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The Virus, Vaccines and New Variants: Weighing the Threat of a Mutant COVID Strain

“It is based on a pop-up model. We mobilize with local folks who go door-to-door, hand-to-hand, face-to-face, peer-to-peer, asking questions about COVID. As we moved into the vaccination phase, the Alameda Public Health Department recognized that as a major asset. They knew we could reach people, they couldn’t.” 

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Health care specialists, including several medical doctors, are keeping their eyes on coronavirus variants that some fear could lead to new strains of COVID-19 that could possibly undermine global efforts to vaccinate people and stem the global crisis. 

According to the Centers of Disease Control, the B117 variant (first detected in the U.K.), the most threatening because of its prevalence, is the cause of 20% of new infections in the United States – and 30% of new infections in Florida. 

Dr. Nirav Shah, Senior Scholar at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and chief medical officer of Sharecare, a health data services firm, says there are currently four different variants of COVID-19. He said the virus is adapting because “of evolution and natural selection.” 

“The more virus particles there are, the more chances that a single virus particle may be a little different than the rest of them,” said Shah. “One or more virus particles is all you need to have a slight change. Maybe these spike protein changes – just a little – and it can attach to cells better than all the other particles.”
 Shah said the virus is adapting as it encounters new hosts. But scientists are in a race to get everyone inoculated before the level of the disease in a community gets too high.  

The B117 strain, he says, is 50% more  infectious than the original strain of the coronavirus and it could lead to up to a 60% to 70% higher rate of death, according to a paper published in the journal Nature. 

Shah said some of the COVID-19 virus variants could reinfect people who have contracted the disease before. The good news, he says, is that the B117 is susceptible to existing vaccine therapies, although other variants like 1351 (first detected in South Africa) and P1 (first detected in Brazil), could reduce the effectiveness of the COVID shots in patients. 

Fortunately, to date, scientists studying COVID-19 have not identified any variants that have been designated ‘Variants of High Consequence.’ Those in that category “cause more disease and more hospitalizations, and they have been shown to defeat medical countermeasures, like vaccines, anti-viral drugs and mono-clonal antibodies,” says Shah. 

Shah was speaking at a recent news briefing on COVID-19 virus variants organized by Ethnic Media Services. Other panelists on the Zoom teleconference were: Dr. Daniel Turner Lloveras, a member of the Latino Coalition Against COVID-19; Dr. Dali Fan, a U.C. Davis Health Science clinical professor and Dr. Kim Rhoads, an African American physician and associate professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at U.C. San Francisco School of Medicine. 

 Although the average citizen may be surprised at how COVID-19 is changing, Fan, said the virus’ adaption and mutation are much like other diseases.  

 He also presented some statistics from the Center for Disease Control about the coronavirus vaccines and their development. He said the vaccines were tested before they were released to the public. 

 “All three vaccines are very effective against symptomatic COVID-19,” said Fan. He said there are differences in the content of the vaccines and how they are stored. Fan said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires one dose, is easier to transport and is perfect for pop-up clinics and rural areas.  

 “It may be a better option for people who want to get fully vaccinated quickly,” he said.  

 Turner-Lloveras said that one of the issues overlooked during the coronavirus pandemic is the impact of the digital divide. Black and Latino communities often lag in vaccination rates because they don’t have access to high-speed Internet to discover information and arrange for their vaccination appointments.  

 

“Internet access is a civil rights issue, at this stage,” said Turner-Lloveras. “All of the resources that are provided to people are online.” 

 

He also said more than 20 million seniors don’t have broadband access. “This is a group that needs to be vaccinated, but they don’t have access to the Internet,” he said. 

 

He’s trying to solve this problem with a group called the Digital Companeros, who meet with senior citizens and help them walk through online registration and information. The organization also has a WhatsApp group to target people who access the Internet through their cell phones.  

 

According to Rhoads, some of these reports about Black hesitancy and under-vaccination may not be accurate. She talked about her experiences serving a predominantly African American population in San Francisco through Umoja Health, a coalition of community health organizations that joined their efforts to increase COVID-19 awareness, testing, and vaccinations in Black communities in the Bay Area.  

 

The organization held a mass testing event in the Sunnydale and Bayview Hunters Point neighborhoods in San Francisco where they screened about 400 people, taking a community-based approach she calls “service in the name of public health.”  No one came back positive for the coronavirus at a time when there was a 2 % positivity rate in all of San Francisco. She said the people, who were tested by community members, were also eager to get the vaccines. However, she attributes their willingness and openness to their confidence in Umoja Health.  

 

“The community developed rapid trust in us. I was very surprised by this and they called out to us when one community member tested positive,” she said. “We saw neighbors going door to door, knocking telling people to come out and get tested. 

 

 

“What we recognized from that mass-testing site was that it was not going to work for the African American community,” said Rhoads. “But something more intimate would.” 

 

Rhoads said when African Americans know and trust the health care workers, there is more participation. Because of the organization’s successful testing effort, Alameda County has now entrusted it to provide vaccines in Oakland and areas across Alameda County with African American populations. 

 

“It is based on a pop-up model. We mobilize with local folks who go door-to-door, hand-to-hand, face-to-face, peer-to-peer, asking questions about COVID. As we moved into the vaccination phase, the Alameda Public Health Department recognized that as a major asset. They knew we could reach people, they couldn’t.” 

 

Bay Area

Dream Fund: Entrepreneurs Can Apply for $10,000 Grants Through $35M State Program

Although a number of reports suggest that the outlook has begun to be more positive as the U.S. economy continues to bounce back defying the odds, and many Black businessowners have also become more optimistic, access to credit and technical support remain a challenge for many who had to dip into their own finances to keep their lights on.

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Everett Sands, CEO Lendistry. Lendistry photo. 
Everett Sands, CEO Lendistry. Lendistry photo. 

By Tanu Henry, California Black Media

Since 2017, there has been a 9.8% increase of new small businesses — firms with less than 500 employees — in the United States. Over the past two years alone, over 10 million applications were submitted to start new small businesses across the country, according to the Small Business Administration.

That growth trend is true for California, too, where there are about 4.1 million small businesses, the most in the country. Those companies make up 99.8% of all business in California and employ about 7.2 million people.

But for Black-owned and other minority owned small businesses across the country, there was a steep decline in numbers, almost 41%, due to the pandemic, a Census Population Survey found in 2020. During that same time, nearly 44% of minority-owned small businesses were at risk of shutting down, a Small Business Majority report found.

Although a number of reports suggest that the outlook has begun to be more positive as the U.S. economy continues to bounce back defying the odds, and many Black businessowners have also become more optimistic, access to credit and technical support remain a challenge for many who had to dip into their own finances to keep their lights on.

Recognizing the outsized contribution small businesses make to the health of the California economy and the hit many of the smallest of small business have taken during the pandemic, the California Office of the Small Business Advocate (CalOSBA) has been making grants of up to $25,000 to small business in the state.

In its latest round of funding called the Dream Fund, which is now accepting applications on a rolling basis, CalOSBA has partnered with Lendistry, a Los Angeles-based, minority-led small business and commercial real estate lender to administer the $35 million grant portion of its program. The fund provides $10,000 to each small business that qualifies.

To become eligible, California-based small business owners will have to complete training at one of the centers run by the state’s Technical Assistance Expansion Program (TAEP) and receive a certificate.

“For the millions of Californians that have dreams of owning their own business, this grant coupled with one-on-one counseling and business expertise from hundreds of counselors at our eighty-seven Technical Assistance Centers, has the power to jumpstart their dreams,” says Tara Lynn Gray, director of CalOSBA.

Jay King, president and CEO of the Sacramento-based California Black Chamber of Commerce, says he applauds Gov. Gavin Newsom for understanding the historic systemic challenges minority businesses face and for “doing something about it.”

But giving Black businesses grants are not a “cure-all,” he says.

“It is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound if we don’t do more to really fix the problems small businesses face,” King explains. “Ninety-six percent of Black businesses are mini- or micro- that means they make less than $100,000 or less than $35,000 a year, respectively,” King continued. “Only 4% of our businesses earn more than $100,000 annually. We have to put more resources and technical support around these businesses.”

King says informing Black business owners about opportunities like the Dream Fund and making sure they know how to apply for or access the funding is critical to making sure the people who need the help gets it.

“You have to get down into our communities,” he said. “You have to reach people through groups that are plugged into our communities to get the word out. We do not hear about these kinds of programs enough. We definitely don’t benefit from them enough.”

Everett K. Sands, the CEO of Lendistry, says he is excited to help California’s new businesses access the capital they need to “begin on their journeys.

“Over the past two years, almost 10 million new businesses have been created in the U.S.,” he says. “With record numbers of new small businesses entering the marketplace, many of which are owned by women and minorities, programs like California Dream Fund pave the way for a more robust and equitable economy as these new businesses make the leap from employing just their founders to employing their communities.”

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Activism

Biden Administration Invests $145 Million in Re-Entry Programs for Formerly Incarcerated

According to a 2021 Stanford University Study, reentry programs in California have contributed to a 37% decrease in the average re-arrest rate over the period of a year.

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By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

After serving a 22-year sentence in a California prison, James Morgan, 51, found himself facing a world of opportunities that he did not imagine he would have as an ex-convict once sentenced to life for attempted murder.

Morgan, a Carson native, says he is grateful for a second chance at life, and he has taken full advantage of opportunities presented him through California state reentry and rehabilitation programs.

After completing mental health care for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Morgan was released from prison and granted parole in 2018.

“I did not expect what I found when I got out,” Morgan told California Black Media (CBM), explaining that he was fortunate to participate in a program for the formerly incarcerated in San Francisco.

“I was mandated by the courts to spend a year in transitional housing,” said Morgan. “Those guys walked us through everything. They made it really easy. It was all people I could relate to, and they knew how to talk to me because they used to be in the prison population —and they were from where we were from.”

Morgan says he also took lessons on anger management and time management.

Now, he is currently an apprentice in Local 300 Laborers Union, specializing in construction, after he participated in a pre-apprenticeship program through ARC (the Anti-Recidivism Coalition).

“Right now, I’m supporting my family,” Morgan said. “I’d say I’m doing pretty good because I hooked up with the right people.”

Supporters of criminal justice reform say Morgan’s success story in California is particularly encouraging.

Black men in the Golden State are imprisoned nearly 10 times the rate of their white counterparts, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. And just a little over a decade ago in 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered California to reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prison system by 33,000. Of that population, nearly 30% were Black men even though they account for about 5% of the state’s population.

To help more formerly incarcerated people like Morgan get back on their feet after paying their debt to society, last month the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the federal government is investing $145 million over the course of the next fiscal year to support reentry programs across the country.

The Biden-Harris Administration also announced plans to expand federal job opportunities and loan programs, expand access to health care and housing, and develop and amplify educational opportunities for the formerly and currently incarcerated.

“It’s not enough to just send someone home, it’s not enough to only help them with a job. There’s got to be a holistic approach,” said Chiraag Bains, deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council on Racial Justice and Equity.

Bains told CBM that that reentry programs help establish an “incarceration-to-employment pipeline.”

The White House announced the programs late last month as President Joe Biden commuted the sentences of 75 people and granted pardons to another three, including Abraham Bolden, the first Black Secret Service agent on White House detail.

Bolden had been sentenced to 39 months in prison in 1964 for allegedly attempting to sell classified Secret Service documents. He has always maintained his innocence.

“Today, I granted pardons to three people and commuted the sentences of 75 people. America is a nation of laws, but we are also a nation of second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation,” Biden tweeted April 26.

According to Bains, about half of the people the President pardoned are Black or Brown.

“The president has spoken repeatedly about the fact that we have too many people serving time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses and too many of those people are Black and Brown,” said Bains. “This is a racial equity issue.”

Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have faced sharp criticisms in the past for supporting tough-on-crime policies that, as U.S. Senator and California Attorney General respectively, have had disproportionately targeted Blacks and other minorities.

According to a 2021 Stanford University Study, reentry programs in California have contributed to a 37% decrease in the average re-arrest rate over the period of a year.

Over the last decade, California has funded a number of initiatives supporting reentry and rehabilitation. In 2015, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation launched the Male Community Re-Entry Program (MCRP) that provides community-based rehabilitative services in Butte, Kern, Los Angeles and San Diego Counties. The Butte program services Tehama, Nevada, Colusa, Glenn, Sutter, Placer and Yuba counties.

A year later, Gov. Newsom’s office introduced the California Community Reinvestment Grant Program. The initiative funds community groups providing services like job placement, mental health treatment, housing and more to people, including the formerly incarcerated, who were impacted by the War on the Drugs.

Morgan spoke highly of programs that helped him reintegrate into society — both in prison and after he was released.

“In hindsight, I look back at it and I’m blown away by all of the ways that they’ve helped me,” Morgan said.

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Activism

UC Berkeley Students Protest Supreme Court Abortion Decision

Two pro-choice activists, Danielle Roseman and Alisa Steel currently believe the law will be overturned. However, they said, “our voices are our best asset to combat (this) and we will continue to protest.” Both seniors at University of California, Berkeley, they decided to organize a campus protest on Sproul Plaza, which took place May 3. 

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By Sarah Clemens

When it comes to reproductive health, the future looks both unprecedented and regressive.

A Supreme Court draft to overturn Roe v. Wade, the controversial ruling that declared the right to abortion, was leaked on May 2, 2022. In the draft, Justice Alito wrote that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.” The very act of leaking a supreme court draft is unprecedented. The last time it occurred was in 1973 with the original Roe v. Wade decision. In a press release the Supreme Court said the leak was authentic, but “it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member.” Final or not, thousands have already begun to protest.

Two pro-choice activists, Danielle Roseman and Alisa Steel currently believe the law will be overturned. However, they said, “our voices are our best asset to combat (this) and we will continue to protest.” Both seniors at University of California, Berkeley, they decided to organize a campus protest on Sproul Plaza, which took place May 3.

The Daily Cal newspaper estimated that “hundreds” attended. After contacting Roseman on social media, they both co-wrote answers to questions posed by this reporter.

“We knew the only way for our voices to be heard was to create a peaceful protest,” Roseman and Steel said. They weren’t alone.

NPR documented protesters across the country with similar stances on the issue from Washington to New York. Some states have existing laws in place that protect abortion rights. Others do not.

The original Roe v. Wade court case happened when a Texas woman by the name Jane Roe alleged that Texas’ abortion laws were unconstitutional. Almost 50 years later, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott supported a law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, with no rape or incest exceptions.

When asked by a reporter, “why force a rape or incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term?” Abbott responded, “It doesn’t require that at all, because, obviously, it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion.”

Despite overwhelming backlash, abortion becoming illegal appears preordained. Yet, throughout history around the world abortion has never stopped despite its illegality. In the 19th century, a doctor named Ann Lohman was called “the wickedest woman in New York” for her practice of giving women abortions.

When California state Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) made a statement on the new bill, she cited this history. “Unlike women before me, I grew up without having to face the choice of a back-alley abortion…If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the Supreme Court will not prevent abortions, instead they will unleash unsafe and often deadly abortions.”

For many years the battle over abortion has been heavily stigmatized. As a result, there is a strong defeatist attitude among many voicing concerns on social media. Roseman and Steel thought otherwise.

“With our voices, we can mobilize, protest, sign petitions, get the word out, and send a shockwave to the politicians who think they have control over our bodies. So get out and get loud!”

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