03/10/2022

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China cuts travel quarantine but retains zero-Covid approach


The nation has some of the world’s strictest entry requirements, mandating most inbound travelers to spend at least 14 days at a government quarantine facility followed by seven days of isolation at home. On Tuesday, the National Health Commission said incoming visitors need only spend seven days at a quarantine facility and three days at home.

No start date was provided for the new move nor is it considered a sign of the impending end of China’s strict “zero-Covid” policy, which has seen entire communities and cities shut down over just a handful of coronavirus cases.

On Tuesday, China’s President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the country’s “zero-Covid” policy during his visit to Wuhan, saying that he would rather “temporarily sacrifice a little economic growth” than “harm people’s health,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

Today, the world’s most populous nation remains an outlier for its continued zero-tolerance approach, which has seen cities across China — including Beijing and Shanghai — recently placed under full or partial lockdown. The strategy has wrecked economic activities and hurt the job market. In May, the unemployment rate for people aged 16-24 hit a record high of 18.4%.

A health worker takes a swab sample from a man at a makeshift testing site outside a shopping mall in Beijing on June 15, 2022.

Having backed themselves into a corner with their earlier rhetoric, China’s leaders feel unable to change tack — even in the light of more transmissible coronavirus variants like Omicron — without an acute loss of face. When World Health Organization (WHO) chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the strategy “unsustainable” in May, his comments were scrubbed from the internet by Chinese censors. 

Tuesday’s announced rule change comes a day after Beijing Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper for the Chinese capital, sparked panic after it appeared to publish a misleading quote by a senior Communist Party official, claiming the “zero-Covid” policy would remain in place in the city “for the next five years.”

Beijing Daily removed the quote, calling it an “editing error,” and reference to it was deleted from the internet as Chinese censors sought to allay a huge online backlash. CNN reviewed the entire speech and while the published quote from Beijing Daily was misleading, Beijing’s party chief Cai Qi did discuss at length the possibility of keeping zero-Covid policies in place in the capital over the next five-year period.

The pandemic controls that would stay in place include routine PCR tests, strict entry rules, regular health checks in residential neighborhoods and public venues, as well as rigorous monitoring and testing for people entering and leaving Beijing, state media quoted Cai as saying.

Questions are being raised as to how long Beijing can keep the policy on the road as citizens lose patience. While Shanghai ended its brutal two-month lockdown at the start of June, many communities are reintroducing confinement measures. One viral video — which has since been removed from Chinese social media — captured a recent protest at a Shanghai compound.

It shows residents crowded along the fence, demanding to be released and imploring authorities to stop sending Covid-negative residents to quarantine facilities, just because they live in a building in the vicinity of a Covid positive case. One of them — who says through a loudspeaker, “We are being illegally imprisoned” — is promptly taken away by the authorities. Another sticks his middle fingers up at Covid-rule enforcers in hazmat suits.

Despite the palpable anger from the public, NHC spokesperson Mi Feng said Tuesday that the new quarantine requirements were not intended to loosen Covid controls, but rather to promote “more scientific and targeted” measures. 

YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.

Q: How effective are the updated Covid-19 boosters against the Omicron variant?

A: The two Pfizer and BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine boosters that were updated to target the Omicron variant show a much higher immune response than the current shot, the companies said on Saturday.

Pfizer Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla said in a news release that they believe they “have two very strong Omicron-modified candidates that elicit a substantially higher immune response against Omicron than we’ve seen to date.”

The study looked at two different dose levels — 30 micrograms and 60 micrograms — in over 1,000 adults aged 56 and over. The current dosage for this age group is 30 micrograms for both the primary and booster shots. A fourth booster, across both dose levels, showed a substantially higher immune response.

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FDA advisers vote to include Omicron-specific component for booster as BA.4 and BA.5 become the dominant cause of infections in the US

The US Food and Drug Administration’s independent Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted Tuesday to support recommending inclusion of an Omicron-specific component for a Covid-19 booster vaccine.

The committee felt that a modified vaccine would offer a broader protection against the strain in circulation now, which are the two Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

In just the last week, BA.4 and BA.5 accounted for around 52.3% of Covid-19 cases in the United States — up by 37.4% from the week before. These subvariants are genetically different to other versions of the virus. Several studies have shown that BA.4 and BA.5 are able to evade much of the immune protection from vaccines and prior infections, which is likely helping them spread quickly. 

The severity of the virus varies by country. In South Africa, its BA.4/BA.5 wave led to an increase in Covid-19 cases but did not increase the risk of hospitalization. In Europe, cases and hospitalizations are rising as BA.4 and BA.5 become the dominant strain. It remains to be seen what the impact will be in the US.

Long Covid can affect children, including infants

Even the youngest children can experience long Covid, according to a large study that included 44,000 children in Denmark from ages zero to 14 years old, Jen Christensen reports.

The study, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, found that children who had previously tested positive were more likely to experience at least one symptom for two months or more compared to children who had never tested positive. Symptoms of long Covid include headaches, mood swings, stomach problems and tiredness. The most common symptoms varied by age.

“Although the chances of children experiencing long Covid is low especially compared to the control group, it must be recognized and treated seriously,” Selina Kikkenborg Berg, a co-author of the study and a professor of cardiology at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, said, adding that their findings aligned with previous studies looking at long Covid.

Covid is still keeping hospitals backed up

New Covid admissions are relatively low, but the ripple effect from the pandemic is keeping beds full and patients away from the care they need, Deidre McPhillips reports. 

Most nursing homes are limiting new patients because of staffing shortages, driving the average hospital stay longer than it was pre-pandemic.

In Washington, about 10% of patients currently in hospital beds no longer need hospital care, said Cassie Sauer, chief executive officer of the Washington State Hospital Association. Most are waiting for a spot at a nursing home or mental health facility.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that hundreds of thousands of employees have left the nursing home industry since the start of the pandemic. More than 60% of nursing homes are limiting new admissions because of staffing shortages, according to a survey conducted by the American Health Care Association in May, with most saying it has gotten worse since January. 

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, said the pandemic has “made a really difficult job even tougher.”

TOP TIP

People suffering from poor vision or blindness can now sign up for free at-home Covid-19 test kits in the US. 

White House Covid-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said “an issue raised consistently was that individuals who are blind or low vision are often unable to utilize rapid self-tests on their own.” 

On Thursday, the Biden administration rolled out tests designed to be more accessible for the visually impaired, and they can be ordered for free from Covidtests.gov — which ships the tests through the US Postal Service.

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Published for: WATPFC