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California Surgeon General Embraces Idea of NBA Partnership for Vaccination Outreach

“Yes, absolutely. Please tell LeBron James to call me,” Dr. Burke Harris told California Black Media (CBM), referring to one of the league’s most high-profile Black members who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. “I think it’s a wonderful partnership and I am excited for that to happen because we want to use our trusted messengers.”

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Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California Surgeon General

When Dr. Nadine Burke Harris heard that the National Basketball Association (NBA) was discussing educating the African American community about receiving COVID-19 vaccines, she said partnering with the league could be a game-changer in the state of California.

Dr. Burke Harris, the Surgeon General of California, said she would embrace that strategy with open arms.

“Yes, absolutely. Please tell LeBron James to call me,” Dr. Burke Harris told California Black Media (CBM), referring to one of the league’s most high-profile Black members who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. “I think it’s a wonderful partnership and I am excited for that to happen because we want to use our trusted messengers.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on January 18 that the league’s players could use their influence to provide information to African Americans, other ethnic minorities, and the general public about vaccine safety and efficacy. It is something that the NBA is “particularly focused” on, he said.

“In the African American community, there has been an enormously disparate impact from COVID … but now, somewhat perversely, there has been enormous resistance [to vaccinations] for understandable historical reasons,” Silver said. “If that resistance continues, it would be very much a double whammy to the Black community because the only way out of this pandemic is to get vaccinated.”

The Surgeon General, California Dept. of Public Health officials, medical experts, and community leaders joined a Zoom news briefing last week with African American media in the state organized by CBM and the Center at Sierra Health Foundation.

Participants discussed how African American communities can continue to stay safe. They also talked about the state’s plan for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Burke Harris, Dr. Elaine Batchlor, CEO of Los Angeles’ Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, and Shantay R. Davies-Balch, founder of Fresno’s Black Wellness and Prosperity Center, were speakers at the virtual news briefing.  The group stressed the necessity of speeding up statewide vaccinations to reduce hospitalizations and stem the spread of the disease.

Twenty-year-old Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton said he was open to the idea of getting vaccinated for the NBA.

Haliburton, who left Iowa State University after two seasons and entered the 2020 NBA draft, is originally from Oshkosh, Wis., north of Milwaukee. To deal with frigid temperatures, he said getting flu shots before the winter was routine.

“I myself, am just going to listen to the public officials and I plan on getting the vaccine,” Haliburton said. “At a young age, I got all my vaccinations. So, I don’t see any reasons to stop now. Internally, we’ve (Haliburton’s teammates and other players in the NBA) talked about it. There are guys in the league that say they will get it and there are guys that say they won’t. That’s their opinion. I am going to get vaccinated.”

Silver said much of the mistrust about taking the vaccine in the Black community originated from a history of racism and malpractice against Blacks by the country’s medical establishment.

One specific example stands out: the infamous Tuskegee experiment.

In 1932, the United States Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of understanding treatment programs for African Americans. It was called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.”

When penicillin was discovered and become the primary drug for treating syphilis in 1947, subjects were never provided the highly effective medication or a chance to resign from the study. The experiment continued until 1972 when the media exposed that it was still being conducted despite the fact a cure had been available for 25 years. A reporter from The Associated Press investigated the study and broke the news.

Nearly 400 participants in the study, primarily sharecroppers, suffered severe health problems, including blindness, mental illness or death. The study also led to the uncovering of other medical atrocities committed on Black citizens.

Haliburton shared with the media his knowledge of the Tuskegee Study. “I do understand why there is a drawback from some people with everything that has happened in the history of the world and vaccinations,” Haliburton said. “I’ve learned about the Tuskegee study and that crazy situation. I do understand how that can be crazy for African Americans. It’s their choice. It’s their bodies.”

Another medical incursion was Henrietta Lacks and her family. In 1951, without her knowledge and consent, cancer cells were taken from Lacks, a young Black woman with five children from Baltimore, Md. The cells, later called “HeLa,” were used to study the results of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses without experimenting on humans.

Lacks died at the age of 31. Reportedly, many medical institutions and related businesses profited from her cells without sharing any of the largesse with her surviving family. Lacks’ case became a focal point of medical ethics, sparking debate about whether researchers should be required to conduct such studies without the subject’s permission.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said over the weekend that Pres. Joe Biden has talked about using pharmacies, community vaccine centers, and mobile units to speed up the process of getting more people vaccinated.

Fauci said there will be a “revving up of the capabilities and implementation of getting larger numbers of people vaccinated,” including, the Black community.

“One of the things that is a concern to me, and the reason why we are putting a considerable amount of effort into it, is to get over the vaccine hesitancy that we see in some segment of the population,” Dr. Fauci said. “Particularly and understandably, the minority population who have some hesitancy and skepticism based on some historical mistreatments. We need to vaccinate, we need to implement it, but we also have to overcome the hesitancy associated with it.”

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Bay Area

OUSD is No Longer Publishing its COVID Data

Teachers, students and the Oakland Education Association had been vocal about COVID safety issues during the last two school years. Last January, OUSD teachers protested, as did students, in independent non-union affiliated sick-out and/or walk-out actions calling for better COVID safety measures. OEA pressed the district and negotiated over safety issues, and eventually struck a safety agreement deal that included making high quality masks available for free at all schools. This year, though, there have not been COVID protests. None of the four newsletters OEA has released this year have the word COVID in them, and its website no longer has any navigable page for COVID resources.

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“The data dashboard provided imperfect but vital information to understand where things were at,” Dorothy Graham said. “You could see the spikes in cases and know how urgent it was to test.”

By Zack Haber

The Oakland Unified School District is no longer publishing data this school year to inform students, staff, parents and the public about positive COVID cases in schools.

“The district is responding to all positive cases of which we are notified,” wrote OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki in an email to the Post News Group. “However, consistent with state and county guidance, we are no longer aggregating and cleaning the data in the same way we were last year.”

During last school year, OUSD, along with neighboring school districts, published regularly updated dashboards that informed the public about positive COVID cases both district wide and in individual schools. While OUSD has retired its COVID dashboard, the Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, and San Leandro Unified School Districts are continuing to update theirs.

In an email, Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Trish McDermott wrote that her district continues to “share our case count information with our community on our dashboard to inform their own choices about masking and testing.”

Spokesperson Keziah Moss wrote that the San Leandro School District has “continually operated with full transparency with our staff and families.” Moss called the publicly accessible COVID data “helpful to everyone as we monitor health and wellness in our schools.”

In an interview with the Post News Group, OUSD parent Innosanto Nagara expressed frustration about the dashboard’s removal, and also cast doubt on the adequacy of OUSD’s process of testing and collecting COVID data.

“Without the dashboard I have no idea how many students have COVID,” said Nagara. “But it’s not just the dashboard that’s gone. Basically, the whole system of monitoring, testing, and reporting is gone too.”

According to Nagara, last school year his son was tested for COVID twice a week at the school he attends, Melrose Leadership Academy, but that practice has ended.

“Before this school year started our school sent out an email saying you could come pick up a test,” said Nagara. “And that was all I’ve heard about testing.”

According to Sasaki, OUSD’s decision to retire its dashboard is “in alignment with” a resolution the school board passed on June 22. The resolution no longer requires the district to publish its COVID data and ended bi-weekly testing at all schools. While the district is still required to distribute take-home tests to students and host staffed testing hubs, there are no requirements as to how many tests must be distributed or how many hubs must remain open. Sasaki says rapid tests are available to all students who are symptomatic or exposed. This month, OUSD has two to four testing hubs for PCR testing open during weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., which is roughly the same hours that schools are open.

Board Director Mike Hutchinson, who introduced the resolution, told this reporter in a message that the resolution’s intent was “resetting the district’s response to COVID this year, so we are in alignment with the state and the CDC and still have flexibility to shift if needed.”

“Thankfully we don’t need the same level of testing or reporting that we did last year,” wrote Hutchinson. “It’s good news that we’ve been able to scale back and shift our response to COVID.”

All elected directors currently serving on the school board voted to approve Hutchinson’s resolution. Director Kyra Mungia, who was appointed to the board, had not yet taken on her position when the vote was held.

In an email to this reporter, Board Director Sam Davis wrote that while he had been “an advocate of more available [COVID] data” during last school year, he “didn’t see any reason to push back against” Hutchinson’s resolution for this year. Davis called the gathering and reporting of COVID data as “a big lift,” and wrote that “it does not seem like schools should be under the burden of doing that work when it is not being done for any of the places where people are gathering in large numbers, usually unmasked, such as bars, concerts and restaurants, in ways that are probably contributing a lot more to community transmission than schools are.”

Board Directors Aimee Eng, Clifford Thompson, and VanCedric Williams, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Director Gary Yee did not answer when asked why he voted to approve Hutchinson’s resolution but wrote in an email he thought that Superintendent Dr Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s implementation of the resolution was consistent with its intent.

During public comments of a school board meeting on Aug. 24, Dorothy Graham criticized OUSD for no longer publishing COVID data.

“How are families supposed to understand the spread of COVID in our schools and the risk to our students with no data?” she asked.

Graham is a former director of the Alameda Health Consortium and has over 40 years experience working in public health. She’s also a high COVID risk individual with a grandson who attends an OUSD school. In an interview, Graham said she felt that OUSD is shifting its response from collective to individual responsibility. Like other districts in the area and across the country, masks are now optional at OUSD. Grahams is critical of the district’s choice to no longer release COVID data while the end of required masking could put more people at risk and feels it’s especially important now that people have access to COVID data so they can make informed risk assessment choices.

“The data dashboard provided imperfect but vital information to understand where things were at,” Graham said. “You could see the spikes in cases and know how urgent it was to test.”

As the OUSD school year started in early August, the CDC was saying COVID transmission was high throughout the Bay Area. It is unclear how widespread COVID is now and if it is less of a risk this school year. Vaccinations provide protection for many people against the worst COVID symptoms, but their potency wanes as time passes and over 25% of students and 45% of Black students are not vaccinated.

It is also unclear how widespread COVID is currently in Alameda county. Since last spring, private and state health institutes and departments have been saying that COVID case rates have likely become increasingly undercounted as take-home COVID tests are more available while government testing is less available. The increased ability to test independently has caused people to report their cases to health departments less frequently. The county’s data dashboards currently show that rates of reported COVID cases over the last four months have sharply fallen. They also show COVID related hospitalizations and inpatient rates have sharply risen for about the last six months. The county is currently administering tests at about the same rate as they were at the start of the pandemic.

Graham feels not many people are speaking out about OUSD related COVID issues.

“I was the only person to mention the word COVID at the board meeting,” she said. “Voices you’d expect to be speaking out about this, aren’t.”

Teachers, students and the Oakland Education Association had been vocal about COVID safety issues during the last two school years. Last January, OUSD teachers protested, as did students, in independent non-union affiliated sick-out and/or walk-out actions calling for better COVID safety measures. OEA pressed the district and negotiated over safety issues, and eventually struck a safety agreement deal that included making high quality masks available for free at all schools. This year, though, there have not been COVID protests. None of the four newsletters OEA has released this year have the word COVID in them, and its website no longer has any navigable page for COVID resources.

In a statement emailed to this reporter, OEA President Keith Brown wrote that “We can’t let our guard down against COVID.” Brown pointed out that agreements made with the district last school year have continued into this year. These include providing classrooms with quality air filtration, providing substitute teachers in classrooms, and ensuring that “OUSD maintains a stockpile of high-quality masks and rapid tests.”

According to Brown, OEA has also been encouraging more transparency in relation to COVID data this year.

“Our safety agreement sets the minimum, and we will continue to encourage OUSD to go above and beyond,” Brown wrote, “including transparently reporting known cases.”

In the meantime, OUSD parent Innosanto Nagara and grandparent Dorothy Graham remain unsatisfied with the district’s COVID procedures and want more transparency.

“I feel like we sent kids in this year like COVID was over from the district’s concern,” said Nagara.

“I think they retired the dashboard very prematurely.” said Graham. “Why is this controversial? Releasing the data should just be common sense.”

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Advice

New Bivalent Boosters Adds Protection from Omicron Variant Ahead of Predicted Surge  

“Many in the community have expressed concerns that the vaccine was created too fast to be safe and reliable,” Brooks said, “The mRNA platform … that’s been around for 11 years or so; it was developed when we had SARS CoV-1 so a lot of people forget because it didn’t go pandemic and then MERS, which was Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, which similar, so we use that mRNA platform.”

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Zccording to Dr. Oliver Brooks, Chief Medical Officer, Watts Healthcare, “unvaccinated people [account for] 2.4 times more cases, 4.6 times more hospitalizations, 8 times more deaths.”
Zccording to Dr. Oliver Brooks, Chief Medical Officer, Watts Healthcare, “unvaccinated people [account for] 2.4 times more cases, 4.6 times more hospitalizations, 8 times more deaths.”

Maxim Elramsisy | California Black Media

California has started administering updated COVID-19 booster shots after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approved the use of new versions of boosters of the vaccine for people aged 12 and older.

The Western State Scientific Safety Review Workgroup independently reviewed the boosters and recommended that they be given to people who have already received primary vaccinations, regardless of the booster status.

The updated boosters will be “bivalent,” offering protection against the original coronavirus strains, as well as improved immunity to the currently dominant BA.4 and BA.5 strains, also known as the Omicron variants.

The Pfizer/BioNTech bivalent booster is available for people 12 years and older, while the Moderna bivalent booster is approved for those 18 years and older. The bivalent boosters have not been authorized for children under the age of 12.

“We are getting closer to an analogy with the flu vaccines,” Dr. Gil Chavez, Senior Medical Officer, Office of the State Epidemiologist, California Department of Public Health, said during a recent ethnic media sponsored COVID-19 panel discussion with other medical doctors and public health officials: Dr. Maggie Park, County Public Health Officer, San Joaquin County Public Health Services; Dr. Oliver Brooks, Chief Medical Officer, Watts Healthcare; and Dr. Eva Smith, Medical Director, K’ima:w Medical Center.

According to Chavez, “Whereas you know every year we have to get an influenza vaccine to ensure that we get the updated vaccine … with COVID-19, we are moving in the same direction where we believe that it will be important to have at least an annual booster.”

“The goal, and our hope, is to continue on a path of a low number of cases and prevent a surge in COVID cases this winter. That is why public health officials urge individuals to get the updated booster,” Chavez said.

Officials reiterate that, though boosters will prevent disease for some people, they are critically important to prevent people who contract COVID from getting seriously ill, to the point where they may be hospitalized and potentially die.

The vaccines are also an important tool for preventing “long COVID,” where symptoms such as headaches, brain fog, and fatigue can be prolonged for more than six months.

In July, a surge in infections driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant almost pushed Los Angeles County, for example, to reinstitute a universal indoor mask mandate.

“BA.5 has been the predominant circulating variant since July and is still and now accounting for about 87% of all newly diagnosed cases of COVID, with BA.4 pretty much accounting for the rest,” said Park. “I want to say that the rollout of this new booster is actually quite timely, as many models are predicting that we’re facing another COVID-19 surge this fall or winter and we need to be ready.”

While scientists believe many people infected in the most recent COVID surge will have natural immunity for some time, this type of protection begins to wane after around 90 days. So, even people who have had COVID in the past should consider getting a booster around 3 months after being infected.

In California, vaccine hesitancy persists. 72% of all people have received primary vaccinations, but only 58.8% of people eligible for boosters have received a booster.

This is worrisome because, according to Dr. Brooks, “unvaccinated people [account for] 2.4 times more cases, 4.6 times more hospitalizations, 8 times more deaths.”

Brooks shared a concept to combat vaccine hesitancy by responding to the common points of resistance in his patients, called the three C’s – complacency, confidence, and convenience.

Complacency afflicts those who think that COVID is over — or are fatigued and overwhelmed by the fact that, for the past couple of years, the virus has dominated many facets of life. Yet, it is still evolving to become more highly transmissible and more evasive of immunity from infection or vaccination. According to statistics from the Los Angeles County of Public Health, the Omicron variant killed people in all age groups at a higher rate than motor vehicle crashes.

People are concerned about the safety of the vaccines because of “misinformation that’s being perpetuated in our communities,” according to Park. “But with all the millions of doses that have been given in the United States and around the world today, we have so much information about them, and we do know that they’re safe,” she said.

“Many in the community have expressed concerns that the vaccine was created too fast to be safe and reliable,” Brooks said, “The mRNA platform … that’s been around for 11 years or so; it was developed when we had SARS CoV-1 so a lot of people forget because it didn’t go pandemic and then MERS, which was Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, which similar, so we use that mRNA platform.”

Many people are also contending that the shots don’t work, as they are still getting infected. Park said, “People say[ing] ‘My friend is fully vaccinated and boosted but she’s still got COVID,’ and to that, I say yes, but is she still alive? And yes, of course, she is. We never promised that the vaccinations would mean you wouldn’t get COVID … what we know is that your chance of getting COVID decreases with vaccines, but the decrease is even greater when it comes to your chance of being hospitalized or dying.”

As for convenience, vaccines are now available at locations across the state with relative ease of access and at no charge. There are no anticipated supply constraints, so there are no groups that are being given priority. Those seeking vaccines or boosters can book an appointment at Myturn.ca.gov.

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Business

State’s Unemployment Dept. Urged to Focus More on Workers’ Claims, Less on Fraud Report Recommendation to Cal EDD: Focus Less on Fraud, More on Employees

“There’s no ongoing relationship between workers and EDD in the same way that there is with business and EDD,” said report author Chas Alamo, LAO’s principal fiscal and policy analyst. “We think this partnership or orientation towards the business community has sort of encouraged the state and the department to prioritize policies that would tend to favor minimizing business costs and eliminating fraud rather than prioritizing getting benefits to workers.”

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In response to the report, the EDD released a statement where they acknowledged changes needed to be made.
In response to the report, the EDD released a statement where they acknowledged changes needed to be made.

By Edward Henderson, California Black Media

A new report by California’s Legislative Analysist Office (LAO) offers recommendations for the state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) to improve their functionality and timeliness of their Unemployment Insurance (UI) Program.

The UI program provides temporary wage replacement to unemployed workers to help alleviate their economic challenges and bolster the state economy during downturns.

The increased volume of unemployment claims (both valid and fraudulent) and challenges out-of-work people faced caused by the pandemic highlighted the need to rebalance the program.

Lengthy review processes and holds on valid claims caused hardship for workers and their families, hindered the state’s economic recovery, and spurred frustration among unemployed Californians with their government.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, EDD delayed payments to nearly 5 million workers and improperly denied payments to an estimated 1 million people.

Report author Chas Alamo, LAO’s principal fiscal and policy analyst, links the UI program’s issues to its basic design which hasn’t changed much since the 1930s.

UI benefits are funded by employers. Over time, this has created a relationship with the EDD that employees don’t have. While an employee may apply for benefits once or twice during their entire career, employers have become the EDD’s primary customer because they’re interacting with them on a consistent basis.

“There’s no ongoing relationship between workers and EDD in the same way that there is with business and EDD,” said Alamo. “We think this partnership or orientation towards the business community has sort of encouraged the state and the department to prioritize policies that would tend to favor minimizing business costs and eliminating fraud rather than prioritizing getting benefits to workers.”

The LAO’s report features 12 targeted changes for the EDD to make to improve their operations and relationships with employees seeking benefits. The changes acknowledged unemployment workers experience in three key areas:

  1. Improper Claim Denials Were Numerous

More than half of the UI claims the EDD denies are overturned on appeal. Overturned denials cause lengthy delays for workers who appeal and raise concern that the state denies many eligible workers. Likely between $500 million and $1 billion in UI payments annually go unpaid each year due to improper denials.

  1. Claim Delays Need to be Reduced

More than half of UI claims were delayed during the peak of the pandemic, for many workers by several months. Between 15% and 20% of workers who apply for UI during normal economic times experience delays.

  1. The UI Application Needs to be Simplified

The state’s UI application and ongoing requirements are difficult to understand and unnecessarily lengthy. Answers to many of the questions asked of employees are already on file in the EDD.

Many of IU’s problem areas were magnified during the pandemic. An estimated $20 billion has been lost to fraudulent California claims, according to EDD estimates. All but $1.3 billion of that total involved claims from federally funded COVID relief programs, which ended last year. The response to this has made it even more difficult for valid claims to be processed.

“During the pandemic the state was under incredible pressure to cut down on fraud so the department ramped up some of its already high levels of fraud detection efforts. They took several steps that measurably and meaningfully reduced fraud in the federal program. And they should be commended for those steps. But they also took steps that really slowed down the process for otherwise eligible workers and led to these delays.”

In response to the report, the EDD released a statement where they acknowledged changes needed to be made.

“EDD appreciates and will carefully review the LAO’s ideas for further simplifying processes and speeding up the delivery of services to Californians. Many of these ideas, such as limiting improper claim denials and minimizing delays, have been incorporated into EDD actions over the past year. As part of California’s commitment to improving EDD’s customer service, the recently enacted state budget includes $136 million for EDDnext, a major effort to modernize EDD and further improve the customer experience … We agree with the LAO that “EDD must balance the need to prevent fraud … with the priority to deliver payments in a timely and easy manner.”

While Alamo concedes that some of the reported changes the EDD plans to make will help, he also believes that a large number of the recommendations made in the report go beyond the steps the department has proposed to take.

“The pressure really is on now to begin those efforts so that some of these improvements are in place the next time millions of workers turn to EDD for UI benefits during the next downturn. And if historical precedent tells us anything that’s going to be within 10 years. The clock starts ticking and there really is not a lot of time that the state or the Legislature can wait before undertaking some of these improvements,” Alamo said.

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