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COVID in California: BART to end mask mandate on Oct. 1

San Francisco Chronicle 9/22/2022 Aidin Vaziri, Sarah Ravani
© Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle 2020

UPDATE: Here are the latest updates on COVID in the Bay Area and California.

Two years into the pandemic, the number and demographics of people dying of COVID has shifted significantly. Moderna expects to increase supply of its bivalent booster in a matter of days. The CDC reported deaths from fungal infections rose during the first two years of the COVID pandemic. And a new Duke University study finds that two years into the pandemic, America’s health care workers are “emotionally exhausted.”

Latest updates: 

BART to end mask mandate on Oct. 1

The BART Board of Directors voted to end the rail agency’s mask mandate on trains and stations as of Oct. 1. A resolution passed Thursday by the transit board gives BART General Manager Bob Powers the authority to bring back a mask mandate under specific public-health conditions. The agency still recommends riders wear masks on BART transit, though compliance has waned in recent months.

Pandemic not over but “we’re in a different place,” says CDC director

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, received the new bivalent COVID-19 booster shot on Thursday, and told ABC News that she is among “millions” of Americans who have received a dose of the updated vaccine. “All the data from this new bivalent vaccine have demonstrated that it will protect you against — more likely protect you — against the strains that we have circulating right now, those omicron BA.5 strains, as well as keep you well protected, because we’ve seen that some of that protection can wane over time. So, we are really encouraging everybody to roll up their sleeves and get this updated bivalent vaccine,” she said, speaking at a CVS location in Massachusetts. She added the new shots would likely be available to children between the ages of 5 and 11 soon, and that the CDC was waiting on word from the FDA. But Walensky demured from agreeing with President Biden’s remarks during his appearance on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, when he said “the pandemic is over.” Instead, she highlighted that hospitalization and case rates are falling, and with the widespread availability of vaccines and treatments, “we’re in a different place.”

Post-vaccine myocarditis is temporary for most patients, long-term study finds

In a study of young patients diagnosed with myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, after a COVID-19 vaccination, researchers found few experienced ongoing symptoms over time. The survey, conducted by the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the medical journal the Lancet, looked at 836 confirmed VAERS cases in people between the ages of 12 and 29 who were at least 90 days after the onset of myocarditis. Researchers surveyed 519 of those patients or their clinicians and found that 81% (320) of them fully or probably recovered, while 16.5% (65) had not fully recovered from a symptom consistent with myocarditis, such as chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, or palpitations. For those not fully recovered, the median time from illness to the survey was 195 days. There was no control group for the study. The CDC plans to conduct additional follow-up on patients who were not considered recovered at least 12 months since. “Most patients with myocarditis or pericarditis after COVID-19 vaccination responded well to medicine and rest and felt better quickly,” the agency said. Most cases have been reported after receiving Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, particularly in male adolescents and young adults.

WHO is losing track of virus variants due to a lack of testing

With many regions scaling back their regular COVID data reporting, officials from the World Health Organization said they are having a hard time identifying and tracking new coronavirus variants. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said at a media briefing on Thursday that the virus is still circulating at an “incredibly intense level” around the world and the U.N. health agency is “deeply concerned” that it is evolving without sufficient monitoring. “Our ability to track variants and subvariants around the world is diminishing because surveillance is declining,” Van Kerkhove said. “That limits our ability to assess the known variants and subvariants but also our ability to track and identify new ones.” The WHO is tracking about 200 omicron sublineages, Van Kerkhove said, with extra focus on BA.2.75, BF.7, and BA.4.6. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added that there’s the “ever present risk of more dangerous variants emerging.” Van Kerkhove reiterated that the pandemic is not over and more surges are possible. “We don’t yet have predictability with SARS-CoV-2 like we have other types of pathogens where we expect a seasonality. We may get there, but we’re not there that. That’s the message — we’re not there yet,” she said.

End of pandemic “still a long way off,” says WHO

Officials from the World Health Organization said the COVID-19 pandemic is categorically not over, despite President Biden’s off-the-cuff “pandemic is over” comment last weekend. “We have spent 2½ years in a long, dark tunnel, and we are just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of that tunnel,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing on Thursday. “But it is still a long way off, and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles that could trip us up if we don’t take care. We all need hope that we can — and we will — get to the end of the tunnel and put the pandemic behind us. But we’re not there yet.” The director-general of the U.N. health agency, however, did agree with the second half of Biden’s televised comment, noting that the world is in a better place now than it was at any time over the past two years. “The number of weekly deaths continues to decline, and are now just 10% of what they were at the peak in January 2021,” he said. “Two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated, including three-quarters of health workers and older people. In most countries, restrictions have ended and life looks much like it did before the pandemic.” But he noted that “10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many when most of these deaths could be prevented.”

Japan to open borders to travelers next month

Japan will open to visa-free entry for individual travelers starting Oct. 11, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Thursday in New York, according to a report from Nikkei Asia. “We will remove the cap on the number of people entering the country, and will resume accepting individual travel and visa-free travel,” Kishida said. The country is hoping to revive its tourism industry after more than two years of pandemic-related restrictions. Japan currently only allows package tours and requires visas for all visitors, while daily arrivals have been capped at 50,000 in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19.

Racial minorities saw higher rates of pandemic depression and anxiety, study says

Racial and ethnic minorities were at greater risk for symptoms of depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to white populations, according to a recent study published in the scientific journal Plos One. In a survey of 691,473 individuals in the U.S. and U.K. from January to June 2021, the researchers found that Black Americans were 1.16 times more likely that white Americans to be diagnosed for depression, with the rate was 1.23 times higher for Hispanic Americans and 1.15 higher for Asian Americans. Respondents in the U.K. reported similar results. “Our findings highlight the urgency for open discussions surrounding mental health and wellness among minority communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic who stand to suffer well beyond its presumed conclusion,” the authors wrote. “Discussions around these topics may alleviate the stigma surrounding mental illness in such populations and ensure that those who need treatment are identified in a timely fashion.”

Positivity rate falls to 5% as state tops 95,000 COVID deaths

There have been a total of 95,009 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in California since the start of the pandemic, as of Thursday. The state hit the grim milestone as nearly every other marker improved. California’s test positive rate hit 5%, the number many infectious disease experts believe is low enough to regain control over the spread of the virus. The state is averaging 11 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, the lowest figure since early April and a 62% decrease from the same day in August. There are 2,313 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, down from 3,587 a month ago. Confirmed COVID-19 deaths are also down to 37 per day, compared to 48 over the same period. The Bay Area is seeing similar improvements, with an average of 9 new daily cases per 100,000 residents compared to 23 a month ago. There are 426 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the region, down from 637.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf tests positive for COVID

Justin Berton, a spokesman for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, said she has tested positive for COVID. “After experiencing symptoms and self-quarantining at home this week, Mayor Schaaf has tested positive for COVID,” Berton said in a statement. “She’ll follow CDC guidelines before returning to public events.”

California’s COVID supplemental paid sick leave likely to be extended

Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign a bill that will require California employees with 26 or more employees to provide COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave through the end of 2022. Assembly Bill 152 was set to expire Sept. 30, but will likely be extended before the signing deadline, according to a report from the California Dental Association. The legislation requires eligible employers to continue to provide up to 80 hours of supplemental paid sick leave to employees who are unable to work or telework for reasons related to COVID-19, including caring for themselves or a family member who is ill with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms after receiving a vaccine or booster. Qualifying California small businesses and nonprofits will be able to apply for grants up to $50,000 to help cover costs related to providing and administering the supplemental paid sick leave.

Pandemic Problems: When to get boosted if you’re unsure you’ve had COVID

The Chronicle’s advice column deals today with a tricky question posed by a reader who was almost certainly exposed to the coronavirus from his girlfriend, and even had mild symptoms, but never tested positive. Given the advice to wait three or more months after contracting COVID to obtain the new omicron-specific booster shot, when’s the best time for him to get a shot? The experts we consulted said it depends a bit on what kinds of tests the reader took to confirm his COVID status — but nonetheless the evidence suggests waiting a bit longer for the booster wouldn’t hurt.

Hawaii saw an influx of tech workers in the remote era. But now what?

Pandemic-borne remote work has allowed some people to rocket across oceans and time zones while keeping their jobs and experiencing life in ways that were previously unimaginable. But that freedom has come with both benefits and costs for the people and places where they land, especially as companies start to call many remote workers back to the office. That is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Hawaii. Read more about the influx of remote nomads fleeing the mainland U.S. during the pandemic.

America’s health care workers are “emotionally exhausted,” survey finds

Health care workers in the U.S. who were already struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic say the past two years have made things worse, jeopardizing the quality of care patients receive. A three-year survey study by Duke University researchers analyzed 107,122 responses to measure “emotional exhaustion” among the workers before and during the pandemic, from 2019 to 2021. The results were published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open. In the study period, conducted in three waves, the estimated rates of emotional exhaustion increased proportionally by 26.9% among those surveyed. Physicians, who reported a decline from 2019 to 2020 — from 31.8% to 28.3% experienced a sharp increase in 2021, with 37.8% saying they felt emotionally exhausted. Among nurses, meanwhile, affirmative responses rose from 40.6% in 2019 to 46.5% in 2020 and 49.2% in 2021 and 2022. “The challenges posed by COVID-19 have been an excessive test to human well-being around the world,” the authors wrote. “Few groups experienced this stress more acutely than the health care workers who persistently placed themselves in harm’s way to serve patients.”

Pandemic worsened death inequities for most racial and ethnic groups: UCSF study

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened disparities in all-cause death rates for seven non-White racial and ethnic populations, according to a study by researchers at UCSF and Stanford University. The results, published Tuesday in PNAS, found that American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander populations in the United States below age 65 experienced a sustained widening of mortality disparities, and for all other racial groups, the all-cause mortality rate ratio relative to White mortality increased with the start of the pandemic and again during subsequent COVID-19 surges. “Preexisting inequities associated with mortality, including lack of health care, financial hardship, and housing instability, were likely exacerbated during the pandemic,” the authors wrote.

Fauci on lab-leak theory: “There’s always a suspicion”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said that the COVID-19 pandemic may have started with a lab leak but cautioned that there is no evidence currently available to support the theory. “There’s always a suspicion. There’s always the issue that something really nefarious has happened — which is understandable because there’s always a possibility,” Fauci said Wednesday during a wide-ranging conversation about the pandemic as part of The Atlantic Festival 2022. “I think you’ve to keep an open mind for every possibility. But an open mind and a possibility does not equate with a probability.” He asserted that despite many conspiracy theories, he does not control the world’s scientific community.

Fauci also shared his thoughts on becoming the target of “people who want to decapitate me because I’m ruining the economy.” He said that he is not intimidated by the threats but is bothered by the “vicious attacks” on his family members. “I have a great deal of faith in the American public despite the fact that we have so much divisiveness and I myself am the target for a lot of the attacks,” Fauci said. “I still have a great deal of faith in the prevailing better angels of the American public.” He added that he hopes that everyone at some point comes to the realization that when dealing with an unprecedented public health emergency, “there is such a thing as a communal responsibility that you have to society.”

Cases stable, deaths down and new variants emerging, WHO reports

The number of new weekly COVID cases globally remained stable last week, with around 3.2 million new cases reported, according to the latest update from the World Health Organization. The number of new weekly deaths decreased by 17% from the previous week, with around 9,800 fatalities reported. The U.N. health agency also said the descendent omicron lineages of BA.5 remain the dominant variants with a global prevalence of 76.6%, followed by lineages of BA.4 with 7.5% prevalence. The WHO said six virus lineages are currently being monitored, including BA.2.75, due to nine additional mutations in the spike as compared to its parent lineage BA.2. “Four of these mutations are within the receptor binding domain, and at least one of these RBD mutations has been associated with immune escape,” the bulletin said. Health officials are also monitoring the emerging variants BA.5.1 + V445 (the latter number indicates the pooled amino acid substitutions), BA.5.2 + K444, BA.5.2.1 + R346, BA.5.2.1 + K444, and BE.1.1.

Fungal deaths rose during the pandemic, CDC study finds

Deaths from fungal infection increased during the 2020 to 2021 period compared with previous years, primarily driven by COVID-19-associated deaths, according to a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report says more than 13,000 U.S. residents died from fungal infections during the first two years of the pandemic, with at least 22% related to COVID-19, particularly those involving Aspergillus (a common mold) and Candida (a yeast that lives on the skin and inside the body. The findings also highlighted that the rates of fungal death were higher in non-white and non-Asian populations, particularly when associated with COVID-19. “Our analysis demonstrates the substantial burden of fungal infections in the United States and highlights an increase in fungal deaths during the first two years of COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote. “These data might help increase clinician awareness and support public health planning, with the ultimate goals of decreasing morbidity and mortality rates associated with fungal infections.”

Moderna says it expects to resolve bivalent booster shortage “in the coming days”

Moderna expects to resolve supply issues for its new COVID-19 booster “in the coming days,” according to a company statement to MarketWatch. Moderna’s updated bivalent booster is not yet widely available in the U.S. due to the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection of a production plant in Bloomington, Ind. The FDA on Tuesday said that inspection was completed and allowed 10 delayed batches of vaccine to ship, saying in a statement that “the agency has no concerns with the safety, effectiveness, or quality of these batches.” Modern expects to fulfill its plan to deliver 70 million doses of the reformulated COVID-19 booster — which protects against the original strain of the virus as well as the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of omicron by the end of the year. The updated booster protects against the original strain of the virus as well as the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. “We continue to see high demand in certain areas of the country,” Moderna said in an email. “We anticipate that these availability constraints will be resolved in the coming days.”

Stress, anxiety levels for women at a 10-year high, survey shows

Women were more stressed, anxious, worried, sad and angry in 2021 than at any point in the past decade, according to a new report from the analytics firm Gallup and medical tech company Hologic. In one of the largest surveys of its kind, the Global Health Index Women’s Health Index includes insights from 66,000 women in 122 countries, tracking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors founds that more than four in 10 women in 2021 said they experienced worry (43%) and stress (41%) during a lot of the day before the survey, nearly one in three experienced sadness (32%), and more than one in four experienced anger (26%) — all at record levels.

Among the other insights delivered by the report is that while women’s ability to meet their basic needs — such as affording food — fell, men’s ability to do so did not change. Also, worldwide, just 12% of women in 2021 were tested for any type of cancer in the past 12 months, which means more than 2 billion of the world’s women went untested. “The lack of progress and, in some cases, backward momentum justify an even louder wake-up call for world leaders to do more for women, whose well-being underpins the health of families, communities, societies and economies,” said Hologic president and CEO Steve MacMillan.

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