Blood Bank Now Testing All Donated Blood for COVID-19 Antibodies

Vitalant, formerly known as Blood Centers of the Pacific, announced Monday that it will begin testing all blood donations for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.

The nonprofit blood collection organization serves hospital patients throughout the Bay Area and has a critical need for blood donations.

Vitalant will use an FDA-authorized antibody test on each donation with the hope that it can provide local medical officials with more information on the virus.

"While a positive antibody test does not mean that someone is immune to COVID-19, it does mean that they may be eligible to donate convalescent plasma in the future and help people with the disease," Vitalant chief of marketing Cliff Numark said.

Convalescent plasma, which is plasma extracted from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19, is currently being given to patients hospitalized with severe cases of the disease under the FDA's expanded access authorization. Scientists are currently studying whether treating patients with convalescent plasma can help boost  their ability to fight off the virus.

Donations of all blood types are needed. In particular, blood types O, A-negative and B-negative are critically needed in Bay Area hospitals.

Potential donors can schedule an appointment at one of Vitalant's donor centers by going to vitalant.org or calling (877) 258-4825.

– Bay City News and KQED Science

California Ends Coronavirus Testing Contract With Verily

The state of California has ended its coronavirus testing contract with Verily. The life sciences company, based in South San Francisco, is a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

A spokesperson for Verily said the California Department of Public Health told the company it wants to streamline resources with one vendor, OptumServ.

State health officials contracted with Verily in March 2020 to help provide coronavirus testing when it was scarce. But questions arose around access to the tests for people who don’t speak English or lack an internet connection or smartphone, issues that Verily says it worked to address. The cost of the tests was also a factor.

Deputy County Manager Justin Mates oversees COVID-19 testing for San Mateo County, which ended its own contract with Verily in January. He said the company wasn't "as competitive as other vendors in their ability to really implement insurance billing with their model. And so that per test cost then looked a lot more."

San Mateo County paid Verily as much as $128 per test when insurance didn't cover it.

Over the course of its contract with the state, Verily operated in 30 counties across California.

Polly Stryker

California to Dedicate 75,000 Doses Per Week to Teachers, Education Staff

California released a new plan Thursday outlining how the state will allocate vaccines to education workers as Gov. Gavin Newsom continues to push to reopen more schools to in-person instruction.

The Democratic governor announced last week that at least 10% of the state's vaccines would go to education workers starting in March, which translates to roughly 75,000 dedicated doses a week.

On Thursday, his office released an overview showing how those vaccines would be distributed. Each week, the state will provide doses to county offices of education for distribution. Teachers and other education workers will get single-use codes to make expedited appointments online.

The state will also host targeted drives for education staff at two mass vaccination sites in Oakland and Los Angeles that are run in partnership with the federal government.

If 75,000 vaccine doses do come through each week, it could be a matter of weeks for California's 320,000 K-12 public school teachers to be inoculated.

The governor's office said it will allocate doses to counties based on the number of school employees there and also with an eye toward ensuring that students most affected by the pandemic — homeless and foster youth, low-income students and English learners — get back into the classroom.

Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said the plan helps move teachers closer to returning to classrooms but it’s still too soon to forecast a date for full reopening. CFT is recommending that school staff wait until they receive the second dose of vaccine before they return to in-person instruction.

At least 35 of the state's 58 counties are actively vaccinating education workers, the governor's office said. That includes San Francisco, which began Wednesday and made national headlines for suing its own school district to jump-start reopening plans.

-Janie Har and Jocelyn Gecker, Associated Press

Santa Clara County Opens New Vaccination Site in East San Jose

Santa Clara County opened a vaccination site at Emmanuel Baptist Church in East San Jose on Tuesday in an effort to reach those disproportionally impacted by COVID-19.

The church on North White Road sits in one of the county's hardest-hit ZIP codes, where approximately 1 out of 10 residents have contracted COVID-19, and the county's African American community has experienced a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths.

The church will operate as a walk-in site for now with the capacity to vaccinate 500 people per day.

Emmanuel Baptist already serves as a COVID-19 testing center.

"I'm so thankful that we get a chance to be a light in this dark time, and to be a space where people can come and get help," Jason Reynolds, the church's senior pastor, said on Tuesday.

The new site is part of the county's effort to put vaccines in the arms of those most impacted by COVID-19, including the establishment of a wide variety of vaccination sites in hard-hit ZIP codes, and door-to-door canvassing to provide vaccine information in different languages.

More than 50% of county residents 65 and older have been vaccinated so far, but that number is much lower for the disproportionately affected Latino population.

The site will start vaccinating 100 to 200 people each day this week, with hopes of ramping up to its daily capacity of 500. The church will open for vaccinations Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It currently only accepts walk-ins but may switch to require appointments for vaccinations.

Bay City News

SFO Says Travelers Won't Fully Return for Quite Some Time

Officials at San Francisco International Airport are bracing for a slow recovery that entails the return of just 40% of the passengers that used the airport before COVID-19 put a halt to most travel. The airport expects that the number of travelers won't ramp up to pre-pandemic levels for up to six years, with airlines holding off on reinstating flights.

Carly Graf, a transportation reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, wrote that the number of travelers that passed through the airport in 2020 plummeted by 16.4 million, a 71% drop compared to the prior year.

Graf told KQED that people think of airports as “well to-do, well-off entities,” but that a year of relative inactivity has devastated SFO.

“(I)t’s important to remember that they employ a tremendous number of people,” she said. “They create a lot of jobs, and there are contractors and companies operating within them that are really hurting.”

About 46,000 people worked at the airport before the pandemic, but airport officials say up to half of those employees have been furloughed or have lost their jobs.

The airport has also been reducing expenses by delaying projects, limiting new hires and restructuring contracts.

Next week, San Francisco’s airport commission will vote to accept $46 million in federal relief funds to help offset losses from the steep decline in passengers.

Mela Seyoum

Pandemic Permanently Short-Circuits Fry's Electronics

Fry's Electronics, which opened in Sunnyvale in 1985, has sold its last modem, mouse or motherboard. The store announced on its website Wednesday that it was shutting down permanently.

The retailer, which said it had 31 stores in nine states, sold every gadget, cable and plug that a frantic consumer would ever need to keep up with the ever-shifting modifications and technical standards of the computer age — not to mention racks of snacks enticingly within reach on the checkout line. Fry's also catered to the DIY tech crowd who wanted to put together or enhance their own digital devices. Over the decades, the store became part and parcel of Silicon Valley culture.

Fry's says it's closing "as a result of changes in the retail industry and the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic."

"The Company is in the process of reaching out to its customers with repairs and consignment vendors to help them understand what this will mean for them and the proposed next steps," the company said in its announcement.

Brian Watt and Jon Brooks

Los Angeles County Reports 806 More Coronavirus Deaths After Backlog

Los Angeles County on Wednesday reported another 806 deaths from coronavirus during the winter surge, pushing California’s toll above 50,000, or about one-tenth of the U.S. total from the pandemic.

The county, which has a quarter of the state’s 40 million residents, said the deaths mainly occurred between Dec. 3 and Feb. 3. The Department of Public Health identified them after going through death records that were backlogged by the sheer volume of the surge’s toll.

“It is heartbreaking to report on this large number of additional deaths associated with COVID-19 and a devastating reminder of the terrible toll the winter surge has taken on so many families across the county,” Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s health director, said in a statement.

Johns Hopkins University put California’s overall COVID-19 death toll at 50,890.

The grim figure comes days after the U.S. recorded a half-million deaths.

While the nation’s most populous state has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., it is ranked 25th in the number of cases per capita because of its large population.

The death toll climbed precipitously amid a fall and winter surge that has begun to taper off as cases and hospitalizations drop. Los Angeles County on Wednesday reported an additional 136 deaths, accounting for nearly half of the state’s 314 additional deaths.

The state has begun to ease more restrictions on businesses after lifting a stay-home order about a month ago. Gov. Gavin Newsom has vowed to reopen schools soon despite opposition from teachers unions.

It took 10 months for the state to hit 25,000 deaths on New Year’s Eve and less than two months for that number to double.

When the state hit the 40,000 death mark on Jan. 30, it had recorded 3,800 deaths in the previous week. In state figures reported through Tuesday, it recorded 2,370 deaths over the past week.

Because of a lag from infection to illness to hospitalization and death, the number of deaths have fallen more slowly than infections. But deaths are expected to continue to drop.

Deaths have hit the poor, and Latino and Black communities especially hard. People working essential jobs have greater exposure to the virus and are more likely to bring it home to others who share crowded living quarters.

The death rate for Latinos is 21% higher than the statewide figure and 7% higher for Black people, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Latinos comprise a plurality of the population — 39% — but 55% of cases and 46% of deaths. Black people make up 6% of the state’s population and account for 4% of cases and 6% of deaths. Whites, by comparison, make up 37% of the population but only 20% of cases and 32% of deaths.

Case rates are 38% higher in communities where the median annual income is less than $40,000.

Brian Melley, Associated Press

Public Health Officials Say Harassment Is Compounding Already Difficult Job

Harassment and limited resources are leading to an exodus of local and state public health officials, experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said Wednesday at a panel convened by the school.

The conversation addressed challenges that public health officials have faced since the start of the pandemic, including the frequent problem of harassment by the public.

The most common forms of abuse faced by health officials, said Dr. Beth Resnick of the Hopkins school of public health, include threats against themselves, their families and staff; and protests at their homes. Other problems include backlash against public health protections and a lack of support from state and local elected officials. Much of the harassment has targeted women and minorities, Resnick said.

She and her colleagues assembled the data based on reports from the Associated Press, Kaiser Health News and their own research.

Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody is familiar with these forms of attempted intimidation.

"I’m still experiencing rather regular harassment," said Cody, a panel member. "That comes in the form of people coming to protest at my home, letters written in the paper, emails or other letters that are way outside the norms of what we would consider normal discourse and differences of opinion.

"I actually had a 24-7 protective detail for almost a year because of concerns about my safety and the safety of my family."

In addition, health officials face efforts to reduce their authority.

"As noted by a former local health officer, political disagreements and gamesmanship have contributed to increased disrespect and disdain for public health leaders, as well as calls for retraction of evidence-based public health guidance," researcher Paulani Mui said.

She noted that as of December, at least 24 states have introduced bills that would restrict the powers of government or public health officials at both the state and local level, including limits on quarantines, contact tracing, vaccine requirements and emergency executive powers. Some of those bills have failed, she said, while others are currently under consideration.

"Should these efforts succeed, health departments can lose legal authority that is essential for the protection of communities from disease and illness," Mui said.

Resnick and Mui said 190 local and state public health leaders resigned, retired or were fired from their positions from March 2020 to January 2021, and they believe that number is an undercount.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief deputy director for health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said these compounding difficulties have led to fatigue.

"Its frustration at doing the job with the meager resources that are available, plus this incredible new challenge of harassment, threats and other dangers," Khaldun said.

Panelists suggested a variety of solutions, such as creating a harassment monitoring system connected to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using existing laws or creating new ones to protect public health workers, and supporting investment in public health infrastructure with more staffing and modernization of data systems.

Laura Klivans