of a financial cliff as the pandemic starved transit agencies of riders and revenues and threatened to decimate service.

But those systems, and the people who rely on them, have been pulled from their worst crisis in decades by President Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion stimulus package, which includes $30.5 billion for transit agencies — the largest single infusion of federal aid public transportation has ever received.

Transit leaders from New York to Washington to San Francisco quickly announced that they would shelve plans for deep service cuts and restore some train and bus service.

... The large infusion of funds reflects a concerted push under Mr. Biden, who is both a rider and a strong supporter of Amtrak, to revitalize the country’s transportation systems, many of which faced shaky finances and crumbling infrastructure before the pandemic hit.
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How to Get Vaccinated If You're Afraid of Needles
Most people aren’t particularly fond of needles.

But to a significant number of people, the fear of needles goes beyond merely inducing anxiety into a more dangerous area, in which the fear prevents them from seeking out needed medical care.

And as the world’s hopes of returning to a post-pandemic normal rest largely on people’s willingness to take a Covid-19 vaccine, experts and health care professionals are assuring those people that there are ways to overcome this fear.

Experts say it is a problem that can be overcome, whether the fear is keeping you from getting the vaccine or just causing you distress. Here are the steps they suggest taking.
  • Seek professional help to conquer the phobia.
  • Tell the nurse about your fears before getting the shot.
  • Distract yourself.
  • Focus on the benefits.
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Mississippi Opens Covid Vaccine Eligibility to Everyone
Everyone who lives in Mississippi will be eligible to receive a Covid vaccination starting Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Twitter.

“Get your shots, friends,” Mr. Reeves wrote. “And let’s get back to normal!”

Though the governor referred to “all Mississippians,” no vaccine has yet been authorized for use in children in the United States, so the change in eligibility presumably extends only to adults.

Last week, President Biden called on all states to open eligibility completely by May 1, and Mississippi is the second state to do so. Alaska opened its vaccination doors last week to anybody 16 or older who lives or works in the state.

Although Mississippi lags most other states in the share of its population that has been vaccinated so far, it is doing better than all of its neighbors except Louisiana, according to a New York Times tracker. As of Sunday, about 20 percent of Mississippians have received at least one shot, and 11 percent have been fully vaccinated.
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Facebook killed a tool to fight anti-vaxx information because it disproportionately affected conservatives, report says
  • Facebook disabled a "medical-misinformation detector" that was used to flag anti-vaxx misinformation.
  • The team that axed the tool reportedly believed it wasn't fair that conservatives were targeted more.
  • Surveys show that conservatives are far more likely to shun vaccines than other political groups.
The "medical-misinformation detector" had "noticeably reduced the reach of anti-vaccine campaigns," but employees took it offline because it didn't meet the company's standard of fairness, the magazine reported.

The team that took down the detector was led by Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice president and global public policy and whom the magazine described as the company's "highest-ranking Republican."

Kaplan's team was following guidelines created by Facebook's Responsible AI team, which required the removal of misinformation on the platform regardless of the users' political orientation, MIT Technology Review said.

But Kaplan's team had interpreted the guidelines to mean that the tool should affect as many liberals or centrists as conservatives, so when the tool flagged more conservative posts, they removed it altogether, the magazine said.

... "There's no point, then," an unnamed former Facebook AI researcher told MIT Technology Review of the tool, saying that definition of fairness "would have literally no impact on the actual problem."

The researcher said the definition of fairness they were held to "seems to fly in the face of the things that Mark [Zuckerberg] was saying publicly in terms of being fair and equitable."

Conservatives have historically been far more likely than liberals to shun vaccines and the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine has been underwhelming.
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The White House is set to launch a $1.5 billion ad campaign to win over vaccine skeptics, report says
  • The White House will launch a $1.5 billion pro-vaccine PR blitz, STAT News reports.
  • The campaign will focus on young Americans, people of color, and political conservatives.
  • Recent polling finds that vaccine hesitancy is highest among Republican men.
The effort, which will kick of "within weeks," will use TV, radio, and digital means to target young Americans, people of color, and Republicans who may be more likely to be hesitant or ambivalent about getting vaccinated, the outlet said.

The campaign will also educate Americans on where and how they can get vaccinated, and is expected to deploy celebrities and "trusted local officials" who some Americans may trust more than messengers from the Biden administration.

... A recent poll conducted by Marist College and NPR from March 3 to 8 found that contrary to some of the conventional wisdom, Black Americans are not more likely than white Americans to say that they would not be vaccinated if a vaccine was made available to them.

The poll found that 49% of Republican men, 47% of 2020 Trump supporters, and 40% of white men without college degrees said they would not get a vaccine when it is made available to them.

And in a focus group conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, former CDC Director Tom Frieden tested out methods to win over vaccine-skeptical Trump voters in real-time, and found success through Frieden explaining the facts about the vaccines and acknowledging that even the scientists don't know everything and uncertainty still exists, the Washington Post reported.
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Ron Johnson’s unscientific take on the coronavirus vaccine
Doctors, public health experts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are clear: Get the coronavirus vaccine even if you had covid-19.

Yes, people who had the disease produce antibodies that provide immunity from the coronavirus. But that immunity fades over time, and the body’s natural response may not be enough to prevent a repeat infection 90 days after the first one, the CDC says.

Reinfections, both mild and severe, have been well documented since the coronavirus emerged in late 2019. For example, a nursing intern in the Netherlands with no issues in her immune system contracted covid-19 in the spring and again in the summer of 2020, with stronger symptoms the second time. A nurse in Ohio got the disease twice, seven months apart. Hundreds more cases have been reported worldwide, although experts say they are widely undercounted.

In an interview last week, Johnson speculated that the “best immunity possible” probably comes from having had the disease, so he would not be getting the vaccine. None of the doctors or public health experts consulted agreed with this statement.

... At a time when more than half a million people have died of covid-19 in the United States, Johnson’s comments are irresponsible and dismally uninformed.

Many Americans who had the disease are wondering whether they should get the vaccine. They may look to their elected officials for guidance. Imagine what could happen if vulnerable viewers took Johnson’s comments as advice and declined the shot.

Senators have staffs. They have access to the latest research and data, and to leading experts. They go to good doctors. They shouldn’t be making unscientific claims on television about coronavirus immunity.

The vaccine has proven to be effective and safe, both for people who had covid-19 and for those who have not. Doctors, public health experts and the CDC all recommend getting the shot to build immunity and prevent the spread of the disease, though they say people who had covid-19 should wait until a few months after their infection.
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An Asian American chef slammed Texas for lifting its mask mandate. Then racist graffiti hit his shop.
Noodle Tree
When Mike Nguyen found the racist slurs covering his restaurant’s windows and patio tables on Sunday, he said he immediately knew the cause. One message spray painted on the front door of his San Antonio ramen shop particularly stood out: “No masks.”

Ever since Nguyen, 33, went on national TV last week to condemn Gov. Greg Abbott (R) for lifting the state’s mask mandate, the Asian American chef and owner was flooded with death threats, one-star online reviews and harassing messages, Nguyen told The Washington Post.

The incident appears to combine two disturbing national trends: A backlash to mask mandates that has often turned violent and destructive, and a surge of racist attacks and threats against Asian Americans, which some advocates tie to former president Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric over the pandemic.

Among the terms spray painted in red on Nguyen’s windows on Sunday was the phrase “Kung flu,” a racist slur that Trump helped popularize during his campaign rallies and other appearances.

Local officials swiftly denounced the vandalism, while police have opened an investigation.
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Clergy Preach Faith in the Covid Vaccine to Doubters
With widespread immunity essential to ending the pandemic, priests, imams, rabbis and swamis are successfully urging their congregations to get the shots. Many people trust them more than they trust health officials.
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PPP paid over 4,000 businesses twice, government watchdog says — and they'll have to pay it back
  • The Paycheck Protection Program distributed over 4,000 duplicate loans in 2020, the OIG found.
  • Between April and August 2020, 8,731 PPP loans were duplicates, totaling about $692 million.
  • Of the 4,260 duplicate borrowers, 2,689 had the same tax ID and 1,571 had the same name and address.
The Paycheck Protection Program was established under the CARES Act to provide aid to small businesses suffering during the pandemic. But it provided too much aid, it turns out.

But the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the Small Business Administration's program has a major flaw: duplicate loans.

... The SBA responded to the findings in the report by saying it will resolve duplications by recovering improper payments and preventing loan forgiveness on the duplicate loans. That means small businesses will have to give back the duplicate loans, if they can.

According to the report, the SBA identified issues in 2020 that had caused duplicate loan applications to be processed. The SBA had turned off controls for its electronic loan application system, leading to duplication, even though the office had said it would rely on loan reviews to eliminate the issue. The report looked at the PPP's first round in August 2020.

"Establishing strong controls to prevent improper or duplicate disbursements from occurring during initial loan processing is more effective than attempting to identify and resolve improper disbursements in the loan review phase," the report said. "SBA's efforts should focus on safeguarding funds up front, as it is more prudent and effective to prevent a loan from occurring than attempting to recover funds after the loan has been disbursed."
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Trump staffers, even those who worked for officials who publicly flouted coronavirus safety guidelines, were secretly scrambling for a COVID-19 vaccine: report
  • Trump staffers "shamelessly" attempted to get COVID-19 vaccines amid the initial rollout, Vanity Fair reported.
  • Ex-officials said the effort was like first-class passengers on the Titanic rushing to the lifeboats.
  • Despite publicly flouting safeguards, one official said they wanted a vaccine to "maintain" their normal lifestyle.
"The moves they were pulling were unorthodox," the former senior administration official told Vanity Fair. "These other agencies were getting it outside of a formal interagency process."

The secret clamber for a COVID-19 vaccine came as then-President Donald Trump tweeted in mid-December that White House staff would be vaccinated "somewhat later in the program, unless specifically necessary."

... The outlet reported that the effort came from "almost every stripe of political appointee, at almost every rung of the ladder," including "representatives of cabinet secretaries to young White House desk jockeys to those prepared to leverage their connections to President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner."

Also among the group were "chiefs of staff of cabinet agencies, some of whose bosses had become notorious for publicly disregarding pandemic safeguards," according to Vanity Fair.

One senior official said while it seemed some chiefs of staff would claim the request was made on behalf of their office staff, "their ask was not about their employees."

Though it seemed contrary for those officials who were publicly disregarding health safety guidelines to be so concerned about getting a vaccine, the senior administration official said the vaccines would allow them to "maintain" their normal lifestyles.
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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The first case was identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It has since spread worldwide, leading to an ongoing pandemic.

Symptoms of COVID-19 are variable, but often include fever, cough, fatigue, breathing difficulties, and loss of smell and taste. Symptoms begin one to fourteen days after exposure to the virus. Most people (81%) develop mild to moderate symptoms (up to mild pneumonia), while 14% develop severe symptoms (dyspnea, hypoxia, or more than 50% lung involvement on imaging) and 5% of patients suffer critical symptoms (respiratory failure, shock, or multiorgan dysfunction). At least a third of the people who are infected with the virus remain asymptomatic and do not develop noticeable symptoms at any point in time, but can spread the disease. Some patients continue to experience a range of effects—known as long COVID—for months after recovery and damage to organs has been observed. Multi-year studies are underway to further investigate the long term effects of the disease.

Source: Coronavirus disease 2019 - Wikipedia