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In today's edition:

  • COVID-19 was a “warning shot” 
  • Making your holiday plans with omicron in mind
  • Is vaping any healthier than cigarette smoking? 
The World Is Not Prepared For Another Pandemic
The Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security released their second Global Health Security Index this week and, disturbingly, found that despite huge investments in COVID responses, not a single country is prepared for another biological threat like a virus
 
The initial Index, released in 2019 just weeks before the first documented cases of COVID-19, ranked countries by looking at the tools and resources countries had access to in the event of an epidemic or pandemic. The report is meant to be a “guidepost,” said contributor Anita Cicero in a Global Health NOW Exclusive, and assesses countries across categories like detection, overall health system, and political risks. 
 
The 2021 report found little to no improvement since 2019. For example, although the US came in at the top in terms of capacity, the report found there are still gaping holes in its overall pandemic preparedness: 
  • The US scored lowest in the world for “public confidence in government” a key factor in a nation’s ability to respond to threats
  • The US also got low marks for financial barriers to health care and fewer hospital beds per capita than other peer countries
New Zealand, on the other hand, used the 2019 Index as a resource for their COVID-19 response plan which “really saved us,” a top health adviser said. The country moved quickly to identify areas of weakness like low hospital capacity and underdeveloped health agencies and ultimately fared much better than many other countries in terms of illness and death. 
 
But overall, COVID-19 responses around the world are largely temporary and lack long-term funding and policies, which is incredibly shortsighted: “COVID is by no means the last event we’ll experience and there’s no guarantee it will be the worst,” said Jennifer Nuzzo.
 
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Navigating Another COVID Holiday Season
Coming into this holiday season, things seemed a lot brighter than they did a year ago in terms of COVID safety: We have a larger toolbox including masks, antivirals, rapid tests, and, most notably, vaccines. 
 
But a new variant of concern and rising levels of transmission remind us that we are still in a pandemic. Epidemiologist Keri Althoff and mental health expert Elizabeth Stuart return to the podcast to talk with Stephanie Desmon about omicron, navigating holiday gatherings and travel this year, and how we’re slowly moving toward the ultimate goal of living with COVID as an endemic virus. 
 
A few key takeaways:
  • Omicron seems to cause milder disease but it is more transmissible—This could lead to more surges in cases and put vulnerable people at risk.
  • Vaccine efficacy against omicron is a dial, not a yes/no—People who are boosted have more protection.
  • Rapid tests are an excellent tool—If you can access them, use them before gatherings and/or if you have a known exposure.
  • Normalize mask wearing—Everyone’s situation is different and some people may need to be more cautious than others.
  • All of this is helping us learn to live with COVID—The virus isn’t going anywhere and we’ll have to figure out how to live our lives with COVID as an endemic virus. 
Listen to the podcast
 
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MONDAY ON THE PODCAST:
Public Health Forward: A Bipartisan Report About the Future of the Public Health System

Public health is having a moment, both in terms of challenges and opportunities. Dr. Anand Parekh, the chief medical adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC, talks with Josh Sharfstein about a new report, Public Health Forward, that aims to keep public health top of mind for policymakers and the American public. They talk about why this is a critical moment to think about the future of the public health system, the process behind the bipartisan project, and some major takeaways from the report. Look for the podcast here.
Is vaping safe? Not inherently. But it could be a decent option for people who are trying to quit smoking.
 
In a new video, Institute for Global Tobacco Control director Joanna Cohen answers some FAQs about vaping. Click here to learn more.
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Growing Viral: Health, Hope, and Happiness in the Time of COVID and HIV: an uplifting photo essay of children in Southern India living with HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic by Anita Shet.
 
Study Estimates That More Than Half of US Hospitals Not in Compliance With New Pricing Disclosure Rules in First Five Months: A new study from Bloomberg School researchers found that a large number of hospitals are not adhering to the Hospital Price Transparency Rule, requiring them to provide clear pricing information online about the services they provide. 
Is returning to the office in January actually Covid-safe? Here’s what experts say (CNBC)
The new Omicron variant, which is now in at least 19 states as of earlier this week, has already caused multiple companies to delay their office reopenings. The moves could be completely warranted, or an overreaction — depending on questions about omicron that scientists are currently working to answer. “Whether or not you do go back to the office in January, versus a later date, is really going to be a function of the time that it takes science to answer those questions,” says Keri Althoff. 

How Blood Samples Are Helping Scientists Test Covid-19 Vaccines Against Omicron (The Wall Street Journal)
Human blood samples and the substance that makes fireflies glow are among the tools that scientists are using for early clues about whether Covid-19 vaccines retain their effectiveness against the new Omicron virus variant. Though it is possible, says Bill Moss, that the Covid-19 vaccines will be less effective at preventing Omicron infections, but would retain their effectiveness against severe disease caused by the virus.
 
How a COVID Home Test Works and When to Use One (AARP)

Health officials are increasingly emphasizing the importance of rapid at-home testing as a way to help slow the spread of COVID-19, especially with the delta variant driving up new cases and omicron emerging as a potential threat. Gigi Gronvall says false positives are rare with rapid antigen tests. So if you test positive with an at-home test, you likely have COVID and should isolate yourself from others. You can always confirm the diagnosis with a follow-up PCR test or another antigen test, since "the accuracy of your result goes up with multiple tests,” she explains.
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