Saying good-bye to Anita

This morning, I sang for the funeral of Anita Alkinburg Shipway. She was a member of the music ministry at a church that I attended for a number of years, but our primary connection was through poetry.

When I joined the Binghamton Poetry Project in 2014, Anita was already involved. I got to know her better when we were both invited to join Sappho’s Circle, a women’s poetry workshop convened by Heather Dorn. We later also participated in some workshops with the Broome County Arts Council.

I always admired Anita’s storytelling ability both in conversation and in writing. She often used the tools of narrative poetry to reveal the truth – and quirks – of human nature. She smiled and laughed easily while also being very sympathetic when we most needed it. I appreciated the depth of her wisdom as an elder.

When the pandemic moved the Binghamton Poetry Project to Zoom, Anita joined us as often as she could, despite some technical challenges. We often joked with her about the cuckoo clocks in her home that would add their voices to ours. She shared a poem about them here. You can find more of her poems in the Binghamton Poetry Project online anthologies.

Originally, Anita was scheduled to participate with me in a Zoom reading for National Poetry Month in 2021, sponsored by the Broome County Arts Council and WordPlace. Unfortunately, she got trapped in the Zoom waiting room and wasn’t able to be recorded. I sincerely regret not being able to share any video of her reading her work.

Anita died at Mercy House, a residence for those near the end of life. Anita had volunteered at Mercy House and it’s a comfort to know that she was in such a familiar and peaceful place in her last days.

I was upset to learn that COVID played a part in her death. Apparently, a COVID infection interacted with other medical conditions and Anita could not recover. It reminded me again to remain cautious. I know that, despite my best efforts, I may someday contract COVID and could infect someone else, but I don’t know if I could forgive myself if I was being cavalier about infection and passed the virus on to someone who suffered grave consequences.

Anita visited Top of JC’s Mind and would occasionally comment on posts. More often, she would write to me directly. I remember having a discussion with her about what it means for something to be “top of mind.” Apparently, her Midwestern upbringing a generation before my New England one resulted in a different interpretation of the phrase.

No matter.

Today, Anita is at the top of JC’s Mind.

Rest in peace and eternal joy, Anita. May choirs of angels greet you and lead you to paradise.
*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January. Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2023/01/10/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-10th-2023/

XBB.1.5

A new COVID subvariant has emerged here in the United States. It is designated XBB.1.5 and is considered the most transmissible Omicron variant to date by the World Health Organization. It is also considered to be highly immune evasive, which means it is more likely to cause infection among those who have COVID antibodies, whether from vaccines or prior infection. However, the vaccines should still be effective in reducing hospitalization and death rates from infection.

XBB.1.5 is especially prevalent in the northeastern region of the US. It is powering the rise in regional cases accounting for 72.7% of cases in the past week. It is also likely the driver behind Broome County, New York, where I live, again moving into the CDC’s high community risk level classification. (That will mean mandatory masking at our concerts this weekend.)

The XBB.1.5 subvariant orignated in the US, but has spread to some other countries. Meanwhile, China is suffering through a huge infection wave, although there is no reliable official data on its extent.

In many places, especially in the Northern Hemisphere winter, there are also high rates of flu and RSV.

As always, I’ll repeat my advice. Vaccinate, if you are eligible and vaccines are available to you. In particular, if you are eligible for the bivalent COVID booster, get it as soon as possible because it is much more protective against all Omicron strains than the original formulation. If you are sick, get tested. If you contract COVID or flu, immediately contact a medical provider to see if you can take antiviral medication to cut down on symptom severity. When there is risk in your area, use a high-quality mask in indoor public spaces and avoid crowds. Increase ventilation and/or air filtration indoors. Wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face (more for flu/RSV prevention than for COVID). Try to eat and sleep well. Look out for one another.

We need to work together for this pandemic to end. We are all tired of COVID but we need to fight effectively and continuously. Ignoring the risk and letting the virus spread just gives it even more opportunity to mutate and develop more virulent strains. We are now in our fourth year of the COVID pandemic. Let’s work together to make it the last.
*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2023/01/06/the-friday-reminder-for-socs-jusjojan-2023-daily-prompt-jan-7th/

two years into COVID vaccines

After yet another period of high community risk level for COVID here in Broome County, New York, we have just today returned to medium level. After a post-Thanksgiving spike in infections, we experienced a hospitalization spike which had increased our community risk level. With the US health system also dealing with an early, hard-hitting flu season and RSV, the dreaded triple-demic, in some areas hospitals are reaching capacity and sending patients to other locations. Additionally, infection rates are predicted to rise as family and friends gather for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year celebrations in the coming weeks.

This comes at a time when only 14.1% of people five and over in the US have received the new bivalent COVID booster, which was designed to better combat the Omicron BA.4/5 variants and is proving effective against the current dominant strains, BQ1 and BQ1.1, which are part of the BA.5 lineage.

Furthermore, a recent study indicates that the US vaccination program likely saved 3.2 million lives and prevented 18.5 million COVID-related hospitalizations. The vaccines are estimated to have averted nearly 120 million infections. Another recent study shows that in the two years of COVID vaccine availability in the US, the excess death rate among Republicans is significantly higher than among Democrats, mirroring the difference in vaccination rates, a sad reflection of the politicization and misinformation around vaccines by many prominent Republicans.

It’s horrifying.

The mistrust sown over the COVID vaccine among Republicans seems to be spreading to other vaccines as well. A newly published survey finds that over 40% of Republican or Republican-leaning respondents oppose requirements for the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) for school children.

This does not bode well for public health measures. It’s frightening how many people will believe politicians or media figures rather than doctors and public health experts on these important issues. People have been infected because they weren’t up to date on vaccinations. People have been hospitalized, developed long COVID, experienced complications, or died at higher rates because they refused vaccines or boosters. The data show this.

Please, get a bivalent COVID booster if you are eligible. Begin or continue the primary vaccination series if you haven’t completed it. If you get symptoms, test immediately and contact a health professional if you test positive to see if antiviral medication is right for you. Don’t go out and expose others if you sick with COVID, flu, or anything else. Mask indoors when infection levels for COVID, flu, RSV, etc. are high in your area. Avoid crowds. Increase ventilation. Wash hands and avoid touching your face – more for flu/cold prevention than COVID. Try to eat and sleep as well as possible.

If you are someone who has been getting health information from pundits, please turn to your personal health care provider, public health department, or national health organizations, such as the CDC. Look for data and advice from public health experts, not anecdotes.

For readers outside the US, turn to your public health experts to see what measures are available and appropriate for you.

Reminder to all: COVID 19 is still a global pandemic. Act accordingly for your health, your household’s and community’s health, and global health.

Triple whammy

There are a lot of people sick with respiratory viruses here in the US.

We are still struggling with COVID. Today’s (Oct. 28, 2022) statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show a weekly case count of 265,893 with 2,649 deaths. The case count is almost certainly low, as many at-home positive tests are never reported to health departments and some jurisdictions don’t gather data at all. The uptake of the reformulated boosters has been poor, with only 7.3% of people age five and over having received an updated booster.

While the community risk level map shows the majority of the country in the low (green) level, the community transmission rate is substantial or high in much of the county. You can see the various maps using a drop down menu here. The community transmission rate is based on case counts and/or positive test results; the community risk map also includes data on other factors, such as hospital admissions and stresses on the health care system. A personal illustration: Although the community risk level in my county (Broome in New York State) has been low in recent days, I have had a rash of friends being sickened with COVID. This is explained by our community transmission rate being high, which is the highest of four levels. (As I was writing this post, the maps were updated. Due to the emerging strains on the health care system, our county community risk just shifted from low to high.)

Meanwhile, the flu season has hit earlier and harder than usual. The predominant strain is H3N2, which is known to have a high incidence of complications, especially among young children, elders, and the medically vulnerable. Like many other illnesses, the effects of inflammation from the flu raise the risk of heart attack and stroke for weeks following the initial infection, further endangering not just personal health but also the stability of medical institutions, such as hospitals. So far this flu season in the US, the CDC reports 880,000 flu cases, with 6,900 hospitalizations and 360 deaths. Generally, flu season starts in October but this year it is running about six weeks earlier than usual.

The third virus that is currently surging is RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). For most people, RSV is like a cold but for infants, young children, and elders it can progress to lung infections. These can lead to hospitalization and even death, especially among elders. Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine against RSV. I actually participated in a clinical trial for one a few years ago but none has yet reached a level of effectiveness to be approved.

The triple whammy of COVID plus flu plus RSV has already pushed some pediatric hospitals to the edge of their capabilities. Ironically, the RSV rate is a critical factor. Because so many infants and young children were isolated due to COVID risk and lack of day care/school interaction during the pandemic, there is a much larger group than normal that is vulnerable to RSV infection.

There is also concern that the rate of new cases of all three viruses may climb even higher as the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors.

Some things that people can do to help: Vaccinate as appropriate. Wash hands frequently. Avoid touching your face. Cover coughs and sneezes. Stay home and away from people as much as possible if you get sick. Mask in crowded places or avoid going to them. Get adequate rest and eat healthy foods. If you develop symptoms, talk to a health care provider so you can get testing and supportive treatments to help keep you from developing more severe symptoms and avert a hospital stay, if possible.

I know some level of sickness is inevitable but we can help cut down the case numbers if we watch out for ourselves and our communities.

long COVID and ME/CFS

One of the fears that I have about COVID is the risk of experiencing long COVID, where any number of a vast constellation of symptoms occurs for months/years after the acute infection phase.

The symptoms are very similar to those that characterize ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). I have a family member with ME/CFS, so I am achingly familiar with the level of disability that can result. ME used to be referred to as fibromyalgia in the US, but now the ME designation is more common.

The October 5, 2022 edition of the (US) National Public Radio show On Point features an extensive discussion of long COVID and ME/CFS and how long COVID researchers and clinicians are learning from their peers who have been working for years on ME/CFS. All of these conditions are underdiagnosed and undertreated, so I wanted to share this with all of you. I believe this link will permanently take you to a recording of the episode. If the link breaks, you can try searching from the On Point link above or searching on your favorite podcast platform.

Anyone who has experienced these conditions or seen a loved one contend with them knows how difficult they can be. I want to raise awareness so that everyone affected can get the help they need. I also want everyone to realize that these conditions exist and are serious. Too often, affected people are dismissed and told their symptoms are “all in their heads.” While there is still much to learn, help is available, although it may be difficult to find, depending on the medical resources nearby. I hope we will all support research and treatment expansion so that the millions of people affected get the help they need.

COVID bivalent boosters

As you may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I were all participants in the Phase III clinical trial for the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech. We then all participated in a follow-on third dose trial. B and I left the trial this spring because we were eligible to receive a fourth dose and wanted the extra protection before travelling. T stayed in the trial until its end earlier this summer.

Here in the United States, a new booster was recently approved which combines the original formulation with a new one designed to better combat the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants. BA.5 is the dominant variant currently in the US, accounting for about 88% of cases. About 11% are caused by BA.4. The new booster is expected to strengthen protection against serious illness/death and, one hopes, cut down on symptomatic infection somewhat, as well.

Given that I am still trying to remain COVID-free and that I have several trips coming this fall, I decided to receive one of the new boosters at my local pharmacy. I chose to receive the Pfizer formulation because all my others have been theirs, although there is a Moderna version which is also a fine choice. This was my first time receiving the vaccine in a pharmacy setting. My prior doses had all been in a medical office or a state vaccination site. I made an appointment online and everything was very fast and efficient.

Dr. Ashish Jha, who is the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said that it is possible that we may have reached a point where an annual booster will be enough to protect the vast majority of Americans from serious illness/death from COVID, similar to annual flu shots. Some people who are especially vulnerable due to age or medical condition might need more frequent boosters. The wild card, though, would be the emergence of a new strain that could evade our antibodies and current vaccines.

So, my message is to receive one of these new boosters as soon as they become available wherever you are. The US has been first to authorize them, but it seems they will become more widely available globally soon. Remember, though, that these are booster doses given to people who have already completed an initial vaccine series. If you haven’t completed an initial vaccine series, start NOW!

Meanwhile, here in Broome County, our community risk level is still medium. While I wait for the new booster to take full effect, I will still mask for indoor gatherings and shopping. I’ll be evaluating what to do after that, although these boosters are so new that data may be hard to come by.

I hope to stay well and hope that you do, too.

One-Liner Wednesday: still COVID

Another of my occasional reminders that COVID-19 is still with us.

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays, which I occasionally use to shamelessly promote another blog post. 😉 Learn more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/24/one-liner-wednesday-upon-the-throne/

still COVID

I’m sad to report that the total death toll in the United States from COVID-19 is now over 1.04 million with over 93 million confirmed cases. The actual case count is no doubt higher, as some states have stopped reporting and many cases that are detected by at-home testing are not reported to health agencies at all. New cases are still occurring at a rate of 93,000 a day with 457 deaths (7-day rolling average on August 22, 2022).

It’s still heart-breaking.

And still considered by most experts a pandemic, although perhaps heading in the direction of being considered endemic in the United States soon, as influenza is.

Most cases in the US now are Omicron variants BA.4 or BA.5. There is some hope that new boosters that contain components targeted at Omicron variants might give some additional protection going into the fall and winter, especially against hospitalizations and deaths, but we will have to see if a) people actually get vaccinated and b) the vaccines do boost protection for any length of time.

And/or c) a new strain could develop that evades all prior immunity, is even more wildly contagious, doesn’t respond to current treatments, and/or causes more severe illness.

At home, B, T, and I all still remain uninfected to the best of our knowledge. It’s possible that one or more of us have had an asymptomatic case but there is no real way to know. Any time that we have had symptoms, we have tested, as we have also for travel and after known exposures. We also have had extra tests as part of our participation in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trials. T remains a participant in the third shot trial; B and I exited the trial in order to receive a fourth dose before travelling to the UK this spring. I believe that our vaccination status has helped us to avoid infection and plan to receive one of the new booster shots this fall, if I’m eligible for what will be my fifth dose. T may be eligible for a booster after she finishes with her trial participation this fall if those boosters are available to people under 50.

Broome County, New York, managed to have only a few weeks in the Centers for Disease Control category of low community risk for transmission before going back up to medium. I’ve gone back to masking with a KF94 while shopping or in other indoor public places. I’m making determinations on small gatherings on a case by case basis. Other than church services, I’m avoiding large gatherings.

Some people think I’m being overly cautious at this point but I am still trying to avoid infection, if I can. At the very least, if I do become infected, I will know that I was doing everything I could to keep myself healthy so that I don’t suffer guilt on top of COVID. I am well aware that, even with multiple vaccine doses, masking, avoiding crowds, etc., Omicron, especially BA.5, has been quite successful at evading immunity and protections. I know from what the public health experts are saying and also anecdotally among my friends. There are very few left who have managed to stay COVID-free in recent months.

A large part of my motivation to keep from getting infected is fear of long COVID. While SARS-CoV -2 is too new a virus for researchers to fully understand, it’s possible that I may have some genetic risk factors that could come into play regarding long COVID. None of this is helped by the fact that the underlying medical conditions I have are themselves not well understood.

So, I’ll keep on doing the best I can to stay as healthy as possible.

Wish me luck.

I’m going to need it.

finally, but…

Broome County, New York, where I live, finally managed to get into the low community risk category on the CDC’s COVID map late last week, after many months in the high category with a few weeks of medium thrown in.

This is long hoped for news, but it is likely only a very temporary lull.

We had been high for so long due to our lower level of up-to-date vaccination and the fact that an Omicron subvariant that became dominant originated in central New York.

Unfortunately, another Omicron subvariant BA.5, is making its way into our area. BA.5 is already the most dominant strain in the US and carries the dubious distinction of being more contagious than other forms of Omicron. It may also have a tendency to more often affect the lower part of the respiratory tract, although this is still being researched; Omicron in general has been more likely to remain in the upper respiratory tract. It also appear to more easily infect people who are up-to-date on vaccination and those who have already had Omicron, even if the prior infection was only a few weeks ago. It’s difficult, though, to tease out which effects in the population are from the variant itself and which are from decreasing immunity that occurs over time.

It is also unfortunate that repeat infections increase the post-infection risk of stroke, heart attack, and other serious illnesses and bring the risk of long COVID.

Even with BA.5, though, being vaccinated and boosted is helpful. It lowers rates of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Pfizer and Moderna are each developing vaccines/boosters that are more effective against Omicron that will be available in the fall. Of course, masking, avoiding crowds, and other public health measures are also helpful if transmission is high in your area.

Remember: the pandemic is still with us. Another new variant is spreading in India and several other countries and could cause another global wave of infections if it can out-compete BA.5. Stay alert and do what you can to take care of yourself, your family, and your community.

I’ll be doing that here. Even though our current infection rate is low, it has begun to creep up. I’ll be watchful.

COVID update

Remember the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s still going on, even though most people here in the US are ignoring it. We crossed the one million death threshold in mid-May, although it is likely that the true number is higher as not all deaths caused by COVID are listed as such.

The good news in the US is that both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines have been approved for children beginning at six months. It remains to be seen how many parents/caregivers decide to vaccinate their babies/toddlers/preschoolers. If it were me, I’d be first in line, but I expect we won’t see very high numbers. Only about 30% of 5-11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, despite availability since November, 2021. This boggles my mind, given that these same parents have vaccinated their children against a host of other serious diseases, yet have chosen to leave them unprotected against a disease that has sickened and killed so many here and around the world. It’s true that the vaccines are not a guarantee against infection but they prevent some infections and usually keep those that do occur from causing hospitalizations or deaths. From a public health standpoint, the more people who are vaccinated, the more likely it is that the pandemic will end and COVID-19 becomes endemic.

We are still far from that point, especially as new variants and subvariants are better at evading immunity, whether from vaccination or infection. The US right now is still dealing with Omicron subvariants. BA.2.12.1 is still responsible for the majority of cases here at about 56% but BA.4 and BA.5 are up to 35% of cases which is a large increase and a sign that they may out-compete the already wildly contagious BA.2.12.1.

Our county, which has been struggling with high infection rates for months, mostly due to BA.2 sub-variants that originated in central New York before causing misery more widely, is finally back in the “medium” risk category according to the CDC. It’s a bit discouraging in that Broome and our neighbor Tioga are the only two counties in all of upstate New York that haven’t dropped down into the “low” category. Maybe soon. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to avoid crowds and mask in public places like stores and church.

As you may recall, spouse B and I left the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine trial this spring in order to receive a fourth shot to boost our immunity before we travelled, but daughter T is still participating. Next month will be the one-year anniversary of her third dose, so she will be having an in-person visit for blood tests and such.

Pfizer and Moderna have both developed newer forms of their vaccines to better battle Omicron. The Food and Drug Administration scientists are meeting today to begin consideration of a new round of booster shots this fall to try to increase protection. It would be great if we can do so. I will definitely get another booster if it is offered, as I am still trying to keep from getting infected because I don’t want to be sick, especially with long COVID.

In the UK, where our daughter E and her family live, BA.4 and 5 are causing another spike in cases. Last week, it is estimated that 1 in 40 people in England and 1 in 20 in Scotland were currently infected. While the UK was initially slow to immunize children, earlier this year they began routine availability for COVID vaccination at age five. ABC’s recent fifth birthday came with the opportunity for her first Pfizer dose, for which we are grateful in the midst of the current wave. While it remains true that children have much lower rates of severe illness than adults, by not immunizing them you are allowing a large pool of little people to congregate, pass around germs, and spread them to their homes and communities. It’s one thing when we are talking about colds or even flu, but COVID-19 is a much more serious public health threat.

As usual, I renew my plea. Vaccinate if you are eligible and have access. Pay attention to infection rates in your area. Mask in indoor public places unless transmission rates are low. Avoid large crowds. Increase ventilation. Stay home if you are sick. Test and talk to your health care provider if you have symptoms. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has already caused immense suffering. Do everything you can to keep it from affecting you, your loved ones, and your community.

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