COVID-19 Cases on the Rise; Lack of Data in the US

COVID-19 cases are rising in many countries, due to a combination of the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron BA.2 subvariant and the lifting of critical public health measures. Making matters worse, we don't know how many more cases there are now, because the systems we had been using to track COVID-19 cases are no longer effective. In the United States, for example, testing used to be conducted at centralized, professional facilities, with all results entered into county and state health department databases, and finally reported to the CDC. Now, most testing is being conducted using at-home tests and results are not being reported to health departments. As a result, the number of positive cases detected is only a small fraction of what's actually occurring, incorrectly making it look like there are very few cases in comparison to times earlier in the pandemic when we had more accurate data. Even if the US was averaging 1 million new cases every day (which would be a record high), if 95% of those don't get reported, the data would only show 50,000 new cases per day, which would make it seem like things are doing fairly well compared to past surges. Any claims you see made by officials, the media, or other people regarding the low number of COVID-19 cases need to be considered through this lens.

The situation is similar in many countries around the world, but even with most cases not being tracked, there was an 8% rise in reported cases worldwide last week. China went as far as to put 37 million people back into lockdown this week, due to the surge in cases there.

The US has followed trends of countries like the UK for much of the pandemic, and a sharp rise in cases in the United Kingdom suggests that a similar increase is likely to hit the US in coming weeks. With most people no longer wearing masks or avoiding crowded places, cases can easily spread.

Without reliable data on case rates, the only data that can be used is death rates and hospitalizations due to COVID-19. Currently, more than 1,000 people per day are dying of COVID-19 in the US, and over 2,700 people per day are getting admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. While these numbers are trending downward from the most recent peak in January and February, they are still far too high to consider the pandemic to be a thing of the past. Please get vaccinated and boosted, and wear a mask in crowded public places.

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Florida Legislature Passes Two Controversial Laws

This month, the Florida Legislature passed two controversial laws limiting certain education in K-12 schools that are currently waiting to be signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis. Florida lawmakers approved HB 7, known as the “Individual Freedom” bill, which bans education in schools and workplaces that makes one group feel guilty for historical events, pits one race or group of people as morally superior, or that teaches that anyone can be inherently racist or sexist. While the bill does not specifically mention Critical Race Theory (CRT), the bill lends itself to addressing it. Opponents of the bill say that learning the actual history of the United States is crucial and this bill has vague language which might prevent race education overall. Supporters of the bill feel that students should not be taught lessons that will make them feel ashamed of things their ancestors might have done. This bill is in line with many that have popped up across the country opposing CRT and other related topics, even though CRT is not taught in K-12 schools. Learning historical facts and understanding the gravity of racism in this country is an important step to dismantling racism, and efforts to protect white people from feeling uncomfortable by hiding the current and historical realities of racism upholds white supremacy. By limiting teaching about racism in schools and other venues, we continue to perpetuate history being told from only one side. 

A few days after HB 7 was approved, the legislature also passed HB1557/SB1834, known as the Parentals Rights In Education bill, but also commonly called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This bill bans any education about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd grade and prevents instruction in other grades that is not deemed age or developmentally appropriate. Supporters argue that this bill will give parents more control over what students learn in school and protect traditional family values. Opponents call out what harm can be done by this bill. It threatens acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ students and is itself discriminatory. Cisgender people in heterosexual relationship will continue to be included in educational content and classrooms for all ages, while LGBTQ+ identities and existence will be excluded. The bill rests on a false belief that trans people and people who aren’t straight are inherently sexual and inappropriate for children to know about while cisgender, straight people are not. There is a lack of understanding around sexual orientation and gender identity and passing bills that limit education only lend to the misunderstanding and fear. Treating LGBTQ+ identities as something outside the norm that cannot be included in childrens’ classes further marginalizes them. The country has seen many anti-trans bills pop up over the past few years and this is no exception. All of these bills signal that there is still much work to be done around LGBTQ+ acceptance and truly valuing individuals regardless of their identity. 

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New Audit Shows Racial Disparities and Discrimination in Lansing Schools

Findings from a new audit by found racial disparities in Lansing schools. The preliminary data was provided to the Lansing Board of Education on Thursday. Among the findings:

Black and multiracial students were more than twice as likely to be suspended than white students, and black girls were more than twice as likely to receive disciplinary referrals as others. While white students were found to be typically disciplined for objective issues like physically pushing or hitting someone, teachers frequently disciplined Black students for subjective things like "disrespect" or being "disorderly." The findings also noted that Black students were more likely to be suspended when they were referred for discipline.

Black students had lower overall achievement (for example, a lower percentage meeting certain proficiency thresholds on statewide tests like M-STEP), and a lack of culturally responsive education, as well as bias against students of color and lower expectations for them, were listed as causes of the gap. AP access was also found to be more limited for Black students and other students of color. Among the causes were limited transportation and library access (including limits on book borrowing due to library fines), which are barriers that disproportionately impact students of color. In other words, the curriculum, teaching methods, teacher behaviors, and school policies are largely centered around the success of white students.

Survey results also indicated other issues with racism in Lansing schools, including racist teachers.

The full report will be released in a few weeks.

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Ohio Woman Charged With Threatening Black Michigan Legislators

A woman from Ohio left threatening phone messages with two Black legislators in Michigan, Sarah Anthony (Democrat, representing the 68th District, which includes much of Lansing and some surrounding areas) and Cynthia Johnson (Democrat, representing the 5th District in Detroit). The threats reportedly include racial and gender slurs and refer to killing the Representatives. The messages include statements that "We'll be coming to Michigan soon to remove you from your post," "You’re going to die," and "You won’t see the bullet coming. Let me tell you that." The woman has been charged with terrorism, ethnic intimidation, and malicious use of a telecommunications service.

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Generic Drugmakers To Make Pfizer COVID-19 Treatment Pill

In a recent announcement by the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), they stated that Pfizer had signed on to an agreement with 35 companies to make a generic version of their antiviral COVID-19 pill, Paxlovid (generic name nirmatrelvir). According to Pfizer themselves, the drug was shown to be highly effective against preventing hospitalization as well as being effective against the Omicron variant. Per clinical trial data, Paxlovid was shown to be better at reducing hospitalizations due to COVID-19 than Merck’s COVID-19 treatment, molnupiravir. Both treatments are part of agreements to produce generic versions so that they are much more affordable. According to the agreement, the 35 generic drug companies that are part of this first agreement are based in at least 12 countries, including India, Israel, China, and the United States. Of note, Pfizer will not be receiving any royalties for the sale of this generic drug as long as COVID-19 remains classified as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” by the WHO. After the pandemic, royalties may exist, however lower income countries will remain royalty-free. In addition, while these generic drug companies ramp up production, Pfizer will donate 10 million courses of Paxlovid to low- and middle-income countries.

While this is great news in terms of making an accessible treatment to COVID-19, prevention is still better. As cases rise globally from the BA.2 variant of Omicron, a treatment may be an effective tool in reducing hospitalizations, however continuing to wear masks, socially distance, and getting vaccinated and boosted are still the safest ways of preventing infection and protecting yourself and others. It is also important to note that the Pfizer vaccine could also potentially follow this path for greater global equity but this is not the case currently.

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