Sources and updates, September 24

  • Free at-home tests from the federal government: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Postal Service are restarting their program offering free COVID-19 rapid, at-home tests. Starting tomorrow, every U.S. household will be able to order four more tests at HHS also announced that it’s buying about 200 million further rapid tests from major manufacturers, paying a total of $600 million to twelve companies. Of course, four tests per household is pretty minimal when you consider all the exposures people are likely to have this fall and winter—but it’s still helpful to see the federal government acknowledge a continued need for testing.
  • New grants support Long COVID clinics: The HHS and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) also announced a new grant program for clinics focused on Long COVID, aiming to make care for this condition more broadly accessible to underserved communities. Nine clinics across the country have received $1 million each, with the opportunity to renew their grants over the next five years. (At least, that’s my interpretation of the HHS press release, which says $45 million in total is allocated to this program.) This is a pretty significant announcement, as it marks the first time that the federal government is specifically funding Long COVID care; funding has previously gone to RECOVER and other research projects.
  • CDC announces new disease modeling network: One more federal announcement: the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics has established a new program to improve the country’s disease surveillance, working with research institutions across the country. The CDC has awarded $262.5 million of funding to the thirteen institutions participating in this program, which it’s calling the Outbreak Analytics and Disease Modeling Network. These institutions will develop new surveillance tools, test them in small-scale projects, and scale up the successful options to broader public health systems. For more context on the CDC’s forecasting center, see my story for FiveThirtyEight last year.
  • Testing wildlife for COVID-19: Speaking of surveillance: researchers at universities and public agencies are collaborating on new projects aiming to better understand how COVID-19 is spreading and evolving among wild animals. One project, at Purdue University, is focused on developing a test to better detect SARS-CoV-2 among wild animals. A second project, at Penn State University, is focused on increased monitoring, with plans to test 58 different wildlife species and identify sources of transmission from animals to humans. Both projects received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and involve collaboration with state environmental agencies.
  • Paxlovid access falls along socioeconomic lines: A new study, published this week in JAMA Network Open, examines disparities in getting Paxlovid. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health analyzed public data on Paxlovid availability as of May 2023. Counties with higher poverty, less health insurance coverage, and other markers of high socioeconomic vulnerability had significantly less access to Paxlovid than better-off counties, the scientists found. Meanwhile, a separate study (also in JAMA Network Open last week) found that Paxlovid and another antiviral treatment, made by Merck, both remain very effective in reducing severe COVID-19 symptoms. Improving access to these treatments should be a top priority for the public health system.
  • Undercounted COVID-19 cases in Africa: One more study that caught my attention this week: researchers at York University in Canada developed a mathematical model to assess how many people actually got COVID-19 in 54 African countries during the first months of the pandemic. Overall, only 5% of cases in these countries were actually reported, the researchers found, with a range of reporting from 30% in Libya to under 1% in São Tomé and Príncipe. A majority of cases in these countries were asymptomatic, the models suggested, indicating many people may not have realized they were infected. The study shows “a clear need for improved reporting and surveillance systems” in African countries, the authors wrote.

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