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Covid-19 case drop: Could it be the calm before a variant-driven storm?

Where are we now in the Covid-19 pandemic? The two existing vaccines are reaching more people, and soon the country will likely have a third. Cases and hospitalizations have fallen precipitously since their peaks last month, and now deaths — a lagging indicator — have turned downward from once unimaginably high levels. But experts fear the decline might be temporary, thanks to more transmissible and maybe deadlier variants, STAT’s Andrew Joseph reports. Facing this prospect are public health staff at CDC, whose new head Rochelle Walensky acknowledged to STAT’s Helen Branswell that morale at the agency had suffered under the Trump administration. “These bruises are going to take a long time to heal.” And the pandemic? “I’m pretty optimistic, except that we have the threat of variants.”

Nursing schools told to pay up for 18-year-old government mistake 

The federal government miscalculated funding for hospital-based nursing schools for 18 years, and now the Biden administration is forcing them to pay up during the worst health care workforce crisis in decades. Nursing schools across the country say it could force cutbacks and even closures. Illinois-based OSF HealthCare is already weighing which of its two nursing schools will close. “CMS is well-intentioned in trying to fix something, but the way they are doing it is tone-deaf, by taking money from nursing schools during the pandemic,” Chris Manson, vice president of government relations for the system, told STAT’s Rachel Cohrs. OSF estimates the government could demand $11.5 million from them for old miscalculations.

Who wants the Covid-19 vaccine?

Willingness to be vaccinated against Covid-19 is rising among Americans, a new CDC poll comparing sentiment in September to December reports, but nearly a third still say they would decline the vaccine if it were free and available today. People who signaled their intent to be vaccinated stepped up from 39% to 49% and people who did not slipped from 38% to 32%. That held true across all ages and priority groups set by a national advisory committee, but some people were more likely to say no: younger adults, women, Black adults, adults living outside cities, and adults with less education, lower income, and no health insurance. Their main concerns: safety, side effects, and how quickly the vaccines were developed.

Inside STAT: Doctors call on FDA to study racial disparities in accuracy of pulse oximeters


A long-documented, under-the-radar disparity is garnering new attention as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on: Some pulse oximeters, which measure oxygen levels and are critical to decisions about patient care, aren’t as accurate in Black patients and other people of color. New research has drawn the interest of lawmakers and clinicians, who want the FDA to launch sweeping studies to analyze how well pulse oximeters work in a diverse pool of patients. “For centuries, white males have been the base for medical research,” Utibe Essien of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine tells STAT. “Going back to the data and saying, ‘where did we go wrong?’ and addressing that is going to be critical.” STAT’s Erin Brodwin and Nicholas St. Fleur have more.

Fresh air, it's not

Subway commuters in the Northeast Corridor, you may want to hold your breath. A study out today reports that pre-pandemic air samples taken at 71 subway stations during rush hours had pollution levels two to seven times higher than the air above ground. New York’s system exposed riders to the most pollution via particulate matter, followed by Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. Worst stations: Christopher Street connecting New York and New Jersey, Capitol South in Washington, Broadway in Boston, 2nd Avenue on the F line New York City, and 30th Street in Philadelphia. “Exposures in at least some underground stations may be high enough to increase the risk of the adverse health effects, …  even if they occur for relatively short periods of time,” the authors write.

'Leaps and bounds': New dog reference genome reduces gaps 

Dogs and people have lived side by side for tens of thousands of years, sharing not just companionship but also some diseases. Scientists have learned about cancer and immunological diseases from dogs’ medical and breeding records, as well as their genomes, released about the same time as humans'. Now new methods for DNA sequencing and annotation will help scientists better understand the link between DNA and disease, in dogs and humans. Fresh data from these tools allow scientists to identify functional variants underlying complex traits in difficult-to-sequence regions. "We believe that the catalogues generated here ... will propel the comparison of canine and human genetic disease forward by leaps and bounds," the authors of a new study write. And the very good dog to thank is Mischka, a 12-year-old female German Shepherd selected as the source for the high-quality reference genome assembly.

Covid-19 cases in the U.S.

Cases yesterday: 95,360
Deaths yesterday: 3,131

What to read around the web today

  • Was it T-cells or prayer? 116-year-old nun survives Covid-19. Associated Press
  • Atul Gawande says Haven experience is helping shape his Covid-19 response work. STAT+
  • NYC nursing home gave dozens of veterans experimental Covid-19 treatments. Some families had no idea. The City
  • WHO is fighting false Covid info on social media. How's that going? NPR
  • Pandemic-fueled alcohol abuse creates wave of hospitalizations for liver disease. KHN

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,

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