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Mexico Reaches 1 Million Virus Cases, Nears 100,000 Deaths

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A healthcare worker collects a sample to test for the new coronavirus inside a mobile diagnostic tent, in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. Mexico City announced Friday it will order bars closed for two weeks after the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 rose to levels not seen since August. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico on Saturday topped 1 million registered coronavirus cases and nearly 100,000 test-confirmed deaths, though officials agree the number is probably much higher.

How did Mexico get here? By marching resolutely, even defiantly, against many internationally accepted practices in pandemic management, from face mask wearing, to lockdowns, testing and contact tracing.

What is more, officials in Mexico claim science is on their side. Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell says any wider testing would be “a waste of time, effort and money.” Face masks, López-Gatell says, “are an auxiliary measure to prevent spreading the virus. They do not protect us, but they are useful for protecting other people.”

President Andres Manuel López Obrador almost never wears a mask, and López-Gatell only occasionally does.

Except science does not appear to be on their side. International experts have recommended mass testing, and say face masks protect both the wearer and other people.

“They say there is no evidence. No, excuse me, there is evidence,” said former health secretary Dr. José Narro. “In May, we already began to have empirical evidence and well-documented scientific studies began to appear stressing the importance of face masks and the need for testing.”

“What I can say is the (government) strategy did not have the necessary flexibility to adjust to the increasing amount of knowledge” about the disease, Narro said.

In part that has been a hallmark of López Obrador’s administration: never back down, never change course, and if challenged, double down.

His main promise to Mexicans is that there would be enough hospital beds for everyone who needs one, and his government has largely fulfilled that basic promise — even if Mexicans are so afraid of those hospitals they often wait until the last moment to go for treatment, at which point, doctors say, it’s often too late. That fear was not unfounded; early in the pandemic, three-quarters of patients intubated and put on ventilators in Mexico’s largest hospital network died.

That resistance was what Mexico City human resources manager Lorena Salas felt when her 76-year-old father, Jaime Salas Osuna, began to show signs of what could be COVID-19.

“The idea was mainly to stay at home, no? Thinking of going to the hospital was not an option, we were terrified that there he would surely be infected,” said Salas.

Instead, she sped down to the resort city of Acapulco, where her father lived, and when she arrived, she found him thin, sweating and confused.

“At that moment the delivery service arrived with the oxygen meter, and his oxygen saturation was 77,” she recalled. (A normal reading is 93 to 98). “At that moment I felt like a bucket of cold water had fallen on me. We just looked at each other. I said ’Dad, do you have COVID?”

Salas drove him to Mexico City; he didn’t want to be intubated, but doctors explained they had to. He underwent two operations, two intubations and struggled for 13 days before he died on Oct. 20.

To its credit, that is one of the few areas where the government’s public message has changed: where officials once urged people with the disease to stay home as long as possible, they now advise those over 60 or with risk factors like diabetes or obesity to seek treatment immediately.

But on most other points, the insistence that the rest of the world is wrong and Mexico’s approach is right appears to have taken a toll in lives.

Late Saturday, Mexican Director General of Health Promotion Ricardo Cortés Alcalá announced that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had reached 1,003,253, with at least 98,259 deaths from COVID-19.

Since the pandemic began, Mexico has managed to administer only about 2.5 million tests to its citizens; only seriously ill people get tested in Mexico. Testing only 1.9% of the population since the pandemic began has made it hard, if not impossible, to effectively trace contacts, catch outbreaks early or identify asymptomatic cases.

Even in Mexico City, one of the few places that has paid lip-service to trying to identify cases before they get to a hospital, the efforts have been incredibly weak.

To be fair, few countries have managed to do contact tracing well; Mexico, with fewer financial resources and where half the population is poor, self-employed or working off the books, there was little chance of strict control or surveillance.

Mexico City has tried an alternative approach, which is to identify neighborhoods where clusters of cases have occurred, and give them special attention. Lurid yellow warning posters reading “Caution! You are entering an area of high infection” now dot the city. Special kiosks are set up in such neighborhoods to provide some tests, and a few health workers have gone door-to-door looking for cases. But that is rare.

For doctors on the front lines, the official response has been at times frustrating.

Dr. Arturo Galindo, head of the infectious disease program at the National Medical Sciences and Nutrition Institute, one of Mexico’s leading public hospitals, has seen his intensive care unit fill up to 100% capacity in recent weeks as Mexicans relaxed and began holding more get-togethers. The hospital is now sending critical COVID-19 cases to other treatment centers.

“I have had arguments on the street when I say “hey, put your face mask on,” and people argue with me, citing the argument ‘well, the president doesn’t,’ and that is their only argument,” Galindo said. “It wouldn’t be bad if he (López Obrador) set an example.”

Speaking for himself, not his hospital, Galindo also voices support for more testing, and senses there are signs of a new-found willingness to consider the idea — not the least because of the advent of rapid, cheap new antigen tests.

But while he says some things are improving — people are now getting to hospitals sooner, thus improving their chances — some recent developments make him worry.

Except for a few states, nobody in Mexico has even attempted to enforce a lockdown, or mask-wearing. The closest thing most local authorities have done has been to force some workplaces to shut down, and fine or close businesses that allow too many customers inside at once. Beyond that — travel, mask wearing, parties, weddings — there is very little enforcement. And as the pandemic stretched into its tenth month, people began to let their guard down.

That has led to super-spreader events like an Oct. 3 wedding of a soap opera actor and the daughter of a local businessman in the northern border city of Mexicali. Authorities in Mexico say more than 100 people are believed to have been infected by the coronavirus at the wedding, which about 300 people attended.

There have been instances of outright rebellion. On Oct. 25, a couple of hundred young people gathered for an illegal concert in an empty lot on the outskirts of the city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City. On videos of the event, the lead singer of one band can be heard telling asking the crowd, “Honestly, who doesn’t give a damn about the pandemic? Whoever doesn’t give a damn about coronavirus, raise your beer!” Dozens raised their cups.

Salas, whose father died and who herself was infected, said people have to abandon conspiracy theories and the strange belief it won’t happen to them.

“I see a lot of apathy, a lot of people being irresponsible, not giving a damn or not believing the disease is real. People still think it is something invented by the government.” Salas said. “It is something that people have to realize does exist, it is real.”

Galindo said those on the front lines are shocked when they look at social media. “They have this sense of frustration seeing photos of parties, meetings,” Galindo said. “They have been locked up for six months, fighting, going without sleep or without eating, and then they see that, and it’s shocking.”

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‘Diamond’ of pro-Trump commentary duo dies of heart disease

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lynette Hardaway, a zealous supporter of former President Donald Trump whose death had prompted widespread speculation over its cause, died earlier this month of a heart condition, according to a death certificate obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

Known by the moniker “Diamond” of the conservative political commentary duo Diamond and Silk, Hardaway, 51, died Jan. 8 of heart disease due to chronic high blood pressure.

Hardaway and her sister, Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, found internet stardom as Black women who ardently backed Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. After making several campaign appearances with the former president, the two leveraged their notoriety to land regular commentator roles at Fox News. Their promotion of coronavirus falsities eventually got them dropped, but they landed at the far-right cable and digital media platform Newsmax.

The cause of Hardaway’s death, which was not released by the family, had become a topic of widespread speculation. A torrent of social media users suggested COVID-19 was to blame.

Many of the posts were based on an unsourced, and since-deleted, online report from November that claimed Hardaway had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Both Diamond and Silk vehemently denied that the virus had put Hardaway in the hospital.

COVID-19 was not listed as a cause or contributing factor on her death certificate, which was provided to the AP by the Hoke County Register of Deeds and was signed by a local doctor. No autopsy was performed.

A memorial ceremony held in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and streamed online Saturday renewed speculation when Richardson suggested her sister’s death was somehow linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. She insinuated Hardaway may have been “poisoned” by another person who had been vaccinated, amplifying the false notion that recipients can affect those around them.

At the memorial, Richardson mentioned people “dying suddenly,” a reference that has become shorthand among some anti-vaccine activists for deaths they say were caused by COVID-19 shots, despite studies showing the vaccines are safe and effective.

Joined on stage at the memorial by Trump, Richardson said her sister died after returning to her North Carolina home from a relative’s birthday celebration. Richardson noticed her sister looking strange and Hardaway suddenly said: “I can’t breathe,” Richardson recalled. She and her husband performed CPR on the kitchen floor as they waited for emergency services.

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Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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US proposes once-a-year COVID shots for most Americans

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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. health officials want to make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the annual flu shot.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday proposed a simplified approach for future vaccination efforts, allowing most adults and children to get a once-a-year shot to protect against the mutating virus.

This means Americans would no longer have to keep track of how many shots they’ve received or how many months it’s been since their last booster.

The proposal comes as boosters have become a hard sell. While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, only 16% of those eligible have received the latest boosters authorized in August.

The FDA will ask its panel of outside vaccine experts to weigh in at a meeting Thursday. The agency is expected to take their advice into consideration while deciding future vaccine requirements for manufacturers.

In documents posted online, FDA scientists say many Americans now have “sufficient preexisting immunity” against the coronavirus because of vaccination, infection or a combination of the two. That baseline of protection should be enough to move to an annual booster against the latest strains in circulation and make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the yearly flu shot, according to the agency.

For adults with weakened immune systems and very small children, a two-dose combination may be needed for protection. FDA scientists and vaccine companies would study vaccination, infection rates and other data to decide who should receive a single shot versus a two-dose series.

FDA will also ask its panel to vote on whether all vaccines should target the same strains. That step would be needed to make the shots interchangeable, doing away with the current complicated system of primary vaccinations and boosters.

The initial shots from Pfizer and Moderna — called the primary series — target the strain of the virus that first emerged in 2020 and quickly swept across the world. The updated boosters launched last fall were also tweaked to target omicron relatives that had been dominant.

Under FDA’s proposal, the agency, independent experts and manufacturers would decide annually on which strains to target by the early summer, allowing several months to produce and launch updated shots before the fall. That’s roughly the same approach long used to select the strains for the annual flu shot.

Ultimately, FDA officials say moving to an annual schedule would make it easier to promote future vaccination campaigns, which could ultimately boost vaccination rates nationwide.

The original two-dose COVID shots have offered strong protection against severe disease and death no matter the variant, but protection against mild infection wanes. Experts continue to debate whether the latest round of boosters significantly enhanced protection, particularly for younger, healthy Americans.

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White House reveals winter COVID-19 plans, more free tests

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White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is once more making some free COVID-19 tests available to all U.S. households as it releases its contingency plans with coronavirus cases ticking upward this winter.

After a three-month hiatus, the administration is making four rapid virus tests available per household through covidtests.gov starting Thursday. COVID-19 cases have shown a marked increase after the Thanksgiving holiday, and further increases are projected from indoor gathering and travel around Christmas and New Year’s.

Cases are up across 90% of the country, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Thursday during a briefing. Deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise, with nearly 3,000 deaths reported last week. Most of those have been concentrated in people age 65 and older, Jha said.

“We don’t want this winter to look like last winter or the winter before,” Jha said.

As cases begin to rise again, much of the United States is also dealing with other respiratory viruses heading into this winter with an influx of flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Jha told reporters he is confident that the worst of RSV — which hit young children particularly hard — is over, but that flu cases are only just spiking.

The administration is putting personnel and equipment on standby should they be needed to help overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes, as was necessary in earlier waves of the coronavirus. So far, there have been no requests for assistance, but surge teams, ventilators and personal protective equipment are ready, the White House said.

The administration is also urging states and local governments to do more to encourage people to get the updated bivalent COVID-19 vaccines, which scientists say are more effective at protecting against serious illness and death from the currently circulating variants. The administration is reiterating best practices to nursing homes and long-term care facilities for virus prevention and treatment and is urging administrators as well as governments to encourage vulnerable populations to get the new shots. Less than half of all nursing home residents have received the latest booster shot, Jha said.

The planning comes as the administration has struggled to persuade most Americans to get the updated boosters as cases and deaths have declined from pandemic highs and most people have embraced a return to most of their pre-pandemic activities. Less than 14% of people in the U.S. older than have gotten the most recent booster.

The White House said the new tests would come from the national stockpile, which still has reserves even after the administration shut off the at-home testing program in September, citing a lack of money from Congress. The administration is still asking Congress for billions more dollars for the virus response.

The pause on free at-home testing program this summer allowed the administration to save some free at-home tests for the surge in cases this winter, Jha said.

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