FDA Fully Approves Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine 

In a press release on January 31, 2022, the FDA announced that they had approved the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the second COVID-19 vaccine to be fully approved in the United States after the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine approximately 5 months ago. The Moderna vaccine, named Spikevax, is now fully approved for anybody 18 years of age or older. The CDC followed suit, endorsing the approval and recommending the vaccine for anybody 18 years old or older. Prior to the full approval, the vaccine was being used under Emergency Use Authorization, a temporary measure that allowed the vaccine to be distributed in a timely manner (like full approval, an EUA is only granted after significant safety and testing).

Full approval is only granted after months of real world data showing effectiveness and safety. In addition, policies, such as vaccine requirements for military personnel, can now utilize the Moderna vaccine in addition to the Pfizer vaccine, as they specifically require the use of fully approved vaccines. Overall, basic COVID-19 vaccine recommendations have not changed for the general public, but this will allow for potential gains in approving the Moderna vaccine for other populations, especially those under the age of 18, and may help vaccine-hesitant people to feel more comfortable with the Moderna shot.  

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Data From UK Suggests Reinfection Rates with Omicron Variant Much Higher

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK showed that reinfection with COVID-19 occurred in about 180 per 100,000 individuals. In comparison, prior to the Omicron variant being the dominant variant in the UK, the reinfection rate was less than 12 per 100,000. This suggests that since Omicron has been the dominant variant, people are up to 15 times more likely to get reinfected with COVID-19, likely due to the Omicron variant compared with other variants in the past. Data from a real-time survey that continuously collects data, called the Real-Time Assessment of Community Transmision (REACT) Study, also showed data that two-thirds of respondents who had Omicron variant-related COVID-19 cases had reinfections. Reinfection is any case where someone was previously infected with something (in this case, COVID-19), then gets better and the infection goes away, then gets infected again.

The data thus far does suggest that COVID-19 reinfection is more likely by the Omicron variant. This may be a large contributing factor to the high case rates around the world where the Omicron variant is dominant. This suggests that the Omicron variant is able to evade existing immunity that you may have from a previous infection. While it is known that a previous infection may provide some immune protection for a few months, it is still far safer to protect yourself via vaccination and getting a booster shot when eligible, as well as continuing to wear masks, socially distancing, and practicing proper hand hygiene.

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Multiple HBCUs Receive Bomb Threats on the First Day of Black History Month

At least 14 Historically Black Colleges and Universities reported bomb threats on Tuesday, the first day of Black History Month. Threats of violence toward HBCUs is not uncommon, but the widespread nature of the bomb threats across more than a dozen colleges or universities on the first day of Black History Month definitely raises questions about the overt, racist nature of the threats. Black History Month was originally “Negro History Week,” created by Carter G. Woodson in 1926. He dedicated the second week of February as a time to promote, educate, and celebrate Black history and culture. The second week of February was chosen as it coincides with Frederick Douglass’, a staunch formerly-enslaved abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. The week eventually grew into a month-long celebration in the 1960s and President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976.  Each year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, originally started by Woodson, chooses a theme to focus on. This year that focus is Black Health and Wellness, rightly chosen as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, where we have seen disproportionate impacts and outcomes of pandemic for Black individuals and communities. While celebrating Black History Month is important, continuing to celebrate the history and achievements of all Black Americans every day of the year is necessary. The HBCU bomb threats remind us that there is still plenty of work to be done to break down all levels of racism that exist in the country. Luckily, none of the investigations of the campuses found bombs, but that doesn’t make it right or acceptable. 

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Wage Disparities in LGBTQ+ Populations

This week, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation released data detailing wage disparities that LGBTQ+ workers face - especially trans and non-binary Black, Indigenous, and Latinx individuals. The data, collected from the 2021 LGBTQ+ Community Survey, showed that LGBTQ+ workers overall earn about $900 weekly compared to the $1,001 weekly a “typical worker” (the median of all workers in the US) earns based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that LGBTQ+ individuals earn about 90 cents for every dollar other workers earn. When we break that down by race, the disparity becomes even more pronounced. Indiginous LGBTQ+ workers earn about 70 cents for every dollar of other workers, Black LGBTQ+ workers earn about 80 cents, and Latinx LGBTQ+ workers earn 90 cents, while white LGBTQ+ workers earn 97 cents and AAPI LGBTQ+ workers earn $1.00 for every dollar a typical U.S. worker earns. When the data is broken down by gender, we also see disparities. Non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, and two-spirit individuals earn roughly 70 cents for every dollar compared to a typical worker in the U.S. Individuals who identify as women in the LGBTQ+ community earn about 87 cents for every dollar, with transgender women earning 60 cents for every dollar a typical worker earns, and transgender men earning 70 cents for every dollar. It's likely these disparities are even greater than the data shows, because this only includes full-time, non-farm workers in the public or private sectors. Wage disparities impact many facets of life, such as access to safe and affordable housing. Previous research shows that LGBTQ+ communities are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed and that has only increased during the pandemic. Policies that protect LGBTQ+ individuals and work to combat discriminatory practices are key efforts needed to lessen the wage gaps. 

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LGBTQ+ Adults More Likely to Be Vaccinated, But Racial Differences Exist

On Friday, the CDC published a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report focused on LGBTQ+ COVID-19 vaccination rates in the US. The self-reported data is from the fall of 2021 and was collected in the National Immunization Survey Adult COVID Module. Gay or lesbian adults were found to be more likely to be fully vaccinated (83.1%) than heterosexual (73.53%) or bisexual (72.6%) adults, and trans and nonbinary adults were slightly less likely than cisgender adults to be fully vaccinated (71.4% vs. 73.9%).

The findings include significant racial differences, which show that Black, non-Hispanic LGBTQ+ adults were less likely to be vaccinated than white, non-Hispanic LGBTQ+ adults or Hispanic LGBTQ+ adults. While vaccination rates (at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine) were similar for white (non-Hispanic), Black (non-Hispanic), and Hispanic heterosexual adults (76.5%, 74.2%, and 76.1%, respectively), differences emerged within LGBTQ+ populations. Gay or lesbian Black, non-Hispanic adults had a lower vaccination rate (66.8%) than Hispanic gay or lesbian adults (79.6%), who had a lower rate than white, non-Hispanic gay or lesbian adults (91.7%). Bisexual white (non-Hispanic) and Hispanic adults had similar vaccination rates (76.4% and 80.4%), but Black, non-Hispanic bisexual adults had a much lower rate of 68.6%. Similarly, Black (non-Hispanic) trans or nonbinary adults were less likely to be vaccinated than white (non-Hispanic) or Hispanic trans or nonbinary adults (69.3% vs. 77.5% and 78.1%).

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Minneapolis Police Killing of Amir Locke

On Wednesday, police in Minneapolis shot and killed Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man, while using a no-knock warrant. Body cam footage shows police entering the apartment while he was sleeping, and once they're inside, shouting at him and kicking the sofa he was sleeping on. Locke, startled out of sleep, disoriented, and correctly fearing for his safety, reached for his legally owned gun in order to protect himself from the violent intruders. Police then shot and killed him, justifying their actions based on a situation they had contrived. Based on the evidence, Locke's mother stated that he was "executed" by police. According to the St. Paul Interim Police Chief, Locke was not named in any of the warrants (the Minneapolis SWAT unit was serving warrants for the St. Paul Police Department).

As a result of the killing, the Minneapolis mayor imposed a moratorium on the use of no-knock warrants on Friday. He and police leadership will consult with experts who were involved in the ban on no-knock warrants in Louisville after the killing of Breonna Taylor. No-knock warrants have been more restricted in use in Minneapolis since late 2020, as a result of policy changes made after Minneaplis police killed George Floyd earlier that year.

The NAACP issued the following statement regarding the killing:

“A city that was marred by the public lynching of George Floyd less than two years ago has once again been thrust into the spotlight for what can only be described as unforgivable police practices. Amir Locke, 22, was not the subject of the MPD's warrant, had no prior police record, was in possession of a legal firearm, and is now the latest victim of what has become known as "police executions" across the country. Our communities cannot be asked to trust law enforcement on a consistent basis when the dead provide more answers than the living. Our communities cannot be asked to be patient as all the facts emerge, while law enforcement omits facts in the hopes of avoiding media backlash. A life was taken, which demands transparency, but perhaps more importantly, accountability. We demand that the MPD officer who killed Amir Locke be terminated immediately. During this difficult time, the NAACP would like to send thoughts, prayers, and comfort to Amir Locke's family. We are dedicated to ensuring that a badge is never used as a shield for accountability.”

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COVID-19 Deaths Continue to Rise in US

While new COVID-19 cases are finally starting to fall from the peak of the surge a few weeks ago, deaths are still rising. According to the CDC, on Friday, there were 289,747 new COVID-19 cases in the US, down from over 800,000 in mid-January. The current number is still higher than at any point in the pandemic before this winter's surge. At the same time, there were 2,404 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, which is the highest daily total in nearly a year. Daily deaths have been rising since November of 2021. The number of daily deaths is largely the result of unvaccinated people who are now dying from infections they caught in the last few weeks or months.

While Omicron cases tend to be milder and cases per day are decreasing, this may not change much for overwhelmed hospitals in the immediate future. The sheer number of cases per day is still massive, and hospitals are already at capacity treating people who are already sick or dying from the disease, most of whom were unvaccinated. With vaccination numbers still relatively low, the number of people getting sick and dying of the disease will remain unnecessarily high and continue to put pressure on health systems. Daily COVID-19 death rates in the US continue to be much higher than most other wealthy nations, due largely to low vaccination rates.

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Murderers of Ahmaud Arbery Withdraw Guilty Pleas after Judge Rejects Plea Deal in Hate Crimes Cases

Two of the men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery have withdrawn their guilty pleas in a separate federal hate crime case this week. On Monday, a federal judge rejected a plea deal between prosecutors and Travis McMichael, one of the murderers, that would have allowed him to serve his sentence in federal prison, instead of state prison. The judge rejected the deal after Arbery's family spoke out against it, and asked the judge not to grant it. The judge then gave Travis the option of withdrawing his guilty plea and going to trial, which he chose to do. His father, Greg McMichael, who has also already been convicted of murdering Arbery, withdrew his plea on Thursday. All three men convicted of murdering Arbery have already been sentenced to life in prison, but all will now be on trial for hate crimes.

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South African Scientists Make Breakthrough in Reproducing COVID-19 Vaccine

Researchers at Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a South African company working through a WHO program, say they have almost completed the process of reproducing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Recreating the vaccine is a critical step towards increasing vaccine availability in less wealthy countries, because while Moderna has pledged not to enforce its patents on the vaccine, the company (along with Pfizer) has refused to provide assistance and has directed most of the doses they have produced to wealthy countries. It's likely to take a year or more for a mass production to be possible, but it is hoped that it will make a major difference in long-term vaccination plans, particularly in places like Africa, where only about 10% of people have been fully vaccinated (largely due to a lack of doses).

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This Week's QM Round-Up Contributors (in alphabetical order):