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Elaine Chao Used DOT Resources For Personal Errands, Family Business, IG Report Says

WXXI US News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 6:17am
Updated at 12:22 p.m. ET In her time as former President Donald Trump's transportation secretary, Elaine Chao repeatedly used her position and agency staff to help family members who run a shipping business with ties to China, in potential violation of federal ethics laws, according to an Office of Inspector General report. The findings were uncovered in the Transportation Department's inspector general report released Wednesday that detailed the office's investigation into Chao's dealings as secretary. The inspector general referred the findings to the Justice Department in December 2020. But with the Trump administration coming to a close, the DOJ declined to open its own investigation into the matter, citing "there is not predication" to do so. Chao, who is married to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced her resignation Jan. 7, saying she was deeply troubled by the previous day's mob attack on the Capitol "in a way that I simply cannot set aside." Her term was set to end at

Security Tightens Amid Reports Extremists Aim To Breach Capitol Again

WXXI US News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 5:16am
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Texas Gov. Abbott Criticized For Lifting COVID-19 Restrictions

WXXI US News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 5:02am
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Reopening of Long-Term Care Facilities Is ‘an Absolute Necessity for Our Well-Being’

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 5:00am

For nearly a year, nursing homes and assisted living centers have been mostly closed to visitors. Now, it’s time for them to open back up and relieve residents of crushing isolation, according to a growing chorus of long-term care experts, caregivers, consumer groups and physicians.

This story also ran on CNN. It can be republished for free.

They’re calling for federal health authorities to relax visitation restrictions in long-term care institutions, replacing guidance that’s been in place since September. And they want both federal and state authorities to grant special status to “essential caregivers” — family members or friends who provide critically important hands-on care — so they have the opportunity to tend to relatives in need.

Richard Fornili, 84, who lives in a nursing home in St. Marys, Georgia, supports a change in policies. He hasn’t seen any family members since last summer, when a granddaughter, her husband and her two children stood outside his window and called him on the phone. “The depression and sense of aloneness affecting my fellow residents, it’s terrible,” he said. “Having our relatives come back in to see us, it’s an absolute necessity for our well-being.”

“At this point, residents are becoming more likely to die of isolation and neglect than covid,” said Jocelyn Bogdan, program and policy specialist at the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, citing new data linking covid-19 vaccination to sharp declines in covid-related deaths. Her organization has launched a petition drive calling for nursing homes to safely reopen and for essential caregivers to have unrestricted access to loved ones.

Since late December, when vaccinations began, covid cases in nursing home residents have plunged 83%, while deaths have dropped by 66%, according to an analysis by KFF. As of Monday, 4.6 million residents and staff members in nursing homes and other congregate facilities had received at least one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, including more than 2 million who had received a second dose.

Vaccines have “changed everything” and nursing homes are now among “the safest places you can be in your community in terms of covid,” said Ruth Katz, senior vice president of public policy at LeadingAge, an association representing more than 5,000 nonprofit nursing homes, assisted living centers and senior housing providers.

Last week, LeadingAge called for federal authorities to expand visitation in a letter to top officials at the White House, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an email, the American Health Care Association, which represents more than 14,000 long-term care providers, also urged CMS and the CDC to review its visitation guidance. AARP, the nation’s most powerful seniors’ lobby, chimed in with a letter noting “a critical need” for new recommendations.

Medical directors at long-term care facilities are also weighing in while sounding a cautious note in new guidance about resuming communal activities and visitation in long-term care facilities. With new covid variants circulating and significant numbers of staffers and potential visitors still unvaccinated, “we’re recommending a measured, step-wise approach,” said Dr. Swati Gaur, chair of the infection advisory committee for AMDA — the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine.

Facilities that reopen to family members should do so “carefully,” she said, scheduling visits, screening those visitors for symptoms and ideally requiring a negative covid test before entry; limiting the number of visitors in a facility at any time; sending them to designated visitor sites, not residents’ rooms; and requiring the use of masks and gloves, among other precautions.

No one wants to see covid outbreaks reappear in long-term care facilities, Gaur said — the site of nearly 173,000 covid-related deaths, about 35% of the nation’s total.

CMS instructed nursing homes to lock down almost a year ago, on March 13, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated and the CDC said no one except relatives making end-of-life visits should be let in. In September, new recommendations allowed outdoor visits, so long as safety precautions such as physical distancing were in place, and indoor visits, so long as a facility was covid-free for 14 days and the positivity rate for covid cases in the surrounding community was under 10%.

Federal recommendations apply to nursing homes. States regulate assisted living and other congregate care facilities but tend to follow the CDC’s lead. In practice, long-term care facilities vary considerably in how they implement recommended policies.

Also, federal authorities recommended that relatives be able to make “compassionate care” visits when a resident is emotionally distressed, grieving the loss of friends or family members, losing weight or adjusting poorly to the recent loss of family support. But many nursing homes continue to deny these visits, and enforcement needs to be strengthened, AARP observed in its letter.

Melody Taylor Stark said her request for a compassionate care visit with her husband, Bill Stark, was denied in October, when his congestive heart failure worsened. Bill, 84, a resident at Huntington Drive Health and Rehabilitation in Arcadia, California, for five years, was subsequently hospitalized with pneumonia. Stark said she was permitted only one 15-minute visit with him, on Nov. 17, after he returned to Huntington — the last time she saw Bill before his death on Nov. 22. The administrator at Huntington Drive did not respond to a request for comment.

The Essential Caregivers Coalition, of which Stark is a member, is asking that every long-term care resident be able to designate one or two essential caregivers who can come in and out of facilities regularly to provide hands-on care to loved ones, as they did before the pandemic. As the anniversary of lockdowns approaches, the coalition has organized email blasts and letter-writing campaigns to federal and state authorities, a traveling lawn sign campaign in more than a dozen states and gatherings at several state capitols. The campaign’s slogan: Isolation Kills, Too.

Mikko Cook, 49, of Ventura, California, is one of the group’s co-founders. Her father, Ron Von Ronne, 77, has late-stage Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a 200-bed nursing home in Albany, New York. Before the pandemic, Cook’s brother visited almost every day.

“The home was severely understaffed and when my family members would go in to take care of him, my father’s sheets would be soiled. He wouldn’t have showered. The bathroom was never clean. But they would take care of that,” Cook said.

After the lockdown, Von Ronne went more than three months without seeing or talking to family members. Over the past year, he nearly stopped communicating, was assaulted by a fellow resident and lost almost all his belongings, which were either misplaced or stolen, Cook said. Von Ronne has since had two outdoor visits with relatives, and three short visits in family members’ homes at Christmas and in January and February.

Mary Daniel, 58, founded another activist group, Caregivers for Compromise, after getting a part-time job in July at her husband’s assisted living center in Jacksonville, Florida — the only way she could see him. Steve Daniel, 67, has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and she had visited every evening before the pandemic.

After stories about her went viral, Daniel created Facebook groups in every state for caregivers who wanted more access to their loved ones. Now, Caregivers for Compromise chapters in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia are active in the Isolation Kills, Too campaign.

“We’re getting impatient: Our loved ones’ quality of life is deteriorating every single day. My husband has been vaccinated and he wants to go outside and feel the sunlight on his face. It’s time to open back up and let him live whatever time he has left with freedom,” Daniel said. “You cannot protect people like him forever, from everything.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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Accidentally Trashed, Thawed or Expired: Reports of Covid Vaccine Spoilage

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 5:00am

As the speed of covid vaccinations picks up, so do the reports of doses going to waste. And it’s more than just a handful at the end of the day because of a few appointment cancellations. Health officials are trying to rein in waste without slowing down vaccinations.

This story is from a partnership that includes NPRNashville Public Radio and KHN.  It can be republished for free.

The incidents range from 335 discarded doses in Lee County, North Carolina, that were damaged in shipping, to nearly 5,000 doses that went to waste in Tennessee in February, prompting additional federal oversight. 

“I definitely have been losing some sleep over this, for sure,” said Beth Ann Wilmore, nursing director at Mercy Community Healthcare in Franklin, Tennessee. She manages the covid vaccine inventory at the nonprofit clinic, which started receiving shipments a month ago.

Clinics like Mercy are accustomed to handling vaccines, but none so precious as those for covid, which have special refrigeration needs.

“I was definitely waking up in the middle of the night wondering how the temperatures were doing, and thinking, ‘OK, I hope it’s good, and it’s not giving me a flag or anything.’”

Many community health centers are receiving the Moderna vials, which are easier to handle than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine but still tricky. The vials last 30 days after they’re out of the deep freeze, compared with only about five for Pfizer. But once the seal on the vial is broken, there are just six hours to use the shots. 

So far, no waste has occurred at Mercy. But Wilmore has heard horror stories from around the state. 

In neighboring Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the local school district received a thousand doses for a teacher vaccination event the last weekend of February. But they were put in an unapproved freezer. The temperature sensor on the shipment flashed an error code. Out of caution, they were advised to throw them all away.

“It hurts my heart,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, health commissioner of Tennessee, which has disclosed one of the country’s biggest spikes in reported spoilage. 

She said the losses are painful because the shots are “priceless” in the midst of this deadly pandemic. But it’s one risk of having so many places to get the vaccine. 

To increase access and equity, there are now more than 700 vaccination sites across Tennessee, with more planned to open as vaccine shipments grow in the coming weeks.

“It definitely raises the level of concern when you have more partners — particularly partners that are not under your direct control,” she said.

Even Tennessee’s large, urban health departments — which operate independently of the state health department — are running into trouble. 

In Knoxville, a thousand doses were thrown out, apparently confused for a related shipment of dry ice. In Memphis, the county health director has resigned after being slow to disclose that nearly 2,500 doses were allowed to expire on several occasions — related to winter weather as well as poor management in the county’s pharmacy. 

The state has called in staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor vaccine distribution in Shelby County and stepped up audits for all local health departments in the state.

There are so many opportunities for doses to go bad. In West Palm Beach, Florida, the power on a mobile refrigerator was turned off. In Connecticut, a fridge door didn’t close properly, though the doses were salvaged in time in consultation with Moderna.

Health officials have gone to great lengths to avoid wasting doses, like an impromptu mass vaccination event in Nashville’s homeless shelters after winter storms canceled hundreds of appointments. 

Dr. Kelly Moore, deputy director of the Immunization Action Coalition, said a little spoilage is expected. It’s still well less than 1% of doses, even in states like Tennessee and Florida that have disclosed big losses. 

“I would be more worried if I saw reports of zero doses wasted,” Moore said, because then her concern would be a lack of transparency.

“You want to see some waste because that means people are paying attention and that real-world accidents happen and that they’re being responded to properly,” she said. “You just don’t want to see negligence.”

There’s hope that mishaps will be easier to avoid with the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Aside from being a single dose, it can last in a normal refrigerator for months. 

This story was produced in partnership with Nashville Public Radio, NPR and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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Coronavirus Deranges the Immune System in Complex and Deadly Ways

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 5:00am

This story also ran on USA Today. It can be republished for free.

There’s a reason soldiers go through basic training before heading into combat: Without careful instruction, green recruits armed with powerful weapons could be as dangerous to one another as to the enemy.

The immune system works much the same way. Immune cells, which protect the body from infections, need to be “educated” to recognize bad guys — and to hold their fire around civilians.

In some covid patients, this education may be cut short. Scientists say unprepared immune cells appear to be responding to the coronavirus with a devastating release of chemicals, inflicting damage that may endure long after the threat has been eliminated.

“If you have a brand-new virus and the virus is winning, the immune system may go into an ‘all hands on deck’ response,” said Dr. Nina Luning Prak, co-author of a January study on covid and the immune system. “Things that are normally kept in close check are relaxed. The body may say, ‘Who cares? Give me all you’ve got.’”

While all viruses find ways to evade the body’s defenses, a growing field of research suggests that the coronavirus unhinges the immune system more profoundly than previously realized.

Some covid survivors have developed serious autoimmune diseases, which occur when an overactive immune system attacks the patient, rather than the virus. Doctors in Italy first noticed a pattern in March 2020, when several covid patients developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which the immune systems attacks nerves throughout the body, causing muscle weakness or paralysis. As the pandemic has surged around the world, doctors have diagnosed patients with rare, immune-related bleeding disorders. Other patients have developed the opposite problem, suffering blood clots that can lead to stroke.

All these conditions can be triggered by “autoantibodies” — rogue antibodies that target the patient’s own proteins and cells.

In a report published in October, researchers even labeled the coronavirus “the autoimmune virus.”

“Covid is deranging the immune system,” said John Wherry, director of the Penn Medicine Immune Health Institute and another co-author of the January study. “Some patients, from their very first visit, seem to have an immune system in hyperdrive.”

Although doctors are researching ways to overcome immune disorders in covid patients, new treatments will take time to develop. Scientists are still trying to understand why some immune cells become hyperactive — and why some refuse to stand down when the battle is over.

Key immune players called “helper T cells” typically help antibodies mature. If the body is invaded by a pathogen, however, these T cells can switch jobs to hunt down viruses, acting more like “killer T cells,” which destroy infected cells. When an infection is over, helper T cells usually go back to their old jobs.

In some people with severe covid, however, helper T cells don’t stand down when the infection is over, said James Heath, a professor and president of Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology.

About 10% to 15% of hospitalized covid patients Heath studied had high levels of these cells even after clearing the infection. By comparison, Heath found lingering helper T cells in fewer than 5% of covid patients with less serious infections.

In affected patients, helper T cells were still looking for the enemy long after it had been eliminated. Heath is now studying whether these overzealous T cells might inflict damage that leads to chronic illness or symptoms of autoimmune disease.

“These T cells are still there months later and they’re aggressive,” Heath said. “They’re on the hunt.”

Friendly Fire

Covid appears to confuse multiple parts of the immune system.

In some patients, covid triggers autoantibodies that target the immune system itself, leaving patients without a key defense against the coronavirus.

In October, a study published in Science led by Rockefeller University’s Jean-Laurent Casanova showed that about 10% of covid patients become severely ill because they have antibodies against an immune system protein called interferon.

Disabling interferon is like knocking down a castle’s gate. Without these essential proteins, invading viruses can overwhelm the body and multiply wildly.

New research shows that the coronavirus may activate preexisting autoantibodies, as well as prompt the body to make new ones.

In the January study, half of the hospitalized covid patients had autoantibodies, compared with fewer than 15% of healthy people. While some of the autoantibodies were present before patients were infected with SARS-CoV-2, others developed over the course of the illness.

Other research has produced similar findings. In a study out in December, researchers found that hospitalized covid patients harbored a diverse array of autoantibodies.

While some patients studied had antibodies against virus-fighting interferons, others had antibodies that targeted the brain, thyroid, blood vessels, central nervous system, platelets, kidneys, heart and liver, said Dr. Aaron Ring, assistant professor of immunology at Yale School of Medicine and lead author of the December study, published online without peer review. Some patients had antibodies associated with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder that can cause pain and inflammation in any part of the body.

In his study, Ring and his colleagues found autoantibodies against proteins that help coordinate the immune system response. “These are the air traffic controllers,” Ring said. If these proteins are disrupted, “your immune system doesn’t work properly.”

Covid patients rife with autoantibodies tended to have the severest disease, said Ring, who said he was surprised at the level of autoantibodies in some patients. “They were comparable or even worse than lupus,” Ring said.

Although the studies are intriguing, they don’t prove that autoantibodies made people sicker, said Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. It’s possible that the autoantibodies are simply markers of serious disease.

“It’s not clear that this is linked to disease severity,” Rasmussen said.

The studies’ authors acknowledge they have many unanswered questions.

“We don’t yet know what these autoantibodies do and we don’t know if [patients] will go on to develop autoimmune disease,” said Dr. PJ Utz, a professor of immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University School of Medicine and a co-author of Luning Prak’s paper.

But recent discoveries about autoantibodies have excited the scientific community, who now wonder if rogue antibodies could explain patients’ differing responses to many other viruses. Scientists also want to know precisely how the coronavirus turns the body against itself — and how long autoantibodies remain in the blood.

‘An Unfortunate Legacy’

Scientists working round-the-clock are already beginning to unravel these mysteries.

A study published online in January, for example, found rogue antibodies in patients’ blood up to seven months after infection.

Ring said researchers would like to know if lingering autoantibodies contribute to the symptoms of “long covid,” which afflicts one-third of covid survivors up to nine months after infection, according to a new study in JAMA Network Open.

“Long haulers” suffer from a wide range of symptoms, including debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, chest pain and joint pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other patients experience depression, muscle pain, headaches, intermittent fevers, heart palpitations and problems with concentration and memory, known as brain fog.

Less commonly, some patients develop an inflammation of the heart muscle, abnormalities in their lung function, kidney issues, rashes, hair loss, smell and taste problems, sleep issues and anxiety.

The National Institutes of Health has announced a four-year initiative to better understand long covid, using $1.15 billion allocated by Congress.

Ring said he’d like to study patients over time to see if specific symptoms might be explained by lingering autoantibodies.

“We need to look at the same patients a half-year later and see which antibodies they do or don’t have,” he said. If autoantibodies are to blame for long covid, they could “represent an unfortunate legacy after the virus is gone.”

Widening the Investigation

Scientists say the coronavirus could undermine the immune system in several ways.

For example, it’s possible that immune cells become confused because some viral proteins resemble proteins found on human cells, Luning Prak said. It’s also possible that the coronavirus lurks in the body at very low levels even after patients recover from their initial infection.

“We’re still at the very beginning stages of this,” said Luning Prak, director of Penn Medicine’s Human Immunology Core Facility.

Dr. Shiv Pillai, a Harvard Medical School professor, notes that autoantibodies aren’t uncommon. Many healthy people walk around with dormant autoantibodies that never cause harm.

For reasons scientists don’t completely understand, viral infections appear able to tip the scales, triggering autoantibodies to attack, said Dr. Judith James, vice president of clinical affairs at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and a co-author of Luning Prak’s study.

For example, the Epstein-Barr virus, best known for causing mononucleosis, has been linked to lupus and other autoimmune diseases. The bacteria that cause strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease that can cause permanent heart damage. Doctors also know that influenza can trigger an autoimmune blood-clotting disorder, called thrombocytopenia.

Researchers are now investigating whether autoantibodies are involved in other illnesses — a possibility scientists rarely considered in the past.

Doctors have long wondered, for example, why a small number of people — mostly older adults — develop serious, even life-threatening reactions to the yellow fever vaccine. Three or four out of every 1 million people who receive this vaccine — made with a live, weakened virus — develop yellow fever because their immune systems don’t respond as expected, and the weakened virus multiplies and causes disease.

In a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, Rockefeller University’s Casanova has found that autoantibodies to interferon are once again to blame.

Casanova led a team that found three of the eight patients studied who experienced a dangerous vaccine reaction had autoantibodies that disabled interferon. Two other patients in the study had genes that disabled interferon.

“If you have these autoantibodies and you are vaccinated against yellow fever, you may end up in the ICU,” Casanova said.

Casanova’s lab is now investigating whether autoantibodies cause critical illness from influenza or herpes simplex virus, which can cause a rare brain inflammation called encephalitis.

Calming the Autoimmune Storm

Researchers are looking for ways to treat patients who have interferon deficiencies — a group at risk for severe covid complications.

In a small study published in February in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine, doctors tested an injectable type of interferon — called peginterferon-lambda — in patients with early covid infections.

People randomly assigned to receive an interferon injection were four times more likely to have cleared their infections within seven days than the placebo group. The treatment, which used a type of interferon not targeted by the autoantibodies Casanova discovered, had the most dramatic benefits in patients with the highest viral loads.

Lowering the amount of virus in a patient may help them avoid becoming seriously ill, said Dr. Jordan Feld, lead author of the 60-person study and research director at the Toronto Centre for Liver Disease in Canada. In his study, four of the placebo patients went to the emergency room because of breathing issues, compared with only one who received interferon.

“If we can bring the viral levels down quickly, they might be less infectious,” Feld said.

Feld, a liver specialist, notes that doctors have long studied this type of interferon to treat other viral infections, such as hepatitis. This type of interferon causes fewer side effects than other varieties. In the trial, those treated with interferon had similar side effects to those who received a placebo.

Doctors could potentially treat patients with a single injection with a small needle — like those used to administer insulin — in outpatient clinics, Feld said. That would make treatment much easier to administer than other therapies for covid, which require patients to receive lengthy infusions in specialized settings.

Many questions remain. Dr. Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, a researcher at the Imperial College London, said it’s unclear whether this type of interferon does improve symptoms.

Similar studies have failed to show any benefit to treating patients with interferon, and Feld acknowledged that his results need to be confirmed in a larger study. Ideally, Feld said, he would like to test interferon in older patients to see whether it can reduce hospitalizations.

“We’d like to look at long haulers, to see if clearing the virus quickly could lead to less immune dysregulation,” Feld said. “People have said to me, ‘Do we really need new treatments now that vaccines are rolling out?’ Unfortunately, we do.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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To Help Farmworkers Get Covid Tests and Vaccine, Build Trust and a Safety Net

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 5:00am

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes NPRIllinois Public Media and KHN. It can be republished for free.

With more than 20 million acres of corn and soybeans, Illinois is among the top U.S. producers of those crops. To make it all happen, the state relies on thousands of farmworkers — some of whom travel to the state for seasonal work and others, like 35-year-old Saraí, who call Illinois home.

Being an agricultural worker “is the most beautiful thing,” Saraí said in an interview in Spanish.

She moved to the U.S. from Mexico to find work that would allow her to better support her family. KHN agreed to identify Saraí by only her first name because she’s undocumented. Since the onset of the pandemic, she’s spent most of her time shepherding her three kids through their virtual school classes.

There have been tens of thousands of covid-19 cases and hundreds of deaths reported among U.S. farmworkers and meat plant workers. Because no official tracking system is in place, these numbers — based largely on media reports — are likely an undercount.

And yet, agricultural workers like Saraí struggle to access the most basic tool to fight the spread of the coronavirus: testing. Saraí, for example, has been tested only once since the start of the pandemic. The nearest testing site is the next town over, and without a car or a public transportation option, she had to borrow a friend’s vehicle to get there. She hasn’t gotten covid, but Saraí knows many others who’ve gotten sick. She said the pandemic has made the past year a sad and difficult one.

“Many farmworkers are both working and living in sometimes isolated rural regions of the country,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the California-based United Farm Workers Foundation.

Besides living far from testing sites, these workers often lack reliable information in their native language and have a general mistrust of the health care system. And missing work to get a test, or to isolate or quarantine, could be financially devastating.

While the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines provides some hope for a better future, the virus is still spreading across the U.S., and efforts to expand access to testing and build trust with farmworkers are still needed, Tellefson Torres said.

She said these efforts will also be critical for ensuring that these hard-to-reach, vulnerable populations are vaccinated when the time comes.

Leverage Long-Standing Community Connections

Early on in the pandemic, Gilberto Rosas, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was struck by how easy it was for him — a work-from-home professor — to get a test, compared with workers in nearby towns who were more vulnerable to catching the virus and developing a severe case of covid.

The university has its own mass testing program for students and employees. The Urbana-Champaign campus is just 15 miles south of Rantoul, where virus outbreaks at a meat processing plant and a hotel housing migrant farmworkers were among the worst in Champaign County last year.

“We can walk down two flights of stairs, go out the back door and we can get testing,” Rosas said. “Whereas these people who are at the forefront — who work in the fields, who work in the plants — they lack that kind of access.”

Rosas is part of a team at the University of Illinois that had set out to study what was causing the virus to spread in the agricultural community. They also decided to do something to address testing access.

“We want to both unearth inequalities, but also mitigate them,” Rosas said.

The researchers teamed up with medical professionals from clinics in the area to organize pop-up coronavirus testing events in Rantoul.

The events are advertised in English and Spanish. The group has tried to leverage long-standing community connections to bolster turnout, reaching out to churches and organizations that cater to the area’s immigrant and agricultural workforce.

Even with that outreach, they’ve been frustrated by low attendance. At an event held before Christmas outside a community center, for example, only 15 people came for a test. Four of those 15 tested positive — a very high rate.

Structural Barriers: Financial and Immigration Worries

Sofia Bolanos Robinette suspects the reason more people don’t turn out for coronavirus testing, even at convenient times and locations, is that a positive result can be financially devastating.

Bolanos Robinette has worked with farmworkers for the past 10 years, most recently as an advocate for students in the Illinois Migrant Education Program. She recently joined Rosas and the other University of Illinois anthropologists to study issues like barriers to testing.

She recalls helping last summer with a coronavirus testing effort aimed at farmworkers who travel to the region for seasonal work. The clinic tried to make it as easy as possible for the workers to attend by setting up a station during off-hours right outside the migrant housing area.

“But some of them said they didn’t even want to take the test, because, in the case they get back [a positive result], they will have to stop working,” Bolanos Robinette said. “And then that means, for them, they will not get any money for at least two weeks.”

That’s a big deal, she said, especially for farmworkers, who earn the bulk of their yearly income doing this seasonal work.

For low-wage farmworkers, “every penny counts,” said Tellefson Torres of the UFW Foundation. In the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, one-third of farmworkers reported family incomes below the poverty line.

And they don’t have the same safety net that documented workers in the U.S. have.

“When you have to worry about putting food on your own table for your family, sometimes that is the focus, because there isn’t another option,” Tellefson Torres said.

For undocumented workers, she said, there are even more disincentives to get tested. They may worry it could jeopardize their efforts to obtain a visa — a common misperception. And after years of the Trump administration being more aggressive with immigration enforcement, Tellefson Torres said, there’s a huge lack of trust and a real fear of deportation.

Despite lower-than-ideal turnout at the pop-up events, University of Illinois anthropologist Ellen Moodie said attempts to host “a few small-scale testing events, irregularly scheduled and located in different sites” have made a difference for handfuls of people who might not otherwise have known they had the virus.

However, Moodie said, the U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy to address the virus and protect vulnerable workers. Many public health experts have been calling for such a strategy since the start of the pandemic.

So far, President Joe Biden has made that a priority of his administration. In a document published in January, Biden outlined a covid strategy focused on boosting the production and distribution of vaccines. His plan includes efforts to address supply shortfalls for testing materials, implement stronger worker safety guidelines, expand emergency paid leave and otherwise strengthen the social service safety net.

Vaccine Implications: Mistrust Breeds Skepticism

Building trust with farmworkers remains critical, Tellefson Torres said, not just to get more to show up for testing — but also to get them to show up for vaccination as soon as they are eligible.

At a recent virtual town hall hosted by the UFW Foundation, Tellefson Torres said she has heard from many farmworkers across the U.S. who are eager to get a vaccine. But others have reservations.

The biggest concern she’s heard has been about the potential cost, especially for the many workers who lack health insurance. Tellefson Torres said her organization is working to get the word out that covid vaccination is free for everyone.

Others, she said, worry about vaccine safety, asking questions like: “What is this vaccine? What does it contain? … What are you putting in my body?”

Vaccine safety is something Saraí — the farmworker in Illinois — worries about too. After finding some information online, she grew concerned about the possibility of adverse reactions, so, at least for now, she isn’t planning to be vaccinated.

However, Saraí said, if someone she trusts shows her evidence the vaccines are safe, she could change her mind.

In Illinois, food and agriculture workers are now eligible for the vaccines. Public health administrator Julie Pryde said the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District — which serves Champaign County, including Rantoul — plans to work with a federally supported migrant clinic to host mobile vaccination events targeting migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

Tellefson Torres said partnerships like that will be critical to ensure that agricultural workers, who have faced so many challenges throughout the pandemic, have equitable access to the vaccines — their best hope of staying healthy.

“The norms that we have seen prior to the pandemic — of not prioritizing worker health or just basic safety-net needs — need to be addressed both by state, local, federal governments and employers,” she said. “We’re literally talking about a life-and-death situation here.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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Former NFL Pro Bowler Kellen Winslow II Sentenced To 14 Years For Sex Crimes

WXXI US News - Thu, 03/04/2021 - 1:33am
A judge sentenced former NFL tight end Kellen Winslow II to 14 years in prison Wednesday for rapes and other sexual offenses against several women in Southern California. San Diego County Superior Court Judge Blaine Bowman, who presided over Winslow's trial, called the former player "a sexual predator," according to news reports. His sentence was the maximum allowed under a plea deal reached with the San Diego County District Attorney's office. He was convicted of forcible rape, rape of an unconscious person, assault with intent to commit rape, indecent exposure, and lewd conduct in public, The Associated Press reports . Bowman said Winslow preyed on especially vulnerable women. His victims included a homeless woman he befriended then raped, a 54-year-old hitchhiker and a teen passed out at a party. Following his first arrest in 2018, Winslow continued to prey on women. While at a gym and hiding his GPS monitoring ankle bracelet, he performed a lewd act in front of a 77-year-old woman.

House Approves Major Election Reform And Voting Rights Bill

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 11:06pm
Updated on Thursday at 12:50 p.m. ET The House has once again passed a bill aimed at protecting and expanding voting rights and reforming campaign finance laws. The Wednesday-night vote was 220-210. But the measure is not expected to advance in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority, and Republicans on Capitol Hill argue the proposal is a political effort to federalize elections. The action comes after voter access was a central issue in the 2020 elections, especially in states like Georgia and Arizona, where the presidential contest was tight. Former President Donald Trump and his GOP allies continue to promote false claims about ballot fraud, without any evidence. As some red states are moving to impose new restrictions , others with Democratically controlled state houses are working to further expand access. The 2021 "H.R. 1: For the People Act" is a reboot of a 2019 bill of the same name . At the time, the House passed the bill along party lines, but it never had a

House Approves Police Reform Bill Named After George Floyd

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 9:32pm
House lawmakers on Wednesday passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police reform bill that would ban chokeholds and eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement. The 220-212 vote came nine months after Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police officers last spring. The wide-ranging legislation would also ban no-knock warrants, mandate data collection on police encounters, prohibit racial and religious profiling and redirect funding to community-based policing programs. "Never again should an unarmed individual be murdered or brutalized by someone who is supposed to serve and protect them," said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., in a statement. "Never again should the world be subject to witnessing what we saw happen to George Floyd in the streets in Minnesota." In debate on the House floor Wednesday evening before the vote, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said Minneapolis is still traumatized by Floyd's death. "Time and time again we have

DOJ Fails To Persuade Judge To Keep Proud Boys 'Sergeant Of Arms' Behind Bars

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 9:29pm
A leading member of the Proud Boys was ordered to be released Wednesday when federal prosecutors failed to convince a judge he was a danger to the public while he awaits trial in the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6. Thirty-year-old Ethan Nordean, self-described "Sergeant of Arms" of the far-right group the Proud Boys, allegedly led members as they charged the Capitol building on Jan. 6. He was arrested in the state of Washington less than one month later on multiple charges including disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and knowingly entering restricted grounds. Chief Judge Beryl Howell said prosecutors failed to support their assertion that Nordean was a leader in the attacks and she thought he seemed to follow the crowds, Reuters reported . Prosecutors alleged Nordean helped plan that attack, ordering his subordinates to split up into teams and to break into the Capitol building from multiple entry points to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results, NPR has

'Now Is Not The Time To Stop Wearing A Mask,' Says CDC Director Rochelle Walensky

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 7:41pm
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voiced concern on Wednesday about the recent climb in the number of new cases of the coronavirus, warning that pandemic fatigue and the loosening of restrictions may be setting the stage for yet another surge this spring. In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the next few weeks could prove pivotal in determining whether nearly one year into the pandemic, the United States will finally be able to find its way out of the crisis. But she said the nation is facing headwinds from both the spread of highly transmissible variants of the virus, and efforts to roll back guidelines around everything from mask use to how quickly businesses can reopen. "I think the next two or three months could go in one of two directions," Walensky told host Ari Shapiro. "If things open up, if we're not really cautious, we could end up with a post-spring break surge the way we saw a post-Christmas surge. We

State-FEMA mass vaccination clinic opens in Rochester

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 7:08pm
Hundreds of Rochester residents received their first dose of the COVID vaccine Wednesday at the former Kodak Hawkeye location on St. Paul Street. New York state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency run the site, one of four mass vaccination clinics opened around the state to make the vaccine more accessible to underserved communities. At the site, health care worker Rico Jemison and his wife, Wilma, received their first dose together. Wilma has underlying health conditions, which qualifies her to receive a vaccine. Jemison said trying to schedule his wife’s vaccination appointment had become tedious because most places were booked 15 weeks out. “When this came out, we were able to get it set up within a day," said Jemison. Jemison said now that he and his wife are finally vaccinated, he’s hopeful and looking forward to the end of the pandemic. Appointments opened up last week, along with a multi-faceted campaign to fill the first slots reserved exclusively for Rochester

SUNY Educational Opportunity Centers expand free workforce training

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 6:41pm
SUNY Educational Opportunity Centers are expanding their online workforce training with more options for students. That includes certifications in childhood development, emergency telecommunications and entrepreneurial skills. While COVID-19 has greatly affected the economy, it was already in flux before the pandemic hit, said SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras. “We are changing from basically a manufacturing type of economy to an information economy and that’s changing even with artificial intelligence and automation, which just requires more training in our society,” Malatras said. According to the state comptroller’s office, more than 12 percent of jobs in New York state were lost last year. “How do you rebuild back? You rebuild back into those areas that were already growing that require new training that require new degrees. This is our biggest obligation." Malatras added that nine of the 20 academic and career training programs offered are “self-paced” so that students can start at

Reed continues to eye governor’s mansion; timeline is ‘sooner rather than later’

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 6:24pm
Southern Tier Rep. Tom Reed is continuing to entertain the possibility that he’ll run for governor in 2022. The Corning Republican, whose district stretches across western New York, the Finger Lakes, and the Southern Tier, told reporters Wednesday he is monitoring the field of potential candidates and is still gathering input and support. “We’re in that process,” Reed said. “Gaining that additional input from stakeholders, but we are going to continue to do that and we’re probably going to do that much more publicly as we go forward because we want to make sure people know who we are, what we stand for.” Later in the day, Axios reported that Reed is beginning to hire campaign staff. Reed, formerly the mayor of Corning before being elected to Congress in 2011, first started making public his potential gubernatorial aspirations in an interview with The Buffalo News’ Jerry Zremski in late 2019. Since then, he’s continued to raise his profile as a sparring partner with Gov. Andrew Cuomo,

'No Remorse': Toronto's Van Attack Killer Found Guilty Of 1st Degree Murder

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 6:18pm
Twenty-eight-year old Alek Minassian was found guilty on 26 charges that include murder and attempted murder Wednesday for purposefully driving a van through a crowd in Toronto nearly three years ago. On April 23, 2018, the man drove a white rental van onto a crowded sidewalk and plowed into pedestrians, killing 10 people and wounding another 15 . Defense attorney Boris Bytensky argued his client's autism disorder rendered him incapable of developing empathy and therefore unaware of the consequences of his actions, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation reported. Justice Anne Molloy immediately dismissed that as a defense. She found Minassian guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. Lack of empathy, she said, was not a defense. "He freely chose the option that was morally wrong, knowing what the consequences would be for himself, and for everybody else," Molloy said. "It does not matter that he does not have remorse, nor empathize with the victims."

Rochester women create safe festival for chaotic times

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 6:01pm
After the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Rochester singer and songwriter Siena Facciolo, and her friend, the writer Taylor Solano, took a hard look at the past year. Black Lives Matter. A contentious presidential election. A pandemic that has killed more than a half-million Americans. The rapid response by Facciolo and Solano was to create this weekend’s CommUNITY Arts and Wellness Festival. CommUNITY, with the tail end of the word spelled in all capital letters, less you miss the point. Unity. Three days of music, yoga, dance, live painting, writing, workshops. An upbeat prelude to Monday’s International Women’s Day. “One thing that I think this festival is offering, and the thing that I think has been taken away from a lot of people this year because of COVID, has been safety,” Facciolo says. “I think this festival is trying to offer a safe kind of refuge for whoever wants to come, and for the musicians and performers and workshop leaders, that we have not experienced with

'Neanderthal Thinking:' Biden Says Too Soon For States To Lift Mask Mandates

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 4:17pm
Updated at 8:38 p.m. ET President Biden said on Wednesday that states like Texas and Mississippi are making a big mistake by ending mandates to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at a time when the nation is making a push to boost vaccinations. "The last thing — the last thing — we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters," Biden told reporters as he met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Oval Office. It was uncharacteristically harsh language from Biden, who has placed a premium on civility. And it comes less than a week after he visited with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in Houston to talk about federal assistance for helping the state recover from deadly winter storms, and boost vaccinations in the state. President Biden greeted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in Houston late last month, following severe winter storms in the region. Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate

Colombia's President On Amnesty For Venezuelans: 'We Want To Set An Example'

WXXI US News - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 4:16pm
Colombian President Iván Duque has won praise from the Biden administration, the United Nations and Pope Francis for his decision last month to provide temporary legal status to undocumented migrants from neighboring Venezuela. But according to Duque, what's been lacking from the international community is money to pay for a crisis that's similar in scope to the outflow of Syrian refugees in the 2010s. Of the 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled an authoritarian regime and a collapsing economy in their homeland, some 2 million have settled in Colombia. About half of these newcomers to Colombia are undocumented and Duque's new policy will allow them to legally live and work in Colombia for up to 10 years. Duque said it will also provide migrants with better access to education, health care and legal employment. Colombia's open-door approach contrasts with harder-line policies in nearby Peru, Ecuador and Chile where — amid rising xenophobia — governments have put in place visa
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