‘Staggering and depressing’: Covid-19 takes dramatic toll on U.S. life expectancy

By John Tozzi | Bloomberg

Life expectancy in the United States dropped the most in more than seven decades last year as Covid-19 sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to early deaths.

The pandemic’s disproportionate toll on communities of color also widened existing gaps in life expectancy between White and Black Americans, according to estimates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The tally represents an extraordinarily grim accounting of an ongoing catastrophe. The first year of the pandemic delivered a bigger blow to American life expectancy than any year of the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis or the “deaths of despair” that nudged down life expectancies in the mid-2010s.

“It’s staggering and depressing,” said Noreen Goldman, a professor of demography and public affairs at Princeton University. “The U.S. lags behind virtually all high-income countries in life expectancy, and now it’s lagging further behind.”

The pace of Covid-19 deaths dropped sharply as vaccinations spread in the first half of 2021. But it’s unclear how long it will take for life expectancy to rebound. The U.S. has recorded a total of 609,000 Covid deaths since the pandemic began. More than 43% occurred in 2021, with almost half the year still to come.

The first year of the pandemic reduced Americans’ life expectancy at birth by 1.5 years, to 77.3 years. That erased the country’s gains since 2003. It was the largest annual decline since 1943, in the middle of World War II. Goldman said that it was the second largest decline since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which is believed to have killed some 50 million people worldwide.

The 2020 pandemic decline widened the distance between the U.S. and other wealthy democracies like France, Israel, South Korea and the U.K., according to research recently published in The BMJ journal.

“This is not a decline that happened in other high-income countries, so something went terribly wrong in the U.S. where the number of Americans who died was vastly in excess of what it needed to be,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the authors of the BMJ study.

Life expectancy is a statistical construct that reflects death rates in a given place and time. The CDC report describes life expectancy at birth as the “average number of years a group of infants would live if they were to experience throughout life the age-specific death rates prevailing during a period.” It isn’t meant to predict the actual lifespans that people born in that period will experience. Rather, it’s a way to compare death rates across geographies and years.

Covid accounted for three-quarters of the decline in 2020. Unintentional injuries, a category that includes record fatal drug overdoses for 2020, also dragged down the measure, as did homicides, diabetes and liver disease. The drop would have been steeper had it not been offset by fewer deaths from other factors including cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, heart disease and suicide.

All demographic groups saw declines in life expectancy in 2020. But the drops weren’t evenly distributed. Men lost more ground than women. Hispanic Americans, who have longer life expectancies than White or Black Americans, recorded the greatest losses during Covid, with life expectancy dropping three full years, double the rate of the country as a whole.

Black Americans likewise recorded a 2.9-year loss of life expectancy. That decline widened the gap between Black people and White people in the U.S., a disparity in life expectancy that had been shrinking since the 1990s. Life expectancy for White Americans declined by 1.2 years in 2020.

“There’s no biological reason for people of a certain skin color to die at higher rates of a virus,” Woolf said, noting that the disparate impact reflects structural inequities.

Skewed representation in frontline jobs like retail, meatpacking, transport and health care, combined with higher rates of chronic conditions, put people of color both at increased risk of exposure to Covid and increased risk of dying from it, Goldman said.

Unequal access to health care, language barriers, and crowded or multigenerational housing also contributed to the virus’s disproportionate toll on Hispanic and Black populations, she said.

The estimates published by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reflect death certificate data reported by states and cities. The report didn’t include data on populations of Asian Americans, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

As alarming as the one-year drop in life expectancy in 2020 is, Woolf said that more attention should focus on the decades-long gap in life expectancy that has cut short more American lives than Covid has.

In the 20th century, life expectancy generally increased in wealthy countries as science and sanitation helped conquer infectious diseases. In the U.S., troubling signs that the country wasn’t keeping up with other nations’ gains in the measure emerged in the 1990s. This divergence came to be known as the U.S. health disadvantage.

“The more important issue than the acute event we’re seeing right now in life expectancy is the long-term trend,” Woolf said. “That’s actually much scarier for the U.S. than what we’re reporting for 2020, as strange as that might sound.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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US gymnast tests positive for Covid-19 ahead of Tokyo Olympics

By Chie Kobayashi for CNN

An unnamed US female gymnast has tested positive for Covid-19, Inzai city official Takamitsu Ooura told CNN.

The teenage gymnast is staying in Inzai City in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, for pre-camp ahead of the Tokyo Olympics which start on Friday.

She tested positive on Sunday and her doctor confirmed the test result after another test Monday.

The gymnast has no symptoms and is quarantined in her hotel room as she waits for the public health center to decide on whether or not to hospitalize her.

One gymnast has been identified as a close contact of the gymnast who tested positive.

Tokyo 2020 reported Monday that there are 58 Covid-19 cases linked to the Olympic Games.

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These communities remain at high risk for dangerous Covid-19 variants rapidly increasing in US, expert warns

By Travis Caldwell | CNN

The country continued this week on a path to reopening from the Covid-19 pandemic, with major population centers such as New York and California pulling back on restrictions following increased vaccinations and lowered infections.

Yet with overall vaccination rates in the US slowing this month when compared to highs in April, health officials are raising awareness about the uneven distribution of vaccines in different parts of the country.

“I’m very unconcerned for people who have been vaccinated, and I’m more concerned for people who have not been vaccinated and the communities that are largely unvaccinated,” Andy Slavitt, former White House senior adviser for the Biden administration’s Covid-19 response, told CNN’s Don Lemon on Wednesday.

Slavitt, who earlier described the Delta variant, or B.1.617.2, as “Covid on steroids,” noted people who are in high vaccination areas are likely to know others likeminded about inoculations, and places with few vaccinations are more susceptible to clusters of Covid-19 infections.

“In those communities, a Covid that spreads twice as fast is not a good thing,” Slavitt said.

The Delta variant, a form of Covid-19 first identified in India, has increased to approximately 10% of coronavirus cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The strain has been listed by the CDC as a “variant of concern,” meaning scientists believe it is more transmittable and can cause more severe disease.

Recent studies demonstrated the effectiveness of vaccines against variants such as Delta, with many in the health community urging to Americans that the best way to defend against Covid-19 is preemptive vaccination and immunization.

“It’s one more reason for people to take this seriously and say, ‘Wow, we’ve got great vaccines, we’re so lucky to have them, maybe I should take one or two,’” Slavitt said.

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Recent study points to long-term dangers of Covid-19

This week, the US surpassed 600,000 deaths since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, meaning approximately one in 550 Americans have died from Covid-19.

The rate of infection and deaths in the country have slowed dramatically since the 2020 holiday season, which is largely credited by health experts to the millions of Americans who have since received vaccines. Despite the improved outlook toward beating the pandemic, the risk of contracting Covid-19 remains for many who have not yet been vaccinated.

In an analysis of nearly 2 million people who had a Covid-19 diagnosis between February and December 2020, a new white paper study from FAIR Health points to the dangers of contracting Covid-19 and how symptoms for some can last well beyond what is hoped for after surviving the infection.

Nearly a quarter of Covid-19 patients, 23.2%, had at least one post-Covid condition 30 or more days after their initial diagnosis, according to the study posted on Tuesday.

While post-Covid conditions were found to a greater extent in patients who had more severe Covid-19, they were also found in a “substantial” share of asymptomatic cases.

Half of patients who were hospitalized with Covid-19 had a post-Covid condition 30 days or more after their initial diagnosis, as did 27.5% of those who had symptoms but were not hospitalized and 19% who were asymptomatic.

Pain and breathing difficulties were the top two conditions cited. Most of the post-Covid conditions studied were more common in females, yet there were 12 conditions that were more commonly experienced by males.

One of these, cardiac inflammation, the researchers call “notable” as the age distribution was skewed towards a younger cohort. The largest share — 25.4% — of patients reporting this condition were in the 19- to 29-year-old age group, a number that was also disproportionate to the age group’s share of Covid patients overall.

FAIR Health says it believes this is the largest population studied for post-Covid conditions and the study was not formally peer-reviewed but was evaluated by an independent academic reviewer.

Rare heart-related risk after vaccination resolved in days, study finds

While a risk of heart inflammation following vaccination for younger individuals is being examined by federal health officials, prompting discussions during a recent FDA committee meeting over how to prepare for vaccinating for children under the age of 12, another study found that such symptoms resolved themselves within days.

Wednesday’s report in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation suggests that myocarditis, an uncommon condition that causes inflammation in the wall of the heart muscle, after vaccination may be temporary and straightforward to treat.

Seven patients, all of whom were male and between the ages of 19 and 39, hospitalized with a myocarditis-like illness after vaccination were reported to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

Diagnosis of the conditions was confirmed through testing and all had stable vital signs. Treatment for the patients involved heart drugs known as beta-blockers and anti-inflammatory medication, and the patients were discharged from the hospital within two to four days.

“The clinical course of vaccine-associated myocarditis-like illness appears favorable, with resolution of symptoms in all patients,” wrote the team led by Dr. Christopher deFilippi of the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute in Virginia.

“Given the potential morbidity of Covid-19 infection even in younger adults, the risk-benefit decision for vaccination remains highly favorable,” they added.

Outreach for vaccinations continues

About 147.8 million people, or 44.5% of the US population, are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data released Thursday.

Fifteen states have hit the Biden administration’s goal of vaccinating 70% of adults with at least one dose by July 4.

To reach out to the many who remain unvaccinated, health officials continue to promote new ways to convince Americans of the need to inoculate.

The US Department of Health and Human Services will enlist student ambassadors 16 years and older to help promote Covid-19 vaccination, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said Wednesday.

“We want to use those students who want to be ambassadors to their fellow students to get them out and get vaccinated,” Becerra said at a roundtable with Anacostia High School students in Washington, DC.

Governors and state officials have also turned to financial incentives during the vaccination rollout, with several states promoting lotteries for vaccinated people to boost interest, even in places that have done relatively well with vaccination efforts.

On Wednesday, Maine announced a sweepstakes that will reward one vaccinated winner with $1 for every person vaccinated in the state by July 4.

The cash winnings increase by $1 for every Maine resident who receives at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, so “the more people vaccinated, the higher the prize,” according to a statement from Governor Janet Mills’ office.

“Maine is a national leader in Covid-19 vaccination thanks to the more than 876,000 people who have already rolled up their sleeves,” Mills said, adding that residents ages 12 and up who have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine can enter for a chance to win.

According to the release, as of June 15, 74% of eligible Maine residents have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and Maine ranks third among states in the percent of eligible residents who are fully vaccinated.

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Court says California must more quickly move mentally incompetent defendants out of jails

SAN FRANCISCO — California can’t lock up people for months in jails after they have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial, a state appeals court said.

In a 3-0 ruling Tuesday, a panel of the First District Court of Appeal upheld a 2019 lower court order that gave the state a 28-day deadline for placing defendants in state mental hospitals or other treatment facilities after they were found incompetent to stand trial because of psychological or intellectual disabilities.

The appellate court also included people charged with certain felony sex offenses, rejecting an exception carved out in the earlier Alameda County ruling.

The previous ruling had set a phase-in period that ends next year.

State law says people facing criminal charges but who are judged incompetent to face trial can be ordered committed for treatment to help them become capable of understanding trial proceedings.

Two years before the 2019 time limit was enacted, defendants waited 86 days on average after a judge issued the transfer order to get into a hospital, according to the appellate court.

California has “systematically violated the due-process rights” of these defendants by keeping them for longer periods in jails where they may suffer further problems because of crowding, violence and a lack of treatment, Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in the ruling.

The decision involved a 2015 lawsuit filed against the state Department of State Hospitals and Department of Developmental Services on behalf of five relatives of defendants who were found incompetent to stand trial.

Due to lack of space, about 4,000 people each year who are declared incompetent to stand trial are placed on a waitlist for admission to facilities administered by those departments, and the list for admission to state hospitals alone soared to more than 1,600 people during the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase of 500% since 2013, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which took part in the lawsuit.

The ACLU has urged use of community treatment centers to help ease the hospital bed shortage.

“The court recognized that California cannot continue to warehouse people in jail for months at a time while it denies them both their right to a trial and the mental health treatment they need to become competent to have a trial,” Michael Risher, counsel for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in a statement.

“This ruling is a step in the right direction, and our family is very grateful,” said Stephanie Stiavetti, a plaintiff who said her brother was abused in jail during weeks of delay before his transfer.

“The state needs to recognize that there are far too many mental health patients suffering in jails, lost in a system that is rife with abuse and ill-prepared to care for them,” she said in a statement. “Immediate legislation is needed to ensure that people with mental health disorders receive treatment promptly and outside of the jail system.”

The Department of State Hospitals told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was reviewing the ruling.

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Pediatric cardiologists explain myocarditis and why your teen should still get a Covid-19 vaccine

By Elizabeth Cohen | CNN Senior Medical Correspondent

The news about a potential link between the Covid-19 vaccine and a cardiac ailment in young people may be striking fear in the hearts of some parents.

But pediatric cardiologists have a message for these parents: Covid-19 should scare you more — a whole lot more — than the vaccine.

And these doctors should know. They’ve treated young patients who’ve contracted this heart ailment after vaccination — it’s called myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle — and they’ve also treated young patients who’ve had Covid-19.

There simply is no comparison between the two, they say.

Myocarditis sounds scary, but there are mild versions of it. In almost all cases among vaccinated young people (they were ages 16 to 24), the symptoms have gone away quickly. Covid-19, on the other hand, can be a long illness, or it can kill a young person — it has already killed thousands of them.

CNN spoke with pediatric cardiologists Dr. Kevin Hall at the Yale School of Medicine and Dr. Stuart Berger at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who is also chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on cardiology and cardiac surgery, about the cases of myocarditis that have been spotted among young people after vaccination with the Moderna or Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines.

Both doctors, as well as the American Heart Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend the Covid-19 vaccine for young people.

What causes myocarditis, and how often does it happen to young people?

While myocarditis is relatively uncommon, it does happen to young people (and we mean long before the Covid-19 vaccine ever came along). Usually it’s caused by a viral or bacterial infection. A different vaccine, one against smallpox, has previously been linked to myocarditis.

There’s a wide spectrum of myocarditis. Some people don’t feel anything and they’re fine without treatment. For others, myocarditis can be deadly.

Berger estimates that at the emergency room where he works at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, they see approximately one child a week with the condition in the summer, when coxsackie and other viruses that cause myocarditis are in full bloom. Generally speaking, these young people are otherwise healthy.

People from puberty through their early 30s are at higher risk for myocarditis, according to the Myocarditis Foundation. Males are affected twice as often as females.

How many people in the US have developed myocarditis after Covid-19 vaccination?

As of May 31, nearly 170 million Americans had at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Through that time, fewer than 800 cases of myocarditis or pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue around the heart), have been reported after receiving the vaccine, according to the CDC, most of them after the second dose. And these are preliminary numbers — they might be lower as further investigation could show that not all of these people actually had myocarditis or pericarditis.

Are these numbers unusual?

As we mentioned, people get myocarditis and pericarditis — inflammation of the lining around the heart — even without the Covid-19 vaccine. The CDC set out to determine if the numbers of post-vaccination myocarditis and pericarditis are higher than what you’d see without the Covid-19 vaccine.

The answer was “yes” for people ages 16 to 24. The CDC found that among 16-and 17-year-olds, as of May 31, there were 79 reports of the illnesses soon after vaccination, and ordinarily you’d expect to see around two to 19 cases in this group. Among 18-to-24 year olds, there were 196 reported cases, and you’d expect to see between 8 and 83 cases. There were also reports of myocarditis and pericarditis in older age groups, but the numbers weren’t higher than what you’d normally expect.

Did the myocarditis in these vaccinated young people make them really sick?

It sounds like an inflamed heart would, by definition, always be a huge deal, right? But it isn’t.

“Many times, people have myocarditis and don’t even know it. It goes away and they’re fine,” Berger said.

In the vast majority of these post-vaccination cases, patients had a full recovery.

Looking at 270 patients who were admitted and discharged from the hospital as of May 31, the CDC has found that 81% had full recovery of symptoms. The other 19% had ongoing symptoms or their recovery status was unknown.

Hall, the pediatric cardiologist at Yale, said many of the post-vaccination myocarditis patients at his hospital didn’t feel very sick, but they were admitted so doctors could do more testing and out of an abundance of caution.

“Some of these young men and boys were rather upset that they had to stay in the hospital,” Hall said.

What kinds of symptoms did these young people have?

Hall is co-author of a study published last week looking at seven cases of myocarditis among adolescents after vaccination.

They all had chest pain, and some of them also had fevers or felt weak or tired.

Their symptoms began between two and four days after the second dose of the vaccine. They spent two to six days in the hospital. For all seven patients, their symptoms resolved rapidly with medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and steroids.

All seven of the cases were males. In the CDC report, most of the cases were males.

How do young people do when they get Covid-19?

This gets to the heart of the issue. When young people developed myocarditis following vaccination, the numbers were small, and they weren’t very sick.

While most young people who develop Covid-19 are fine, some do develop complications and even die from the infection.

As of June 9, 2,637 people under age 30 have had deaths that involved Covid-19, according to the CDC. As of June 5, preliminary data shows 3,110 people under the age of 18 have been hospitalized, a number the CDC says is likely an underestimate.

Berger and Hall have each taken care of dozens of Covid patients.

“Some of them spent weeks in the intensive care unit. They had poor heart function. They had acute infections that were completely preventable by the vaccine,” Berger said.

Even if they recovered, some have had long-term illnesses.

“We do remain concerned about these children in the long term,” Hall said. “We have seen some with persistent changes in their cardiac testing. This is a very serious disease.”

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US may soon reach a tipping point on Covid-19 vaccine demand. Here’s why that’s concerning

By Christina Maxouris | CNN

As US health officials race to get more Covid-19 shots into arms to control the virus, experts now warn the country will run into another challenge in the next few weeks: vaccine supply will likely outstrip demand.

“While timing may differ by state, we estimate that across the U.S. as a whole we will likely reach a tipping point on vaccine enthusiasm in the next 2 to 4 weeks,” the Kaiser Family Foundation said in a new report published Tuesday.

“Once this happens, efforts to encourage vaccination will become much harder, presenting a challenge to reaching the levels of herd immunity that are expected to be needed.”

Health officials — including Dr. Anthony Fauci — estimate that somewhere between 70% to 85% of the country needs to be immune to the virus — either through inoculation or previous infection — to suppress is spread.

So far, roughly 40.1% of the population has gotten at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And about 26% of the population is fully vaccinated, that data shows.

A slowing vaccine demand now, experts say, could give dangerous coronavirus variants the opportunity to continue to mutate, spread and set off new surges — and it could delay the country’s return to a semblance of normalcy.

‘We have slots going unfilled’

Parts of the US are already seeing fewer people sign up for a shot.

Kristy Fryman, the emergency response coordinator and public information officer for the Mercer County Health District in Ohio, told CNN on Tuesday that vaccine demand in the county is “slowing down.”

The county’s younger population isn’t as eager to get vaccinated, Fryman said, and “have the sense that if they get Covid, it may not be as bad.”

Others, she said, are opting to wait “to see how the side effects are.”

“We’ve been going back to the drawing board trying to figure out how to get more people vaccinated but … we can only do so much,” Fryman added.

A little more than 27% of the county’s residents have started their Covid-19 vaccinations, according to Ohio’s Covid-19 vaccine dashboard.

Earlier in the pandemic, Mercer County was among the hardest hit parts of the state. Now, Fryman said, the county is again reporting a rise in Covid-19 cases.

“It’s concerning that we’re seeing an increase and that population does not want to get vaccinated,” she said.

In Spring Lake, Michigan, emergency room physician Dr. Rob Davidson said Tuesday that local officials there are also growing increasingly concerned over the hesitancy they’re seeing.

“We have slots going unfilled, I know in West Michigan and other parts, particularly in rural Michigan,” he said.

Experts recommend people continue mask-wearing post-vaccine

For Americans who are fully vaccinated, experts said it’s best to keep wearing a mask.

“If you are vaccinated, you are protecting yourself and you probably won’t get sick but we don’t know how long the virus is going to live in your respiratory system after you catch it,” Dr. Jorge Rodriguez, internal medicine specialist and CNN medical analyst, said Tuesday. “So therefore, you are potentially contagious to others.”

As for gatherings, Rodriguez said fully vaccinated Americans should be opting to meet only with others who are also vaccinated.

Experts have highlighted that even as vaccinations climb, it will be important for people to keep following Covid-19 safety measures until the country is able to suppress the spread of the virus.

But as more shots are administered, fewer Americans are practicing public health mitigation measures, according to poll results from Axios-Ipsos published Tuesday. The poll was conducted April 16 to 19 and was made up of a representative sample of more than 1,000 US adults.

About 61% of respondents are social distancing, which is down six percentage points from last month and 13 points from two months ago.

The percentage of people wearing a mask at all times when they leave the house — 63% — is the lowest since the summer and down 10 percentage points since two months ago.

And, at a time when Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, the perceived risk of returning to pre-coronavirus life is the lowest it has ever been — 52%.

Meanwhile, the perceived risks associated with activities like shopping in retail and grocery stores and attending sporting events is also declining.

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The IRS has no plans to bring back a tool that helped low-income Americans get their stimulus checks. Here’s what to do instead

By Katie Lobosco | CNN

About 8 million low-income people were eligible for stimulus payments last year but never received the money, raising concerns about getting the latest round of help to those most in need — yet there’s no sign the Internal Revenue Service plans to restore a tool that would make it easier.

Early in the pandemic, the IRS created a simple online form to allow low-income people who aren’t usually required to file tax returns to provide their contact information to the agency. But that tool has remained offline since November, even after Congress approved two more rounds of stimulus payments.

Now, people who missed out must file a 2020 tax return in order to get the money they’re owed from the first two stimulus checks, along with the third one. People who used the non-filer tool before it went offline will automatically receive their third stimulus payment without taking action.

An IRS spokesman told CNN Thursday that there are no plans to bring back the tool but encouraged people to file returns so that they can claim a credit for all three payments as well as claim any other expanded credits they may be eligible for, like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the child tax credit.

Filing a return ensures that families may get other benefits they qualify for, like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the now expanded child tax credit — but it can be a challenging process for someone who hasn’t filed in years.

“The stakes are high with billions of federal dollars not reaching low-income people in California and across the country. The IRS reposting its online non-filers tool immediately would be a good first step,” Aparna Ramesh, senior research manager at the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley, said in a statement.

The group found that at least 1.5 million Californians could potentially miss out on $3.5 billion in stimulus payments. It estimated that about 25% of low-income Californians didn’t get the money automatically last year.

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Still waiting for the latest round

Most Americans had their stimulus payments directly deposited into their bank accounts or sent in the mail without them having to take any action. In the weeks since President Joe Biden signed the most recent stimulus bill, the IRS has swiftly delivered more than 156 million payments — but those who likely need the money the most may still be waiting.

“I think the IRS has limited resources and has to decide how much to devote to its traditional lines of business, like processing tax returns and audits, or becoming more of a customer service agency focused on benefits delivery,” said Elaine Maag, a principal research associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It certainly doesn’t look like that’s the priority when they’re taking down these tools rather than creating them.”

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told lawmakers at a hearing last month that the agency had extended its reach far beyond its normal contacts to try to reach lower-income people, working with “hundreds of local community groups and religious organizations” as well as “thousands of homeless organizations.”

A challenging year for the IRS

It will be a challenging year for the IRS, an agency whose budget has been cut about 20% over the past decade, leaving it with antiquated technology and a smaller staff.

The agency is also grappling with several changes to the tax law made by the Covid relief bills. The one passed in March also directs the IRS to send out periodic payments for an expanded child tax credit, as well as waive income taxes on up to $10,200 in unemployment benefits received in 2020, helping some laid-off workers who faced surprise tax bills on their jobless benefits.

The changes create work for the IRS, tax preparers and taxpayers. Facing pressure from lawmakers, the agency recently extended the tax filing deadline to May 17.

“This has been the most challenging tax seasons I’ve experienced, hands down,” said Courtney O’Reilly, the director of Tax Help Colorado, an IRS-certified tax assistance center.

There’s more need and fewer volunteers due to the pandemic, even though most work is still done remotely. It’s a challenge to help out brand new filers, unfamiliar with the tax system, seeking desperately needed benefits over the phone.

Taxpayers earning less than $72,000 a year can use a tax preparer site for free to file a federal return. But they still need to gather the documents showing their income, have an email address and a phone number. New filers are sometimes hesitant to submit a return at all, fearing they might owe more in back taxes than they are set to receive from the stimulus benefits.

“These new benefits will be really helpful to families, but it’s so hard to make sure people who need it the most get them. It takes time to create the foundation to provide the support,” O’Reilly said.

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Trial review board raises concerns about AstraZeneca vaccine data

By Michael Nedelman | CNN

The independent board that reviews data from multiple Covid-19 vaccine candidates has expressed concern over AstraZeneca’s announcements on its latest findings, according to a statement posted early Tuesday by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Late Monday, the Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) notified NIAID, BARDA, and AstraZeneca that it was concerned by information released by AstraZeneca on initial data from its COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial,” the statement says. “The DSMB expressed concern that AstraZeneca may have included outdated information from that trial, which may have provided an incomplete view of the efficacy data.

“We urge the company to work with the DSMB to review the efficacy data and ensure the most accurate, up-to-date efficacy data be made public as quickly as possible.”

AstraZeneca has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

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Early Monday, AstraZeneca issued a press release saying its Covid-19 vaccine showed 79% efficacy against symptomatic disease and 100% efficacy against severe disease and hospitalization, citing long-awaited US trial data. The latter figure was based on five events in the placebo arm, NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a coronavirus briefing Monday.

The DSMB is an independent expert group that sees trial data before the pharmaceutical companies, the doctors running the trials, or even the US Food and Drug Administration. It has the power advise a company of positive interim findings, or to halt a trial over safety concerns. That’s what happened to the AstraZeneca trial in September after a study participant developed neurological symptoms, for example.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health appointed a common DSMB to monitor Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials that were being funded by the federal government — including AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. This DSMB has 10 to 15 members with specialties including vaccine development, statistics and ethics.

DSMBs sometimes disagree with investigators over the interpretation of trial results, Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in a statement to the Science Media Centre in the UK. But that’s usually done in private, he said, “so this is unprecedented in my opinion.”

However, he noted, he isn’t concerned unless there’s a safety issue, “which does not appear to be the case.”

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Mission Viejo football opener vs. La Habra in jeopardy after positive COVID-19 tests in program

The La Habra and Mission Viejo football game scheduled for Friday night was in doubt late Thursday  because of potential exposure to COVID-19 by players in the Mission Viejo program.

Mission Viejo learned Thursday that there had been positive tests for the coronavirus by several players in its program, but perhaps not on the varsity team. Scheduled freshman and junior varsity games between La Habra and Mission Viejo on Thursday afternoon were canceled.

La Habra coach Frank Mazzotta at first thought the varsity game, a matchup between two of the top 10 teams in Orange County, would also be canceled.

The Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which includes Mission Viejo High, convened a board meeting Thursday night to go over the school’s options, which might include more testing and contact tracing. The board was still in its meeting late Thursday night.

The game is the long-awaited season opener for both teams after the coronavirus pandemic delayed the season for several months. The contest is supposed to be streamed live online by Fox Sports Prep Zone.

The CIF-SS just deleted this tweet saying La Habra vs. Mission Viejo would be replaced on the broadcast schedule. CIF-SS assistant commissioner Thom Simmons said it was a mistake and they do no know what will happen between Mission Viejo and La Habra. This is wild. pic.twitter.com/h1c542AA8I

— Fred J. Robledo 👨🏻‍💻 (@SGVNSports) March 12, 2021

Mission Viejo is ranked No. 3 and La Habra is No. 7 in the preseason Orange County rankings.

Mazzotta spent some of Thursday evening looking at potential replacement opponents if the Mission Viejo game is canceled.

Fred Robledo contributed to this report. 

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California could get $150 billion from federal coronavirus relief bill

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — The massive COVID-19 relief bill Congress approved Wednesday will pump more than $150 billion into California’s economy, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration said Wednesday, including a $26 billion windfall for the state’s already burgeoning budget surplus.

Nearly half of the money will go to Californians directly in the form of $1,400 checks and expanded unemployment benefits. Another $15.9 billion will go to public and private schools while $3.6 billion will boost the state’s vaccination, testing and contact tracing efforts. There’s also money for public transit agencies, airports and child care.

About $16 billion will go to local governments and be split in half between cities and counties. And $26 billion will go directly to state government for services impacted by the pandemic.

Toni Atkins, Democratic president pro tempore of the California Senate, called it the state’s “fair share.”

“California has been a ‘donor state’ for decades, paying more to the federal government than we receive in federal services and investments,” Atkins said. “We’re fortunate that our budget is healthy and balanced, but it’s because we prioritized responsible fiscal planning.”

Like most states, California budget forecasters predicted a steep drop-off in revenue during the pandemic as businesses were forced to close and millions of people lost their jobs. Newsom and the Legislature reacted quickly by raising taxes, cutting spending and pulling from the state’s savings accounts to cover what they expected to be a $54.3 billion shortfall.

Instead, California’s revenues went up, buoyed by taxes paid by a wealthy population that made a lot of money from the surging stock market.

In January, Newsom announced the state had a $15 billion one-time surplus. The state has already spent $7.6 billion of that in the form of a state stimulus package that will, among other things, send $600 payments to millions of low- to moderate-income Californians.

Lawmakers also set aside $6.6 billion to help schools return students to classrooms. And they are preparing another bill that would give $2.3 billion in tax breaks to businesses, bringing the state’s total aid package to more than $16 billion. Despite that, Atkins said “the need is still much greater than the resources we have.”

Now, state leaders are preparing for $26 billion in aid from the federal government with few limits on how they can spend it. Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said Newsom will announce his plans for the money in May when the state updates its budget projections.

The Legislature will have to sign off on whatever Newsom proposes. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said lawmakers are interested in using the federal money to continue direct relief to families and small businesses.

He also suggested using some of the money to increase access to high-speed internet and to make up shortfalls in the state’s cap and trade program that requires big polluters to purchase credits to let them pollute. The state uses that money to pay for various climate-related programs, including wildfire prevention and drinking water.

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, said priorities include restoring previous spending cuts and doing more to help small businesses and the unemployed. He also said the state could spend the money on construction projects that include expanding access to high-speed internet and create jobs that last for years.

In January, state lawmakers agreed to use $2.6 billion in prior federal relief funding to pay off up to 80% of some tenants unpaid rent. Ting said he’d like the state to also help pay off unpaid commercial rents to prevent evictions of small businesses.

“The one thing we’ve learned about this year is the environment constantly shifts, the virus kind of moves and the impact constantly changes every day,” Ting said. “We have to keep monitoring how Californians and all the different small businesses are doing.”

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law on Friday. The U.S. Treasury Department has told state governments they can’t cut taxes and use the federal money to make up the money. But they can use the money to respond to the public health emergency, provide government services or invest in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.

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