West Virginia Governor Jim Justice warned the public can expect more people to die from COVID-19 if vaccination rates across the state don’t improve drastically.
“Seventy-four more people have died since Wednesday,” Gov. Justice said, providing updates to the state’s ongoing battle against the coronavirus in a news briefing on Friday. “And they’ll keep dying. That’s all there is to it.”
“We just are going to keep lining the body bags up, and we’re going to line them up, and line them up,” he continued.
This comes as new COVID-19 cases in the state continue to skyrocket. West Virginia reported 2,070 new probable and confirmed cases on Friday, based on data from the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources.
The state excelled in vaccine rollouts, reporting a higher percentage of vaccinations in its population than any other state in February, the Wall Street Journal reported. Now, only 46% of the state’s vaccine-eligible population is fully vaccinated against the virus, the lowest of any state according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to do one of two things: We’re going to run to the fire and get vaccinated right now, or we’re going to pile the body bags up until we reach a point in time to where we have enough people that have natural immunities and enough people that are vaccinated,” he added. “That’s all there is to it. I would really highly encourage you to get vaccinated.”
A Friday meeting in Washington got a little messy: An expert panel said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shouldn’t green-light Pfizer’s COVID-19 booster shot for the general public – but not without some dissent.
Pfizer executive Dr. William Gruber argued that without booster shots the US could face a wave of infections among the vaccinated. But committee members questioned whether it was too soon to tell if boosters offer any more protection to healthy Americans who’ve already received two doses. Members voted 16 to 3 against recommending Pfizer boosters for people ages 16 and up – but unanimously recommended the shots for adults ages 65 and up or those at high risk of severe disease.
Their debate hinged on a key question: When do the first two shots stop offering enough protection?
This week, Pfizer published its most robust data yet about how long its vaccine protection lasts, with results from at least eight studies. The data showed that the vaccine’s effectiveness fell significantly over time – to 47% efficacy after five months, down from 88% in the month following dose two.
Though Friday’s meeting didn’t evaluate Moderna’s booster, the company released data in a press release on Wednesday that also makes a case for boosters.
Both datasets give a look under the hood at how each company is measuring the duration of vaccine protection. Pfizer and Moderna have been tracking participants from their clinical trials, who are divided into two groups: Those who got vaccines as part of the trials (which began in 2020) and those who got a placebo, then the real vaccine once it was authorized.
Pfizer and Moderna each compared the incidences of breakthrough infections between the two groups. Pfizer’s results showed that the risk of breakthrough infections was 26% lower for trial participants who were fully vaccinated roughly five months prior, compared to those who had gotten their second shot approximately 10 months earlier.
Moderna, similarly, said breakthrough infections were more common among trial participants who got vaccinated between July and October 2020 than among those vaccinated between December and March. The company identified 162 breakthrough infections among those who were fully vaccinated 13 months prior, compared to 88 breakthrough infections among those who had gotten their second shot eight months before.
Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO, cited those numbers as support for booster shots.
Vaccine protection seems to wane over time
Several recent studies have similarly found that Pfizer’s vaccine effectiveness diminishes over time.
The vaccine’s protection against infection fell from 88% in the month following the second dose to 47% five months after that second shot, according to a study from Kaiser Permanente. And real-world data from Israel suggests that the risk of breakthrough infections is significantly higher for people who were vaccinated with Pfizer earlier in the pandemic than for those who received vaccines later.
The Delta variant may pose a particular challenge. Pfizer’s protection against breakthrough infections fell to 53% four months after it was administered, based on data collected from June to July, when Delta was becoming more prevalent in the US. The company thinks these results are due to waning protection, though – not the variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
Moderna’s data showed a smaller dropoff in efficacy against Delta infections. Another Kaiser Permanente study that’s still awaiting peer review found that Moderna’s vaccine was 87% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections after three months – down from 94% prior to the rise of Delta.
While the Pfizer vaccine remains highly effective against hospitalization and death from COVID-19, a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that Moderna may offer better protection against hospitalization. Being fully vaccinated with Moderna lowered recipients’ risk of hospitalization by 93% from March to August, according to the report, compared to an 88% reduced risk of hospitalization among Pfizer recipients.
The report’s findings may “guide individual choices and policy recommendations regarding vaccine boosters,” the CDC authors wrote.
Is it time for boosters yet?
Before the FDA advisory panel made its decision on Friday, the Biden administration had already announced a booster shot campaign for those who’d gotten Pfizer or Moderna. The administration pinpointed September 20 as the date on which most Americans would be eligible for third shots. (The FDA has already authorized boosters for immunocompromised people.)
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, questioned whether the White House got ahead of itself.
“This is the sort of internal, behind-closed-doors argument – inside baseball – that goes on in science being translated into public policy all the time,” Schaffner said. “The reason it’s out in the open is because the White House made that pronouncement.”
Protection wanes over times for all vaccinations, he said, and COVID-19 shots were not designed to prevent mild infections, but rather to prevent hospitalization and death – which they do very well after six or eight months.
“Will we need a booster someday?” Schaffner asked. “Sure. Do we need it today? No!”
Schaffner doesn’t begrudge the scientists at Pfizer and Moderna for pushing boosters, though.
“I don’t think this comes out of marketing division of the company,” he said. “I think the scientists really believe it.”
But he noted that many other concerns are at play. For one, two departing FDA regulators, as well as the World Health Organization, have cautioned against offering third shots to the general population while much of the world remains unvaccinated, and without compelling evidence showing the need for extra shots.
Schaffner doesn’t think that global equity argument holds up. He noted that regulatory and distribution challenges would make it difficult for the US’s vaccine surplus to go directly to poorer countries with low vaccine access.
“It’s a false notion that if you don’t give the boosters, those doses will be delivered to Indonesia,” he said, adding, “The problem is that we haven’t gotten a first dose into people. That’s where we ought to put our energy, time, and resources.”
A US federal judge on Thursday gave the federal government two weeks to stop summarily expelling families with children who cross the border to seek asylum.
Under what is known as Title 42, the United States, beginning under former President Donald Trump, has been denying the vast majority of border-crossers during the pandemic the right to even apply for refuge. The Biden administration has made exceptions for child asylum-seekers but, to the dismay of progressive critics, has otherwise continued the policy.
The legal rationale has been COVID-19, with successive administrations citing the authority of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take steps to protect public health.
But in Thursday’s ruling, US District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said that authority did not permit the extraordinary step of effectively closing the border to the majority of people seeking to exercise their right – enshrined in international law – to even apply for asylum. That policy is “likely unlawful,” he wrote, issuing a preliminary injunction on the basis that plaintiffs, a group of migrant families assisted by the ACLU and other groups who sued after the Title 42 was formally extended in July, stood a good chance of prevailing at trial.
In a statement, Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, hailed the decision.
“President Biden should have ended this cruel and lawless policy long ago,” he said, “and the court was correct to reject it today.”
Although not final, the ruling was a comprehensive rejection of the government’s arguments that Title 42 is necessary to minimize exposure to COVID-19, a claim that has also been made by the Biden administration’s right-wing opponents. Even quickly expelling asylum-seekers requires, in many cases, putting families on crowded planes and buses.
Nowadays, especially, with “the wide availability of testing, vaccines, and other minimization measures,” Sullivan said he was “not convinced that the transmission of COVID-19 during border processing cannot be significantly mitigated.”
The government has already demonstrated it can do so with its processing of unaccompanied minors. And, indeed, throughout the pandemic employees with US Customs and Border Protection appear to have had a lower incidence of COVID-19 than the general US population; despite attempts by some politicians to blame migrants for bringing the coronavirus to the US, evidence suggests migrants stand a greater chance of contracting COVID-19 after they cross the border.
The court also rejected the government’s claim that doing away with Title 42 would result in a surge of people crossing the border. In fact, Sullivan wrote, the “historic” numbers of border crossers cited by the administration and its critics alike is inflated by the policy, as “individuals seeking an asylum hearing have attempted to cross the border multiple times” – and each time (10 or more instances for some) is counted as a new encounter. Already, largely due to the refusal of some Mexican states to accept minors expelled from the US, the Biden administration processes 86% of families with children through traditional removal proceedings, he noted.
It is unclear if the Biden administration will fight the ruling. The Department of Homeland Security, named as the defendant, did not immediately return a request for comment.
A frequent flier suing seven US airlines said he plans to file an amended complaint on Monday, which will add multiple plaintiffs to his lawsuit over the airlines’ mask requirements.
Lucas Wall, of Washington DC, said via email on Friday that he planned to add new charges against the airlines, including “conspiracy to interfere with civil rights.”
Wall had previously told Insider: “It will be a stronger case with multiple plaintiffs showing the wide-ranging discrimination in the airline industry.”
The lawsuit was filed June in US District Court in Orlando against Southwest, Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit. Wall, who is representing himself, also has an ongoing lawsuit against the Biden administration.
Wall, in his original complaint against the airlines, claimed each had discriminated against those who couldn’t wear masks for medical reasons, including himself. In his initial court filings, he included his medical records for generalized anxiety disorder.
In conversations with Insider, several people who were expected to join the lawsuit as plaintiffs claimed they’d had experiences similar to Wall’s.
“The disabled are being criminalized during the pandemic – attacked, harassed, and blamed,” said Shannon Cila, of Kentucky, in an interview on Thursday.
Cila said her involvement with the case began after she was arrested in Kentucky while protesting pandemic measures including masks mandates. The arrest rattled her, she said.
“That set me up for a lot of anxiety, with having to deal with these mask exemptions, non-exemption policies, with private businesses everywhere, including airlines,” she said. “If you have an invisible disability, people look at you. They think because you’re not on an oxygen tank, or something – they can’t tell what your problem might be.”
Uriel ben-Mordechai and his wife, Adi, planned to join the lawsuit, he said on Friday. He moved to Israel about four decades ago, but regularly flies back to the Bay Area and Southern California to visit family.
A Torah scholar and lecturer, ben-Mordechai said his decision to join Wall’s lawsuit was in part driven by his faith. He said he looked to Deuteronomy 16:20, part of which translates to “justice, pursue justice.”
“It tells you, you have to make justice happen and it’s not going to happen unless you do the part that God is giving you to do,” ben-Mordechai said in a phone interview from Israel.
Leonardo McDonnell, another traveller seeking to join Wall’s lawsuit, was more forceful in his language. “I will sue these sick tyrants’ granddaughters if the legal system lets me,” McDonnell, of Florida, said in an email when Insider reached out to him.
The airlines in late August filed their initial responses to Wall’s lawsuit. Each one sought to dismiss the case on technical grounds, saying in part that Wall didn’t have the standing to sue them in federal court under the Air Carrier Access Act.
Some legal experts and academics said they have doubts about whether the wave of lawsuits over federal mask requirements will put an end to Biden’s mandate, although they weren’t asked specifically about Wall’s case.
Paul Engel, founder of The Constitution Study, an online guide to the constitution, said the federal mandates were unconstitutional for a few reasons. The Fifth Amendment, for example, requires “due process of law,” he said.
“[G]overnments at all levels are prohibited from enforcing mask mandates until they have shown probable cause that the individual is a danger to others,” Engel said via email.
Monday is Wall’s deadline for filing an amended complaint.
Florida’s COVID-19 response took a hit this week as the number of COVID-related child deaths in Florida more than doubled in just over a month, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.
A Florida Department of Health weekly report showed seven children under the age of 16 died from coronavirus complications from the start of the pandemic to July 30 – a 15-month period. Per the Department’s latest report from September 3, the number has jumped to 17 deaths since July 30.
Though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Florida chapter said most of these deaths were aligned with underlying health conditions, this sharp climb has pediatric experts worried and uncertain about the COVID Delta variant in the coming months.
“We’re all worried because we’re not sure what’s going to happen in the future,” AAP Florida President Lisa Gwynn said, according to Politico.
The AAP did not respond immediately to Insider’s request for further comment on rising mortality or morbidity rates among children by publication.
As of September 8, the CDC reported a national total of 486 deaths in children ages 0-18.
“Children are not supposed to die,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a tense US Senate hearing in July about an overwhelming statistic on child COVID deaths.
As of September 2, those 12 years and older are eligible to receive the vaccine, but vaccine coverage in children ages 12-17 is lower than older age groups, the CDC said.
“After declining in early summer, child cases have increased exponentially, with over 750,000 cases added between August 5 and September 2,” the AAP said in a report, which makes up a quarter of new weekly COVID cases.
A wave of lawsuits seeking to put an end to local, state, or federal mask mandates have hit US courts, but attorneys and legal scholars mostly say they’re fighting an uphill battle.
“Those challenging mask mandates would likely argue that the federal government lacks the power to impose them,” said Brendan Beery, a law professor at Western Michigan University. “But there are two areas where the federal government is explicitly authorized to regulate under the Constitution: federal property and interstate commerce.”
As such, the federal mask mandates put in place after President Joe Biden’s January executive order requiring travelers to wear masks would likely stand up to legal challenges, Beery said.
Legal challenges to masks have been filed in federal courts around the US. One plaintiff has filed lawsuits in both Indiana and Michigan.
The Biden administration has defended the mandates, saying in a filing in Florida court last month that they weren’t unconstitutional.
Such mandates are “one of the basic tradeoffs of living in a society, with a government that is authorized to make policy choices that individual citizens may not support,” lawyers for the Department of Justice wrote.
Insider spoke with a handful of attorneys and academics about the prospects of anti-mask lawsuits. The conversations were general and not related to any specific case.
Each person Insider spoke to used the word “unlikely” to describe the probability that one or more of the lawsuits would eventually remove federal mask mandates.
Beery, for example, said the lawsuits were “exceedingly unlikely” to make a difference. Others said they were “highly unlikely” to do so.
“It’s rather unlikely these lawsuits will change federal mandates,” said Minesh Patel, a founder and attorney at The Patel Firm, “because doing so would undermine the common-sense interpretations of certain public health statues.”
Mask mandates are supported by scientists at governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Republican state leaders vowed to fight President Joe Biden’s employer vaccine mandate, with many threatening legal action.
Biden on Thursday said all employers with 100 or more employees must require them to get shots or face weekly testing.
In announcing the plan, he said it was “not about freedom or personal choice,” but instead about protecting Americans.
“‘This is not about freedom’ is a phrase that should never come out of a U.S. President’s mouth,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee wrote on Twitter in response.
Other GOP state leaders threatened legal action. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said, “@JoeBiden see you in court.” Texas AG Ken Paxton said, “I will see you in court soon!” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said the state would take “any and all action” in her power “to stop this unprecedented power grab.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said: “I will pursue every legal option available to the state of Georgia to stop this blatantly unlawful overreach by the Biden administration.”
Biden on Thursday said more than 80 million Americans were still unvaccinated, despite the doses being “free, safe, and convenient.”
“These pandemic politics, as I refer to, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die,” he added. “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”
At the White House on Friday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked if any of the governors criticizing Biden’s plan had reached out to the president or his office. Psaki said she didn’t have any info about such calls on hand.
“We are in touch with a range of governors – Democratic and Republican – every week, if not more frequently, about a range of topics, including our efforts to address the pandemic,” she said.
More data released on Friday shows, once again, that unvaccinated people are far more vulnerable to infection, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 than the fully vaccinated.
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, released on Friday afternoon, tracked more than 615,000 COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across the US from the beginning of April until the middle of July, in 13 different areas of the country.
Across the board, the study showed that unvaccinated people made up for the bulk of all cases nationwide, even in the later part of the summer, when the Delta variant was dominant.
During the first period of the study, from April 4-June 19, unvaccinated people accounted for 95% of cases, 93% of hospitalizations, and 92% of deaths.
Later on, from June 20-July 17, when the more contagious Delta variant had a stronger foothold in the US, the number of breakthrough cases rose in vaccinated people. But even then, unvaccinated people accounted for 82% of cases, 86% of hospitalizations, and 84% of deaths, meaning the unvaccinated were still far more vulnerable to COVID-19.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 briefing on Friday that while more vaccinated Americans are being hospitalized, it’s nowhere near the number of unvaccinated Americans who are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19.
In fact, over the past two months, when the Delta variant was responsible for almost every single COVID-19 case, those who were unvaccinated were nearly five times more likely to catch COVID-19, 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated.
“The bottom line is this: We have the scientific tools we need to turn the corner on this pandemic,” Walensky said. “Vaccination works and will protect us from the severe complications of COVID-19.”
Biden’s new policies include mandates to require that all federal employees get the COVID-19 vaccine and a rule that will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly for the coronavirus.
The new requirements could affect as many as 100 million Americans.
Los Angeles is moving ahead with a new law that homelessness advocates say could displace some unhoused people in the city.
The rule that took effect September 3 restricts “sitting, lying, sleeping” or setting up camp in the “public right-of-way.” Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the ordinance in July, Insider previously reported.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addressed the issue of managing groups of unhoused people in cities weeks before Garcetti signed the ordinance in Los Angeles, saying on July 8 that “clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The CDC did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for further comment.
LA city councilman Mike Bonin, one of two councilors who voted against the ordinance, said he was “angry and frustrated,” and said the city is responding to homelessness “the wrong way, with failed policies.”
It may be too soon to tell whether sweeps have led to an outbreak of COVID-19, but Pastor Troy Vaughn, CEO of the Los Angeles Mission homeless shelter said, “I think it’s a real concern to not have a controlled process in place to address the pandemic of homelessness in the middle of a public health pandemic.”
Rev. Andy Bales, president and CEO of the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter, told Insider “most of Skid Row is excluded from the ordinance” effectively preserving “the decades-long policy of corralling and containment of people on Skid Row.”
In a January 13, 2021 opinion submitted by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of judges argued the city of Los Angeles’ rule prohibiting bulky items in public spaces could be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from “unreasonable government seizures of their property, even when that property is stored in public areas.”
In a joint statement published on September 3, Mayor Garcetti, the Los Angeles Police Department, and LA City Council President Nury Martinez suggested that, despite the city ordinance having taken effect, it doesn’t need to be the last word on the matter of accommodating LA’s unhoused population. “We don’t need to choose between keeping our public spaces safe and clean, and connecting Angelenos experiencing homelessness with the services and housing they need,” the statement read.
Throughout the pandemic, countries including the US have issued a variety of travel advisories to try and keep citizens safe and to discourage travel to areas with high transmission of COVID-19.
While the State Department advises Americans not to travel to 97 countries because of the pandemic or unsafe conditions, the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control recommends against traveling to 77 countries specifically because of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, the CDC added a Level 4 Travel Advisory for Jamaica, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka, telling Americans not to travel to those countries due to, “a very high level of COVID-19 in the country.” France and The Bahamas, two popular tourist destinations for Americans, are also at a Level 4 warning.
Level 4 is the highest travel advisory that the agencies flag, and the new advisories have come as the Delta and Mu variants continue to spread around the world.
The CDC also added a Level 3: Reconsider Travel advisory for Anguilla, Australia, Brunei, Ghana, Grenada, Madagascar, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Additionally, some of the Level 4 advisories – like those issued for Nicaragua and Afghanistan – have been issued for socio-political reasons.
Below is a table with all of the countries that the government recommends Americans avoid right now:
Countries with US State Department Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisories