Briefing for May 10-14, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

Briefing for May 10-14, 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 May 14, 2021

Only 7% of vaccinated Floridians are Black: Politico reports that just 7% of the roughly 9 million people vaccinated for COVID-19 in Florida are Black, “a figure that has Gov. Ron DeSantis administration officials and advocates pledging to do more to boost vaccination rates in Black communities. Shamarial Roberson, the Florida Department of Health’s deputy secretary for health, told reporters Wednesday that just 658,000 Black Florida residents are fully vaccinated, adding that ‘we have a lot of work to do.’ She gave her comments during a meeting of the Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Task Force, a panel of faith, community, and medical leaders formed in January with the goal of getting between 60% and 70% of people of color in Florida to take the vaccine. More than four months later, however, Roberson told the task force that only about 20% of Florida’s overall Black population has gotten the vaccine. About 38% of white non-Hispanic residents have been vaccinated in the state.” 

Nearly 2 million people could see cuts in unemployment aid: The Washington Post reports that more than 1.9 million Americans in Alabama, Mississippi, and 14 other Republican-led states are set to have their unemployment checks slashed significantly starting in June, as GOP governors seek to restrict jobless assistance in an effort to force more people to return to work. “The cuts are likely to fall hardest on roughly 1.4 million people who benefit from stimulus programs that Congress adopted at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, including one targeting those who either are self-employed or work on behalf of gig-economy companies such as Uber. Beginning next month, many of these workers are likely to receive no aid at all. The looming cliff reflects an emerging campaign on the part of GOP leaders to combat what they consider a national worker shortage. Arizona and Ohio became the latest states on Thursday to announce plans to scale back benefits out of a belief that the generous federal payments parceled out over the past year have deterred people from returning to their old positions now that the public-health crisis is waning.” 

Delayed COVID worker protections attract crush of lobbyists: From The Hill: “A swarm of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington is circling as the White House reviews long-anticipated rules to protect workers from COVID-19 — with meatpacking, hospital, and retail industries working to delay the regulations while unions push for more urgency. The businesses have been winning so far on the timing. The rules are meant to respond to the clusters of infections in crowded workplaces that drive up infections and deaths but arrive more than a year after outbreaks began. President Joe Biden signed an executive order the day after his inauguration asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to write the worker protection rules by mid-March, nearly two months ago. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the White House’s Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the rules and will take more than two dozen meetings with interest groups over the course of three weeks. ‘This does appear to be the first regulation under Biden that has received this much lobbying interest at OIRA,’ said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen. Business lobbying groups meeting with OIRA include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association, National Association of Home Builders, and the North American Meat Institute. OIRA also has meetings with several unions, including the AFL-CIO, the North America’s Building Trades Unions, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and National Nurses United.” 

As trillions flow out, stimulus oversight faces challenges: From the New York Times: “Lawmakers have unleashed more than $5 trillion in relief aid over the past year to help businesses and individuals through the pandemic downturn. But the scale of that effort is placing serious strain on a patchwork oversight network created to ferret out waste and fraud. The Biden administration has taken steps to improve accountability and oversight safeguards spurned by the Trump administration, including more detailed and frequent reporting requirements for those receiving funds. But policing the money has been complicated by long-running turf battles; the lack of a centralized, fully functional system to track how funds are being spent; and the speed with which the government has tried to disburse aid. The scope of oversight is vast, with the Biden administration policing the tail end of the relief money disbursed by the Trump administration last year in addition to the $1.9 trillion rescue package that Democrats approved in March. Much of that money is beginning to flow out the door, including $21.6 billion in rental assistance funds, $350 billion to state and local governments, $29 billion for restaurants, and a $16 billion grant fund for live-event businesses like theaters and music clubs. The funds are supposed to be tracked by a hodgepodge of overseers, including congressional panels, inspectors general, and the White House budget office. But the system has been plagued by disagreements and, until recently, disarray.” 

Mississippi health advocates push for Medicaid expansion to get a statewide vote: The Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger reports: “After a decade of the state Legislature averting Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, in a state notorious for poor health care, Mississippi advocates say it’s time for voters to decide. They want Medicaid expansion, estimated to cover over 200,000 Mississippians, on the 2022 ballot. A coalition of Mississippi medical experts, patients, small business owners, and nonprofits initiated a statewide campaign — Yes On 76 — Tuesday morning at the Mississippi Hospital Association’s offices in Madison. The campaign kickstarted with a petition in support of ballot Initiative 76 that will need to amass over 106,000 signatures by October to make their 2022 goal. Over 21,000 will need to come from each of the five congressional districts as they existed in 2000. ‘If you believe in your community and you believe in small town Mississippi, you have to believe in Medicaid expansion,’ Mississippi Hospital Association president Tim Moore, a key player in the ballot initiative, said Tuesday. Initiative 76 seeks a constitutional amendment that would require Mississippi to supply low-income residents with medical assistance under the state’s Medicaid program. The majority of program costs would come from federal funding, the proposed initiative notes.” 

Illinois bill would allow SNAP, WIC benefits to be used for feminine hygiene products: In the Illinois legislature, House Bill 155 would let people use their WIC and SNAP benefits to buy feminine hygiene products, as well as diapers. State Sen. Karina Villa, D-West Chicago, the chief sponsor of this bill in the Senate, said period poverty is a real problem. “This has been completely prohibiting folks who are menstruating to be able to go along with their daily lives if they’re unable to afford the products that they need,” Villa said. In Illinois, one in six women and girls between the age of 12 and 44 lives below the federal poverty line, according to Alliance for Period Supplies. “Sometimes a person will have to choose between food or a tampon or pad,” said Maureen Keane, Co-Founder of She Votes Illinois. She Votes Illinois is a political action committee. They are part of the push to get the bill passed. 

Briefing for May 13, 2021

COVID fears keeping many Latino kids out of classrooms: Kaiser Health News reports that the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Hispanic people is slowing the return of Latino students to classrooms. “State and local education officials don’t have recent data on in-person attendance by race, but an EdSource analysis of California Public Health Department data from February shows that white students were more likely to attend school in person than other students. The analysis showed that 12% of Latinos were attending in-person classes at least some of the time, compared with 32% of whites and 18% of all students… In a statement released May 4, Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Austin Beutner said 40% to 50% of elementary school students are now back in schools in ‘more affluent’ communities compared with roughly 20% in low-income communities. ‘We see the greatest reluctance for children to be back in schools from families who live in some of the highest-needs communities we serve,’ he said.” 

Medicare cost crunch raises questions in telehealth debate: From Roll Call: “Telehealth advocates are struggling to allay lawmakers’ fears about increased Medicare costs as they seek to capitalize on momentum from the pandemic’s shutdown on in-person care. Expanding telemedicine is a rare unifying force among industry giants that want to broaden digital health for the entitlement program’s 61 million enrollees. But telehealth advocates are battling twin fears about potentially higher spending and fraud — two concerns they call unfounded. Medicare’s trust fund, which pays for inpatient hospital care, is expected to start running dry in 2026, according to the 2020 annual trustees’ report. The outlook has sobered lawmakers who last year lifted a number of Medicare restrictions under the Department of Health and Human Services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those waivers expire once officials end the public health emergency, which gives Congress a limited window to act.” 

Red states ready to defy Biden education initiatives: From Politico: “Red-state Republicans are looking to seize what could be their first opportunity to take down one of President Joe Biden’s most ambitious plans: Opposing the implementation of his proposed expansion of education. Two central pillars of Biden’s sweeping American Families Plan — universal pre-kindergarten and free community college tuition — are structured as partnerships between the federal government and states, meaning they will require both political and financial buy-in from local officials to get up and running. But Republicans in states like Wisconsin, Florida, and Alabama are already signaling that they would put up a fight against Biden’s expansive social welfare proposal, casting the plan as a blatant example of federal government overreach that would be costly both to implement and maintain. The issue represents an early battleground for GOP state leaders to stake out their resistance to Biden’s plans and, for some, rile up supporters before the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election.” 

Unemployed Americans worry about benefits being curtailed early: CNBC looks at rising concerns among the unemployed in states where governors are moving to curtail extra unemployment benefits months earlier than previously planned. Arkansas recently joined Republican governors in MontanaSouth Carolina, and Mississippi, “who have also announced an early end to the aid, saying that it’s stopping people from taking jobs. Other states could follow. As a result, many jobless people in these states will soon receive only their state benefit. The average weekly check is $248 in Arkansas; in Mississippi, it’s $195. Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said leaving people with smaller benefits is shortsighted and dangerous. ‘We’re going to see family hardship,’ Dixon said. ‘We’re looking at a tsunami of debt, evictions, and food insecurity on the horizon, and it’s mostly women and people of color who will bear the brunt of that.’” 

Biden boasts about equitable senior vaccination rates by race but lacks data to back it up: Kaiser Health News and PolitiFact take a closer look at recent claims by President Biden that there is no disparity in vaccination rates between white Americans and Americans of color who are at least 65 years old. Their findings: “The national data that Biden keeps touting — vaccination statistics regarding both race and age — is not public. We asked the White House for the information underlying this claim, but officials did not provide specifics. So, we moved on to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Spokesperson Chandra Zeikel told KHN-PolitiFact on May 6 that ‘unfortunately, we don’t have available a data breakdown of both racial demographics and age together.’ Zeikel didn’t respond to a follow-up question asking when or if the CDC would be publishing this data, but current CDC vaccination data is broken down only by race/ethnicity and shows significant differences, with white Americans far outpacing the percentage of other groups getting a shot. It also shows that the rate of vaccinations among some groups, including Black and Latino Americans, does not match their share of the population, though new CDC data shows there has been some progress on this front in the past two weeks.” 

Food workers look to new OSHA head for better protection: Lisa Held reports for Civil Eats that President Biden’s nominee to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Doug Parker, has raised hopes for a stronger response to the pandemic given Parker’s work with California’s state-level OSHA. “Cal/OSHA is known for having stronger standards than OSHA. And for food workers, Parker’s track record in California not only provides insights into how he might run OSHA, but it means he’ll bring with him the experience of managing worker protections in the country’s largest agricultural state… Cal/OSHA’s approach to protecting workers in the food industry during the pandemic has differed from the federal agency’s in at least two ways. First, it issued an Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19 workplace protections. Second, the agency has proposed $1.4 million in fines to be paid by farms, meatpackers, supermarket chains, and food service operations. In comparison, OSHA has issued penalties of just over $145,000 to food and agriculture companies across all the 29 states for which it’s responsible.” 

Benefits cliffs can derail government support: Heather Koball, co-Director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, writes for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity that despite the many benefits of pandemic recovery legislation, families still risk falling off the “benefits cliff” — losing public benefit eligibility due to a small increase income. “The good news is that benefit cliffs, and other system interactions that wind up harming families, can be prevented with a combination of best practices, updated infrastructure across governments, and well-resourced data and modeling. To date, we have seen some positive results in establishing steady ‘phase-outs’ vs. abruptly ending access at a particular income level. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which has been credited with lifting 5.6 million people out of poverty, works this way. Other strategies include eliminating asset tests for programs like SNAP and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), enabling low-income families to save for the future while continuing to cover their basic needs. Or, states can raise earned income disregards for public benefits to ensure that the total deduction in benefits does not exceed the additional income earned by families as they earn more. Finally, expanding universal pre-kindergarten, a signature feature of the AFP, reduces child care costs inherently, with the added benefit of ensuring quality education for all children.” 

Briefing for May 12, 2021

Biden plan should include increased funding for home visits for low-income moms: Writing for USA Today, Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel and Amaya Diana from the University of Pennsylvania argue that the American Families Plan should focus more on children under the age of three, specifically by investing in home visiting programs for low-income families. “There is a tremendous amount of good in the American Families Plan as it is written: augmenting child care, expanding paid family and medical leave, funding nutrition benefits, introducing universal pre-K, and extending the child tax credit that would lift over 40% of American children out of poverty. It is an enormous investment in the next generation, with the potential to bring the United States up to the child support standards of other wealthy countries. But these proposals begin at age three. We will be playing catch-up if we do not focus on the crucial first year of life. By adding early childhood interventions such as nurse-family partnerships to the American Families Plan, Biden can revive the promise of opportunity and upward mobility for American children, even those born into poverty.” 

Newsom announces $12 billion plan to fight homelessness: From the Sacramento Bee: “California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced on Tuesday a proposal to spend $12 billion on affordable units and prevention services to help solve homelessness as part of his $100 billion COVID-19 economic recovery plan. Newsom this week is touring the state to unveil elements of his budget proposal that’s due to the Legislature by Friday. Newsom announced on Monday that California should expect to see a $75 billion surplus this year, along with another $27 billion in federal aid. That jaw-dropping number allows for historic investments in solving California’s most significant problems. The $12 billion investment is 10 times the amount California has spent on homelessness solutions in recent years. The money would help finance 46,000 new units to help get people off the streets and into shelter, Newsom said. He said what’s happening now on California streets and sidewalks is ‘unacceptable.’ ‘What we’re announcing here today is truly transformative. What we’re announcing here today is truly historic. It’s unprecedented not just in California’s history, but what we’re announcing here today is simply unprecedented in American history,’ Newsom said at a press conference.” 

Los Angeles considers free public transit fares: Public transit systems across the country have been decimated by the loss of ridership during the pandemic and are searching for strategies to help them rebound. The American Prospect reports that “while many public-transit systems have returned to collecting fares after suspending them early in the pandemic, L.A. transit officials are instead taking a radical step to advance transportation equity in a metro area that has the highest percentage of low-income riders in the country. Over the past year, the authority, known locally as Metro, has put together a blueprint for what could become the largest free mass transit system in the world. Later this month, the Metro board will vote on a two-phase pilot program that would waive bus and rail fares for students in K-12 schools and community colleges starting in August. Low-income riders making less than $35,000 a year — who comprise 70% of Metro’s customer base — would be phased in next January. The proposal, which is endorsed by L.A. mayor and board chair Eric Garcetti, would last through June of 2023. If the experiment is successful, the agency could decide whether to expand free transit access to all Angelenos regardless of income. According to a recent survey, 86% of Metro riders and 80% of non-Metro riders said they support going fareless. ‘We have a moral obligation to research and implement a fareless transit system,’ Phillip Washington, Metro’s CEO, told the Prospect. ‘In the long term, transit should just be like library services or fire department services.’” 

‘Silver linings’  telecommuting allows Black women in Maryland to build wealth: From the Baltimore Sun: “One surprise of the coronavirus pandemic is how it demonstrated the effectiveness of remote work and telecommuting, which has opened labor markets and hiring pools to wider geographical areas. That’s benefited some Black women in Maryland, who have been able to secure better-paying jobs from areas offering higher salaries. Thanks to telecommuting, they can continue to live in Maryland, without a costly move, and retain more money and build wealth — an area where Black families traditionally trail white Americans. According to a 2016 Brookings Institution report, the net worth of a typical white family ($171,000) was nearly 10 times that of a Black family ($17,150). Working from the comforts of their own homes and living near their social networks and families during a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged their communities, they are better financially situated, which they say is better for their overall health.”

COVID crisis for the meatpacking industry continues: Workers in meatpacking plants have been devastated by the pandemic. The Midwestern Center for Investigative Reporting continues its coverage of the issue with a look at the crisis for meatpacking workers more than year into the pandemic. “One year after COVID-19 infiltrated the meatpacking industry and sparked nationwide plant closures, meat shortage fears, and an executive order to keep production lines going, frontline workers continue to face risk. Since last April, more than 50,000 cases have been tied to the meatpacking industry, and at least 248 workers have died, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The industry is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because the same features that allow a steady churn of cheap meat also provide the perfect breeding ground for airborne diseases: a cramped workplace, a culture of underreporting illnesses, and a cadre of rural, immigrant, and undocumented workers who often live and work together because few other jobs are available. Coronavirus case counts related to meatpacking have fallen since last year amid an industrywide effort to protect workers and the more recent national vaccine rollout. But many facilities still harbor the disease. More than 200 cases were been reported in North Carolina in the past couple months alone, according to state data. And at least one worker died as recently as March.” 

Briefing for May 11, 2021

How schools can help students heal after the pandemic’s uncertainty: A story from a reporting partnership between Kaiser Health News, NPR, and Illinois Public Media explores some of the steps schools can take to try to help students recover from the emotional stresses of the pandemic. Three key strategies: 

  • Promoting mental wellness in the classroom: “To reestablish relationships in the classroom — and help kids cope with the stress and trauma of the past year — mental health experts say educators can start by building in time every day, for every student, in every classroom to share their feelings and learn the basics of naming and managing their emotions.”
  • Provide more resources when serious help is needed: “For many kids, a little morning circle time with a caring teacher, or an occasional chat with a school counselor is all they need… But there will always be children who need more intensive interventions, which could involve school social workers and psychologists, when available, or a referral to a mental health professional beyond the school.”
  • Utilize federal resources: “For districts that want to do more, the latest COVID-19 relief package could be a big help. The American Rescue Plan contains roughly $122 billion for K-12 schools, some of which can be used to hire more counselors, social workers, and psychologists.” 

A majority of young Americans say they feel down, depressed, or hopeless: CNBC has the details of a recently released Harvard Youth Poll of 2,513 Americans ages 18 to 29 that found “51% of young Americans said that at least several days in the previous two weeks they had felt down, depressed, or hopeless. ‘There’s been this narrative that young people are spared a lot of the impact of COVID-19 because they’re less likely to develop real severe physical complications,’ says Ellen Burstein, one of the poll’s lead researchers and a junior at Harvard. ‘But it’s taken a profound toll on their mental health.’ Young people reported a range of serious mental health symptoms in the Harvard survey. A startling 68% say they have little energy; 59% say they have trouble with sleep; 52% find little pleasure in doing things; 49% have a poor appetite or are over-eating; 48% have trouble concentrating; 32% are moving so slowly, or are fidgety to the point that others notice; and 28% have had thoughts of self-harm.” 

First-time home buyers are struggling during the pandemic: USA Today reports that while higher-price homes have sold at a brisk pace, the trend is very different for more affordable properties. “Lower-priced homes, where sales have decreased, tell another story about the economy. The decline in their sales is not due to a lack of demand, experts say, but rather a combination of low inventory and increasing prices caused by fierce competition. As a result, it’s harder for many Americans to buy their first homes, and that missed opportunity can widen the wealth gap, economists say. ‘It is clear that homeownership is one of the most successful and biggest sources of wealth creation, particularly at the lower end of the income spectrum,’ says Mark Fleming, chief economist for First American. ‘They don’t own a home, and therefore they cannot generate the wealth.'” 

Researchers fear people of color may be disproportionately impacted by long COVID: From STAT: “It’s well-known now that people of color have shouldered a disproportionate burden in the COVID-19 pandemic. Now researchers and clinicians are increasingly concerned that history is repeating itself in the case of long COVID. Long COVID — one name for the mysterious multitude of problems that persist after COVID-19 infections have cleared — affects all populations to some degree; it also afflicts people regardless of whether they had mild or even no symptoms, or needed ICU care to survive. But researchers and health care clinics fear that the same reasons that caused certain racial and ethnic groups to experience higher infection rates and illness severity may be responsible for driving disparities in the treatment of long COVID. Many vulnerable communities lack access to quality care, or face heightened burdens to convince providers that their conditions are real.” 

Some states must wait as $350 billion in COVID relief funds becomes available: From Reuters: “The U.S. Treasury on Monday launched access to $350 billion in COVID-19 aid for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, but 30 states with faster-recovering employment are likely to see their funds split into two payments a year apart. The Treasury released new guidance on uses of the aid, timing it based on unemployment and prohibiting states from using it to offset tax cuts. The guidance did not quell Republican opposition to the rule, which has drawn legal challenges from 18 states largely controlled by Republican legislatures who argue that Treasury is denying their constitutional rights to set state tax and spending laws. Some 20 states and the District of Columbia will be able to receive all their funds as soon as this month because their unemployment rates are now more than two percentage points above levels in February 2020 before the pandemic prompted widespread U.S. lockdowns, a Reuters review of Bureau of Labor Statistics state unemployment data showed. The rule was clarified in Treasury’s new guidance. States with smaller increases in unemployment will receive aid in two tranches a year apart. The BLS data showed 30 states in this category, 21 of which were won by former President Donald Trump in the 2020 elections. Of the states that can get all their funds in a single payment, only four — Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, and North Dakota — were won by Trump.” 

Briefing for May 10, 2021

GOP governors slash jobless aid to force more people back to work: From the Washington Post: “An unexpected slowdown in hiring nationwide has prompted some Republican governors to start slashing jobless benefits in their states, hoping that the loss of generous federal aid might force more people to try to return to work. The new GOP cuts chiefly target the extra $300 in weekly payments that millions of Americans have received for months in addition to their usual unemployment checks. Arkansas on Friday became the latest to announce plans to cancel the extra benefits, joining Montana and South Carolina earlier in the week, in a move that signals a new effort on the part of Republicans to try to combat what they see as a national worker shortage. Republican policymakers have long opposed these heightened unemployment payments and unanimously voted against extending them earlier this year. But party leaders nationwide have grown more emboldened in recent days, particularly as the U.S. government on Friday released new data showing the economy added only 266,000 jobs in April.” 

Hunger rates plummet after two rounds of stimulus: Helena Bottemiller Evich writes for Politico: “The percentage of Americans struggling with hunger is now at its lowest level since the pandemic began, suggesting the recent flood in aid from Washington is making a significant difference to families struggling economically. Data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week shows the percentage of adults living in households that sometimes or often did not have enough to eat dipped to just over 8% late last month, down from nearly 11% in March. That is a substantial drop, and it came after hundreds of billions in stimulus checks went out. ‘Money helps,’ said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, who has been tracking hunger rates closely throughout the pandemic. ‘We’re continuing to see signs of progress. That’s exciting. That’s good news.’ The rate of American adults in households struggling with food is now down more than 40% since its peak in December — a fact that Democrats are beginning to tout as proof that hundreds of billions of dollars in direct stimulus is working as intended as they push for another massive package despite growing GOP opposition to more spending.” 

Biden administration rushes to get aid to renters: From the New York Times: “Two days after a federal judge struck down a national moratorium on evictions, the Biden administration said on Friday that it would accelerate the distribution of vast sums of rental aid that state and local governments have been slow to spend. The Treasury Department issued new rules meant to make it easier for tenants to gain access to the $46.5 billion in aid. They simplify applications, cover an expanded list of costs like moving expenses and hotel stays, and require programs to help tenants even if their landlords refuse to participate. Housing advocates praised the changes, which include an expansion of legal aid to tenants and a promise of advice to localities struggling to create the programs, which are intended to avert evictions caused by the economic shocks from the pandemic. ‘Wow, this is huge,’ said Christina Rosales, the deputy director of Texas Housers. ‘I think this will mean more tenants get the help they need.’ But with about 400 state and local governments operating programs with varying degrees of urgency, the immediate effect of the changes is unclear. Some states, including New York and Florida, have not even begun to accept applications.” 

COVID testing has turned into financial windfall for hospitals and other providers: From Kaiser Health News: “As the pandemic enters its second year, no procedure has been more frequent than tests for the virus causing it. Gargantuan volume — 400 million tests and counting, for one type — combined with loose rules on prices have made the service a bonanza for hospitals and clinics, new data shows. Lab companies have been booking record profits by charging $100 per test. Even in-network prices negotiated and paid by insurance companies often run much more than that and, according to one measure, have been rising on average in recent months. Insurers and other payers ‘have no bargaining power in this game’ because there is no price cap in some situations, said Ge Bai, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has studied test economics. When charges run far beyond the cost of the tests, ‘it’s predatory,’ she said. ‘It’s price gouging.’ The data shows that COVID-19 tests continue to generate high charges from hospitals and clinics despite alarms raised by insurers, anecdotalreports of high prices, and pushback from state regulators.” 

As pandemic ebbs, experts brace for psychological fallout: From STAT: “The end of the emergency phase of the pandemic is in sight in the United States, at least for now. But as the weight of the crisis is lifted, experts are also anticipating a long-term impact on people’s mental health. For some people, the feelings of anxiety and depression that emerged during the pandemic will resolve as routines resume — people go back to the office, social connections are reformed, the seeming danger of activities dissipates. But others will face new or worse mental health issues that persist or even appear down the road, a number that could be quite large given the magnitude of despair and disruption. That burden, however big, stands to put an even greater strain on an already stretched mental health system. ‘In the best of times, there is untreated mental illness,’ said Susan Borja, the chief of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Dimensional Traumatic Stress Research Program. ‘Even a small increase in the rates of people with new or worsening mental illness is going to be a problem.’ And with the pandemic, ‘it has been the entire country’ facing new stressors, Borja said.” 

In COVID vaccine data, LGTBQ people fear invisibility: The New York Times reports that advocates and health experts are concerned that the nation’s LGBTQ population will be unseen in the COVID vaccine rollout. “Communities of color and other marginalized groups have faced some of the most severe coronavirus outcomes, yet have received a smaller share of vaccines. LGBTQ people could face similar problems but may be overlooked because they aren’t counted. Unlike with racial and ethnic data, the collection of sexual orientation and gender identity data is scattershot at best, captured in only a few states and territories. The collection of this data would increase the visibility of vaccine disparities, advocates say, and allow policymakers and health care providers to more nimbly and equitably allocate resources and craft messaging campaigns for members of these groups. That’s important because they have routinely experienced health disparities and often mistrust the health care system, a result, in part, of a history of medical mistreatment.” 

Washington schools to provide free menstrual products to students: Students in Washington will soon have access to free tampons and menstrual pads. Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill last week requiring the state’s schools, colleges, and universities to provide free menstrual hygiene products to students. House Bill 1273 says schools must provide the products at no cost in all gender-neutral and female bathrooms by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. As the issue of “period poverty” gains more attention, Washington joins a handful of U.S. states — California, Illinois, New York, New Hampshire, and Virginia — that have already required its middle and high schools to provide free menstrual products in its bathrooms. In 2020, Scotland became the first country to make pads and tampons free. 

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