Briefing for April 5-9, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

Briefing for April 5-9, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

We are struck that one of the few certainties about the coronavirus outbreak is that low-income communities and workers in low-income, service sector occupations will be disproportionately impacted — likely in devastating fashion.

One step in combatting this will be to share information about what is happening and what can be done. That’s why we are offering a daily news service summarizing relevant stories, which you can read below.

If you would like to receive a daily briefing, feel free to email to subscribe.

Briefing for April 9, 2021

12 months of trauma  More than 3,600 healthcare workers died in COVID-19’s first year: More than 3,600 U.S. health care workers perished in the first year of the pandemic, according to “Lost on the Frontline,” a 12-month investigation by The Guardian and KHN to track such deaths. Lost on the Frontline is the most complete accounting of U.S. health care worker deaths. The federal government has not comprehensively tracked this data, but calls are mounting for the Biden administration to undertake a count as the KHN/Guardian project came to a close on Thursday. The project, which tracked who died and why, provides a window into the workings — and failings — of the U.S. health system during the COVID-19 pandemic. One key finding: Two-thirds of deceased health care workers for whom the project has data identified as people of color, revealing the deep inequities tied to race, ethnicity, and economic status in America’s health care workforce. Lower-paid workers who handled everyday patient care, including nurses, support staff, and nursing home employees, were far more likely to die in the pandemic than physicians were. 

Biden revokes Medicaid work rules in two more states: From Stateline: “The Biden administration has rescinded permissions for Michigan and Wisconsin to require Medicaid beneficiaries to either work or attend school or job training in order to enroll in the public health program for lower-income Americans. The administration’s actions follow recissions of similar requirements in Arkansas and New Hampshire. The Trump administration embraced the idea of requiring Medicaid beneficiaries to work, prompting a number of Republican-leaning states to apply for permission to impose such requirements in their Medicaid programs. Under President Donald Trump, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services granted permission to 12 states. Seven others are still waiting for a decision, although the chances of approval by the new administration are unlikely. Even states that received approval have not enforced work requirements, because federal courts invalidated the rules. Arkansas is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse lower court rulings and allow it to resume implementation of the requirement. The court could decide the issue is moot now because of the Biden administration’s objections. Both Michigan and Wisconsin’s Democratic governors opposed the requirements, which they inherited from previous Republican administrations.”

Overdose deaths may have topped 90,000 in 2020: The Washington Post reports that while final data won’t be available until near the end of this year, an analysis of preliminary data by the Commonwealth Fund found that shortly after the pandemic started, monthly overdose deaths spiked 50% to more than 9,000 deaths in May. Based on additional estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that deaths remained elevated for much of the rest of 2020, Commonwealth researchers estimated the year’s total overdose deaths could have exceeded 90,000 — up from 70,630 in 2019. That would be the largest single-year percentage increase in the past two decades. “Coronavirus will stabilize, but you’re going to see overdoses go up, sadly,” said Gary Mendell, founder of the group Shatterproof, which seeks to reduce stigma around seeking help for opioid use disorder. 

What other places can learn from Santa Rosa’s tent city: Kaiser Health News looks at the potential lessons learned from the decision by city officials in Santa Rosa, CA to house homeless residents in a mass tent encampment — a decision that would have been politically impossible before the crisis conditions of the pandemic. “Santa Rosa’s tent city opened May 18. And, not too long after, something remarkable happened. Finley Park residents stopped protesting and started dropping off donations of goods — food, clothing, hand sanitizer. The tennis and pickleball courts, an afternoon favorite for retirees, were bustling again. Parents and kids once more crowded the nearby playground. And inside that towering green perimeter, people started getting their lives together. From May to late November, Santa Rosa would spend $680,000 to supply and manage the site, a six-month experiment that would chart a new course for the city’s approach to homeless services. As cities across California wrestle with a crisis of homelessness that has drawn international condemnation, the Santa Rosa experience suggests a way forward. Rather than engage in months of paralyzing discussion with neighborhood opponents before committing to a housing or shelter project, city officials decided their role was to lead and inform. They would identify project sites and drive forward, using neighborhood feedback to tailor improvements to a plan — but not to kill it. It was a watershed moment of action that would echo across Sonoma County. ‘We know we’re pissing off a lot of people — they’re rising up and saying Hell, no!’ said county Supervisor James Gore, president of the California State Association of Counties. ‘But we can’t just keep saying no. That’s been the failed housing policy of the last 30 to 40 years. Everybody wants a solution, but they don’t want to see that solution in their neighborhoods.’” 

Does sending a child to school change a family’s risk of COVID-19? A report from Education Week: “The rate of COVID-19 infection in a school’s broader community is considered the most important factor in determining whether it is safe to return students to in-person instruction, and a new study highlights why: Even when the school doesn’t see outbreaks, students may be bringing the coronavirus home to vulnerable family members. A new working paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that when schools have in-person instruction, families with school-age children have a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus — and the burden of that risk falls heaviest on the lowest-income communities. ‘There’s a concern that when children go to school in person that they not only transmit between children,’ said Christopher Whaley, policy researcher at RAND and a co-author of the study with colleagues Dena Bravata, Jonathan Cantor, and Neeraj Sood. ‘Your one child may transmit COVID-19 to another child, but a potentially bigger concern is that the child may get infected and then transmit to other members of the household. And given the risk profiles of COVID, infections for older people are more risky and potentially more harmful.’” 

Thousands in PA prisons will be offered vaccines: From Spotlight PA: “All people who live and work inside Pennsylvania’s prisons will soon be offered the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, ending a long wait exacerbated by a lack of transparency about coronavirus infections. At least 11 of the state’s 23 prisons have started to receive the vaccine, with thousands of inmates and corrections staff expected to be offered a shot in coming weeks, according to corrections officials and incarcerated people. That’s a significant expansion of availability. In February, only three prisons designated as medical facilities — SCI-Laurel Highlands, Muncy, and Waymart — were offered the Moderna vaccine.” 

Briefing for April 8, 2021

Low-income families left waiting for billions in food aid: Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reports: “Seven months into the school year, millions of low-income families are still waiting for billions of dollars in federal food aid that was supposed to compensate them for school meals that were missed during remote learning. The Biden administration recently accelerated the rollout, but the program remains mired in bureaucracy, as states struggle with numerous logistical issues, from tracking student eligibility and addresses to getting approval from USDA to provide aid. Nearly half of states still haven’t sent any of the money out, even as child hunger rates remain near record highs. Congress first created the $2 billion-a-month program called Pandemic-EBT, or P-EBT, last spring during the early days of the pandemic when schools were shuttered to give households a debit card to buy groceries. Lawmakers extended it for the whole school year in September as families continued to grapple with school disruption. The slow rollout shows the pitfalls of standing up new bureaucratic channels during an emergency. It also could be exacerbating alarmingly high rates of child hunger. One in six households with children is reporting they do not have enough to eat, a rate much higher than even in the depths of the Great Recession. Researchers found the first round of the aid that went out last year alleviated hunger for millions of children.” 

Why we need better data to tackle vaccine inequities: Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University, writes for Bloomberg Cities that the vaccine inequities many cities are experiencing can only be fixed with better data. “All of the data we have access to is voluntarily reported and collected by shoestring operations in state and local governments who struggle to keep up. For every state that has put serious effort into building up their data infrastructure during the pandemic, there’s another who hasn’t. This is one place where we need more guidance from the federal government — and requirements to collect detailed data in return for vaccine supplies and aid for distributing them. Early signals from the Biden Administration point to a deep appreciation for these disparities, with emergency funding soon to land in state coffers, but there is still significant work to be done to get all those who want to be vaccinated the access they need. Most importantly, we must insist that investments made in closing the vaccination gaps extend to getting more access to testing for priority populations, and that this moment becomes a catalyst for widespread public health reform.”   

‘Vaccine Fairies’ are helping vulnerable Americans get vaccine appointments: A story from NBC News profiling a few of the many Americans who have taken it upon themselves to try to help book vaccine appointments for those who may need a helping hand: “There are organized groups of vaccination volunteers online, as well, including a nonprofit called ‘Vaccine Fairy’ that was launched this month and which claims to have secured nearly 8,000 appointments nationwide. And they are not alone. In Harvard, Massachusetts, which is about 30 miles west of the famous Ivy League university, a group of women who call themselves the ‘Vaccine Fairy Brigade’ have booked about 750 appointments since February, the local newspaper, The Harvard Press, reported. Public health expert Summer Johnson McGee said volunteers like these play a vital role in ensuring that more and more Americans get their COVID-19 vaccinations. But the fact that ‘vaccination fairies’ even exist speaks volumes about how unprepared the federal government and states were when the first shots started became available in January, she said. ‘Our need for Vaccine Fairies to assist older adults with vaccination appointments is a clear indicator of our lack of public health infrastructure and planning around the vaccination rollout,’ said McGee, who is the dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences.” 

Biden administration to launch massive funeral assistance program for COVID-19 victims: From the Washington Post: “The Biden administration next week will launch a funeral assistance program that will provide up to $9,000 to cover the burial costs of each American who died of COVID-19 — the largest program of its type ever offered by the federal government. The program is open to families regardless of their income, as long as they show documentation and have not already received similar benefits through another program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has reimbursed burial costs before, but it has never offered as large a payment to so many people. In 2017, for example, FEMA paid $2.6 million to 976 people for funeral costs of victims of three hurricanes — an average of $2,664 per applicant. But the immense toll of the novel coronavirus means a burial assistance program of an unprecedented scale is now being assembled.” 

Essential workers should get two days paid leave for COVID-19 vaccine side effects: In an op-ed for USA Today, Dr. Brita Roy and Dr. Howard P. Forman of Yale University call for a new national policy to encourage more essential workers to be vaccinated without the fear of having to take time off to recuperate from side effects: “Many of these workers cannot afford to take additional time off. Many have already had to take time off to recover from COVID-19 or care for family members. Many have chronic health conditions that already predictably consume their 10-day allotment of sick days. And many have seen a reduction in paid hours due to the pandemic. Is it realistic to ask them to do something where they have a high likelihood of needing to take additional unpaid time off work when already in a precarious financial position? We support a coherent national policy ensuring that low-wage employees receive an additional two days of paid vaccine adverse event leave: This would be supported by federal dollars so employers are only responsible for costs related to higher-wage workers, and would only be offered for those who achieve full vaccination.” 

What we can learn from the pandemic to close the nutrition gap: In a commentary for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, the advisory team of Healthy Food Community of Practice identifies policies that can build on the experience of the pandemic and make permanent some of the temporary relief measures that have provided crucial aid. Their top recommendations

  • Extend funding, expand eligibility, and increase adequacy for nutrition assistanceThis includes steps like permanently authorizing Summer EBT, passing the Wise Investment in our Children (WIC) Act, maintaining area eligibility waivers, and making permanent the 15% increase in SNAP benefits. 
  • Maintain flexibility around the process for enrolling in nutrition assistance such as allowing for electronic enrollment and telephonic signature. 
  • Maintain flexibilities in food access. This would continue to allow for flexibilities such as having meals delivered to people instead of requiring people to travel to centralized sites every day and allowing people to use benefits to purchase groceries online. 
  • Continue to remove barriers on what is SNAP-eligible so people can purchase foods that are culturally appropriate or more easily accessible. 
  • Increase culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach and education for federal nutrition programs so eligible individuals and families can make informed decisions about enrollment. 
  • Reduce red tape to remove duplication between programs where possibleFor example, streamlining rules for afterschool and summer meals programs make it easier to serve meals year-round. 

Study finds use of EBT cards increased WIC enrollment: A new study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia finds the transition from a paper voucher system to electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards could increase participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, with beneficial downstream effects on maternal and child health. This national economic evaluation compared WIC participation from October 1, 2014, to November 30, 2019, in states that did and did not transition to WIC EBT. In states that implemented EBT cards, WIC participation increased by 7.78% 3 years after implementation, relative to states that continued using paper vouchers. EBT usage has been greatly increased for WIC clients during the pandemic and will be one of the policy changes considered by the new leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Briefing for April 7, 2021

A year into the pandemic, many hard-hit families have yet to receive pandemic aid: From the Washington Post: “A year into the pandemic, the U.S. government has enacted trillions in aid for hard-hit businesses and households, but it has faltered repeatedly on delivering relief in a timely manner. Early in the crisis, many benefit programs were overwhelmed with applications, leading to months of delays in sending out payments. Under the Biden administration, the problems persist. Interviews with dozens of researchers and Americans still waiting for aid reveal ongoing problems with disbursing the $1,400 stimulus paymentsprocessing 2020 tax refunds, administering unemployment insurance checks, and dispensing housing aid to people behind on rent and utilities. As the Biden administration vows to deliver a more equal economic recovery, one of its biggest challenges is getting money into the hands of people who are still jobless or underemployed so they don’t fall further behind. Experts say the administrative stumbles underscore the need for massive upgrades in technology, more staffing, and clear program guidelines so the nation isn’t caught flat-footed for the next crisis… ‘If people don’t get the money, Congress might as well have not even passed it,’ said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist who is now a senior fellow at the Jain Family Institute. ‘We’re the United States. We have the technology hubs of the world and a $20 trillion economy. We should be able to fix this problem.’” 

No address, no ID, and struggling to get stimulus checks: The New York Times highlights the difficulty many low-income Americans, particularly those who are homeless, have in accessing their stimulus checks when they have no bank accounts, mailing address, or identification. “Just about anyone with a Social Security number who is not someone else’s dependent and who earns less than $75,000 is entitled to the stimulus. But some of the people who would benefit most from the money are having the hardest time getting their hands on it. ‘There’s this great intention to lift people out of poverty more and give them support, and all of that’s wonderful,’ said Beth Hofmeister, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project. ‘But the way people have to access it doesn’t really fit with how most really low-income people are interacting with the government.’ Interviews with homeless people in New York City over the last couple of weeks found that some mistakenly assumed they were ineligible for the stimulus. Others said that bureaucratic hurdles, complicated by limited phone or internet access, were insurmountable. ‘It’s like a scavenger hunt,’ said Josiah Haken, chief program officer for New York City Relief, a nonprofit that helps connect homeless people to resources.” 

What the American Rescue Plan means for child poverty in rural America: From the Daily Yonder: “The expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, projected to decrease child poverty by 40%, will have an outsized effect on rural areas, where poverty rates are higher. This expansion is crucial for nonmetro counties, where child poverty rates are the highest at 22.6% — compared with an 18% national average. Major metropolitan counties, with a child poverty rate of 20%, will also disproportionately benefit from the expanded CTC. Major suburbs have the lowest child poverty rates at 12.8%. Decades of research have shown that childhood poverty produces adverse outcomes long into adulthood. While child advocates applaud the stimulus bill’s measures to drastically reduce childhood poverty, experts have quickly turned to the question of their permanence. In the past, the nation’s poorest families received the least from the CTC, said Kris Cox — deputy director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). ‘There were about 4.3 million children in rural areas whose families got less than the full credit, or no credit at all, because their parents earned too little, or lacked earnings,’ said Cox.”  

People working from home could transform rural America: When people started working from home because of the pandemic, some started working from their second homes. Those tend to be in rural areas, not in cities. And if they stay after the pandemic, they could end up transforming parts of rural America. Sarah Gibson of New Hampshire Public Radio reports on the phenomenon from the Lakes Region. 

About 40,000 U.S. children lost parents to the coronavirus, study finds: From the Hill: “According to a study published in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Pediatrics journal on Monday, an estimated 37,300 to 43,000 U.S. children experienced the loss of at least one parent due to COVID-19 in the past year. A closer look at the data found that the burden, which authors of the study acknowledge will likely ‘grow heavier’ amid the ongoing pandemic, has landed disproportionately on Black children. Black children make up just 14% of those under 18 in the U.S., but the study estimated they account for 20% of the children who have lost a parent to the coronavirus. The authors said they were able to ‘track parental bereavement as the pandemic evolves’ by estimating the expected number of affected children for each COVID-19 death. ‘We used kinship networks of white and Black individuals in the U.S. estimated through demographic microsimulation to calculate the bereavement multiplier, then used the multiplier to estimate the scope of parental bereavement under various mortality scenarios,’ they wrote.” 

Philadelphia may have revolutionized evictions: From the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board: “Philadelphia is on the verge of upending evictions as we know them. Last Wednesday, the Municipal Court of Philadelphia, which houses landlord-tenant court, released a new order following the extension of the CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium through June. For the next 45 days, landlords are required to apply to PHLRentAssist, the city’s rental assistance program, and enroll in the Eviction Diversion Program before filing an eviction for nonpayment. The order is a game changer. Before the pandemic, landlords filed 20,000 evictions a year in Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant court. That’s despite the devastatingly long list of harms associated with eviction, harms that start with the court filing, a record of which is publicly accessible forever — regardless of the outcome. In Philadelphia, Black renters face eviction, and its damage, at more than twice the rate of white renters.” 

Briefing for April 6, 2021

When every new dollar goes to old debt, can stimulus funds really cut poverty?The Washington Post profiles 32-year-old D.C. resident Chakyya Harrison, who, like millions of other Americans, was struggling economically before the pandemic started and is barely able to tread water even with the stimulus funds from the American Rescue Act. “The sense of relief she felt when the stimulus money arrived soon faded. She still owed back rent and late fees — $1,721. She needed to pay the Internet service — $50. The cellphone bill — $75. Pampers and wipes for the babies — $80. By the time she paid for all that, the stimulus money would be down to about $1,000, not enough to cover April’s rent and who knew what else might come up. Every dollar she received went to make up for a dollar she didn’t have earlier, and when Harrison looked at her apartment’s whiteboard, comparing the calendar with the deadlines and the ledger in her head, she didn’t see how a stimulus bill could change that. ‘Every year with my tax return money, it’s the same thing, too — boom, it goes to the rent,’ Harrison said. ‘Now with the little stimmy we got — boom, goes to the rent. People are struggling because you all made the world this way.’” 

Vermont to give minority residents vaccine priority: From Kaiser Health News: “States have tried with limited success to get COVID-19 vaccines to people of color, who have been disproportionately killed and hospitalized by the virus. Starting Thursday, Vermont explicitly gave Black adults and people from other minority communities priority status for vaccinations. It follows Montana, which in January announced that Native Americans and other people of color, because they are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, would be allowed to receive the vaccine. All Black, Indigenous residents and other people of color who are permanent Vermont residents and 16 or older are eligible for the vaccine. It will be a short-term advantage, since Vermont opens COVID-19 inoculations to all adults April 19. Still, Vermont health officials say they hope the change will lower the risk for people of color, who are nearly twice as likely as whites to end up in the hospital with COVID-19. ‘It is unacceptable that this disparity remains for this population,’ Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, said at a recent news conference.” 

The once-battered Navajo Nation has gained control of the virus — for now:
The New York Times reports that the Navajo Nation, which once had one of the worst coronavirus case rates in the United States, “recently reached an extraordinary milestone: zero cases and zero deaths in a 24-hour period. The nation, which has over 300,000 enrolled members, is averaging about 11 new cases a day, far below its peak of 250 in late November, according to the latest data from the Navajo Department of Health. And it has vaccinated more of its population than any state, with more than half of its 170,000 residents living on tribal lands fully vaccinated. But there are some alarming signs. With infections rising again nationally and dangerous variants circulating, U.S. health officials are warning of another surge. And the first confirmed case of the more contagious and possibly more lethal variant first found in Britain has been confirmed on Navajo territory, which stretches across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The Navajo, the second-largest U.S. tribe, aren’t alone in their struggle against the virus. Indigenous Americans have had COVID-19 death rates nearly twice those of white populations in the United States, amid high rates of comorbidities like diabetes and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” 

Mobile vaccine squad tries to find and protect the neediest: Bloomberg CityLab uses efforts in Marin County, CA as an illustration of how local governments are using creative methods to vaccinate hard-to-reach populations. “To reach the goal of protecting as much as 85% of the population, health-care workers… must reach the homebound, the homeless, and the hesitant. Health departments across the U.S. have deployed mobile units to eliminate challenges like waking up early to schedule appointments, navigating online portals, and standing in line, all of which can deter the elderly, disabled, or immune-compromised. Marin launched two mobile units to cover its 830 square miles on Dec. 17. One includes nurses, emergency-medical technicians, and state workers who visit long-term care facilities, low-income senior housing communities, sober living houses, and shelters; another does home visits. The county also contracts with Curative Inc. to deploy a van that parks in hard-hit or underserved areas. The mobile operations are part of an effort that has delivered about 8,000 shots.” 

Suspended testing requirements open doors to elite colleges for traditionally underrepresented groups: The pandemic has brought many negative consequences throughout the U.S. educational system, but one silver lining may be a demographic shakeup in future classes of the nation’s most elite colleges. The decision to not require standardized test scores has prompted more students to apply to schools that might have previously been out of reach. The Washington Post reports: “Far more students than ever applied this year to the most selective colleges and universities. In recent days they’ve been learning the results. The Ivy League, which this year is entirely test-optional, will release decisions on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern time. The Common Application, an online portal for hundreds of colleges, reported in February that it had processed nearly 6 million first-year applications for its returning member schools, up 11% from the year before. There were a little more than 1 million unique applicants. They tended to apply to more schools this year than previous years. It is too early to tell, admissions officials say, how much the application surge will reshape the demographics of enrolled classes at prestigious schools. There will be a massive sorting and sifting during the next several weeks as students weigh offers and schools pull from their wait lists. It is worth noting, too, that many less-selective schools are already scrambling to fill seats. But what seems clear is that the test-optional movement has opened doors for many students from traditionally underrepresented groups.”

One city’s homelessness crisis: Time has a photo essay of the crisis for unhoused residents in Wheeling, W.Va. as well as those trying desperately to provide live-saving services. It’s a story playing out across the rest of the nation. “What happened in Wheeling is happening across the country. Even before the pandemic lockdowns that fell hardest on low-income Americans — and stand to push more people out of their homes — the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported U.S. homelessness at 580,466 people, up 7% from a year earlier. Deaths are rising even faster. In San Francisco, the department of public health says deaths tripled over the past year in an unhoused population of 8,035. In Los Angeles, home to a vast homeless population tallied at 41,290, deaths increased by 32%, per the online news organization Capital & Main. Homeless deaths in Washington, D.C., soared by 54%. In New York City, the Coalition for the Homeless reported a death rate up 75%.” 

Briefing for April 5, 2021

A ‘profound change’ in combatting hunger: Jason DeParle of the New York Times looks at the historic response by the Biden administration to the food insecurity crisis that’s been dramatically worsened by the pandemic. “With more than one in 10 households reporting that they lack enough to eat, the Biden administration is accelerating a vast campaign of hunger relief that will temporarily increase assistance by tens of billions of dollars and set the stage for what officials envision as lasting expansions of aid. The effort to rush more food assistance to more people is notable both for the scale of its ambition and the variety of its legislative and administrative actions. The campaign has increased food stamps by more than $1 billion a month, provided needy children a dollar a day for snacks, expanded a produce allowance for pregnant women and children, and authorized the largest children’s summer feeding program in history. ‘We haven’t seen an expansion of food assistance of this magnitude since the founding of the modern food stamp program in 1977,’ said James P. Ziliak, an economist at the University of Kentucky who studies nutrition programs. ‘It’s a profound change.'” 

How food banks succeeded, and what they need now: The New York Times outlines the remarkable work done by American food banks during the past year, a time of unprecedented food insecurity for many. But while food banks take justified pride in the response to the pandemic, anti-hunger leaders and volunteers “also say they are tired, and worried about donor fatigue and long-term stability. The pandemic made clear that food banks work best as a complement to, not a replacement for, government assistance. Yet it was December before Congress increased its main program for combating hunger, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A newly created Department of Agriculture program brought a windfall of food — but many logistical headaches. The private-public partnership worked wonders in fighting hunger this past year, but has hardly erased the need.” 

Drug overdoses spiked during pandemic, White House says: From NPR: “Drug deaths spiked dramatically during a period that includes the first six months of the pandemic, up roughly 27% compared with the previous year, the acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said last week. ‘We lost 88,000 people in the 12-month period ending in August 2020,’ Regina LaBelle told reporters during a morning briefing. ‘Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of this increase.’ That number, based on provisional data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is sharply higher than the figure reported by the CDC as recently as last December. The data suggests the dangerous upward trend of drug overdose fatalities continues. According to LaBelle, Americans age 35 to 44 appear most at risk. The White House also unveiled a seven-part plan designed to bend the curve downward, which officials said would be implemented over the next year. ‘Our first priority is expanding access to quality treatment and recovery support services,’ LaBelle said.”

Sent home early  Lost learning in special education: From the Hechinger Report: “This year, millions of students have had their schooling curtailed, prompting serious discussions about the effects of lost learning time. But a subset of students in special education has been quietly plagued with this problem for decades, often with devastating consequences. Shortening the school day for students with disabilities as punishment for their behavior is illegal, experts say. Instead, schools must support and address these issues in the classroom. For the most part, however, schools are not required to justify their decisions to send students home early, nor is any significant data collected on this practice, allowing the problem to remain largely hidden. For many students, a shortened school day can last for months or even years, which can have a disastrous impact as they miss out on crucial academic, social and emotional learning time.” 

New York renters in COVID hotspots are four times more likely to face eviction: From the New York Times: “New York City landlords are seeking evictions nearly four times more often in the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19 — predominantly Black and Latino communities that have borne the brunt of both health and housing crises since the virus swept the city last year, according to a new report. The findings are the latest indication that thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents could be forcibly removed from their homes as early as May, when a statewide pause on evictions is set to expire. In New York City, about 40,000 residential tenants have been taken to court for eviction proceedings since late March of 2020, with an average claim of $8,150, according to an analysis of state records by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a coalition of housing nonprofits. (Despite a pause on many evictions, new cases continued to be filed.)” 

Beating the pavement to vaccinate the underrepresented: Kaiser Health News profiles Leonor Garcia and Erika Marroquin, two California community health workers who are part of an effort to vaccinate the state’s most underrepresented communities. “The rollout of vaccinations in California, as in many states, has been slow and chaotic. More than 5 million of the 24 million adults in the nation’s most populous state have been at least partially vaccinated, while an additional 5.6 million are fully vaccinated. Come April 15, all adults in California will be eligible to sign up for a vaccine, and by early summer the goal is to have plenty of vaccine for any adult who wants it. But the country needs to get the vaccination rate to about 75% to keep the virus from easily spreading — a level called herd immunity by experts on infectious diseases. But even that figure assumes the population is homogenous in terms of vaccination. That’s why the state relies on people like Garcia and Marroquin — community health workers and organizers doing time-intensive, laborious work — to prevent pockets of the population with low vaccination rates in remote or isolated communities from becoming a tinderbox for a new COVID-19 surge. “When you have geographical or social pockets of unvaccinated people, it really messes up herd immunity,” said Daniel Salmon, director at the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

The hidden toll of remote work: Arthur Brooks writes for the Atlantic: “At the end of January, I went back to teaching my students in person for the first time in 10 months. It was only two days a week, and an hour and a half at a time. We were all avoiding contact and wearing masks, so normal human interaction was almost nonexistent. But for me, it was like springtime in Paris. I started sleeping better; my mood improved; I became more energetic and optimistic. Between one-third and one-half of American employees worked in person throughout the pandemic, with or without a say in the matter, and some at great personal risk. Most of the rest of us were forced to work from home, also without necessarily wanting to. And in fact, almost two-thirds of people in a poll last fall felt that the cons of working from home outweighed the pros, and nearly a third said they had considered quitting their jobs since being banned from the workplace. In another poll, about 70% said that mixing work and other responsibilities had become a source of stress, and about three in four American workers in the early days of the pandemic confessed to being ‘burned out.’ So while some people are understandably nervous about returning to their workplace, many are having an experience more like mine. My friends and colleagues who have returned to a physical office and seen others — even in a limited capacity — have told me that returning made them realize how isolated they had become during the pandemic, and the burden of stress they had been carrying, even if they faced no job threat or major health risk.”

Tribal efforts to preserve languages get boost from COVID relief funds: The pandemic’s toll on tribal elders has endangered the survival of some tribal languages — a dilemma the Biden administration has tried to address. The Daily Yonder reports that the American Rescue Plan, which allocates $31 billion to the tribes nationwide, “set aside $20 million to help Native American nations preserve their languages. The funding is designed to help assure the survival of tribal cultures, spiritual identities and forms of traditional communication. Normally, the 574 federally-recognized tribes — along with colleges, museums, and youth centers that teach Native languages — must compete with one another for federal funding that targets language preservation.” 

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