RISE rounds up the latest news on COVID-19.

Experts worry that BA.2 variant may cause surges as US relaxes guidance

STAT reports experts are concerned about a potential increase in cases of a new variant of COVID-19 as the country relaxes guidance and lawmakers are reluctant to authorize more funding for treatment, vaccines, and surveillance. “As time progresses and immunity to infection wanes, and we are also removing mask requirements, we may very well see a rise in cases associated with BA.2. In Connecticut, we estimate that BA.2 has crossed the 50 percent line and may completely sweep by mid-April. The timing of this with masks coming off isn’t great, and I just hope that our leaders and us as a society are willing to put them back on if the cases do indeed start rising,” Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health, told the publication.

Dr. Ashish Jha named new White House COVID-19 response coordinator

President Joe Biden announced Dr. Ahish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, will replace Jeff Zients as White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Zients, who had a business background and led country-wide vaccination efforts for 14 months, will step down in April. “Dr. Jha is one of the leading public health experts in America, and a well-known figure to many Americans from his wise and calming public presence. And as we enter a new moment in the pandemic–executing on my National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and managing the ongoing risks from COVID–Dr. Jha is the perfect person for the job,” Biden said.

COVID’s sliver lining: Research breakthroughs for chronic disease, cancer, and the common flu

The billions of dollars invested in COVID vaccines and COVID-19 research may yield medical and scientific dividends for decades, helping doctors battle influenza, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and far more diseases, according to a new Kaiser Health News report. “We won’t see these dividends in their full glory for years,” Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of clinical affairs for the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, told the publication. Building on the success of mRNA vaccines for covid, scientists hope to create mRNA-based vaccines against a host of pathogens, including influenza, Zika, rabies, HIV, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which hospitalizes 3 million children under age five each year worldwide. Researchers see promise in mRNA to treat cancercystic fibrosis, and rare, inherited metabolic disorders, although potential therapies are still many years away. Read the full report here.

COVID surges may lead to mental-health related ER visits

A cross-sectional study published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests that emergency departments may have increases in mental health-related visits after COVID-19 surges, specifically for young adults and individual racial and ethnic minoritized subpopulations. Researchers looked at

National Syndromic Surveillance Program data from U.S. adults aged 18 to 64 years from January 1, 2019, to August 14, 2021, who visited more than 3,600 facilities across the country. The research team looked at all mental-health related ER visits related to 10 disorders, including anxiety, depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia spectrum, trauma- and stressor-related, attention-deficit/hyperactivity, disruptive behavioral and impulse, obsessive-compulsive, eating, and tic disorders.

The study found increases in mental health-related ED visit counts after a COVID-19 case peak were notable for several racial and ethnic minoritized groups, including American Indian or Alaska Native persons. The increases may suggest that individuals are experiencing stress and increases in poor mental health (MH) in the periods after a COVID-19 case surge, as witnessed after a public health crisis. Another theory is that individuals may delay mental health care during COVID-19 peaks because of limited accessibility, safety concerns, or reduced capacity at hospitals. The findings suggest that after a COVID-19 case peak, hospitals may need to prepare for a potential increase in MH care in emergency health care settings.

Twice as many Black COVID patients deemed lowest priority in ICU triage system

A study published in JAMA Network Open examines whether a crisis standards of care scoring system designed to allocate resources in the COVID-19 pandemic are associated with inequities in resource allocation by race. Researchers found in the cohort study of nearly 500 adults admitted to the intensive care unit and preemptively scored during a COVID-19 surge, nearly twice the proportion of Black patients were put in the lowest priority group compared with all other patients, a significant difference. The findings suggest that a scoring system designed to maximize lives and life-years saved in the setting of resource scarcity during the COVID-19 pandemic may result in racial inequities in prioritization. As a result, crisis standards of care policies must be evaluated for a potential association with racial disparities in health care.

White House: Lack of COVID funding will lead to insufficient resources for next surge

Congress’ failure to provide necessary funding to continue the nationwide COVID-19 response will leave the country less prepared to fight the next surge, the White House warned this week. Waiting to provide funding during the next surge will be too late. Without funding, the White House said, that the country won’t have enough additional boosters or variant specific vaccines, if needed, for all Americans. The government will also be unable to purchase additional life-saving monoclonal antibody treatments and will run out of supply to send to states as soon as late May. The federal government cannot purchase enough quantities of treatments for immunocompromised individuals. The federal government also will be unable to sustain the testing capacity we built over the last 14 months as we head into the second half of the year. In addition to the funding, the White House wants Congress to provide authority to ensure access to Medicare and insurance coverage for treatments under an Emergency Use Authorization.