COVID in California: Pandemic food assistance program to end – San Francisco Chronicle

Weekly COVID-19 trends continue downward, as new cases decline, along with hospitalizations, according to CDC tracking. One of the longest-standing mask mandated in the United States is now rescinded, in Navajo Nation. President Biden is said to have picked the man who ran his administration’s pandemic response to fill the key role of White House chief of staff.

CDC plan would recommend less frequent testing

Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they anticipate substantial changes in the agency’s testing guidance to “de-emphasize the need for asymptomatic screening tests.” The new guidance, not yet finalized and cleared, will recommend testing only for people who are showing symptoms or recently had direct exposure to COVID-19, Natalie Thornburg, CDC respiratory virus immunology team lead, told a webinar hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America on Saturday.

“We’re moving towards a direction of saying testing is really important when someone is symptomatic, or when you’ve had a known exposure, and really deemphasizing the need for screening tests in many contexts — many, but not all contexts,” she said. Thornburg would not specify if the new policy would apply to public gatherings, new hospital admissions, or pre-procedure patients. But she did seem to imply that rapid tests have become less reliable with newer strains of the virus.

“We expect to have some updated guidance soon, but it’s not been cleared yet,” she said. “In summary, some of the changes that will be made are a greater emphasis on the utility of using diagnostics for symptomatic patients and asymptomatic persons who have a known exposure to COVID-19, and de-emphasize the need for asymptomatic screening tests, to describe the limitations of some kinds of diagnostic tests, and talk through a little bit more detail on how to interpret test results.”

Pandemic SNAP program benefits coming to an end

The temporary boost to SNAP benefits put in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, known as emergency allotments, will end nationwide in February, according to an update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The policy, which allotted at least an additional $95 each month to individuals who qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unofficially known as food stamps, for low-income people, was cut by Congress as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act. SNAP benefit amounts return to normal for all SNAP households. The change also applies to CalFresh recipients in California.

For households that also receive Social Security, their SNAP benefit may decrease because of their newly higher Social Security benefit, according to the agency website, with the latter change due to the significant cost of living increase to Social Security benefits that took effect on Jan. 1. 

Low booster uptake behind once-a-year vaccine plan

The Food and Drug Administration’s proposal on Monday to simplify future vaccination approaches, allowing most adults and children to get a once-a-year shot to protect against the mutating virus, was partially prompted by low uptake of the updated bivalent booster. While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, only 16% of those eligible have received the latest boosters authorized in August, the Associated Press reports. In documents posted online, FDA scientists say many Americans now have “sufficient preexisting immunity” against the coronavirus because of vaccination, infection or a combination of the two. That baseline of protection should be enough to move to an annual booster against the latest strains in circulation and make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the yearly flu shot, according to the agency. For adults with weakened immune systems and very small children, a two-dose combination may be needed for protection. FDA scientists and vaccine companies would study vaccination, infection rates and other data to decide who should receive a single shot versus a two-dose series.

Highly evasive CH.1.1 subvariant takes off in the U.K.

The latest coronavirus offshoot, an omicron strain called CH.1.1., comprised nearly one-quarter of all cases in England last week, data show. The subvariant is likely to edge out the currently dominant BQ.1 in the United Kingdom, according to a report from the UK Health Security Agency. “Two variants, CH.1.1 and XBB.1.5, appear to have a growth advantage in the UK,” its weekly report said. Since CH.1.1 was discovered in the country in November it has spread to account for 23.1% of all cases in England and could make up as much as 100% of cases in some regions, it said. In a recent study posted to bioRxiv preprint server, Ohio State University researchers found that CH.1.1 showed “extraordinary evasion” to neutralization by the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine. But while CH.1.1 joins XBB.1.5 and CA.3.1 among the subvariants that are growing in proportion globally, infectious disease experts are not certain if the latest strain will drive another wave of cases and hospitalizations. The latest data from UKHSA showed a 26% drop in cases in the U.K. last week compared to the previous week.

Annual COVID shots in the mix for FDA evaluation

The Food and Drug Administration’s expert panel looking at COVID-19 vaccine strategy will likely aim to simplify the cadence of the shots, following the approach that is used annually to combat the flu — with a formula that is modified to combat the current strain of the virus available in the fall, according to briefing documents released Monday.  FDA’s Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will vote on the agency’s proposal on Thursday.

“The complexities associated with the differences in composition and regimens of the currently authorized and approved COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., the still incomplete understanding of SARS-CoV-2 immunology, and the absence of an established framework to inform periodic vaccine composition updates, leave open scientific and policy questions regarding simplifying the immunization schedule and updating the current COVID-19 vaccines for future vaccination campaigns,” the documents said.

Former White House COVID chief said to be Biden’s pick for next chief of staff

President Biden is expected to name Jeff Zients, who ran the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of Biden’s term, as his next chief of staff, the Associated Press and other outlets are reporting, citing anonymous sources. Biden’s current top aide, Ron Klain, is leaving the job in the coming weeks. Since serving as COVID-19 response coordinator, Zients has returned to the White House in a low-profile position to work on staffing matters for the remainder of Biden’s first term. 

FDA advisory board meets on future COVID-19 vaccine regimens

The Food and Drug Administration’s advisory committee on vaccines meets this week to discuss the future vaccination regimens addressing COVID-19. The public meeting will be livestreamed Thursday strting at 8:30 a.m. The committee will consider “whether and how the composition for primary doses of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines should be modified and how and whether the composition and schedule for booster doses should be adjusted moving forward.” Along with the independent experts of the advisory committee, representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health will also participate in the meeting.

Berkeley salvage yard not only survives but thrives in pandemic

The Urban Ore salvage yard in Berkeley, with its rows of secondhand clothes, appliances from ages past and well-loved wooden furniture, seemed early in the pandemic like it might have a hard time survivng as its sales tanked. But something unexpected happened, the store ended up breaking gross sales records for the next couple of years. Read more about how the unusual space stayed afloat and thrived.

Navajo Nation now can go mask free

The Navajo Nation has rescinded a mask mandate that’s been in effect since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, fulfilling a pledge that new tribal President Buu Nygren made while campaigning for the office. The mandate was one of the longest-standing anywhere in the U.S. and applied broadly to businesses, government offices and tourist destinations on the vast reservation, which extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. The tribe at one point had one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country and among the strictest measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. Nygren and Navajo Nation Council Delegate Otto Tso, who temporarily is overseeing the tribe’s legislative branch, jointly announced the lifting of the mask mandate on social media Friday evening. They cited figures from tribal health officials that show there’s a low risk of transmission, based on the seven-day incidence rate of 51 cases per 100,000 people.

Japan to downgrade COVID-19 status, enabling reduction in restrictions

Japan is downgrading the status of COVID-19 in the next three months to a Class 5 disease, the same level as seasonal influenza, according to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The government will re-examine pandemic preventive measures such as mask wearing, Voice of America reports. Speaking to reporters Friday, Kishida said he instructed officials to examine the specific requirements for a reclassification of COVID, as well as conduct a review of pandemic restrictions that have been in place for nearly three years. Japan currently classifies COVID-19 as a Class 2 infectious disease, like tuberculosis and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. 

That status allows the government to take extensive steps aimed at preventing its spread, such as limitations on the movements of infected people and their close contacts. A downgrade in classification would mark a significant step toward normalizaling social and economic activities in Japan, and would probably result in foreigners being able to enter Japan without PCR tests or quarantine.

U.S. sees relief as cases, hospitalizations and deaths fall

The seven-day average of weekly new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. decreased by 23.9% compared with the previous week’s average, falling to 47,459 from 62,397, according to updated figures released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average number of daily hospitalizations also decreased by 16.4% to 5,014 from the prior week’s average of 5,997. After tallying the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities since late August last week, confirmed COVID-19 deaths also show signs of slowing with the current daily average of 565 marking a 6.1% improvement over the previous average of 601. Better yet, the health agency’s weekly report shows the prevalence of the fall’s most prominent viruses — the flu, respiratory syncytial virus and COVID — trending down at a rapid rate, with emergency room visits following suit.