COVID19 🦠 Newsbites
‘You Can’t Trust Anyone’: Russia’s Hidden Covid Toll Is an Open Secret
For much of the last year, Russia has appeared more focused on the public-relations and economic aspects of the pandemic than on fighting the virus itself. After a harsh two-month lockdown last spring, the government largely lifted restrictions last summer, a boon for public opinion and the economy, even as the disease spread more rapidly.

By the fall, Russian scientists had developed a Covid vaccine widely seen as one of the best in the world — but the Kremlin has put a greater emphasis on using the Sputnik V shot to score geopolitical points rather than on immunizing its own population.

Perhaps the starkest sign, though, of the state’s priorities is its minimization of the coronavirus death toll — a move that, many critics say, kept much of the public in the dark about the disease’s dangers and about the importance of getting a vaccine.

Asked to sum up 2020 at his year-end news conference in December, Mr. Putin rattled off statistics showing that Russia’s economy had suffered less than that of many other countries. Indeed, even as Europe introduced lockdowns in the fall and winter, Russians were largely free to pack nightclubs, restaurants, theaters and bars.

But Mr. Putin said nothing about the pandemic’s human toll — one that, in the dry monthly data releases of his own government’s statistics agency, is only now coming into full view.

The official Russian coronavirus death toll of 102,649 as of Saturday — reported on state television and to the World Health Organization — is far lower, when adjusted for the population, than that of United States and most of Western Europe.

However, a far different story is told by the official statistics agency Rosstat, which tallies deaths from all causes. Russia saw a jump of 360,000 deaths above normal from last April through December, according to a Times analysis of historical data. Rosstat figures for January and February of this year show that the number is now well above 400,000.

In the United States, with more than twice the population of Russia, such “excess deaths” since the start of the pandemic have numbered about 574,000. By that measure, which many demographers see as the most accurate way to assess the virus’s overall toll, the pandemic killed about one in every 400 people in Russia, compared with one in every 600 in the United States.

“It’s hard to find a worse developed country” in terms of Covid mortality, said Aleksei Raksha, an independent demographer in Moscow. “The government is doing all it can to avoid highlighting these facts.”

The Russian government says it counts only deaths confirmed to have been directly caused by the coronavirus in its official toll. Additional cases confirmed by autopsy are part of a separate tally published monthly by Rosstat — 162,429 as of the end of last year, and more than 225,000 though February.

... But large regional disparities undermine the notion that the reason for the low official toll is simply methodological.

The city of Moscow had 28,233 excess deaths in 2020, according to Rosstat figures, and reported 11,209 confirmed coronavirus deaths as part of the official toll. The region of Samara — a relatively well-off area where the Volga River bends past oil fields and car factories as it nears Kazakhstan — had 10,596 excess deaths, a jump of 25 percent over the 2019 mortality rate. Yet the region reported only 606 official coronavirus deaths last year.
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Michigan’s Virus Cases Are Out of Control, Putting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a Bind
Nowhere in America is the coronavirus pandemic more out of control than in Michigan.

Outbreaks are ripping through workplaces, restaurants, churches and family weddings. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients. Officials are reporting more than 7,000 new infections each day, a sevenfold increase from late February. And Michigan is home to nine of the 10 metro areas with the country’s highest recent case rates.

During previous surges in Michigan, a resolute Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down businesses and schools as she saw fit — over the din of both praise and protests. But this time, Ms. Whitmer has stopped far short of the sweeping shutdowns that made her a lightning rod.

“Policy change alone won’t change the tide,” Ms. Whitmer said on Friday, as she asked — but did not order — that the public take a two-week break from indoor dining, in-person high school and youth sports. “We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here.”

It is a rare moment in the pandemic: a high-profile Democratic governor bucking the pleas of doctors and epidemiologists in her state and instead asking for voluntary actions from the public to control the virus’s spread. Restaurants and bars remain open at a reduced capacity, Detroit Tigers fans are back at the stadium and most schools have welcomed students into the classroom.

Ms. Whitmer’s new position reflects the shifting politics of the pandemic, shaped more by growing public impatience with restrictions and the hope offered by vaccines than by any reassessment among public health authorities of how best to contain the virus.

Her approach, calling for individual responsibility over statewide restrictions, might have been lifted from the playbook of a Republican elected official, and on Friday she seemed to try to shift attention to the Biden administration for turning down her request to send extra vaccine doses to her beleaguered state.

That approach prompted an unexpected uttering of approval from Republicans in Michigan, who control the State Legislature and until now have fought Ms. Whitmer’s decisions at every turn.

... Still, a small but growing number of doctors and public health officials are calling on Ms. Whitmer to take much more aggressive action as cases worsen by the day.

... “It’s hard for me to have hope when I don’t see the basic public health precautions being implemented and sustained,” said Debra Furr-Holden, a Michigan State University epidemiologist whom Ms. Whitmer appointed to the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. “If we continue the way we’ve been going, we’re going to continue to get what we’ve been getting, which is these ebbs and flows and these spikes. It will be a vicious cycle and the vaccines will not be able to keep pace.”

The balance between politics and public health, never simple, has become even more volatile as the pandemic enters a second year. Residents are exhausted, business owners are reeling and, unlike last year, no other state is seeing a similar surge.

There is also reason for optimism that distinguishes this virus surge from those that came before: One in three Michigan residents has started the vaccination process, and one in five is fully immunized. With older residents swiftly getting vaccines, health officials say that most of the people who are infected with the coronavirus now are younger than 65, a less vulnerable population. And so Ms. Whitmer, who received her first shot on Tuesday, has pointed to vaccines — rather than new lockdowns — as the way out of this moment.

“I want to get back to normal as much as everyone else. I’m tired of this,” Ms. Whitmer said in a news conference on Friday where she defended her strategy for the weeks ahead. “But the variants in Michigan that we are facing right now won’t be contained if we don’t ramp up vaccinations as soon as possible.”
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Greg Abbott Speculates Texas Has Herd Immunity
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas may have been overly optimistic on Sunday when he said on Fox News that his state could be “very close” to herd immunity — the point where so much of the population is immune to Covid-19, either from being vaccinated or previously infected, that the virus can no longer spread.

“When you look at the senior population, for example, more than 70 percent of our seniors have received a vaccine shot, more than 50 percent of those who are 50 to 65 have received a vaccine shot,” Mr. Abbott, a Republican, told Chris Wallace. Mr. Wallace had asked why statewide infection, hospitalization and death rates were more under control than in other states, in spite of Texas reopening many activities and eliminating mask mandates.

The governor added, “I don’t know what herd immunity is, but when you add that to the people who have immunity, it looks like it could be very close to herd immunity.”

Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said, “There is no way on God’s green earth that Texas is anywhere even close to herd immunity.”
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Trump wants you to start calling it the 'Trumpcine' instead of the COVID-19 vaccine, report says
  • Former President Donald Trump wants the vaccine to be called the "Trumpcine," Newsweek reported.
  • He has repeatedly expressed his frustration that he isn't getting credit for the COVID-19 shot.
  • In March, Trump claimed that people "probably" wouldn't get the vaccine at all if it wasn't for him.
Trump made this request to hundreds of donors during a rambling 50-minute speech at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Saturday night, Newsweek reported.

It's the latest sign that the former president is growing increasingly frustrated that he isn't receiving credit for the development or rollout of the coronavirus shot.

In early March, Trump released a statement falsely asserting that he was primarily responsible for the shot's rapid development.

"I hope everyone remembers when they're getting the COVID-19 (often referred to as the China Virus) Vaccine, that if I wasn't President, you wouldn't be getting that beautiful 'shot' for 5 years, at best, and probably wouldn't be getting it at all," the statement said.

There is no evidence to suggest that Trump's efforts would have shaved four or five years off from a COVID-19 vaccine being developed, Insider's Tyler Sonnemaker previously wrote.
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Blinken says China 'didn't do what it needed to do' in the early stages of the pandemic
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken said we need to 'get to the bottom' of COVID-19's origin.
  • Blinken said China knows it didn't adequately respond to the early stages of the pandemic.
  • He said China should've allowed real-time access to international experts and been more transparent.
"I think China knows in the early stages of COVID, it didn't do what it needed to do, which is to in real-time give access to international access experts, in real-time to share information, in real-time to provide real transparency," Blinken said. "And one result of that failure is that the virus got out of hand faster and with much more egregious results than it might have otherwise."

According to the WHO report, researchers believed that the first animal to human transmission happened in the fall of 2019, in October of November, months before China shut down wildlife farms in February 2020.

Blinken stressed Sunday that it was important that the origin of the virus was determined and how the virus spread in the early days of the pandemic to prevent a similar outbreak from occurring in the future.

"I think we have to," he said. "We need to do that precisely so we fully understand what happened in order to have the best shot possible to prevent it from happening again. That's why we need to get to the bottom of this."
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Fed Chair Jerome Powell says the greatest risk to the US economic rebound is another wave of the coronavirus
  • The US economy is about to start growing "much more quickly," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told CBS.
  • The biggest risk to the economic recovery is another surge in coronavirus cases, Powell said.
  • He credited steady vaccinations, stimulus, and strong monetary policy for the rebounding economy.
In a preview of the interview, Powell said the US economy is at an "inflection point" more than a year after the virus forced widespread lockdowns, tangling supply chains, shuttering businesses, and leaving millions of Americans unemployed.

Powell said the economy is picking up steam "because of widespread vaccination and strong fiscal support, strong monetary policy support."

"We feel like we're at a place where the economy's about to start growing much more quickly and job creation coming in much more quickly. The principal risk to our economy right now really is that the disease would spread again. It's going to be smart if people can continue to socially distance and wear masks," Powell told CBS.
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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