COVID in California: Long COVID linked to lower brain oxygen levels – San Francisco Chronicle

Cody Zeng takes a rapid antigen test at the in-house COVID testing center at the DoorDash offices in San Francisco in October. The Bay Area is now seeing the strongest increase of cases in California.
UPDATE: Here are the latest updates on COVID in the Bay Area and California.
Amid a backdrop of plunging cases and deaths globally, Los Angeles County supervisors voted unanimously to end the local COVID-19 emergency declarations at the end of the month on Tuesday. That was the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom officially ended California’s COVID-19 state of emergency, declaring “the conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property … no longer exist.” Pfizer is asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to clear the way for its bivalent booster for children under 5 years old. Britain’s former health minister said the government considered culling all pet cats in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Latest updates:
Long COVID is associated with reduced brain oxygen levels, worse performance on cognitive tests and increased psychiatric symptoms, according to a new study. In an analysis of two parallel studies — a laboratory study involving cognitive testing and imaging and a population survey — researchers from the University of Waterloo found that individuals who experienced symptomatic COVID-19 illness showed impaired brain function compared to those who had not been infected. The paper was published Wednesday in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
“We are the first to show reduced oxygen uptake in the brain during a cognitive task in the months following a symptomatic COVID-19 infection,” said Dr. Peter Hall, lead author and researcher in the School of Public Health Sciences at Waterloo. “This is important because a lack of sufficient oxygen supply is thought to be one of the mechanisms by which COVID-19 may cause cognitive impairment.”
In the population survey of more than 2,000 Canadians aged 18 to 56, respondents who had COVID reported difficulty concentrating, as well as increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. These effects were more detectable among unvaccinated individuals. Older women, in particular, appeared most impacted by the brain imaging outcomes.
“It appears that, regardless of gender and other demographic factors, COVID-19 infection at baseline is correlated with increased problems with emotion regulation six months later: depression, anxiety and agitation. In some cases, we are talking about symptom levels that are at or above recommended as cut-off scores for psychiatric diagnoses,” Hall said.
In an update to the potential timeline for commercialization of COVID-19 medical countermeasures, including vaccines, the federal Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR) said it expects that to happen once the doses are reformulated for the next coronavirus lineage. “Provided that one is authorized and recommended by FDA and CDC, we expect this transition will align with a possible strain change that accounts for any potential variants,” the agency said. Once the national pandemic emergencies are lifted on May 11, the government will not provide funding for free tests or treatments beyond what is available in the national stockpile, with vaccines likely to remain free for most U.S. residents through government programs and most commercial insurance. But the ASPR noted that there may not be enough to last through the end of 2023, especially if the nation sees more seasonal waves of cases and hospitalizations. “The treatments transition to commercial markets will vary by product and will likely occur for at least one product before the end of the year,” the update said.
According to a federal official, vaccines that provide vaccination against both influenza and COVID-19 will not be ready this year. Dr. Peter Marks of the Food and Drug Administration previously said he expected the combination shots to be ready for consumers in 2023. But this week he told a webinar by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases that hitting a target for the fall season was “too heavy a lift,” and they would not be available until 2024. “I think that had to do with the fact that it was not so clear that annual vaccination against COVID-19 was likely to be necessary until the past several months,” Marks said. “But our goal is for the following season to have that available.” Pfizer and Moderna have both been working on developing the combo shots, but Pfizer told investors in January that it did not anticipate hitting the market with its shot until 2025.
California tallied another 237 confirmed COVID-19 deaths this week, bringing the statewide pandemic toll up to 100,424 as of Thursday, with an average of 18 people still dying each day due to the virus. While the COVID-19 state of emergency ended this week, the prevalence of the coronavirus remains stubbornly high as the state’s overall metrics appear to have stalled for the third consecutive week.
California’s health department reported an average of 2,760 new daily cases — or about 6.9 per 100,000 residents — as of Thursday, compared to 2,859 cases per day, or 7.1 per 100,000 residents in the prior week. The state’s seven-day rolling coronavirus test positivity rate, which tracks the percentage of lab test results that are positive for the virus, remains unchanged at 6.5%. The state’s wastewater facilities show levels of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material plateauing in most regions. The daily average of COVID patients in California hospitals now numbers 2,506, compared to 2,607 last week. Nearly 4% of the state’s inpatient beds are now in use for COVID-19 patients, up from 2.61% over the same period.
President Biden will ask Congress to approve $1.6 billion in funding to clamp down on fraud tied to a variety of COVID-19 pandemic relief programs, the White House said on Thursday. The move comes ahead of anticipated investigations by House Republicans into the trillions of dollars of aid distributed by the president and his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Some $600 million will go toward rooting out criminal syndicates, $600 million will be used for investing in fraud and identity theft prevention, and $400 million will go toward helping victims who had their identities stolen. The White House will also ask that the statute of limitations for pandemic unemployment insurance fraud is increased to 10 years. The money will help triple the size of the Justice Department’s COVID Strike Force.
“We must empower law enforcement to pursue, investigate, prosecute, and recover money from those who were engaged in major or sophisticated fraud — from well-off individuals who took hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from taxpayers to sophisticated criminal syndicates engaging in systemic identity theft,” the White House said.
Last month, a federal watchdog report estimated that the government distributed about $5.4 billion in COVID aid to people with “questionable” Social Security numbers.
There were over 4.8 million new COVID-19 cases and over 39,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths reported globally in the last 28 days, according to the latest epidemiological update from the World Health Organization. The figures mark a decrease of 76% in cases and 66% in deaths compared to the previous 28-day period, the U.N. health agency said. The countries with the highest number of newly reported deaths were the United States, China, Japan, Brazil and the United Kingdom. But all saw declines over the past month. 
The WHO cautioned the numbers are likely underestimates of the true number of global infections and reinfections. “This is partly due to the reductions in testing and delays in reporting in many countries,” the update said. “Data presented in this report may be incomplete and should, therefore, be interpreted with caution.”
A separate report from the WHO’s technical advisory group showed that the omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 continues to grow in proportion. It was detected in 41.5% of sequenced samples, compared to 18.7% in the first half of January. The emerging sublineage XBF made up an estimated 1.2%.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to end the local COVID-19 emergency declarations at the end of the month. But they warned that does not mean the pandemic is over. “COVID-19 is still with us,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said, according to ABC7. “No, we don’t want to abandon those tools that got us to this place… but with effective vaccines and testing abundantly available we can move on to the next phase of our response to COVID-19.”
The proclamation of a local emergency and proclamation of a local health emergency will expire on March 31. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said despite the end of the declarations, her agency will review existing health orders and some may stay in place. “A health officer always has authority to mitigate the impact of communicable diseases,” she said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday officially ended California’s COVID-19 state of emergency with a signed proclamation, nearly three years to the day he issued the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order on March 4, 2020. He declared “the conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property … no longer exist.”
The governor’s office said the state will now embrace its endemic SMARTER Plan to deal with the next phase of the pandemic. It added that COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and treatment continue to be available at sites within local communities, at least for now. Newsom’s COVID-19 state of emergency accounted for 74 executive orders that included nearly 600 rules.
California has reported more than 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, but Newsom’s office noted that the state’s per capita death rate was among the lowest in the nation. “If California had Texas’ death rate, 27,000 more people would have died here,” it said in a fact sheet. “If California had Florida’s rate, 56,000 more people would have died here.” It added that the national COVID-19 death rate of 339 per 100,000 persons was far above California’s rate.
“People who lost their life to COVID, people who lost neighbors and loved ones, we lament and are still saddened by that,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said in a statement. “But to get to this point where we feel prepared to lift the state of emergency to move forward, that’s a big deal for Californians across the state.”
A former British health minister said the government considered culling all pet cats in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. James Bethell told Channel 4 News on Wednesday that there was serious concern that domestic cats could spread the novel coronavirus.
“What we shouldn’t forget is how little we understood about this disease. There was a moment we were very unclear about whether domestic pets could transmit the disease,” he said. “In fact, there was an idea at one moment that we might have to ask the public to exterminate all the cats in Britain. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had wanted to do that?” In July 2020, the government warned pet owners not to kiss their cats after a female Siamese became the first known animal in the U.K. to catch the disease, according to the Guardian
The revelation comes as Bethell’s boss, Matt Hancock, the country’s former health secretary, on Wednesday denied wrongdoing after a newspaper published extracts of more than 100,000 private messages he sent on WhatsApp in the first weeks of the pandemic. The Daily Telegraph said the exchanges show that he ignored scientific advice to test everyone entering nursing homes for COVID-19, leading to excess deaths. Hancock countered that the U.K. did not have the testing capacity. “The messages imply Matt simply overruled clinical advice. That is categorically untrue,” said a statement released by a spokesman. “He went as far as was possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives.”
Mothers who are vaccinated against COVID-19 during pregnancy pass off some protection to their newborns, according to a new study. Researchers analyzed health records for more than 30,000 babies born to members of Kaiser Permanente Northern California between December 2020 and May 2022, comparing the likelihood of positive COVID-19 tests for babies of mothers who received two or more doses of the vaccine during pregnancy with babies of mothers who were unvaccinated. They found that children of vaccinated mothers were better protected for at least six months after birth.
“Our analysis supports the continued value of vaccination during pregnancy in protecting not only the mother, but the child as well,” said lead author Ousseny Zerbo, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, in a statement. “Because babies under 6 months cannot currently be vaccinated against COVID-19, receiving this protection through their mothers in utero is very important.” During their first two months after they were born, the risk of a positive COVID-19 test was reduced by 84% for infants of vaccinated mothers during the delta period and 21% during omicron. But they found that protection waned over time in both periods. In the delta period, protection dipped to 62% at four months and 46% at six months. During the omicron period, the protection fell to 14% at four months and 13% at six months. The study was published in Nature Communications.
Overall, the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 was significantly lower for children of vaccinated mothers than those of unvaccinated mothers.
“Even though the effectiveness of mRNA vaccines was less during the omicron period, the vaccines still provided some protection for infants against both infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and hospitalization,” said senior author Nicola Klein, director of the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center. “Maternal vaccination is the best way to protect infants under 6 months of age who are not yet old enough to be vaccinated.”
Pfizer and BioNTech said on Wednesday that they submitted an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking emergency use authorization for their omicron-targeting bivalent COVID-19 vaccine in children 6 months through 4 years of age. The updated booster is currently authorized as the third dose of the three-dose primary series for children in this age group. The authorization of a booster dose would allow families to give their young children a fourth dose to better protect them against more recent sublineages of the virus. Last week, the companies asked the FDA for full approval of the updated shots as a primary course and a booster dose for people 12 years of age and above.
Aidin Vaziri is a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle.