Table of Contents
Omicron Variant Update
While the Omicron variant has and continues to dominate COVID-19 headlines and news, it is important to note that currently, we still do not know much. We wanted to cover some of the available preliminary data that has been circulating around to clarify any information and provide some temporary answers to common questions at this point while also emphasizing that we are still learning and that little is certain about the Omicron variant at this point.
As of December 4, 2021, 16 states in the U.S. have reported cases of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant. As we have expected, there is community spread in the United States and all over the world. Globally, about 40 countries at this point have identified cases of COVID-19 due to Omicron. So far, none of the cases that have been reported in the United States have resulted in hospitalization or death. It is also important to note that while there are likely many more cases than reported, the CDC data shows that 99.9% of cases in the United States are still due to the Delta variant. Sequencing and many other public health measures have lacked the necessary energy and funding to be conducted, however genomic surveillance is improving and is necessary to better understand proportions of COVID-19 cases due to which variants.
Currently, South Africa is our best source of up to date information on the Omicron variant. There is pre-print data that suggests Omicron is spreading so quickly because this variant is able to reinfect individuals who have already had COVID-19, even if they have been reinfected multiple times. Again, this is pre-print data and we are not sure if reinfection by the Omicron variant is more likely overall.
In addition, early data out of South Africa suggests that the Omicron variant is potentially more transmissible. This, however, is not yet certain. Omicron cases may be detected at higher rates currently because it is concerning and thus, have more surveillance related to it for now. If this pattern of increased cases shows up in other countries, then it may be far more likely that the Omicron variant is more transmissible. Also, South Africa has reported a significant uptick in hospitalizations due to COVID-19, with many of these hospitalizations being in children and pregnant women. The cases, however, have largely been mild thus far. It is unclear if the Omicron variant is more likely to cause hospitalization or if it is solely because of the increased number of cases. It is important to note that currently, according to Dr. Salam Gueye, the WHO Regional Emergency Director for Africa, only 102 million people in Africa, or about 7.5% of the continent’s population, are fully vaccinated. Over 80% of the population has not even received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccines that have been promised to nations in Africa have also not been delivered, and it is undeniable that the lack of vaccine equity globally has and will continue to lead to greater chances for dangerous variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to develop or spread there.
It has also been suggested that the Omicron variant originated in an immunosuppressed individual. While we are still unsure of the exact origin of this variant, this is within expectations and our understanding of viruses and of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Those who are immunosuppressed have a weaker immune response to the virus if infected, allowing the virus to replicate to greater levels and increase the chance of mutations that can lead to a more harmful variant of the virus. That said, there is not currently any specific evidence that indicates that the variant did originate in an immunosuppressed person - it is simply plausible speculation that it might have.
One of the most crucial questions that scientists globally are trying to figure out is whether the Omicron variant is more likely to cause severe disease and lead to increased hospitalizations and/or deaths, a question we still can’t answer. Currently, most data is anecdotal and suggests that while infection is still more likely even in those who are fully vaccinated, those who are fully vaccinated with at least two doses will show mild symptoms of COVID-19 due to the Omicron variant. This is by no means definitive, but suggests that vaccinations provide some protection and prevent severe disease. In addition, there is very limited data on how the Omicron variant will affect those who have had their booster dose or additional doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
While there is still plenty of early data out there as well as plenty of other questions still left unanswered, cases are rising, and numbers are significantly higher than earlier this year, with almost all cases reported still being due to the Delta variant, a variant we know much more about. Thus, recommendations are still the same regardless of variant: get vaccinated, get a booster or an additional dose of a COVID-19 vaccine if you’re eligible, wear masks especially while indoors, socially distance when possible, if you have children who are eligible, get them vaccinated, and follow other public health guidelines.
New National HIV/AIDS Strategy Calls Out Racism
On World AIDS Day, President Biden announced his new National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States for 2022-2025. The vision of the strategy is to make the United States "a place where new HIV infections are prevented, every person knows their status, and every person with HIV has high-quality care and treatment, lives free from stigma and discrimination, and can achieve their full potential for health and well-being across the lifespan." In addition to the importance of a strong overall HIV/AIDS strategy for the country in general, the plan takes a position that is both extremely important and largely unprecedented in this type of federal initiative: It calls out systemic racism as a "serious public health threat" and a contributing factor that must be dealt with in order to properly address HIV/AIDS in the U.S.:
"Ending the HIV epidemic requires recognition of the need for interventions and pooled resources to address upstream factors often rooted in racism and other social and structural barriers." (page 53)
"...realizing this vision requires that every person across the United States with or who experiences risk for HIV has access to high-quality and culturally competent prevention, diagnostic, care, treatment, and supportive services that are non-stigmatizing, non-discriminatory, inclusive, and responsive to their needs. Further, issues such as discrimination and systemic racism that contribute to differences in the quality of and access to health care and other necessities such as housing and behavioral and substance use services, and lead to ongoing disparities among racial, ethnic, and sexual and gender minority populations, must be addressed." (page 47)
"The Strategy recognizes racism as a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans. Racism is not only the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but also the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where they play, and where they gather as a community. Over generations, these structural inequities have resulted in racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching, and unacceptable." (page 47)
HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacts BIPOC in the U.S., and it is therefore critical for any coordinated response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic to acknowledge and directly address issues of systemic racism.
"Biden says HIV/AIDS strategy needs to confront inequity"
"National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States 2022-2025"
"Remarks by President Biden to Commemorate World AIDS Day, Launch the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, and Kick Off the Global Fund Replenishment Process"
"New Biden strategy declares racism a systemic health threat"
COVID-19 Surge Continues in Michigan
The COVID-19 surge in Michigan is continuing, with the state once again leading the U.S. in the number of COVID-19 cases in the past week and fourth in the number of COVID-19 deaths. Michigan also had the most hospitalizations of any state in the last week.
The Michigan Health & Hospital Association announced on Thursday that approximately 76% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state are unvaccinated, 87% of COVID-19 ICU patients (i.e., the most severe cases) are unvaccinated, and 88% of people on a ventilator due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
According to the state's latest weekly outbreak report, there were 93 new COVID-19 outbreaks linked to schools in Michigan in the past week alone, infecting over 700 students and staff. Included in the new outbreaks were Vera Ralya Elementary School in Haslett and Riley Elementary in Dewitt. Among the 534 ongoing school outbreaks in the state were 8 in Ingham County, 15 in Clinton County, and 3 in Eaton County. These include Lansing's Sexton High School, Haslett Middle and High Schools, and Bath Elementary, Middle, and High School.
The message is clear: Get fully vaccinated as soon as possible, get your children vaccinated, get your booster shot as soon as you are eligible, wear a mask when in public, avoid crowds and large gatherings, get tested before gatherings, and stay home if you have any doubts about whether you might be sick or infected.
"Unvaccinated residents filling Michigan hospitals, getting hospitalized for COVID"
"Three-quarters of Michigan's COVID-19 patients unvaccinated, hospital group says"
CDC "United States COVID-19 Cases, Deaths, and Laboratory Testing (NAATs) by State, Territory, and Jurisdiction"
"711 infected across 93 new coronavirus outbreaks at Michigan schools"
"Tracking COVID outbreaks in Michigan schools, colleges"
Legislators Proposing Police Budget Increase After Oxford School Shooting
This week, a 15 year old Oxford High School student brought a handgun to the school and killed 4 students and injured 7 more individuals, including a teacher. The student, who had 18 rounds of ammunition on him, was apprehended by a school resource officer within five minutes. While Oxford High School has a long standing school resource officer, most schools do not, due to budget cuts in recent years. On Thursday, the Michigan House of Representatives approved plans to increase funding for school resource officers (i.e., school police) from $10 million to $50 million for the next fiscal year. This was in direct response to the school shooting, said legislators. This was something that could be done immediately to help, but there is data showing that school resource officers don't help reduce school shootings. In fact, one study shows that schools with resource officers have higher rates of suspension and expulsion. Preventing shootings in the first place with mental health support could be more impactful than implementing police officers in school. The Oxford student showed signs of mental distress and asked for help, but support was lacking in the school. Additionally, more than 50 gun-related bills have been introduced to the Michigan legislature this year but have stalled due to the Republican majority. While Governor Whitmer and other Democrats are pushing for gun safety and legislation, the efforts are still falling short. Governor Whitmer called gun violence a “public health crisis” in the state and has proposed violence prevention initiatives, but only time will tell if Republicans in the Michigan legislature will move bills forward to prevent these types of incidents. As funding for police-related budget items continues to increase, one has to wonder what the state would look like if that funding was put into mental health and community initiatives.
President Biden Announces New COVID-19 Plan
On Thursday, President Biden announced "New Actions to Protect Americans Against the Delta and Omicron Variants as We Battle COVID-19 this Winter." The new plan includes nine components:
Boosters for All Adults
Expanding pharmacy availability through December and reaching out to all eligible customers to get their booster
Launching a new public education campaign to encourage adults to get boosters, with a special focus on seniors
Collaborating with AARP on an education campaign focused on getting seniors boosted
Targeting outreach to Medicare beneficiaries
Calling on employers to follow the federal government’s lead and provide paid time off to their employees to get boosted
Vaccinations to Protect Our Kids and Keep Our Schools Open
Launching hundreds of family vaccination clinics to get the whole family vaccinated or boosted in one trusted and convenient location
Requiring Medicaid to pay health care providers to talk to families about getting their kids vaccinated
Reviewing school COVID-19 prevention policies to avoid closures of entire classrooms or schools when there is a positive case
Providing every resource to the FDA to support timely review of applications for vaccines for individuals under the age of 5
Expanding Free At-Home Testing for Americans
Providing health plan coverage of no-cost rapid, over-the-counter (OTC) COVID-19 tests
Expanding community distribution of free at-home tests through neighborhood sites such as health centers and rural clinics
Stronger Public Health Protocols for Safe International Travel
Strengthening global pre-departure testing protocols
Extending the requirement to wear a mask on airplanes, rail travel, and public transportation
Protections in Workplaces to Keep Our Economy Open
Calling on businesses to move forward with vaccination or testing programs
Rapid Response Teams to Help Battle Rising Cases
Making 60+ Winter COVID emergency response team deployments available to states
Strengthening our national volunteer emergency medical response corps to support communities in need
Supplying Treatment Pills to Help Prevent Hospitalizations and Death
Securing enough supply and ensuring pills are widely available in the hardest-hit, highest-risk communities
Continued Commitment to Global Vaccination Efforts
Donating 1.2 billion doses to the world
Accelerating the delivery of more vaccines to countries in need by pledging to deliver 200 million more doses in the next 100 days
Taking steps to ramp up manufacturing here and abroad, building out a sustainable supply chain and increasing capacity globally to make vaccines
Turning vaccines into vaccinations
Steps to Ensure We Are Prepared for All Scenarios
Accelerating the development and deployment of new vaccines and boosters if needed for the Omicron variant
For full details on each component, read the full White House statement.
"President Biden Announces New Actions to Protect Americans Against the Delta and Omicron Variants as We Battle COVID-19 this Winter"
"Biden outlines new steps to combat Covid through winter months"
"Biden's new winter COVID plan will reimburse you for at-home tests"
Civil Rights Scorecard Grades Senators
In November, a coalition of civil rights groups led by the NAACP released the first-ever civil rights scorecard grading U.S. Senators on their performance defending voting rights. In addition to the NAACP, the other groups involved were the National Urban League, National Action Network, National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, Fighting for Our Vote Initiative, and National Council of Negro Women. The grades are based on each Senator's votes on the American Recovery Act, Freedom to Vote Act, John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and their support for eliminating the filibuster. The protection of voting rights for all people is critical, and both recent and historic efforts to disenfranchise voters has largely targeted people and communities of color, and in particular, Black people.
In Michigan, Senator Debbie Stabenow received an "A" while Senator Gary Peters received an "Incomplete" grade. To view details and grades for other states, visit the Civil Rights Scorecard website.
"First-Ever Civil Rights Scorecard Grades Senators on Performance Defending Voting Rights"
"Civil Rights Scorecard"
"Black Civic Organizations Rate U.S. Senators on Commitment to Real Equity"