Coronavirus Roundup: New Variants, Neil Young, Go Get Your Free N95 Masks, For Free
Free N-95 masks being distributed at a Hy-Vee store in Iowa. Image via WLS-TV / CNN

In addition to those free coronavirus home test kits (four per household, order here) you can get from the government, the Biden administration this week is rolling out delivery of 400 million free N95 masks at pharmacies and community health centers. Some pharmacies are distributing the masks already, while others expect to have them within the next week or so, with the program fully in place by early February. (We hear January is almost over, which sounds like a ridiculous rumor to us.) The masks are being released from the US Strategic National Stockpile to help fight the Omicron variant, which is more contagious than previous variants of the virus.

Unlike the test kit program, the free masks won't be available by mail; you'll need to drop by a participating pharmacy, which should include most of the major chains participating in the federal vaccination program, like Walgreens, Hy-Vee, Kroger, and Meijer, with other chains like CVS, Winn-Dixie, and Harveys Supermarket coming soon.

CNN says the initial distribution is starting in the Midwest, with other locations following soon. When will free masks be available in your area? Probably best to check local media! And once the masks are available near you, it probably wouldn't hurt to call the store ahead of time. [CNN]

The CDC recently updated its masking guidelines to recommend that you wear "the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently," emphasizing that any mask is better than no mask at all, but that the most protection comes from N95 or KN95 masks, while loose-fitting cloth masks are the least protective (but still better than no mask). [CDC]


Oh, A New Omicron Version? Sounds Fun.

The Washington Post reports in a non-paywalled article that there's a new version of the Omicron variant, called "BA.2," spreading in parts of Asia and Europe, according to the World Health Organization. Virologists are now calling the original Omicron version "BA.1," and both versions have that little period in there to mess with your autocorrect and make your phone think you started a new sentence. As of yet, there's no evidence that BA.2 is worse than regular Omicron in terms of its infectiousness or severity.

“Variants have come, variants have gone,” said Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University School of Medicine. “I don’t think there’s any reason to think this one is a whole lot worse than the current version of omicron.”

BA. 2 has been detected in India, Denmark and Britain, among other countries, according to health officials and media reports abroad. In Europe, it appears the most widespread in Denmark, but that may be because the Scandinavian nation has a robust program of sequencing the virus’s genome.

Three cases have been identified in the US so far, and at this point, there's not enough information about BA.2 to say whether it'll be of much concern, or more like a blue Toyota Camry instead of a whole new model. And even in Denmark, where it appears to have become the dominant Omicron version, virologist Anders Fomsgaard of the State Serum Institute told the Post by email that

we are not so concerned, since we so far do not see major differences in age distribution, vaccination status, breakthrough infections and risk of hospitalization. Also, despite the high infection rate of BA. 2, the numbers of hospitalizations [in] ICUs are decreasing.

Here's hoping BA.2 quickly becomes mostly a difficult trivia question; if not, you'll hear about it. [WaPo (no paywall)]


EU To Relax Travel Restrictions For Vaccinated EU Folks, Will Still Look Funny At Americans

The European Union will now allow residents in its 27 member states to travel freely within the EU if they have been vaccinated with two shots in the last nine months, or if they've recovered from COVID-19 in the same period, without additional testing or quarantine, the New York Times reports. The catch is that residents will have to have a digital COVID passport, which your fancy-schmancy European types are too sophisticated to realize is both the Mark of the Beast and an intolerable infringement on the Bill of Rights, which we hear European countries also do not have.

Under the new recommendation, E.U. residents with a Covid digital certificate recording their full course of vaccination, a certificate of recent recovery from the disease or a negative test result not older than 72 hours will be able to move freely across the bloc.

The rules, which come into force on Feb. 1, are aimed at coordinating travel restrictions across the bloc. Public health measures remain the remit of national governments, a dynamic that in the past has led to a patchwork of chaotic rules. Individual countries can still impose additional requirements on visitors, such as quarantines or negative test results.

People who haven't been vaccinated or recovered from the disease will still be subject to restrictions if they're traveling from parts of Europe with high circulation of the virus. They'll only be allowed to travel with a negative COVID test and will still need to quarantine and be tested. How about making them wear a badge saying "I'm practically American" in multiple languages? That'd motivate 'em!

Also too, to encourage booster shots, people whose two-dose vaccines are older than nine months will have to get a booster shot to keep their digital passport up to date. Wow, it's just like something out of Orwell, or even scarier, France.

US travelers to Europe are still subject to each country's own entry protocols; for the most part, vaccinated USA-ians aren't subject to quarantine, but may also need to show a negative test. Check your destination's regs before you travel, or stay home and read Wonkette, which is safest anyway. [NYT (free visitor account required) / Kayak.com]


FDA Limits Antibody Treatments That Don't Do Dick For Omicron

With Omicron now responsible for 99 percent of new COVID infections in the US, the Food and Drug Administration announced Monday that it had ended emergency use authorization for monoclonal antibody treatments from manufacturers Regeneron and Eli Lilly, because they don't work in preventing hospitalization or severe cases in people infected with Omicron. The treatments can still be "authorized in certain regions if they work against potential new variants," Reuters reports. Many health systems had already stopped using the monoclonal antibodies already; this makes it official.

One antibody treatment, from GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology, is still authorized, and the new antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck are also effective against Omicron (of the two, Pfizer is recommended because it has fewer side effects). While the manufacturers are increasing production, all three of those treatments, which are effective at keeping people out of the hospital if delivered within a short time of infection, are currently in short supply.

Also, because of the shortages of those drugs, the FDA has expanded the authorization for Remdesivir, the standard treatment for people hospitalized with COVID. It can now be given in an outpatient setting to adults and adolescents ages 12 and up who are at high risk for severe COVID, via IV infusion over a three-day period, to prevent hospitalization. Clinical trials showed that the outpatient treatment reduced risk of hospitalization or death by 87 percent. (Reuters / ContagionLive]

And of course, the bestest way to prevent hospitalization and death is to be fully vaccinated and boosted. But you knew that!


Judge Tosses New York Mask Mandate, New York Appeals

New York will appeal a state Supreme Court judge's decision Monday that struck down the state's indoor mask mandate. The mandate was set to expire February 1. The New York Times reports,

In his six-page decision, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademacher wrote that [Gov, Kathy] Hochul and state health officials lacked the authority to enact the mask mandate without the approval of state lawmakers, and that it violated the state constitution. Regardless of the “well aimed” intentions of state officials, such authority is “entrusted solely to the State Legislature,” Justice Rademacher wrote.

The office of New York Attorney General Letitia James has already filed a notice of intent to appeal the ruling, and a spokesperson for the state Education Department said the appeal means the state's mandate will remain in effect in public schools.

Because New York is weird that way, the state Supreme Court isn't the final decision; the state Court of Appeal can still overturn Rademacher's ruling. [NYT (free account required)]


Another Reason To Like Neil Young

Neil Young has asked his management team to get his music off Spotify because he doesn't want to share a streaming platform with the anti-vaxx loonies on the Joe Rogan podcast.

In a letter that has since been removed from his website, Young wrote,

I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines — potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them. [...]

I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform. They can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both.

Neil Young is joined in his opposition to Rogan's distribution of vaccine misinformation by a group of 270 doctors and science educators who complained in an open letter last month that Spotify "has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy."

Unfortunately, the doctors and educators noted the reason Spotify is unlikely to stem the flow of vaccine lies; they pointed out that the "Joe Rogan Experience" podcast has something like 11 million listeners per episode — sure, they meant to say that's a lot of people getting bad info, but damn, look at all those people choosing bad info. [Rolling Stone]

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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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