The July Complex fires in California's Modoc National Forest, which are now nearly 100 percent contained.

Disasters Compound on Gulf Coast and in California

Hurricane Laura made landfall just east of the Texas-Louisiana border early on Thursday morning, killing at least six people, leaving hundreds of thousands more without power, and damaging buildings across the area.

The hurricane, which reached land as a Category 4 storm with 150-mph winds, arrives during a week of multiple and intersecting natural disasters in the U.S. In California, some 700 wildfires have burned around 1.6 million acres, killing at least seven people and destroying structures across the state. Smoke from the fires has reached as far east as Kansas and had severe effects on air quality across much of California, which is also experiencing a dangerous heat wave.

The storm and fire took place in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed an estimated 180,860 people in the U.S. — around one-fifth of the global death toll — and infected millions more. At times, these disasters fueled each other: The pandemic has complicated evacuation efforts from Hurricane Laura; in turn, the hurricane has halted much of the Covid-19 testing in Louisiana and raised fears of a new wave of infections.

As with many so-called natural disasters, it can be difficult to disentangle the roles that nature and human decisions have played in their impacts. Covid-19, critics say, has been especially harmful in the U.S. because of poor planning and unforced errors, even as other countries have kept their infection counts low. The California fires have been fueled in part by the effects of climate change, many experts say. Climate change has also increased the intensity of hurricanes like Laura, which strengthened quickly as it passed over the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And one of the major consequences of the hurricane was a large chemical fire that broke out in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Thursday in the wake of the storm, releasing chlorine gas.

The combination disasters have left some people overwhelmed — and groping for new language to describe it. “We’ve had a four-fer” a spokesperson for Napa County, California told NBC News this week, “with Covid, a heat wave, wildfires, and the threat of rolling power outages.”

Also in the News:

• In a historic moment on Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced that all countries in its Africa region are free of wild poliovirus. When an eradication effort was launched on the continent more than two decades ago, polio paralyzed some 75,000 children there each year. Those numbers have dropped since, and the last case was reported in Nigeria in August 2016. “This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa. Tempering public health officials’ enthusiasm, however, is the persistence of vaccine-derived polio, which can spread in communities with low immunity if the weakened version of the virus used in the oral vaccine is excreted and allowed to mutate. Currently, 16 African countries are dealing with vaccine-derived polio outbreaks — a situation that could be made worse by Covid-19’s interruptions to vaccination campaigns. (NPR)

• On Sunday, President Donald J. Trump announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was authorizing the emergency use of convalescent plasma for Covid-19 patients, just one day after he accused the FDA of holding back promising medical treatments for political reasons. At Sunday’s White House press conference, Trump was joined by FDA head Stephen M. Hahn, who repeated Trump’s erroneous claim that 35 out of 100 Covid-19 patients “would have been saved because of the administration of plasma.” Some scientists, including former FDA officials, immediately responded with sharp criticism and calls for Hahn to correct his statement. On Monday night, Hahn tweeted the “criticism is entirely justified,” and walked back his claim that the data showed such a dramatic benefit to Covid-19 patients. He still defended the decision to authorize the treatment, and there is some evidence that it may help some patients with Covid-19. On Monday, Trump and several senior White House officials said they were the reason the FDA authorized the new treatment and that it wouldn’t have happened under another administration, raising concerns about the credibility of the FDA, which is expected to research the safety and efficacy of drugs without political interference. (ABC News)

• On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suddenly changed its recommendations on testing for Covid-19, specifically suggesting that people who are exposed to the coronavirus but do not show symptoms need not be checked. At a time when research clearly indicates that transmission by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers is a serious issue, the new guidelines prompted an immediate backlash from researchers, physicians, and state officials. “The only plausible rationale is they want fewer people taking tests,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. As the reaction intensified, and news stories suggested that this action was directed by the Trump administration to conceal the extent of infections, the federal government’s response became increasingly defensive. Officials suggested that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci had approved them, leading Fauci to point out that he was in surgery at the time the changes were discussed. On Thursday, CDC Director Robert Redfield issued a clarification explaining that these guidelines were not meant to prevent needed testing but to discourage unnecessary use of such procedures. Still, on Friday, a coalition of local public health departments sent a letter to the Trump administration calling for the guidance to be reversed. (The New York Times)

• A long-simmering question around Covid-19 has been the duration of natural immunity conferred to people once they’ve recovered from an infection. After months of speculation and conjecture on that front, important new evidence emerged this week from Hong Kong. Researchers there reported on a 33-year-old man who had first contracted Covid-19 in late March, subsequently recovering. A full four and a half months later, he contracted the virus again during travels to Europe. While suspected cases of reinfection have percolated for some time, by sequencing the virus from both the earlier and the latter infections, the University of Hong Kong scientists appeared to provide proof that the individual had indeed fallen ill to Covid-19 twice: “There was a difference of 24 nucleotides — the ‘letters’ that make up the virus’ RNA,” STAT News reported on Monday, “between the two infections.” Just what this might mean in the global fight against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, remained unclear, and experts — including the World Health Organization spokesperson Margaret Harris — cautioned that the man’s case could be unusual. “This is one documented case in over 23 million, and we will probably see other documented cases,” Harris cautioned on Tuesday. “But it seems to be not a regular event.” (STAT News, @UNGeneva)

• Hurricane Laura and other recent storms have brought renewed attention to the policy of mass relocation as a way to minimize the toll of extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change. The New York Times reported this week on a new Federal Emergency Management Agency program that would help pay for large-scale relocation nationwide. Among other things, the $500 million program will provide money to cities and states for migration and mitigation efforts focused not just on individual homes but entire communities. It complements a similar, $16 billion program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and follows the announcement of a new policy to require cities receiving federal flood-protection money to forcibly evict people who refuse to move. In hard-hit Louisiana, officials are warming to what was once a taboo policy idea. “That’s not a conversation that we were comfortable having, as a state or as a series of vulnerable communities, say, five years ago,” Mathew Sanders of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development told The New York Times. “It’s now a conversation that we can have.” (The New York Times)

• And finally: As winter in the Southern Hemisphere comes to close, so does the yearly flu season, and health experts in several nations, including Australia, Argentina, and South Africa, are reporting an unusually low spread of influenza. Officials suspect that public health measures intended to slow the spread of Covid-19 are responsible for the drop in seasonal flu cases. In some places, the decline has been unprecedented: South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases, which regularly tests for the spread of influenza, found almost no recorded cases from May to August. Australia’s national health department reported just 36 laboratory confirmed flu-related deaths from January to August, compared to more than 480 in 2019. It is still too early to tell whether or not things will go the same way in the Northern Hemisphere. “This could be one of the worst seasons we’ve had from a public health perspective with Covid and flu coming together,” cautioned CDC director Robert Redfield. “But it also could be one of the best flu seasons we’ve had”. (The Associated Press)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Ashley Smart, Bettina Urcuioli, and Tom Zeller Jr. contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.